The prominent Soviet-era Russian dissident Viktor Fainberg died this week at the age of 91. Fainberg, who was a philologist, was one of the eight people who protested in Red Square, Moscow on 25 August 1968 against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, alongside Pavel Litvinov and the late poet Natalya Gorbanyevskaya, among others. Despite the protest lasting only five minutes, all were arrested by the Soviet authorities.
All these people were instrumental in the founding of Index, as Jo-Ann Mort’s interview with Pavel Litvinov, published here, shows.
On Fainberg specifically, after his arrest he was brutally assaulted by the police to the point where he could not physically stand trial. Fainberg was examined, then sent to a Leningrad psychiatric hospital for over four years with no evidence of mental illness – details of which he shared with the translator Richard McKane who he met at an Index on Censorship party in the 1970s. He was then diagnosed with schizophrenia, which was a common tactic during the Khrushchev era to repress dissenters and silence voices of criticism in the Soviet Union, which continued into the Brezhnev era.
In the spring of 1971, Fainberg staged an 81-day hunger strike against conditions in the psychiatric hospital, and was eventually released in February 1973.
Fainberg founded the Campaign Against Psychiatric Abuse in April 1975, an organisation which campaigned against the abuse of human rights through misuse of psychiatry in the Soviet Union. The country withdrew from the World Psychiatric Association in 1983.
After his release, Fainberg, born into a Jewish family in Kharkiv, Ukraine on 26 November 1931, initially moved to Israel before settling in France in later life.
In 2014, Fainberg received the Medal of the President of the Slovak Republic for his actions in 1968, and in 2018 received the Gratias Agit award from the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs for promoting the good name of the Czech Republic.
He kept up his activism to the end, shifting his focus to Ukraine. Years before the recent invasion, Fainberg spoke out against the Kremlin’s Ukrainian political prisoners. He also warned of the “shadow of Munich hanging over Europe”.
In his 2015 letter to abducted Ukrainian military pilot Nadiya Savchenko, who was on hunger strike in a Russian prison, he wrote “I was born in Ukraine, in Kharkiv. The first nature that I saw, the first songs that I heard, were the nature and the songs of Mother Ukraine”. At the end of the letter, Fainberg told Savchenko that he was joining her hunger strike (which she later agreed to end). Fainberg also attended many protests in Paris, demanding the release of Ukrainian filmmaker Oleh Sentsov.
On news of his death Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Russian businessmen who was himself jailed for falling foul of the Putin regime, said:
“He was an amazing, remarkable man who felt other people’s pain as if it were his own. The world is a different place without him – even less human, even colder.”
The idea that being human and having rights are equivalent – that rights are inherent – is unintelligible in a Darwinian world. It is easily and often overlooked that when Thomas Jefferson asserted that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were inalienable human rights, he did so on the ground that they had been endowed by God, our Creator.
That is how Jefferson deemed ‘these truths to be self evident’. Yet, we do not find that insistence on human rights is the preserve of deists. Still less do we find the right of free expression being derived from God’s endowment.
Is the right of free expression self-evident?
That I have the right to express myself freely at all times in all circumstances entails the idea that free speech is a ‘basic human right’ possessed by each individual, and, as such, trumps the interests of the society or group, including my neighbour.
But there is something odd about this. The trumper is, after all, a member of the group. The interests of the group is the only game in town. That’s why the group is a group. The trumper is trying to trump himself. He has produced from his sleeve a card which was never in the pack and which he insists wins the trick.
So it might, if we believe the card was divinely bestowed, that there is a ‘superior’ game going on. If, however, we don’t believe that (and even those who believe in our divinity do not generally believe that God said, ‘Let there be free speech’) then it follows that ‘rights’ are a psycho-social phenomenon, and that there are no rights which are more human than others; no trumps.
This looks bad for the principle of free speech. It seems to have no foundation. It is not impossible to imagine a group — a society — deciding collectively that censorship is desirable. On what ground can we stand and declare the decision to be deplorable? We may say that it’s deplorable because, for example, it would lead to that society becoming moribund, or for other pragmatic reasons. But it’s hard to see how we can say that the members of the group are being denied their rights.
A ‘human right’ is, by definition, timeless. It cannot adhere to some societies and not others, at some times and not at other times. But the whole parcel of liberties into which free expression fits has a history. To St Augustine, religious tolerance would have been an oxymoron. The concept of pluralism as a virtue is a thousand years more modern than St Augustine. To say, therefore, that the right of free speech was always a human right which in unenlightened societies was suspended from the year dot until our enlightened times is surely beyond even our capacity for condescension.
Nevertheless, we are relatively enlightened, let’s say, we Western liberals, and when we aver that free expression is, with or without exceptions, desirable, we mean more than that it is congenial to Western liberalism. To use an old-fashioned phrase, we mean that it is good in itself.
How can we support this idea, other than pragmatically?
Freedom of speech as a stand-alone ‘right’ is a ghost, the flip side of inherent human rights being unintelligible: that is, you have no inherent right to limit my freedom of speech, therefore I have the right of freedom of speech.
Now things are looking even worse for the western liberal shibboleth. Freedom of speech, far from being an absolute, a given, seems to have less to do with rights than with rules. But that’s the good news. Now we can avoid the clash of absolutes, the endless, enervating, futile confrontation of irresistible forces and immovable objects.
How did the concept of free speech as an inherent human right get into such a mess? It did so because we persist in the notion of a ‘right’ as something to be claimed rather than accorded. While claim and counter-claim are presented as absolutes, this is a debate that not only will have no resolution but cannot have a resolution.
‘Is there ever a time and place for censorship?’ On the one hand we have Voltaire: ‘I disagree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ On the other hand, we have hate speech. I have not used my space to cast my vote, but I will add something personal.
I was proud to be British before I was British. I arrived in 1946 when I was eight, and that was that. Czechoslovakia, which I couldn’t remember; Singapore, which I could barely remember; and India, which I enjoyed, fell away like so many ladders.
It was a love affair, and I was not very much older when I first articulated to myself what it was that was the foundation of my anglophilia. It was the Voltairean credo, enshrined in my adoptive country.
But note: the appeal of the Voltairean credo was precisely that it was voluntary, his choice. He was not conceding his antagonist’s possession of an overriding right, he was choosing to accord that right. He was putting down a marker for the kind of society he favoured, for an ideal. The underlying question remains as before: does Voltaire’s credo hold good at all times in all circumstances?
I have used my space to say why I think the ‘human right’ of free speech is a non-starter. It is not an absolute to be claimed for any and every position. It will prevail when we accord it. The rules are ours to make, and modify for different situations. The rules will be as good as we are; or as bad. ‘We need wit and courage to make our way while our way is making us. But that is our dignity as human beings.’ (Alexander Herzen in The Coast of Utopia).
This article also appears in issue 1/06 of Index on Censorship: Small Wars You May Have Forgotten.