Pavel Litvinov: A dissident hero

Pavel Litvinov, who recently turned 82, is an imposing figure. When I meet him on a rainy August day, he fills the space in his compact living room in the suburban New York City garden apartment he shares with his wife, Julia Santiago. We picked the day, 22 August, for our interview out of convenience, but it happens to resonate. It was on 21 August 1968 that Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia, demolishing the “socialism with a human face” of its leader, Alexander Dubček.

Days later, at noon on 25 August, the then 28-year-old physicist Litvinov, with seven comrades – including the group’s organiser, poet Natalya Gorbanevskaya (and her baby in a pram) – met in Moscow’s Red Square to unfurl a banner that turned out to be life-changing. Its message was plain: “Hands off the CSSR [Czechoslovak Socialist Republic].” Within minutes, the KGB arrived to forcibly take them away to camps or psychiatric hospitals. Litvinov, hit hard in the face, was arrested and sent to internal exile in a Siberian mining town for five years with his then wife. His daughter was born there.

“I was in prison for several months and then in exile and had to work in the mines. I couldn’t leave the village; I couldn’t get permission to travel,” Litvinov said. Recalling his motivation for the action, he added: “It felt internally necessary. I had a very strong feeling of what is fair and unfair, and that people have to treat each other gently and with respect.”

The Litvinov family was well known in both dissident and Soviet ruling circles. His grandfather was Maxim Litvinov, once Joseph Stalin’s people’s commissar for foreign affairs until he was deposed in 1939 because, as a Jew, he became an obstacle to warmer ties with Adolf Hitler. “I was 11 when my grandfather died; we were good friends,” he explained. “He was already disappointed in the Russian revolution and the Bolsheviks.” His parents’ home was a gathering place for dissidents. Literature also inspired him. “Most important was Russian literature from the 19th century –Pushkin, Tolstoy, Lermontov… They expressed a feeling of compassion toward helping others under the autocratic state,” he said.

Indeed, books and literature, in the form of samizdat, were crucial – not only the literary classics but also records of the dissidents’ trials in real time. Litvinov deconstructs the samizdat publication process for me, explaining how, during these trials, somebody would gain access to the court and bring the information home. “They would write the transcript by hand; then we would find someone who had a typewriter,” he said. “I would print pages on very thick photographic paper. The book would be photographed and developed in a darkroom. Sometimes we would have a party to read the book. I would read the first page, give [someone else] the second page, who would give it to the next one. We would read Doctor Zhivago in half a night, then have tea or vodka. Then I would give a film to a friend from Leningrad, and someone would come from Kyiv – same procedure.”

From his earliest dissident days, Litvinov’s strategy was to appeal to allies outside the Soviet Union. And that’s the connection to Index on Censorship. In 1968, he co-wrote with dissident Larisa Bogoraz an Appeal to World Public Opinion, about dissident trials. “I wrote the appeal in Russian. Some of the foreign correspondents translated it to English. In the evening we would always listen to the BBC. They started to speak about the letter. They said Stephen Spender read about it… and Spender called Igor Stravinsky, Mary McCarthy[and] famous American and English writers and composers. They started to interview them. It was so touching when they interviewed Stravinsky. He was 90. He said – in Russian – ‘My teacher[Nikolai] Rimsky-Korsakov suffered from Russian censorship and that’s why I signed this letter, because these people protested against censorship’.”

The appeal didn’t keep Litvinov and his group out of prison, but it did have global political impact, opening a path between Litvinov and Spender. And it led to the creation of Index on Censorship. “Mary McCarthy said that the letter had more influence than napalm did in Vietnam,” he said proudly. “Our fight was a fight for freedom of speech, a protest against censorship. Censorship could be when they don’t let you publish a book, or when you lose a job, or when you get kicked out of the country, or when you get put in prison. All that means censorship.”

Just before the Red Square demonstration, Litvinov sent a letter to Spender suggesting an international council to support democracy in the Soviet Union, along with a publication to promote the situation there. “When I returned [from Siberia],there was a young man – now I realise that he was 10 years older than I, but he looked younger. He said: ‘I am Michael Scammell. I am a Russian specialist’.”

Scammell asked Litvinov if he knew more about what Scammell was doing now. “I said ‘No’,” he recalled, with a smile appearing after all these decades. Scammell said: “You gave me my first job. I was a writer and journalist. Now I have a job at a magazine as editor of Index on Censorship.” The idea that Litvinov had broached with Spender had come to fruition in his absence thanks to him, Stuart Hampshire, Scammell and others. “We became friends and Scammell was eventually kicked out of Russia,” Litvinov remembered.

Scammell organised lectures for Litvinov at British universities and invited him to join the Index editorial board, which he did for a while. I wonder whether Litvinov thought that repression could return to Russia after all this time. Indeed, today, he sees a direct line to what’s happening there. “It is a continuation of the kind of thing that happened with Russia and Czechoslovakia. Ukraine was [always]a threat to the Soviet empire. It was clear for all of us that if Ukraine would survive on its own there would be no more Soviet Union. So, there was always tension. In the Stalinist labour camps, half of the political prisoners in the Gulag after World War I were Ukrainian… people strongly felt their national identity and culture. A lot of dissidents became our friends.” But he didn’t consider war. “I really didn’t expect it until the last minute. Russia really has to lose badly or Russia will start another imperialist adventure,” he said.

