By Jamie Glazov
FrontPageMagazine.com | August 6, 2002
Alexander Ginzburg, 65, a former
leading Soviet dissident, died on July 19, 2002 in his adopted city of Paris.
Ginzburg fought for human rights during
the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras and was
frequently jailed for his outspoken promotion of freedom. After
serving a total of eight years in prisons and labor camps, Ginzburg and four others were flown to the United
States in 1979 in exchange for
two convicted spies.
The editors of Frontpage have invited
a distinguished panel of three former Soviet dissidents to discuss
the life of Alexander Ginzburg, who he
was as a human being, and what he represented. The three are Vladimir
Bukovsky, who spent twelve years in
Soviet prisons, labor camps and psychiatric hospitals for his fight
for freedom, and whose works include To Build a Castle and Judgement in Moscow; Yuri Yarim-Agaev, who, despite ongoing KGB
harassment and detention, actively participated in dissident
activities, including the campaigns in defense of Sharansky, Orlov, Sakharov and other dissidents; and Eduard Kuznetsov,
who spent most of the 1960s and 1970s in Soviet prisons for writing
forbidden prose. In June 1970, he was arrested for
"treason" after attempting to highjack a Soviet plane to Israel.
Question #1: Gentlemen, let us just begin with a
general question and see where our conversation goes. What does Alexander’s death mean to you?
Yarim-Agaev: First of all, the
death of a friend, whom I loved and respected. Second, the loss of
one of very few people with whom I experienced a profound mutual
trust and understanding. The understanding based on such unique
common experience, circumstances and temptations, which would not
repeat soon again. Hence no one new can replace those old friends
who leave. With each such a departure goes
part of my own life, and quite a substantial part.
Of those who have founded the human rights movement in the Soviet
Union only a few are still alive today. Ginzburg was one of that small group. Part of my life dies with him. If I
remember correctly, we first met some 40 years ago, after he was
released from his first imprisonment. As it happened, we were
subsequently serving in different "shifts". At one point
in 1972, I came to the same cell of Vladimir
prison only one day after he was released from it. After 1967 we
did not "coincide" till his release and exchange in 1979.
Despite that fact, our lives were intertwined so closely that I can
hardly tell an episode of my life without mentioning him.
In life great men leave the stage and ordinary people, with their
common and petty life interests, remain. On the one hand, it is
good when a great man leaves, because woe to the nation that needs
heroes. On the other hand, the departure of a great man is very
sad, because without heroes a country becomes rotten – like the
scum on the bottom of a swamp.
Question #2: Who was Alexander Ginzburg as a human being?
Yarim-Agaev: He was an
existentialist with a calling. He lived as he felt, yet his
feeling were greatly directed by his calling. This seemingly odd
combination was glued together by his sense of humor and irony –
the qualities, which never left him except for a few years in the
90s, when he really got angry with what happened in Russia
and in the world.
As a matter of fact, he was a very modest, even humble man. He
loved books and modern art. His apartment was always crammed with
both. Being himself a kind of a Bohemian, he had lots of friends
among poets and artists. However, he became famous for his ability
to completely change in time of crisis, suddenly mobilizing his
will and resistance. On several occasions, this must have misled
the KGB who would expect him to be an easy target. And each time,
as they learned their mistake, they would become furious.
Kuznetsov: He was a
very light-hearted man, extremely easy in character. He was
a wonderful companion - and he loved companionship. He was always
sparkling with ideas and projects. He had a Mozart-like nature.
Multi-talented and a merry contempt for danger.
Question #3: Describe Ginzburg
the Soviet dissident. Where and how did his intellect, courage, and
spirit most exemplify themselves?
