Aleksandr Daniel: ‘Today’s opposition is much larger than in the Soviet era’ 

16 May 2023

an interview with Aleksandr Daniel – by Zoya Svetova

Source: Perm Centre for Historical Memory [original source: Novaya gazeta]

Can we compare present-day dissidents with Soviet dissidents? What do they have in common? How is the third “wave” of emigration similar to, and how does it differ from, the most recent “wave”? What is the difference between Soviet and Russian justice? We talk about this with Aleksandr Daniel, a historian of the dissident movement.

In the last year in Russia, political articles have appeared in the Criminal Code, and the number of political prisoners has increased. Can we compare their number with the period of the dissident movement of the late 1960s through 1980s?

I myself have not worked on present-day calculations. But those who have—my colleagues, Memorial’s human rights activists (Memorial has been deemed a “foreign agent” and liquidated by decision of the court – Ed.)—say that the number of present-day Russian political prisoners, at least those who have had criminal charges brought against them, already exceeds the total number of Soviet political prisoners in the first half of the 1980s, before perestroika began.

But if we talk not only about the number of political prisoners but about what type of people they are, their social identification, do they or do they not resemble Soviet dissidents?

It seems to me that today’s antiwar and anti-regime protest is already much broader than the opposition there was in the dissident era. The number of political prisoners is only one parameter, but even if we limit ourselves to the mold we get of the antiwar movement from the picture of repressions, then there are also a huge number who have been held administratively liable, and altogether that comes to a great deal more. Recently, I think I saw the number of 20,000 being held administratively liable (since 24 February 2022. – Ed.).

In the dissident era, there were two categories of political repressions: criminal repressions and so-called prophylactic ones. According to historians of the dissident movement, the ratio of “prophylactics” to those arrested on political charges was 20:1. That is, for every person arrested and convicted there were 20 prophylactic cases.

Prophylactic cases. Who are they?

Those are the people who had admonitory conversations at the KGB. Those were the “talking-tos” at their place of work or study along Party-Komsomol lines; those meant being fired from a job or expelled from an institute.

And of course, these was the so-called “warning” on the 25 December 1972 order of the Presidium of the Supreme Court of the Soviet Union. All this taken together was called prophylactics according to the classification of the day.

If in the last years before perestroika there were 300-500 convicted (not counting those stashed in psych hospitals), then, multiplying by 20, we get 8000-10,000 people. It turns out that the present opposition is numerically much larger than in dissident times. And that’s only those they’ve gotten their hands on. But after all, today’s protest has a fairly significant nonpublic, anonymous component: graffiti, leaflets, and so on. That’s protest, too!

Not only that, the social context has changed. What was the social context for Soviet dissidents in the classic understanding of the word? Primarily, the intelligentsia in the capitals. Not only, of course. I can cite many examples of provincial dissent, and “low-class” dissent, and spontaneous dissident actions committed by isolated individuals not connected with any communities. But for the most part people lived and acted in the sphere of the intelligentsia in the capitals. Who were not only elite. The dissident movement also had people from mass intellectual professions—teachers, engineers, and doctors. But now, it seems to me, opposition to the regime has gone beyond that circle.

And the destruction of Memorial and the Moscow Helsinki Group, the shutting down of the Sakharov Centre* and others—isn’t that all the fight against dissent? One gets the feeling that those involved in this, those who ban these institutions, are acting in a way from Soviet-era templates. Or am I wrong?

I think that’s true. Like the way in the early 1980s they destroyed the Moscow Helsinki Group and lots of other human rights organizations, such as the Working Commission on the Abuse of Psychiatry for Political Purposes and the Committee for the Defence of Believers’ Rights. The Fund for the Aid of Political Prisoners was driven underground. The Chronicle of Current Events ceased publication and nearly all the samizdat journals and their editors relocated. At least in Russia in the first half of the 1980s, in about 1984, the dissident movement was atomized. It wasn’t quite like that in Ukraine and not at all like that in Lithuania, but in the Russian Federation that’s exactly how it was.

The same thing is happening now. MHG, Memorial, the Sova Centre,* and many others have been shut down.

This is the same reflex Andropov adopted back in the 1970s, when he told the Politburo of the Soviet Communist Party that it was essential to destroy the possibility of the appearance in the Soviet Union of a “legal opposition” (this was his expression).

He considered the rise of dissident organizations to be an attempt to create this very same “legal opposition.” That is what he feared. And they fear the same thing. In that last turn in our nation’s history there was no particular pause between the destruction of the legal opposition and the beginning of perestroika. What would have happened if the legal opposition had not been destroyed and perestroika hadn’t begun is hard to say. But we can assume that an illegal opposition would have arisen. I think it entirely possible that if the present marasmus drags on, then a significant segment of oppositional activity will go there.

But after all, back then dissident organizations were shutting down because people were being imprisoned almost en masse and the organizations were bled white. Now, though, that’s not the case.

