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Alexander Ginzburg

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Alexander Ginzburg and the Resistance to Totalitarian Evil, Then and Now
By Jamie Glazov | August 6, 2002

Alexander Ginzburg, 65, a former leading Soviet dissident, died on July 19, 2002 in his adopted city of Paris. Ginzburg fought for human rights during the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras and was frequently jailed for his outspoken promotion of freedom. After serving a total of eight years in prisons and labor camps, Ginzburg and four others were flown to the United States in 1979 in exchange for two convicted spies.

The editors of Frontpage have invited a distinguished panel of three former Soviet dissidents to discuss the life of Alexander Ginzburg, who he was as a human being, and what he represented. The three are Vladimir Bukovsky, who spent twelve years in Soviet prisons, labor camps and psychiatric hospitals for his fight for freedom, and whose works include To Build a Castle and Judgement in Moscow; Yuri Yarim-Agaev, who, despite ongoing KGB harassment and detention, actively participated in dissident activities, including the campaigns in defense of Sharansky, Orlov, Sakharov and other dissidents; and Eduard Kuznetsov, who spent most of the 1960s and 1970s in Soviet prisons for writing forbidden prose. In June 1970, he was arrested for “treason” after attempting to highjack a Soviet plane to Israel

Question #1: Gentlemen, let us just begin with a general question and see where our conversation goes. What does Alexander’s death mean to you?

Yarim-Agaev: First of all, the death of a friend, whom I loved and respected. Second, the loss of one of very few people with whom I experienced a profound mutual trust and understanding. The understanding based on such unique common experience, circumstances and temptations, which would not repeat soon again. Hence no one new can replace those old friends who leave. With each such a departure goes part of my own life, and quite a substantial part.

Bukovsky: Of those who have founded the human rights movement in the Soviet Union only a few are still alive today. Ginzburg was one of that small group. Part of my life dies with him. If I remember correctly, we first met some 40 years ago, after he was released from his first imprisonment. As it happened, we were subsequently serving in different “shifts”. At one point in 1972, I came to the same cell of Vladimir prison only one day after he was released from it. After 1967 we did not “coincide” till his release and exchange in 1979. Despite that fact, our lives were intertwined so closely that I can hardly tell an episode of my life without mentioning him.

Kuznetsov: In life great men leave the stage and ordinary people, with their common and petty life interests, remain. On the one hand, it is good when a great man leaves, because woe to the nation that needs heroes. On the other hand, the departure of a great man is very sad, because without heroes a country becomes rotten – like the scum on the bottom of a swamp.

Question #2: Who was Alexander Ginzburg as a human being?

Yarim-Agaev: He was an existentialist with a calling. He lived as he felt, yet his feeling were greatly directed by his calling. This seemingly odd combination was glued together by his sense of humor and irony – the qualities, which never left him except for a few years in the 90s, when he really got angry with what happened in Russia and in the world.

Bukovsky: As a matter of fact, he was a very modest, even humble man. He loved books and modern art. His apartment was always crammed with both. Being himself a kind of a Bohemian, he had lots of friends among poets and artists. However, he became famous for his ability to completely change in time of crisis, suddenly mobilizing his will and resistance. On several occasions, this must have misled the KGB who would expect him to be an easy target. And each time, as they learned their mistake, they would become furious.

Kuznetsov: He was a very light-hearted man, extremely easy in character. He was a wonderful companion – and he loved companionship. He was always sparkling with ideas and projects. He had a Mozart-like nature. Multi-talented and a merry contempt for danger.

Question #3: Describe Ginzburg the Soviet dissident. Where and how did his intellect, courage, and spirit most exemplify themselves?

Yarim-Agaev: First of all, in his discoveries. In the Soviet Union we were taught for generations that the earth was flat and the sun rotates around it. So new Galileos and Copernicuses were needed to get the true picture of the universe. And those Galileos and Copernicuses were dissidents. Each of the famous dissidents made a number of important discoveries and Ginzburg was one of them. To publish an independent magazine in the Soviet Union was not only impossible but also unimaginable. It seems so simple afterwards, but before it was unimaginable and required real discovery. And any discovery requires intellect, spirit and courage. And then all those qualities are needed to be true to your own discovery, not to denounce it, when everything forces you to do so. And finally to implement it. First to think unimaginable and than to make possible.

Without doubt, among Ginzburg’s great discoveries and breakthroughs was his putting together of communist deeds on immediate public record – the “White Book.” [Editor’s note: in 1967 Ginzburg was arrested (again) for compiling what he called a “White Book” about the trial of the dissident writers Yuli Daniel and Andrei Sinyavsky and smuggling it to the West. He was sentenced to five years in a labor camp for this “crime.”]

