Martin Dewhirst reviews Gleb Morev's 'Dissidenty: dvadtsat' razgovorov' [Dissidents: Twenty Conversations]

posted 26 Jun 2017, 04:32 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 26 Jun 2017, 04:48 ]
26 June 2017

By Martin Dewhirst

A review of: Gleb Morev, Dissidenty: dvadtsat' razgovorov [Dissidents: Twenty Conversations], Moscow, 'AST', 2017, 416 pp., 3.000 copies.

Coming out as an active dissident in Russia (there have always been numerous passive dissidents, dissenters, protesters and protestants in that country) after the 1991 coup and counter-coup is still a very challenging step with uncertain consequences. The separation (or division) of powers (legislative, executive and judicial) is still not a reality; even the Constitutional Court has taken some very dubious decisions; the Duma (parliament) is usually regarded as a talking shop, not as a place for debate; the Presidential Administration can often exert more power than the Government; and elections are widely regarded as neither free nor fair. There is also a feeling among some observers that the dramatic events of 1991 in Russia replaced state socialism with state and state-controlled oligarchic capitalism, which is not a great change for the better, and may be even worse. Is President Putin really an improvement on President Gorbachev? Is Roskomnadzor any better than Glavlit? The regime has changed, but the political system hasn't, some observers write. How many Russians grasp the difference between 'regime' and 'system'?

On the other hand, there are undoubtedly some changes for the better. Despite bans and restrictions on some denominations, religious freedom has increased; it is much easier for some dissidents in danger of arrest to slip abroad to relative safety; some dissidents can go to other countries to speak publicly and privately and then return to Russia; and, thanks to the recent real revolution, the digital one, it is now much easier to receive and disseminate information (but also, unfortunately, disinformation). Despite the notorious 'power vertical', horizontal communication is immeasurably easier than in Soviet times. But the key problem remains: have most Russians been forever so greatly genetically modified by the long Mongol and Tatar occupation that a parliamentary democracy in the Russian Federation, a huge Eurasian landmass, is simply an impossibility?

What can present-day dissidents learn from their Soviet (or anti-Soviet) predecessors? (It goes almost without saying that they had and have no objection whatsoever to sovety, councils, as an invaluable institution.) How, in particular, can they reduce the danger of the present fraudulent neo-Soviet regime, led by a proud and unrepentant 'former' Soviet KGB officer, from being succeeded by a no less fraudulent neo-neo-Soviet regime, rather than by a different political system based on the rule of law?

Gleb Morev was born in the key year of 1968, when a tiny group of dissidents felt morally, not politically, obliged to demonstrate (on Red Square in Moscow) against the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, whose Communist Party leadership was trying to establish a law-based socialist regime with a human face. Morev was too young to play a role in the dissident movement in Soviet times. For all I know, he doesn't consider himself to be a dissident now. Maybe he just feels that there are useful lessons for his country to be learnt from the successes and failures of the 'democratic movement' of the dissidents during what turned out to be the last quarter-century of the USSR.

Following on the heels of Aleksandr Podrabinek's remarkable memoir Dissidenty (Moscow, 'AST', 2014, 418pp., 3,000 copies), Morev uses the same 'Western' title rather than the Slavonic word pravozashchitniki, defenders of the law (and human rights), as enunciated and continually emphasised by Aleksandr Yesenin-Vol'pin, who I think should be regarded as the founder of the (perhaps misnamed) dissident movement in the USSR. He insisted that the Soviet Constitution should be taken seriously and literally; it was the people in power at all levels of the country in the 1960s and later who were often not acting constitutionally. (The very useful Index guides readers to the pages on which Yesenin-Vol'pin is mentioned and discussed. Problems of terminology are raised on, for example, pages 178, 207 and 232.)

Morev's book, prefaced by Jens Siegert, well-known already to seasoned readers of Rights in Russia, contains twenty conversations (almost monologues) with high- and low-profile dissidents. Three people he approached refused to cooperate, others were unavailable, and two, Fr. Gleb Yakunin and Valery Senderov, died before they could be questioned. The book is rather awkwardly divided into four parts, and there is no need, I think, to read these conversations – some short, some long – in the order in which they are printed. Depending on your fluency in Russian and the time you have available, pick and choose – every participant has something, and most participants have much, of interest to say.

Among the contributors whose names will be known to many readers of this note are Sergei Kovalev, Pavel Litvinov, Gleb Pavlovsky and Aleksandr Daniel', three of whom are still living and active in Russia today. Others who played a very important role well before Gorbachev's unexpected glasnost' are Sergei Grigor'yants, Gabriel' Superfin, Vera Lashkova. Vyacheslav Bakhmin, Vyacheslav Igrunov, Sergei Khodorovich, Viktor Davydov, Mikhail Meilakh, Yelena Sannikova and Lev Timofeyev, just over half of whom are still based in Russia, some of them enjoying (I hope) a well-earned rest. All the other six, three of whom live in the West, also deserve our gratitude for what they did in very difficult times: Irina Kristi, Sima Mostinskaya (the widow of Aleksandr Lavut), Marina Shemakhanskaya (the widow of Andrei Kistyakovsky), Fr. Boris Mikhailov, Masha Slonim and, last but in no way least, the Lithuanian poet and essayist, Tomas Venclova.

The fact that so many of these worthy people are now living (most of the time) outside Russia has different causes, one of which may be that what happened in the Soviet Union turned out, in the Russian Federation, not to be a revolution. The Cold War within Russia quickly started up again and intensified immediately after Putin became Prime Minister in 1999. There appear to be no dissident figures now in Russia (or in the West, for that matter) of the stature of Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn, and Western support and supporters of today's dissidents in the Russian Federation are muted, perhaps because of the widespread view that 'the Kremlin' is no longer a serious threat to law-based states elsewhere in the world because the Cold War is over. Allegedly. 

Martin Dewhirst lectured on Russian literature and history at the University of Glasgow from 1964 until 2000. He is an expert on Russian Samizdat and on the Tsarist, Soviet and neoSoviet systems of censorship. Of late he has been working to improve the conditions in which people deprived of liberty in Russia are held.

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