A dissident’s tale


One of the grey cardinals of modern Russian politics, Gleb Pavlovsky talks dissent, history and politics in the late-Soviet era.


Gleb Morev
29 May 2015

Born in Odessa in 1951, Gleb Pavlovsky is famed for being one of the grey cardinals of modern Russian politics. As an adviser to Vladimir Putin until 2011, Pavlovsky was one of Russia's leading political technologists – second only to Vladislav Surkov. During Putin’s second term as president, however, Pavlovsky became an outlying figure, attending protest marches and criticising the Kremlin and opposition alike. 

Prior to this rise to fame, Pavlovsky cut his teeth as a dissident journalist during the 1970s and 1980s, even spending time in internal exile for anti-Soviet activity. Here he talks to Gleb Morev about reading science fiction, throwing bricks at the KGB and growing up Soviet in Odessa and Moscow.

Reading habits

Gleb Morev: As a student at Odessa University in the late 1960s, you were part of an unofficial student group. How much did you know about what was going on in Moscow, about the beginnings of what would later be known as the dissident movement? Did you have access to samizdat?

Gleb Pavlovsky: I knew about what was going on from foreign radio stations – my father listened to them and I listened with him, although mainly out of curiosity and so that I could argue with him. I was a very anti-capitalist young man, and I enjoyed listening to excerpts from books banned in the USSR – Herbert Marcuse and Ivan Illich in particular. But I remember lots of other things, like Anatol Goldberg’s friendly voice on the BBC.

But I also got hold of texts through teachers and science fiction fans, and these turned me on to New Age literature – the Strugatsky brothers, Lem, Bradbury and the Ukrainian writer Oles Berdnik, who later became a dissident himself. New Age was all about enhancing human potential and freedoms, and fitted easily with the idea of rebellion. Even at school I was hyper-politicised, and knew I wanted to be involved in politics, no matter what.

I knew I wanted to be involved in politics, no matter what.

GM: But politics back then meant a very clear choice between the Komsomol, Communist Party and so on ... or going underground!

GP: I certainly didn’t want to join the system – that wasn’t politics – but I wasn’t attracted by the alternative either.

Just being anti-everything wasn’t for me. My choice was to stop being a passive consumer and observer of what was going on, and reinstate Soviet everyday life in global history. We weren’t living in some small country, after all – the Soviet Union was the hub of a universal project. You couldn’t leave it, and it was always with you. Lem and the Strugatskys taught us that life’s central questions have to be solved at home, and those were the ones I wanted to solve.

The road to dissidence

In my second year of university, a few of us set up a commune. It wasn’t my idea, but it was me who pushed it towards neo-Marxism as a source of language for creating our grand projects. It was the point of no return. In Moscow you could be a Komsomol member and philosophy student, but in Odessa your choices were starker.

We knew we were leaving normal society and crossing into a Looking Glass world, where we would inevitably encounter the KGB, on the one hand, and some dissident, on the other.


Gleb Pavlovsky during the March of Millions protest rally. Photo (c) Vitaliy Belousov via RIA

And that happened quite quickly. Our dissident was Vyacheslav Igrunov, Odessa’s samizdat baron. His group, which wasn’t at all leftwing, earned a living making wooden tourist souvenirs, and spent the proceeds on banned literature ordered from Moscow – everything from Orwell to the Kama Sutra.

They also had a library that we devoured – the Chronicle of Current Events,  Robert Conquest’s Great Terror, Andrei Amalrik’s Will the Soviet Union Survive until 1984? Here I found my mission in life: to produce samizdat. I hadn’t become anti-Soviet. I saw myself, as I wrote in my first samizdat article in 1972, as a ‘counterculture coordinator’.

But by then we were under KGB surveillance, although you have to understand what that meant. There’s a myth now that the KGB was an all-seeing eye, but it was just a bunch of boring people that kept tabs on anything that moved, and had difficulty focusing on the bigger picture.

GM: Was you first encounter with the KGB at university or after?

GP: At some point they started keeping an eye on our commune, and I wasn’t allowed to graduate properly and was sent to work in the sticks as an unqualified teacher. But my first personal contact with the KGB was a year later, in 1974, at the time of the ‘Gulag Archipelago’ case.

This wasn’t just any old samizdat incident. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago had just started doing the rounds in the USSR. Meanwhile in Ukraine there had been a change of Party leadership and a purge of the Odessa KGB: they needed to demonstrate that they were tightening the screws and decided to close Igrunov’s library.

I had a copy of Gulag, which I lent to someone and somehow it ended up in the hands of the KGB, so they hauled me in. I was suspicious of Igrunov, who was an anti-Communist and could happily, I thought, have denounced me, so I signed everything they asked and gave them a disgusting statement listing all the books I’d borrowed from the library. Six months later Igrunov was arrested and tried.

