For Your Freedom and Ours

Honouring and learning from the 1968 Red Square Demonstration

Fifty years ago today, on August 25, 1968, eight men and women came out on Red Square to protest against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

They held up some banners, perhaps the most famous of them (pictured) repurposing the old Polish slogan “For our freedom and yours“, originally used to protest the Tsarist empire; for this protest by Russians, the words became “For your freedom and ours”. It only took the KGB a few minutes to attack the protesters (one of whom had several teeth knocked out), break up their banners, and arrest them. One gave in to pressure to declare that she had been there by accident; the others did not. Five were put on trial and sentenced to the Gulag or to exile. Two ― Natalya Gorbanevskaya, who had recently given birth (and come to the Red Square with a stroller!) and Viktor Fainberg, the one who had had his teeth knocked out ― were instead declared to be mentally ill and interned in psychiatric institutions, avoiding the Soviet authorities the embarrassment of putting them on trial.

I think it is worth commemorating this protest, not just to honour its participants, but also because they have something important to tell us about what it means, and what it can cost, to be free. A number of them spoke to Vladimir Kara-Murza Jr. for a documentary on the dissident movement in the Soviet Union (the discussion of the 1968 Red Square Demonstration is here), and their thoughts are relevant not only to historians, or to those struggling against regimes that are generally recognized as authoritarian, but also to anyone trying to resist a stifling atmosphere of unfreedom that can exist even in the absence of overt repression, and even in the midst of widely professed belief in free expression.

Freedom has two aspects: internal and external. Free individuals are free thinkers; they do not accept received wisdom, prevailing opinions, and common sense as dogma. Free individuals are also free agents; they act consistently with their sense of right and wrong. Meaningful external freedom, freedom of action, is not possible without internal freedom, freedom of thought. But freedom of thought alone is insufficient. One might be able to count oneself as a king of infinite space while bounded in a nutshell, but not, as we know, if one has bad dreams. And one of the points that that Mr Fainberg makes in the documentary is that “bad dreams” are the inevitable consequence of not acting in accordance with one’s understanding of how one ought to act: “the biggest fear” a person can have, he says,

is fear of the past. Because if you’ve betrayed yourself in the past, if you betrayed your own dignity, you will have that worm inside you, which will eat you from inside, in the present and in the future, and you will not be able to escape it.

This is a point I have already made here, quoting from JS Bach’s St John Passion, where Peter laments his own inability to escape “the pain of [his] misdeed”, his betrayal.

To be free, then, is both to think and to act for oneself, and not on the demand of authorities. Just what acting for oneself involves will depend both on the individual and on the circumstances ― sometimes, it means to worship or preach, sometime to speak or write, sometimes to get together with others on the public square and try to shame the government. All these actions, however, are in some sense public, visible, even ostentatious. To repeat, purely internal freedom, though it may be of some value, is in the long run unavailing. On the contrary, to think freely and to fail to act on these thoughts is to set oneself up for bitter shame and remorse. A free thinker will become a free agent, if only to avoid this outcome. As Gorbanevskaya put it in the documentary, the protest, for her, was a way to ensure that she would “have a clean conscience”. This is no doubt somewhat false, or at least uncalled for, modesty. Protesting, on Red Square, against a defining policy of the Soviet government was an act of incredible bravery. But it is not to slight the protesters to say that they feared a guilty conscience more than the KGB and the Gulag. On the contrary.

The Soviet authorities in 1968 knew this. This is why they took no chances. They did not just stop people from acting. They did their best to impose uniformity of thought. They never fully succeeded, of course, but they never stopped trying. They demanded that all Soviet citizens, especially educated ones, devote years to the study of Marxist “classics”; they forbade “hostile” or “subversive” book being published or even read; and they demanded loud, public, professions of commitment to the ideology and policies of “the Communist Party and the Soviet Government”, the louder and more public the more significant ― or suspect ― the target of the demands was. As Orwell understood so well, forcing people to speak in particular ways meant forcing them to think in particular ways too.

