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12 February 2000
From: Kgessen@aol.com (Keith Gessen)
Date: Fri, 11 Feb 2000
Subject: Exiles on Main Street: Soviet Dissidents in the U.S. of A.
Exiles on Main Street: Soviet Dissidents in the U.S. of A.
by Keith Gessen
Unabridged version, with photos, at
[For personal use only]
Certain expressions discover their true selves only after many detours, in
another language and another time. Thus it was that the "dustheap of
history," coined in 1885 by English gentleman-essayist Augustine Birrell,
became, in 1917, the property of Leon Trotsky, who substituted for it the
Russian svalka. As Bolshevik soldiers slowly encircled the Winter Palace,
Trotsky, infuriated by Menshevik opposition to the coup, cried: "Let them
go! They are just so much refuse to be swept into the svalka of history!"
On the scene, John Reed translated svalka as "garbage heap," but it has
since often reverted to the politer "dust-heap," or even "dust-bin," which
is politer still. Stronger stuff is needed, and the fact is that, unlike
Russians, who throw things out indiscriminately and immediately whether
they are standing near a garbage can or a lake, Americans usually find
their way to a clearly labeled trash receptacle, and consequently don't
have "garbage heaps" as such. We do have town dumps, however, and that's
exactly what a svalka is. It's a town dump.
I have been poking around, then, in the town dump of history. This
particular dump is an odd one, however, populated by people who should,
according to the historical logic of which Trotsky was so mercilessly fond,
be driving past it in fancy cars. It is odd, almost outrageous to find
here the Soviet dissidents who inaugurated a human-rights movement against
a regime that seemed destined to last a thousand years. Through smuggled
letters and books about the system (most notably Solzhenitsyn's), the
dissidents exerted tremendous influence on Western public opinion, which in
many countries was still informed by Communist apologists such as Sartre,
and they paid a heavy price for it. The Soviets had been getting bad press
in the West since the thirties and they were, after all, trying to take
over the world. The regime reacted, therefore, with disproportionate
force: protesters were beaten in the streets by plainclothed KGB agents,
incarcerated in psychiatric institutions, sent to waste away in labor
camps, and, after 1972, were often exiled to the West.
"Hopelessly cut off from the rest of the world, they thought at least that
world was like themselves," Joseph Brodsky wrote of the Soviet sixties
generation. "Now they know that it is like others, except better dressed."
Brodsky wasn't a big fan of America, and it's not hard to figure why -- on
his frequent trips from Northampton, Massachusetts to Brooklyn, he was
forced to drive through Connecticut. Picture, for a moment, this: On the
way down to New York to meet with several former dissidents, I, too, am
driving through Connecticut. With a $300 speeding ticket outstanding in
the state, I drive like an angel. The number of cops on the road is
appalling, and while the New York state line is my only hope, when I near
Manchester and spot a Wal-Mart I steer for the exit. I cannot help it;
Wal-Mart sells good things cheap, and there aren't many in Cambridge. When
I get off the exit, however, I find, instead of a leafy town with a
Wal-Mart on the outskirts, an enormous strip mall. Surrounded by a
scrupulously maintained bucolic area, with woodchips by the roadside, is a
mountain range of national chain stores and Saharan parking lots that
extend for several miles. It is a Sunday, traffic is heavy, my tape deck
is broken, and no matter where I scan and seek vapid classic rock
insinuates itself into my car as if by the will, as Vaclav Havel might have
it, of some eternal Being.
Connecticut is no hub of Soviet dissidence, but consider this scene (a man
slowly wending his way past BJ's, Staples, the Banana Republic, listening
to Jethro Tull) the backdrop for everything that follows. This is where
the dissidents landed, and where, during the eight long years since their
enemies seemingly capitulated, they became historical refuse. It has been
said that though the Jews survived the Holocaust, they might not survive
America. Might this have happened to the Soviet dissidents? Have they, too,
melted into the landscape? The act of resistance and oppression was, at
times, a dance. And though we never had trouble telling the dancers apart,
the geopolitical music has, jarringly, stopped, and it is not yet certain
Last Fall was a bitter one for Russian readers of the Western press. No
matter where one turned, prosperous Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, and Germans
were celebrating, like so many laughing hyenas of capitalism, the tenth
anniversaries of their respective revolutions. American journalists
returned time and again to the moral exultation of those heady days.
"Nobody predicted the fall of Communism," Roger Cohen wrote in The New York
Times Magazine. "The physical forces did not exist within the country to
bring it about. It was a victory of moral conviction. A silent victory."
To which one wishes to reply, with Hemingway: Yes, isn't it pretty to think
so? Though a few articles have criticized the former dissidents for
compromises undergone in the service of the new Central European order, the
resounding note is one of triumph. Until, that is, the conversation turns
to Soviet dissidents, uncompromised and unsullied in their Connecticuts,
and then a cloud of failure fills the room.
What went wrong? This is the question with which any discussion of Russia
must now begin, no matter what justified optimism we feel about the Central
European countries, and no matter how much residual brightness still
lingers from years of phantom Russian growth. In Russia, things have gone
terribly wrong. Andrei Sakharov is dead, Alexander Solzhenitsyn is
politically unpalatable, Russian boys are again storming Grozny, and many
who served as a shining examples of moral and political courage in the dark
years before the collapse of the empire -- too many -- are scattered across
the drear suburban plains of New Jersey, and Massachusetts, and the
distant, barely subwayed regions of Brooklyn, where people go to disappear.
