How Russia’s human rights movement began

Today, as Memorial receives the 2009 Sakharov Prize, Lyubov Borusyak talks to Ludmila Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, about the birth of Russia’s human rights movement. In 1956, after Khrushchev’s ‘secret speech’, Russia’s people started talking once more, and circulating ‘samizdat’.
Lyubov Borusyak
16 December 2009

Lyubov Borusyak:

You were finishing your post-graduate studies when the communist party held its 20th congress in 1956. Everyone remembers the impact of Nikita Khrushchev’s secret speech….

Ludmila Alexeyeva

Ludmila Alexeyva:

Immediately after the 20th congress, our atomized society began looking for ways to communicate. There was this great pent-up desire to talk. After the party meeting where Khrushchev’s speech was read to us aloud, I remember leaving with a colleague from the graduate programme. He was a good guy, a provincial, but not very able. He used to borrow my notes. The meeting had lasted three hours, so we were hungry. We went to a pelmeni café, and he said: “Do you know how I got into the graduate programme? I know I’m out of my depth intellectually”. And he started talking about himself.

He’d graduated from the law faculty somewhere in the provinces and was sent to a rural region as a prosecutor. That was the time when you could go to prison for 10 years for the most minor offences. A woman from his region had picked up these potatoes which had been left in the fields after the potato harvest - she needed them to feed her children. She was jailed for seven years. And he was the one delivering these sentences. He couldn’t stay in his job anymore, he said. He did three years, then said: “That’s enough, I can’t take it anymore!” They told him that if he left, he’d have to give up his party ticket. That meant he’d never get a job again. He started drinking. Then he realised that the only way he could leave was the graduate programme. “I sat the exam four times and failed four times,” he said. “Finally I passed. Thank you for helping me, but I won’t go back there.” You see, I used to help him, we got on well, but before the secret speech I knew nothing about him. And suddenly it all came out.

L.B.: Did this happen to others as well?

L.A.: Yes. People started talking to each other. Censorship was just as strict: you couldn’t read anything, or see anything in the cinema or on television. But you could talk. So people started frantically meeting up. It was an incredible time. Literally every evening people would get together, seven or eight people, split a bottle of port and talk..No one would get drunk, they just talked, talked about what they knew or remembered. All these groups were very closely interconnected. I had two children: I had to queue at the shops, buy food, cook meals every day and so on. I’d be busy all day, shove the children into bed and rush off to some gathering. My husband was different. He was a physicist – he wasn’t interested.

L.B.: A breath of freedom?

L.A.: Yes. And I went almost every evening. I’d come back at one or two in the morning, and be exhausted next day, but I still went going. And I wasn’t the only one. Everyone was getting together to talk – there were all sorts of groups, new people were turning up all the time; conversation was the only source of information. As soon as we started talking, we’d find out so many things about our country, about the whole world… Nothing like this had ever happened before.

L.B.: Weren’t people scared?

L.A.: They weren’t scared any more. After 1956, people started returning from the camps. We went to those gatherings too, we went to see people who’d come back from the camps and were talking about them. I knew that the camps existed – they were discussed in Khrushchev’s speech, but of course I couldn’t imagine the scale of them.

L.B.: And it’s different when someone’s telling their own story.

L.A.: Of course. I found out then that many of my friends had parents, or aunts, uncles and brothers in the camps. They never used to talk about it, but now they started to. A terrifying picture emerged. These gatherings were a wonderful opportunity to distribute samizdat. If it hadn’t been for these gatherings, samizdat would not have happened.

L.B.: But at that time, samizdat hadn’t really got going, had it? Wasn’t that later on, when the Brodsky trial was going on?

L.A.: No, it started immediately after the 20th congress. The first samizdat were not political: people started getting out these forbidden poems by Mandelshtam, Gumilyov and Akhmatova.

L.B.: And typing them out?

L.A.: Yes, we copied them. We bought a typewriter and I learned to type for this very reason. You could borrow these poems for a couple of days and type them out. I gave copies to my friends, and they kept them for themselves. I collected a library of poetry. Then the people who returned from the camps sat down and began to write memoirs. They’d write them down by hand in an exercise book, and someone like me would type them up.

L.B.: Was anything that passed through your hands later published?

L.A.: To be quite honest, I didn’t keep track. I don’t think much was published. Most of them have been kept by Memorial. Masses of people wrote memoirs: they had returned from the camps old and sick, they couldn’t work, so they wrote memoirs.

L.B.: Then how will anyone find out how interesting they are?

L.A.: At one gathering I met Yuly Daniel and we became friends. His father was in a camp too. Although we were friends, he didn’t tell me that he had been published abroad, I must admit. I suppose that means we weren’t such great friends. But people we both know, his close friends, told me in secret.