Yet paradoxically the authorities’ obsession with ensuring that all Soviet citizens thought alike gave the few who thought differently a power of their own. In Gorbanevskaya’s words,

[a] nation minus even one person is no longer an entire nation. A nation minus me is not an entire nation. A nation minus ten, a hundred, a thousand people is not an entire nation, so they could no longer say there was nationwide approval in the Soviet Union for the invasion of Czechoslovakia.

This is why it was so important for the Soviet system to crush even the relatively few people who opposed it ― and why, in a sense, their small numbers did not matter very much. Not everyone thought alike, therefore not everyone acted alike, therefore others saw that dissent existed, and started thinking and acting freely in their turn.

Free thought is thus a standing danger to any authority that wants all those subject to it to conform to its demands. Latter-day egalitarian moralists understand this as well as the Communists of yesteryear. (And, any egalitarian moralists who might be reading this: don’t tell me that you are right, or that you are redeeming the many sins of white-man-kind; the Communists also thought that they were building heaven on earth. Including when they were invading Czechoslovakia.) Hence their shamings, their online mobs, and their demands for attestations and statements of principles. They desperately want to control people’s very thoughts and beliefs, because they sense that, if people are not made to get on with the programme in their minds, they will, sooner or later, start speaking out against the programme too, call scrutiny upon it, and expose its unexamined assumptions, its logical deficiencies, and its leaps of blind faith.

This is not to say that the moralists are quite like their forbears in every respect. They (mostly) do not beat those who disagree; they they not imprison them; they do not torture them in psychiatric “hospitals”. The pressure, for now, is mostly economic and reputational. I do not mean to make light of it; I do not mean to judge anyone who thinks it is too much; I certainly do not mean to pretend that I am braver or stronger than others. When I think of those eight who went out on Red Square that day, and of the seven who did not give in to the threats and the violence ― the real violence, not just the unpleasant words ― that they were subjected to do, I do think that the demands on our strength and courage are not yet very high. But if we do not start practising being free now, we won’t be very good at it if one day we really need to.

Damned Lies

One of the most pressing, if not the most pressing, problems in contemporary politics is the problem of lies. Perhaps it is not so much a contemporary as a permanent problem, though that does not make any less urgent. But perhaps it is even more pressing now, due to the intellectual trends permeating our society, a pervasive skepticism of the very idea of truth, which refashions facts, and especially inconvenient ones, into opinions, the better to dismiss them. Or so argues ― compelling in my view ― the German writer and journalist Boris Schumatsky.

He makes his case in the context of Russia, but I’m afraid that while that country, and its leaders, are the most extreme example of this trend, they are not the only one. I don’t mean to equate others with Vladimir Putin. I don’t mean to deny the role of democratic institutions and media in checking the politicians’ tendency to lie. I will return to these points in a separate post. Still, I think that Mr. Schumatsky’s argument should at least serve as a warning to all of us.

If you can read German, you should read the original version on his website. If not, please have a look at my translation, which I am publishing below, with Mr. Schumatsky’s kind permission.

***

Russia Is a Lie: Putin and Postmodernism

Boris Schumatsky

The biggest difficulty in dealing with Russia is this: Russia lies. This blanket statement sounds like a Cold War slogan, and yet it is the only way to do justice to reality. When I wrote my first newspaper articles after the fall of the Soviet Union, I always avoided journalistic jargon such as “Moscow wants,” or “the Kremlin claims…” When I read that “the Russians invade Chechnya,” I had to think of my friends in Moscow, and that seemed to make about as much sense as Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech. Today, I do not only write that my native country is has become an Empire of Lies. Russia is itself a lie.

Lies begin with simple facts. First, there were no Russian soldiers in Crimea, and then there were. First there were none in eastern Ukraine, and then there were, but they had just run off there―no, they were on vacation there, and anyway they just want peace. It all sounds confusing, but it’s a strategy.

As a political instrument, a lie is especially effective when it doesn’t involve self-deception. A political lie is only a lie if the liar doesn’t himself believe in it. As for Putin’s lies, only his sympathizers and supporters, inside and outside Russia, believe them. If one tries to find even a kernel of truth in the Russian web of lies, one becomes a “useful idiot” of the Kremlin. A bit like a well-known Russia-connoisseur on German television. First she repeated Putin’s lie that he hadn’t sent any Russian soldiers in the Ukrainian Crimea. And then she still held on to this position, even after Putin admitted that there were his soldiers there after all. Moscow happily refutes its own lies, as soon as they are no longer useful. How its stooges deal with that, the Kremlin doesn’t care. It knows that they’ll make up some justification for themselves.

