17 May 2020
By Natella Boltyanskaya, journalist and laureate of a Moscow Helsinki Group award, marks the 70th birthday of the late dissident, writer and nonconformist Valeriya Novodvorskaya, one of the most brilliant figures of Russian politics
On 17 May Valeriya Novodvorskaya would have been 70. She was young, bold and fearless until her last day despite her 150 kilograms and her various infirmities. Once having been on a dry hunger strike, she repeated the experience many times. Lera herself often talked about this – in her book A Catcher in the Lie [Над пропастью во лжи], in conversations that were filmed and those that weren’t, and chatting as we travelled somewhere by car.
Everyone who lived at that time lived through the same sequence of events. At first, Brodsky’s trial. But I don’t remember that very well. First of all, because it was in St Petersburg. Secondly, there was very little publicity. And I wasn’t part of that crowd. Thirdly, I was 14 years old. And as for the Daniel and Sinyavsky trial, they wrote about that wittily themselves. They wrote so much about it that everyone knew… It made people think. And finally – Czechoslovakia. At that point everything became clear. And then you create an underground student organisation – and the sky’s the limit!
What came next
‘Out of naivety it seemed to me it was as though I was waking someone up (the Decembrists, Herzen, the People’s Will). It only remained to set the alarm clock. I developed a plan for my operation , ‘Trust’, not very honest, but not very stupid: it was cooler to distribute leaflets publicly, at the Palace of Congresses or another theatre during some public festivities in the name of an organisation entitled Resistance that claimed to have widespread support; to allow oneself to be arrested; during the investigation, without naming anyone in particular, to say that there is a mass organisation called Resistance fighting against the regime and it will soon launch a series of acts of terrorism; to frighten (sic!) these Chekists, to accuse them to their faces in the name of three generations of people they had destroyed, to denounce the regime in an open (what perfect simplicity!) court, to make sure I would be sentenced to death, to inspire people with hope, to suffer the highest penalty like my adored Gadfly. And then, instead of a fictive organisation, real ones will be created, they’ll spring up like mushrooms: people will be ashamed that they had been silent, and everyone would rise up. The plan completely failed to take reality into account, but in every other way was excellent’ (from the book Catcher in the Lie [Над пропастью во лжи].
‘I got the idea with the theatre one evening I was at the Operetta Theatre and a programme fell down from one of the boxes or balconies. Everyone where I was sitting raised their heads, their eyes shining greedily, and one person in the audience even said quietly, ‘And what if it had been something else?’ I understood that people were waiting for something like that. The theatre is an ideal variant, you can throw lots of leaflets at the same time, no one will be able to stop you and they will spread out perfectly.
The decision was made, a day was chosen: 5 December, Constitution Day. The Palace of Congresses, with its grandiose hall, coupled with it being Constitution Day, promised to be the ideal backdrop. All that was left to do was come up with the text. For some leaflets it was written in prose form (crimes of the party, the merits of democracy, the objectives of the Resistance, the need for an armed struggle against communism, which is fascism, an invitation to join the Resistance). This masterpiece was signed “The Moscow Resistance Group”. The tone of the text was rather acerbic; it talked about events in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. It was fairly moving (to an extent), but not funny. Despair sucks the life out of blind optimism, but confidence in victory under the Soviet “societal and state” system is nevertheless conveyed.
‘Tossing leaflets around doesn’t take much effort – they scatter easily. They avidly seize them in the stalls and people are quick to shove them in their pockets. I had 128 leaflets on me and just 42 were handed in. People stashed away all the rest. The opera “Oktyabr” (“October”) isn’t the best of its kind, but it is symbolic. Naturally, a bit of training was needed. I spent a great deal of time practising how to best throw the leaflets out. I didn’t want them to fall in a bunch, I wanted them to spread out. I made a point of doing this before the performance began. That way, people would still be able to watch the performance. I planned to do it just at the start of teh show, when everyone had come in from the buffet, but the performance had yet to begin.
