Kara-Murza and Opposition Nostalgia

Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Solidarity leader, has published a new op/ed in the Wall Street Journal denouncing the terribly pointless arrest of Boris Nemtsov.  In the article, Kara-Murza draws comparisons between the 1960s dissident gatherings on Triumfalnaya Square with the Strategy 31 movement.  That’s all well and fine, but it is somewhat concerning how often the Russian opposition is drawn toward dissident nostalgia – something that I am not always convinced is helpful.  These are serious issues at a serious time, and with growing public support (now up to 37%), the pro-democracy movement might consider fashioning itself as a inclusive, progressive, and openly civic character, and not constrain itself within past examples.

The symbolism of Triumfalnaya Square is not lost on anyone in Russia. Half a century ago, in 1960, young Muscovites began gathering here every weekend to read out poetry banned by the communist government. What started as a literary tradition soon turned political.

“We could hardly put up a sign: “All those against the Soviet system, come and join us,'” recalls Vladimir Bukovsky, one of the organizers. “And this was a very good idea, because we were not committing any crimes, just reading poems. But of course only those who were against the Soviet system came to listen to forbidden poetry.” These readings led to the emergence of Samizdat, the underground publishing network that allowed Soviet citizens to see through official censorship and produced three Nobel laureates: Boris Pasternak, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Joseph Brodsky. Like their modern successors, Soviet leaders did not tolerate this enclave of freedom: snowplows were sent to disperse the meetings, Komsomol operatives beat up the participants, organizers received prison terms or were committed to mental asylums.

There is little doubtthat on August 31 opposition activists will once again face policebatons on Triumfalnaya. But this heavy-handed tactic can only get thegovernment so far. No cordons can stop Russians’ growing awareness thattheir everyday problems, including rampant corruption, highunemployment, property-rights violations, environmental pollution andhazing in the military, cannot be addressed by an authoritarian system.

Itshould be a cause of concern to the authorities that, according to thelatest Levada Center poll, 37% of Russians sympathize with pro-democracyprotesters. Using threats and crackdowns, the government finallystopped the poetry readings in 1961. But the movement of peacefuldissent born on Triumfalnaya Square was to become a constant thorn inthe side of the Soviet regime. When on Feb. 4, 1990 more than 500,000people gathered at the walls of the Kremlin to demand democraticreforms, communist leaders watched in silent desperation. Their time wasrapidly running out.