The regime mostly employs those lies which have long floated around in the darkest corners of the Russian society. Old lies work best, as for example the NATO-lie. It holds that the aggressive block is encircling the Motherland ever more narrowly. Other lies are newly-invented and told by Putin’s friends in the East and West: the Ukrainians are fascists, and Russians must, as in World War II, protect their homeland against the fascists.

The friends of the Russian autocracy misunderstand the politics of lying. The Kremlin doesn’t really aim at people believing its lies. Putin wins when other heads of government let the lies stand uncontradicted. Putin surely knows that at least some politicians see through him. But: they don’t call a con a con, nor an invasion an invasion, nor a hybrid war a war. Its opponents’ motives are secondary for the Kremlin, whether it’s their fear of Russian nuclear weapons, or the pacifism of their voters. When the truth is absent, the lie wins.

“Try to live in truth” was the appeal of the dissidents from Socialist realism, Aleksand Solzhenitsyn in 1974, and Václav Havel four years later. From their demand for truth there developed, after the breakup of the Soviet bloc, a claim to leadership, and that did not go down well with the then-young generation, which grew up bearing the marks of postmodernism, and which I belonged as well. What did Solzhenitsyn, with his folksy Russianness, or a Wałęsa with his Catholicism, have to tell us? This grandfatherly wisdom wasn’t even worth deconstructing. History was at an end, and we would ride the wave of postmodernism to eternal peace.

It was a brave new world of diversity and difference, freed from binding values in thought and politics, emancipated from the dictates of universal human rights. We paid no heed to Jürgen Habermas when he recognized, in the postmodern critique of reason, a new wave of the counter-enlightenment. Yet it did not take long before our liberating postmodernism found its distorted image in the media populism of a Berlusconi, as the philosopher Maurizio Ferraris writes in his Manifesto of New Realism, and then in Putin’s propaganda state. Vladimir Putin is an even better postmodernist than his Italian buddy. Putin’s Russia lies because it honestly and wholeheartedly believes that there is no truth anyway. In the late Soviet period, neither people like Putin nor people like I believed the communist slogans. As the Soviet ideology faded away, there began at the same time a search for a new “national idea” for the masses. The latest of these ideas is the Orthodox-religious Russian world. The chimera of Russia’s special way grew up on the dung heap of the blood-and-soil ideologies of the past century, and of course it is constructed through and through, as one would have said in the past. Today I will simply say “made up.” Putin’s Russia is a lie. His subjects actually believe neither in God nor in soil or blood, but only in the two letters PR, public relations [in English in the original]. This belief entails that anyone can be bought, from journalists to politicians, from Russians to Americans. Nobody tells the truth, and the only thing that counts is what in the contemporary Russian language is called “Pi-Ar.” That is Russia’s true truth, and this truth is a lie.

The Kremlin drags the world into its geopolitical game, and this game is ruled by political postmodernism. Each player has his own truth, or even truths, which he freely adjusts according to need. For only one thing matters: who is strong enough, to impose his truth on his opponent? Vladimir Putin and his faithful know the rules of this game not from philosophical texts; they have learned them in the street.

“A lie told by bullies,” that’s what Ernest Hemingway called fascism. The key difference between Putinism and Hitler’s fascism is that fascists and National-socialists largely believed their own lies. The Putinist, by contrast, believes in one thing only: lying as a life principle. If, like Vladimir Putin or I, one grew up in a Soviet city, one learned that in elementary school already. One is surrounded by a group of bullies: “you’ve ratted on me to the teacher,” says one of them, though that’s the first time one even sees him. If one says, “that’s not true,” one is beaten up right away. If one apologizes, is first mocked, and then pummelled.