Yarim-Agaev: First of
all, in his discoveries. In the Soviet Union
we were taught for generations that the earth was flat and the sun
rotates around it. So new Galileos and Copernicuses were needed to get the true
picture of the universe. And those Galileos
and Copernicuses were dissidents. Each of
the famous dissidents made a number of important discoveries and Ginzburg was one of them. To publish an
independent magazine in the Soviet Union was
not only impossible but also unimaginable. It seems so simple
afterwards, but before it was unimaginable and required real
discovery. And any discovery requires intellect, spirit and
courage. And then all those qualities are needed to be true to your
own discovery, not to denounce it, when everything forces you to do
so. And finally to implement it. First to think unimaginable and
than to make possible.
Without doubt, among Ginzburg’s great
discoveries and breakthroughs was his putting together of communist
deeds on immediate public record – the "White Book." [Editor’s note: in 1967 Ginzburg
was arrested (again) for compiling what he called a "White
Book" about the trial of the dissident writers Yuli Daniel and Andrei
Sinyavsky and smuggling it to the West.
He was sentenced to five years in a labor camp for this
As an editor of the first Samizdat
[underground literature] magazine "Syntaxes" (1959), he
might be called the father of Soviet Samizdat.
However, he became better known for compiling and publishing in
1966 the "White Book" on the Sinyavsky
and Daniel cases, for which he was sentenced to five years of
imprisonment. (Both Sinyavsky and Daniel,
Soviet writers, were imprisoned in 1965 for publishing their
literary works abroad).
Ginzburg’s trial in 1968 became a
landmark in the Soviet human rights movement due to widespread
public protest, both inside the country and abroad. It triggered
off what was called at the time the "chain reaction
process", when repression against those protesting had
generated more and more protests. It could have ended in a total
rebellion of the society against the Soviet system, but the
authorities were smart enough to stop in time. Instead, they
preferred expulsions from the country (often disguised as Jewish
emigration). Soon after being released in 1972, Ginzburg
joined a newly formed Helsinki Watch Group (Public Group to
Facilitate the Observance of the Helsinki Final Act) and in 1978
was imprisoned again. In total, he served eight years.
I think the most meaningful was his disposition toward the
authorities and the repressive regime. Most remarkably, he lived
his life as though there was no surveillance, no searches, no arrests. He simply carried on as if the KGB didn’t exist. I never heard that he expressed
this disposition, or that he even formulated it. It is not excluded
that this disposition was spontaneous, that it was simply an
expression of his nature.
Question #4: Ginzburg
survived many years in the labor camps. How did he do it? What does
it take in a human being to survive that horrifying and
Yarim-Agaev: Bukovsky and Kuznetsov
can say much more about it. I only want to say that what I said
before applies to all circumstances, including the harshest one
such as a labor camp.
I guess you expect me to say some lofty words like courage,
willpower, ingenuity, etc. Well, it might be so, but ultimately, it
was luck. Ginzburg's co-defendant of the
1968 trial, Yuri Galanskov, died in the
camp of ulcer perforation. We were also lucky for not being
born ten years earlier. In Stalin's time, we would have been
shot pretty young and without any trial.
My previous answer suffices for this question. He survived because
of his character.
Question #5: Yuri says that Alexander’s
sense of humor and irony disappeared for a few years in the '90s,
"when he really got angry with what happened in Russia
and in the world." What is it that he became angry with?
Yarim-Agaev: He became
angry because Russia,
which had the chance in '91 to turn into a free and democratic
country, chose an ugly route instead. The dissidents, who were most
prepared to help the country to choose the right way, were
virtually excluded from this process. Even worse, and most
important, Ginzburg was disheartened
because even some of the dissidents lost their patience and, for
the sake of being recognized by the new Russian authorities and
elite, they compromised their principles and betrayed their
First, we were betrayed in the crucial moment by our Western
allies, who chose to side with Gorbachev and his
"reformers" instead of true democrats like us. Second,
that helped to preserve the communist system from a complete
destruction, leaving the nomenklatura
in power. Third, this nomenklatura
assumed the name of "democrats" and managed to discredit
in two years everything we spent 30 years fighting for, including
the very idea of democracy. Fourth, former Soviet sympathizers and apologists
came to power practically everywhere in the West and, quite
naturally, became the strongest promoters of their counterparts in
the East. Fifth, the public, both East and West, became totally
apathetic and apolitical. All in all, we have entered a twilight
zone of "post-totalitarian" world. Do you expect us to be
happy with such an outcome?