Bukovsky: As an editor of the first Samizdat [underground literature] magazine “Syntaxes” (1959), he might be called the father of Soviet Samizdat. However, he became better known for compiling and publishing in 1966 the “White Book” on the Sinyavsky and Daniel cases, for which he was sentenced to five years of imprisonment. (Both Sinyavsky and Daniel, Soviet writers, were imprisoned in 1965 for publishing their literary works abroad).

Ginzburg’s trial in 1968 became a landmark in the Soviet human rights movement due to widespread public protest, both inside the country and abroad. It triggered off what was called at the time the “chain reaction process”, when repression against those protesting had generated more and more protests. It could have ended in a total rebellion of the society against the Soviet system, but the authorities were smart enough to stop in time. Instead, they preferred expulsions from the country (often disguised as Jewish emigration). Soon after being released in 1972, Ginzburg joined a newly formed Helsinki Watch Group (Public Group to Facilitate the Observance of the Helsinki Final Act) and in 1978 was imprisoned again. In total, he served eight years.

Kuznetsov: I think the most meaningful was his disposition toward the authorities and the repressive regime. Most remarkably, he lived his life as though there was no surveillance, no searches, no arrests. He simply carried on as if the KGB didn’t exist. I never heard that he expressed this disposition, or that he even formulated it. It is not excluded that this disposition was spontaneous, that it was simply an expression of his nature.

Question #4: Ginzburg survived many years in the labor camps. How did he do it? What does it take in a human being to survive that horrifying and unimaginable ordeal?

Yarim-Agaev: Bukovsky and Kuznetsov can say much more about it. I only want to say that what I said before applies to all circumstances, including the harshest one such as a labor camp.

Bukovsky: I guess you expect me to say some lofty words like courage, willpower, ingenuity, etc. Well, it might be so, but ultimately, it was luck. Ginzburg’s co-defendant of the 1968 trial, Yuri Galanskov, died in the camp of ulcer perforation. We were also lucky for not being born ten years earlier. In Stalin’s time, we would have been shot pretty young and without any trial.

Kuznetsov: My previous answer suffices for this question. He survived because of his character.

Question #5: Yuri says that Alexander’s sense of humor and irony disappeared for a few years in the ’90s, “when he really got angry with what happened in Russia and in the world.” What is it that he became angry with?

Yarim-Agaev: He became angry because Russia, which had the chance in ’91 to turn into a free and democratic country, chose an ugly route instead. The dissidents, who were most prepared to help the country to choose the right way, were virtually excluded from this process. Even worse, and most important, Ginzburg was disheartened because even some of the dissidents lost their patience and, for the sake of being recognized by the new Russian authorities and elite, they compromised their principles and betrayed their friends.

Bukovsky: First, we were betrayed in the crucial moment by our Western allies, who chose to side with Gorbachev and his “reformers” instead of true democrats like us. Second, that helped to preserve the communist system from a complete destruction, leaving the nomenklatura in power. Third, this nomenklatura assumed the name of “democrats” and managed to discredit in two years everything we spent 30 years fighting for, including the very idea of democracy. Fourth, former Soviet sympathizers and apologists came to power practically everywhere in the West and, quite naturally, became the strongest promoters of their counterparts in the East. Fifth, the public, both East and West, became totally apathetic and apolitical. All in all, we have entered a twilight zone of “post-totalitarian” world. Do you expect us to be happy with such an outcome?

Kuznetsov: What Bukovsky and Yarim-Agaev are saying is surely true. Vladimir Maximov [well-known Russian dissident writer of the 1970s and 80s] was articulating the same feelings and I argued with him about this question. My position: what happened in Russia after so-called “Perestroika” naturally and unavoidably occurred because one type of people fights to change the regime and an absolutely different type comes to power when such a change takes place. The same thing happened after 1917. The dissidents who were waiting to be invited to share power to realize their ideals were Romantics and they are close to my heart, but nobody ever asks such people to take power — especially when they have ideals. And especially when they have a heroic past. For every new power needs not carriers of ideals, but cynical pragmatists.

Question #6: When I think of Ginzburg and dissidents such as yourselves, I don’t see it just as those people who fought for freedom against totalitarianism; I see brave and moral human beings who stood up against evil. In other words, I think it was also very much a spiritual battle. Do you? Was Ginzburg a spiritual man?

Yarim-Agaev: Absolutely. The fight for freedom is always a spiritual battle. The freedom is first of all the freedom of spirit. It doesn’t provide you with any material reward. It doesn’t reward you with power. Only people of high spirit would fight for freedom, and that has been true through all our history. And Ginzburg was a person of very high spirit.