"Why," asks Yuri Yarim-Agaev, a physicist and former Moscow Helsinki Group
activist who was forced to leave Russia in 1980, "why aren't the only
people who fought against this system, who risked their lives and their
careers to fight it, who hastened its collapse -- why aren't these people
in power in Russia? Not only are they not in power, [the ones who stayed
in Russia] have nothing to live on. All these criminals who supposedly
lost their power and privileges in 1991 -- and how! -- they seem to be
"Meanwhile, those who fought them, the only people who did so, are in this
sort of situation... Look at Yuri Fedorov. He was in the camps 17 years.
You'd think he could be resting somewhere in a comfortable place. It's
Fedorov himself, when I visit him at his home on 110th Street in Manhattan,
does not put it this way. In 1962, he was sentenced to three years in a
Soviet labor camp in Mordovia for printing political pamphlets, the content
of which he can hardly recall today. That first sentence is a relatively
fond memory for Fedorov, who was just 18 when it began. "It was my
education," he says. "There were so many professors and students there...
We had books you couldn't get anywhere else."
Five years after his release, however, he "traded," as Sakharov put it,
"the unbearably difficult life of a former political prisoner for the even
more difficult life of a current political prisoner" when, along with 11
others, he plotted to hijack a plane out of Leningrad, fly it to Sweden,
and there demand political asylum and passage to Israel. Armed with 11
truncheons and an inoperable pistol, the group was apprehended at the
airport; Fedorov says they expected no other outcome, and that the whole
operation was meant merely to draw attention to Jews unable to leave the
Soviet Union despite increasing persecution. It did so spectacularly.
When the two leaders of the attempt were sentenced to death, world opinion
swung mightily into gear: The sentences were hastily commuted to time in
labor camps, and the Jewish emigration movement, which would secure exit
visas for 250,000 people over the next 10 years (among them my family),
began in earnest.
While most of the would-be hijackers were released before their sentences
were finished (either through trades or due to immense pressure from the
international Jewish community), Fedorov, who is not Jewish, was forced to
serve out his entire 15 years. Two years after his 1985 release, he was in
New York, and now lives in a heavily Jewish portion of the upper Upper West
Side. He is a quiet, thoughtful, and polite man; the rancor one might
associate with plane hijackers, even fake plane hijackers, is conspicuously
absent. Smoking the obligatory Benson & Hedges (what doth it profit a man
if he emigrate to the West but cannot smoke fancy cigarettes?), he is
wearing a white dress shirt and suspenders when I come to see him, and,
with a trim gray beard, looks more like a history professor than a man who
spent more than half his adult life in Soviet labor camps. I wonder why he
hasn't repatriated, now that the regime he fought has crumbled.
"When I returned to Moscow, after the camps," he says, "it was no longer my
city. I knew it well, I remembered it well, but there was nothing there
for me. I was part of that culture, it was my culture, but I got cut off
from it. The strings that bind you break. One string breaks, then
another. And suddenly, the guitar no longer plays."
He had not visited Russia again until he came for a week in July of 1998.
What he saw of his old friends upset him terribly. "These people, they
fall through the cracks," he says. "Maybe they would have anyway, but it
doesn't help if they couldn't make a career because of their politics."
Immediately upon his return to the States Fedorov founded the Gratitude
Fund, a nonprofit organization that collects aid for former dissidents. He
has compiled a list of 50 people whose lives were damaged in such a way
that they can no longer support themselves, and is now sending financial
aid to seven of them. Of course, there are many people who cannot support
themselves in Russia, but the moral distance between a person who lost a
fairly comfortable job within the subsidized Soviet economy and one who
spent his years in active resistance to the regime is significant.
Further, it was part of the sly genius of Gorbachev's perestroika that it
allowed the Party bureaucracy to make the necessary ideological or
shareholding adjustments, so that by the time the whole edifice collapsed
it was difficult to remember who was who, and people for the most part
remained in their places. "Hundreds of former political prisoners, unjustly
forgotten, now live in poverty," the Fund's website
[http://home.att.net/~y.fedorov/gfund-main.home.html] points out. The
dissidents, it seemed, had won. But the victory, if such it was, has been
unaccompanied by sustenance, not to mention spoils.
"I wouldn't be able to help them from over there [in Russia]. Who's got
time, over there? But to many people in this country, who emigrated, these
names mean a great deal."
Fedorov shows me his list: under each name, it details prison, camp, and
psychiatric hospital sentences -- two years, five years, ten years -- and
the nature of the crime -- disseminating the human-rights publication
Chronicle of Current Events, protesting the invasion of Hungary, a number
of "fabricated cases." I am surprised to see how many widows of former
political prisoners are on the list, but I shouldn't be. That's what the
camps were for.
"To put it bluntly," Yarim-Agaev asks when I arrive at his home, in
Aberdeen, New Jersey, "why didn't the dissidents come to power?" Aberdeen
is one of those towns alongside the New Jersey Turnpike, about an hour from
the Holland Tunnel, whose purpose seems exclusively domicilic. The houses
are set off the streets by lawns, but there are neither proper sidewalks
nor convenience stores. The town is divided into lettered sections; all
the street names in a section begin with the same letter, creating
incongruous combinations penned by some Hallmark drone of a city planner,
apparently under orders to keep the homes costly. Thus, Idle Stone Road and
Ivy Rock Lane. When I enter, Yarim-Agaev is watching a Republican debate
on C-Span. We sit in the living room and talk about Yuri Fedorov's
Gratitude Fund, where Yarim-Agaev sits on the Board of Directors with three
other distinguished dissidents.