What Bukovsky and Yarim-Agaev
are saying is surely true. Vladimir Maximov
[well-known Russian dissident writer of the 1970s and 80s]
was articulating the same feelings and I argued with him about
this question. My position: what happened in Russia
after so-called "Perestroika" naturally and unavoidably
occurred because one type of people fights
to change the regime and an absolutely
different type comes to power when such a change takes
place. The same thing happened after 1917. The dissidents who were
waiting to be invited to share power to realize their ideals
were Romantics and they are close to my heart, but
nobody ever asks such people to take power --
especially when they have ideals. And especially when
they have a heroic past. For every new power needs
not carriers of ideals, but cynical pragmatists.
Question #6: When I think of Ginzburg
and dissidents such as yourselves, I don’t
see it just as those people who fought for freedom against
totalitarianism; I see brave and moral human beings who stood up
against evil. In other words, I think it was also very much a
spiritual battle. Do you? Was Ginzburg a
The fight for freedom is always a spiritual battle. The freedom is
first of all the freedom of spirit. It doesn't provide you with any
material reward. It doesn't reward you with power. Only people of
high spirit would fight for freedom, and that has been true through
all our history. And Ginzburg was a
person of very high spirit.
Unlike myself, Ginzburg
was a deeply religious person (Russian Orthodox), although he would
never put it on public display. However, even I have to employ
religious terminology in order to explain what communism was and
why we had to fight it. Yes, it was Evil because its ultimate
objective was the human soul, and those who embraced it were slowly
but surely destroyed as human beings. Not many people outside the
Soviet bloc understood that our movement was first and foremost a
moral one rather than political. This is why it was strictly
non-violent: our only weapon was a consistent refusal to
participate in the work of that Evil, an appeal to law and to
conscience. In that ocean of the lie which was Soviet life, all we
could do was to bear witness to the truth.
don’t think that most dissidents, at
least the ones known to me, founded their activities on such
metaphysical categories as resistance to Evil. I imagine that the
primary impetus of the most prominent dissidents was simply the
inability to bear life under a loathsome totalitarian system. They
found it unbearable. It was impossible for them not
to become dissidents.
And then there is the matter of inertia. Once a man becomes a
dissident, the attitude becomes stronger and more powerful. And
there is also, of course, the constant evaluation of the opinions
of your friends and those around you whose views you value and
respect. That is what frames a dissident.
There is also the role of the dictatorial system itself. Its
nature necessitates the existence of enemies. Without enemies, it
cannot exist. And the state will find an enemy.
One must also keep in mind that, once you are in the company of
dissidents, even if by chance while you are young and careless, and
even if it is unintentional on your part, the chances are very high
that you will become a dissident. If you are with the dissidents,
you have no choice but to proceed. Once this happens to you, your
duty is to remain a dissident to the last moment. The system won’t give you an alternative in any case. They
will not let you go under any circumstances, let is be for family
reasons or for anything else. And as soon as they notice that you
are tired of being a "hero," the system will try break you and transform you into a traitor. That’s why you have a simple choice: you
continue to act like a brave man or they will crush you and make
you into a weakling and a lackey.
Question #7: What did Alexander teach us?
Yarim-Agaev: One thing
he taught us was the absurdity of political correctness. Ginzburg’s statements were full of
inconsistencies and paradoxes. He could surprise anybody by his
judgments. Yet, at the same time, he had a very strong basic
philosophy with principles in which he believed. He stood for those
principles and struggled for them. And that is what a free person
is. Political correctness is just the opposite of that. One tries
to verify every letter and coma in each statement and phrase, but
has nothing but fear and dogmatism behind it.
