Russian has an old saying to the effect that, in public, even death is beautiful. Suffering for a just cause is no sin, and if you take the blow in front of the whole world, it increases the emotional impact.
In response to the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968, seven Russian dissidents -- Larisa Bogoraz, Konstantin Babtsky, Vadim Delaunai, Vladimir Dremluga, Pavel Litvinov, Natalya Gorbanevskaya, and Viktor Fainberg -- came out to the center of Red Square in Moscow to protest.
This was a not a public protest.
Unfolding their banners in front of the Kremlin walls with slogans like "For Our Freedom And Yours," these dissidents understood perfectly that this action would not turn them into heroes, would not bring them glory or money or the support of the masses. It was an act of individual civic courage that brought on only endless questioning, arrests, betrayal.
Russia today has problems with freedom, democracy, and human rights. And people today also come out onto public squares, protest, and criticize the authorities. But even the most radical Russian oppositionist today can hardly imagine what it meant to be a dissident in the Soviet Union.All You Could Do
Yes, in Russia today, police beat up demonstrators. Yes, they arrest us and persecute us for political reasons. And, yes, the masters of the Kremlin today even have the epaulets of the Soviet KGB in their dresser drawers. But all the same it is possible in Russia today to fight for your ideas.
In the Soviet Union, all you could do was sacrifice yourself for your ideas.
Although our country is suffering from a profound form of post-imperial syndrome, dissidents from the Soviet era remain a sort of moral touchstone for politicians and political activists who are defending the ideals of liberty in Russia.
All of us, in our minds, try to put ourselves in their shoes, but few of us, I'm sure, would be capable of choosing to walk the path they chose. Dissident, human-rights advocate -- this is not the same as being a politician. It is a completely different human type, a completely different way of life.
This explains why there were almost no dissidents or human-rights advocates among the leaders of Russia's nascent democratic movement in the early 1990s. There were plenty of former members of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, but very few dissidents. And this is one of the reason why the democratic movement collapsed.
It must be admitted that the perestroika generation -- once the object of such high hopes -- failed to become the first "generation of freedom" in the country's history. It would seem that nostalgia for the Soviet past and imperial ambitions are the fate of those people whose personalities were formed during the Soviet epoch.
But who would have thought that the children of the perestroika generation, young Russians now aged 20 to 25, would show such enthusiasm for the revanchist rhetoric of Vladimir Putin and his circle? Who would have thought that my classmates would march through the streets of Russian cities with portraits of the new leader on their T-shirts to the strains of the newly restored Soviet-era national anthem? Who would have thought that this new generation would call not for integration with Europe but for the restoration of "Russia's sphere of interests" among the countries of the former Soviet Union?Ashamed Of My Generation
I can imagine how painful it must be for the surviving dissidents to watch this. And I am ashamed that this is my generation. I am ashamed in front of everyone who sacrificed their lives, who disappeared in Stalin's labor camps or in the endless corridors of the KGB's Lubyanka headquarters, who died in prison or on the execution block.
I suppose the explanation for this phenomenon is hidden in the timeless psychological conflict between parents and children -- Ivan Turgenev's "Fathers and Sons." Our parents destroyed the Iron Curtain of the Soviet Union and raised the banner of liberty. Don't forget that in August we do not only remember the August 25, 1968, demonstration against the invasion of Czechoslovakia, but also the heady days of August 1991, when hundreds of thousands of Russians stood up against the tanks of the anti-Gorbachev coup attempt.
My generation is characterized by shocking cynicism and conformity. But this means that our children will not be like us. God willing, a generation of romantics will come to take our places.
Without that generation, Russia faces a terrifying future.Ilya Yashin, 25, is the leader of the youth wing of Russia's Yabloko party. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
Eyewitnesses To Invasion
On the 40th anniversary, two Czechs and two then-Soviet soldiers remember their parts in history. Play