"It's an absurd situation," says Yarim-Agaev, who was a member of the
Moscow Helsinki Watch group that monitored and reported on Soviet
human-rights violations before being forced into exile in 1980. "Talking
about it makes it seem less absurd. But it's absurd."
And Yarim-Agaev, who then ran the Center for Democracy in the Soviet Union
out of a New York office until 1991, blames everyone.
"I don't think of it in terms of Left-Right politics, but in terms of the
status quo. The U.S. was faced with a question: Do we keep this weakened,
corrupt nomenklatura, that at least knows the rules of the game, Do we
keep, that is, the status quo; or, do we support a group of people who have
proven their independence through the most difficult trials? I think the
West made the simplest decision and chose the nomenklatura."
Dissidence is a state of mind for Yarim-Agaev, dangerous no matter what its
political orientation. "Had I been here in the sixties," he says, "I would
probably have been protesting the Vietnam War. But I would have been wrong.
The Soviet dissidents were blessed, as funny as that sounds, in that the
system we were fighting was the most evil force on earth. So when we
developed, we developed in the right direction, into a very sophisticated
political and philosophical movement. The Vietnam War was a war the U.S.
was right to be fighting.
"Our problem in America was that the people whose psychology was closest to
us, in terms of protesting, were politically against us. And, really, by
the time we came around [in the mid-seventies and eighties], there wasn't
much left of the protest; there was just a Left establishment."
By the time Yarim-Agaev was allowed to visit Russia, in the fall of that
year, too much had changed. "I came with a program, I was on television, I
did interviews. Maybe it was a crossroads still, but by then all the
places of power were taken." He has been back several times since then,
and a few months before the ruble plummeted in August 1998, drawing on his
experience at Banker's Trust and DeutscheBank, Yarim-Agaev even offered a
financial stabilization plan to the Russian higher-ups. No one was
interested. "No one really cared about stabilizing the economy," he says.
"They just cared about stuffing their pockets."
And though he has theories aplenty to explain what went wrong, none seem
adequate. "All the forces of this world were ranged against us," he says,
an opinion shared by nearly everyone I spoke to. "And the truth is, a
large part of Soviet society didn't want us."
"That Yuri Fedorov has to start a fund to help dissidents, while the people
they supposedly defeated are perfectly comfortable, it's absurd," he
repeats. "And talking about it makes it seem less absurd."
So we stop talking. It is past midnight when I leave the house. What else
to do? You come in, you try to extract from these people some vision of
their situations, and then you leave. Everyone I talk to, when I leave
them, seems sad, as if our conversation were an opportunity for
distillation -of their ideas, their ambitions, their lives-which they
failed, somehow, to realize. It is at least partially my fault, because
I'm a lousy interviewer; I don't direct the conversation and I never seem
get around to the really tough questions. I let them go on and on, and
boy are these dissidents capable of it. And Yarim-Agaev, especially,
seemed comfortable with the journalist; well reasoned and consistent, his
speech is honed to work in the carefully measured bites that used to be so
effective when he was in Moscow, in the good old days, relaying scoops to
the Western press.
Since it is past midnight when I get back in my rickety Nissan, and it is
Thursday, I hear the rumbling timbre of Bob Fass on WBAI, 99.5 on your FM
dial. Fass is a legend, a holdover from the capital-S Sixties whose show
consists of old, extremely maladjusted hippies recounting their unhappy
stories. Talk about the town dump of history. When I lived in New York,
Fass's "Radio Unnamable" was my "Seinfeld" and my "Monday Night Football."
I'd make certain I was in the car, or at home, or someplace where a radio
was. It's a remarkable show, moving and irrelevant and somehow broadcast
as if into a void... and you realize, listening to it, that these people
lost, too, that the moral-political movements generated by the sixties,
both here and in Russia, failed in remarkably similar ways, and their human
wreckage now populates the same suburban expanses. As the moral rhetoric
of the American sixties was hijacked by Clinton, so Yeltsin managed to
appropriate the dissidents' moral authority at the tail end of Perestroika.
But there is no call-in show for Soviet dissidents, no "Woodstock: The
Movie," no ads for Nike running shoes. Out here, in the suburbs, there is
merely the trash collecting on Tuesdays, cable television, and a telephone
that could, however improbably, still ring.
At the end of Tender is the Night, Fitzgerald allows Nicole a moment of
nostalgic rumination on the fate of her failed ex-husband, Dick Diver.
Perhaps, she thinks, Dick is merely biding his time, is waiting it out,
"like Grant in Galena," before recovering his former glory. Driving away
from Yarim-Agaev's house, listening to the endearing crazies of the Bob
Fass show, I think of this line that had lodged itself in my mind before I
ever learned what it meant. Which was this: Ulysses S. Grant, back home
after being forced from the Army for drunkenness, was eventually consigned
to working at the family store, in Galena, Illinois. Depressed,
humiliated, a failure in everything he had ever tried, Grant perked up a
bit when the war clouds approached and, a month before Bull Run, sent a
letter to the War Department. "I feel myself competent to command a
regiment," Grant wrote, and, like Yarim-Agaev in Aberdeen, with his plan to
revive the Russian economy, received no reply.
In New York (or, rather, directly across the river, in Jersey City), I stay
with my friend Matvei Yankelevich, a conceptualist writer, a phenomenal
dresser, and the publisher, most recently, of Emergency, a samizdat
theater-theory-manifesto broadsheet. Matvei comes from a famous dissident
family: his grandmother is Elena Bonner, whose late husband was the
physicist Andrei Sakharov, Nobel Peace Prize winner and dissident saint.
It was because of Sakharov that Matvei's father, Efrem, was forced from his
job and was immediately calumniated in the Soviet press for being a "lazy
slacker." Twenty-five years later, Bonner, who divides her time between
Moscow and Boston, and continues to voice her dissent against the criminal
Russian regime, calumniates Matvei for being a "lazy slacker" and declares
that the one thing she wants before she dies is for him to get a Master's
degree and a steady job.
"I don't know," he says to me, his grandmother's moral stature heavy on his
shoulders. "Maybe I should."
I convince him that he shouldn't, and we spend the afternoon drinking tea
and kicking a soccer ball around his loft. Matvei's translations of the
avant-garde poet Daniil Kharms, who died in a Leningrad prison in 1942,
recently appeared in Open City. I tell Matvei he's the dissident now, and
that his family is oppressing him.
"I'm no dissident," he laughs. "Maybe because I refuse to enter the 9-5
gulag and have psychological problems with holding a steady job... but my
father was forced out of work and threatened with prison and forced into
exile. It's not the same thing, I don't think."
Matvie does, partially, have a point. Efrem Yankelevich never settled down
to a steady career in the States, despite a degree in engineering. He
dedicated himself instead to lobbying for Sakharov's release from exile in
Gorky, where he had been forced in 1980 after criticizing the Soviet
invasion of Afghanistan. After Sakharov's release under Gorbachev, Efrem,
who has since moved to Israel, where he does some writing and translating
work, continued to serve as Sakharov's spokesman in the West. What ended
for Yarim-Agaev's Center for Democracy and the many publishing houses and
émigré journals, and, really, for an enormous industry of
dissidence in 1991, ended a little earlier for Efrem with Sakharov's death,
in December 1989.
"For my father, I think, it was very hard after the Soviet Union fell
apart," says Matvei. "That was pretty much what he did. After my
grandfather died, he didn't really know what to do. Dad was Grandpa's
representative in the West, and after he died, he didn't really know what
If Sakharov became the leader of the movement soon after after joining it,
Alexander Yesenin-Volpin was nonetheless its father and philosopher. A
renowned mathematical linguist, Volpin had already been incarcerated twice
against his will in psychiatric institutions when the writers Yuli Daniel
and Andrei Sinyavsky were arrested in 1965 for publishing their work
abroad. Volpin organized a demonstration in the center of Moscow demanding
that the trial be open to the public. At the appointed moment, he unfurled
a banner -- "Respect the Constitution" -- and launched the Soviet
"There is a concept in linguistics that divides a sentence into its code
and its content," says Alexander Gribanov of the Sakharov Archive at
Brandeis University. "What Volpin ... did was set up a code, whose content
was not yet determined, by which to act in a free society. He pretended
that this society already existed."
Volpin now lives in a hulking concrete housing project for the elderly in
Revere, an eyesore among the neighborhood's vinyl-sided one-family houses.
Revere itself is a working-class town distinguished by residents with thick
Boston accents. Volpin, one of the first dissidents forced to leave, in
1972, has found himself a most incongruous place to land -- it is almost as
if he were hiding out. It occurs to me, then, as I approach the squat,
massive building, that, paradigmatically, I am Nazi-hunting. The town dump
of history, as Trotsky knew so well, is where the losers go, and there is a
suspicion in America, expressed in countless movies and novels, that
escaped Nazis, those Über-losers themselves, still hide somewhere in our
suburbs, hoping only for a quiet, normal life. Yet the people I am
searching out are heroes, legends, men of unquestionable courage and
Volpin is now 75 years old, but I find his tiny one-bedroom apartment
cluttered with file cabinets and notebooks. Out of all this he directs my
attention to two neatly hand written sheets of incomprehensible
mathematical notations that lie on the floor atop The Boston Globe.
Volpin is working, he tells me, on proof theory, and he expects to
revolutionize the field. "First, no one will understand it," he says. "Then
no one will believe it. They won't know what to do with it for a while.
They've been teaching it one way for 70 years, and now they'll have to
teach it another way."
He shrugs, smiles. He has all the stage props of a mad scientist--the
careless white hair on the balding head, the wispy white beard whose ends
he occasionally tugs, and the disturbing conviction that he's about to
overturn a scientific orthodoxy--but instead of the desperate plea for
understanding, he is quietly, abashedly sure of himself. He speaks with a
slight aristocratic drawl and seems to find everything he's done entirely
unexceptional. "I was never a politician," he says. "Politics is trying
to get power, and making laws, decrees. That wasn't me. I just did what
every conscientious citizen would do." In the same shrugging, smiling
tone, he explains what he considers perfectly obvious: "You have to fight
the power, wherever it is, and you have to tell it when it lies." Shrug.
Smile. "You have to say, 'Damn you, you're lying!' And spit in their
face." Chuckle. Grin.
Volpin is chiefly famous for his idea that you can fight the regime by
demanding that it follow its own laws. While there is a political
shrewdness to this, there is also a luminescent and revolutionary humanism:
unlike American radicals of the sixties, Volpin proposed, against every
self-righteous impulse in the current of dissent, to treat the monsters in
power as rational beings. "Any person feels uncomfortable when they're
caught in a lie," he explains. "When they put [Vladimir] Bukovsky on
trial, they kept, formally, to the 'open doors' law; that is, the doors
were open. But they made it so you couldn't get in anyway, because the
trial was on the second or third floor, and they were blocking the stairs.
But, formally, they kept to it."
