This correspondence concerns Exiles on Main Street, a contribution I wrote for FEED, a New York-based internet magazine of culture and politics, about Soviet dissidents living in the United States. My article is pretty tough on the dissidents. Essentially, I wonder aloud whether their failure to become an effective political force in post-Soviet Russia, and the marked obsolescence of their political rhetoric generally, does not put the entire project of dissidence in serious retrospective doubt. My sister Masha, though not without some solid radical credentials, objected on all fronts, from Reagan to repatriation to my very definition of dissidence. There is no question, of course, that her comments are just so much rubbish for the town dump of history, but I have done my best to give them my full attention.
Keith Gessen, December 1999.
The first letter responds to several passages that express dismay at the dissidents’ failure to return to Russia from the States. Here is one characteristically lyrical example:
“In Russia, things have gone terribly wrong. Andrei Sakharov* is dead, Alexander Solzhenitsyn* is politically unpalatable, Russian tanks are again headed for Grozny, and many of those who served as a shining example of moral and political courage in the dark years before the collapse of the empire, too many, are scattered across the vinyl-sided plains of New Jersey, and Massachusetts, and the distant, barely subwayed regions of Brooklyn, where people go to disappear.”
Masha also took issue with my criticism of the former dissidents’ predominant Reaganism, as here:
“To have a man dressed in an aging checkered sweater, over whose chair hangs a light beige corduroy jacket with brown leather patches at the elbows-who is constantly smoking-whose face radiates intelligence and skepticism and tolerance in the greatest tradition of the Left-to have such a man tell you he supported Reagan, it’s remarkable! And then again, not so remarkable. Reagan was just entering office, when we came over, and I think for my father he will forever symbolize the welcome arms that met us, the astounding difference of this new world. While the liberals shucked and shawed, Reagan believed us! Not only that, he was willing to act on that belief, he so hated the evil empire (how evil, we well knew) he would plunge the country into debt to beat them! Most immigrants have yet to overcome that initial enchantment, have not seen that Reagan’s hatred of the Soviet Union came, unlike their own, at no cost, and left no intellectual scars. We were mere pawns for him, and yet the immigrants will mourn him when he passes, and buy the commemorative coffee mugs when they appear.”
Finally, it is my contention that Russian and American radicals of the 60s have lost the battle for political influence even if they’ve won the culture war:
“[The American radicals] lost, too, the moral-political movements generated by the 60s, both here and in Russia, failed in remarkably similar ways, and their human wreckage now populates the same suburban expanses. As the moral rhetoric of the American 60s was hijacked by Clinton, so also Yeltsin managed to appropriate the dissidents’ moral authority in 1989-1991, long enough for the movement to lose its impetus. But there is no call-in show for Soviet dissidents, no Woodstock: the Movie, no ads for Nike running shoes.”
Before we begin, a couple of explanatory notes. We repeatedly allude, in this correspondence, to a statement once made by Yelena Bonner* in an interview with me: “Dissidence is a state of mind, a way of being in the world.”
What else? Kostya is my brother’s Russian first name but he goes by the American “Keith,” and this, of course, goes to the root of the problem. He was six when we left the Soviet Union, to my fourteen, and therefore, of course, he understands nothing while I am possessed of an infinite wisdom on all matters concerning Russia. As it happens, I also live in Russia, and have for nearly six years; my brother, who has spent time in Moscow, is settled in the United States. And so we begin–
Bonner, Yelena: Wife of Sakharov and human rights activist.
Sakharov, Andrei: Nuclear physicist and human rights activist. http://www.wdn.com/asf/
Solzhenitsyn, Alexander: Russian novelist and historian, won the Nobel Prize in 1970.
From: Masha Gessen
To: Keith Gessen
Read the article and enjoyed it, really, very much. You are a good writer and a good man, little brother.
That said, I’ll start with the big one, the big question: Why did they not go back? Setting aside the issue of luck, we have to look at the determination, which is to say, identity. You get close but ultimately skirt the issue of who these people were – people who had decided, despite all odds and hardships, to devote their lives to fighting the regime, or people forced by their conscience to oppose it as long as this was necessary. This, I believe, is not splitting hairs; it is an essential difference. Tatyana Velikanova*, who returned to teaching math after the fall of the Soviet Union, will tell you that she always wanted to do just that but had to fight the regime that insisted on interfering. “Ne mogu molchat’”* kind of thing. Of course, Sergey Kovaliov will tell you the same thing: he was fundamentally a biologist but the state wouldn’t let him alone to do his biology as it demanded to be done, so he was forced to fight the state. But if you actually believe these people when they say they were unwilling politicians, then you have to question your analysis of why they settled in the U.S. In other words, perhaps someone like Alexander Yesenin-Volpin* would have been happy to leave the Soviet Union and just do his math and write his poetry, but he had no chance of doing that. So he fought the state. The state forced him out. Suddenly, he ends up in a situation where he can actually just do his math and write his poetry. The price was fucking high, but maybe he got just what he wanted, and this is valid. Does this make sense?
Incidentally, Ludmilla Alekseyeva*, one of the few people who did go back, has a much more charitable view of this. She will say, she has said to me, “Hell, lots of people would have wanted to come back, but I was one of the very few who could afford to buy an apartment in Moscow.” Also valid.
Now I am going to get polemical with you. I have to take issue with your whole premise that the 68 protesters have been dismissed, lost, relegated. Honey, they rule the Western world. Blair, Schroeder, Klima, and, yes, Clinton. Not only do they rule the world. They, they, they bombed Yugoslavia. And do you know what they used to justify it, among other arguments? That the Eastern European dissidents placed morality above everything, even above the law, and allowed these creeps to forge a new politics of morality. In this, they were supported by the likes of Havel and Michnik*. But this is an outrageous lie, and this is where we return to Yesenin-Volpin, whom you don’t give nearly enough credit.
Yesenin-Volpin taught people to demand that the Constitution-the Soviet Constitution-be observed, and he stepped out into Pushkin Square with a poster emblazoned with that demand. Yesenin-Volpin did not, as some of the people you interviewed say, just develop a strategy of dealing with the KGB. He developed THE philosophy of dissidence. In a country that mocked and trampled its own laws, he demanded that not the regime, not the laws be changed, but the entire ethos of the country. But while demanding a change in the regime would have been a Bolshevik-like violent philosophy, his philosophy of demanding that They respect their own god-damned laws was fundamentally, revolutionarily peaceful. It also provided what would become the dissident movement with something that could never have been developed in the absence of any possibility of effective collective communication: a set of standards, criteria, demands, aspirations, all already down on paper. He may not revolutionize mathematics, but this man certainly revolutionized political thought, which your asshole hippies have gone and fucked up the ass…. Which brings us to the issue of Reagan. You should talk to Dad about this, and you may be surprised by the strength of his argument. Basically, Reagan to Dad is like Solzhenitsyn is to [New Yorker editor David] Remnick. Yes, he may be an asshole and a demagogue, but he dared say something no other politician since Joe McCarthy would utter. Evil empire. The words are gospel. Note the rationality of this attachment. Ultimately, the freedom of these Jewish emigres was won not by Reagan but by Jimmy Carter, who brought up the fate of Soviet Jews at the negotiating table every time. Don’t think they didn’t know this. But why is Carter not a hero of theirs? Because to the last he insisted on treating that evil regime and its evil representatives with respect, as equals, without breaking with diplomatic protocol. Reagan made the break, and earned their undying gratitude. This is what makes Reagan different from Frank Zappa [who, when addressing a Czech audience, compared the lack of freedom in their country to the lack of freedom in the United States]: he knew the fundamental difference between a normal country and an evil one, and he wasn’t afraid to name it. In this way, he acted like the dissidents: he spoke The Truth, consequences be damned. You kind of mention this, but I think you are too dismissive. Now consider China and the WTO and the rest of it. If George Bush II comes into office and says, “Fuck the Chinese and all their stupid cheap goods and their nuclear arms if they don’t know how to do democracy,” the left and the liberals will jump at the chance of labeling him an ignoramus yet again, but the Chinese dissidents will declare him God. And they, the dissidents, will be right.
