There are many problems with this blog (what blog, I hear you say, you call this occasional bit of flimsy posting a blog?) but the one thing I have never worried or felt uncertain about is the title, as I wrote in the very first posting. I was reminded again about its essential rightness on Monday when I attended an event of great interest at the Legatum Institute.
We watched They Chose Freedom, a film written and produced by the journalist, Vladimir Kara-Murza, who, as I have pointed out before, has written some of the most interesting and sensible articles about the situation in Ukraine and Russia in the last few months. The film follows, in four parts, the history of the Soviet dissident movement from its tentative beginnings in the 1950s to its supposed triumph in 1991 when the USSR collapsed at least partly because of the constant undermining of it by the dissidents with support from the West.
A crucial episode in that history took place in 1968: three days after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia eight protesters,Larisa Bogoraz, Konstantin Babitsky, Vadim Delaunay, Vladimir Dremliuga, Pavel Litvinov, Natalya Gorbanevskaya, Viktor Fainberg, and Tatiana Baeva, decided to show the world or, at least, their own masters that there were some people in the Soviet Union who did not support the "fraternal assistance" so generously given to the people of Czechoslovakia. With a courage that few of us can even begin to understand they made some posters and went to the Red Square where they sat down at what the film kept referring to as the Place of Skulls that is Lobnoye Mesto, the place of past executions, and unfurled them for all to see.
The demonstration did not last long: they were surrounded by KGB men, badly beaten, and marched off to the Lubyanka. The subsequent trial created a sensation abroad; some were sentenced to hard labour, some to internal exile and two, Gorbanevskaya and Fainberg, were incarcerated in a lunatic asylum, the first of many dissidents to whom this was going to happen.
One of the posters,held by Pavel Litvinov, also interviewed in the film, had those words on it: За Вашу и Нашу Свободу (For Your Freedom and Ours). An important moment in the fight for freedom in the Soviet Union, the Communist world and Russia.
Despite the film consisting largely of interviews with a few short news reels inserted here and there, it was fascinating to all, those who could remember and those who have merely heard about the long struggle.
Then we came to the last section, sadly and predictably entitled History Repeats Itself?. Is history repeating itself in Russia? Well, not precisely, not even as a farce, thought an analysis of that will require several long postings but it is undoubtedly true that the high hopes of the collapse of the Soviet Union, of the lowering of the Red Flag and raising of the Russian tricolour, of the defeat of the 1991 coup, were soured in very short order. One reason, I have told some of my Russian oppositionist friends in London, why it is difficult to get people in Britain to support their events and demonstrations is the widespread feeling that there is no point in it: whatever happens Russia will end up with a nasty dictatorship that is oppressive, aggressive and economically illiterate. Thankfully for all concerned, Putin is no Stalin but then the Russia of today with its economic problems, its low birthrate and ever lower life expectancy as well as the high level of emigration is not the Soviet Union either, merely its echo, dangerous because it is so angry in its powerlessness.
The discussion afterwards with Vladimir Kara-Murza and Vladimir Bukovsky was considerably less interesting than the film though it revolved round the present situation. What hope is there for Russia was the gist of much of the discussion and the responses were various with the two speakers sometimes agreeing but more often contradicting each other or even themselves.
Some things are clear. It is no longer eight people but 50,000 who come out to demonstrate against Russian aggression as we saw in Moscow over Ukraine and Crimea; people are ready to come out in their thousands to demonstrate against what they see, rightly, as fraud in elections; oppositionists appear to be winning against the apparently mighty Putin government, who, in return, snarls and constrains ever more what is left of the independent media. And yet, there is a feeling that this is not going anywhere.
The fourth part of the film mourned the fact that while in Eastern Europe, particularly in Poland and Czechoslovakia, there was a real regime change and dissident leaders came to power (sadly both Lech Wałesa and Václav Havel turned out to be of considerably less use as political leaders than as dissidents), in Russia the same apparatchiks took over with, as the film did not mention, a number of the old security services and their families becoming the first beneficiaries of privatization. A few dissidents were allowed to sit in the new parliament or accompany Boris Yeltsin on his trips abroad where he garnered the West's applause. Not to put too fine a point on it, the dissidents were had and a number of those interviewed in the film said so.
There are many reasons why post-Communist history developed differently in different countries (yet more postings are needed) but one opinion is ever more frequently voiced and it upsets some Russians. In particular, it upsets Vladimir Kara-Murza. Russians, one hears it over and over again, do not have democracy in their DNA. Mr Kara-Murza considers that insulting as well he might. How can a culture that produced the likes of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky not have democracy in its DNA, he asked rhetorically. It is, of course, irrelevant comments like that, which make one feel that, regardless of DNA, there is no real understanding of what democracy might be in Russia and among Russians. (To be absolutely fair, that problem arises in countries that have had some form of democracy for many years as well.)
What, one might ask, has the existence of great writers who flourished under an authoritarian system and who, for different reasons, had no time at all for democracy, to do with that political system and whether the people have it in their DNA or not. So far as I know nobody asked it, being far too polite.
Mr Kara-Murza's other argument was slightly more weighty. Look at the three more or less free elections Russia has had, in 1906, in 1917 and in 1991. The results, according to him, proved that Russians, when given a chance, vote against tyranny. Well, up to a point, Lord Copper, to quote Evelyn Waugh's great novel, Scoop. Who, one has to ask, is it who makes sure that Russians get so few chances to have anything resembling a free election?