I wonder, too, about his assessment of Vladimir Putin. He is quick to respond. “In the 1930s, there were very terrible KGB people but among them there were at least people who were ideological communists. In Putin’s generation they didn’t believe in communism or Marxism. They believed in secret police and dirty tricks and spying.” He describes his surprise at how so many people find Putin palatable. “I always thought that because he was KGB, he was bad. He said he was proud of the KGB. The KGB executed millions of people and he is still proud. If he would say they did some good things and some bad things… but nothing.”

In 2006 he retired from his 30-year job as a science teacher at a Westchester school and today he stays in close touch with those who have left, and continue to leave, Russia. He does what he can to support dissent inside the country, especially backing a new generation with fundraising and encouragement. “There is a group to whom I am very close – OVD-Info. The guy who started it is in Germany and they are available 24/7. If someone is arrested anywhere in Russia, they can call them and, in an hour, there will be a lawyer at the police station. They are the next generation of dissidents.”

Does Litvinov have any regrets, having performed heroic actions that exiled him from his birth country? “This was the whole fun of it,” he said. “I enjoyed my life. I was not afraid. I was ready for much worse conditions than I had in Siberia. Then I emigrated and saw America and Europe. I feel like I am more American than Russian.”

Before leaving, I ask him if he has hope. He sighs and at first responds: “Oh, hope.” I think he will say “No”, but instead he says: “Now, with the war, strangely enough there is more hope. Because it looked like Putin had a good chance, he had so much control, but now because of the crazy war that makes no sense, he probably won’t survive for long. What will happen I don’t know. [But] I think the war will kick him out. If the war is over, practically Russia cannot win.

This article is from the winter issue of Index on Censorship, which will be published shortly. Click here more information on the issue.

A memorial for the man who told the world about the Babyn Yar massacre

Anatoly Kuznetsov is the author of Babi Yar: A Document in the Form of a Novel. His memoir is a masterpiece of Ukrainian literature and a testament to the 30,000 Jews massacred at Babyn Yar (the Ukrainian spelling), Kyiv in September 1941. Today it would probably be called “autofiction”, a form of writing where autobiography borrows from the techniques of narrative fiction. However, for Kuznetsov, it is only the form which is novelistic, nothing in the book is fictionalised.

“I am writing it as though I were giving evidence under oath in the very highest court and I am ready to answer for every single word. This book records only the truth – AS IT REALLY HAPPENED.”

The book records the events following the German invasion of Ukraine in 1941 up until Soviet forces recaptured Kyiv at the end of 1943. But it also discusses the Soviet rewriting of history after the end of World War II and the terrible disaster in 1961 that followed the literal burying of the site of the atrocity in sludge and mud.

We only have the full text of this remarkable book because Kuznetsov defected to the UK in 1969 after finally losing faith in the Soviet Union after the invasion of Czechoslovakia the previous year. He smuggled the manuscript out in films hidden in his clothing and this was later translated by the Daily Telegraph journalist David Floyd, who had helped him defect.

Kuznetsov is buried in Highgate Cemetery, two plots up from actor Sir Ralph Richardson and just across from artist Patrick Caulfield and deserves to be just as celebrated. And yet, the grave is unmarked. Pilgrims to the monument to Karl Marx walk past this anonymous plot every day without realising that they are passing the last resting place of one of the most eloquent witnesses to the horrific human cost of totalitarian ideology.

There is now a crowdfunder to raise a headstone for Anatoly Kuznetsov, which has already received wide support.

Luke Harding, the Guardian foreign correspondent and author of several books on Russia recently described Kuznetsov’s book as “a brilliant documentary novel”… “a vivid, terrible and authentic account”.

Babi Yar: A Document in the Form of a Novel is presently only available in English in an old American edition from 1970, but it is surely only a matter of time before an enterprising publisher does this great book justice.

There is a fascinating piece in the Index on Censorship archive on Kuznetsov from 1981, two years after the writer died in London. The article, written by film critic Jeanne Vronskaya, discusses two films that were adapted from Kuznetsov short stories in the 1960s: We Two Men and Dawn Meeting. Each, in very different ways, was destroyed by the Soviet censor.

The first was a slice of 1960s neo-realism about a drunken driver who reassesses his life after an encounter with an orphan. The film showed gritty scenes of rural life and included real country people as extras. The film initially avoided the attention of the authorities and was due to be celebrated at a gala event during the 1963 Moscow film festival. But on the day of the screening the film was pulled.

Kuznetsov characterised the attitude of the Communist Party to the film in his interview for Index: “How can we represent the USSR with a picture that shows women dressed in terrible headscarves, snotty-nosed children, rough roads, privately owned geese, illegal private work, and without so much as a mention of the leading role of the Party?”

The film was shelved and a more suitable example of Soviet film making shown in its place. (By way of a sidenote, Fellini’s 8 1/2 won the gold medal at the festival, although the great Italian director’s masterpiece was never distributed in the Soviet Union).

