Vyacheslav Bakhmin on how to remain free in a time of unfreedom: “For me, freedom means acting in accordance with one’s beliefs […] and preserving one’s sense of dignity.”

20 March 2021

A discussion with Vyacheslav Bakhmin, co-chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group, by Takie dela

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Такие дела]

Today we have almost unlimited access to information, though there are also many ways in which it is manipulated.  But even if freedom of speech is violated in society, an individual still has internal freedom to think and to reason.

Vyacheslav Bakhmin, a Soviet dissident, human rights defender and co-chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group, believes that only critical thinking can turn a person from an object of manipulation into an individual.  He considers that critical thinking needs to be constantly fostered within oneself, but that far from everybody is yet prepared to do this.

Aleksandr Golovin, author and host of the podcast KritMysh’, believes that critical thinking is shared by everyone, and that it is developed when we seek for the opposite point of view and challenge our colleagues with questions.

The media project “Takie Dela” [“Such Matters”] has published  a video and a transcript of the latest edition of “What We Need Most.”  You can subscribe to the show’s YouTube channel here.

Sasha Livergant:  Today we are going to discuss freedom and critical thinking.  Last week, Roskomnadzor [the Russian federal body responsible for monitoring, censoring and supervising the mass media — translator] slowed down Twitter.  This was not the first attack on freedom of information, but it was a very striking one.  We could not ignore this matter and so we decided to discuss how to stay free in a world where there are increasingly more and more restrictions, and where there is much propaganda and manipulation of public opinion.

Pasha Merkulov: The restriction of freedom is perhaps more clearly felt now than previously, because there are in principle more freedoms today and the ways of fighting for them have changed.  Today, for example, it is hard to ban the Internet.  Instead, what we have is a smokescreen of propaganda.

This seems like a good way to distract attention away from important issues.  That is why we have decided to combine the topic of freedom with that of critical thinking.

Vyacheslav Bakhmin:  I was lucky: I really felt free in this country.  Understanding what was really going on in the country was very painful.  But when it happened, and when I made up my mind that I was ready even to go to jail for this, then I began to feel absolutely free.  To do this, you have to decide what you are willing to sacrifice for freedom.

If you do not make this decision, then you will be making compromises all the time: Say it / Don’t say it; Do it / Don’t do it; Go to jail / Don’t go to jail; and then suddenly I will say this….  And that’s it – you are no longer free.  But when you know that you will be jailed anyway, then you feel absolutely free.

We met calmly with American diplomats.  I calmly read political material at my workplace, told others what was happening in the world, and listened to Radio Liberty and Voice of America.

For me, freedom means acting in accordance with one’s beliefs, with one’s own view of the world, and preserving one’s sense of dignity.

It took me a year to change my worldview.  I was an absolutely [typical] product of my time.  This was due to the lack of information.

The mere existence of information is not enough to make you change into something different.  But it is essential to enable you to make a comparison with something.  To think, and not to live in one single information bubble that is being fed you from above.

Sasha Livergant: The paradox of the present time is that we have more than enough information, yet everything remains the same. 

Alexander Golovin: This is the same issue, only it’s of an opposite nature. When there is too much information, we fail to discern what is actually important among this noise.

Pasha Merkulov: At the same time, it seems as though the strategies for getting out of this or that uncomfortable situation are similar: you disconnect yourself from the existing world and invent one within yourself.

Aleksandr Golovin: Nowadays, thanks to new social networks, everyone is scattered about in nooks where we sit and communicate with people like us and do not see what is being discussed in the next bubble.

Vyacheslav Bakhmin: In Soviet times, in-person communication was the only method available. We encountered people who were not in this [information] bubble. When you communicate, you are still living in this world and taking it in.

You have radio, television and films, but you watch them with an understanding of what is behind them. For this to happen, one needs to have already developed a worldview.

Sasha Livergant: Having like-minded people was absolutely essential. This intellectual nourishment had a lot of impact.