I attempt to provoke him. This is difficult, because Volpin does not hear
very well, and I am forced to shout. Shouting amplifies the grammatical
uncertainties (case endings) I typically slur over in Russian.
Nonetheless, I need to broach the question, that was once at the heart of
dissident thinking, of retribution. Alexander Galich promised the lackeys
who expelled Pasternak from the Writers' Union, "We won't forget your
laughter or your apathy/ We won't forget a single one who raised his hand."
Solzhenitsyn warned his own tormentors in the same union that "the time is
near when each one of you will seek to erase his signature from today's
resolution." But while many of the former Communist countries have
attempted to de-commission the old cadres through a process called
"lustration," Russian society has steadfastly refused. So I shout,
approximately, "What about trial? Should there have been a more serious
attempt to try old Communists?"
"A trial was bound to be a farce," he says. "They should have been tried
40 years ago, but now? Revenge would ruin everything that's been
accomplished.... There is no more nomenklatura as such. It's been broken.
They might still have bank accounts and they might even still have power,
but they have to hide it. They can't appeal anymore to Marxism-Leninism,
the class struggle. That's something."
"But dachas! They all have dachas!"
"So let them have dachas. What, they can't build more dachas? There's no
I nod, okay.
"The most important thing has been done," he says. "We had a peaceful
"Why haven't the dissidents come to power?"
"Who wants power? We didn't want power. There was a myth under the
Communists of national-patriotic unity. That was a lie, and we exploded
it... Now, now they have to stop killing people right and left. First
that, then everything else. It could take 200 years. It's a violent
world, drenched in violence. People are afraid of one another. It
shouldn't be that way."
"This new government, Yeltsin, I don't know -- to hell with them.... What
am I going to do, keep hammering the same nail in over and over? I did my
part in Russia, for six years I did it and then it was time to scram. Now
I have this." And he indicates the mathematical proofs scattered across
Volpin is disgusted and encouraged and weary; he does not indulge regrets.
Thirty years ago, when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, Volpin argued in
the samizdat Chronicle of Current Events that imprisoned dissidents should
be released because, when it came time to visit other galaxies, "these
people will not shame our planet." Now he allows a smile when I ask about
Sakharov, the only dissident who ever had enough popularity, potentially,
to be elected president.
"Yes," he says. "Andrei Dmitrievich might have become president. And this
would have been good."
But, in their careless, inexorable way, things continue. Volpin and I
conclude the conversation with a pleasant monologue on proof theory.
"If I leave behind me a theory that will become the basis for mathematics
for several decades, that'll be sufficient. See, certain paradoxes
insinuate themselves into the foundations of mathematics. That's where I
begin. Otherwise they'll say: You're contradicting Goedel!"
The most authoritative journalistic voice on Russia for the past ten years
has been David Remnick, who headed The Washington Post bureau in Moscow and
is now editor-in-chief at The New Yorker, which shows what you get if you
speak authoritatively on Russia. He came to Moscow as a Post
correspondent at the beginning of 1988, thrust straight into the cauldron
of ferocious historical change. "The week I arrived," he says, still
amazed by the pace of events, "they were rehabilitating Bukharin. They
were introducing the concept of opposition."
Remnick also seemed more attuned than most commentators to the culture,
which looked as if it would become dominant, of the urban intelligentsia,
whose brightest stars were the dissidents. "It might sound sweetly naive,"
he says, "but, it's true: if you meet people who have a certain profundity,
who have to deal with questions greater than bowling parties and
television..." And Remnick begins mournfully reciting the various
conversation topics of the urban bourgeoisie: "schools, real estate,
"There was a certain style of friendship," he says, "and, to be honest, I
envied that. The kitchen tables, the dropping by. The idea of dropping by
doesn't make sense here, where everyone's on such a schedule."
And he has been adamant about defending the dignity of a dissident culture
many Russians would gladly leave behind. "When I came back [in 1994],
there was this attitude, this level of irony, and people were talking about
Solzhenitsyn with open contempt," he remembers, and moves, somewhat
unexpectedly (we are, after all, on the 20th floor of the new Condé Nast
headquarters towering over Times Square), into the language of moral
indignation. "Sure, he's said some silly things, and probably no one's
going to read The Red Wheel. But so what? Look, here's Solzhenistyn's
contribution to mankind: he wrote the first novella to speak about the
camps; he wrote two more novels about the Soviet system; and he wrote The
Gulag Archipelago, which changed the politics of entire countries."
But therein lies the trap for Western liberals, for while maintaining an
affection for dissident culture, Remnick has also welcomed the changes in
Russia, and Lenin's Tomb is filled with stories of the transformative
quality of those events, of their ability to metamorphose passive pawns of
a totalitarian regime into active participants in a nascent democracy. So
he is annoyed by the essentialism of disaffected dissidents like Fedorov
and Yarim-Agaev and Bukovsky, who claim that the new elite are the same
Communists, incapable of change. "People can't change?" he says. "It's
ridiculous to say these people can't change.... You know, there's a certain
kind of dialogue, a style of drama to [the dissidents'] speech, a dramatic
fatalism. Of course people can change."
"There's a new breed of person now," Remnick says. "It doesn't have the
romance," he admits, but "when you're dealing with romance, it's dangerous."
Sadly and inevitably, the kitchen culture is disappearing. "I think a lot
of it is gone now," he says. "When money enters the picture, things
change. People lived that life, drinking tea in the kitchen, not under any
terrible danger, and when opportunity appeared, they took it." Remnick
shrugs. "It's not like they're sitting around watching 'Friends.'"