Of the three elections cited, it was only the first one, in 1906 that could be said to have inaugurated a period of rapid development in that country, in political and economic terms, but that was only partially because of the Duma elections that did, indeed, result in a victory by the liberal Cadet party. There were many reasons why that happened, not least the fact that some socialist parties boycotted the whole process. In any case, subsequent Dumas were elected under greater government control. Nevertheless, the period 1906 to 1914 did see a growth in freedom in Russia, not just in the Duma but in local government (zemstvos), newspapers and publishing, the existence of political parties and a rapid development in privately held and controlled business. Prime Minister Stolypin's reforms tried to change the whole concept of land ownership, which, had the process been allowed to run its course, would have changed Russia for ever. In other words, elections matter less than many other factors and it is these factors that were missing both in 1917 and in 1991; they are missing still, though a great part of the economy is now in private hands.
The 1917 elections took place after the Bolshevik coup and were, therefore, hardly free, what with Cadet politicians being murdered and meetings broken up. Nevertheless, it is true that the Bolsheviks did not win, the Socialist Revolutionaries did by a large percentage. Mr Kara-Murza did not mention this as he would have had to explain that, as a matter of fact, the SRs were not exactly great believers in democracy or freedom either. In any case, the Constituent Assembly was dissolved by the Bolsheviks after a day and a half and that was the end of that for more than seven decades.
That leaves us with the 1991 Presidential election, one that many of us remember. Standing as an Independent, Boris Yeltsin won by a large percentage (though if one added up the votes cast for all the various Communist candidates, that percentage became somewhat smaller). It was, indeed, a vote against a Communist system and for a man who, though himself a former Communist apparatchik, seemed to stand up against that system, to represent the great Russian future.
As we know, the great hopes of the Yeltsin era shrivelled to nothing. There are many possible "what ifs" we can ask. What if Boris Nikolayevich had been a stronger person? What if the price of gas and oil, which was very low throughout those years, had been as high as they became under Putin, thus enabling Yeltsin or the people around him to sort out the Russian economy in the nineties? What if the speedy privatization, strongly insisted on by a number of Western advisers and implemented by a Russian politicians like Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais had not turned into a grab-as-you-can catastrophe but had been conducted in an orderly and legitimate fashion? What if so many of the so-called "democrats", that is supporters of Gaidar and others had not been seen as having their eyes on the main chance as well? And so on. The fact is, that many of those questions do lead us into the difficult territory of Russian attitudes to matters such as private property, legal protection for it and freedom under the law.
Somewhere in Vladimir Bukovsky's book about his life as a dissident, To Build a Castle, he discourses on the theme of why has it been so difficult to build a more or less free society in Russia. After all, he says, we Russians understand the concept of rights as well as anyone else. [I quote from memory.] Even when I read that book, soon after its publication, I thought "yes, so you do, and that has been proved on various occasions, but do you understand the concept of duty". Certainly the dissidents understood it very clearly and, one imagines, so do the present-day oppositionists as well as the people who go out on those demonstrations again and again, their duty to their conscience, to their country and, as Pavel Litvinov's poster proved, to other people.
We need to go beyond that, though, and ask ourselves whether there are any political ideas coming out of the oppositionist movement. There was a great deal of discussion of whether Putin has an ideology or merely some kind of a vague world view that he can offer to people inside or outside the country. There was no discussion of whether any of the oppositionist leaders have anything of the kind. I was going to ask about it but put my hand up too late as the Moderator decided to wind up the formal proceedings.
This was the problem with the dissidents, by and large. They knew very clearly what they were against but few had any ideas of what they wanted in its place. The ideas that did float around were contradictory and often rather weak. The one exception was presented by the Andrei Sakharov, who outlined some very cogent ideas that, if put into place, might well have placed Russia on a path to a democratic state with a strong legal structure. This, together with the dissidents' inability to form functional political parties, contributed to the unfortunate developments in Russia after 1991.
The problems is that I cannot see anything coming out of the oppositionist movement (in so far as there is one) that goes beyond the negative: largely demands for honesty in politics and economics and a destruction of the corrupt autocratic regime. Nothing wrong with that and we, in the West, are duty-bound to support those demands and those movements. But, suppose the regime collapsed as the Soviet one did? Which people, which organizations, which ideas would come to the fore?
Well, there are the National Bolsheviks in their various guises, all under the leadership of Eduard Limonov, who may be said to have some coherent ideas but as these consist of bits of those ideologies that destroyed millions of people in the twentieth century, they are not going to get a great deal of support even in Russia where political ideas are scarce. (At least one hopes so.) Apart from them, the only person who is slowly building up a sequence of ideas and actions, seems to be Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the man Putin was going to destroy a decade or so ago but who has clearly triumphed over the President. Will he become the new Alexander Herzen? As his appearances in Ukraine (where he spoke in Russian, incidentally, and was greeted with huge ovations) show, he is certainly one who understands the slogan "For Your Freedom And Ours".
ADDENDUM: Readers might find a couple of old postings interesting: this one about the Russian writer Lyudmila Ulitskaya and this one at my old blogging home about a discussion on the subject of Samizdat at the Centre for Research into Post-Communist Economies.