Aleksandr Podrabinek: The Benefit of Forgetfulness, or A Few Words about the Significance of Reputation

5 October 2021

By Aleksandr Podrabinek

Source: VotTak – Belsat TV

The younger generation – those who were born at the turn of the millennium – have little knowledge of, or interest in, Russia’s history. They are not even interested in the post-Soviet period, let alone Soviet times themselves! Their understanding of that era is all too often based on fragmentary eyewitness testimonies, excerpts from Soviet films, and stories from political crooks. This can give the impression that the Soviet past is safe, or even attractive.

But that’s only one of the problems. Another is the ease with which misdeeds committed during the Soviet era are forgotten, enabling their perpetrators to lead successful careers. The issue here is not revenge, but rather, the inevitable disappointment that awaits those who have placed their hope in today’s popular politicians and thought leaders.

Recently, there has been a public outcry over the news that Boris Kagarlitsky, a lecturer from the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences (Shaninka), was jailed for ten days for a conviction under the administrative code. The conviction was for encouraging participation in protests organised by the Communist Party of the Russian Federation. The press has portrayed him as a victim of the regime, which has won him widespread public sympathy. Some have touted him as one of tomorrow’s political leaders.

Meanwhile, few people know that in the late 1970s Kagarlitsky, together with his peers, ran a group of young socialist students in Moscow, and then gave them all up to the KGB at the first hint from the Cheka that he could face consequences. That said, most of his fellow socialists did exactly the same thing.

They all obeyed the Soviet authorities and were pardoned before standing trial, except for Mikhail Rivkin – a young man with a strong moral compass – who took the fall for all of them. Rivkin was consequently sentenced as a political prisoner to seven years in a camp and five years’ exile, which he served first in a maximum-security prison in Mordovia, and then in a closed prison in Chistopol. Meanwhile, Kagarlitsky now has a successful career teaching political science at Shaninka and has no fear about appearing in public.


Gleb Pavlovsky, with his dissident background, is seen by the public as a well-informed political scientist with a long-established reputation as an oppositionist. He is a frequent guest on the Ekho Moskvy radio station and the television channel Dozhd, where he is featured as an independent expert. It goes without saying that neither he nor the reporters on these progressive stations make mention of the time in the ’70s, when Pavlovsky betrayed his colleagues to the KGB.

In the summer of 1974, the KGB confiscated a copy of The Gulag Archipelago from an assistant professor at the University of Odessa. The frightened academic points the finger at Pavlovsky, who receives a standard warning from the KGB. Pavlovsky then writes “his own statement to the authorities”, and gives evidence against dissident Viacheslav Igrunov to the investigators. Among other things, this evidence is used to charge Igrunov of slander against the Soviet system. He is then sentenced to forced treatment in a psychiatric hospital.

The clouds thickened over Pavlovsky once again in 1980, and he writes a statement renouncing all political activity. Nevertheless, he is sentenced to exile, and the grateful Pavlovsky testifies against the Moscow dissident Aleksei Smirnov, who was accused of “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda” and was then sentenced to six years in camps and four years in exile. Not that the testimony openly incriminated Smirnov, but, as Smirnov himself says, these were “tricks and evasions,” a position of “maneuvering.” This is how Pavlovsky still maneuvers between the presidential administration and the liberal media, trying to please everyone as much as possible.


These crooks think that everyone has forgotten about their dirty deeds, that time has smoothed out the details. This often happens. When it comes to small-time scoundrels, the social toll is not that great. However, there are other cases … 

The well-known Georgian dissident Zviad Gamsakhurdia made a successful political career during perestroika. He led the Georgian national movement, was the chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Georgian SSR, and then, in May 1991, became the first president of Georgia.

But for some reason, everyone just “forgot” about his cooperation with the KGB. In the late 70s, Gamsakhurdia was the leader of the Georgian Helsinki Group, and a member of the Soviet Amnesty International group. He was arrested in April 1977, and a year later, in May 1978, at the trial he was humiliated and repented of his anti-Soviet activities, testifying against his accomplice Merab Kostava. He also made accusations against the first secretary of the US Embassy in the USSR, Igor Belousovich, American correspondents David Shipler and Alfred Friendly. With his usual eloquence, Gamsakhurdia explained to the court how he regretted his political mistakes.

Subsequently, what went on during that time was not considered to be of great significance to Georgian society. But in vain. After becoming the president of Georgia, he established an authoritarian regime, shot opposition demonstrators and invoked the emergency decree of 19 August 1991 on the disbandment of all illegal armed groups. This was the price of unconsciousness in Georgia.


In Russia, society has paid (and still is paying) the price for its forgetfulness. The current chair of the Supreme Court of Russia, Vyacheslav Lebedev, was a judge of the Moscow City Court in Soviet times. He convicted dissidents like Feliks Svetov and Elena Sannikova. Is it any wonder that a few years ago the Supreme Court under the leadership of Lebedev recognised the Jehovah’s Witnesses as an extremist organisation? He continues to do what he did in Soviet Times. A lifelong habit!

His other colleagues in political terror were less lucky, but they were also shown kindness by the Russian authorities. Valentina Lubentsova, chair of Moscow City Court, convicted many dissidents in the Soviet years, including Yury Orlov, Gleb Yakunin, participants in the legendary 1968 demonstration on Red Square Konstantin Babitsky, Larisa Bogoraz, Natalya Gorbanevskaya, Vadim Delaunay, Vladimir Dremlyuga, Pavel Litvinov, and many other participants in the democratic movement of the USSR.

One would think that Lubentsova would have suffered criminal punishment for her judicial-terrorist actions in the new Russia, but no – in April of this year she was awarded a ‘Veteran of the Judicial System’ badge of honor ‘for substantial contribution to the development and modernisation of the judicial system of the Russian Federation.’ Lubentsova is 97 years old now, but does age really preclude proper justice? In Germany, for example, the trial of 96-year-old Irmgard Furchner began several days ago. He is accused of complicity in the killing of more than 11,000 people in the Stutthof Nazi concentration camp in the years of the Second World War. The verdict may be anything, but a court should decide.


Tatyana Kotova, head physician of the Orlovsky Special Psychiatric Hospital of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the USSR, was personally responsible for the abuse and torture of political prisoners placed into her hospital by Soviet courts for compulsory treatment. One would think that disgrace would have descended upon her head when Russia entered upon a democratic path. But no – in 1995 President Yeltsin conferred on Colonel Kotova the title of ‘Honoured Physician of Russia’ for ‘many years of diligent work.’

The idea that we will not build a new country without having cleaned away old pollution has already become common knowledge. Everyone understands this. Our authorities build an old country, therefore the old vices from Soviet times continue to be nourished and cherished in every way.

Some hope remains that civil society will do what it ought to do and take upon itself responsibility for the informal vetting of corrupt officials. Soviet scumbags should be met with public disdain, excluded from decent society and rejected from the life of our society. But this will not happen. Contemporaries are for the most part unconcerned with the crimes of the past and forgiving toward these scoundrels. For the latter, this chance at restoration and personal success is a new path toward the old order.

Translated by Judith Fagelson, James Lofthouse and Alyssa Rider

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