But this does not mean that you have to communicate only with these people all the time. It is also important to understand who they are.

We felt like we were in a minority, though on some issues we did not have direct clashes with the general population. But still, we did live in this world and could find no escape from it anywhere. We did however feel freer and could look at what was happening in a different way than others. When you feel like you know a lot more than 90 percent of people, it’s a powerful feeling.

Aleksandr Golovin: It is important to remember that what you think is conventional for all people is most likely accepted among your acquaintances. It is not only sobering to read Takie Dela (‘Such things’) or Meduza, but also to go to RIA Novosti or Life.ru. It’s impressive: it turns out that you can live in one country, exist in the same political and cultural context, but at the same time be situated within completely different informational contexts.

There is a cognitive bias: we seek to affirm our point of view, not to refute it. This is wrong if we want to base our arguments on scientific grounds. One needs to seek out a refutation of their opinion. It is useful to check out different resources and read opposing opinions in order to once again make certain that ‘these are their arguments, and I know what my arguments are’.

Vyacheslav Bakhmin: This is also how one sharpens one’s critical thinking.

Pasha Merkulov: This sounds like a lot of work. In practical terms, how can this be implemented in one’s life? Or does not everyone need to do it?

Aleksandr Golovin: It’s a matter of habit. You can follow people with opinions that are different from yours. This exposure will make it possible for you to compare.

When you need to make sure that you are right, the worst thing you could possibly do is go on the internet and publish a post about why you are right. One should add the word ‘criticism’ and read what other people have written.

Sasha Livergant: In Soviet times, there were practices of internal migration, as well as attempts to distribute samizdat and political information.

Vyacheslav Bakhmin: Everyone found their own path of freedom in that unfree world. It depended on the person’s capabilities, temperament psychological characteristics. By the way, critical thinking also strongly depends on this. Some people cannot think critically.

Aleksandr Golovin: Allow me to disagree. I believe that critical thinking is just natural human thinking.

Vyacheslav Bakhmin: It should be essential, like preserving human rights – but this isn’t the case. The same can be said for critical thinking. Some people find it very difficult. They are very susceptible to emotional influence. For them, rationality means nothing. They are simply not capable of sitting, thinking, reasoning or evaluating any pros and cons in a situation. You need to change people’s mentality entirely, and this is both impossible and unnecessary. 

Aleksandr Golovin: If I started to say things like ‘a dragon lives in my house,’ not many people would believe me, and that is to be expected. Most people would ask for some kind of proof. It is a completely natural thing for a person to doubt something if they believe you may be lying. For the most part, people can manage this.

But when the context is more complicated or is clouded by emotions or cultural factors, it becomes more difficult.

The key is to take a step back and understand.

This awareness is being trained.

Vyacheslav Bakhmin: Many people around the world think that the Earth is flat and that the Sun revolves around the Earth. What’s happened to these people’s critical thinking?

Aleksandr Golovin: I think it’s fine. The question of what revolves around what is not really important at all.

Vyacheslav Bakhmin: Exactly. For 90% of Russians, what we are talking about at the moment is not important.

Pasha Merkulov: People living in a world where they’re constantly lied to. On TV they say that everything is fine but you look out the window and see otherwise. Why, then, does propaganda work so effectively?

Aleksandr Golovin: Propaganda is a very effective thing in any business. The question is what to promote, and to whom.

Vyacheslav Bakhmin: And the question of defining propaganda. What you just said is illuminating. As a rule, propaganda is not objective. This exaggeration and selection of facts, simply to bolster your position, is completely unacceptable for critical thinking.

Sasha Livergant: And in theory, can people live in peace even without any freedom?

Vyacheslav Bakhmin: Yes. They do not even notice its absence. Some people cannot live outside the prison, as it were. It’s the same story. Why would people step out of their comfort zone? Most people live quite normally.

Aleksandr Golovin: The role of education is key here.

Read more in Russian

Translated by Elizabeth Teague, Tyler Langendorfer and James Lofthouse

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