We were all learning from each other along the way. So, I suppose,
I can only answer this question subjectively: what did I learn from
him? Well, one thing which was always amazing to me,
was his ability to live a normal life under those extreme
conditions. While I was fighting tooth and nail, never relaxing for
a single second of my existence in the Soviet Union,
he was living. He was happily married, brought up two sons,
something I would have never even considered bearing in mind the
enormous pressure they were likely to be subjected to. Yet, in
retrospect, I have to admit that he was right. His sons, now young
adults, remember their childhood as being very happy. So, what was
it that allowed him to relax? His religious faith? His
existentialism, as Yuri puts it? I still don't know. But the lesson
is quite simple: we have but one life and we must live it no matter
Ginzburg’s main lesson was that even a
single individual is capable of being the speck of dust that can
halt the enormous wheels of the gigantic state machinery.
Question #8: Ginzburg and
dissidents such as yourselves struggled
against tyranny. What lessons could you impart to us in the West
today about the tyranny that we now face in Islamic messianism? What similarities do you see in
socialist and Islamic messianism? Which
represents a greater threat?
Islamism, which challenges us is 80%
totalitarian socialism and 20% Islam. I believe communism still
remains the major threat to our civilization, and China
is much more dangerous than Iraq.
Communism is the most comprehensive and consistent ideology of
totalitarianism and inhumanity, and hence presents the main threat
to freedom and civilization. You can virtually measure the threat
by other isms by the percentage of communism in them. So the lesson
follows from it. First communism itself is so uniform, that all our
experience is fully applicable to fighting it anywhere: China,
Second it helps to recognize it in other isms and to neutralize it,
thereby significantly weakening if not destroying those isms.
In my view, socialism represents a far greater threat to our
civilization than anything we are likely to encounter. Still does,
by the way. It has much more universal appeal than any religious
fanaticism. But the similarity between the two is undeniable, both
being an ideological dictatorship. If we learned anything from the
Cold War, it must be an understanding that liberal democracies are
poorly suited to conduct ideological warfare. We lack resolve and
capabilities to be successful. We lack unity. And yet, an
ideological enemy is not going to disappear with the passing of
time: we must defeat him. On the contrary, left unopposed it will
grow in strength quite dramatically.
Regarding Islamic fascism, the West has to crush it. To achieve
this, it has to apply the methods of pressure that were used to
crush the Soviet regime. The main principle: the pressure of
strength combined with economic bait. This is especially the case
when the despotic regime begins to liberalize and the
liberalization has the multiple support of
dissidents. One can say that Islamic fundamentalism is in the
frontline of war against Judeo-Christian civilization. The task of
the West, therefore, is to force so-called moderate Muslim states
to understand that Islamic fascism is a greater danger to them than
is Western civilization. And the West must make them realize that,
if they are interested in their own survival, then they must
themselves wage war on Islamic fascism.
Question #9: When you look at the Soviet regime and you
see the most monstrous system that ever existed in the history of
man, it becomes fascinating and inspiring to know that there were
brave souls, like Alexander Ginzburg and
yourselves, who, knowing that they risked torture, death and
life-imprisonment, still stood up alone to confront despotism.
Personally, I have always been in awe of these heroes, wishing that
I had the courage to be who they were (and are), and hoping that I
too would have done what they did if I had been in their shoes. But
talk is cheap, and I do not know, if I were really put into that
hell, if I would have or could have been a dissident. What makes a
Yarim-Agaev: You cannot
become a dissident and remain true to your position if you are
prepared to make only some specific sacrifices. You have to be
ready for the labor camps and/or death. There could be many other
tests and temptations, which you cannot foresee from the outset.