A victim’s whine coupled with a clenched fist is not an unknown pose. Putin’s Russia jumps into the ring like a superpower, even as it complains about Western machinations. The Kremlin is fully aware of the weaknesses of the Russian state, economy, and military. But in a street fight, one hides one’s weaknesses. The enemy must think that you are strong. The enemy must wet his pants. He must believe that, if challenges your lie, he’ll get punched in the face double quick. He can de-escalate, which is what politicians everywhere in the world try to do with Putin. He can appeal for peace, but as a result, the bully also cries “Peace!” before throwing his punch.

If the person who is being attacked does not defend himself from the lie in the first place, he won’t defend himself against the violence either. He’ll be beaten up, and indeed the attacker has already won the moment his victim did not call him a liar.

Needless to say, Russia is not just a nation of violent brutes who unscrupulously shoot down passenger aircraft. Needless to say, there is also another Russia, and not just one either. Yet all the diversity of Russia has been sent off to internal or external exile. Until the mirage dissolves, the millions of potato farmers or math teachers, bank clerks or copy-editors have no more political impact than someone who, like me, has left Russia. There is only one voice to be heard now in Russia, the voice of the collective Putin, and it reduces everyone else to silence.

Today’s political language is no longer suitable to the collapse of the conventional order in Europe and the world. The old slogans about the aggressive American imperialism only obscure the circumstances of the war for the “Russian world.” Similarly, the analytical framework of post-colonialism is inadequate to the murders of the “Islamic State.” We have no concepts for that yet. But as a start, one could, all the postmodern doubts notwithstanding, again call a war a war, and lies, lies.

It’s the same with Russia’s lies as with the heating at my place in Berlin once upon a time. I used to live in a building with coal stoves, and the residents, one after the other, would install their own gas heating, at their own expense. One neighbour saw in that a “threat to his basic principles.” In an as-yet un-gentrified Kreuzberg, one spoke that way about rent increases. He kept on dragging two buckets of coal every day up to his tile stove. He stopped saying hello to us. The more neighbours joined the club of the modernizers, the fiercer he became. Just like Putin, who initially had himself wanted to join NATO. But our cold-resistant neighbour did not break the wall into my apartment; did not occupy my kitchen with the gas heater, and did not cry, like Putin about Ukraine, “You are endangering my existential interests!”

“There are no facts, only interpretations.” This saying of Nietzsche’s, so beloved by postmodernists, has now showed its true meaning, which Ferraris explains as follows: “The reason of the strongest is always the best.” This is, paradoxically, the exact opposite of what people like Michel Foucault actually wanted to achieve. For when power is always dictating terms, the power alone is real. The present conflict with post-modern thought about the idea of reality is no coincidence. Speculative realism wants to think reality as independent from our perception, while the nuovo realismo distances itself from the political implications of postmodernism: “That of which the postmodernists dreamt, the populists made real,” says Ferraris.

Of course it wasn’t philosophy that produced Berlusconis or Putins all over the world. But the rejection of their politics of lies also requires us to revise our postmodern habits. Postmodernism’s plural concept of truth has been shot down in Ukraine. Putin forces us to turn back to reality. Realpolitik is being displaced by the real, by the old-fashioned adventure of naming things. We no longer have the luxury of relative truths and devalued values. In Russia the lie has won yet again, and yet again only a simple, black-and-white language can do justice to this tragedy. Here is how Solzhenitsyn put it: “Violence can only be concealed by lies, and lies can only be upheld through violence.”

#SochiProblems

There has been a great deal of talk over the last several months about the way one ought to react to the Olympics in Sochi in light of Russia’s ban on “propaganda of homosexuality” or whatever Russian prosecutors construe as “propaganda of homosexuality.” People have, in order of decreasing glamour and increasing effectiveness, boycotted a vodka which turned  out not to be made in Russia at all, raised rainbow flags, and made other, more sensible suggestions. But it seems to me that, although a lot has already been and is still being said on the subject, an important element is missing from this conversation. It is the fact that, while the “propaganda” ban certainly is homophobic, its underlying cause is authoritarianism as much as, if not more than, homophobia. What this means is that to really help Russian gays and lesbians (and all other Russians too), we must not only criticize and support the victims of a specific law, but the whole system of Vladimir Putin’s government.

