All dissidents now: Russia's protests and the mirror of history


THE CEELBAS DEBATE // How far does the current clash between the opposition and authorities reflect Russia's history of dissidence?  Tom Rowley considers the importance of the similarities and differences. 

Thomas Rowley
29 March 2013

As a New Year's gift to political prisoners past and present, the radical art group Voina [Rn. War] set a police detention van on fire in Saint Petersburg in celebration of New Year 2012. In an effort to resurrect a spirit of resistance against continuing state oppression, Voina dedicated its action to dissident writers who died in prison camps during the 1970s and 1980s. The past year has seen a return of late Soviet images into Russian political and cultural life.

Although these images were present before, the protests have reinvigorated a range of historical symbols as opposition groups, their supporters and their opponents attempt to gain purchase on the situation at hand. Rightly or wrongly, for a range of different groups and individuals, the struggle of dissidents against Soviet power has become a historical source of experience, understanding and symbolism for contemporary protest. 

‘The rising profile of political prisoners, 'Stalinist'-style justice for protest figures, Brezhnevite stagnation and revolutionary romanticism has been met with a wave of interest in past dissident experiences.’

Perhaps unsurprisingly, as tempers cool and the screws tighten, New Year 2013 has seen a different kind of activity. The need for compassion, sincerity and ethical behaviour was evident on Novopushkinsky Square as people wrote to prisoners held in connection with the Bolotnaya protests, Pussy Riot and other opposition cases. The rising profile of political prisoners, 'Stalinist'-style justice for protest figures, Brezhnevite stagnation and revolutionary romanticism has been met with a wave of interest in past dissident experiences. 

December of our discontent 

The initial burst of activity in December 2011 on Bolotnaya Square and then Sakharov Avenue provided instant symbols to galvanise protest. For the demonstrators, the move out on to the public square to protest against the false elections and the Putin administration paralleled the 1825 Decembrist revolt against the accession of Nicholas I. The use of the term 'Decembrist' as justification and identification for those involved echoes a strong tradition of dissident interest in that ill-fated group of nobles. If the 'Decembrist' tag made the thirst for revolt clear, then the mass protests on Sakharov Avenue lent liberals a sense of destiny: demands for democracy made a symbolic return to their spiritual home in the form of human rights activist and nuclear physicist, Andrei Sakharov. In January 2012, the lament over the absence of the figure of Sakharov from public life was resumed. Later, in August 2012, Sakharov's statue in Saint Petersburg became a focal point for protesting the charges against those arrested during the violence on Bolotnaya Square in May: photographs, flowers, and candles were laid at the foot of the 'father' of modern Russian democracy. 


The location of the second mass protest - on an avenue named after human rights activist Andrei Sakharov - gave protestors a sense of destiny and an immediate link to the Soviet past. Photo (cc) flickr/simesimon

Moulded into a key part of Russian culture over the past 180 years, the Decembrists were important for 1960s intellectuals as practical and symbolic models of resistance. This took many forms, including the 1975 demonstration on Leningrad’s Senate Square in honour of the 150th anniversary of the revolt, which named the Decembrists as the 'First Dissidents of Russia.' One of the most famous incarnations was the 1968 verse 'Petersburg Romance' by the guitar-poet and playwright Alexander Galich. This song focuses on the inner torment of the conspirators before they went out on to Senate Square:

Our era is testing us.
Can you go out on the square?
Do you dare go out on the square 
At the agreed time?

Written a few days after Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia in August 1968, Galich's verse came to evoke parallels between the Decembrists' move on to the square and the demonstration against the Soviet invasion by eight protesters on Red Square in Moscow. Galich's poem has since become a classic of Sixties bard [singer-songwriter] poetry, but it gained a fresh relevance as the Russian authorities continued to pressurise the opposition and their supporters while Putin resumed power for a third term. Its public performance [in Russian] by poetry-lovers in May 2012 in front of St. Isaac’s Cathedral in Saint Petersburg demonstrates the relevance of poetry for spreading a sense of common cause and feeling among the critically minded. 