I was supposed to be a main prosecution witness, but in the courtroom I took back my statement. Igrunov’s sentence was laughable: they declared him mentally incompetent and he spent just a few months in an ordinary hospital, where we all visited him. This was at the height of Detente. But it was thanks to Igrunov’s trial that I became an official dissident: once you’d had a run-in with the KGB, you were part of the Movement.

That was when I decided to escape to Moscow. I’d become friends with the historian Mikhail Gefter.

GM: But how did that work? You needed a residence permit back then to live in Moscow.

GP: You also needed an employment record book, but I didn’t have that either – I left school without one. But I was friendly with Len Karpinsky, a member of the 1960s generation of dissidents who had once been a big shot in the Komsomol [and on the editorial board at Pravda], and he phoned a friend who was head of the Higher Komsomol School, which at the time trained mainly Latin-American rebel leaders, and he gave me a part time admin job. I only stayed two months but I left with an employment book, though still without a residence permit.

By that time I was married with a son, and needed work, but every time I tried to get a teaching job the KGB would block it, and I eventually realised that it was hopeless. 1976 was a breaking point for me. In the space of a month I got divorced, caused a hoo-ha at Igrunov’s trial, left teaching, left the Komsomol and trained as a carpenter, determined to no longer rely on the state for anything.

I left Odessa and got a job on a building site in Kirzhach, not too far from Moscow. And the next year I got married in Moscow and got my permit.

The changing face of the movement

In Kirzhach, I set myself the task of writing a critique of the Soviet Constitution – a common pastime among dissidents. The resulting article was a hit with people in Moscow, including Mikhail Gefter, Valery Abramkin and Aleksandr Daniel, who copied and distributed it further. In other words, my text fell into the hands of people who published underground journals. There were a number of these being planned at the time, but the one that eventually happened was Poiski [Search: a dissident journal]. Gefter wrote the foreword for it – a sort of manifesto – and I edited it.

GM: Was Poiski a platform for uniting the dissident movement from the start?

GP: Yes, it was more a platform for seeking a consensus in the Movement than the usual samizdat literary-political journal. It was a time of change in the Movement.

When I first visited Moscow in the early 1970s I caught the end of the Democratic Movement of the 1960s. That included the Human Rights Committee, but human rights were seen as just part of a general democratic agenda.

In the 60s, human rights were just part of a general democratic agenda.

GM: Who was associated with that?

GP: The figures best known in the West were people like Pyotr Yakir, Viktor Krasin, Vakery Chalidze, Pavel Litvinov etc

GM: But that collapsed in 1973?

GP: The broad liberal front split at the time of the Krasin-Yakir trial in 1973 (on a charge of anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda). When I came to Moscow for the first time the case was gearing up, hundreds of people were being called in for questioning and liberal professors were bitterly regretting their previous oppositional stance.

The democratic movement of the 1960s didn’t see itself as political; it was more social-cultural, very broad based and fairly safe to be involved in. I was delighted to find it – it seemed to me a vehicle for creating parallel structures, but I just caught the end of it – the pogrom had already begun.


Gleb Pavlovsky was arrested for anti-Soviet activity on 6 April 1982. Photo (c) Vladimir Vyatkin via RIA

1972 was the worst time for the old democratic movement. There was growing tension along the Soviet-Chinese border and a general apocalyptic mood. Then in the autumn it became clear that Krasin and Yakir would plead guilty and name names.

The authorities thought they had delivered a fatal blow to the Movement, but the liberal split provided the spark for the final surge of public Soviet activism.

Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov

At this point it was Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov, with their principle of individual resistance, who took centre stage. The Kremlin was seized by a kind of metaphysical panic, the only explanation for their decision to exile Solzhenitsyn. In fact that was not the only example of strange new behaviour that was basically incompatible with the rules of the regime.

Take the Jewish emigration to Israel, for example. Nobody was ever allowed to leave the USSR – but now suddenly a chink appeared in the wall. And then there was Solzhenitsyn’s exile in 1974, which the Kremlin turned into a massive global show.

GM: Was it a surprise for you?

GP: Less a surprise than a historic event. Solzhenitsyn was a talented director who turned the show to his own advantage. And this was where the short upswing of dissidence began.

I have to say, though, that the Soviet system no longer weighed on me in my daily life. I didn’t watch TV or read Soviet newspapers, although I had always been hooked on international affairs. I only read the Chronicle of Current Events and listened to foreign radio, so I relished the sight of Solzhenitsyn driving the Politburo mad by exploiting the situation they had created.

Solzhenitsyn’s exile brought the dissident movement global fame and support.

This event brought the dissident movement global fame and global support. But it also caused its implosion, and it continued within a narrower frame than the democratic movement before it.