Some of them can be harder for you to endure personally than those
which you envisioned about in the beginning. It may sound strange,
but many of us experienced some more difficult tests in the free
West or modern Russia
than in the communist Soviet Union. I can
say it about Ginzburg too. That explains
why some dissidents who stood firm to the KGB and Soviet
persecutions gave in to temptations of freer and easier times. Only
a profound and deep philosophy, as well as strong principles, can
help you to stay the course. Ginzburg had
them and did not go astray.
No one knows in advance how he would fare in extreme conditions, be
it in a real war or in a moral confrontation. I think you would do
fine in both.
What transforms a normal ordinary man into a dissident? If we put
aside psychological and psychic ingredients (and I would contend
that a large majority of dissidents are not completely well off in
those departments), then many things. I will say the following: the
dissident is moved by the primary ethical principles in regards to
life itself. In combination with this, there is simply the nausea
that forces him to act; it is the nausea that he experiences in
having to be in the filth of Soviet existence. The dissident’s primary and dominant reaction is
nausea because the putrid gutter filth of a despotic state is
completely alien to his nature. Disgusted and unable to contain his
urge to vomit in the presence of totalitarianism, he has no
alternative but to become a warrior. And so we had Alexander Ginzburg.
post-commentary: It is hard for me to find the exact terms to
describe the respect I hold for these precious, wise, and golden
words spoken by Yuri Yarim-Agaev,
Vladimir Bukovsky, and Eduard Kuznetsov.
They are words spoken by three distinguished warriors who
single-handedly confronted a monstrous and diabolical Goliath and
suffered immeasurably as a result. Through their experience, they
have gained an insight into the human condition that is rare and
and Kuznetsov’s profound words are not to
be taken lightly, especially now, as we confront the deadly threat
of the Islamo-Fascists. Who, after all,
is there better to listen to than to those who have confronted and
fought evil head on? Who knows better than these individuals how to
detect despotism - and how to defeat it?
The words of these three titans reflect the harvest that was
reaped by long years of indescribable pain, haunting uncertainty,
spectacular human courage, and a robust commitment to virtue,
freedom and truth. Let it not be said, therefore, that this is a
world devoid of heroes. For in this published symposium, we find
three of them - alive and well, privileging us with their presence.
But we must also eventually say goodbye to heroes, and we just
recently had no choice but to lay one to rest. He was a tremendous
human being, a person who showed us, in all of his bravery,
magnanimity, fortitude and nobility, what it means to be a decent
and honorable soldier. He reminds us and gives us hope of what can
still be possible even in what seems to be a hopeless situation.
Let us not underestimate, therefore, how, even as individuals, we
can still stall the wheels of a gigantic state machinery, and let
us not forget the virtue of being contemptuous toward danger when
human freedom is at stake.
Ginzburg showed us what it means to
confront evil in its darkest depths, and
to emerge spiritually unscathed and enlightened - still touching
the face of God. In this world, there are few real-life stories
about the triumph of the human spirit. Ginzburg’s
is one of them.
And so we must say goodbye to you, Alexander. You graced us with
your life. But now, in death, you have left us to be without you. I
didn’t have the honor to know you
personally, but through my father, and the dissident world he was
involved in, I know in my heart and in my soul, the beauty and
goodness that you represented. I know that my father admired and
respected you greatly, and perhaps the
both of you, along with many others who have left this life’s stage, are together now, watching us and
continuing to participate.
Take care Alexander. You will be
missed. Terribly. Yet a greater calling obviously awaits you now.
And so we wait to see you again. Until then, thank you. We love
Cold War and the War Against Terror. Guests: Daniel Pipes,
Michael Ledeen, Vladimir Bukovsky, Paul Hollander.
Jamie Glazov is Frontpage
Magazine's associate editor. He holds a Ph.D. in History with a
specialty in Soviet Studies. He is the author of 15 Tips on How to be a Good Leftist and of Canadian Policy Toward Khrushchev’s Soviet Union
(McGill-Queens University Press, 2002) Email him at email@example.com.