Dissent past and present

Public poetry and dissent have something of a common history. Soon after the addition of a monument to the poet himself in 1958, Mayakovsky Square in Moscow became a hotbed of poetry-reading for rebellious youths. The sense of togetherness, the chance to find people with similar opinions and to exchange manuscripts made Mayakovsky Square an important meeting-ground for future dissidents and their supporters.The role of Mayakovsky Square in the creation of a generation of intellectuals who used poetry to engage critically with Soviet power remains relevant for rebellious youth today. The resumption of poetry readings at Mayakovsky Square began in 2009 alongside attempts to create a new opposition in the form of the Strategy-31 initiative which also meets on the square. The poetry meetings have increased in frequency since the December and May protests. Among other things, the reprise of the Mayakovsky Readings fused political with moral protest, as they did in the late 1950s, providing a platform for those disenchanted with consumer capitalism and its effects on Russian culture. 

Yet the continuing sense of legitimate rebellion saw the search for legitimacy dig deeper. The 200th anniversary of Alexander Herzen's birth in April 2012 stimulated reflections on the links between the progressive 19th century intelligentsia, dissidents and contemporary protests. (After all, as Lenin said,  'The Decembrists woke up Herzen. Herzen began the work of revolutionary agitation. This was taken up by the revolutionary raznochintsy [intellectuals not belonging to the aristocracy].') The search for legitimacy was largely provoked by accusations against the opposition of disloyalty and a lack of patriotism and it led to a concerted effort to reinforce the links between patriotism and dissent. Indeed, one has to take into account the propaganda linking dissidents and foreign-sponsored forces with the end and aftermath of the Soviet Union. In a strange way, 1991 becomes an indirect vindication of years of Soviet paranoia regarding outside threats. Responding to the loss of empire and economic guarantees during the 1990s, Lev Krasnopevtsev, a dissident Marxist historian who had been imprisoned in the late 1950s, said that his group 'never dreamed the Soviet Union would collapse.' As we can see, the image of dissidents (and particularly human rights defenders) is in need of rehabilitation for it to become palatable. 

In this vein, Andrei Loshak named Alexander Herzen 'Dissident Number One' on the front page of  Ogonyok magazine in April 2012.The television and print journalist went on to list the parallels between dissidents, protesters and Herzen: they were all linked by conscience, nobility of spirit, decisiveness and non-violence. The point was clear: regardless of whether you live under Tsarism or late Socialism, the anxieties over speaking out, emigration and co-operation with the 'system' remain the same. Loshak suggested direct parallels between prominent dissident figures and today's protest leaders. Yet the real similarity, he argued, was in the need for a 'conscious minority' (i.e. Herzen's 'educated minority') to act as mediators when the interests of the state and the people are out of sync. Here, though, the apparent lack of moral authority on the side of the protesters prevented their protest from achieving broader appeal. After all, the past two decades has seen democratic politics in opposition consistently undermined from within and without through scandal, fragmentation and defeat, at least, in the war of words. 

The crisis of authority  

Yet the problem with moral authority, as the writer Ol'ga Slavnikova pointed out during Oleg Shein's hunger strike against alleged electoral fraud in Astrakhan, might be that 'no one's word is authoritative'. Despite the Russian love of martyrs and a number of prominent cases, the idea of political martyrdom has become devalued as an effective form of resistance when cynicism prevails.  Consider the response to attempts at making Sergey Magnitsky into a figure of resistance against the apparent moral and economic corruption deep inside the Russian state: allegations of corruption against high-ranking bureaucrats were quickly transformed back into accusations against Magnitsky himself. In this instance, the 'blame game' rhetoric regarding Western-backed privatisation and economic collapse of the 1990s can quickly be adapted against many figures of the opposition. 

At the same time, critics such as Ilya Budraitskis (link in Russian) have identified the exhaustion of political martyrdom as an internal problem for the liberal opposition. Martyrdom frequently arises out of a sense of political powerlessness, and has led the tradition of moral opposition into a vicious circle. In this scenario, only a select few have the necessary resolve to stand up against the authorities. The symbolic struggle of benign enlightenment against malicious cynicism creates impossible ideals in the romantic tradition of revolutionary activity. We can see signs of this in the attempts to dodge the increasingly fraught question of loyalty and patriotism, whereby the middle-ground is skewed in favour of marginal ethics.

‘The closing statements of Maria Alyokhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova contain many direct and indirect references to dissident history, ideas and practices. The return of dissident courtroom speeches is itself striking.’

But this self-imposed exile to the margins means that ethical resistance is often the only option for the minority. The issue of concrete goals is rejected out of disdain for 'dirty politics': perhaps rightly, encounters with the political realm are often seen as a stain on the individual's moral character. Yet, aside from all the talk of civil society, some believe the intelligentsia still needs to understand that society is an equal power to, if not stronger than, the authorities. 