The older movement died because the stakes became higher – its members were the liberal intelligentsia, often Party members, who worked in higher education and intellectual journals and signed letters of protest. But now one signature could get you thrown out of both the Party and your job.

What appeared in its place was the real dissident movement (the name was, of course, borrowed from the Western press). Its lifetime was short, from 1973 to Brezhnev’s death in 1982, and Poiski only appeared towards its end, which we didn’t see coming. The journal was conceived and planned in 1977 but only came out in 1978, when the movement was already in decline.

GM: This was the time of the Yuri Orlov trial, which marked the end of the Moscow Helsinki Group.

GP: Exactly. But the Helsinki Group was not the only one, and was never intended to be. The movement never relied on one group or one leader. If one person was imprisoned, their friends would rally round to help and become involved in the movement; you got two or three new people, then the first person was released and got involved again. This is certainly what happened in my case.

The system broke down when people were able to leave the USSR on Israeli visas, but being on the inside I couldn’t see how the ice was closing in.

GM: That’s interesting, because someone reading the Chronicle of Current Events today sees the darkness closing in towards the end of the 1970s – a growing wave of arrests, departures for the West, every project and initiative being blocked. And then suddenly you have Poiski. How did you expect to survive?

GP: Well, the Chronicle was about searches and arrests from its creation in 1968, but this motivated people rather than discouraging them. And the thing was that you read about everything in a publication that you received from someone and copied and passed on to more people. But the problem was that you were too close to it and couldn’t see the wider picture.

I was convinced at the time that dissidence was intensifying. And while some of my old Moscow liberal friends were withdrawing from politics, Mikhail Gefter was becoming more radical; we were reacting the same way to events and this brought us closer together. For instance, in the battle of ideas between the Westerniser and democrat Sakharov and the Slavophile and Orthodox Christian Solzhenitsyn, we both came down on the side of Solzhenitsyn.

GM: This seems strange, given your leftist views.

GP: I felt I was more radical than anyone. I had no desire to develop social democracy in Russia, nor to go back to Leninist principles. What I was looking for was tools to manage the system, and Marxism seemed the most appropriate technology. And Gefter and I were agreed that Marxism had to become ‘post-Solzhenitsyn’ and that any more moderate version wouldn’t do. I wrote on this subject back in Odessa and in Poiski as well.

From samizdat to tamizdat

GM: When did you realise that they would crush Poiski?

GP: Funnily enough, it only occurred to me towards the very end. I also thought that we were keeping one step ahead of the sluggish system. You have to understand that I cut a rather odd figure both at Poiski and in the dissident movement in general. I liked the idea of overt alternative action and saw myself as a practical person – a techie, if you like. I enjoyed retyping manuscripts, publishing, and I was also working in an underground design company at the time – and the KGB was unaware of any of this. I had a carpentry workshop in the building that now houses the Cambodian Embassy and I edited and produced Poiski there. So they never found a copy when they searched my flat.

GM: What quantities were you producing it in?

GP: It’s hard to say – it was samizdat, after all. There were a few of us – Lev Kopelev was one, Sonya Sorokina another – producing multiple copies, but there was no set figure. A micro-run would be 15 copies on cigarette paper; there were perhaps 150 copies of each issue circulating in Moscow before it started being reprinted in the West.

There were perhaps 150 copies of each issue circulating in Moscow.

GM: Why was the KGB so hostile to it?

GP: From 1979 onwards the KGB waged open war on dissidence, and Poiski was just another focal point of opposition for them. That was true to some extent: it was a political project, founded to cement the various dissident fractions together. The main split was along ethnic lines (Russian, Jewish, Ukrainian etc), but there were others: legal/clandestine; samizdat/tamizdat [publishing abroad]; left/right. There was also a generation gap, and a growing trend for publishing abroad. By the early 1980s, tamizdat had unwittingly made samizdat meaningless: things published in the West had a much wider distribution, but they no longer involved their readers in a movement.

The first searches began in January 1979, and the main attack a few months later, as Moscow was ‘cleansed’ for the 1980 Olympics. You were tailed everywhere, and it became almost impossible to work. There were sometimes two or three cars following us, and even when we were working in the forest, cutting wood, ‘mushroom pickers’ would be wandering about and taking photos of us. When things go that far, the writing’s on the wall.

The writing on the wall

We managed to bring out four issues of Poiski, but by the end of 1979 everything was going haywire. We had already been threatened with prosecution if we brought out another issue, but Abramkin refused to comply and was arrested in December. After that there were endless arguments and debates about whether to struggle on, but it was practically speaking impossible to continue.