Alekseyeva, Ludmilla: Former dissident, now the chairwoman of the Helsinki Group in Russia.
Michnik, Adam: Polish dissident, now editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza.
Ne mogu molchat’: I can’t remain silent.
Tseluyu: Literally, ”kissing you,” a traditional sign-off between relatives.
Velikanova, Tatyana: In August 1980, Tatyana Velikanova, 47, publisher of an unofficial news journal, was convicted of anti-Soviet activities and sentenced to four years in a labor camp and five years of internal exile.
Yesenin-Volpin, Alexander: One of the founders of the dissident movement. “In 1992 I made a television film about an extraordinary man: poet, mathematician, and dissident Alexander Esenin-Volpin, who drove the ruling order crazy simply by appealing to the law. Esenin had taken the trouble to read and study the Stalinist constitution, and he declared it beautiful. The problem was that no one used it-neither Stalin nor the people. Esenin decided to give it a try. Supported only by the law, he wrote a memorandum titled “How to Behave During Interrogations,” which was used in the early 1960s by all dissidents who anticipated arrest. Never did I think that I would be using it thirty years later in the “new” Russia. On December 5, 1965, Constitution Day, Alex-ander Esenin went out to Pushkin Square in the middle of Moscow with a poster that read: “Respect Your Own Constitution.” Another proclaimed: “We Demand Glasnost in the Trial of Sinyavsky and Daniel.” The posters merely called for obeying the Constitution. Esenin was arrested, not for the first time, but it was the first time that he was released on the same day. “You don’t arrest people for carrying posters proclaiming ‘Long Live May Day!’ on May First,” Esenin said, and that drove the system into a dead end. No one before Esenin had thought to make the legal ”
Alexandra Sviridova, Citizen and Law after Communism: Living in Lawlessness, in: East European Constitutional Review, Volume 7, Number 1, Winter 1998
From: Keith Gessen
To: Masha Gessen
First, right away, Reagan. How can you say that he spoke Truth?! How on earth can you compare him to Solzhenitsyn? Look, I have some, what should we call it, contextual/psychological sympathy for the emigres coming over and loving Reagan-like I said, Reagan believed us. But it cost him nothing to believe us, he would have believed us if we were lying. That’s the point. Reagan was heir to a tradition of Red-baiting, into which you place him yourself, from Truman to Nixon to McCarthy to Nixon to Reagan, it was in his blood. The tragedy is that the tradition of people for whom knowledge of the Soviet Union was almost as painful as it was for immigrants, the tradition of Left anti-Communism of [Left-wing commentators] Irving Howe and Paul Berman and, further on down, [human rights activist] Cathy Fitzpatrick, couldn’t be heard over Reagan. These people told the truth about the Soviet Union because they shared the impulse for justice that had, at one point, been at the route of the revolution. Look, Reagan thought progressive social ideas were Communist. That’s not fighting the evil empire, that’s using foreign bogeymen to defend your damn privileges. Nicaragua? The Sandanistas were a geopolitical threat to the United States? Reagan didn’t know shit about Communism, he thought taxing the rich was Communist. So, no, I disagree with you about this.
I do not want to be unfair to the dissidents, but still: there’s Yesenin-Volpin, on the one hand, who, although he actually is constantly reading about Russia and thinking about it and watching Russian television, plainly says he wants nothing more to do with it. Then there is someone like Vladimir Bukovsky*, who is always and everywhere telling us and the Russians about Russia. But he’s in fucking England! No, listen, please tell me if I’m being unfair, but Michnik says emigration is moral suicide, and for Bukovsky this seems absolutely positively true.
Thank you for the note on Yesenin-Volpin, that puts it well; I didn’t at all mean to slight him. To the contrary, his humanity shines through in everything he says, even now. Which is the huge difference between him and practically every other dissident I spoke with or read–like, say, Valery Chalidze* who pretty much had the same idea as Alexander Volpin back during the movement, but now sits in Vermont and writes these imperious rightwing diatribes. As for the hippies, you’re wrong about that, but in a very interesting way that was originally going to be the gist of my article, but it will have to be the gist of something else. I think that certainly the left, as we like to say, won the culture war, so that most of our movies and novels and television shows are vaguely liberal, and this makes the rhetoric of social equality, et cetera, attractive to fairly broad constituencies… But the element of radical change, the search for radical peace that characterized both Yesenin-Volpin and the best of New Left thinking in the States, these have nothing whatever to do with Clinton/Blair et al, who have, so far as I’m concerned, expropriated the 60s, just as Yeltsin expropriated the dissidents, but obviously they’ve missed the point.
I guess I have a hundred more justifications for what I wrote, but there is only so far that writing can be defended before it needs, in fact, to be rewritten.
Bukovsky, Vladimir: Author and human rights activist. http://www.aei.org/bukovsky/buk.html
Chalidze, Valery: Born 1938, has long been active in the field of social problems and human rights as they pertain to the USSR and post-Soviet conditions, and was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship (1985-1990) for his human-rights work. He has authored a number of books on social problems in
Chalidze, Andrei Sakharov and Andrei Tverdokhlebov were the founders of the Moscow Human Rights Committee (1970-72).
From 1973 to 1982 Chalidze, together with Edward Kline, Pavel Litvinov and Peter Reddaway, edited and published The Chronicle Of Human Rights In the USSR. With Leon Lipson, Sterling Professor Of Law at Yale University, he edited Papers On Socialist Law and later edited and published the Russian-language magazine, Internal Contradictions In the USSR.
Chalidze also established Chalidze Publications, which published over one hundred books in Russian devoted to human rights, theories of democracy, Soviet history and Soviet politics. In 1989 he was co-editor and publisher of The Federalist Papers in Russian.
To: Keith Gessen
From: Masha Gessen
As I was going to sleep last night, I thought I should have explained my Reagan point better. No, I am not saying he was a dissident. He was the dissidents’ idea of a statesman, someone who says what they know to be true: “evil empire.” Imagine for a second that you have just emerged from hell, and people like Irwing Howe and Paul Berman and possibly even Cathy Fitzpatrick (I do believe she was into this “citizens diplomacy” business), not to mention all the other well-meaning left-leaning mostly-Jews you meet, say, “Yes, of course, the regime is terrible, but people are the same everywhere. Russians love their children too.” And you say, “No, no, no, you don’t understand, it is you who live in a country where people and the state are part of one whole, but we don’t, that’s what makes a totalitarian dictatorship different, there is no ‘people.’ They may love their children or kill them, but that is not an expression of the state in any way.” And you cannot make yourself understood to save your life. And then Reagan goes and says, “Evil empire.” That’s what you’ve been trying to articulate! And all the nice well-meaning people around you are in an uproar – and god, they were! – how could he say that, people are all the same, this is so uncouth. Berman and Howe may have told the truth about communism to Americans, and this was a much more useful truth to Americans because they could understand it, but their pathos and the dissidents’ pathos were destined to be forever apart. Exceptions were people like Ed Kline and Ellendea and Karl Propper* –these are the people that the departing dissidents thought represented the world where everyone thinks the right things. You describe the disappointment well. But you see, Reagan actually showed them that, even if the masses (they mistook the left liberals for the masses because of where they landed) did not think the right way, the enlightened president still could. I understand this is difficult to fathom, but this really was their prism. Ask Dad.
