Russian dissidents: Then and now

Russian dissidents: Then and now

Whatif young South Africans didn’t know who Nelson Mandela was? Or if young Czechshadn’t learned about Vaclav Havel. In Russia, today’s youth find themselves inan analogous position: most young people know virtually nothing about AndreiSakharov, arguably the most prolific human rights activist and dissident of theclosing days of the Soviet Union.

Following the death of Yelena Bonner,Sakharov’s wife and fellow human rights crusader, the NewYork Times reported that 44 percent of Russians ages 18 to 24hadn’t heard of Sakharov, winner of the 1975 Nobel Peace Prize, and a mere 9percent were aware that he was a human rights activist.

Sakharov’srelative anonymity is the result of a confluence of factors. State dominationof the media and a "papering over of the Soviet past" is perhaps the mostobvious reason why young Russians haven’t heard of Sakharov, says Julia Ioffe,a freelance journalist and frequent FP contributorbased in Moscow.

Economicprosperity has also played a role in pushing the human rights agenda to theperiphery. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia’s GDP per capita was barelyU.S. $3,000.00 (in constant 2000 U.S. dollars); It is now nearly U.S.$16,000.00. This growth has alleviated a tremendous amount of pressure on thehuman rights front. In Ioffe’s words, "When everyone has an iPhone, life isgreat."

Butthere is a more fundamental reason why Sakharov has been forgotten: shiftingpriorities among Moscow’s politically conscious intelligentsia. Human rightsare no longer at the heart of dissident dialogue. "People are fightingcorruption, unfairness, and lawlessness of the police," says Ioffe. "The humanrights agenda has faded into insignificance." Thus, a new breed of dissidentactivist has grown up largely ignorant of its intellectual forbearers. Here isa look at some Russian dissidents, then and now.


Yelena Bonner

Alifelong champion of human rights and the wife of Andrei Sakharov, Bonner passedaway last Saturday at the age of 88. She first became involved in politicsin 1968, when she joined a dissident movement that opposed the Soviet invasionof Czechoslovakia. She and Sakharov, whom she married in 1972, lived underconstant surveillance-and eventually exile-as Russia’s "firstcouple" of dissent.

Bonneraccepted the Nobel Peace Prize on Sakharov’s behalf in 1975, delivering anaddress in which she calledfor the "final victory of the principles of peace and human rights." Sakharov hadbeen denied an exit visa.

Followingher husband’s death in 1989 — two years before the collapse of the SovietUnion — Bonner continued to campaign for human rights from her home in the UnitedStates. She was a vocal critic of Vladimir Putin and in December 2010 penned afiery speech in which she declared:"Consider that I have come, again to save my homeland, although I cannotwalk."


A member of the Old Guard of Sovietdissidents, Alexeyeva cut her teeth campaigning in defense of Andrei Sinyavskyand Yuly Daniel, two Soviet writers who were convicted of undermining the statein a notorious show trial in 1965-1966. It was in the midst of this campaign thatRussia’s human rights movement was born, Alexeyeva later reflected.

Later,while working clandestinely for the Chronicle of Current Events, Alexeyeva hideight copies of the manuscript in her bra when she was brought in forquestioning by the KGB. In 44 years of what the NewYork Times calls "provoking official Moscow," Alexeyeva has experiencednumerous detentions, including one last January at the tender age of 82.


Alexey Navalny

Calleda "one-man WikiLeaks" by the Guardian,the 34-year-old Navalny is perhaps Russia’s best-known anti-corruptionactivist. In November, 2010 Navalny published a leaked Audit Chamber reportexposing Transneft, the state pipeline monopoly, for siphoning off $4 billionfrom a pipeline construction project. This was just the latest in a long stringanti-corruption efforts that are making him very unpopular among Russia’s cronycapitalist elite. Navalny’slatest project, a website called RosPil, publishes government documents andallows readers to comb them for evidence of corruption.

Already, the governmenthas been forced to annul almost seven million dollars worth of contracts as aresult of RosPil findings, according to an article by Ioffe in the NewYorker. Butit looks as if anti-corruption crusading may be catching up to the lawyeringblogger. According to the Guardian,he is currently under investigation by Moscow prosecutors for "inflictingmaterial damage by means of deceit."


Chirikovamight not seem like the type to take on the Kremlin, but this 33-year-old mother of two has become the posterwoman for saving the Khimki forest, apart of the "Green Belt" around Moscow that is supposed to be protected underRussian federal law.

Afterdiscovering that trees near her house had been marked for clear-cutting,Chirikova formed In Defense of Khimki, a community group devoted to saving theforest. Members of the group have faced consistent harassment — one member was brutallybeaten and is now confined to a wheelchair — but it has thus far succeeded inpreventing any more trees from being felled.

Shemay never have heard of Andrei Sakharov, but Chirikova epitomizes the newgeneration of Russian activists. Wealthier, more free, and motivated by concreteconcerns, young Russians like her have taken up to torch.