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‘Stamping out all new shoots.’ Pavel Litvinov on the USSR and contemporary Russia [Radio Svoboda]

posted 26 Jun 2018, 05:43 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 26 Jun 2018, 05:50 ]
8 June 2018

An interview with Pavel Litvinov

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Radio Svoboda]

Pavel Litvinov, Viktor Fainberg, and Tatyana Bayeva – who took part in the demonstration on Red Square on 25th August 1968 in protest against the sending of Warsaw Pact troops into Czechoslovakia – are laureates of the Czech Republic’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ prize, Gratias Agit, awarded for advancing the Czech Republic’s reputation abroad. The prize has been awarded annually since 1997 and, during its nearly twenty years' existence, almost 300 individuals and organizations have received the award, including seven from Russia.

This year the events of the Prague Spring and the reaction of the USSR and its allies to them, 50 years ago, are being remembered. Hence the awarding of Gratias Agit prize to the three participants of the so-called ‘demonstration of the seven’. Fifty years ago Pavel Litvinov protested in Moscow against the Soviet Union’s actions and, as a consequence, was sent into exile.

When you decided to demonstrate on Red Square on 25 August 1968, you certainly never imagined that one day you would receive a prize from the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs for your actions. What does the prize mean to you?

It’s very touching that we have been given it, and that it is thought that we did something important for the Czech people. I thought that we had, but it’s also very nice that it has been remembered, and that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs wanted to refer to our contribution to the development of Czech culture. Although it’s more than just culture, it’s also politics and human rights. It’s great because, in fact, our little demonstration, almost unnoticed at the time, and for many years, has left its traces, and we can see that it had some moral significance. So the award is much-valued.

Doesn’t it disappoint you that - despite the long struggle of the movement for rights and freedoms in the USSR – a large part of today’s Russian society is indifferent to the existence of civil freedoms, and there is an almost resigned return to the kind of situation in which society found itself in at the time when you demonstrated in 1968?

There are several things here, some of which seem obvious to me, but they are not that obvious. First, let’s begin with the fact that in the Soviet period the population was absolutely indifferent and, if not indifferent, supported Soviet ideology, and thought that anyone who did not wholeheartedly and in all respects support the Soviet authorities was an enemy. But that wasn’t true of everyone. People were indifferent. And today there’s the same indifference, but it’s a different time and many more people say what they think, regardless of the consequences. A new generation of young people, who now are 16-18, is going out to demonstrate. I’ve met them. I taught for many years in America. And those young kids in Moscow are today more like my American students, whom I taught in America, than they are like those Russians, one of whom I once was. So there is some progress. I don’t think that I shall live to see a good outcome but I can’t say that everything is going down the drain, and is useless, although it’s pretty bad.

If one reads today the “Appeal to World Public Opinion” that you and Larisa Bogoraz wrote in connection with the “Trial of the Four,” you can find things in it that are present in current Russian court cases.

Of course.

And in spite of that, you say that the situation is different, that a lot has changed.

Russia nowadays is nevertheless an open country in the sense that people may come and go. That is already a huge difference. At the time we wrote our appeal, we all lived in a Soviet prison that was impossible to leave, as if we all were in a trap. All the same, it’s not like that now. The majority of people may travel freely. I come every year to Russia and meet with whomever I wish. They don’t show me, of course, on television’s Channel One, but, nevertheless, you can find Radio Liberty on the internet, and in Soviet times it was jammed, you had to travel pretty far from Moscow in order to listen to Radio Liberty. This is a colossal difference. It’s something else that all around the world, including in Russia, we see a great indifference to human rights. This is a problem. But it is not a problem that is directly connected with Russia. In Russia everything is developing, now we simply have the Putin regime, which tries to stamp out all young shoots of freedom, but I don’t think it is capable of getting that far. They have occupied the Crimea, control the Donbass, threatened other countries, all of which the Soviet Union did, but nevertheless, on each of these questions there is some sort of opinion. The West has introduced sanctions. It’s just not a comparable situation. In Soviet times the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which allowed for Jewish emigration, was the most important event. And today, sanctions are being introduced against all of Putin’s friends, and in general there is a reaction. The question is whether the glass is half-empty or half-full. I think it is half-full, but many think that it is half-empty. Perhaps I am an optimist. But in general the situation is very bad. Sentsov could die either today or tomorrow. The situation with my Crimean Tatar friends in the Crimea is horrible. There are political prisoners in the jails. All of this is very bad. But to say that nothing is happening is wrong. The very fact that protests occur means something.

When we see how an energetic person like Navalny appears…I don’t always support him, but it’s striking how many people help him work. They persecute him, they put his brother in prison, they regularly jail him for 15 days at a time, but nevertheless they can’t do anything with him, millions of people support him. All these phenomena are relative. That they worried about the presence of an intelligent and strong man like Nemtsov and murdered him also shows that, at a certain point, all that is left for them to do is to murder. It’s horrifying, but the very fact that it happens shows the presence of internal opposition in the country.

Your close friend Anatoly Marchenko wrote an open letter about the threat of a Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. At the time he went on a hunger strike and died. Today they often recall Anatoly Marchenko in connection with Oleg Sentsov’s hunger strike.

I do too, every day. There are definite parallels. It is our job to force Putin to let him, and others, go.

The sacrifice, the death of Oleg Sentsov, could it somehow have as strong an effect as Marchenko’s sacrifice?

No one knows what will happen. I hope that he does not die. I simply don’t want to predict his death, but the threat is very real.