Propper, Karl: Americans who maintained contact with Soviet dissidents throughout the 70s and 80s, helping smuggle banned literature in and out of the country; the Proppers started and ran a Russian-language publishing house in the U.S.
From: Keith Gessen
To: Masha Gessen
But the whole point is, the Republicans are the bad guys, and consequently when they use the rhetoric of dissidence, it is insincere! Did you happen to read about George W. Bush’s first serious foreign policy address a few weeks back? He made some of the obvious (and not, to my mind, untrue) criticisms of Clinton’s foreign policy, namely, that it’s been reactive, that it has failed to formulate a vision of the U.S. in the world as compelling as, say, Bush Sr.’s ominous New World Order or Reagan’s version of containment. Anyway, one of the things W. stressed was that Russia keeps getting money regardless of its lousy behavior, such as bombing civilians… and then, at the very end of the speech, he quotes Solzhenitsyn! This is bizarre, because of course in the post-Communist world it’s not entirely appropriate to quote Solzhenitsyn while castigating Russia, it doesn’t really make sense, given Solzhenitsyn’s politics. What I’m getting at is that the Republicans are going to the same moral well, hoping again to capitalize on Soviet martyrs. And we shouldn’t let him get away with it!
But to get to this more interesting, existential question of not going back. It seems, first off, that we’ve had enough of taking the dissidents at their word: they took themselves at their word, the Western press took them at their word, their word was their bond, et cetera. They told the truth-this was their strength, politically, but the truth is not effective in and of itself; drop the logocentrism, eh? What it leads to is a bifurcated view of morals and politics; one of my interviewees, Sasha Gribanov, claims that it was a moral, not a political movement, as if these can be separated-it’s partially rhetorical, of course (keep your distance from discredited politics), but it is also just escapist and paralyzing. Even if their claim to have been functioning in some extra-political space is sincere, it’s a fatal self-deception: it allows them, for one thing, to believe it is a viable moral decision to remain in the States while Russia goes rapidly to hell.
Which is not to say for a moment that Tanya Velikanova has no right to teach math or that Yesenin-Volpin must get on a plane tomorrow and fly to Moscow to save Russia; if they wish, for personal reasons, to leave politics, that is certainly their personal business. But so long as it’s clear that they are abdicating, that they are rejecting a particular mode of being in the world. I don’t know if deciding to become a street-cleaner rather than join the Writers’ Union was political, though I suspect it was, but certainly we can’t let the dissidents tell us that protesting the police state was divorced from politics, was merely some sort of moral crie de couer. It’s this wedge they try to drive between the moral and the political, as if there is a room for policy, and a room for justice. Russian dissidents don’t make it to conferences much, but look at Michnik and Havel with their insistence that Europe should look east (though not, of course, too east) because… what? the Central Europeans have moral lessons to teach, they’ve forged their neoliberalism in the smithy of History? Havel’s a swell guy and all, but if he and Clinton both want to bomb Yugoslavia, what does it matter that he read Heidegger in prison? So here’s my contribution to elementary logic, to answer this question of “returning to their work”: a moral person with immoral politics is… immoral.
Maybe I am being too hard on the dissidents who emigrated, though not as hard as Michnik when he calls emigration “moral suicide.” I’m reacting, I think, to the way these lives look to me now. The great Russian emigrations have always contained a core of people who had promised to return: Trotsky in the Bronx, say, and Bunin in Paris, Brodsky in Brooklyn, were under the impression that they needed to maintain and husband a certain version of Russian culture which, when the times were more propitious, they would re-import. But then 1991 comes and goes and Brodsky is still in Brooklyn. The claim of diaspora and exile is no longer valid, and this is sad.
To: Keith Gessen
From: Masha Gessen
All right, so I have no choice but to leave the last word on the dissident World to you. Just allow me to say that it seems to me uniquely cruel to deny the dissidents the validity of their only weapon, even as you make the argument that it is antiquated. Which is the tragedy of the dissidents, and not only the dissidents. Even as they fought the regime and its restrictions and its iron curtain, they were hostages of the restrictions and the iron curtain. They saw the world around them as criminal, unconscionable, but they knew no other. So now these people-many, if not most of whom, I remind you, are over 60-are stuck with their vision. As they saw it, politics was the province of immoral, corrupted human beings with whom they could have nothing in common. Through local party organizations, “agitation committees,” youth groups, pioneer camps, trade union organizations with mandatory memberships, this political system was imposed on the entire population: the big monsters on the Central Committee tried to force everyone, beginning at the age of three, into becoming a minor monster, a helper monster (no accident that one of the Russian intelligentsia’s favorite works of science fiction was the Ray Bradbury story in which captives slowly turn into sand or clay people). So for a start, the dissidents refused to become a part of the system, which they equaled with politics in general. I wouldn’t say the ones who became street-cleaners were necessarily dissidents: mostly these were neformaly, who appeared in the late 1970s and 1980s. Their refusal to engage the system was complete, their commitment made at the point of entry-after high school or right after college. Because the people I refer to as dissidents made their choice later in life, they were compelled to engage the system if only to exit it. Which, of course, places them at cross purposes with their own aspirations: they wanted no part of it, but they engaged it actively. In other words, became political. But wanted fervently not to.
And now, so many years later, many of them maintain that same vision of politics as a single, corrupt, un-human machine. We have to admit that in the case of Russia they certainly have a point; whether it’s a self-perpetuating one, is a different matter. Some of them, the most open-minded of the bunch, while continuing to reject the possibility of political involvement, acknowledge that the system is changing, has changed. And that their vision and their instruments are antiquated. In an interview I did for the 30th anniversary of the dissident protest against the invasion of Czechoslovakia, Larisa Bogoraz* told me, “I feel like a blind kitten. I don’t understand what lobbying is. I know we vote, but I don’t understand what happens after.” She is a remarkably honest woman, and one who is, to the best of her limited physical ability, actively involved in some highly moral activities of little consequence.
I suppose that takes us directly to your town dump [Kostya’s well-argued alternative translation for Trotsky’s famous “dust bin of history”].
So on to the emigres. First of all, to the best of my knowledge, Brodsky never said he wanted to go back to Russia, refused even to visit when it became possible, didn’t want to be buried there, didn’t want his child to know the language. Not a great example, in other words. In fact, the only person who I am certain used to say that he would go back was Solzhenitsyn. He had that famous prophetic moment when he said the system would change, he would be welcomed back as a hero or some such thing. My point is-actually, you make it too in your story-is that the others really never believed that they would live to see the dismantling of the police state. When they raised the toast to the success of their hopeless mission, they truly believed the mission to be hopeless. One that could not be accomplished, so that each would make his/her contribution and move on. If Michnic calls this moving towards “moral suicide,” it is because he, unlike them, conceived of the enemy’s end.
