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Their Struggle Is Now Ours

Aleksandr Gnezdilov
Aleksandr Gnezdilov
On August 25, 1968, seven people went to Red Square to protest against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia: Larisa Bogoraz, Konstantin Babtsky, Vadim Delaunai, Vladimir Dremluga, Pavel Litvinov, Natalya Gorbanevskaya, and Viktor Fainberg.

This was an act of enormous courage in a country in which just 15 years earlier there were tens of millions of innocent people languishing in labor camps. It was an act of civic courage in a country where the government refused to issue internal passports to rural workers, effectively turning them into serfs. A country where it was forbidden to marry a foreigner. A country where workers who complained about the lack food in the stores could be summarily shot."

And it was by far not the only such act during the period from the 1950s to the 1980s. The Soviet authorities made a cottage industry of sending those who disagreed with communist doctrines -- dissidents -- to camps, to prisons, to psychiatric hospitals. They were called "prisoners of conscience" precisely because it was an impossible-to-silence voice inside them that pushed them to protest and destroy their lives.

There were not many of them, considering it was one of the largest countries in the world. Often they did not know about their likeminded comrades and acted alone or in tiny, isolated groups. These people killed no one and did no one any harm. They simply demanded that every person in their country be afforded their natural and legal rights.

But even this simple and obvious goal was intolerable in the Soviet Union. It was an unrealizable dream that was realized two decades after the events of 1968.

The Soviet Union dug its own grave. In a bid to show the world not only the military advantages of the communist system, but the humanitarian ones as well, the state poured enormous resources into education, science, and the arts. All of these spheres were under the strict control of the Communist Party, but the people -- having come into contact with some of the greatest achievements of world culture -- could not be made into slaves.

The ideas that emerged in perestroika had their origins in the period of Nikita Khrushchev's Thaw, which came in the years after Stalin's death. They were connected with the books of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Vladimir Voinovich, and the Strugatsky brothers. They sprang from the theatrical productions of Anatoly Efros, Yury Lyubimov, and Oleg Yefremov. From the films and poems of the '60s generation. From the songs of Vladimir Vysotsky, Bulat Okudzhava, and Aleksandr Galich.
1968 Invasion of Prague
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The dissident-dreamers of this epoch gave so much to us, to our generation. And they paid for it -- some with their health, some with their liberty, and some with their lives.

And what about us? We live with overflowing stores. We travel freely around the world. We have the right to be educated in the field of our choice and to work wherever we like. We have the right to create our own businesses. We can read any books we like, listen to any music. We dress and wear our hair as we choose.

Our directors, poets, writers, and artists are free from the orders of bureaucrats and can create whatever they consider necessary and important. Instead of gray, lifeless cities, we live in fully European megalopolises.

And our dissidents gave us a priceless example of heroism -- peaceful, nonmilitarized heroism. They are a living example for imitation -- they are ideal citizens, people who were not indifferent to the fate of their country. Society should respect and esteem them, be grateful for all their efforts and all they achieved.

But today, on the 40th anniversary of the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia and the Red Square protest, our society is gripped by apathy. Ever since the rise to power of former KGB colonel Vladimir Putin, human rights activists and dissidents have again been accused of fighting against their country. Elections have been falsified across the country; a competitive political environment has been replaced by the domination of the party of bureaucrats; the mass media have been occupied; and potential sponsors of opposition groups have been scared off.

The main television channels have been swallowed up by the government, either directly or through affiliated business structures. They busy themselves with the open defamation of anyone who disagrees with official policies, even to the extent of blatant lies. The mass media assure us the West and especially the United States want to break up Russia, while our only allies are undemocratic China and dictators such as Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Iran's Mahmud Ahmadinejad, Belarus's Alyaksandr Lukashenka, and North Korea's Kim Jong Il.

Young people -- and in recent months, children as well -- have been organized in voluntary-compulsory political groups in order to fight against Russia's enemies. In schools and institutes there is less and less scholarship and more teaching of topics such as military preparedness and the foundations of Orthodoxy. There is more and more propaganda of Stalinism and fascism in society -- including among the youth -- while textbooks say less and less about the rivers of blood that communism brought to our country. There are signs that some in our leadership are adopting positive views of Stalin.

Russia has resumed an aggressive, expansionist foreign policy, even becoming entangled in a bloody conflict on the territory of Georgia that seems reminiscent of the Soviet Union's shameful and disastrous war in Afghanistan.

Too many of us understood the concept of free choice among political parties and candidates as an opportunity not to participate in politics at all. Too many of us, faced with the chance to read thousands of books and hundreds of newspapers, preferred not to read books at all or to buy only vulgar newspapers full of scandals and gossip. Too many of us preferred not to know what was going on in our country and to read only about the personal lives of the stars of stage and screen.

Once the government was no longer interested in showing the world that its system was superior to all others, the state left science, education, health care, and culture without a kopeck of support. As a result, the average Russian man today will not live to reach retirement age; the typical level of education in the country is catastrophically low; superstition and aggression are on the rise throughout society.

It must be hard indeed for Soviet-era activists and dissidents to see how Russia today has regressed, how it has moved into a dead end with a regressive and hopeless outcast government.

I am writing this text most of all to let them know that there are young people in Russia who know and who are capable. Who know the recent history of our country and who are capable of continuing along the necessary path. And doing so is much easier in today's Russia -- thanks to the generation of the '60s.

The seeds of August 1968 fell on stony ground and most of their heirs were ungrateful. Most, but not all. Some of the seeds sprouted and there are young people today who are fighting for democracy, liberty, and human rights in Russia alongside the older generations of liberals. There aren't many of us, but maybe there are about as many as there were Soviet dissidents in 1968.

Our dreams seem unlikely. Our activities -- against the background or massive counterprotests -- seem insignificant. But the same can be said of the dreams of the seven Red Square protesters. The same can be said of their action, of their self-sacrifice.

Russia's path to a free society, unfortunately, has been the most complicated of all the countries of Europe. However, the country has no other path. Russia collapsed twice in the 20th century -- first, as an imperial monarchy and then as a totalitarian dictatorship.

Soviet-era dissidents, even in the impossible conditions of a totalitarian state, were the connecting link between the democratic intelligentsias of the beginning and the end of the 20th century. Thanks to them, there was a cultural and political continuity despite the years of bloody Soviet terror.

Unfortunately, the mistakes of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin and their indecisive and incomplete condemnation of totalitarianism meant that we were unable to build a solid, reliable democracy.

When I was a teenager in the late 1990s, I read books by dissidents such as Vladimir Bukovsky and Valeria Novodvorskaya and I was glad that I and my generation did not have to face their tribulations. But just a few years later I found myself participating in demonstrations in defense of NTV and protesting the firing of journalists that Putin didn't like and I understood that we would have to continue their struggle.

And it has turned out to be harder than I could have imagined. But when I think about the Soviet dissidents and read their books and articles, I sense a feeling of protest rising up in me, a feeling that compels me to participate in public life and will not allow me to stand silently to the side.

And I see people beside me, my friends, who share this feeling, a consuming feeling that does not turn one into a fanatic or a superman, but merely pushes one to act according to one's conscience and convictions. And this is because of the seven people who went to Red Square on August 25, 1968. It is because of all the Soviet dissidents and the participants of the Prague Spring, because of everyone who insists on human rights and human dignity.

To all of them, thank you.

Aleksandr Gnezdilov, 22, is a theater director and an activist with the youth wing of the Moscow branch of Yabloko. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

Prague Spring Video

End Of Prague Spring
Eyewitnesses To Invasion

On the 40th anniversary, two Czechs and two then-Soviet soldiers remember their parts in history. Play