People vs. Dictators. How dissidents can destroy regimes

13 August 2022, 10:21 AM
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protests in Belarus (Photo:A_Matskevich / pixabay)

protests in Belarus (Photo:A_Matskevich / pixabay)

Total control of the authorities over information. Special services closely monitor public sentiment. Security forces stopping the smallest manifestations of anti-regime actions. Most publicly support the government.

This is modern Russia and Belarus.

But this didn't happen overnight.  This was the case in the USSR. The current conditions in our neighboring states are a reconstruction of Soviet reality.

We often hear from Belarusians and Russians: “We can’t do anything, because our situation is different.” Yes, now it’s different! But it was the same a few decades ago. And thanks to people who did not put up with evil then, we now have a different country.

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These were dissidents - a common name for the participants of the anti-Soviet resistance movement of the 1960s and 1980s. They really did live in conditions very close to those in modern Russia. But they did not just live but acted. Although it cost them many years of imprisonment, and for some –  even their lives.

The dissident movement was born in the early 1960s.

It was, on one hand, a continuation of the Ukrainian liberation movement and on the other hand, it was part of a global trend of developing an informal youth culture, a culture of a war-free world.

At a time when the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were admired in the West, the poetry of Lina Kostenko, Vasyl Symonenko, and Vasyl  Stus was rocking in Ukraine.

The struggle continued in Ukraine. The armed phase had been completely suppressed and there were no opportunities for continued forceful resistance. Therefore, a new round of confrontation took nonviolent forms.

Most of the dissidents started as activists protecting Ukrainian culture. At the same time, they appealed to Soviet legislation and international legal acts ratified by the USSR. They tried to behave in exclusively legal ways in order to avoid accusations of illegal activities. But their actions and statements against Russification and the destruction of Ukrainian heritage still caused repression.

The first wave began in August-September 1965. Ivan Dziuba, Vyacheslav Chornovil, and Vasyl Stus were protesting arrests and held a dissenting action on Sept. 4 during the official premiere of Sergei Parajanov’s film “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors.”

The courage of the first two cost them their jobs, the younger Stus – his studies at graduate school.

The repression did not stop there, and more importantly, the resistance did not stop either. One of its forms was the publication of underground newspapers, magazines, and leaflets.

The so-called “Samvyadav” published the works of dissidents, their statements, and recorded human rights violations. The most famous self-published magazine “Ukrainian Herald” was published under the editorship of Chornovil.

In January 1972, the Soviet authorities decided to break the Ukrainian dissident movement with one powerful blow. Almost all of its leaders – Ivan Svitlichny, Yevhen Sverstiuk, Vasyl Stus, Iryna and Ihor Kalynets, Viacheslav Chornovil, Valery Marchenko – received the maximum punishment: 7 years of strict regime camps plus 5 years of exile.

But even such cruel sentences against young people, whose lives were ruined, did not scare away others. Vasyl Ovsienko, Vasyl Lisovy and Yevhen Proniuk continued the “Ukrainian Herald” on behalf of the imprisoned Chornovil. They were also arrested for that.

While the key figures were in the camps, they were replaced by a new generation of dissidents who focused on human rights activities. In 1976, the Ukrainian Helsinki Group was created, which appealed to the document signed by the USSR guaranteeing key civil liberties. Activists Mykola Rudenko, Oksana Meshko, Levko Lukianenko, Yosyp Zisels and Myroslav Marynovich were also arrested.

Brutal repression did not break them, but on the contrary radicalized the dissidents.

In the prisons, they met with long-term prisoners – members of the OUN and UPA, with whom they jointly fought against the camp administration. Political principles also changed: the demand for independence emerged.

Therefore, when a large-scale national democratic movement was created in Ukraine in the late 1980s, dissidents and former political prisoners Chornovil, Iryna Kalynets, Lukianenko, and the Horyn brothers became its leaders.

Not everyone had the physical opportunity to be active after many years in prison. Ivan Svitlychny became disabled. The camps killed Vasyl Stus, Valeria Marchenko, Oleksa Tykhy and Yuriy Lytvyn.

Repressions against Ukrainian dissidents were more brutal than against other members of the resistance on communist territories. This is how Ukraine lost its "Vaclav Havel".

When a Czech dissident became the president of the Czech Republic, Ukrainian leaders were destroyed or physically exhausted.

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Nevertheless, they continued their public work, some of them became members of Parliament. It was they who ensured the adoption of landmark documents – Declarations of Sovereignty and Acts of Declaration of Independence. Some were active even after the restoration of independence in 1991.

The ”First of December” initiative group, which included Yevhen Sverstiuk, Ivan Dziuba and Myroslav Marynovychf, was created during the Yanukovych years, and became a collective moral authority for Ukrainian society, contributed to the fact that Ukrainian did not come to terms with attempts to curtail freedoms.

Russia also had its own dissident movement. But its activists failed to influence political events in the country in the late 1980s and 1990s. One of its greatest authorities, Andrei Sakharov, died in 1989. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a bright anti-Soviet author, could not overcome the Russian imperialist syndrome, so he became one of the ideological inspirations of Vladimir Putin, who gave birth to the idea of restoring the USSR.

In this, he is similar to the current dissident Alexei Navalny, who bravely fights against the Putin regime, became a political prisoner but remained a Russian imperialist.

Ukrainian dissidents worked in conditions close to the current Russian ones. But they worked: they wrote excellent journalistic and artistic texts, documented violations of human rights, and despite limited technical capabilities, spread the truth about the regime in self-publishing.

And most importantly, they were ready to make their sacrifice, to become a moral compass for society and eventually motivate the majority to change.

Russian dissident Andrei Amalrik said something that remains relevant for his compatriots: “The dissidents did an ingeniously simple thing – in an unfree country, they began to behave like free people and thereby change the moral atmosphere and prevailing tradition.”

This is what you have to do if you really want to change your country. Instead of fleeing abroad, justifying inaction and saying that only Putin is to blame for everything.

Otherwise, in order to change Russia, other countries will have to do what they did with a defeated Nazi Germany.

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