Think how much sadder, if more heroic, it would be if all of them were still sitting around “in exile,” refusing to assimilate, and the Soviet Union kept going.
Bogoraz, Larisa: Human-rights activists, served seven years in Siberia for “anti-Soviet activity”.
From: Keith Gessen
To: Masha Gessen
“Uniquely cruel” is a uniquely difficult criticism to pass over, and I don’t think I should. I wouldn’t dare impeach the dissidents’ honesty: it’s their self-dismissive mythology I’m objecting to. The most flagrant example is that the dissidents saw that their task was to fight the regime, and that task was ended in 1991-this, with the exaggerated motion of the intellectual shrug. But the point is, they’re not just mathematicians and poets, they are, or were, political actors-and this, not math or poetry, is their contribution, as Remnick might put it, to mankind. I don’t happen to think politics are corrupt as such, and I do happen to think that nothing could be more pleasing to the perpetuators of the status quo than to hear potential enemies say so.
I’ll tell you more: certainly the dissidents were isolated from world discourse, they were partners in a dance with the regime that left them disoriented at dance’s end, but despite this they are not antiquated by any means. Actually, you don’t think they are, either. So why make this polemical move, ceding more ground even than I’d asked for, relegating Larisa Bogoraz to the town dump of history when she is still actively doing what she can? I don’t know, unless it’s good old intelligentsia self-flagellation, the “we’re dead again” rhetoric you once wrote parts of a book about. If the world (by which I apparently mean, the West) no longer has any use for the dissidents’ notions of personal responsibility and right action, it’s not because these notions are antiquated, but because the West never had much use for them to begin with except insofar as they served to undermine the Soviets; if the dissidents are to blame, it is, perhaps, for thinking that in the postcommunist world order they were antiquated. The only difference between the Bloc countries in this regard is that the Central Europeans have the luxury of making these mistakes from a position of authority, while the Russians make the mistakes from New Jersey.
Which brings us back to the émigrés.
Brodsky is a wonderful example, he is the poet of the Third Wave [of Russian emigration, referring to people who left the Soviet Union between 1969 and 1989]. He wrote poem after poem about the terror and loneliness of exile-it makes up the bulk of his material. I mean, he was writing poems about exile before he’d ever been in exile. “Menya teper’ tam net. Ob etom dumat’ stranno.” [“I am no longer there. What an odd thought.”] I think that’s why our mother liked him so much, because he sang the melancholy exile’s song without indulging too many illusions. Brodsky (and his lesser Central European cousin, Kundera) would have been hard-pressed to make so much of his exile had it been a mere migration-which is what, after 1991, it became. You remember that poem to his old girlfriend, Marina Basmannaya? “For time, confronted by memory, discovers its impotence.” Well, that was 1989. After 1991, I think Brodsky learned that time (and the Soviets) was the winner, after all. That’s when he started writing poems in English, and had a daughter to whom he refused to teach Russian. No, Brodsky is the perfect example. 1991 was the end of Russian émigré culture, and for the dissidents who failed, after 1991, to return, it was the end of their political lives-which were, for so many of them, the best lives they had.
So now that I’ve soundly drubbed you, what to do? Where do we begin to reclaim the moral language we’ve ceded to the shareholders in our dreams? Where, if not with the dissidents?
From: Masha Gessen
To: Keith Gessen
Very right you are to point out that Brodsky wrote of exile before he was apparently in exile. I happen to think this is not because he anticipated the state of physical exile but because he achieved the state of spiritual exile. He was an internal émigré, which, in my book, makes him a precursor of the neformaly, not a dissident. This is probably where I should state my definition of dissidents, with which, I know, you do not agree. I believe dissidents are people who consciously engaged in confrontation with the regime, knowingly risking their freedom. Brodsky, who, to my knowledge, was the first person tried and sentenced during Khrushev’s Thaw for what we call, for lack of a better term, a political crime (though it was neither political nor a crime), did not know what he was risking. His, in fact, was the “crime” of disengagement, of dropping out (literally: the man did not even attend high school): he was charged, literally, with laziness. If anyone could claim to have been an unwilling dissident, it would be Brodsky, except, as far as I know, he never claimed to be a dissident. For him it was not dissidence that was a way of being in the world; it was exile. But exile, like dissidence, but more so, needs a reference point or, rather, a reference land, even a reference state. Once that state ceased to exist, Brodsky-I agree with you here-stopped being an exile. If life is like a poem of the sort Brodsky wrote toward the end of his life-one where it is the conclusion, not the first line, that one is drawn to remember-then we know why, once he stopped being an exile, Brodsky settled down, moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn, married, abandoned Russian. In this sense, yes, Brodsky is a great example-not of dissidents or emigres, though, but of people, the kind who are mortal and know it. But this is all conjecture, so let’s leave the dead in peace and move on to the conclusion of your letter, which (owing to your youth-just kidding) is a question.
How do we reclaim the moral language? Let us pause to note that we are in rare agreement here on the need for this. Let us also pause to consider that many people and-more important, I think-many intellectuals and media professionals do not see the need, that is, cannot and do not wish to overcome their allergy to the righteous, black and white language of the late perestroika period, the direct descendant of dissident rhetoric. I can claim the dubious distinction of having been one of the people who purposefully moved the Russian media away from that language. In the early 1990s, as perestroika with its thick literary journals was ending and the era of the newspapers was beginning, the new journalists-most of whom had, thankfully, not been journalists before-aimed to purge all language that was reminiscent of the pathos of the past. Legend has it that the daily Segodnia, around the time of its launch in February 1993, circulated to staff lists of banned phrases (I don’t know if this is true because I didn’t get to Segodnia until a year and a half later). In February 1996, when we were getting the weekly Itogi off the ground, we aimed to forge a language of facts and not emotions, logic and not rhetoric, understanding and not overstatement.
We succeeded, and in succeeding, we screwed up royally. As it turns out-who would have thunk?-language and subject matter are interdependent. There are things we cannot discuss without calling up the ghosts of language past. There is no neutral way to discuss the legacy of Stalinism. Nor should there be. But if we are so definite about the limits of allowable, tasteful language-if we rule out, as is our way, anything that is identifiably political, ideological, moral, leaving a very narrow passageway indeed-then we exclude entire areas of discussion.
Two years ago I did a story on the re-burying of the then recently discovered remains of the 8,000 victims of the last Solovki executions. Solovki, as you know, was an island concentration camp off the coast of Soviet Karelia, and the liquidation of the undesirables concentrated there signaled the beginning of Great Terror in 1937. As it happened, the ceremony (organized, incidentally, by one perestroika-produced local historian and two former dissidents) coincided with the 60th anniversary of the executions. A perfect media occasion, right? Sure, for a Western journalist. But I was there as a Russian one.
Lacking any language to state the significance of the occasion upfront, I decided to start small. I was lucky enough to find a man who was born in the camp and to be able to tell the story of his tracing his family fate. Still, it called for a generalization. Like, “And his mother was among the first of the 30 million people murdered.” Not allowed. Not by editors, mind you, but by my own internal pathos-censor. In that case, I stayed away from generalizations almost entirely, calming myself with the assumption that my readers knew enough about the Great Terror to have their memories jogged by an individual story, with no need of generalizations.