‘If at the age of 19 I had known that it was all a waste of time, I would probably have set myself on fire in the square (and the successful ones were very few, most ended up being arrested and put in special prisons), but I wouldn’t have been able to put up a fight. In the beginning ignorance is bliss. Now I know everything, but now I can live with it in anticipation of that happy day when I finally provoke such irritation among my adversaries that I can die with this achievement (and because of it). But back then I didn’t believe my wise teachers, and thank God for that.‘
The trial took place without the defendant present, since she was declared criminally insane and therefore unfit to stand trial following an assessment by the Serbsky Institute that diagnosed her as having ‘Schizophrenia. Paranoid personality disorder.’ In his closing speech, the prosecutor likened Novodvorkskaya’s actions to those of terrorists, shooting at astronauts (“Chronicle of Current Events, Issue No. 13).
However, along the way Novodvorskaya encountered worthy opponents. In her understanding of the term.
“I respect you so much I would have had you shot on the spot“
‘He was a major in the 108th division. His father was killed in 1937 and he harboured rather hostile feelings toward the authorities. […] He once paid us a compliment, saying , “What’s 15 days? I respect you so much, I would have had you shot on the spot.” And he clearly set out a measuring scale that is applicable today: if you have 100,000 people take to the streets, I will order my men to stand respectfully in line, and in no way whatsoever intervene. If you bring 300,000 to 500,000 people on to the streets, I’ll lock my men up, and we will all sit there and no of us will go out onto the street. But if you have a million people on the streets, then I’ll take off my uniform and go with you”.’
On 8th May 1988, Novodvorskaya became one of the founders of the Democratic Union, the first opposition party in the USSR. From 1987 to May 1991, without permission from the Moscow authorities, she organized anti-Soviet rallies and demonstrations, for which she was detained by the police and subjected to administrative arrests on a total of seventeen occasions.
Sometimes these arrests were memorable in themselves.
Ordered to release me
‘Suddenly, the investigators, having previously caught Igor Tsarkov and myself with leaflets, said “Sit down and write that you will never ever again engage in anti-state activities, and then we can close the case and discontinue the disciplinary measures against you.”
‘This meant a provocation. I sat down and wrote that, firstly, I would continue anti-Soviet activity, secondly, I did not repent of anything, and, thirdly, (I was so scared) that I even considered that in some instances acts of terror would be legitimate against comrades from the Politburo and from the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
‘I just didn’t know what else to write to stop them releasing me… They read everything… and they left. Then they came back, two hours later, looking very green. And said they didn’t understand anything but they had been ordered, in any case, to release me… I said that I wouldn’t go, I demanded a copy of all the interrogation records, and they handed them to me. They literally pushed me out. of the door.
‘I found myself in the courtyard of Lefortovo prison and waited for Tsarkov. And, poor old Tsarkov, they broke him by saying: ”Look, Novodvorskaya is out on the street freezing cold and waiting for you!”…
‘At that moment I was wondering where I could go to drown myself. But, thank God, I thought to ring Larissa Bogoraz, and she said that drowning was off the agenda as Gorbachev had ordered that all investigations under Article 70 of the Criminal Code in which women were suspects to be closed, and those involving Tsarkov along with them…‘
In private life Lera was good-natured, curious, naïve and kind-hearted. Tsarkov mentioned that he once had a black terrier named Abbas, whom Lera adored and bravely took out for a walk. It was brave, because, having found himself free of his master’s presence, Abbas with all his heart tugged on the leash and flew about on his dog’s business, dragging hapless Lera along the ground. This act of treachery had no effect on her love for the dog.
She would come into the offices of Ekho Moskvy with the words “Hello, my lovelies!” and hand sweets round to everyone from the editor-in-chief to the security guard. One day she sent me a fair-sized can of black caviar for my birthday. I was horrified and tried to pay back this bribe. I called her in terrible anger. The inimitable contralto responded by pronouncing: “My kitten, well, I like to feel I’m your very own Savva Morozov.”
She was terribly fond of all sorts of beautiful trinkets, perfumes, and scarves. She taught me that trainers should be chosen as carefully as a car.
She adored my husband’s fried potatoes. The last time she asked to visit our home “for potatoes” was four days before she was admitted to hospital.