Why do you say that? Arrests are taking place now, too. Literally a few days ago they arrested our colleague Aleksandr Chernyshev from Perm Memorial—true, for 15 days for now. Or the utterly unprecedented case—nothing like this has ever happened before—when someone was imprisoned for a performance that was produced and running on stage. I’m talking about the case of Zhenya Berkovich and Svetlana Petriichuk. Their next step will be to put people in prison for already published books. I think this option is entirely possible. That they take, for example, a book published in 1995 and put the author in prison. Without ceremony.

The main difference in today’s repressive policies is that a lot of the restrictions that existed in Soviet times have been lifted. For example, physical violence during investigations. Yes, it happened occasionally that dissidents got into the ‘press-chambers’ (like, for example, Sergei Khodorovich in 1983), but still there was no systematic use of torture against those arrested for political reasons. And now we have this.

With Navalny?

Yes, Navalny is a very important example of how they put the squeeze on someone. But I mean torture during the investigation: plastic bags on the head, electroshock, and so on – it is enough to recall the ‘Network’ case. I have a feeling that the prohibitions and restrictions that existed in late Soviet times have now been lifted. What will come next, it is difficult to say. Nothing good.

Many say that the political repressions of today no longer recall the Brezhnev-Andropov times, but those of Stalin. Do you agree with this?

The Stalinist terror was distinguished not only by brutality, but by mass scale. Now, it seems to me that by this criterion the repression lags behind the Stalinist period: after all, we are not talking about hundreds of thousands of people, as in the period of the Great Terror, but ‘merely’ hundreds of people.

There is one other unique feature of today’s repressions: they unfold in the background of (…) and in connection with (…). True, in the 1980s there was Afghanistan. But Afghanistan did not provoke mass antiwar protest; then protesters stood alone. This is not so now: now thousands protest, in one form or another, and if we include here last year’s mass exodus from Russia (this is, of course, also a form of protest), then we are already talking about hundreds of thousands.

And this is despite the fact that (…) still has not entered into everyday life: many still do not understand that many people will die on both sides. But gradually this understanding is growing. And if there are any economic shocks, this will become understood by everyone. (…) also makes its mark on repression. Investigators, cops, FSB officers – they understand this, they feel themselves to be people (…). And they themselves believe that more is permitted of them, and I think that more really is permitted of them. All will hang on where this shifting of the boundaries of what is permitted ends, on how events develop. Let’s remember that in Chechnya lawlessness took root a long time ago; people there have long lived in a situation of terror. And even before the current (…) lawlessness of the ‘Chechen model’ began to spread to other regions of Russia.

And if we speak about the courts today and in dissident times, what is the difference?

The same, with repressions and with investigations. The courts today, to a much greater extent, break every rule in the book. What was the mistake of Soviet authorities with human rights defenders? Human rights defenders said: you are breaking your laws. And they tried to say that they were not breaking them, but acting according to the law. This turned out poorly for them, because in reality, they were not acting according to the law. But they tried at least to fend off the human rights defenders who accused them of lawlessness. They referred to the content of the penal articles and tried to prove that the actions of those who they tried fell under those articles. There was an imitation of evidence.

And today’s – they don’t even try. They don’t prove anything. They don’t need to prove anything. They don’t care. If you look at trial records from that time, the communication between the court and lawyers still looked like some kind of dialogue.

On one side – poorly educated, crass, prejudiced, obviously biased. The other side honestly tried to defend its position. But today there are not two sides.

There are the accused and the lawyers, who say obvious things, and there is the court, which just does not listen to them and does not hear them.

Interesting, it seemed to me that even then there was no dialogue between the court and the defence. But in Soviet times, human rights defenders, defending political prisoners, appealed to the West, the West negotiated with Soviet leaders, and sometimes something worked out. And now what?

A very important point. You can appeal to the West as much as you like now too and all the more so since it’s technically simpler these days. Now, though, the authorities couldn’t give a toss about the West. They’re not developing a policy of détente as they were in the 1970s. They’re not even in a state of cold war as they were until the start of détente or after 1979 when détente came to an end. Now they believe (or, at the very least, proclaim) that they’re fighting the whole western world. And they couldn’t give a toss for international organisations, either – the UN, the Council of Europe, the OSCE, the speeches of Western leaders. Nor are Western leaders bothered, they’re not interested in the fate of Russian opposition activists.

What is to be done in that case?

I’m certainly no life coach and I’ve never been able to answer the “what is to be done” question. I don’t know what’s to be done. All I can do is recall that in times gone by the reaction of the public abroad was no less important to dissidents than the reaction of Western politicians. After all, it wasn’t so much about what help protests from abroad would offer people suffering from repression here. What mattered was the actual feeling that you weren’t on your own, that you had support and not only in Russia but all over the world. I think that psychologically it is extremely important for someone against whom the machine of repression has been brought to bear to not feel that they’re on their own.