In the end Mikhail Gefter announced that there would be a ‘pause’ in publication, but I refused to accept this and got on with putting the next few issues together. But then came a further blow: two more Poiski colleagues, Viktor Sorokin and Viktor Sokirko, were arrested on 22 January 1980, the day Andrei Sakharov was sent into internal exile in Gorky. My flat was also searched again; nothing was found but they took me to the Lubyanka [KGB headquarters]. Some general yelled at me, ‘Your children will be orphans!’, and demanded that I surrender and lay down my ‘arms’. Then, ten minutes later, they suggested I emigrate and I agreed, probably just to win a bit more time.

In the end, however, I decided to stay. In the first place, as an Odessan provincial, I had no idea where the Passport Office was, but I also discussed the idea with friends. Gefter was very upset about it, but said I should go, as did the Kopelevs, who felt that ‘the Diaspora needs more liberal nationalists’. But I believed that my place, my focus, was here in Russia and decided not to leave.

I told the KGB and we eventually hit on a formula: I would ‘refrain from all political activity, both official and unofficial’. But I broke this promise – during 1980 I produced and published three more issues of Poiski. Then there was Abramkin’s trial, when in a fit of madness I hurled a brick through a courthouse window, and then broke my leg trying to escape over some roofs.

GM: Did the KGB know you threw the brick?

GP: Not straight away. My friends got me into hospital under a false name and with false ID. But in early 1981 the KGB found out and called me in, and of course I turned up in plaster and on crutches, which was a dead giveaway. ‘Why were you taking the piss?’ they asked. ‘You only have yourself to blame!’ But they couldn’t prove anything – they couldn’t get prints off the dusty brick. And if you want to charge someone with hooliganism you need to catch them in the act. So they didn’t arrest me then.

But lying in hospital I finally became disillusioned with the idea of opposition and dissidence and became a believer in dialogue with the authorities. In part this reflected the influence of the Polish and Czech debates around Charter-77, extracts from which I included in the last issue of Poiski. I also wrote samizdat articles asking how we could initiate this dialogue, and letters to Politburo members – Brezhnev, Andropov – with the idea of putting pressure on both the Kremlin and the Movement. It sounds daft, but I still wanted to be part of the Soviet system.

I was arrested for anti-Soviet activity on 6 April, 1982, along with others from a variety of groups – nationalists, leftists and so on. Gefter himself was also expecting arrest after his flat had been searched for the first time.

The investigators wanted me to incriminate my friends, of course, and I named anyone not in any danger – when my lawyer told me that Viktor and Sonya Sorokin had emigrated I added them to the list. The KGB told me not to play games: ‘The only way you can reduce your sentence is to renounce your political views’. So in court I pleaded guilty, and got a soft sentence – internal exile in the northern Komi Republic – thanks to ‘mitigating circumstances’.

My courtroom ‘repentance’ was of course a terrible blow to our group that broke people close to me, even Gefter. And I was affected by it too – I had broken an ethical taboo. I may not have ratted on other people, but I did break the taboo on pleading guilty. My first year in exile was a mental torment, but then I got used to it, mainly thanks to letters from Abramkin and Gefter.

My courtroom ‘repentance’ was of course a terrible blow to our group.

GM: How long was your sentence?

GP: Five years, but I’d spent a year in remand prison and one day there counts as three in exile so I had three years in Komi. I left Moscow on the day of Brezhnev’s death, and when they let each cell out for their daily taste of fresh air the deputy prisoner governor would whisper, ‘Quiet, comrades – Leonid Ilich is dead’. Naturally the whole prison (in the centre of Moscow) would shout, ‘Hurray!’

I spent my three years, until December 1985, in a small town, Troitsko-Pechorsk, with other political exiles such as the old Ukrainian dissident Ivan Gel, one of the founders of his country’s Helsinki Group, and the St Petersburg journalist Valery Repin.

GM: I suppose you were banned from living in Moscow afterwards?

GP: Yes. Since Stalin’s death it had been an informal thing, but in 1985 Gorbachev’s government passed a law banning political exiles from living in large cities.

GM: But you still returned to Moscow?

GP: Yes. At first I pretended I had been working and registered in Komi, but then the police started harassing me. But at the same time I was a founder member of the first political ‘Social Initiative Club’ in Moscow, set up in September 1986, lobbying the authorities to give us premises. It was a very odd time.

I wrote to Yeltsin protesting against attempts to ban me from Moscow, and sent it by both the ordinary postal system (my request was turned down) and an unofficial route through friends and acquaintances that finally delivered it into Yeltsin’s own hands – and in December 1986 I finally got a Moscow residence permit – although a temporary one, which I renewed every six months for several years: I refused to apply for an amnesty as a political prisoner. Despite the fact I had been working for ages on the liberal magazine The Twentieth Century and the World and running the Postfactum news agency, I still only had a temporary Moscow residence permit.

What happened next is another story.

Editor's note: This is an abridged version of an interview first published in Russian on Colta.ru

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