The trial of Pussy Riot is an interesting case for this contemporary entanglement of Soviet dissent and martyrdom. Indeed, according to Maria Alyokhina, the members of the group on trial were accused of being the 'heirs of dissidents' during their interrogation. The closing statements of Maria Alyokhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova contain many direct and indirect references to dissident history, ideas and practices. The return of dissident courtroom speeches is itself striking. But, in short, three parallels are worth mentioning: 

  • — Much like Lidiya Chukovskaya's description of the dissident trials of the 1960s as having the 'familiar stench of past ashes', Alyokhina stated that Pussy Riot was being persecuted by 'people without memory'; 
  • — Yekaterina Samutsevich's criticism of the alliance between the FSB and Orthodox Church as the refusal of an aesthetic mirrors Andrei Sinyavsky's oft-quoted statement on 'stylistic differences with Soviet power', which is also referred to as a source of motivation for the opposition;
  • — As if a paean to the tradition of dissident self-sacrifice, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova stated that their prison sentence was not a defeat but a 'judgment on the regime'.

The courtroom speeches reflect a deeply-felt engagement with dissident history and culture. The response of the critically-minded has seen a similar depth of engagement. The trial has been characterised as the Putin-era echo of the case against writers Yuly Daniel and Andrei Sinyavsky, who were imprisoned in February 1966 for publishing their texts abroad, or the trial of poet Joseph Brodsky for parasitism in 1964. For example, on the day of the Pussy Riot trial, the writer Dmitry Bykov stated on Kommersant Radio that 'The Pussy Riot case will enter Russian history as did the trial of Sinyavsky-Daniel’.

In the same way as Alyokhina's statement, the literary output of Sinyavsky and Daniel signalled a refusal to accept a society which they saw as having failed to remember the crimes of Stalinism. The application of the law to stifle public protest in various guises has been a strong source of historical comparison: the legalist demands of the Moscow dissidents in the 1960s such as 'Observe the Constitution!' are a significant part of the liberal opposition's current demands and concerns. In a similar fashion to samizdat during the 1970s, guides on legally and morally sound behaviour during interrogation have become a mainstay of protest-orientated news and comment platforms. 

And now?

The engagement with, and simultaneous formation of, a dissident past indicates the opposition's need for symbols and authority. Against the current background of systemic corruption, it also suggests a desire for sincerity associated with the Soviet underground. Yet in the return to dissent we can see signs of that 'mindset of martyrdom' mentioned by Budraitskis. The demonisation of the Putin regime as the rebirth of Soviet totalitarianism may have aesthetic and moral appeal, but it does not necessarily provide much in the way of political potential apart from the 'boomerang' effect via Western pressure. Some see the root of current problems in the lost window of opportunity in 1991-1993. The mass protests of that era are a convincing precedent and the issues of perestroika are eerily reminiscent of those expressed by opposition groups today. That period was preceded by a similar attempt by democrats to use dissidents as moral and political capital in their attempt to reform the Soviet political and economic system. The previous sense of stagnation, characterised by a retreat into private life and a rejection of politics, is shifting. For example, during the Pussy Riot trial, journalist Valery Panyushkin described himself moving from the edge of hysteria into an 'irrational absence of fear': a feeling he'd last had in the dark days (at least for the critically-minded) before perestroika. Political engagement is seen as increasingly necessary in order to change the situation.

‘The previous sense of stagnation, characterised by a retreat into private life and a rejection of politics, is shifting. Political engagement is seen as increasingly necessary in order to change the situation.’

The formation of a usable dissident past has its pitfalls. Apart from Sakharov or Solzhenitsyn, it is quite difficult to identify any dissident with broad appeal amongst dissidents or their supporters, let alone the wider public. Indeed, these two figures have also drawn strident criticism in the past. In short, the parallels represent an unexpected engagement with the dissident past if the desired result is the removal of Putin because, although perhaps on the 'winning' side, dissidents did not directly bring down the Soviet Union. Yet the broad range of examples and parallels to be found in the late Soviet period is tempting, especially when it forms an important part of post-Soviet Russian artistic and literary traditions. Discussions on the resurgence of the critical Left in January last year touched on the problem of finding your own place in the dissident tradition. The difference between weight and ballast is a fine one. Something of a curse and a blessing, retrofitting a rich cultural legacy into a political one has never been harder. 

Get oDR emails Occasional updates from our team covering the post-Soviet space Sign up here


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData