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Talented solidarity: why Russia’s oldest human rights journal is important today

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The Soviet underground publication Chronicle of Current Events turns 50 today. Its mission is still relevant.

 

Two of the Chronicle's editors, Leonid Vul and Boris Smushkevich, in 1981-1982. Source: Memorial / Personal archive of E. Yu. Shikhanovich.

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19.

For the Soviet Union’s emergent human rights community, 1968 did not start well. January saw the beginning of the trial of four people involved in the production of samizdat. This was the newly coined name for freely circulating literature, press and historical material, produced on people’s typewriters at home or work. In fact, the four Soviet citizens — Alexander Dobrovolsky, Yuri Galanskov, Alexander Ginzburg, Vera Lashkova — were prosecuted because they collected and publicised information about another trial, that of writers Andrey Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel, which had been held two years before.

Hundreds of people signed letters in their defence, calling on the KGB to stop its persecution of these young Soviet citizens and for a new trial to be held. Indeed, two other Soviet citizens, Larisa Bogoraz and Pavel Litvinov, wrote a letter addressed to “World Opinion” in order to call attention to the highly politicised nature of the trial. But the cost of an outraged Moscow intelligentsia didn’t seem to outweigh the authorities’ need to set an example. The group was found guilty, and both Ginzburg and the group’s “leader” Yuri Galanskov received harsh sentences. Galanskov, a worker poet who had come through Moscow’s avantgarde scene, died on a prison camp operating table four years later.

Natalia Gorbanevskaya - poet, translator, human rights activist (1936-2013). Source: Memorial. Against this background of increasing repression, poet Natalia Gorbanevskaya took up the task left by the group just sentenced.

Gorbanevskaya, who later found herself in forced psychiatric detenion before emigrating, collected information about what happened to Dobrovolsky, Galanskov, Ginzburg and Lashkova, as well as many others.

This compendium — which detailed the nature of the trial, the reaction to it in society and other cases of politically-motivated justice — was printed under the title “Year of Human Rights in the USSR” (which had been declared by UNESCO in December 1967). The next line stated what the reader was holding was a “Chronicle of Current Events”. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was printed just below it. It was published on 30 April 1968, and the Chronicle, as it became known, continued publishing until 1982.

The Chronicle did not always publish regularly. Targeted repressions hit it hard in 1972, for example — and in its later years, its work was severely hampered by the security services. The last edition, compiled in 1982-1983, was never published. But still, the Chronicle published verified information about what was happening in the Soviet Union’s politicised law and justice system.

When the details of fabricated trials or the torture of a prisoner reach the international public, it makes a difference — not just for the individual in question, but a public’s expectations about what media do and what is important

The Chronicle’s anonymous and changing community of editors monitored cases of “prophylactic work”, when KGB or other agencies signalled to Soviet citizens that their actions were not desirable. They monitored house searches and investigations. They monitored trials and prisons conditions for people who had been sentenced in relation to freedom of expression, conscience or assembly. They collected information on everyone who was targeted by the state — Crimean Tatars, Lithuanian Catholics, Volga Baptists, Moscow nationalists or idealistic communists in Siberia.

Chronicle of Current Events, 31 December 1968. CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikipedia. Some rights reserved.This information was sometimes kept for weeks or months before it was published, other times it was released quicker. But the important thing was that if something happened, it happened in the sense that other people could find out about it — the Chronicle or any other samizdat could be reprinted in multiple copies on a typewriter at home and passed on. This is especially important where an authoritarian system has the “information advantage”, whereby it controls the majority of sources of information — and thus controls the way that the justice system operates.

That faint outline of a rights-based polity which was hidden in Soviet samizdat is yet to materialise in Russia. In fact, it might be further away than ever. Russian operations in Donbas and Crimea have unleashed violence and repression inside the occupied territories and the Russian Federation.

But today, as researchers prepare an annotated academic edition of the Chronicle, there are numerous organisations that investigate, monitor and report on the impacts of the Russian justice system. OVD-Info, set up during the 2011-2012 Bolotnaya mobilisation, started out by monitoring cases where freedom of assembly was violated. Now it monitors the never-ending avalanche of politically-motivated arrests, detentions and prosecutions. (You can read their weekly updates in English here.) Another organisation, MediaZona, reports on what is happening inside Russia’s law and justice system, detailing, for instance, the impunity of the security forces in Ingushetia or the impacts of police torture on families.

These organisations are high-profile examples of how Russian civil society has taken up the mantle of covering the state’s campaign of repression against its citizens. In this sense, these organisations are trying to help expand the field of solidarity (and help overturn injust court decisions): when the details of fabricated trials or the torture of a prisoner reach the international public, it makes a difference — not just for the individual in question, but a public’s expectations about what media do and what is important. In fact, this process re-invests the justice system with some kind of meaning — the public echo effect means that society regains some limited control over what happens in the courtroom or prison colony. 

This networked response to authoritarianism also has its limits. Dmitry Muratov, now former editor-in-chief at Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta — a paper that has made its name bringing unknown pain to public light, made a telling comment in November last year. Frustrated at the lack of public scandal and attendance at public rallies in support of imprisoned journalist Ali Feruz and theatre director Kirill Serebrennikov, Muratov castigated his fellow news editors for their callousness. It’s harder to encourage solidarity in the social media age, when our loyalties and interests are increasingly ephemeral.

“We’re forgetful because there’s no news hook. It seems like we’re tired of the fact that this is ‘unclickable’. We’ve already starting blaming the victims for not giving us any more chances to increase our audience. ‘Bastard, why don’t you give us a reason to write about you, so our traffic goes up?’ [...] But the victim can’t, they’re in a cell, prison, house arrest.

Forgetfulness is the authorities’ main weapon. And solidarity is the anti-sclerotic condition of our life: either we’re media or we’re shit! Media never forget anything. Media is a way of preserving memory which is actualised at the right moment in incredible genres. And best when it’s done with talent. I call for talented solidarity.”

Sometimes, it is just about doing enough, doing what you can. The guitar poet Alexander Galich, a Soviet intelligentsia favourite, talked about the limits of samizdat in one of his best-known lyrics: “The typewriter takes four copies / And that’s it / And that’s enough.”

In conditions where state-led repression is only going to increase in the coming years, talented solidarity, it seems, is the best any media can try for.

 


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