Twenty Conversations

What lessons can be learned from Soviet-era dissidents? Martin Dewhirst reviews Gleb Morev’s, Dissidents: 20 conversations

<< No. 25 (258), 26 June 2017 >>

MD outside BSG (Oxford), 11 May (#2)

Martin Dewhirst, picketing the Blavatnik School of Governance, Oxford

Coming out as an active dissident in Russia — there have always been numerous passive dissidents, dissenters, protesters and protestants in that country — after the 1991 coup and counter-coup is still a challenging step with uncertain consequences.

The separation or division of powers (legislative, executive and judicial) is still not a reality; even the Constitutional Court has taken some very dubious decisions; the Duma or parliament is usually regarded as a talking shop, not as a place for debate; the Presidential Administration can often exert more power than the Government; and elections are widely regarded as neither free nor fair. There is also a feeling among some observers that the dramatic events of 1991 in Russia replaced state socialism with state and state-controlled oligarchic capitalism, which is not a great change for the better, and may be even worse. Is President Putin really an improvement on President Gorbachev? Is Roskomnadzor any better than the Glavlit?[i] The regime has changed, but the political system hasn’t, some observers write. (How many Russians grasp the difference between ‘regime’ and ‘system’?)

On the other hand, there are undoubtedly some changes for the better. Despite bans and restrictions on some denominations, religious freedom has increased; it is much easier for some dissidents in danger of arrest to slip abroad to relative safety; some dissidents can go to other countries to speak publicly and privately and then return to Russia; and, thanks to the recent real revolution, the digital one, it is now much easier to receive and disseminate information – but also, unfortunately, disinformation. Despite the notorious ‘power vertical’, horizontal communication is immeasurably easier than in Soviet times. But the key problem remains: were most Russians so greatly and permanently modified at the profoundest genetic level by the long Mongol and Tatar occupation that a parliamentary democracy in the Russian Federation, a huge Eurasian landmass, is simply an impossibility?

What can present-day dissidents learn from their Soviet — or, rather, anti-Soviet — predecessors? (It goes almost without saying that they had and have no objection whatsoever to sovety, councils, as an invaluable institution.) How can they reduce the danger that the present fraudulent neo-Soviet regime, led by a proud and unrepentant ‘former’ Soviet KGB officer, will be succeeded by a no less fraudulent neo-neo-Soviet regime, instead of a different political system based on the rule of law?

Gleb Morev was born in 1968, the year when a tiny group of dissidents felt morally, not politically, obliged to demonstrate on Red Square in Moscow against the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia.  The Czechoslovak Communist Party leadership was trying to establish a law-based socialist regime with a human face.

Morev was too young to play a role in the dissident movement in Soviet times. For all I know, he doesn’t consider himself to be a dissident now. Maybe he just feels that there are useful lessons for his country to be learnt from the successes and failures of the “democratic movement” of the dissidents during what turned out to be the last quarter-century of the USSR.

Following on the heels of Alexander Podrabinek’s remarkable 2014 memoir Dissidents Morev uses the same ‘Western’ title rather than the Slavonic word pravozashchitniki, defenders of the law (and human rights). It was a term enunciated and continually emphasised by Aleksandr Yesenin-Volpin, who should be regarded as the founder of the (perhaps misnamed) dissident movement in the USSR. Volpin insisted that the Soviet Constitution should be taken seriously and literally; it was the people in power at all levels of the country, in the 1960s and later, who were so often not acting constitutionally.

Morev’s book, prefaced by Jens Siegert, well-known already to seasoned readers of Rights in Russia, contains twenty conversations (almost monologues) with high- and low-profile dissidents. Three people he approached refused to cooperate, others were unavailable, and two, Father Gleb Yakunin and Valery Senderov, died before they could be questioned.

The book is rather awkwardly divided into four parts, and there is no need, I think, to read these conversations – some short, some long – in the order in which they are printed. Depending on your fluency in Russian and the time you have available, pick and choose – every participant has something, and most participants have much, of interest to say.

Among the contributors whose names will be known to many readers of this short review are Sergei Kovalev, Pavel Litvinov, Gleb Pavlovsky and Aleksandr Daniel, all four of whom are still living and active today. Others played an important role well before Gorbachev’s unexpected glasnost: Sergei Grigoryants, Gabriel Superfin, Vera Lashkova, Vyacheslav Bakhmin, Vyacheslav Igrunov, Sergei Khodorovich, Viktor Davydov, Mikhail Meilakh, Yelena Sannikova and Lev Timofeyev. Just over half of them are still based in Russia, some enjoying, I hope, a well-earned rest. All the other six, three of whom live in the West, also deserve our gratitude for what they did in very difficult times: Irina Kristi; Sima Mostinskaya, the widow of Aleksandr Lavut; Marina Shemakhanskaya, the widow of Andrei Kistyakovsky; Father Boris Mikhailov, Masha Slonim and, last but in no way least, the Lithuanian poet and essayist, Tomas Venclova.

The fact that so many of these worthy people are now living (most of the time) outside Russia has different causes. One may be that what happened in the Soviet Union turned out, in the Russian Federation, not to be a revolution. The Cold War within Russia quickly started up again and intensified immediately after Putin became Prime Minister in 1999. There appear to be no dissident figures now in Russia – or in the West, for that matter – of the stature of Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn. Western support and supporters of today’s dissidents in the Russian Federation, meanwhile, are muted, faced by the widespread view that “the Kremlin” is no longer a serious threat to law-based states elsewhere in the world. The Cold War is over. Allegedly.

Martin Dewhirst is a member of our Advisory Council.

From 1964 until 2000 lectured on Russian literature and history at the University of Glasgow. He is an expert on samizdat during the Soviet era and on the Tsarist, Soviet and neo-Soviet systems of censorship. Of late he has been working to improve the conditions in which people deprived of liberty in Russia are held.


Many of the dissidents named by Mr Dewhirst and an account of their activities can be found in the Chronicle of Current Events (1968-1983). Selected reports from the Chronicle have been published, from time to time, in the Weekly Update as “Voices from the Past“.

Aleksandr Podrabinek, Dissidenty [Dissidents], AST: Moscow, 2014, 418pp.

Gleb Morev, Dissidenty: dvadtsat’ razgovorov [Dissidents: Twenty Conversations], AST publishers: Moscow, 2017, 416 pp.


[i] Glavlit was the Soviet censorship body from 1918 to 1991, the Main Directorate for State Secrets in the Press.