International solidarity is important in itself, irrespective of whether it’s any or much help to those being persecuted. And I think this can now be conveyed to public opinion in the West. Although that’s difficult too because the attention of people abroad is focused on (…) as such, on the deaths of civilians and quite right too. And saying, while this is going on, “We in Russia are also being wronged, come to our defence” – is very difficult. Some will respond by saying: “You are being wronged – as well you might. It serves you right,” – and in a certain sense they’re right. Others say, “Yes, we’re sorry for you too but it’s more important for us to help Ukrainian refugees and victims (…),” and they’re right too. I think the same myself.
But all the same, we must not forget about Sasha Skochilenko, Zhenya Berkovich, Vladimir Kara-Murza*, Aleksei Navalny, Yury Dmitriev and dozens of others. There are still people abroad and in Europe who are not indifferent to what’s going on in Russia. At least, I hope there are. We in Memorial are in constant contact with our counterparts abroad and they are doing a very great deal not just for Ukrainian but for Russian refugees too, and they are able to do a lot for those who’ve landed up in Europe. I’m hoping the European public has sufficient energy for acts of solidarity – even if only symbolic – with Russian political prisoners as well.

Is the attitude of those who’ve left to those who’ve stayed in Russia similar to that of Soviet émigrés to those who stayed in the USSR back then?

No, it’s not, unfortunately. It’s an interesting topic, the difference between the so-called “third wave of emigration” that occurred in the 1970s and this current “fourth wave” (I’m not counting the waves of immigration that took place between these because it seems to me that, rather than political, this was economic and professional emigration). What is the difference?

Firstly, the current wave is far less homogeneous than the third wave because different people left in February and March last year and that same autumn. Some left because they could no longer breathe, others left because of (partial – ed.) mobilisation. These are slightly different reasons at the end of the day although I believe that both can, to different extents, be ascribed to protest motivation (“I don’t want to die in (…)” – after all, this too is a kind of protest).

Second, of course, there were quarrels and squabbles within the third wave of Soviet emigration. And now Russian emigration is torn apart by squabbles for some ludicrous reasons, all kinds of reasons. (It seems that any emigrant community, not just the Russian one, is prone to squabbles and strife — read My Past and Thoughts!) But there is a completely new phenomenon: some (and I think it’s still far from the majority of those who left) condemn those who stayed behind for staying. And some of those who stayed behind are condemning those who left for leaving. I don’t recall anything like that. No, I do, of course. There was Igor Rostislavovich Shafarevich. In 1974, he wrote a feature-length article in the collection From Under the Rubble, accusing those who left of not loving Russia, even of hating it. Still, Shafarevich was a rare piece of work; my father wrote a long article in response, which was printed in Le Monde and reprinted in Russkaya mysl’ in Paris. And in general, the émigré community seemed to side more with Yuli Markovich Daniel than with Shafarevich.

On the other hand, the Soviet emigrants of that time, no matter how much they quarreled among themselves, when it came to talking about those who remained — about persecution against them — they were all united, if you will, in speaking out, regardless of whether it was for Sinyavsky or Lubarsky, or Maksimov, Bukovsky, or even Solzhenitsyn. They were always united in support of the persecuted in Russia.

This is no longer the case.

People are asking: Why didn’t you leave? Why in the world should we stand up for you? You idiots didn’t leave (or even: you bastards didn’t leave). The fact that people like this exist — there aren’t many of them, but they exist — distinguishes the “fourth wave” from the “third wave.”

Why didn’t you leave?

My son keeps asking me why I’m not leaving. And I find it very difficult to answer this question. First of all, I’m afraid of falling into pathos. And secondly, I really don’t know what my motives are. I’d probably need to go to a psychoanalyst to figure out my motives. Maybe my reasons are full of pathos and are trite and pointless to talk about. Or maybe it’s because I’m old and there’s nothing for me abroad. Emigration requires a certain amount of courage and strength; I have neither in sufficient quantity. All I could do there would be live out the last of my years, so to speak. Whereas here, on the other hand, I can live. I’m actually doing something here, after all. Maybe I’m doing some good, too. Another question is, can I do all that much here? Not really. There’s not much any of us can do.

There are also purely domestic reasons. I’m used to things here. I’ve lived my whole life here, so why should I take off and leave? I don’t know, I can’t put together a coherent response.

And then, even back then, I understood that those who left were a part of us, even though in those days going abroad was seen as leaving for another world entirely. But even then I understood that many relatives and loved ones ended up abroad, and they understood that many relatives and loved ones remained at home, in their home country, and that this curtain, this worn-out and threadbare curtain, could not separate us permanently. All the more so today. We’re in a different era, with different technology. Now I talk to my son almost every day on Zoom. This separation is not as black-and-white as it was back then. And I still believe that we are united, those who left and those who stayed.

* Designated by the Russian authorities as a ‘foreign agent’
** Designated by the Russian authorities as ‘terrorist’ and banned in Russia

Translated by Marian Schwartz, Alyssa Rider, Melanie Moore and Nina dePalma

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