L.B.: Did you read what was published later? I mean “The Day of Open Murders”?

L.A.: I did, but by that time I knew that Daniel had written it. I met him in 1959, I think. He was first published abroad in 1956.

L.B.: How did they make contact with these “treacherous foreign countries”? That wasn’t as easy as in the 1960s or 1970s, was it?

L.A.: Well, Andrei Sinyavsky studied at university with Zamoiskaya, who was the daughter of the military attaché from the French embassy. They made friends, and he sent manuscripts to the West with her help. She had already gone to France, but people came to the Soviet Union through her.

L.B.: And took the manuscripts?

L.A.: Yes. He confided in his friend Daniel, and they sent the manuscripts together.

L.B.: Did they realise the full danger of this?

L.A.: Yes, they did, and expected to be arrested.

L.B.: So they escaped the attention of the authorities for almost ten years?

L.A.: They were arrested in 1965 – so it was nine years.

L.B.: How could they fail to notice them?

L.A.: As my uncle aptly put it: “Do you think they work harder because they’re paid well? They simply drink more than everyone else, that’s all”. He had his own ideas on this score.

L.B.: So that was how, your own circle came into being?

L.A.: Yes. I knew that Yulik was published, and I knew that Abram Terts was published (I didn’t know then that he was Sinyavsky). One of our mutual friends said to me: “Do you know that Yuly Daniel is Nikolai Arzhak”? I said that I did. Then he asked: “Do you want to know who Abram Terts is”? I said that I didn’t. It was terrifying to know these secrets, I would have been better off not knowing about Yulik as well.

In 1965 I went to the South with my uncle – he had a car, a Volga. We reached Gorky, and boarded a cargo ship, which had one cabin. My uncle stayed there, and I slept on deck. We reached Abrau-Dyurso. When it docked, I’d go to the post office, and in Rostov I received a message from my friend that Yulik and Andrei had fallen seriously ill.

L.B.: And you understood what that meant, of course?

L.A.. I understood straight away what kind of illness that was. When I returned to Moscow, it was confirmed. Daniel and Sinyavsky had been arrested. My friends came to see me. They knew where I kept samizdat, and so one of them went to talk to my mother in the kitchen, and the other quickly stuffed the samizdat into her handbag. We thought that there would be searches, and they didn’t want anything to be found at my place.

L.B.: Did your mother not know?

L.A.: God forbid. When I arrived, I immediately went to Yulik’s wife, Larisa Bogoraz. As we later realised, this was the beginning of the human rights movement, because Larisa and their friends began to be summoned for interrogation. They did not behave in the way that people behaved, say, in the Brodsky case. In the Brodsky case they said: “This is some mistake. He’s a normal Soviet person, and he should be left alone. What do you mean, he doesn’t work anywhere? He translates poems”. Here things were different. When someone received a summons, we gathered at Larisa’s place and waited for the interrogation to end. After this the person came back and told us everything. Firstly, we were concerned about what happened to people during the interrogation, and secondly, we hoped for some information about what was happening to Yulik and Andrei. Thirdly, there was always the chance that another one of us would be called for interrogation. We needed to know what questions were asked, and how to answer them – we didn’t know how to do any of this.

L.B.: You didn’t have any experience?

L.A.: No, but a lot of new people started to appear. They were looking for Sinyavsky’s wife, Daniel’s wife – the couple had a lot of support amongst the intelligentsia. This was the time of samizdat, people realised that the authorities wanted to stop these uncensored readings. We valued samizdat very highly, or at least the freedom of speech in our gatherings, and we were prepared to stand up for it. We didn’t want to be corralled back into the pen, where everyone was afraid and kept silent. We didn’t want that.

L.B.: Ten years of these gatherings really had an effect.

L.A.:. Of course. Society had woken up from the terror-induced coma of the Stalin years. 1953 to 1965 – that’s twelve years. Of course things had changed.

As for Larisa, we waited for her to come back from the interrogation. She came back and told us that the investigator had warned her: “If you behave well, you won’t have any difficulties.” She said: “I don’t understand, what do you mean by “behaving well”, and what do you mean by difficulties?” The investigator said that her husband was arrested under article 70, to which Larisa replied: “There hasn’t been a trial yet. Why do you assume in advance that my husband is a criminal? Secondly, it’s my husband who is charged under article 70, why should I suffer difficulties as a consequence? No one has made these charges against me.”

The investigator asked Larisa if she had read what her husband had written. “Yes,” she replied. “There were papers on the table, and I read them. It was literary fiction. As far as I know, Babel and others were sentenced for being spies, and not for literature. No one sentenced them for literature. And you don’t think that they were spies, do you?”