Two years later, I am pretty sure I was wrong. They do not know enough, and they do not remember. Many, many people I know want to vote for Primakov; most support the war in Chechnya. In my simplified universe, this would not be possible if they remembered, really remembered, the crimes of the past. With our language exercises, we stopped reminding them-or, in some cases, telling them. But I still don’t know where to find the language to speak of these things.
Got any tips?
From: Keith Gessen
To: Masha Gessen
Yes, Masha, I do find your definition of dissidence unattractive–not because I think it false, but because it seems to construe politics so narrowly that, in essence, it isn’t politics unless you’re out in the square getting your head busted. I have certainly run into the problem, while speaking to emigres here in the States, of everyone, but everyone, claiming their dissidence. People who were on the fringes of the movement claim they were in the thick of it, minor figures claim to have been major–if as many people actively fought the regime as claim to have done so, it’s hard to imagine how it held on past 1960. So it’s not so much that I long for a fuzzy definition, as that, though it was important for the seven protesters and a baby to go out into Red Square in [August] 1968 [to protest the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia], it was just as important that seven hundred or, dare we believe it, seven thousand people knew about it and actively sympathized with them. Did sitting around kitchens, complaining about the Soviets, bring down the regime? Of course not; but neither would human rights activism have been effective without that private space in which it could be discussed, and its manifestoes retyped on Eurekas [a brand of Russian-language typewriters manufactured in East Germany]. So Brodsky probably never considered himself a dissident per se and was actually quite sophisticated and realistic about where he’d end up: “Like the omnipotent Shah who switches wives, I have switched empires.” On the other hand, he was opposed to the regime with every fiber of his being, and the transcript of his trial, where he so obviously rejects the ridiculous Soviet code of conduct being thrust on him, was practically the founding event in samizdat/dissident literature. And there is Brodsky’s famous remark to Susan Sontag, who was fuming over Solzhenitsyn, apparently. “But you know, Susan,” Brodsky said, “what he says–it’s true.” Dissident/neformaly? Why count dissidents like noses? Why not think politics more broadly? Take, even, Nabokov, no less an aesthete than Brodsky, surely, but who wrote this bizarre but perfectly sensible letter to Solzhenitsyn, when Solzhenitsyn was finally kicked out of Russia: “You probably haven’t read my novels,” Nabokov wrote, approximately, “but in them I have thundered against the philistinism and barbarism of Soviet regime, just as you have.” Dissident/non-dissident?
The problem, ultimately, is that by defining the dissidents narrowly–most of the “real” dissidents do just that, of course–we are bounding dissidence in time and space, so that it can be argued that the historic task of the dissidents was completed in 1991, and they can therefore now act and think just like everyone else. If we reject dissidence as a state of being and define it by a set of actions in a particular time and place, we find ourselves with precisely the phenomenon I describe in my article: former dissidents who moved to the States and became Reaganites. What the hell sort of dissidence is that? You mention reference points, with regard to Brodsky’s exile, but should the dissidents also move to pricey Brooklyn Heights and settle down once their particular reference point has passed from the historical scene? Or should they do the political equivalent of suburbification, if they are involved in politics as some of the Central Europeans are, and become cheerleaders for NATO and the new world order?
Like a one-man IWM conference, the question I’ve been asking as I tour the dissidents stranded in the States is, What remains of their movement, their force? I don’t know what the answer at the conference was, and whether you liked it (though I have my suspicions), but for the Russians, in terms of human, political capital, I would say: nothing remains. A few people in NGOs, and Kovalev, but, really, nothing: certainly you know this better than I, but driving into the depths of New Jersey lends a pretty visceral taste to the powerlessness of the once-powerful. On the other hand… I do not believe they are entirely silent even while their historical dust-bin, or town dump, composts. Were I invited to a conference, Masha, and wined and dined, and allowed to jot some comments of political weight upon the hotel stationary, I would say this: what remains of dissidence is what needs no real-world reference to make sense. You know what I would do? I’d start with Solzhenitsyn, with the Gulag Archipelago, the great monument to the immensity of will it took, the evil Solzhenitsyn saw in that regime, and I would ask: the archipelago is gone, the people whose memories this draws upon are dead, Solzhenitsyn is a silly and despised old man–what still remains here that is living truth? And most of it, I think, does. Solzhenitsyn is talking about the camps, of course, but in the context of a life. That scene at the beginning, when he’s being taken to Lubyanka and he’s taking the escalator up out of the metro, and he can see and touch all the people on their daily commute, who are not being taken to Lubyanka., but who do nothing to help him, who don’t even notice-what an astounding metaphor for urban life, or just life, for the crowds of people who walk by us each day without pausing to notice. And there’s another line I stumbled across somewhere in the depths of volume seven: “the sad thing is: we’ll all die, eventually, without having done anything worth the doing of it.”
Which takes us, more or less, to this question of moral language, of how to forge a way to speak of these things. As an early reader (and even, remember, an early contributor!) of Itogi, I remember how strange and, frankly, unsatisfying it seemed for a Russian magazine to be working in an American mode of “objective” journalism. I can’t claim to have kept up with the magazine-it comes out every week!-so correct me if I’m wrong, but I wonder how much of the problem is the short-article news format that Itogi’s largely borrowed from Newsweek, which is what makes Newsweek and the other “news magazines,” as opposed to magazines of opinion like the New Republic and the Nation, so dull. Again, this is just conjecture, but would you have felt as constrained in your choice of words if you’d been writing for [the weekly] Novoye Vremya or some other magazine whose demographic wasn’t so blurred-Yuppie-glossy-picture-loving?
I know that in the U.S., the problem of moral language is precisely this myth of objectivity and this fear of demographics, wherein if you’re writing for anything outside the narrow neo-Marxist audience of something like the Nation, you had better not give yourself away by using a Marxist category… but how, then, to speak of the exploitation of labor, how to discuss the downside of globalization? Our political categories, at least until recently, have been so crudely delineated that it seems more and more writers were being chased into ideological ghettoes, where, naturally, they found themselves subject to the censorship of their more orthodox brethren.
The other problem, aside from these political ghettoes, is the narrative problem. If Itogi’s ruling assumption is that Russia is headed toward a modern Europeanized version of its current self, and that it should reflect this, isn’t much of its style and language already over-determined, as they say? What do you think of this?
So what to do? The language in which the dissidents fought the regime is painfully out of tune. Perhaps Itogi should host a Solzhenitsyn revival. Did you have a gala issue for his 80th birthday last year? But perhaps, too, it might be possible now to begin speaking again of things that need to be spoken of. If support for Primakov (or Putin!) signals a willingness to vote for some notion of stability rather than from conviction, would it be impossible to say so? It seems Russian media is terribly allergic to anything smacking of context… but certainly you could take a cue from the American dirt-diggers, who topple the earth for rumors of past drug use on the part of presidential candidates, when all a Russian reporter would have to do with someone like Primakov is read a few of his old articles (he headed a sort of Communist think-tank, right?), check his tax returns, tie him in to a political crime or two from the 70s and call it a day. It certainly sounds easy. What gives?
Krepko zhmu ruku*,
Krepko zhmu ruku: Shaking your hand firmly.