What do you think, can one human life be worth the liberation of others?

Only one's own. I won’t speak for others.

Many believe that the hunger strike impacted upon Gorbachev’s subsequent decision to free political prisoners.

That is a fact. He freed Sakharov and Sakharov gave him a list of political prisoners. This didn’t happen as a result of Tolya Marchenko's hunger strike itself but because of his death. His death caused a scandal. Gorbachev looked for a way to improve relations with the West and starting to release political prisoners was a way for him to do this. Maybe he intended to do this anyway but it goes without saying that the sacrifice that Tolya Marchenko made helped.

What do you think? Was he ready to die?

He was.

When he started his hunger strike?

He was always ready to die. He was an utterly strong, audacious and determined person. He didn’t want to die. He had a happy family life: he really loved his wife Lara, his son, Pavel, named after me by the way, but these are already irrelevant details. Nevertheless his main purpose in life was freedom, the freedom of political prisoners. He was in prison and read Lenin. Sitting in prison, reading Lenin, that’s what made Tolya Marchenko . Then he matured, and wrote his memoirs which were published throughout the world. Then he was sent down again, and then again. The hunger strike was like his last act but he was like a faultless knight and was willing to die. And life became increasingly unbearable. It was clear they were not going to release him. Of course he hoped he wouldn’t die. And they didn’t want his death either, they just didn’t want to give into him. Then Lara came and spoke with the powers that be. They said: “Well, we didn’t think he would die. There was just no order to release him. We prepared reports, but we thought he was in a good condition.” But these are just, how shall I say it, excuses, maybe. This was his sort of game, for which he was actually willing to die and for which he died.

At the time of the demonstration on Red Square you had a young son. In the past, and today, they say that only those who don’t have families or anyone to worry about can fight against injustice. Did you think about your children? Why didn’t your family circumstances stop you?

Well they might have stopped me, that's what my character is like. Of course I’m not saying everyone should act the way I did. One of the Russian poet-satirists of the nineteenth century said: “A wife and children, my friend, is a great evil.” I mean that a person may be silent and not protest precisely because of their wife and children. But this is a question of priorities. I felt that I had to go out, that I wouldn’t respect myself if I didn’t go out because this is my honour, it was my fault that my country had attacked its little neighbour. I also answer for that. That was my first motivation and the second motivation were those reforms that had taken place in Czechoslovakia. The very modest reforms of the Czechoslovak spring were a hope and example for us. Some reforms could take place even though communists ruled the country. Of course, that is if communists such as Dubchek, who were ready to make the first steps – reforms - appeared in the Soviet Union…. And they did appear. Only twenty years later, together with Gorbachev. And from these attempts came the end of communism and the fall of the Soviet Union.

Gorbachev and Mlynář, a young activist of the Czech spring lived together in a flat in the student halls of the Higher Party School. They were from different countries, but nonetheless, these were people who conversed with one another. They considered themselves friends. Mlynář put the Prague Spring into action. Gorbachev at that time was against this and would sit quietly doing something. After 20 years he was suddenly ready for what Dubček wanted. 20 years, of course, is a long time in the private life of a person. But for a country, at least a country like Russia, big and unwieldly - a giant which is incredibly hard to make change direction - 20 years is almost nothing. One must live measuring time in centuries, live in history. Of course, one wants personal success in one’s private life and for one’s children etc… But here there needs to be a compromise. We came out to show that we are for these reforms and these reforms will potentially find supporters and participants in Russia. And the second reason - we were simply ashamed that we occupied a neighbouring country. This triumphed over the personal.

As a consequence of this you found yourself in exile.


Was it difficult there for you and your family?

I worked. The work was hard. Once I had terrible inflammation of the lungs after they moved me to rolling carts in the mines. I almost died but survived and am still alive. It was a difficult life but my daughter was born there. That alone showed that life was possible. Of course, those five years we were cut out of our lives, although not completely.

But didn’t you ever regret going out on the square in August 1968?

No, absolutely not! Of course, had I ended up in a camp for many years, especially in a prison camp, it would maybe have changed my attitude. But that didn’t happen. And therefore I was psychologically ready for worse trials. That is why everything that happened was a pleasant disappointment because it all turned out better.

You are the grandson of someone closely linked to the Soviet authorities and you became a dissident. Does this not seem unusual to you?

Of course, there is a contradiction. The KGB asked me about this, they said that my grandfather would be ashamed of me. But they didn’t know my grandfather. My grandfather was one of the old Bolsheviks. He was an ascetic person, not a thief. He believed in the communist idea: for this idea in his time he was sent into exile, he was jailed, escaped from prison and then lived abroad. Then Stalin almost arrested him but in the end didn’t, although he dismissed him when he decided to make friends with Hitler. Litvinov didn’t fit in, not because he was a Jew but because he had independent ideas. Nevertheless, he survived. I even know that at the end of his life he didn’t completely change his views. He remained a communist, but the communists also had positive social-democratic ideas. They stayed with him, but he felt negatively toward the communist regime in his last years.

Did this influence you? Where did your ideas come from?

From Russian literature of the 19th century: from Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov. Empathising with the small man against the big state, like Evgeny in The Bronze Horseman, or like the small man from whom they took the overcoat in Gogol’s The Overcoat. Chekhov - the force of the Russian intelligentsia. He was my main influence. But then, of course, came Solzhenitsyn and people returned from the camps. But the basis of my world-view remained the Russian culture of the 19th century.

Translated by John Tokolish, Mary McAuley, Matthew Quigley and Tatjana Duff