Within the liberal tradition, though painfully conscious of the failures
that have clouded his earlier optimism, Remnick has been consistent in
applauding every tiny step that Russia makes toward a more "normal" way of
life and a civic society. And, he says, "to expect a place that was
totalitarian, a place that was as fucked up as it was, to become,
overnight, a [prosperous, Western liberal democracy] - it's the height of
This needs to be reflected in the reporting, as American journalism has
always had difficulty producing a complex image of Russia. "It's hard to
follow more than two figures -- it used to be the General Secretary and the
leading dissident," he says. "These guys have long names." What is more,
Russian society used always to be depicted as an ontologically different
place. "The shift in reporting came in 1986, '87," he says, "when we
started talking about it as if it were more a normal country, not a secret
society with strange rituals we were privileged to witness.... For me, as a
reader -- and that's what I am now - what's most interesting are David
Hoffman's reports in The Washington Post on how Moscow's money works.
That's the story I would look for now."
It has been this emphasis on normality and transparency that distinguishes
Remnick's work, and has also been its limitation. He has rejected the
collective intellectual shrug authorized by Winston Churchill's famous
description of Russia as "a riddle, wrapped in an enigma, wrapped in a
mystery." Remnick's undertaking, while it lasted, was Herculean. One feels
in his second book on Russia a compulsion to subordinate it to his
journalistic intelligence, to make it, by dint of that intelligence, the
"normal" country that it is not. If the project has failed to conjure
through its level description, the inception of a normal country, it is
because, as my friend the philosopher Ilya Bernshtein has said, "Russia is,
in fact, a catastrophe, wrapped in a disaster, wrapped in God knows what."
For Cathy Fitzpatrick, executive director of the International League for
Human Rights, the fall of the Soviet Union has, far from ending history,
only made it that much more difficult. A prolific translator as well as a
longtime human-rights activist, Fitzpatrick directed research at Helsinki
Watch in Moscow from 1981 to 1990. After 1989, she says, "I waited for The
New York Times to cover human rights from the Moscow dateline, but I often
waited in vain. They did, sporadically, but not as much as the European
press [or The Washington Post]. I could never understand why "The Times
ignored the dissidents who did remain in the late 1980s, and why some of
the later reporters in the early 1990s stopped covering human rights, and
stories like Sergei Kovalev traveling to cover the massive atrocities
during the war in Chechnya, or Kovalev being removed as the Russian
human-rights commissioner, never saw the light of day here. Maybe Russia
just became like any other country, an Italy, a Peru, who knows?"
I give her my theory of narrative, that where we used to spin a moral tale
we now spin the tale of progress. "Maybe it was never really about
morality, but politics, for most people," she answers, "which is why they
found it so easy to stop talking."
The League's Manhattan office is not, mildly speaking, in the Condé Nast
building, and looks much the way the office of a dissident-ish organization
ought to look: a little squalid and bare, with exposed wiring, small
offices littered with papers, several lived-in couches and a solid wall of
file cabinets for their incessant reports on human-rights abuses, and
recommendations for action, from all over the world. Fitzpatrick sits at
an enormous computer screen, firing emails across the globe, organizing
conferences, preparing reports to the United Nations, abetting dissent in
Belarus and Azerbaijan.
"Was it the fault of the dissidents that they didn't come to power?" she
asks. "No. They were up against terrible odds. The Russians dug up mass
graves, millions of them -- a million Rwandas -- and they just put them
back. They never did anything with them, never had a trial. For me, the
tragedy is, funny as it sounds, that there weren't enough lawyers. In
other places, you had lawyers, people in the professions, with expertise.
In Poland, you had the Church. In Russia, it was scientists. There's not
a church basement in Russia to hide a dissident in." But even more,
perhaps, than the structural differences whereby the Russian élite
proved itself more solidly entrenched than the Polish or the Czech, was a
human factor. "The difference is these people were mangled by the camps,"
she says, the way dissidents in other countries were not. "Physically and
psychologically, the Soviet Union mangled them.
"I wish I had a fund for old dissidents like Yuri's. Because what do you
do when you get out of the camps? Say you're Ivan Ivanov‹you come out of
the camps and you come here and you can't get any help from the [U.S.]
government -- if you're not Jewish, especially, you don't feel comfortable
asking the synagogue groups for help. What do you do? You call up Cathy
Fitzpatrick, is what you do. And I say, ‘No, you can't sleep on my couch.
There's already someone there.'
"There are dissidents in the U.S., too - civil-rights workers, the people
who picketed City Hall [in New York, after the Amadou Diallo shooting] are
dissidents. But that society created a different persona. [It created] a
person who was willing to go to jail, to be interrogated, to get beaten up.
There are people here who did time, 30 days, 60 days. But nothing like
five years labor, seven years exile."
And yet, of all the people interviewed for this article, Fitzpatrick is the
most active, and the closest to her pre-1991 self, even if she does find it
more difficult to garner attention from the press. Human-rights, Remnick
pointed out when I quoted Fitzpatrick's criticism of post-Soviet press
coverage, "is what she does," but it is also what she believes to matter.
While the dissidents insist that a few principled individuals brought down
a regime, Remnick stresses the forces unleashed by Gorbachev's reforms, and
a leftist like Berman points to semi-inexorable historic processes,
Fitzpatrick thinks history is made by little people -- ones we hardly
notice -- working on their own initiative and irrespective of the tidal
waves of markets and oil prices and the Politburo and the Pentagon. One
would like to believe her. And perhaps insofar as history is merely the
stories we tell ourselves to keep from stopping short in our tracks from
despair, then what Cathy Fitzpatrick says -- everything she says -- is true.
