Russia’s dissidents return

Political dissent and the social phenomenon of dissidents played a considerable role in Soviet Russia up to the times of Mikhail Gorbachev and his perestroika and glasnost policies. Together with “openness,” these policies made unnecessary the very institution of dissidents as illegal and persecuted fighters for freedom of information and as accusers of the regime.

Also, under the first Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, during whose rule the communist hegemony was undermined and the old rigid economic system dismantled, the former dissidents found themselves jobless. Some joined the emerging political life that had begun to develop according to more or less democratic rules, while others moved away from political activities and went into business, or started writing books, or concentrated on their social life.

This period lasted almost two decades and ended abruptly when President Vladimir Putin entered his third term in May 2012. A new post-perestroika and post-Yeltsin era had begun, with the notorious vertical power structure firmly in place and the mass media gradually coming under full state control. A series of odious legal acts and government practices were introduced, distorting the fragile balance between what was given the funny name of “sovereign democracy” on the one side, and relative intellectual freedom and unbiased public opinion on the other side.

A new but very familiar situation began to emerge. There were a lot of things routinely happening in Russia’s domestic and international life deserving of criticism, while the means for such critiques were rapidly disappearing. So, quite logically, the temporarily forgotten phenomenon of intellectuals acting as dissidents was bound to return sooner or later.

The names of political activists from the late 1980s and early 1990s started reappearing in the news columns of the few relatively free media outlets that had managed to survive the actual re-establishment of censorship by going virtual and using international telecommunications facilities.

Such gurus of political dissent as Lyudmila Alexeyeva, chairwoman of the Moscow Helsinki Group; Lev Ponomaryov, the head of the movement For Human Rights; and veteran activist Sergei Kovalev, a former political prisoner and the first-ever human rights ombudsman in Russia; have recently reappeared on the public scene. One way they’ve taken part is protesting the proposed sadists’ law, which would contradict international norms by entitling prison guards to use rubber clubs and electric shocks to punish convicts.

Despite the severe intimidation measures introduced after Putin’s May 2012 inauguration, there are quite a few young people standing in pickets and marching through the streets of Russian cities and towns nowadays under slogans like “Putin must go!” or “End the War in Ukraine!” Belonging to various opposition parties, organizations and protest groups, they all risk arrest, prison and fines under many legal acts and proscriptions adopted at all government levels.

So, this is the right time for honest writers and publicists, in the theater, cinema and TV, to contribute to the evergreen public phenomenon of political defiance with their individual and collective works.

A pal from my youth, Lev Timofeev, is another former dissident, political prisoner and author of several nonfiction and fiction books (with “Russia’s Secret Rulers” and two full-size novels among them).

Soon after his release from the Perm prison camp in 1987, he wrote a play depicting the circumstances of his arrest and the subsequent trial. His “crime” consisted of sending and publishing abroad his underground research in which he took the liberty of strongly and convincingly criticizing the Soviet economic and social systems.

There are two characters — “He,” the clandestine writer of an anti-Soviet book that has found its way to the West and was now being aired by some “enemy radio stations,” and “She” — his wife and mother of their two little girls who has to lead a meager household and wait for her husband’s inevitable arrest.

Recently this play was chosen by Mark Rozovsky, the art director of the Nikitsky Gate Theater in central Moscow, as his next production. “Waiting for the Doorbell” opened June 5 and 6 to full houses and much ado about its acute topicality and artistic merit.

It has a certain affinity with the famous Samuel Becket play “Waiting for Godot” — with a considerable Russian variation: In the quite realistic but still somehow absurd spectacle, the doorbell announcing the coming of the KGB men and the following arrest and search for the felonious manuscript does ring after all. Thanks to the art director’s ingenious collaboration with the author, the action is vivid, the casting is perfect and the dialogue is not devoid of humor (mostly of the black variety).

The theater is very small. Barely more than 50 people can watch this acute political drama during its limited current run. Who knows if it will remain in the repertoire when the new season opens next autumn. I wonder just who of the “moral guardians” in the State Duma or elsewhere might raise the alarm and demand that the play be banned.

The leitmotiv and the message of “Waiting for the Doorbell” is clear — for those who see the truth and are capable of transforming this knowledge into art, the choice between a calm life, at the price of humiliating silence, and eventual calamity for coming into the open, is hard and painful but basically predestined.

Political dissent is not outmoded and futile, though the silent majority shrugs its shoulders when encountering its manifestations in modern Russia — a country that is allegedly “rising from her knees” and seeing new glorious horizons ahead. The natural reaction of the conditioned populace is to try to get such “intellectual misdeeds” out of their minds as soon as possible.

It is high time for the country to be reminded of the ideals on which perestroika was based (incidentally, this has been done recently by none other than Gorbachev himself). Meanwhile, for dissidents and the official opposition (or what stands for it after Boris Nemtsov’s assassination), the task is to ardently advocate a new wave of urgent reform measures in political, social and economic fields.

Andrey Borodaevskiy, an expert on the world economy and international economic relations, was a professor at Seinan Gakuin University, Fukuoka, from 1994 to 2007.

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