Wednesday, August 26, 2015

"Land of rulers, land of slaves"

In 1840 Mikhail Lermontov, one of Russia's greatest poets and an army officer, was exiled, after a duel, to the Caucasus where Russia, as is her wont, was fighting a prolonged war against the Chechens and the Dagestani. This was his second exile from St Petersburg, the first being in 1837 after he had written a brilliant and vitriolic poem about Alexander Pushkin's death in a duel.

On his way to the Caucasus Lermontov wrote:

Прощай немытая Россия,
Страна рабов, страна господ,
И вы, мундиры голубые,
И ты, послушный им народ.

My slightly hasty translation of the quatrain is this:

Farewell to you, unwashed Russia,
Land of rulers, land of slaves,
Farewell to you blue uniforms,
And to you, submissive people.

It is hard not to think of those lines as one reads and watches the news from Russia.

August 25 is the anniversary of the protest in the Red Square when, in 1968, just four days after the Soviet tanks had rolled into Prague to put an end to "Communism with a human face" (frankly a silly idea but, as Brezhnev realized, other things might grow out of it), eight people came out to demonstrate their disgust with the action of their government. They carried placards with the old slogan: За Вашу и Нашу Свободу, For Your Freedom and Ours.

They and their comrades paid a heavy price for their stance and their names, Larisa Bogoraz, Konstantin Babitsky, Tatyana Bayeva, Vadim Delaunay, Vladimir Dremlyuga, Viktor Fainberg, Natalya Gorbanevskaya, and Pavel Litvinov, ought to be better known than they are.

Well, time has gone on, the Soviet Union is no more, and the news that came from Russia yesterday on the anniversary of this event was that the illegally arrested Ukrainian film director Oleh Sentsov and his co-defendant Oleksandr  Kolchenko were sentenced to twenty years and ten years hard labour in strict regime camps for alleged terrorist plotting for which there is no evidence. It is true that they have both criticized the Russian occupation of Ukraine and in the feverish imagination of the Russian authorities that is equivalent to terrorist activity. In fact, judging by the sentence it is even worse.

It seems that the people of Russia have decided not to pay attention to any of these problems and, to be fair, there is now a safety valve for many: if they wish and can raise the money they can leave for the West, something that was not open to them in 1968. Later on, of course, dissidents were either pushed out of strongly advised to leave.

Does anyone still stand up for their freedom and others' in Russia itself? Certainly. We hear about some and we know that these have often ended badly or, at the very least, have had a bad time. As long as they are only individuals the authorities can pick them off; with mass demonstrations they tend to stand back and restrain themselves.

Thanks to Radio Liberty we now have a list of another eight people, so far less well known in the West than Navalny, Politkovskaya, Khodorkovsky, Nemtsov and the Pussy Riot girls, who have dared to say what they thought of the regime, regardless of personal consequences. So far they have had difficulties but are still alive and reasonably well. But, as in the days of the Soviet Union and the dissidents they need to be watched.

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