Bukovsky: Unlike myself, Ginzburg was a deeply religious person (Russian Orthodox), although he would never put it on public display. However, even I have to employ religious terminology in order to explain what communism was and why we had to fight it. Yes, it was Evil because its ultimate objective was the human soul, and those who embraced it were slowly but surely destroyed as human beings. Not many people outside the Soviet bloc understood that our movement was first and foremost a moral one rather than political. This is why it was strictly non-violent: our only weapon was a consistent refusal to participate in the work of that Evil, an appeal to law and to conscience. In that ocean of the lie which was Soviet life, all we could do was to bear witness to the truth.

Kuznetsov: I don’t think that most dissidents, at least the ones known to me, founded their activities on such metaphysical categories as resistance to Evil. I imagine that the primary impetus of the most prominent dissidents was simply the inability to bear life under a loathsome totalitarian system. They found it unbearable. It was impossible for them not to become dissidents.

And then there is the matter of inertia. Once a man becomes a dissident, the attitude becomes stronger and more powerful. And there is also, of course, the constant evaluation of the opinions of your friends and those around you whose views you value and respect. That is what frames a dissident.

There is also the role of the dictatorial system itself. Its nature necessitates the existence of enemies. Without enemies, it cannot exist. And the state will find an enemy.

One must also keep in mind that, once you are in the company of dissidents, even if by chance while you are young and careless, and even if it is unintentional on your part, the chances are very high that you will become a dissident. If you are with the dissidents, you have no choice but to proceed. Once this happens to you, your duty is to remain a dissident to the last moment. The system won’t give you an alternative in any case. They will not let you go under any circumstances, let is be for family reasons or for anything else. And as soon as they notice that you are tired of being a “hero,” the system will try break you and transform you into a traitor. That’s why you have a simple choice: you continue to act like a brave man or they will crush you and make you into a weakling and a lackey.

Question #7: What did Alexander teach us?

Yarim-Agaev: One thing he taught us was the absurdity of political correctness. Ginzburg’s statements were full of inconsistencies and paradoxes. He could surprise anybody by his judgments. Yet, at the same time, he had a very strong basic philosophy with principles in which he believed. He stood for those principles and struggled for them. And that is what a free person is. Political correctness is just the opposite of that. One tries to verify every letter and coma in each statement and phrase, but has nothing but fear and dogmatism behind it.

Bukovsky: We were all learning from each other along the way. So, I suppose, I can only answer this question subjectively: what did I learn from him? Well, one thing which was always amazing to me, was his ability to live a normal life under those extreme conditions. While I was fighting tooth and nail, never relaxing for a single second of my existence in the Soviet Union, he was living. He was happily married, brought up two sons, something I would have never even considered bearing in mind the enormous pressure they were likely to be subjected to. Yet, in retrospect, I have to admit that he was right. His sons, now young adults, remember their childhood as being very happy. So, what was it that allowed him to relax? His religious faith? His existentialism, as Yuri puts it? I still don’t know. But the lesson is quite simple: we have but one life and we must live it no matter what.

Kuznetsov: Ginzburg’s main lesson was that even a single individual is capable of being the speck of dust that can halt the enormous wheels of the gigantic state machinery.

Question #8: Ginzburg and dissidents such as yourselves struggled against tyranny. What lessons could you impart to us in the West today about the tyranny that we now face in Islamic messianism? What similarities do you see in socialist and Islamic messianism? Which represents a greater threat?

Yarim-Agaev: The Islamism, which challenges us is 80% totalitarian socialism and 20% Islam. I believe communism still remains the major threat to our civilization, and China is much more dangerous than Iraq. Communism is the most comprehensive and consistent ideology of totalitarianism and inhumanity, and hence presents the main threat to freedom and civilization. You can virtually measure the threat by other isms by the percentage of communism in them. So the lesson follows from it. First communism itself is so uniform, that all our experience is fully applicable to fighting it anywhere: China, North Korea, Cuba. Second it helps to recognize it in other isms and to neutralize it, thereby significantly weakening if not destroying those isms.

Bukovsky: In my view, socialism represents a far greater threat to our civilization than anything we are likely to encounter. Still does, by the way. It has much more universal appeal than any religious fanaticism. But the similarity between the two is undeniable, both being an ideological dictatorship. If we learned anything from the Cold War, it must be an understanding that liberal democracies are poorly suited to conduct ideological warfare. We lack resolve and capabilities to be successful. We lack unity. And yet, an ideological enemy is not going to disappear with the passing of time: we must defeat him. On the contrary, left unopposed it will grow in strength quite dramatically.

