Aleksandr Podrabinek: Young actors, Liudmila Petrushevskaya, and state prizes

15 November 2021 

By Aleksandr Podrabinek

Source: Belsat TV

Life in Russia is almost always a struggle: for survival, for dignity, for work, for health, for the future of one’s children. Most people are so swallowed up by their own problems that other people’s no longer upset them. They don’t have the time and strength left for that. The absence of effective public solidarity is a godsend for authoritarianism. Only in such an environment can dictatorship flourish.

The political repressions that have intensified of late still give rise to protests, but mainly from audacious individuals with homemade posters, as well as human rights activists, politicians, and opposition journalists, that is, among the first candidates for the part of repressions’ victims. Support from public figures, people well known and authoritative in society, is at a tragically low level. Such instances are sufficiently rare and therefore well noted.

Early this year, the story of Aleksei Navalny gave rise to a major public outcry. Among those who spoke out in his defence were young Russian movie and television actors. For this they are now being pushed out of the profession. Contracts with them are being torn up, their names are being added to “blacklists,” and their scenes are being edited out of films and trailers. Doing this unseemly work are mainly their colleagues in the craft who justify themselves by the need to carry out investors’ wishes, to worry about the survival of the project, and to maintain their places in the profession. More or less acceptable justifications can always be found.

It is no surprise that some of those who came out in support of Navalny now regret that step, and many others are happy they so providently showed caution back then and did not join the protests. There is nothing unusual, nothing unique in this. It’s always been that way.


In the USSR, sometimes individual, sometimes dozens of figures from the scientific and creative intelligentsia famous throughout the country, protested political repressions at various times. For a country of 300 million, this was vanishingly few, but the effect of solidarity and the public response from each such act was disproportionately great. Each such challenge to the system put a dent in the state’s main weapon: the fear the Communists had implanted in society since the earliest postrevolutionary era and thanks to which alone the Communist dictatorship was able to hang on.

Today the situation in the country increasingly resembles the Soviet situation. In just the same way, the state is trying to make the people’s fear of the state their main guidepost for any public activity. This fear spreads through society, shackles initiative, and paralyzes wills. In just the same way, people gradually switch to a whisper, to “kitchen table” criticism.

In just the same way, people who write are starting to choose their own personal censor as their chief advisor, a censor who in essence is much stronger and destructive than the state’s. Due to fear of repression, more and more critics of the regime are choosing emigration, where they can loudly and bravely brand the authoritarian state without worrying about bad consequences for themselves.


On the backdrop of this panicked fear and loss of dignity, the act of the writer Liudmila Petrushevskaya is remarkable. As a sign of protest against the authorities’ intention to eliminate the human rights organization Memorial, she announced she was returning her State Prize. Some will say this is a trifle, that this takes no bravery, and that the effect from this is nil, but I object. 

By this act, Petrushevskaya clearly defines her position in the system of “state-society” coordinates. She moves herself away from the state at the distance essential for moral health, and what is no less important, she shows the people of her circle a very worthy example of preserving one’s own dignity. After all, ultimately, it is the absence among the overwhelming majority of our compatriots of a sense of their own dignity that allows our state to pull off what it has been so zealously doing this whole time of late.

Petrushevskaya’s act is a kind of attack. She is not defending herself, not calling for mercy for others. She is not asking for or even demanding anything. She is defining the limits of decency with respect to the authoritarian regime. These are her personal limits, of course, but she is a public figure, and therefore her personal act will have public significance.

I’m not going to fantasize on the theme of “what if all the relatively decent and scrupulous people in our country rejected their own state honors, prizes, and titles?” That really is a fantasy. They won’t. Among themselves they’ll curse the state and sympathize with the political prisoners, and then they’ll cozy up to the state and accept gifts and awards from it. This is exactly how many of our caustic satirists, favorite actors, virtuoso musicians, and honest professionals in their field have behaved in recent years. If it were otherwise, we would be living in a different country now.

Translated by Marian Schwartz

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