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As In 1968, A Few Brave Russians Swim Against The Tide

  • Robert Coalson

Human rights activist Natalya Gorbanevskaya (4th from left) attends a memorial protest action on Red Square in Moscow on August 25, 2013, with the banner "For your freedom and ours."

Human rights activist Natalya Gorbanevskaya (4th from left) attends a memorial protest action on Red Square in Moscow on August 25, 2013, with the banner "For your freedom and ours."

On August 25, 1968, eight Soviet citizens walked out onto Red Square in Moscow and unfurled banners denouncing the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia. "For your freedom and ours," read the most iconic of the banners they held.

The eight -- Larisa Bogoraz, Konstantin Babitsky, Tatyana Bayeva, Vadim Delaunay, Vladimir Dremlyuga, Viktor Fainberg, Natalya Gorbanevskaya, and Pavel Litvinov -- were among the very few of the country's 250 million population who were willing to pay the stiff price for standing up to the government.

"We decided to say: 'No, the entire Soviet people does not support this. We are ashamed. We do not support the Soviet Union in this open act of aggression,'" says Litvinov, who spent five years in Siberian exile for his 1968 statement and was allowed to emigrate in 1974, eventually settling in the United States. "This was a matter of honor, a matter of personal shame, and to the present day I am proud that I was one of the first people in the country to say that."

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Just as it did 47 years ago, Russian society now faces a situation in which an overwhelming majority of the public supports a government that a small minority finds unconscionable. And members of that minority face social opprobrium and fearsome government sanction when they take the bold step of making their objections known.

Pavel Litvinov

Pavel Litvinov

Litvinov, 75, sees quite a few people in the Russia of President Vladimir Putin who can be considered heirs to the legacy established by Soviet-era dissidents like the 1968 Moscow protesters.

"A lot more people are speaking out today [than in 1968], despite the fact that the majority of the population clearly approves of Putin's policies," Litvinov tells RFE/RL. "Nonetheless, there is a certain percentage of people who are not afraid to say they oppose it."

Larisa Bogoraz

Larisa Bogoraz

"Even though we know that 80 percent -- according to polls that are difficult to take at face value -- support the government, I think it is much more interesting that there are 10 or 15 or 20 percent -- it is hard to say how many -- who not only do not support it, but who, when the moment comes, are not afraid to say so," Litvinov says.

Following His 'Internal Constitution'

Konstantin Babitsky

Konstantin Babitsky

Mikhas Kukobaka, 78, also spoke out against the 1968 Czechoslovakia invasion. He wrote a letter denouncing it, for which he was arrested in April 1970. In all he spent nearly 17 years in Soviet prisons and psychiatric facilities.​

"I really didn't consider what I did to be anything in particular," Kukobaka recollects. "I didn't even imagine that someday someone might be interested in what I'd done. I just acted according to my own understanding [of right and wrong]."

Kukobaka emphasizes that he has been guided throughout his life by what he calls his "internal constitution."

Vadim Delaunay

Vadim Delaunay

"Every person has their own constitution in their head," he says. "Maybe it is simpler to call it 'conscience.' It isn't a written constitution that is rewritten five times or is written for you by someone else. The real constitution is in a person's head. I live by that constitution."

Both Litvinov and Kukobaka stress that there was no single incident that turned them from devoted Soviet citizens to dissidents. Litvinov's journey began when he started meeting and talking to people who returned from the gulag camps after Josef Stalin's death in 1953. The infamous 1966 show trial of writers Yuli Daniel and Andrei Sinyavsky also played a crucial role in his transformation, as it did for others who became dissidents.

Vladimir Dremlyuga

Vladimir Dremlyuga

Kukobaka, an electrician by profession who remains proud of his working-class roots, also says the information that became available during the so-called Thaw under Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev led to his political awakening.

"It happened to me amorphously, gradually," Kukobaka recalls. "Information just accumulated.... By 1967 or even 1966, I was already a committed enemy of the ruling regime."

Situation 'Bad, But Not Hopeless'

Viktor Fainberg

Viktor Fainberg

Social processes move more rapidly these days, despite the Russian government's increasingly assertive attempts to control all public discussion.

"The government is now closing down all independent organizations like Memorial and the Sakharov Center, where people could go and talk about Russian history and its cultural achievements," Litvinov says, naming two prominent groups that have come under heavy pressure from the authorities. "The government is shutting all that down."

Natalya Gorbanevskaya

Natalya Gorbanevskaya

In addition, he notes, many potential change agents have opted to leave Russia in recent years -- a development he says is "really tragic." It remains to be seen how far the Russian government will go to prevent a politically potent opposition from developing.

"When the positive side will emerge and how much negative will have to be endured before that, it is hard to say," Litvinov says. "The situation is very bad, but it is not hopeless."

Kukobaka stresses that it does not really take a hero to do something as heroic as he did. "I am simply a person who lives according to his own convictions," he says. "That's all. I live in accord with my conscience."

Written by Robert Coalson on the basis of reporting by RFE/RL Ukrainian Service correspondent Natalia Churikova and RFE/RL Washington correspondent Carl Schreck
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