This might sound normal enough now, but back then it was a completely different language. I thought to myself: “That’s the right way to do it”. It hadn’t occurred to me before, but suddenly I understood how to behave. And his friends started writing to the court, to the investigators and so on.

L.B.: And this is when active support began?

L.A.: Of course. I was completely amazed by this. The trial was supposedly open, but when it began we weren’t allowed in. We stood out in the cold from morning to night, jumped up and down and shuffled from side to side to keep warm. During the break, the writers’ wives would come out, and we’d ask them what had happened in the courtroom. It was some kind of moral support, at least. That’s how it all started.

L.B.: Was it a big shock to you all that they received such long sentences?

L.A.: On the contrary -  as soon as they were arrested, my husband said to me: “Do you know what one guy in the laboratory said when he read about them in the paper? He said that they were in dire straits - they were really going to get it.” My blood turned to ice, because none of us knew how it would end.

L.B.: They didn’t know either, did they?

L.A.: They behaved with great dignity. They admitted their authorship, but said that they had the right to express their thoughts.

L.B.: Incidentally, few people talked about the death penalty, apart from Sholokhov. I mean, he was the only person who spoke about this officially.

L.A.: There was a lot of sympathy in intellectual circles. The authorities were rather bewildered by it. They’d meant to make this trial open, to make an example of the accused. When they saw that public opinion was behind Sinyaysky and Daniel, they effectively decided to hold the trial in camera. They realised that they wouldn’t be able to pull off an open trial, that it would only cause a scandal.

L.B.: They probably had bargained on people being more afraid than they were. They underestimated the consequences of the thaw.

L.A.: Yes. Many people spoke out openly in defence of Sinyavsky and Daniel. When they were sent to the camp, we were very worried, because we’d believed Khrushchev when he said that we there were no more political prisoners in the country. Tens of thousands of people were released from the camps, and we really believed that there were no more in the system. In Khrushchev’s times, however, people who were sentenced under article 70 were sent to the Mordova camps. In this way, camps for political prisoners formed. They used to be scattered all over the country.

L.B.: And there were also a lot more of them.

L.A.: Of course, there was an incredible number of them, people were in prison all over the country. When Larisa rang to tell me that the first letter from Yulik had arrived, we all went to see her. Daniel wrote to his wife about one evening when he was invited to have tea with a Lithuanian priest. Besides him, the other guests were an Estonian artist and a Ukrainian historian.

L.B.: All the same kind of people. They only needed a Crimean Tatar to complete the circle.

L.A.: Yes. We were afraid that they’d be in prison with murderers and thieves, but as it turned out their fellow prisoners were decent people. Their wives were allowed to see them, too. The meetings lasted three days. I think I went to the second meeting with Larisa. She and her son Sanka wanted to take warm clothes and food. They themselves wanted to eat, but they also wanted to bring enough to feed Daniel and to leave him some food to give to others.

It was quite difficult to reach Dubrovlag. You had to change trains, and you had to be quick to catch the second train, so someone was needed to help carry the things and Larisa asked people to go with her. The first time I don’t remember who went, but the second time I asked to – I didn’t work every day, only on Thursdays. We stood at the entrance all night, because as soon as we got to Mordova, there were towers and barbed wire everywhere. It turned out that there was a completely different world quite close to Moscow. Then Larisa met the wives, mothers and relatives of the prisoners: Lithuanians and a lot of Ukrainians, Estonians and Russians.

So it was that we acquired this whole new circle of friends. We learned all about life in the Baltic republics, and about the Ukraine. I’d imagined, since Khrushchev and Kirilenko were from the Ukraine, as well as Brezhnev, the entire Dnepropetrovsky mafia and so on, that life there was probably not be so bad. But it turned out that Ukrainian schools had been closed, the Ukrainian language prohibited, and the pre-revolutionary Ukrainian intelligentsia completely wiped out. The new intelligentsia, was a first generation intelligentsia. They came from the villages, and their parents were peasants. They’d studied, and the Ukrainian language and culture were dear to them. They knew the tragic history of the Ukrainian peasantry too. They knew the tragic history of the famine of 1933, and the wiping out of the Ukrainian intelligentsia. We knew nothing about all this. They already had samizdat of their own, in Ukrainian. They translated it into Russian for us specially and brought it to Russia, so we could know what was happening in the Ukraine.

L.B.: So that’s how you came by the material that would later become the Chronicle of Current Events?

L.A.. That’s right. The Chronicle of Current Events first appeared in 1968, by which time we were already bursting with material. It was only then that we realised we’d become a movement. Until then we thought that we were just a circle of friends who were worried because people close to us had been sentenced. Everything happened smoothly and imperceptibly.

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