In terms of Russian culture, I managed to grow up in a time capsule.
Lacking any direct contact with the country, and, for a long time, not
really wishing for any, I stewed in my parents' Cold War resentments while
Russian kids my age lived, daily, first through the collapse, and then
through the horrors that succeeded it. A profound reverence for the
dissidents was one of my cherished inheritances, and when I did go back to
Russia, in 1995, it was startling to find that hardly anyone cared about
them, or the remaining Lenin statues, as much as I did. This sense of my
own obsolescence was mostly forgotten until I had the indiscretion to start
singing the dissidents' praises to my wife, Anya.
Anya grew up in Moscow and came to the States just two years ago. Her aunt
had been married to a dissident -- Andrei Velikanov -- in the 1970s, and
Anya has some very specific impressions of the movement. "They sat around
in kitchens and complained about the Soviet Union," she tells me. "That's
all. And now? Now they're here."
It's true: though a handful have returned, and others never left, many are
here. And I'll add another reason to the reasons why. When my parents and
my sister and I went to Sheremetyevo-2 airport in February 1981, about 20
relatives accompanied us. It was just five years before Gorbachev began
overturning the world, but so far as my relatives were concerned it may as
well have been 1918: each of them was certain they would never see us
again, that we were disappearing over a particularly vast ocean, with
particularly difficult rules for crossing, that they would never know. My
parents thought so, too. Some of the people I interviewed for this article
were, upon their arrival here, met by the press, and some were met by the
indefatigable Cathy Fitzpatrick, but most everyone, like us, was met by
friends whom they, too, had never thought to see again. My father was,
luckily enough, a good computer programmer, which, though not so wonderful
a thing to be as it is now, was not so bad then, either; others, like
Yarim-Agaev, Volpin, Valentin Turchin, Yuri Orlov, were accomplished enough
in their (technical) field to land jobs or grants at universities. But
many people were like Fedorov, who had spent his life in the camps, or like
Efrem and Tatiana Yankelevich, who had been fired from jobs or expelled
from universities because of their dissident activity, or proximity. It
was just too hard to get settled here, and since they all thought they were
doing it forever, that the police state they had left would go on in
perpetuity, settle forever they did. They bought homes in the suburbs,
they got married, they voted for Reagan.
And there's another very good reason for not going back, aside from the
fact that very few people in Russia have jobs that pay them enough to live
on. As Volpin said, people in Russia get killed. They get killed for
saying too much or saying it to the wrong people or thinking too much, or
they get killed randomly, for no reason at all. One by one, many of the
people who have spoken truth to power have been killed. We have been too
hasty with our praise for the new Russian democracy, too formalistic.
Because if there are fewer dissidents arrested now, the atmosphere of
chaotic, meaningless violence has, possibly, increased. The mutant
post-Soviet regime has realized that the massive inflation of moral
rhetoric that the Soviets allowed -- a prominent dissident, as Remnick
points out, was as much of a news item as a General Secretary -- was a
blind alley for the authorities, and that business can be more efficiently
handled if people are simply killed in the streets, without the
incriminating minutes of trials and interrogations. In the past 10 years,
the only countries where more journalists have been murdered are Colombia
and Algeria, both immersed in protracted civil wars. This, more than
anything, is what's incomprehensible to someone sitting in the parking lot
of Wal-Mart, approximately half a kilometer from the store entrance. The
violence in Russia has permeated every layer of its society. Its children
are raised in violence. It murders its poets and its prophets and its
entrepreneurs. And it has ever been so: Russia has always been one of the
dark places of the earth.
So there is little moving back from here to there; it is, in fact, hardly
thinkable, and this is new. For some of the most powerful literature of
dissidence was also the literature of exile. Alexander Galich's most
hearbreaking song is not one of his many dirges to murdered artists and
poets, but the promissory tune, "I Will Return." Joseph Brodsky's
persistent rehearsals of exile and repatriation served as the very core of
his work. Running through all this was the idea that, some day, if not
some day soon, the Communists would fall. "We must wait," Ivan Bunin, the
first great philosopher of exile, said in a 1924 speech called "The Mission
of the Russian Emigration." "We must wait before we acquiesce to the new
Œworld order,' to its current conquerors." This was the mission of the
Russian emigration, and while the Soviet Union existed, in whatever form,
my parents' generation, like Bunin's, could maintain the conceit -- if they
so wished -- that they were exiles, not émigrés, and that their task, in
part, was to maintain and husband Russian culture until this particular
dark age had passed, and then, when it did so, to return. My parents left
the country but shipped an enormous library with them, including the
Vsemirnaya Literatura collection of French, German, and English literature
in Russian translation. They continued speaking Russian and writing
Russian, and in fact their Russian, immensely sensitive to foreign
encroachments, maintained a purity that Muscovite Russian could not. As
late as 1989, Brodsky could write, "Time, when confronted by memory, learns
of its impotence." After 1991, however, there can be no such thing as
exile, and we find that time, and the Soviets, have triumphed after all.
The dissidents and the emigres surrounding them have become, in their
unhappy way and largely against their will, Americans, and as the fragile
continuities of Russian culture are pieced together again in that country's
universities and galleries and journals, it must become clear that the rift
of emigration has proved irreparable, that neither this generation, nor its
children, will ever return to stay.
