When did your eyes open?

Benjamin Nathans

  • Meeting the Demands of Reason: The Life and Thought of Andrei Sakharov by Jay Bergman
    Cornell, 454 pp, £24.95, October 2009, ISBN 978 0 8014 4731 0

In 1957, Boris Shragin, a young art historian, accompanied a group of foreigners on a visit to the Moscow studio of Aleksandr Gerasimov, the president of the Soviet Academy of Arts. Gerasimov had made his name with fawning neoclassical portraits of Stalin and Voroshilov, and used his position to crush ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘formalist’ artists whose work strayed from the official aesthetic. Repelled by the crude naturalism and pomposity of the paintings on display, Shragin turned to one of the foreign visitors and quietly offered his own appraisal: ‘Merde.’ ‘Someone should have told him about Cézanne,’ the visitor, an art critic from Tokyo, agreed. In broken French and English the two men quickly established their shared preference for Picasso and other modernists. And then the foreigner asked: ‘When did your eyes open?’ ‘I was unable to answer,’ Shragin remembered.

‘Eyes open’ – to what? Aleksandr Gerasimov had never been my ideal. ‘When did your eyes open?’ I heard this question many times after I emigrated. Or, in even simpler form: ‘When did you become a dissident?’ It’s impossible to answer. Within the question itself lies a wilful distortion of reality. Just as the ancient Sophists used to ask: ‘When did you stop beating your parents?’ If you stopped, that means you used to beat them. If you didn’t stop, that means you continue to beat them. But I didn’t beat them. Ever.

When it emerged in the 1960s, dissent in the USSR – unauthorised public gatherings, petitions in support of arrested intellectuals, wide circulation of samizdat texts – caught almost everyone off guard. The Soviet authorities had assumed that class antagonism, the ultimate source of social and ideological deviance, had long since been eradicated. Western analysts, accustomed to regarding the Soviet Union as the archetypal totalitarian state, were similarly unprepared for public manifestations of dissent. The two sides’ attempts to explain these phenomena were curiously similar. Soviet officials (and many ordinary citizens) believed samizdat publications and unofficial demonstrations were ‘anti-Soviet’. Reluctant to contemplate the possibility that individuals born in the USSR and raised on its values would publicly criticise the Soviet way of life, they routinely ascribed dissenting ideas to foreign influence, whether émigré organisations or Western intelligence services. For their part, Western commentators were quick to cast dissidents as surrogate soldiers of Western liberalism in the ideological battles of the Cold War.

The surprise of foreign observers was not lost on the dissidents themselves. As one of them, Andrei Amalrik, put it, it was as if an ichthyologist had discovered talking fish. Suddenly there were natives inside the closely guarded Soviet aquarium who could not only speak, but speak their own minds. Smuggled texts found their way to the West, where they appeared under such titles as Sakharov Speaks and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Speaks to the West. The mere existence of people like Amalrik, Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov seemed to take the ‘total’ out of totalitarianism. Yet they soon became the darlings of those who continued to regard the USSR as totalitarian, albeit in the updated form of an omnicompetent rather than an omnipotent state. Indeed, it was precisely the regime’s persecution of dissidents – arrests, harassment of family members, imprisonment in psychiatric hospitals, bogus trials, vicious press campaigns, harsh sentences – that served as the most potent evidence of the Soviet system’s abiding malevolence.

All but crushed by the KGB in the early 1980s, Soviet dissidents surprised the world a second time when Gorbachev came to power. In a stunning reversal, their slogans – glasnost, the rule of law, democratisation – could now be heard emanating from the Kremlin. It’s true that apart from Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the first president of post-Soviet Georgia, no Soviet-era dissident came close to assuming power in the manner of Lech Walesa or Václav Havel. But several of them, including Sakharov (released from internal exile), Liudmila Alekseeva (returned from exile in the United States), Revolt Pimenov (free after multiple jail sentences and internal exile) and Sergei Kovalev (after a spell in a labour camp and then internal exile), were elected or appointed to positions of influence.

How different it all looks now. In Russia, disenchantment with the dissidents is almost as widespread as disenchantment with socialism. The freedom fighters of the Soviet era are dismissed as irrelevant or, worse, as responsible for the chaos of the Yeltsin era and Russia’s precipitous decline as a global power. Meanwhile, a new generation of Russian scholars is busily reinterpreting the dissidents as mirror-images of the fervent Communists they opposed, trapped in an equally dogmatic worldview, an insular collective in thrall to the moral absolutism of human rights. We’re not far from where we began: the USSR as a totalitarian society in which even the regime’s opponents were unable to think and speak outside the force-field of official norms.

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[*] Cornell, 285 pp., £14.50, January, 978 0 8014 7590 0.