31 October 2023
On October 30, Russia is reviving a tradition that even 20 years back seemed like it belonged in textbooks on USSR history. On Monday, Russian political prisoners and those showing solidarity held a hunger strike protest. Soviet dissidents first fought for their rights with this tactic almost half a century ago, in 1974. Since 1991, October 30 has been the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Political Repression in the USSR.
Today, Russian political prisoners are calling on us to use this day to fight for their rights. One of the most famous Soviet dissidents, Aleksandr Podrabinek, who was sentenced in 1978 to five years in exile for his human rights activities, and in January 1981 was sent to a penal colony for three and a half years, was among those who joined the symbolic hunger strike. He spent most of his sentence in a punitive isolation cell. In 1987, Podrabinek became head of one of the most influential uncensored publications in the country, the weekly Ekspress-Khronika.
In an interview with Spectr magazine, Aleksandr Pinkhosovich discussed how detention conditions for Soviet political prisoners differed from modern conditions, how the dissident movement influenced the fate of the USSR, and how many Russians support the war today.
— Is it true that the KGB had no idea that the first hunger strike was being organized for October 30, 1974? And was there any symbolic meaning behind this date?
— Until the hunger strike was announced, the KGB knew nothing. At the very least there’s no indication that the Chekists were aware of it. Otherwise there would have been some sort of action in response.
— How did you participate in the Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Political Repression in exile and in the camp?
— I participated in a symbolic hunger strike while not in prison, as a sign of support of the political prisoners’ demands. We gathered in the homes of various dissidents, and we ate nothing. This was a symbolic hunger strike, of course.
Then I landed in a criminal camp, not a political one. I didn’t do the hunger strike there. Strictly speaking, there was no one to do it for.
— Did this form of protest have any sort of effect in camps for political prisoners?
— Yes, it did, judging by the way the prison and camp administrations reacted to it, the way the KGB reacted. In many cases, the hunger strike lasted from October 30 to November 7. Until the celebration of yet another anniversary of the October Revolution. This was a sacred day for the authorities, and they reacted quite sharply to a hunger strike being held at that time.
Sometimes concessions were made, but this often led to a tightening of the regime as well. The main demand of the hunger strike was the recognition of the status of political prisoners. In addition, the protesters sought to be allowed not to wear prison clothes and to read books. The idea was to make the conditions less severe. In some cases, the camp administration made concessions, while in other cases, they clamped down. There were different responses.
— If we compare the conditions political prisoners are in today and in the conditions of your time, when was the system tougher?
— If we take a look at the details, the penitentiary system on the whole is not as harsh now as it was in Soviet times. For example, there is no more lowering of nutritional standards. Prisoners in isolation units are fed every day, whereas before they were given food every other day. Now lawyers are allowed from the moment the first interrogation begins, whereas before they were only allowed after the prosecutor’s office closed the case.
But in some ways, the situation has remained the same. For example, torture and beatings. Not much has changed in those regards. True, I do not mean special camps for political prisoners, just prison camps in general. Nowadays political prisoners are in general camps too. There are no special ‘political’ camps.
— Where do you think Russian society currently is on the timeline: in 1982, 1962, or has it already made it to 1952?
Well, again, you see, it varies. In some respects, we aren’t far off 1982, but in others we’re back in 1952. I mean, if we’re talking about the system of repression, the grounds for reprisals now are similar to those used in the Stalin era. Back then, people were locked up for telling jokes, and now it’s for ‘liking’ posts – for what they call “discrediting the army” and other “rubber stamp” charges where the evidence is flimsy. This is well within the norms of Stalinist repression.
When it comes to prison terms, these are on average shorter than they were under Stalin. Back then, 10, 15, and 25 years were considered normal. Such cases are less common now. Prison terms are generally up to 10 years, but this doesn’t mean you don’t get longer ones, like the kind they give to Jehovah’s Witnesses or political activists. Think of Aleksei Navalny or Vladimir Kara-Murza with his 25-year sentence – you do get cases like that, too. Overall, though, there is every indication that we’re drifting into the Stalin era.
— Do you agree with the proposition that dissidents in the Soviet era made no impact in the USSR, even though they showed others by example that there are people in the country who call it like they see it?
There’s an inherent contradiction in this argument: if they showed all of society, this must mean that they still had some effect on public opinion, mustn’t it?
— The suggestion here is that this effect was visible to a very small minority.
I don’t think so. Not to boast about the successes of the democratic movement, but the information that came from the dissidents, plus the personal example they set by resisting, were widely known in the country. This was mainly down to samizdat and Western radio, which broadcast in Russian. People listened to it everywhere. You could even spot people listening to these programmes on the bus or train. I think the public mood was largely determined by the activities of the dissidents.
It had little to no political impact at the time; the chances of the democratic movement exerting political influence were negligible, of course. Still, thanks to the dissidents, the public mood developed in such a way that once the communist regime began to falter, it then went to pieces easily enough and surprisingly quickly. I think this happened largely due to the public mood brought about by the dissidents.
— At present, according to various estimates, around 20% of Russians hold an anti-war stance. Given time, is this minority capable of bringing about regime change in the country?
I don’t agree with such assessments. My sense is that the vast majority of people do not support the war in Ukraine. Sadly, though, they’re afraid to say it out loud. I would say just 20% of people support the regime. It relies on law enforcement, security agencies, officials, and people whose wellbeing depends on government coffers, you might say, but I expect most people condemn this war. You can tell from the mood in society, on the street, everywhere.
Whether they can actually influence things is quite another matter. Russian society these days doesn’t have the peaceful levers of influence on the government that are commonly used in democratic countries. There’s no electoral system, no political parties, no freedom to demonstrate – no such toolkit exists in Russia today, so the options open to society are very limited.
There are people who go in for solo protests, quite a few of them. Reliable figures suggest there are over 700 political prisoners alone. I think there are actually more than that. Such protests have a certain influence on the public consciousness and mood, of course, but real political change isn’t really possible with this level of repression. Society and political activity are paralysed in such hardline dictatorships.