In mid-1997, when the AIDS cocktail first came on the market and there was
serious talk of a "cure," a flyer appeared on my college campus that
informed us, simply, "It's not over yet." In smaller print, it cited a
statistic about the cocktail's less than total effectiveness, and the
existential effect was remarkable. Perhaps that is about the best we can
hope for, as far as slogans go, as far as things we know to be true. Ten
years ago, it seemed (didn't it?) as if we might finally enter a world in
which peace and prosperity were not mere political watchwords. Communism
was evil, and since Communism had collapsed, what was there to keep us from
the just city, the good life? If only someone had told us: It's not over
Some of the old dissidents in other countries, who'd faced less vicious
regimes, managed a savvier approach to their democratic revolutions. In
The New Republic, 10 years ago, you could read Adam Michnik stubbornly,
patiently insisting that the realm of politics is not an ethical realm, and
that the transition from totalitarianism to democracy "must consist of a
compromise among the main political forces." Soviet dissidents were less
prepared than others for the new paradigm: in the same magazine, Vladimir
Bukovsky argued that "the evolution of Yeltsin in the last year has been
quite spectacular," but "only a figure of impeccable moral authority can
lead the country to its spiritual recovery after so many years of lies and
crimes." Michnik, who could call emigration "moral suicide," wrote his
article from Poland. Bukovsky wrote his from Cambridge, England.
Uncompromising, uncompromised, in Cambridge, England, he is still. Amid
all this, also in that magazine, came the sage, grave voice of Irving Howe.
"A dream long corrupted has now been shattered," Howe wrote in October
1990. "Partly in consequence, we will be living through a time of reduced
expectation, modest sentiments. In the short run, that may not be such a
bad thing, but with time serious people will again be stirred by thoughts
of new historical possibilities. Man cannot live by commodities alone."
Ten years have passed, and it seems our historical possibilities merely
diminish. I have a vague, subterranean hope that internet shopping will
raze, raze the strip malls to the ground -- but aside from this, I am
fearful. Eighteen years ago, my parents, enabled in part by Yuri Fedorov's
insane attempt to hijack a Soviet airplane, flew me from a country that,
under threat of force, paid obeisance to a false set of gods, to a country
that, under threat of social ostracism, pays obeisance to another. For a
suburban adolescence, for the best education that money and math scores
could buy, for the English language, I should be grateful. But I am not
grateful. What has this country done to us, and what has it done to the
dissidents? It is more than a simple banalification, for who would not
look dull in our suburbs and our parking lots? It seems a tawdry fate, for
those who are here, to grow old in a country where nothing seems to matter,
when their great achievement, in the Soviet Union, was to declare that the
way you conducted your public life did matter. Because even there, even
under Brezhnev, it was possible to live tolerably enough. Not in the
thirties, not during the war, but in the sixties and seventies when many
families had received their own apartments, if a set of requisite
compromises were made in the public sphere, you could go home and do as you
pleased. So what if the dissidents have lost their dissidence, if they
have not survived our suburbs? We must learn to speak a moral language in
this country, now. "Damn you, you lie!" says Volpin, a tiny 75-year-old
man, a mathematician five times incarcerated against his will in mental
institutions by the cruelest regime on earth, in his tiny apartment near
the ocean, in Revere. "Spit it back," he says, mischievous, "in their faces!"
Much, then, is taken, but what abides? When I reviewed Remnick's
Resurrection a couple of years ago, I thought he'd doted too much on
Solzhenitsyn, whose irrelevance in post-Soviet Russia was obvious enough.
But now I think Remnick was hovering near an important point: there is
something terribly wrong with a place that has no use for Solzhenitsyn.
"Solzhenitsyn," says Paul Berman, and I can hear him shaking his head.
"He's not our guy. But," Berman says, "he said things that were true."
That's just it. The dissidents did what no one else has done: they spoke
the truth. It is partially their tragedy that, in the United States, that
same truth was processed into a well-rehearsed conservative orthodoxy,
which proves in part that truth depends on context. But it has not been
entirely appropriated, not entirely lost; let's take Solzhenitsyn, the
editions of whose books in my family tell their own story of the past
twenty-five years. In the mid-1970s, my grandmother smuggled the
three-volume The Gulag Archipelago into Russia by train. Afraid she'd be
too nervous if she tried to hide the book somewhere in her suitcases, when
the customs police boarded the train at the Soviet border at Brest she
simply sat in her place, reading volume three, with the two other volumes
on the table beside her. My parents, when they emigrated, bought a Russian
copy of the Gulag in gouge-priced Schoenhof's Foreign Books store, in
Harvard Square. And I own a dull but serviceable 1991 Russian edition that
happens to be the first ever printed in Russia, and volumes one and three
of the cheap American Harper & Row paperback. The reference point has
vanished, the dance is ended, the evil empire is crumbled and mutated, but
The Gulag Archipelago still reads with all the force of its conviction. A
political book, it is mostly about specific lives, crippled in specific
ways. Deep, deep in part six there is a section on prisoners after their
release: how, sometimes, former prisoners learn to appreciate their
freedom, but also how difficult they find it, how many lose their strength
and will precisely at the threshold of the new world. It's not over, it's
never over. "But the sad thing is," concludes the writer who composed the
century's most remarkable document in secret, over the course of a decade,
whose notes for the manuscript were seized in 1965 by the K.G.B., setting
him back significantly, who by the sheer force of his words and his belief
in them caused tremors in the highest halls of the most cynical, inhuman
power on the planet, "the sad thing is we all die eventually, without
having accomplished," " says Solzhenitsyn, "a thing."
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