From: Masha Gessen
To: Keith Gessen
Let me begin with quote I found yesterday, quite by accident. I am translating from Russian here:
“Some assert that there is but a handful of dissidents waging the battle for human rights in the Soviet Union. This is so, and yet it isn’t. Let us, for example, take the issue of the right to ethnic self-determination. It probably affects several million people whose ethnic sentiments are impinged upon or repressed by the regime. Or let us consider the general, country-wide issue of creative freedom. Thousands of people-scholars, writers, actors, artists-are fighting for this right, sometimes without being conscious of it. All of them are protecting their rights against the pressure of the regime; some of them do it actively and others passively, depending on their specific circumstances. Both groups are a part of a general pro-democracy movement that has barely been conceived in the Soviet Union but holds a certain potential for the future.
“In this general pro-democracy movement, dissidents represent the most conscious, decisive people who are ready for sacrifice. They are the vanguard of the movement, and for this reason they are relatively few.
“Not far from them are non-dissident liberals, who, within the limits of their personal courage, or perhaps their fear, are, either consciously or instinctively, in opposition to the existing regime, though they are often inclined to compromise and capitulate in the face of it. Still, many of them do something to relieve their conscience-take part in money collections for political prisoners and their families, for example, or read and lend out to friends samizdat literature, etc. Is this too little? It certainly is. But it is better than nothing.
“I myself have often collected money for political prisoners and dissidents, and money was often given by people who would not have wanted to socialize with or even meet dissidents. But they were happy to give money and clothing, and they asked for and accepted samizdat literature, etc. These liberal-minded people are perfectly capable, when struck by fear, of turning their backs and even of raising their hands at [party or trade-union] meetings to condemn Sakharov or Solzhenitsyn or even one of their own colleagues. They are capable of attaching their signature to some low-minded resolution, but at another time, in a less-charged political and moral atmosphere, liberals can do useful things, such as defending someone who is threatened with dismissal from work. We have seen many examples of this even after Khrushev’s departure, in 1965-1966 as well as later. Let us remember, for example, the petitions, the signature collections, the speaking out against election of extremely reactionary persons to the presidium of the Academy of Sciences.
“Liberals can be part of the general pro-democracy movement, but they can also serve as the reserves of reactionary forces.”
You see, this is why I object to broadening the definition of dissidents: it threatens to include fence-sitters, most of whom, I believe, were good people, but people who chose their personal and their family’s safety over-well, over stepping out into the square. I happen to think this is a perfectly valid personal choice. But I also believe that, had the relatively large number of “liberals” made a different choice, they may indeed have brought down the Soviet Union. Or they may have all been shot like the people of Novocherkassk, possibly the only example of a mass demonstration in the Soviet Union. In any case, as it is, they did not bring the regime down; the regime imploded, no thanks to them. Which is why I disagree with your assertion that the dissident movement would not have been effective without its typists and its sympathizers. It wouldn’t have survived without them, true; but it wasn’t effective.
But I agree with you that setting spatial and temporal bounds for dissidence is a disservice to them and to us. I have a general pessimism about individuals’ ability to influence totalitarian regimes, which is why I agree with the dissidents that their mission was doomed. But I have a near-religious belief in the need for moral absolutists in non-totalitarian societies. That would be dissidence as a way of being. This is why I think that one of the great tragedies of the criminal NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia was the emergence, in the United States, of the so-called human rights hawks. These were the very people whom we would expect to speak out against the bombing because it was illegal (as an undeclared war and as military action that disproportionately endangered civilians) and immoral (as all killing is). Instead, they said that, as killing went-this killing was not all that immoral because maybe it prevented other killing, which would have been more immoral, or punished for other, also more-immoral, killing. Punishment as a human rights concept, right. I even spoke with one New York intellectual from the human rights hawks camp who explained to me that NATO could not send in ground troops as long as the United States does not have a draft because then the U.S. would be risking the lives of the lower classes, who serve in the military, and that’s not right. And risking the lives of Serbian and Kosovo civilians because the U.S. pilots were bombing from the safe height of 5,000 meters was right. Right.
It may seem like I am going a bit far afield, but this actually goes back to my objection to a re-definition of dissidents, which, unfortunately, is well under way. The IWM conference to which you refer was a perfect, perfectly disheartening example. Speaking there, Janos Kis declared, “The dissident was somebody who ordinarily, publicly and demonstratively disregarded the standing law and the unlawful regulations and instructions of his or her country in the name of higher principles.” Note the conflation of “standing law” and “unlawful regulations.” Of course, as we have discussed, in the Soviet Union at least, the dissidents stood on the distinction between standing law and unlawful regulations, insisting that the former be observed. But, having conflated the two, Kis went on to state, at the conclusion of his talk, that, building on the dissident heritage, NATO states and their supporters opted for a route that “is not permitted by ordinary personal morality.”
So this is why I insist on my definition of dissidents. They were moral absolutists. To be a moral absolutist in the Soviet Union, where one was constantly faced with the need to “compromise or capitulate,” one had to confront. Once one became a moral absolutist, one soon found oneself, literally or figuratively, out in the square getting one’s head busted.
But of course you are right: moral absolutism would work in the U.S. as well, must work in the U.S. if that country is not going to go to hell. And the dissidents who moved there did not take that place. Here I cannot justify them on moral or political grounds; I just have great human sympathy for them. But then, I think, so do you. I just find it a bit easier to understand why they love Reagan so much.
By the way, the author of that quote with which I began is Aleksandr Nekrich. You remember him, of course, but since this is a public correspondence, I’ll explain that Nekrich was a historian, a decorated war veteran and a distinguished party member who first broke with official Soviet scholarship when he wrote a book that detailed how willfully ill-prepared for World War II the Soviet Union had been. In 1977 he emigrated to the United States, and in 1980, together with Mikhail Heller, he completed Utopia in Power, the first fundamental attempt by Russian scholars to re-tell Soviet history from an oppositional point of view. Throughout the 1980s Nekrich worked with our mother on various joint projects, including a Russian-language political magazine published in Paris.
So Nekrich. His first act of bona fide dissidence-by his definition, which also happens to be mine-came in 1976, when, already forced out of scholarship for his unorthodox research, he had applied for an exit visa (he was Jewish and therefore entitled to leave the country). Then he wrote an open letter in support of Mustafa Dzhemilev, a Crimean-Tartar self-determination activist who was then on trial. Incidentally, Nekrich was apparently the first dissident to give his letter not only to mainstream Western press agencies but also to the leftist press-and the British Daily Worker became the first paper to print his statement in its entirety. Do you know if Nekrich became a Reaganite when he was in the U.S.? You saw more of him. I know that he did not return to Russia, though, presumably, he could have: he must have died in 1993 or 94, right? I also know that he had an offer from a Soviet publisher, in 1989 or 1990, to print Utopia in Power, and badly wanted this to happen, but his co-author Heller, who left in the 1960s and maintained a hatred of the Soviet Union, would not hear of it. The book did finally see print in Russia, in 1995, when the number of people interested in reading it was literally hundreds of thousands times less than it would have been at the height of perestroika. I suspect this may have happened with a lot of former emigres: they didn’t trust the changes at first and then, suddenly, the window of opportunity was shut.
This has run on, so I think I’ll leave the discussion of language until later. But I wanted to note that Itogi articles run, on average, four times the length of a Newsweek OR a Novoye Vremia story and, I’d say, twice the length of a New Republic front-of-the-book story. I agree that length is necessary for depth, but that’s not the problem here. More later, ok?
Dayu lapu: Extending my paw.