Kuznetsov: Regarding Islamic fascism, the West has to crush it. To achieve this, it has to apply the methods of pressure that were used to crush the Soviet regime. The main principle: the pressure of strength combined with economic bait. This is especially the case when the despotic regime begins to liberalize and the liberalization has the multiple support of dissidents. One can say that Islamic fundamentalism is in the frontline of war against Judeo-Christian civilization. The task of the West, therefore, is to force so-called moderate Muslim states to understand that Islamic fascism is a greater danger to them than is Western civilization. And the West must make them realize that, if they are interested in their own survival, then they must themselves wage war on Islamic fascism.

Question #9: When you look at the Soviet regime and you see the most monstrous system that ever existed in the history of man, it becomes fascinating and inspiring to know that there were brave souls, like Alexander Ginzburg and yourselves, who, knowing that they risked torture, death and life-imprisonment, still stood up alone to confront despotism. Personally, I have always been in awe of these heroes, wishing that I had the courage to be who they were (and are), and hoping that I too would have done what they did if I had been in their shoes. But talk is cheap, and I do not know, if I were really put into that hell, if I would have or could have been a dissident. What makes a dissident?

Yarim-Agaev: You cannot become a dissident and remain true to your position if you are prepared to make only some specific sacrifices. You have to be ready for the labor camps and/or death. There could be many other tests and temptations, which you cannot foresee from the outset. Some of them can be harder for you to endure personally than those which you envisioned about in the beginning. It may sound strange, but many of us experienced some more difficult tests in the free West or modern Russia than in the communist Soviet Union. I can say it about Ginzburg too. That explains why some dissidents who stood firm to the KGB and Soviet persecutions gave in to temptations of freer and easier times. Only a profound and deep philosophy, as well as strong principles, can help you to stay the course. Ginzburg had them and did not go astray.

Bukovsky: No one knows in advance how he would fare in extreme conditions, be it in a real war or in a moral confrontation. I think you would do fine in both.

Kuznetsov: What transforms a normal ordinary man into a dissident? If we put aside psychological and psychic ingredients (and I would contend that a large majority of dissidents are not completely well off in those departments), then many things. I will say the following: the dissident is moved by the primary ethical principles in regards to life itself. In combination with this, there is simply the nausea that forces him to act; it is the nausea that he experiences in having to be in the filth of Soviet existence. The dissident’s primary and dominant reaction is nausea because the putrid gutter filth of a despotic state is completely alien to his nature. Disgusted and unable to contain his urge to vomit in the presence of totalitarianism, he has no alternative but to become a warrior. And so we had Alexander Ginzburg.


Interlocutor’s post-commentary: It is hard for me to find the exact terms to describe the respect I hold for these precious, wise, and golden words spoken by Yuri Yarim-Agaev, Vladimir Bukovsky, and Eduard Kuznetsov. They are words spoken by three distinguished warriors who single-handedly confronted a monstrous and diabolical Goliath and suffered immeasurably as a result. Through their experience, they have gained an insight into the human condition that is rare and priceless.

Yarim-Agaev’s, Bukovsky’s and Kuznetsov’s profound words are not to be taken lightly, especially now, as we confront the deadly threat of the Islamo-Fascists. Who, after all, is there better to listen to than to those who have confronted and fought evil head on? Who knows better than these individuals how to detect despotism – and how to defeat it?

The words of these three titans reflect the harvest that was reaped by long years of indescribable pain, haunting uncertainty, spectacular human courage, and a robust commitment to virtue, freedom and truth. Let it not be said, therefore, that this is a world devoid of heroes. For in this published symposium, we find three of them – alive and well, privileging us with their presence.

But we must also eventually say goodbye to heroes, and we just recently had no choice but to lay one to rest. He was a tremendous human being, a person who showed us, in all of his bravery, magnanimity, fortitude and nobility, what it means to be a decent and honorable soldier. He reminds us and gives us hope of what can still be possible even in what seems to be a hopeless situation. Let us not underestimate, therefore, how, even as individuals, we can still stall the wheels of a gigantic state machinery, and let us not forget the virtue of being contemptuous toward danger when human freedom is at stake.

Ginzburg showed us what it means to confront evil in its darkest depths, and to emerge spiritually unscathed and enlightened – still touching the face of God. In this world, there are few real-life stories about the triumph of the human spirit. Ginzburg’s is one of them.

And so we must say goodbye to you, Alexander. You graced us with your life. But now, in death, you have left us to be without you. I didn’t have the honor to know you personally, but through my father, and the dissident world he was involved in, I know in my heart and in my soul, the beauty and goodness that you represented. I know that my father admired and respected you greatly, and perhaps the both of you, along with many others who have left this life’s stage, are together now, watching us and continuing to participate.

Take care Alexander. You will be missed. Terribly. Yet a greater calling obviously awaits you now. And so we wait to see you again. Until then, thank you. We love you.


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