Viktor Kogan-Yasny: In Memory of Yury Orlov

8 November 2020

Viktor Kogan-Yasny, writer, political and civil society activist, advisor to the chair of the Yabloko party

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group

In memory of Yury Fedorovich Orlov

Now and in the future, as the memory of that time fades away, it is very important to accurately preserve not only the events of the lives of the heroic human rights defenders, but the context in which they worked and their ideas: glasnost [publicity, transparency], and the protection of human dignity and life.

It is very important to understand the mistakes of that time. I must say that the naivety of ideas about public life, a special kind of empiricism and sensibility in reasoning, a lack of understanding about the nature of possible changes in a totalitarian system – all these played a “bad joke” with many human rights defenders, and with the society that attentively followed their activities. The “do what you must and be what you will” approach is the only correct one in critical circumstances, but it is not enough when there is an opportunity for change. It is dangerous to remain in the past, when something else is at hand. 

We need a philosophy of change. I’m not afraid to say, perhaps even a theology of change

Because of naivety and excessive trust in words and in inputs from outside the country many of us thirty years ago went down the wrong road of unconditionally supporting the populist Yeltsin against the slow, introverted and bureaucratic Gorbachev. The results of this superficiality, our irresponsible naivety, were quickly felt and now feel irreversible. And now we need to look carefully at ourselves so as not to fall into the trap of following a narcissistic populist once again.

Human rights are, and will always be, fundamental in any society, as was the case fifty years ago. But the nature of global life, as we well know, is changing and not becoming any simpler. The “reference points” have vanished, there is no basis on which to make comparisons, “good” and “bad” are mixed up. In modern Russia, those who are now involved in the human rights movement are unlikely to risk everything as Soviet dissenters did, but the risks are significant, and we can rely on very few people outside our own society. The world has changed, progress is intertwined with crises and threats, everyone has their own problems. Despite the fact that a critically negative development of political culture in the United States has been avoided for the next four years, the “American dream” and the “American idea” are unlikely to ever be a reference point as a means of opposing anti-democratic ideologies. Therefore, many ideas and approaches will need to be developed from scratch.

One important idea that needs to be developed for practical implementation is the priority of defending victims of political prosecution. When the authorities bring a prosecute for political, selective motives, it’s always extremely bad. But it doesn’t just ruin the life of one specific person. It poisons the atmosphere in society. But it is impossible to protect everyone equally.  It’s necessary to have criteria on which to base active engagement on the part of civil society to protect the individuals concerned. I think that there are at least two criteria for this: 1) persons who are tortured, held in extremely difficult conditions, denied medical help, blackmailed with the help of the traditions of the criminal world; 2) persons who fight for the values of freedom, justice and human rights by peaceful, not provocative, means.  

An important idea for the future, a consolidating theme, is the future constitution of Russia. This issue has been around for thirty years, but after what our leader Putin did this year, it has become urgent. The time will come when the country will have to have a real constitution that is not contradictory but balanced, and one that can be directly legally enforced. And it is extremely important that this evolves naturally, and not as a result of the next major crisis. We already need to prepare for this now. Russia may go through through the process of having a constituent assembly, or the changes may be brought about within the formal framework of current procedures. But these changes are not only necessary but inevitable if a real opportunity for development emerges. We can’t build the future on the basis of being the successor state to the Soviet Union, but within the borders of the Russian Federation, living in complete uncertainty about the future of these very borders and while holding mutually exclusive positions on questions of state structure and the rights and obligations of citizens. I should say, that the Yabloko party, to which I belong, has developed a timely project which is called the ‘Constitution of Free People”. It needs both support and also constructive criticism. This is a very important initiative, which requires understanding and responsible development.

We need to expand the role of ‘activists of social and historical memory.’ The more allies the NGO Memorial has, the better things will certainly be. We need to fight to make ‘activism based on memory’ clearly and uncompromisingly government policy in this country, and then many issues of our time will be resolved.

Translated by James Lofthouse and Mercedes Malcomson

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