From: Keith Gessen
To: Masha Gessen
No need, I suppose, to beat the dead NATO horse again, but if we’re asking what remains of 1989, or 1968, it would seem that precious little does, both in the suburbs of New Jersey where so many of the Soviet dissidents have found themselves, and in the Central European countries where the dissidents have done markedly better. Michnik once wrote a letter from jail to Jaruselski in which he declared that there were “two things in the world: good and evil.” He didn’t think so in 1989 when he formulated the conception of the round table, and, having seen what has become of the more absolutist moral position of the Russian dissidents, I maintain a certain amount of admiration for Michnik’s political acumen, his timely evolution. But neither must we call it dissidence, just because before he commenced leading cheers for NATO, Michnik was one.
But you mention Nekrich, and I think this goes to the heart of the matter of what to do now, how to recover that dissidence the dissidents themselves have lost. Though you are continually stealing my copy of Utopia in Power, I have read the book enough times to believe that it represents precisely the mode of dissident discourse which has thrown a shadow on more nuanced, necessary attempts at a moral language. Any attempt to quote it burns a hole through your own argument in that very place, because they are trapped in this oppositional dialogue, merely contradicting (and mocking!) every line of the Soviet textbooks they so obviously hate. Which is funny, because when I was at the Russian State Humanities University in Moscow in 1995, there was a proposal current to make Utopia in Power the standard textbook for all Russian universities. My professor, Sergei Karpenko, although he had some admiration for the book, said that it maintained too much the trace of fear. “They thought the regime would last a thousand years,” he said, which explains, really, the utter despair that fills its pages. For all the victims it enumerates, it’s not a very humane book, always more interested, after all, in the regime that did this than the people to whom it was done. As Lenin said of one of Bukharin’s early works: “It’s not sufficiently dialectical.” Nekrich and Heller might not think that a particularly damning criticism (Bukharin, for one, was shattered), but it renders questionable their every judgment, and it’s unfortunate, too, because of course they were good historians and good men, and one cannot help but regret that instead of writing for the ages, they settled for a diatribe which daily loses its force.
And it is just that style of writing which makes it difficult for you as a Russian journalist to make your large and necessary generalizations. Maybe it’s the Russian language, and not the Russian people, that needs to wander forty years in the desert before recovering its home again. Did I ever tell you my theory of the Russian language-that it’s too hard? Perhaps this is my own prejudice, stemming from my own difficulties, but it seems that Russian’s many cases, its irregularities, its complex grammatical structures are just too complicated for the neanderthals that the Communist Party selected for its highest posts. They have trouble giving speeches, drafting documents, making their orders understood. “Tea!” or “my car!” don’t require complex grammatical configuring, but, you know, something like: “What this country needs is an equitable, enforceable tax law” might just be too hard to say without all sorts of grammatical mistakes, and who wants to make grammatical mistakes in public?
I just received a letter from a friend in Lagos, Nigeria, who has a very similar idea. In case our correspondence isn’t polyphonic enough, let me quote what he says about Nigeria: “What strikes me most, though, is language: most people, including the country’s president, speak a thickly accented, grammatically incorrect English. And yet English is the national language-the language of schools, business, media. The only written language. Children learn Yoruba or Ibo or another tribal language in the home, but this language isn’t refined in school. The English they learn in school is mostly inferior. All of this leaves almost everyone, including university graduates, without the full repertoire and familiarity of a complete language, without the tools necessary in order to be articulate and self-expression. It seems crippling: even the most prominent newspaper in the country is poorly written. I wonder how much the situation resembles other post-colonial areas.” Russia seems to have a very similar problem, a post-colonial headache from the Soviet empire. What Russia needs is, actually, a new language that will simplify things, like the hypothetical languages Wittgenstein makes up in Philosophical Investigations, the ones where saying “Slab!” means, “Give me that slab of wood.” (Wittgenstein says it over and over again: Slab! Slab! Slab!) So maybe one way out is to have Russia use that sort of language for a while, at least for government business.
The problem of bureaucracy is an old one in Russia, of course. It’s a truism that there were so many hard-science people among the dissidents because it was the least ideological of the professions and they were given significant privileges, but when we talk about ideology, aren’t we also talking about a certain abuse of language, abuse of the sort physicists and mathematicians weren’t asked to commit on a regular basis? Certainly one of the principles of the Chronicle of Current Events (the human rights newsletter the dissidents started published in 1968) was to maintain a level, matter-of-fact style. And wasn’t it one of Sakharov’s greatest charms as a politician that he spoke in clear, logical Russian? When you say that most of the people at Itogi weren’t previously journalists, what were they? Dissidents? Because maybe Itogi should look for physicists. Which may be one and the same thing, and gives us yet another definition for dissident: physicist.
To: Keith Gessen
From: Masha Gessen
One of my colleagues at Itogi says, “I was a biologist when there was no journalism, and now that there is no biology, I am a journalist.” And yes, he is that rare person who writes as though he were speaking to the reader directly, not from a pulpit but from his couch, or the other side of the living-room table (not the kitchen table, which lends itself to alcohol-induced pathos and smoky generalizations). Which is not to say that biology was one of the sciences unaffected by ideology: quite the opposite, the Lysenko era butchered biology even more than-this is Nekrich’s estimation, actually-history was butchered. But you are right: clear, logical language was one of the biggest defitsity-commodities in short supply-in the Soviet Union. A few years ago I came across a book by some aspiring political scientist. It was a perfectly uninspiring little volume, but the dedication has stayed with me: “To the BBC Russian Service, which spoke to me in normal human language for all those years.”
Which brings me to a digression, but one that is relevant to our discussion of the definition of dissidents. A couple of summers ago I was present during an argument between Yelena Bonner and Ella Gorlova, the wife of Aleksandr Gorlov, the inventor who got in trouble for harboring Sakharov at his dacha and soon found he had to leave the country if he wanted to continue working. The subject of the argument: Who listened to “the enemy voices,” meaning the short-wave Russian-language broadcasts of the BBC, Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and the German Wave? The elite, said Ella: the dissidents and the very liberal-minded intelligentsia willing to take the risk. No, countered Bonner, it was everyone. She said that when she traveled, sometimes with Sakharov and sometimes alone, to visit political prisoners in remote camps, the local people-the residents of these little villages and towns where she stayed–would strike up conversations about what they had heard on the short wave. I told them then about that political scientist’s dedication line, which made it so clear to me that he had for years felt so alone in whatever little provincial town he was from, his only lifeline being the BBC. I would say he was not a dissident, and neither were the thousands of other people who listened to the broadcasts. I am tempted to ask whether Gorlov was a dissident, but I won’t. Instead, I will point out that these “enemy voices” certainly had far more reach and therefore a far greater impact on the minds of ordinary and not-so-ordinary Soviets than samizdat ever could. Of course, in part, they fed off samizdat, especially dissident samizdat such as the Chronicles of Current Affairs.