Now this is not to say that this criticism and support are unimportant. People suffering as a result of the “propaganda” ban, and perhaps even more because of the wave of discrimination and violence that this signal of official homophobia has helped unleash. I would like to think that, for them, knowing that the world cares is at least a small consolation and source of hope. And the overt, shameless callousness of this law deserves its own response.

Nor do I mean to suggest, by saying that the “propaganda” ban is the product of authoritarianism, that a free Russia would a very gay-friendly place. Unfortunately, it would be no such thing. Freedom, democracy, and the Rule of Law are not enough to eliminate at a stroke the latent prejudices of society. But they do tend to make it rather less likely that these prejudices will translate into official policy, or that the authorities will let them run loose to the extent homophobia now does in Russia. Of course, there are some sad exceptions to this general trend, as Québec’s proposed ban on public employees wearing “ostentatious religious symbols,” which is calculated to discriminate against minorities (and especially Muslim women) and which Charles Taylor has rightly compared to the Russian anti-gay law, demonstrates. Still, such laws are both rarer and generally less malign in democratic countries. As, or more importantly, as I will shortly argue, free, democratic countries committed to the Rule of Law give their citizens the tools to fight and, at least over time, overturn those discriminatory measures that they do enact.

The reason Mr. Putin’s authoritarianism is key to understanding and deciding how to respond to the “propaganda” ban is that this law and the prominence of homophobic discourse more broadly are quite recent phenomena. What is not recent ― what has lasted for more than a decade now ― is a trend of small, unpopular groups being persecuted, whether with the active participation or with the silent connivance of officials. First ― before Mr. Putin even was elected President, there was the population of Chechnya, made the victim of a war designed to bolster his (theretofore nonexistent) credentials. Then (and to this day), it was political opponents and independent journalists. A businessman who supported opposition political parties imprisoned. Journalists who reported on human rights violations murdered. The rare media that still remain independent being denied access to their audiences. But then there were other victims. Later and still now, it was ethnic and racial minorities ― first African students, then immigrant workers from central Asia, who the victims of campaigns of murderous brutality, which the authorities have seldom done much of anything to stop. Gays and lesbians are only the latest on the list of the enemies of the Russian state. For a government that lacks the legitimacy that comes from prevailing over political opponents in a fair electoral contest (or indeed for one, like the PQ’s, which is committed to democracy but knows that its electoral prospects are dim), having enemies is probably indispensable to manufacture popular support. The enemy’s identity matters little, provided that he is weak and unpopular. In Russia, liberals, ethnic minorities, and LGBT people all are.

For this reason, and although, as I said above, it is important to oppose the “propaganda” ban and other forms of discrimination against gays and lesbians in Russia, the real solution to their problems must pass by the (re-)establishment in Russia of a free and democratic political system committed to the Rule of Law. Only such a system will not need to make minorities into scapegoats for its shortcomings and prejudice against them the only rallying point it can offer the people.

In addition, such a system would, unlike the present one, allow gays and lesbians ― as well as all other citizens, whether persecuted in their individual capacities or as members of unpopular groups ― to fight back and vindicate their rights. At present, it is not only equality that is absent from Russia. It is also, among many other rights and freedoms, freedom of expression and an independent judiciary. Yet as Jonathan Rauch argues in a fascinating and important guest-post at the Volokh Conspiracy, “[h]istory will show …  that gay marriage, and gay legal equality generally, owe their success not primarily to the 14th Amendment but to the First” ― not the one protecting equality, but the one protecting freedom of speech. The reason is simple: in order to have equality, you must persuade people to recognize you as their equal. You need to be able to speak to them. You need the freedom to make your case. And before you can insist on rights which on paper are yours, you need judges to know that nothing particularly bad will happen to them if they enforce them.

Once Russian gays and and lesbians have these basic rights, which (unlike equality rights which are of more recent vintage) we perhaps take so much for granted that we forget that others might lack them, we can hope, and indeed believe, that they too will in time succeed in having their equality rights recognized. Let us denounce and oppose homophobia. But let us not forget that, in Russia and elsewhere, it will not end without freedom, democracy, and the Rule of Law.