The second attempt at adapting a Kuznetsov story was even more of a fiasco. Dawn Meeting was the story of a milkmaid struggling to survive in the collective farm era. When the censor saw the film, cuts were demanded to make the film more upbeat and patriotic. When Kuznetsov saw the final result he was horrified: “I sat there watching a film that was completely strange to me: about the raising of the standard of living in a progressive, prosperous collective farm, first class houses, excellent clothes, collective farm songs from Moscow Radio’s record library, fields heavy with wheat, and happily smiling collective farmers all over the place.” In a final twist, Dawn Meeting was on billboards all over Moscow when Kuznetsov left for the UK in 1969.

If these short stories are half as good as Kuznetsov’s masterpiece, Babi Yar, then they also deserve a wider readership. But it is his memoir that will act as his testament.

“I wonder if we will ever understand that the most precious thing in this world is a man’s life and his freedom? Or is there still more barbarism ahead?”  Kuznetsov wrote those words in 1969. He did not need to answer his own question.

They “have come to rob you of your name and language”

In the very first edition of Index on Censorship, published 50 years ago almost to the day, we raised the case of Mykhaylo Osadchy, a Ukrainian journalist and poet, who had been arrested for “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda”. In a secret trial in his hometown of Lviv in September 1972 he was sentenced to seven years in prison and five years of exile.

An extract from The Mote, Osadchy’s lightly fictionalised memoir of a dissident writer, was published in the Autumn 1972 edition of Index. It provides a unique picture of the life of an intellectual in Ukraine under Soviet rule. “I had committed every vile deed that mankind throughout his existence could ever commit,” he writes.  “I had never had the slightest suspicion of what a hostile element I was, or how hostile my thoughts had been.”

Cat and Mouse in the Ukraine by Victor Swoboda from 1973 is a lengthy but fascinating study of contemporary writers struggling, and often failing, to stay on the right side of the censor. Swoboda highlights the significance of the unpublished poem To the Kurdish Brother by Vasyl Symonenko, a writer celebrated by the Soviets as a hero of Communism but taken up by dissidents after the posthumous samizdat publication of his critical diaries. The poem tells “the Kurd” to fight chauvinists who “have come to rob you of your name and language”. It continues: “our fiercest enemy, chauvinism, fattens on the blood of harassed peoples”. It is not hard to see who the “Kurd” in the poem was intended to represent. In 1968 Mykola Kots, an agricultural college lecturer, was arrested for circulating 70 copies of the poem in which “the Kurd” had been replaced with “the Ukrainian”. He received the same sentence as Osaschy.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Index continued to support writers from Ukraine. As a result, we were the first to publish the work of Ukraine’s most celebrated contemporary writer, Andrei Kurkov, in English. The November 1993 issue contained an excerpt from The Cosmopolitan Anthem, a short story denounced at the 1991 All-Union Writers Conference in Yalta as “anti-Russian”. The story is, if anything, an attack on unthinking nationalism. Its narrator, an American with mixed Polish-Palestinian heritage, finds himself fighting on both sides of the Vietnam War and Afghanistan. The title of the story refers to the soldier’s utopian dreams of creating a unifying anthem to appeal to people’s better nature.

In 1999 we published extracts from Ukraine’s Forbidden Histories, which combined oral histories collected by the British Library with contemporary photographs by Tim Smith. It remains a striking document of the imprint Ukraine’s past atrocities left on the country. The authors pay tribute to the work of the organisation Memorial (now banned by Putin) in documenting the crimes of the Stalin era. The extracts include testimonies of the Babi Yar massacre of the city’s Jewish population, which has only been officially recognised in 1991. A monument to Babi Yar was reported to have been bombed during the recent invasion.

In 2001, Vera Rich, who devoted her life to translating Ukrainian and Belarusian literature, wrote Who is Ukraine? on the tenth anniversary of the country’s independence. Despite her obvious passion for the country (she translated the national poet Taras Shevchenko) it provides a clear-eyed look at the complicated nature of Ukrainian identity. “For a country to survive… a sense of national identity is required. But the question of what that identity should be has by no means been resolved,” she writes.

Finally, no collection of archive articles from Index on Ukraine would be complete without something from Andrei Aliaksandrau, who worked for Index for several years before returning to his native Belarus. He has now been in prison for over a year after being arrested by the Lukashenka regime. His piece, Brave New War from December 2014, reports on the information war being waged in Ukraine. It is a brilliant piece of reporting. “The principles of an information war remain unchanged: you need to de-humanise the enemy. You inspire yourself, your troops and your supporters with a general appeal which says: ‘We are fighting for the right cause – that is why we have the right to kill someone who is evil.’ What has changed is the scale of propaganda and the number of different platforms used to distribute it. In a time of social networks and with the whole world online, there is no need to throw leaflets over enemy lines, instead you hire 1,000 internet trolls.”

Aliaksandrau has been silenced, for now. But we will continue to report on Ukraine in tribute to him and the other courageous dissidents who have inspired the work of Index over the past five decades.

Research by Guilherme Osinski and Sophia Rigby