But back to journalism. Several of the country’s best-known journalists were, in their past lives, theater critics. My editor in chief, Sergei Parkhomenko, was one; so was Aleksandr Minkin, one of the leading political commentators; Mikhail Shvydkoy, the head of Russian State Television and Radio, used to edit the low-profile journal Teatr. This might be a coincidence. But it also might be that talented journalists who wanted to report-that is, write about what they saw-would naturally be drawn to write about the theater. As events in politics grew more dramatic, they switched to politics. In a way they are the perfect people to write about the world of Russian politics, which is high drama played out in an enclosed space that has been growing more and more separate from the real world. Intrigue all around, motives shifting behind the scenes-and let them eat cake. Which brings me to your point about narrative. This may sound odd, but the problem with much Russian journalism, I think, is not the dominance of a particular narrative-be it “we are demolishing socialism and building capitalism” or “we have destroyed the system and buried the country under the rubble”-but the utter lack of any narrative. It is as though politics were a parlor game-you know, the one where a folded sheet is passed around the room and each person adds two lines, of which his successor can only see the last one before adding his own two, etc., until an utterly absurd story emerges, one that lacks a consistent setting or consistent characters. I think something similar will happen if you sit down and read the last few years’ worth of Itogi or any other magazine. Except you may discover that it is the same person writing about the same set of people. And I suspect you are right, in a way, that this is connected to language, or, rather, to the utter impossibility of saying “I have a dream” or even “I have a vision” without sounding like an old-style demagogue. I think this is a major reason for the onetime popularity of General Lebed*, who exhibited no lack of self-irony in his continuous jokes. Example: a journalist asks him, at the end of a stump speech, “But what is your cultural platform?” Lebed: “You have been listening to a general speak for an hour without using a single curse word. Now that’s high culture!” Applause all around. Then, as it became clear that Lebed was recycling a limited number of jokes, he ceased to be interesting.
I enjoyed your Lagos quote. Though your friend’s description of the newspapers reminded me more of the Russian émigré publications of the 1970s, when they were still edited by the descendants of first- and second-wave emigres, whose Russian had devolved into an ungrammatical jumble of Russian and English words. As for media within Russia, it is not a debilitating simplification of language that they confront but a perverse complication. I resist the idea that there is anything inherently “difficult” about Russian, but I know that Soviet apparatchiks forged a style of speaking and writing that stacked clauses like layers in a Viennese cake but said absolutely nothing. (In the early 90s I went to Russia as an interpreter with a U.S. Congressman, and, when he was addressed at length by a Russian official, I was at a loss: there was nothing to translate.) There is a liberal-intelligentsia corollary as well: elegant kitchen-speak that veers off on associative tangents, impressing the reader with the writer’s dexterity at composing paragraph-long sentences and page-long paragraphs-with no content. But a “normal human language,” matter-of-fact and to-the-point without being dull, is underdeveloped and therefore underemployed and therefore remains underdeveloped.
And now back to the important stuff. That is my very own copy of Utopia in Power. I ordered it through a San Francisco bookstore and paid $18.50 that I didn’t have. Put it back. Also put back the copy of Anatomy for the Artist, which you keep stealing. I think you are a bit harsh on the authors, but I basically take your point. But I was quoting from a different book, Nekrich’s Otreshis’ ot Strakha (how to translate: “Reject the Fear”? not quite), a memoir he began writing in Moscow (where I live now) in 1972 and finished in Cambridge, MA (where you live now) in 1977. And here is the remarkable part: that quote is at the end, presumably in the part written in the United States, and still it says (I pick up where I left off): “The liberals can be a part of the general pro-democracy movement, but they can also serve as the reserves for forces of reaction. So in any case it would be ill-advised to ignore them.” This isn’t a whole lot to go on, but it sounds like at that point, when he was already beginning to write Utopia in Power, he did not see the regime as fated to stand for eternity.
A few pages later he reviews his decision to leave the country. Faced with a classic choice-leave if you want to work, fight if you want to stay-here is how he reasons:
“Taking an active part in the dissident movement represented a sort of solution. I thought about it repeatedly. I had no fear of the consequences, though I could not be 100% sure that I could stand up to the physical torment of prison and camps. I was much more concerned with another question: did the people need me to defend them? History generally tells us of prophets and pseudoprophets who speak in the name of the people when the people have given them no such mandate. Probably only a spontaneous explosion of popular emotion, as expressed in violent action, can reflect, for a single moment, the people’s mode of thought. Perhaps folk songs and folk tales reflect the people’s dreams as well.
“It happens sometimes that people choose the dissident path not only for the sake of defending someone else’s rights but also for the sake of self-expression. In this movement, which seeks truth, which exposes people to danger, people find themselves. Their own actions make them respect themselves and give them a goal in life. But one has to have a truly deep mind and an ability to be self-critical in order not to devolved, within this movement, into a revolutionary dogmatic or an inside-out conformist. History knows many examples of this.
“I also considered the fact that I can best contribute to the pro-democracy movement in my chosen profession, in the field of history.”
Which is, I think, why Utopia in Power reads the way it reads. It was a piece of activist journalism-the best kind of journalism there is, but journalism is a short-lived genre.
And now let me quote the very end of the book.
“My friends come in and out. These are the precious minutes of a life I am leaving forever. My god, could it be that I will never see them again?
“Never?! I hate this word. Never means non-existence, death, forgetting. And I try to convince myself that I will certainly see them again. It will happen, it will happen, and I try to pass this faith on to them, and this is probably why we really will see each other again. For now we are parting for a while, until we meet again.
“And I am also parting with those who are staying in the country to continue the fight for human rights. These brave people-Sakharov, Grigorenko, Orlov and others-are staying. There are the last meetings, the handshakes, the words of encouragement. The day before my departure I learn of the formation of a group to monitor the enforcement of Helsinki accords.
“…And then the parting in the airport…. I disappear behind the wall. There is a ball in throat, and I will break down crying any minute. But I manage to get hold of myself. I calm down. I once said to someone who left Moscow before me: ‘Remember that the world is huge and wonderful. You just have to reject the fear.’ And now I remember my own words.”
This breaks my heart, probably because it reminds me of our own departure, when all those people-there must have been at least 20, mostly relatives-waved to us from behind the barrier, and Mom whispered to me, “Look at great-grandmother. We will see everyone else again, but not her.” She was almost right-great-grandmother died, and so did our great-aunt Zhenia-but everyone else lived to see us again. But how did she know? Nekrich says the word: faith. That paragraph of his is so uncharacteristically non-rational. With all that he thought he knew, he could not believe he would see these people again-but he could have faith.
But his decision to leave, as we saw, was exceedingly rational. And he had to go on as though it was forever. Gradually, that logic must have forced out the little voice that implies, faintly, in his book that there is indeed potential for change. Which is probably why Utopia is so firm on this point, that the regime will live forever. Because Nekrich did not, in 1977, know, but we do that emigration hardens people perhaps even more than dissidence does, turning them into dogmatic inside-out conformists. To be able to leave the Soviet Union, they had to be convinced that, in all likelihood, that regime was forever and leaving was the best course of action, but once they were in the insular immigrant communities, that conviction grew hard as stone and they could allow for no other possibility.
So what remains? Nekrich is dead, as are Sakharov and Grigorenko. Yuri Orlov lives in Canada.
And you and I are closer to agreement than ever. Let’s try to keep it from hardening.
Lebed, general: Former lieutenant general of the Airborne Troops, now governor of the Siberian region of Krasnoyarsk.
Keith Gessen is a freelance writer living in Cambridge, MA.
Masha Gessen was a Milena Jesenska fellow at IWM in 1999 and is the chief correspondent at the Russian weekly Itogi and the author of Dead Again: The Russian Intelligentsia After Communis
Tr@nsit online, 2002
Copyright © 2002 by the authors & Transit – Europäische Revue. All rights reserved. This work may be used, with this header included, for noncommercial purposes. No copies of this work may be distributed electronically, in whole or in part, without written permission from Transit.