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What Russia’s opposition can learn from a Soviet dissident from Ukraine

What Russia’s opposition can learn from a Soviet dissident from Ukraine
Translated by: Paula Chertok

I once had the good fortune to meet Yakov Osmolovsky, a Soviet dissident from Ukraine whose fate brought him some very interesting life experiences.  As a young man, Yakov Nikolayevich had to endure interrogations by the KGB, conscription into the army right after graduation from university, and then a criminal case in which he was accused of anti-Soviet agitation after being denounced, and he even underwent punitive psychiatry. Then, on the eve of Perestroika, Osmolovsky got a job in an agricultural vocational school where by sheer happenstance, he moved into the apartment of a woman who had miraculously survived the Holodomor. Moved by her memories, Yakov Osmolovsky started collecting and publicizing information about the Holodomor.

The Soviet Union saw its first political protests in the latter half of the 1980s. That’s when Osmolovsky met another dissident, Anatoly Lupinos, who had spent most of his life in Soviet labor camps and mental hospitals, and was then living in exile in the Cherkassy region of Ukraine. During that time, the first civic societies devoted to the development of Ukrainian culture, “Enlightenment” and “Zapovid” [“Western Outlook”] were formed, and in 1989-90 the nation’s first political organization the “People’s Movement” came into being. According to Osmolovsky, the KGB had by then concluded that Ukraine would become independent, as a result, the attitude of the security officers towards the dissident-“nationalists” had changed dramatically.

The repression had ended, but the tactics of the KGB had changed. Now the secret services tried to introduce their agents by the masses into the new democratic organizations.

“We remained under surveillance or under investigation just as before, but the criminal cases brought against us began to close. But now those investigators were trying to secure favors from their subjects, just in case fate might have us become their future bosses and/or judges,” said Osmolovsky. The repression had ended, but the tactics of the KGB had changed. Now the secret services tried to introduce their agents by the masses into the new democratic organizations. New conflicts arose among them, and in 1991, the majority, according to Osmolovsky, went into “cahoots” with Kravchuk. The KGB, in turn, had sent its agents to be among the “People’s Movement.”

It’s no coincidence that I’m remembering the story of this dissident’s experience today. Increasingly, we hear stories in the media about a leader or an activist from Russia’s opposition being accused of cooperating with the secret police, with one of the “towers” of the Kremlin, as it were. Some opposition politicians barely try to conceal the fact that they use information obtained “from the security forces” for one purpose or another. I don’t intend to cite examples here or any facts from which conclusions about such cooperation may be drawn. First of all, there is no clear evidence at the present time of any particular person “working with the security services,” and such evidence is virtually impossible to obtain. It could be, therefore, that suspicions regarding certain members of the opposition are simply contrived.

Secondly, we don’t even know under what circumstances a person might agree to “cooperate,” or what may be offered in exchange for the opportunity to express one’s views with relative freedom. Perhaps there are those who sincerely hope to outwit the FSB or their Kremlin supervisors sometime in the future, and therefore think they can interact with them only to the extent that their interests coincide, and that they can remain independent otherwise. Some politicians plainly say that you need to “survive somehow” in this climate of growing repression and political assassinations. Still others feel justified by the fact that their main goal is to prevent bloodshed, and they are prepared to make a deal with the elite in order to arrange for the peaceful transfer of power from the current Kremlin regime to a future government. The main condition of such a transfer of power usually includes rejecting the process of lustration.

It’s hard to argue with this sentiment. The Kremlin has always been able to ram through what it wants, whether with a sea of blood at home or a nuclear stick abroad. Under the pretext of maintaining “peaceful skies above,” the Russian authorities managed to prevent the 2011-12 protests from transforming into a revolution. Having unleashed the Russian-Ukrainian war, the Kremlin has now forgotten its “peace-loving” slogans. And when a transition opportunity presented itself, it had already been lost. And now the system once again exploits one of Russia’s leading fears: that of a senseless and merciless revolt, the loss of Russia as such, again forcing people to choose between peace and freedom.

Russians are again being forced to choose between peace and freedom.

Of course, being in the safety of America, I probably do not have the moral right to judge oppositionists who have remained in Russia. I have no reason to condemn anyone. I just want to identify the problem: what is happening today looks suspiciously like what happened during the collapse of the USSR. It seems that some of those within the Russian secret services are actively preparing their ‘soft landing” for the future by building connections with the opposition, allowing for a future time when stopping the protest will be impossible, in which case they will be ready to lead them.

This has already happened once before in Russia, when behind the backs of young sincere reformers, former KGB agents bought the assets of the country for a pittance, actively forged ties with the criminal world, collected dirt on corrupt infiltrators among the power structures, and built up their strength for a future revanchism, which in fact occurred in the end. The new “trade-offs” of some opposition leaders with the security forces may result in a repeat scenario.

It’s quite naive to think that those who have enlisted the help of the security forces today will be able to easily get rid of them tomorrow.

It’s quite naive to think that those who have enlisted the help of the security forces today will be able to easily get rid of them tomorrow. There is only one guaranteed way to break disreputable ties – to leave the country for good. But that is not an option for a politician. Of course, it’s not a given that everyone who once collaborated will forever be controlled by the old elites chiefs. But what would be the percentage of those who dare to break with the past and resign themselves to the possibility of ending their collaboration? It seems to me that this percentage is always small.

Even if the democratic candidates were to win in the elections, Russia is not immune from another period of ‘imperial revanchism.’

A portion of the opposition can respond to all of this by advancing this iron-clad argument: how else are they to survive in today’s Russia? That’s why I know that it is silly to demand of the opposition feats of bravery and crystalline integrity. More precisely, it is possible and necessary to demand this of politicians, but it is important to recognize that a belief in honest politicians in most cases remains a utopia. So, we can offer only one thing as a guarantee against possible revanchism of the nomenklatura and secret services – an active and engaged civil society that formulates clear criteria and requirements for a future government, ones that cannot be avoided with the help of deals and compromises. We see in the case of Ukraine, where the presence of civil society is much stronger than in Russia, the authorities are extremely reluctant to obey the law. So, even in the case of the democratic candidates winning in the elections, Russia is not immune to another period of “imperial revanchism.”


Translated by: Paula Chertok
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