Julia Sherwood: Waiting as a form of protest (a translation of 'Waiting in Vain', by Tomáš Glanc)

Waiting as a form of protest: to remind the world of victims of political murder and unlawful imprisonment, the Prague-based Dutch translator and activist Otakar van Gemund has come up with a unique form of protest at Prague Airport. Along with a group of friends and sympathizers he has been turning up at Terminal 1, mingling with people meeting passengers arriving from Russia and Belarus, and holding up notices with names such as Anna Politkovskaya, Natalya Estemirova, or Oleg Sentsov. Read more in the following article by Czech Slavist Tomáš Glanc, which appeared in the Czech online newspaper Echo24

Waiting in Vain, bTomáš Glanc

Source: Tomáš Glanc, 'Marné čekání,'  Echo24, 19 January 2015

Translation by Julia Sherwood

“At Prague airport's arrivals lounge passengers arriving from Russia and Belarus have for some weeks now encountered people who are not air hostesses, delegates, taxi drivers, relatives, colleagues or friends of the travellers. Although they hold out notices with names and sometimes flowers, just like everyone around them, they know in advance that the people they are waiting for will never arrive.

They are taking part in a protest action entitled Waiting in Vain. They have come to meet those who have been murdered or are political prisoners. Their notices are emblazoned with the logo of Memorial Society. What does this all mean, what is the point?

Ever since it was established in January 1989, the Russian organisation Memorial has initiated countless activities memorializing not just the Soviet gulags and the country’s communist past. For a short while in the post-Soviet era an initiative linked to the name of Soviet academician and dissident Andrei Sakharov might have been expected to gain in influence. Primarily, Memorial played the role of a successful counterpart of the state institutions that were set up elsewhere in Eastern Europe to deal with their own totalitarian histories. However, Memorial has also continued to follow present-day violations of human rights in Russia. Right from the start, Memorial has been actively involved in the debate about the reading of modern history and the state of present-day Russian society. But first and foremost, it focused on archiving and documentation, publications, on scholarship, museum work and exhibitions.

However, by 2013 clouds of targeted persecution were gathering over Memorial. The Russian authorities have a number of instruments they can use to make the life of non-governmental civil society initiatives more difficult, to punish them, or even eliminate them. Memorial has been given the bizarre label “foreign agent” because the organisation which, apart from Russia, also operates in Italy, Lithuania, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Germany, Georgia and other countries, has financed some of its activities from monies received – quite legally, in the form of routine grants or fees – from the “hostile abroad”. 

Photo: Echo24

It is not particularly difficult to convince people in Russia that non-state support from abroad in itself is a kind of crime, as similar arguments have been used for decades (in Czechoslovakia, too). And although some sections of society, at home and abroad, are outraged, they are often at a loss as to how to voice their outrage. How to draw attention to the alarming state of political freedoms in Russia where public protest of every kind is being cracked down on, often by violent means? People in other countries have organised small demonstrations, some of which may have been lucky enough to draw some media attention, and mountains of petitions have long lost the ability to have any impact. Radical protest that violates or pushes the envelope of the legal often has the opposite effect, antagonizing even some sympathizers.

In response to the lost hope of ever achieving a real and lasting effect, a new, symbolic form of non-violent protest was recently given a highly emotional and sophisticated form in Prague: waiting in vain. The Dutch, Prague-based translator and activist Otakar van Gemund and a couple of his friends have brought together a group of sympathizers who have been turning up at Terminal 1 of Prague airport, mingling with people who have come to meet passengers arriving from Russia and Belarus.

They hold up notices with names of people who will most definitely not be arriving – because they have been murdered, for example Anna Politkovskaya or Natalya Estemirova, or people who have been unlawfully detained by the Russian authorities, such as Oleg Sentsov, the 38-year-old Ukrainian film director who has been held since May 2014 and, according to UN documents, suffered torture at the hands of his Russian captors, in spite of protests by Ukrainian authorities and world-famous colleagues like Pedro Almodóvar, Wim Wenders, Andrzej Wajda, Agnieszka Holland, Ken Loach, and others. Otakar van Gemund and his volunteers constitute proof that the victims have not been forgotten and will not be forgotten in the future. They have opted for a unique form of protest.

Waiting is an ironic form of activism because it actually means doing nothing. While waiting we are open to something that might occur, without any guarantee that it will really happen. Political activism often resorts to rough and ready truths. Demonstrative waiting for people who cannot possibly arrive stresses instead powerlessness and uncertainty, albeit one that is not short of confidence.

In modern Russian history waiting has two specific historical connotations, one of which recalls the mass repressions, when mostly the wives of those arrested spent hours, sometimes even days and nights queuing for information on the whereabouts of their loved ones or for permission to hand over a letter or a parcel (as evoked in Anna Akhmatova’s long poem Requiem and Lydia Chukovskaya’s breakthrough novella, Sofia Petrovna.)

The second has to do with the omnipresent queues for all so-called ‘goods in short supply’, as described in Vladimir Sorokin’s first novel The Queue (1985). The more contempt a political regime shows for human dignity, the more often it makes people wait. Waiting, as an instrument of exercising power, has been described by the philosopher Roland Barthes. Waiting is also characteristic of people on the road – fleeing danger, going into exile, or pursuing adventures. It is also the subject of Čekárna (The Waiting Room), a celebrated production by the Farm in the Cave theatre, an international theatre studio based in Prague.

Waiting for redemption, eternal life or nirvana is a fundamental religious concept, whereas in earthly life individuals often have to face waiting that is ominous, such as Nabokov’s waiting in his Invitation to a Beheading. The passive action launched by Otakar van Gemund and his friends represents a remarkable form of protest, which gives rise to a chain of associations and arouses strong emotions in spite of being quietly inconspicuous: some of the travellers passing through express their support and solidarity while others give vent to their indignation or even aggression. These are various kinds of response to hope, personified by the people who are waiting, even though they know that those they are waiting for will never come. After all, it is enough to hope that things might get better, however unlikely that may seem.

In the 1980s, when the Spirituál kvintet band's rendition of the Czech version of an old gospel song „Já čekám dál, až se k nám právo vrátí…” (I keep waiting for our rights to be restored…) sounded almost as convincing as the rather more laconic statements of Charter 77 or the Committee for the Defence of the Unjustly Persecuted, even if the authors of the latter risked much more by publishing their statements.

Indirectly, Waiting in Vain bears witness to the horrors its participants oppose. It does not belong to the category of “intervention protests” that directly call for the overthrow of a regime, for bringing those responsible to justice, the freeing of political prisoners or the observance of human rights. Nevertheless, the symbolic merit of waiting (in vain) will remain alive whether small-scale protests at Prague's Václav Havel airport will gain larger acceptance, or whether they remain quiet mementoes whose absurd qualities are reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot or, indeed, the plays of Václav Havel.