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Today Marks an Important Anniversary for Rights in Russia. Few Remember It.

Why has the moment that began a movement been forgotten?


Fifty one years ago today, on Soviet Constitution Day, protesters improbably flooded into Moscow’s Pushkin Square to rail against the trial of two well-known writers, Andrei Siniavskiy and Yuli Daniel. They were being tried, seemingly illegally, for something their fictional characters had said. Aleksandr Esenin-Vol’pin, eccentric mathematician and illegitimate son of famed poet Sergei Esenin, organized the protest as a way to hold the Soviet government accountable to its own laws.

December 5, 1965 became a watershed of sorts, and is arguably the birthplace of legal- and rights-based dissidence in Soviet Russia. The famous Red Square protest of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the famed underground journal The Chronicle of Current Events, the Moscow Helsinki Group, which aimed to hold Russia accountable to international law according to the Helsinki Accords, and decades of a simmering dissident movement based on safeguarding individualism and integrity in a system meant to crush both — all can trace their lineage to Esenin-Vol’pin’s first protest.

More recently, the ripples of that Pushkin Square protest could still be felt. Those active in the political demonstrations of 2011 and 2012, like the members of the punk rock band Pussy Riot, “are quite aware of the day and the broader dissident legacy, and attempt to draw ideas and inspiration from it as best they can,” said Benjamin Nathans, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Today, though, few in Russia seem to remember that 1965 protest, and fewer still seem to care.

“The vast majority of Russians have no memory” of it, Nathans said. “Those who do are almost all former dissidents, their friends, or family, or perhaps people who learned about it in school.” The public amnesia won’t be allayed by Russia’s leaders, either.

There are “no signs of any commemoration of the 1965 protest,” Maria Snegovaya, a graduate student at Columbia University and columnist at Vedomosti, told Foreign Policy. “It frankly doesn’t strike me as being in line with the ideology of Russia’s current authorities, since they seem to be reestablishing some elements of the Soviet system.”

While Pussy Riot and anti-corruption activist Aleksei Navalny are both still around and engaging in activism, the green shoots of dissidence that marked Russian President Vladimir Putin’s seizure of a third term in office seem to have withered. The so-called “snow revolution” — the anti-Putin protests that took place immediately after he came back to power — is over, and the memory of the dissidents of yore is invoked less in practice and parlance than it was then.

And unlike in the Soviet era, the United States does not seem poised to try to promote Russian civil society, especially after the election of Donald Trump, who consistently advocated pro-Russia policies on the campaign trail and expressed admiration for Putin’s strongman leadership. Even gentle nudges from Washington would be seen with jaundiced eyes in Moscow, noted Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Endowment.

“Russian civil society is off limits to the United States,” he said. Any U.S. help — whether pushing democracy-promotion groups or funding non-governmental organizations — would be seen as “inadmissible interference in Russian domestic affairs,” he said.

Half a century after Esenin-Vol’pin led a protest to call for holding governments accountable, there is little left, in private memory or public policy, of the “meeting of openness.” To the extent that day in Pushkin Square left a playbook for championing human rights in Russia, today it has been either forgotten or forsaken; neither bodes well for the future of civil society in Russia. To quote the poet: “If you know your history, then you would know where you coming from.” Those who don’t, don’t.

That may dismay Navalny and other stubborn campaigners for greater political rights in Putin’s Russia. But the historical black hole left by the 1965 “meeting of openness” won’t weigh any longer on Esenin-Vol’pin: He died in Boston in March.

Photo credit: JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin