[FEATURE] “Human Rights and Literature: USSR, Post-soviet Ukraine, and Russia”, a Lecture by Andrei Kurkov

Andrei Kurkov (b. 1961) | Photograph © Ilaria Maria Sala

Ilaria Maria Sala, Cha contributor: As I write these lines, Andrei Kurkov is in Kyiv. Sometimes I get a message from him, sometimes he posts on Facebook: “Glory to Ukraine!” he wrote last. He is one of the greatest contemporary Ukrainian writers: his novels have been translated into more languages than I can count, and books like Death and The Penguin or The Milkman in the Night have made him famous far beyond Ukraine. He writes in Russian: in case anyone still was confused about this, Ukraine is a multicultural society, where speaking and writing in Russian doesn’t mean being any less Ukrainian than if one were to speak and write Ukrainian. His non fiction book Ukraine Diaries: Dispatches from Kiev is one of the best books on what happened in Ukraine in 2014—Kurkov’s own diary, from the days in which the Maidan, near where he lives, was the centre of mass protests against Russian interference in Ukrainian politics, for democracy and against corruption. 

When Andrei Kurkov came to Hong Kong to deliver this lecture in April 2018, one of the most striking realisations was how much multicultural Ukraine has parallels with multicultural Hong Kong, and how the power of the word, and the power of literature, to keep diversity as a creative force are essential to civilised life. 

Kurkov’s signature style unites erudition, humour and inventiveness in a delightful cocktail. May this text inform its readers about the complexities of a post-Soviet Ukraine, made all the more glaring in these terrible days of Russian invasion, and of the beauty of a free-thinking nation, that is now fighting for its survival. 

Human Rights and Literature:
USSR, Post-soviet Ukraine, and Russia

Andrei Kurkov


Andrei Kurkov, 2018, Hong Kong

When you are born a small bird in a very large cage, your life begins with a sense of happiness and freedom, but you still do not know the definition and meaning of these two important, interrelated words. You don’t yet know that freedom is your right and unless this right is guaranteed, you are not really going to be happy. You were born and see your parents, but do not see the cage’s walls. Moreover, in modern “smart” cages the walls remain invisible. The walls are built of rules, laws, visible and invisible “red lines”, which cannot be crossed. Your parents know about the “red lines”, but they will protect you, their little chicks, they will delay the moment, wait for you to understand, for yourself, the size of the cage, the rules, and—of course—the consequences of breaking the rules or crossing the “red line”. Parents do not want to upset their children, especially not to upset them with the explanation that life is not so easy and carefree as it seems in childhood. I mean parents that were themselves born in a cage with no or very little rights or freedom.

My life began just like this. With a sense of happiness. From the blue sky above my head, from the singing of birds, from the sun, from loving parents and friends in the yard, with whom we played hide-and-seek or war games. The war was then in the past. It had ceased to be a tragedy and had been turned into a story of heroism and war games could be played without thinking about real blood, about victims, about justice and victory.

I still remember my childhood with warmth. My kindergarten, my yard, in which I felt safe because I knew my neighbours, knew the trees growing in the courtyard, knew a couple of motorcycles with sidecars and their owners, and beyond which I only went out with my parents. In the early 1960s, life was simple and understandable, and people were simple and clear, and the rules were simple and understandable, designed for simple and easily understood people.

At the age of seven I went to school, first class. I had teachers and classmates. And the first books appeared from the school library. Once a week in the first lesson a librarian came from the school library with a large stack of books.  She lay out books on the first row of desks, talked about some of them and we had to take one or two or three books for a week to read at home, returning them the following week and taking others. One series of books  abides in my memory, a series called, “About Lenin for children.” It involved a good many books and I read several of them. They were well-written stories with pictures that completely coincided with the text: about how Lenin loved animals, about how Lenin loved children, about the fact that Lenin loved to work and liked to communicate with ordinary peasants and workers, one book about Lenin’s friendship with the stove maker. It is now difficult for me to recall how many such books I read in my childhood. The main thing is—I liked reading. At home we had mostly books for adults. My parents—very educated people, my mother—a doctor, and my father—a pilot, were not especially in a hurry to buy me books. Apparently they knew that they could buy only the same books that were available from the school library,  the books they knew I was obliged to take, like every other first-grader.

Did I believe in what I read? It’s like asking: do children believe in fairy tales? I think that I believed. I believed, like others believe in fairy tales. Who knows, maybe, without these books from the school library, I would not have become a writer?! But in any case—having learned to read, I learned to think and doubt. Although the time of doubt came a little later. The time of doubt comes at that age, which is often called “difficult”, at 13-15-17. My time of doubt came at 13 because my brother Mikhail was the first in our family to openly doubt the presence of happiness and freedom. And he became the first to bring home books and manuscripts that were not available either in the library or in the bookshop. These books, manuscripts and photographs of manuscripts were banned and if the KGB found them in someone’s home, then, more often than not, the owner was sent to jail. My brother’s friends exchanged forbidden texts at home, in our kitchen, when our parents were out. My brother’s friends did not worry about me being there. Sometimes I also sat with them—I found them interesting: besides books, they exchanged jokes about Stalin and Brezhnev, about Americans and Russians.

Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938)

The books, secretly brought into the house and secretly read and passed on, I still remember today. These were forbidden collections of poetry by Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandelstam, and Konstantin Vaginov; they were books on psychology and psychoanalysis by Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Otto Schopenhauer. There was the remarkable book The Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler, which Soviet ideologists could probably have used in their struggle against world capitalism. Yes, among these books was The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and a couple of books by anti-Soviet dissident writers, but there were very few political books among the banned publications.

The most striking discovery for me at the time was that the same writers sometimes turned out to be the authors of both authorised and banned books. The best example of such a writer is Maxim Gorky, whom I have loved since my school years for his harsh and cruel description of reality. Of course, the reality in his prose was tsarist, pre-revolutionary. He did not write much about the reality of the Soviet Union. But here in his forbidden book Untimely thoughts we can see the horror in his eyes, with which he observed the October Revolution of 1917 and its immediate consequences.

The division of one people into “our folk” and “strangers”—no matter what—occurred and occurs in many countries more or less regularly. In the United States, during the “witch-hunt”, the “right” part of the population helped the authorities look for representatives of the “wrong” part. One of the criteria for dividing the “right” and “wrong” were the answers to the questions: What does the person say? What books do they read and discuss?. In post-revolutionary Russia there were more criteria, they were simpler and more understandable, especially for uneducated participants in the revolution. Enemies were, for example, those who wore glasses or a pince-nez. The peasants and sailors who took part in the revolution called them “the intelligencia” and killed them without regret. “The Intelligencia” could have no place in the bright Soviet future. Soviet Russia planned to create “a new intellectual group” from among the uneducated but obedient folk: the real representatives of the proletariat, soldiers and peasants. “New Intellectuals” had to become literate and start reading the right books. Literacy courses sprang up all over Russia immediately after the revolution. And then the epoch of new, understandable and very simple literature and essays, published on cheap paper, began. Old educated writers could not and did not have the right to write for new Soviet readers. Therefore, the works of the pre-revolutionary stars of Russian literature, such as Anna Akhmatova, Balmont, Andrei Bely and others disappeared. The new country needed new stars. Later, during searches, the presence of books by the “old” stars in home libraries became evidence of disloyalty to Soviet power, proof of counterrevolution.

The books you read were not the only marker that allowed categorisation into “our folk” and “someone else’s”, not the only one, but the main one. The most absurd marker was in the first post-revolutionary years the answer to the question “What does man eat?”. Hungry times meant that people should eat turnips, bran bread, rusty herring and other semi-edible muck. Revolutionary poets such as Vladimir Mayakovsky, used this marker of “right food” and “counterrevolutionary” or “bourgeois” food in their poetry.

Eat pineapple and  chew your grouse,
Your last days are coming, you bourgeois

These two lines Mayakovsky wrote, in September or October, shortly before the October Revolution of 1917, sitting in the St. Petersburg cabaret “The Comedians Halt.” This couplet was published by the magazine Nightingale and already with the capture of the Winter Palace during the revolution these simple words became a song of the revolutionaries.

In addition to pineapples and hazel grouse, artichokes, quails, and asparagus were recorded in the “bourgeois” food catalogue. Asparagus and artichokes were no longer cultivated; banned as “bourgeois”, alien to the proletariat and the peasantry. They have only very recently returned to the Ukrainian farmers’ fields. Ironically today in Russia, these products are on the list of banned products from Europe, along with French and Italian cheese, Spanish jamón and all other food products from the EU.

We see examples of this kind of food censorship in Soviet recipe books too. But let’s return to literary publications. Because literature shapes readers’ minds, it forms readers’ questions about the life of the whole society, the country, the state. Literature affects public and the individual’s perception and evaluation of answers given by society or the authorities,  if of course any answers are forthcoming.

Always, after the intensification of the prohibitions, after “tightening the screws” to the limit, there comes a short period of relaxation, temporary solutions, which give hope to the next generation of people dreaming of democracy. At that time, commissions are created that review the prohibitions previously adopted and, shrugging their shoulders, remove the prohibitions from some of the books and texts, realising that there is nothing dangerous there.

I was born towards the end of Khrushchev’s “thaw” 1953 – 1964. In this period the soviet people saw the debunking of the cult of Stalin. For the first time since 1917, the Soviet Union began talking about historical truth and historical untruth, about injustice, about the mistakes and the crimes, the victims of which numbered more than 20 million Soviet citizens. The “Khrushchev Thaw” sent powerful signals to society about the impending democratisation of life. One of the main signals was the publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The story, written in the summer of 1959, was only published in November 1962. You could write a novel about the history of preparation for the publication of this work, you can make a movie. This story is so exciting, interesting and incredibly absurd. But in fact, the publication of the story in the Russian-language monthly literary magazine New World (Novy Mir) was only a great start to the conscious struggle for human rights in the USSR. The enemies of the publication of the story, and there were many at all levels of government, anticipated the possible consequences of the publication. After 15 years, they and their heirs tried to shove the “genie” back into the bottle. But first things first:

This story was conceived by the author in the prison camp “Steplag” in Kazakhstan, where he served his sentence from 1950 to 1953.

Later he recalled: “It was in 1950, on some long winter camp day, I was carrying a heavy load with my partner and thought: how could I describe our entire camp life? In fact, it is enough to describe one whole day in detail, in the smallest details, moreover the day of the most simple hard worker, and here our whole life will be reflected. And do not even force any horrors, do not make out that it was some special day, but—the usual, that’s the day from which the years develop. I thought so, and this idea remained in my mind, nine years I did not touch it and only in 1959, nine years later, I sat down and wrote.”

Solzhenitsyn at first did not think that the story could be published. No one abolished Soviet censorship after the death of Stalin, nor even during the reign of Nikita Khrushchev. The apparatus of Soviet control over all aspects of life continued to work and worked until 1991, although in the late 1980s their work was more like an imitation. By that time the censorship machines were worn out, like old, old clothes.

Nikita Khrushchev, who began the policy of “de-Stalinization” of the Soviet Union, needed the softening of official censorship for the success of this policy. In the pre-Khrushchev era, any criticism of Stalin led to prison or to death. Stalin and the Motherland were a single concept. Criticising Stalin was like criticising the Motherland. Not to love Stalin meant to be a traitor. Alexander Solzhenitsyn himself was sent to prison for writing letters to his friend, not calling Stalin by name, but accusing him of distorting Lenin’s ideas!

No one was going to cancel censorship. Especially not Nikita Khrushchev, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR! Any attempt to reform or mitigate censorship in a totalitarian state is dangerous for the authorities.

Solzhenitsyn himself, writing One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich, understood that it was almost impossible to publish this work, because, in addition to the dramatic plot about life in the Soviet camp, there was a lot of reasoning about the regime. In 1961, he edited the previously written story and he himself did what censors would have done.  He removed the sharpest criticism of the Soviet regime. After that, he passed his manuscript anonymously through his acquaintances to the editorial board of the most influential literary magazine of the Soviet Union, New World. In December 1961 the manuscript reaches the editor-in-chief of the journal, the famous Soviet writer Alexander Tvardovsky. All night long from 8 December to 9 December 1961 Tvardovsky read and reread the story. He was delighted, but he was also afraid of censorship. Tvardovsky gave the story to other leading writers of the USSR—Paustovsky, Marshak, Ehrenburg, Fedin, and also sent it to the Culture Department of the Central Committee of the CPSU.

Already on 11 December, Tvardovsky invites Solzhenitsyn to Moscow by telegram. On 12 December the magazine New World signs a contract with the author for the publication of the story.

Work began on the text. Members of the editorial board of the journal, as well as the staff of the Central Committee of the CPSU, who were sent the manuscript of the story, compiled a list of comments and suggestions about changes in the text. Remarks and changes concerned not the literary quality of the story, but political moments.

And at this time copies of the manuscript were already circulating illegally; first distributed to Solzhenitsyn’s acquaintances, and then simply to all who considered the story to be important. People reprinted the story on typewriters in five copies through  carbon paper. The fifth copy was almost illegible, but still it was taken and read with a magnifying glass in hand! Educated people felt that reading this story was equal to getting access to truth, access to freedom of thought! So began “samizdat“—the illegal system of distribution of banned books and manuscripts, which existed until the end of the Soviet Union.

Solzhenitsyn noted all the remarks and demands for changes to the story. He admitted that he divided the comments into three categories: those with which he could agree, even considering them useful; those he would think about, but were difficult for him; and finally, those suggestions which were impossible—those with which he would rather never see the work in print.

The most amusing demand from the “censors” was—to mention Stalin in the story, at least once, as the main culprit of all the ills of the Soviet Union. Solzhenitsyn actually never mentioned Stalin in the original story, but he agreed with the demand and mentioned Stalin, but only once.

And even after all this work in July 1962, the editor-in-chief of New World, Tvardovsky feels that he will not be able to publish the story for political reasons. He writes a letter to Khrushchev himself and sends him a letter along with the manuscript.

Time was passing. Nikita Khrushchev was too busy to read the manuscript. But in September 1962, Khrushchev asked his assistant Lebedev to read him Solzhenitsyn’s story aloud! Khrushchev, after listening to the story, was excited and immediately asked to print 23 copies of the story, which he sent to members of the Politburo and the CPSU Central Committee.

One can only guess how the leading figures of the Communist Party took the story of Solzhenitsyn if the archives preserved the mention that “Khrushchev forced the Presidium of the Central Committee of the CPSU to approve the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and to take an official decision of the Presidium on this.”

18 November 1962. Issue number 11 of the magazine New World with One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovich was printed and was distributed throughout the country. In the evening of 19 November, about 2000 copies of the magazine were brought to the Kremlin for participants of the next plenary meeting of the CPSU Central Committee. Initially, the magazine ran 96,900 copies, but another 25,000 copies were printed under the permission of the Central Committee of the CPSU. After a short time—in January 1963—the novel was reprinted by Roman-Gazeta with a circulation of 700,000 copies and, in the summer of 1963, a separate book appeared, published by The Soviet Writer with a circulation of 100 thousand copies. Nevertheless, in the libraries there appeared huge queues of people wishing to read the story.

The story was read by millions of Soviet citizens. Solzhenitsyn began to receive thousands of letters from readers. Many letters included memoirs of the camps and prisons of the Stalinist era. Many correspondents asked to meet Solzhenitsyn and wanted to share their prison experience. Solzhenitsyn read these letters and memoirs and met with some of those who wanted to see him. His archives began to be filled with information from hundreds of prisons and camps, information about thousands of human dramas, a sea of ​​injustice  because of which tens of millions of Soviet citizens had had to die. Thus began work on the book The Gulag Archipelago, which later, having being banned, would circulate in samizdat and be published abroad and would undermine the foundation of the entire Soviet state.

Did Nikita Khrushchev realise that by his wilful decision to print One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovich and not just to print it, but to make this book accessible to millions of Soviet readers, he was, in 1962, opening the topic of human rights in the Soviet Union? Probably not! It was more important for him to destroy the Stalinist system of government. But after all, the Stalinist system which still governed the way the state was run maintained the habit of completely suppressing human rights, forcing the Soviet man to refuse his own will, his own thoughts and his own freedoms. Consciously or unconsciously, Nikita Khrushchev performed a feat, for which very soon he would be punished. In October 1964, he was already removed from all posts and was officially pensioned off, not because he had allowed people to critically discuss the Soviet Stalinist past. Officially, he was removed from office for other reasons. He was accused of causing economic problems because of his unintelligent reforms. However, as soon as Khrushchev was removed, the emerging buds of relative freedom of speech and freedom of thought were plucked off. Again, censorship took hold, and the government officials’ attitude towards Solzhenitsyn also changed. The leaders of the party began to call Solzhenitsyn “a slanderer of the remarkable Soviet reality,” accusing him of ideological sabotage in the interests of the West. In 1971-1972 all the editions of the novel One Day from the Life of Ivan Denisovich began to be taken from libraries and bookstores. This was all done behind the scenes, without official decisions. Pages containing the story were torn out of journals, and in the list of contents the author’s surname was covered with ink. In 1974, the body which managed  censorship—Glavlit—issued a special order, order number 10, dedicated to Solzhenitsyn. This order introduced a ban on reprinting and printing any works of the author. There were also orders to remove and destroy all Solzhenitsyn’s books and works published earlier, including publications for the blind. The 1962 issues of New World from which pages with the forbidden narrative had already been ripped out were withdrawn completely.

Those who had understood the nature of their human rights—first of all, socio-economic, political and cultural—rose up in an attempt to protect them. The enemy of human rights was the Soviet State, so any advocates of human rights were declared anti-Soviet dissidents and enemies of the USSR. They were imprisoned or declared insane and sent to psychiatric hospitals. Those who were lucky were expelled from the country. Solzhenitsyn was lucky—for several days, the government was debating what to do with him: put him in jail or exile him from the country. In the end, he was stripped of his citizenship and expelled from the USSR.

The ban on publishing his works was lifted by the decision of the Ideological Department of the CPSU Central Committee on 31 December 1988. However, One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovich was published again only in 1990. One year before the collapse of the USSR.

For the first time Soviet people realised their right to the truth and to personal opinions, after reading the story of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. However, we have to say that Alexander Solzhenitsyn was lucky. His book was first written, published, and only then banned. At the time when, thanks to Khrushchev, the publication of the story One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovich became both a political shock and a literary discovery for the USSR, dozens of novels remained banned. Their time came later or came too late.

Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971)

Nikita Khrushchev’s own memoirs  were banned until 1990.

In 1988, I found the publication of his memoirs in London in one emigrant anti-Soviet publishing house. I needed them to write the novel Bickford’s Fuse, where Khrushchev is one of the main characters. In 1988, I carried a whole chest of books on trains from London to Kiev. In Brest, at night, when entering the USSR, customs officials took me off the train. They themselves did not want to check the books that I was taking into the country. To do this, they woke up a special female officer who knew what was already allowed and what was not. Sleepy she came to the station, flipped through the books lying on the surface of the trunk. And then stopped, waved her hand and said: now almost everything is allowed. Now, if you had Khrushchev’s memoirs, I would have had to take that book. She did not know that Khrushchev’s memoirs were lying on the very bottom of the trunk and as a result of this check they went with me further to Kiev.

The Soviet censorship had another interesting economic aspect: it created tens of thousands of jobs, because in every small town or district centre a censor had to work, checking the local press, the texts of radio broadcasts and other printed products. The censors who lost their jobs in 1991 were more offended by the collapse of the Soviet Union than others.

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, refers to the Freedom of Opinion and Information. This is one of the basic human rights. In the Stalinist Soviet past, this right was spoken of in a whisper, and even then only by the most daring. But it was under Nikita Khrushchev that, for the first time since 1917, people became emboldened and began to ask questions. Because of the mismatch of the official versions of Soviet history with the personal experience of citizens of the USSR, a huge demand for truth arose. It was Solzhenitsyn who served as a vehicle for this demand; this desire to receive truthful information, on the basis of which one can form ones own personal opinion about everything. It is difficult for me to understand now: what percentage of the population wanted to gain access to the truth, and what percentage remained set on helping the Soviet authorities “protect” the truth from the people.

I think that the “guards” were not few in number, perhaps they were even the majority. My grandfather and grandmother were Stalinists. They remained so after the death of Stalin. Only after the death of my grandfather did I learn that among our relatives there were those who had been illegally repressed and sent to camps. After the death of my grandmother, I inherited the entire 55-volume Great Soviet Encyclopedia, to which only representatives of the nomenclature, people whom the authorities trusted, could subscribe. My Soviet grandmother was one of those trusted people. She was a member of the local council, the chief doctor of a children’s sanatorium for tuberculosis patients, and during the war she was the head of a front-line hospital train and a military surgeon. It was from her encyclopedia that I learned about the relationship between my grandmother and Soviet power. The entire “Soviet” version of the history of mankind and of the Soviet Union was collected in Great Soviet Encyclopedia. Hundreds of thousands of articles talked about the organisers of workers’ strikes in the USA, about the slave trade and racism, about the “Great October Revolution” of 1917 and about the not-so-great 1905 revolution. Great Soviet Encyclopedia was a Soviet paper version of the Google search engine. And in every volume, I saw torn pages or scissor-cut articles, painted out faces of people in group portraits of the members of the Politburo or the Central Committee of the Party. At first I could not understand why a respected doctor needed to spoil books, but one day a letter dropped out from one of the volumes. It was addressed to my grandmother directly from Moscow, from the editorial office of Great Soviet Encyclopedia. And in this letter the representative of the editorial board asked grandmother to remove the article on page 22 from the fifth volume, and from the 32nd volume to remove the biography of one of the important Communists who had suddenly managed to become an “enemy of the people”. It’s clear that my grandmother, as a loyal communist, did not hesitate to carry out these instructions. Why? Because she was an accessory to the authorities in protecting the official version of “truth”, the official version of the history of the Soviet Union. Much later, I realised one more important thing: everyone who got the right to subscribe to this encyclopedia and became its owner was registered in the editorial office and became, regardless of their will, participants in the system which hid the truth, participants in the falsification of history.

Was this also a form of self-censorship? I do not know. But silence at certain historical moments is certainly one form of self-censorship. My grandfather was silent until his death about his two brothers who were arrested in the 1930s and sent to camps. Only after his death in 1980, when I was already a student, I found out about it. And I must say that this knowledge turned my world upside down. It’s one thing, when you know that millions of innocent people were repressed by the Stalin regime, another thing when you find out that among these millions were your own relatives. It was this information that prompted me to devote all my free time to searching for “historical truth”. I must say that the method I used to search for historical truth could never be considered scientific. At that time, I knew that Soviet pensioners were divided into “honoured retirees” who had occupied important positions in the party or in the executive authorities and  ordinary pensioners. I began to “hunt” for “honoured” pensioners, rightly believing that they would certainly know more about the real past life than their subordinates. Hammers are much more important than nails! And I started to travel to different regions of the Soviet Union with a Dictaphone machine. I masqueraded as a student of the faculty of journalism in fact I studied foreign languages ​​and when I found these important people, I tried to find out from them how Soviet life had really looked in the 1930s, 1940s and later. I even found the address of the still living Vyacheslav Molotov, a former foreign minister who, before the Second World War, signed with Ribbentrop the pact on the partition of Poland between Hitler’s Germany and the Soviet Union. In his honour the world-famous explosive “Molotov cocktail” is also named. I twice came to the street Zholtovsky on the Garden Ring in Moscow, where he lived and where he walked his dog in the evenings. The second time I almost approached him, but then I noticed that behind him two men in dark clothes always walked at a short distance. I did not know then that for the last 16 years of his life, writer-biographer Feliks Chuev had been “attached” to Molotov. To him Molotov had told all his past, starting with his acquaintance with Vladimir Lenin, continuing with his meeting with Hitler and a long joint work with Stalin. It is interesting that when the writer Chuev came to Molotov’s dacha in the village of Zhukovka, Molotov took him to the forest and there, while walking, told him about the past. “They can’t overhear us in the forest!” Molotov said. So he knew very well in what kind of country he lived.

I did not discover the subjective historical truth from the lips of Molotov when later I read Felix Chuev’s 140 conversations with Molotov. But in the following years I found a lot of “personal” retirees who talked to my recorder and I used some of what they said in my novels Bickford’s Fuse and Geography of a Single Gunshot. Later, when censorship disappeared, I began to trust books more than oral memories.

Before the total economic and political collapse of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in a dying country. Like Khrushchev after Stalin’s death, he tried to establish himself as the General Secretary of the CPSU by a show of partial democratisation and the renewal of the Soviet people’s access to truth. “Glasnost” and “perestroika” became the main words of that time, and proof of the reality of change was again the re-publication and publication of previously banned literature. This process coincided with the first discussions on human rights and freedoms in the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, where the main advocate for human rights was Academician Andrei Sakharov.

The Soviet era was coming to a close accompanied by the rustle of pages of books, which described the reason for this sad finale of the largest country in the world. Interestingly, those books that “knocked down” the Soviet Union, quickly lost their relevance. On the territory of the USSR, 15 other countries emerged and each of them began a new history, or recommenced an old one: the history of their own literature, and the history of their own awareness of human rights and freedoms. However, common to all the new post-Soviet was the tragic experience of the Soviet past, which all of them wanted to forget, except for the Russian Federation, which declared itself the sole heir to the Soviet Union.

You cannot talk about Russia and Ukraine without mentioning the noticeable mental difference between these two peoples. The mentality of a nation is formed due to the political matrix of the history of the state or territory where this nation lives. This partially predetermines the fate of the people and its attitudes to their rights and to their history. This does not mean that the political history of the people cannot change their mentality. Naturally free-thinking people can become slaves under dictatorships or under occupations by foreign powers. However, as soon as political rules and conditions change, people begin to return to their “matrix.”

For Russians, at the heart of the historical matrix lies ​​the monarchy, the love of the king, the desire to rally around him. If the king begins to irritate the people, the king is killed and the next one is loved. Everything works for the tsar—literature, music, art in general. In 1836 the opera of the great Russian composer Mikhail Glinka A Life for the Tsar was staged. Based on the real or invented feats of a Russian peasant called Ivan Susanin during the 1612 war with Poland. Tsar Nicolas the 1st attended the premiere at the Bolshoi Petersburg Theater. After the performance, he presented Mikhail Glinka with a diamond ring, showing with this gesture that he really liked the work. Glinka remained one of the greatest composers in Russian culture. His status as a “court” composer did not spoil his reputation. Serving the Tsar in Russia has always been an honour.

In Ukraine, during its independence until 1654, there were no kings. The Ukrainians could not and did not want to live under a monarchy. Instead, they created a unique kind of state built on the principles of democratic anarchy. In this system elections were held for the hetman, the commander-in-chief of the Cossack army, who at the same time became the main political figure in Ukraine. Military courts functioned, but there was no civil legislation. There was a military administration and a chancery, but it was not civil. Well, the most amazing thing was that the Ukrainians did not mint their own money. Instead they used Polish gold and Turkish silver. And even with this system, the Ukrainian Cossacks did not really want to obey the hetman whom they had elected, and very often immediately after the election they began to weave intrigues in order to drop the newly announced hetman and put someone else in his place.

When the Russian Empress Catherine the Great invited a well-known Ukrainian philosopher and poet Grigory Skovoroda to serve, he refused. He did not want to become a court philosopher and poet. He chose the path of wandering and complete freedom—freedom from the material world and freedom of movement.

A person values ​​his rights and freedoms only if he realises them.

A child is not born with a sense of dignity. The child gradually understands his rights and freedoms, but only if human rights are respected in his country and if his parents understand them. Both in the past world and today, people have a choice: to give up their rights and freedoms because of fear or because of a desire to receive some kind of benefit in exchange, a promise of protection, or to remain free and to be on guard in case their rights are violated by anyone: either by the system, or by the state in which they live, either by representatives of the authorities, or by some random people.

Even if you were born in a civilised European or other state to take your rights for granted is dangerous. We do not pay attention to the air that we breath until it becomes unsuitable for breathing due to pollution. We do not pay attention to our body while it is healthy, but we are frightened as soon as we face the first serious problems with our heart or lungs. Our rights are not violated only if we understand them and make sure that they are not violated. Forget about them, and the consequences can be most deplorable. People living in a democratic state, knowing the value of human rights, always know where and whose rights are violated in other countries.

PEN is one of the main organisations dealing with human rights activities, but primarily monitoring the observance of rights and freedoms related to opinions, press and creativity. PEN International was established in London in October 1921, at the initiative of Catherine Amy Dawson-Scott and the writer John Galsworthy, who became the first head of the club.

In its Charter PEN affirms that:

• Literature knows no frontiers and must remain common currency among people in spite of political or international upheavals.

• In all circumstances, and particularly in time of war, works of art, the patrimony of humanity at large, should be left untouched by national or political passion.

• Members of PEN should at all times use what effect they have in favour of good understanding and mutual respect between nations and people; they pledge themselves to do their utmost to dispel all hatreds and to champion the ideal of one of humanity living in peace and equality in one world.

• PEN stands for the principle of unhampered transmission of thought within each nation and between all nations, and members of the pledge themselves to oppose any form of suppression of freedom of expression in the country and community to which they belong, as well as throughout the world wherever this is possible. PEN declares for a free press and opposes arbitrary censorship in time of peace. It believes that the necessary advancement of the world towards a more highly organised political and economic order. And since freedom implies positive restraint, members pledge themselves to oppose such evils of a free press as mendacious publication, deliberate falsehood and distortion of facts for political and personal ends.

Oleg Sentsov (b. 1976)

At different times, the presidents of the PEN club were Maurice Maeterlinck, Henrich Boell, Alberto Moravia, Mario Vargas Llosa, Arthur Miller and many other famous representatives of world literature. Today PEN is active in a hundred countries. There are 145 PEN centres. One of them is the Ukrainian PEN Center in Kiev. The activity of Ukrainian PEN is now aimed at protecting Ukrainian writers and journalists who are subjected to repression in annexed Crimea, who are on trial in Russia or already sitting in Russian prisons. In many of its actions, Ukrainian PEN receives support from other centres. The campaign for the release of Ukrainian film director and writer Oleg Sentsov, imprisoned in Russia for 20 years on a fabricated charge, is supported by the PEN America and the PEN Canada. Several PEN centres, together with Ukrainian PEN, fought for the liberation of Crimean Ukrainian journalist Mykola Semena, who openly expressed his disagreement with the forced annexation of Crimea by Russia. Under pressure from the world community, the Russian court awarded Mykola Semena a suspended sentence, while prohibiting any public expression of his opinion. In this way, the journalist was banned from being a journalist.

We live in difficult times, when the absence of an instant response to violations of human rights and freedoms immediately leads to more violations. And with the arrival of internet platforms and social networks the methods of expressing one’s opinion have become more multi-faceted. Active citizens have become bloggers. The number of people using the right to express their opinion has grown hundreds of thousands of times. And because of this, the threat to those regimes and politicians that see human rights and freedoms as a danger to their own existence has increased .

New tools for exercising the right to freedom of speech lead to new types of censorship: websites that publish articles and thoughts that do not coincide with the point of view of the ruling elite are blocked. Active bloggers or participants in online discussions catch the attention of the police or secret services. They are followed by real and electronic surveillance, in which not only their thoughts and words are tracked, but also their movements, contacts, social circles.  After that, depending on the regime, they are either imprisoned according to laws specifically adopted to combat freedom of speech, or they are accused of crimes they did not commit, or are crippled or killed by unashamedly criminal means, with the dirty work carried out by either secret service personnel or professional bandits or both.  There are countries in which all these methods of squashing freedom of speech are applied simultaneously. Often we see the decision to prosecute a  “dissenter” taken at a local rather than a central level. This means that the cases become part of the work of local government bodies and gradually the local governments start to compete with one another for the attention and praise of the Central authorities: who will be able to repress the highest number of dissidents?

During 2016, in Russia more than 600 people were sentenced to prison for posting, reposting or commenting on posts on the Internet. More than 3,000 were fined. During the last 6 months of 2017, 323 people were given prison sentences for the same “offences”. All these people were accused of “extremist” activities. At the same time, there is still no clear legal definition of the word “extremism” in Russia, and most often the police label as criminal any critical remarks against the current authorities, and the courts agree with them.

The first victim of an officially sanctioned fight against another opinion in Russia was Darya Polyudova, who in 2015 received 2 years in a penal colony. The Court of the city of Krasnodar found her guilty of extremist activity and separatism. The charges were brought against her because of a repost of pictures and a video in the Russian social network “VKontakte”. Darya Polyudova was charged with three offences. One was holding a picket with a call for a socialist revolution. The second was a video, also with a call for a socialist revolution. And the third charge was based on a then completely new criminal law—the charge of stirring people to violate the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation in the publication of a picture with the title: “We appeal to the world community for the cessation of violations of the rights of Ukrainians in the Kuban. Kuban wishes to return to her historic homeland—to Ukraine.” (Kuban is a region in the south Russia next to North Caukasus, populated mainly by descendants of Ukrainian kozaks) In none of these appeals was there an appeal for violence. The Human Rights Center “Memorial” recognised Darya Polyudova as a political prisoner.

What she was doing was more like trolling of the Russian authorities, because at the same time Russia was supplying weapons and military specialists and “volunteers” to the separatists in the Ukrainian Donbass, and Ukraine’s territorial integrity was grossly violated by Russia in the Donbass, and in the Crimea.

Yury Dmitriev (b. 1956)

In Russia, there are still functioning human rights organisations, the main one remains Memorial, which arose in the last years of the USSR, in 1987. In May 2013, the human rights centre Memorial, according to the new Russian legislation, was deemed to be a “foreign agent” with all consequences resulting from this status. Employees and activists of  Memorial regularly become victims of both criminal prosecutions and custom-made attacks. Some employees have even been killed. One of the last victims of the criminal prosecution of the activists of the Memorial was Yury Dmitriev, the head of the Karelian regional branch of this all-Russian human rights centre who was actively looking into human rights abuses by the Soviet authorities in forced labour camps in Karelia.

On 13 December 2016, Dmitriev was arrested on charges of fabricating child pornography having being anonymously denounced. However, many did not believe in the accusation and the campaign for his release began. On the portal Change.org there was a petition for his release, which within 5 days was signed by more than 5 thousand people. Support for Dmitriev also came from Ukrainian public figures, who published an appeal to the world community. The leadership of Memorial also stood up in defence of Dmitriev. The prosecutor’s office was demanding a nine year prison sentence, but on April 5 this year Yury Dmitriev was acquitted by the court and found not guilty of child pornography. During the investigation, however, official Russian mass media used the accusation against Yuri Dmitriev as an instrument in a media campaign against the human rights movement. On prime-time television journalists of the TV channel Russia-24 and other TV channels showed films about how Memorial employs pedophiles and perverts. These journalists and TV channels are unlikely to take back their accusations or apologise for lying. Rather, on the contrary, they will seek out other cases that can be used to discredit human rights activities.

Problems relating to biased journalism exist in Ukraine. They began in the 1990s when communist party censorship was replaced by control of the new media by the various oligarchs who owned them and used them primarily to fight their economic and political rivals. “Customised journalism” exists in Ukraine and it often makes it difficult to judge easily and objectively news about freedom of speech violations in the press. There are cases when local authorities have organised attacks on journalists who criticise them and these cases are not so rare.

In the past three years, however, a new problem has emerged which seriously challenges attempts to protect the freedom of speech to which we have become accustomed. Since the beginning of the war in Donbass and the annexation of Crimea, “customised journalism” has been used by Russia in the so-called “hybrid” war against Ukraine. Paid by Russia, journalists and bloggers, not burdened with a sense of responsibility for their output, write and distribute materials, both in printed publications and on Internet sites, designed to destabilise the political situation. Very often fake news is used for these materials, which spread through social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, like wild fire. Fake news like this is also used by Russian media in their war with Ukraine. The most famous early case of “fake” news on Russian state channels was a story from 2014 about the alleged “crucifixion” of a three-year-old boy in the Donbass region, who was “crucified” for speaking in Russian and not in Ukrainian. Since then, instances of fake news can be listed in their thousands. They are created and launched into the media in Russia and Ukraine. But when official investigation begins the journalist or blogger, who was asked to launch the  fake news always declares that such an investigation is an attack on freedom of speech. Society is gradually learning to distinguish truth from lies, but this process of ‘education’ during a war and constant anti-Ukrainian propaganda from Ukraine’s large eastern neighbour is slow and requires enormous efforts.

Russian writers who support the Kremlin’s policy have long joined in the war against Ukraine and its desire to become part of Europe and create a functioning democratic state. Tens, if not hundreds, of books have already been published, whose aim is not only to throw Europe and democracy itself into a bad light in the eyes of Russian readers, but also to present Ukraine as a fascist state. As in Soviet times, from time to time, the Kremlin needs to demonstrate to its people that the creative intelligentsia supports Putin’s policies. At these junctures we see appearing open letters of support for President Putin’s decision to annex Crimea or to introduce troops to the Donbass. Hundreds of writers, filmmakers, and architects are willing to put their signatures to these letters, which are subsequently published in the press. Unfortunately, the return to the atmosphere of the Soviet era and fear of those in power could not but affect PEN Moscow, which has practically curtailed its human rights activities and has begun instead to publish patriotic literature using financial support from the administration of President Putin. The case of PEN Moscow shows that, at this time, in almost every country events can occur that lead people to voluntarily renounce the truth and freedom of speech: events that delete democratic values ​​and freedoms for the sake of so-called “national patriotism” and so-called “stability”.

Ukraine will have to live with this for some time to come, and the need to constantly monitor freedom and human rights will remain. So far, all attempts by politicians who wanted to turn Ukraine into a totalitarian state, to restrict human rights and freedoms in Ukraine, have failed. Over the 27 years of independence there have been several attempts to intimidate writers, to silence them or to make them loyal to the authorities. The entire print-runs of  books describing the activities of one or another politician have been burned. Newspapers with critical articles have been confiscated or if confiscation is impossible—bought up from the distributors and destroyed before it can reach the readers. Criminal cases were opened against two of Ukraine’s best known writers—Maria Matios and Yuri Vinnichuk. There were power cuts throughout a region during the television broadcast of a program about the corruption of the authorities in that region. All this was before 2013, and in part, this was the reason for Euromaydan, the revolution of dignity.

Despite the war, Ukraine has not blocked access to explicitly anti-Ukrainian, pro-Russian news sites, such as the strana.ua and… On central non-state TV channels, they continue to broadcast Russian TV programmes and Russian television series. From time to time, new films are added to the list of Russian films banned from being screened in Ukraine, films which include elements of anti-Ukrainian propaganda or films whose production teams include cultural figures who make political anti-Ukrainian statements. A war cannot but pass from the military battle front to the cultural front line. Russian culture, like the country, is big. Even before the war, it pressed on the smaller Ukrainian culture. And since the beginning of the war, Russian culture itself has become a weapon in the war against Ukraine. What will happen next? What happens when the war is over?

How should we treat censorship during hostilities? Are restrictions on freedom of speech acceptable during a modern war, which is not only conducted with tanks, guns and sniper rifles? This issue remains relevant for Ukraine now.

The cultural space of the country is also a political space. When a part of the country falls under the influence of the culture of a neighbouring country it automatically falls under the influence of the media of the neighbouring country and thus the political influence of the neighbouring country also increases. Even if that country does not show aggression, their influence erodes and / or neutralises the political identity of the inhabitants of this region, it colonises their consciousness. It makes them empathise with other people’s problems and protect other people’s interests. It happened in the Donbass and Crimea. This can happen in other regions and countries where, close beside a smaller country, there is a larger, political system that is not based on democratic values.

There can be protection from such encroachments only in  a consolidated society where the state supports the development of its own culture until the moment when that culture becomes a national industry and until it is self-sustaining. But what is the national culture of Ukraine, a country where, along with the Ukrainian-speaking majority, dozens of cultures coexist in other languages: from Russian to Crimean-Tatar, from Bulgarian to Hungarian. Each ethnic or linguistic minority has the right to its own culture and each minority has the right to consider its culture part of the greater national culture of Ukraine. Over our 27 years of independence, the state language—the Ukrainian language—has recaptured territories from which it was ousted as a result of the conscious Kremlin policy of Russification. Culture and literature in the Ukrainian language has become much more visible and active. It is now not only self-sufficient but also able to set social and political agendas which are important for the country and important for wider discussion. At the same time, while literature in the state language has been strengthened, everyone has forgotten about the literature of other linguistic and ethnic groups. The second largest group of the population is Russian-speaking. Russian-speaking writers and journalists have not had a problem conveying their thoughts and texts to the general public. However, the rest of the minorities do have problems. For 27 years, Ukraine has not heard the Crimean Tatar culture and literature, has had no idea what the writers of Transcarpathia write about in their native language of Hungarian. No, their rights to freedom of opinion and creativity were not violated, but the creativity of ethnic minorities was ignored, and therefore they have remained un-integrated and on the edge of Ukrainian society and Ukrainian national culture.

In 2016, I conducted two projects aimed at showing young writers from different regions how to organise and conduct public discussions on everything from culture to politics. We held dozens of discussions about the future of the country, on freedom of creativity and the responsibility of writers and ordinary citizens, about war and peace. The first project took place in Bessarabia in the south of Ukraine, in the region where Bulgarians, Moldovans, Gagauz, Ukrainians and Russians live. We conducted dozens of similar discussions in Transcarpathia, where Slovak, Ukrainian, Romanian, Roma, Hungarian and many other languages ​​are heard on the streets of towns and villages. When the public realised that they could not only ask questions, but also express their views on issues of concern, it turned out that there were many talented speakers and people who could articulate their own problems, thoughts and issues in our audiences. At every event there were people who spoke publicly for the first time in their lives! They talked, despite their shyness or fear of being inaccurate in their judgments. They probably did not think that, at that moment, they were enjoying the universal human right to express their opinion.

I was amazed when I saw how people recorded monologues of their fellow villagers on their mobile phones, how they listened to each other’s words. Their eyes were full of surprise. They seemed to be making completely unexpected discoveries for themselves. They  were discovering their own freedom, they were realising their own rights.

A consolidated society, especially in such a multinational country like Ukraine, is the most important condition for the stable future of the state. Without the people’s awareness of their rights and without their realising their freedoms, especially the freedom of speech, the state will have less chance of harmonious and democratic development. But what if the majority of the population still remains passive? What is to be done if people who became accustomed to the lack of rights and freedoms in the Soviet era do not want to change, if they prefer to be passive and take no responsibility for the political future of their country? Unfortunately, this problem exists in Ukraine too. 27 years have already passed, the entire period of Ukraine’s independence. Ukrainian politicians have enjoyed the passivity of the population all these years, buying votes in exchange for populist promises, or paying for  votes with money and food. For politicians, only one thing has been important: that once in five years people came to polling stations and voted. No party conducts regular daily political work in Ukraine, which indicates that parties do not need an open discussion about the future of the state. The most disciplined voters are pensioners who remember from the Soviet era that elections do not affect the system. They vote without asking questions about who they are voting for. It is difficult to engage them in discussion. They cannot understand why so many different opinions exist on the same issue. These 27 years have not been long enough for them to reform themselves and to abandon the idea that everything should be decided by a single political force that remains in power forever.

Nothing in this world is eternal. And democracy is not eternal if it is not supported and not monitored daily, if we do not appreciate our rights and freedoms, and if we don’t react to every attempt of the authorities or individual political forces to restrict these rights and freedoms. For everything we need to fight. There are two ways to fight, to assert your rights and freedoms: a noisy way and a quiet way. The noisy option involves  demonstrations, political campaigns, rallies through which the topic of the violation of rights and freedoms  becomes relevant in a country. The quiet way involves work with  words. This is the work of writers, journalists, university professors and many others who do not allow these vital social topics to fade from public view, to become something trivial and taken for granted and finally, something that can be done without.  

3 thoughts on “[FEATURE] “Human Rights and Literature: USSR, Post-soviet Ukraine, and Russia”, a Lecture by Andrei Kurkov

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