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Home > Dissident Left Archive > All dissidents now: Russia’s protests and the mirror of history

All dissidents now: Russia’s protests and the mirror of history

by Dilip, 31 March 2013

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The rising profile of political prisoners, ’Stalinist’-style justice for protest figures, Brezhnevite stagnation and revolutionary romanticism has been met with a wave of interest in past dissident experiences.’

In celebration of New Year 2012 and as a New Year’s gift to political prisoners past and present, the radical art group Voina [Rn. War] set a police detention van on fire in Saint Petersburg. In an effort to resurrect a spirit of resistance against continuing state oppression, Voina dedicated its action to dissident writers who died in prison camps during the 1970s and 1980s, as well as to Sergey Magnitsky. The past year has seen an influx of historical images into Russian political and cultural life. Although they were present before, the protests have reinvigorated a range of historical symbols as opposition groups, their supporters and their opponents attempt to gain purchase on the situation at hand. Rightly or wrongly, for a range of different groups and individuals, the struggle of dissidents against Soviet power has become a historical source of experience, understanding and symbolism for contemporary protest. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, as tempers cool and the screws tighten, New Year 2013 has seen a different kind of activity. The need for compassion, sincerity and ethical behaviour was evident on Novopushkinsky Square as people wrote to prisoners held in connection with the Bolotnaya protests, Pussy Riot and other opposition cases. The rising profile of political prisoners, ’Stalinist’-style justice for protest figures, Brezhnevite stagnation & revolutionary romanticism has been met with a wave of interest in past dissident experiences. 

December of our discontent 

The initial burst of activity in December 2011 on Bolotnaya Square and then Sakharov Avenue provided instant symbols to galvanise protest. For the demonstrators, the move out on to the public square to protest against the false elections and the Putin administration paralleled the 1825 Decembrist revoltagainst the accession of Nicholas I. The use of the term ’Decembrist’ as justification and identification for those involved echoes a strong tradition of dissident interest in that ill-fated group of nobles. If the ’Decembrist’ tag made the thirst for revolt clear, then the mass protests on Sakharov Avenue lent liberals a sense of destiny: demands for democracy made a symbolic return to their spiritual home in the form of human rights activist and nuclear physicist,Andrei Sakharov. In January 2012, the lament over the absence of the figure of Sakharov from public life was resumed. Later, in August 2012, Sakharov’s statue in Saint Petersburg became a focal point for protesting the charges against those arrested during the violence on Bolotnaya Square in May: photographs, flowers, and candles were laid at the foot of the ’father’ of modern Russian democracy. 
Moulded into a key part of Russian culture over the past 180 years, the Decembrists were important for 1960s intellectuals as practical and symbolic models of resistance. This took many forms, including the 1975 demonstration on Leningrad’s Senate Square in honour of the 150th anniversary of the revolt, which named the Decembrists as the ’First Dissidents of Russia.’ One of the most famous incarnations was the 1968 verse ’Petersburg Romance’ by the guitar-poet and playwright Alexander Galich. This song focuses on the inner torment of the conspirators before they went out on to Senate Square:
Our era is testing us.
Can you go out on the square?
Do you dare go out on the square
At the agreed time?
Written a few days after Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia in August 1968, Galich’s verse came to evoke parallels between the Decembrists’ move on to the square and the demonstration against the Soviet invasion by eight protesters on Red Square in Moscow. Galich’s poem has since become a classic of Sixties bard [singer-songwriter] poetry, but it gained a fresh relevance as the Russian authorities continued to pressurise the opposition and their supporters while Putin resumed power for a third term. Its public performance[in Russian] by poetry-lovers in May 2012 in front of St. Isaac’s Cathedral in Saint Petersburg demonstrates the relevance of poetry for spreading a sense of common cause and feeling among the critically minded. 

Dissent past and present

Public poetry and dissent have something of a common history. Soon after the addition of a monument to the poet himself in 1958, Mayakovsky Square in Moscow became a hotbed of poetry-reading for rebellious youths.

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