What would Gorbanevskaya do?

Peter Pomerantsev

At noon on 25 August 1968, eight men and women walked out onto Red Square and unfurled a banner: ‘For your and our freedom’. They were protesting against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia: eight people out of an empire of 250 million. Natalya Gorbanevskaya was the most famous and most controversial of them, because she took her baby with her. Afterwards she spent three years in punitive psychiatric wards, force-fed haloperidol. In 1975 she emigrated to Paris, where she died last Friday. The eight protesters were dissident heroes. ‘They cleansed our conscience,’ my parents told me.

In 2008 I was asked by the Prague Writers Festival to write an introduction to Gorbanevskaya’s book Red Square at Noon, a collection of fragments of memoir, a transcript of the trial, protest letters to international bodies, articles from Soviet newspapers, a few photos, a couple of poems. Five years ago it seemed as if my parents’ generation of dissidents had never existed. There were no new films about them, no novels. Most of my Moscow friends, media types in their twenties and thirties, yawned when I mentioned them. ‘Whenever any discussion in a public place turns to matters political,’ I wrote, ‘everyone glances over their shoulder and lowers their voice. What are they glancing over their shoulders for? Do they really think the waiters are going to snitch? It’s the same in taxis: politics is taboo. As if the taxi was tapped by the KGB, the driver a secret agent waiting to make a detour to Lubyanka if you dare criticise the state while in his car. If you stop to think this fear is absurd – but you play along without noticing.’

Since the return of mass protest in 2011, everything in the mood, though little in reality, has changed. The yawning youth have been actively politicised. The fear has retreated. There are protests and banners by Red Square quoting ‘for your and our freedom’. Pussy Riot invoke Brodsky and Ginsberg. The small subscription cable and online channel TV Rain recently showed a whole series about the dissident movement.

We could be back in the 1960s and 1970s. But it isn’t only the dissidents playing the memory game. The Kremlin too is invoking the period, to validate Putin. Brezhnev is bathed in nostalgic praise: long-term, ageing leaders are a good thing. Economic stagnation is redescribed as stability. And according to the Kremlin logic, there is a role for a new generation of dissidents. It’s a much less dangerous role than last time, and it’s much more cunningly circumscribed, even geographically. Several of the most popular new dissident restaurants, a progressive private media school, TV Rain and the independent Slon website are all housed on an island opposite the Kremlin, sponsored either by oligarchs who look liberal but are ultimately subservient or by optimistic businessmen who mean well but have no real muscle. On the island, as in dissidents’ kitchens forty years ago, you can feel free. But if the ‘island’ were ever to present a real threat to the Kremlin it could be instantly crushed. The old Kremlin used to chase and arrest and jail dissidents, trying to break the movement but only making it stronger. The new Kremlin makes fewer arrests, and for the most part gives people enough space to breathe and feel – if not actually be – important. It’s a more subtle approach and it’s less clear how to get round it. What would Gorbanevskaya do?