“For upcoming activists sci-fi was the textbook of political action”


From Eurozine:

Transit: In 1982 you were arrested and charged with anti-Soviet activities. Looking back today, how do you see the events of 30 years ago? What is your assessment of the intellectual legacy of the dissident movement?

Gleb Pavlovsky: I see it as a forgotten experience. The period from the late 1970s to early 1980s signified the end of an era, a period that has never been described politically because at the time we lacked a suitable political language. Within the dissident movement, the word “political” was regarded as dubious, as opposed to the term “ethical”. We didn’t see a clear link between domestic developments and world events, even ones as significant as Solidarity in Poland, Charter 77 or the war in Afghanistan. Dissident society was marked by a peculiar kind of autism: we felt that everything really important was happening and would happen in Moscow, that the world’s future would be decided there.

My generation reached maturity between 1956 and 1976, the two unique Soviet decades beginning with Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization and ending with the Soviet-US détente. The feeling of freedom grew stronger each year, and each year we met new people who acted independently and freely. This gave us confidence in the progressive trend. Sometimes it was initiated from above, by a Politburo decision, but mostly it sprung from below, from the public atmosphere, from the samizdat, which was experiencing a boom at the time, and from the productive tension between dissidents and power. There was a backlash at the top after the invasion of Czechoslovakia that provoked protests; we began to feel that open civil society was indestructible and that its moral and biographical development was unstoppable. Today we would say there was a process of “liberalisation”.

However in around 1979 or 1980 this suddenly came to a standstill. Pressure from above increased, and as the authorities started targeting civil activists, the influx of new people into the dissident movement stopped. No younger generation stepped forward to fill the void left by people who had been arrested. Had I been asked in the mid-1970s what the future held for the USSR, my prediction would have been optimistic. But by the early 1980s it became clear that the world had entered a new period of confrontation, while inside the country dissidents were being forced into an irreconcilable conflict with the regime.

That is why 1980 is a milestone for the dissident movement. By then I was expecting a crisis, both within the country and globally. Together with a few friends I tried to float the idea of a compromise with the authorities, but it was too late. I was arrested in 1982, and when I returned to Moscow on leave from internal exile in 1984 I no longer found the same free environment. Some had left for the West, others had been arrested, and although the majority remained at large, they no longer formed an independent community. The dissident movement in the sense of a “network” had disappeared. Those who wanted to go on with the struggle had to find a way of doing so on their own, they could no longer rely on help from others. The enclave of freedom had shrunk and disappeared, and as far as we were concerned we were back to where we had been in the late 1950s. Except that now we lacked the cohesive cultural environment of writers, scholars and prominent liberals that had long shielded the dissident movement.

Transit: What was it that changed so dramatically in the late 1970s compared with the 1960s?

GP: From 1969/1970 onwards a new factor appeared: the option of legal emigration to the West. People who were restless started leaving the country on “Israeli visas”. Friends started disappearing, the number of people on the scene began to thin out, and those who stayed became too conspicuous.

Transit: The 1960s were an era of mass optimism and utopian projects. During Perestroika, the optimism seemed to disappear and people talked only of the past.

GP: The “two great decades” of Soviet sci-fi were a substitute for social theory; for upcoming activists sci-fi was the textbook of political action. However utopia itself disappears from literature in the late 1960s. This represents a vanishing belief in the Soviet project, since utopia was supposed to be the end result of the evolution of the state. The last Soviet sci-fi novel was the last novel Ivan Yefremov published before his death, with significant cuts by the censor because of its anti-Utopian allusions to the Maoist state model. At this point, the Strugatsky brothers emerge with their variety of science fiction, featuring an activist interfering in the course of history. In the 1970s optimistic science fiction completely disappears. The Strugatsky brothers begin depicting risky encounters with alien intelligences imbued with the mythology of the secret police that interfere in the lives of ordinary people. Man is a spy tossed into the distant past or future, deprived of reliable moral references. This tradition of Soviet sci-fi played a colossal role in the development of dissident thought and still exerts an influence on the imagination of our intellectuals.

From cover of Пикник на обочине (Roadside Picnic), Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, 1977

Transit: Did the optimism of the 1960s come from above or from below?

GP: There was definitely a wave of optimism from below. Young people from the countryside were eager to come to the city to study and work. The Stalinist nomenklatura myth collapsed and was even mocked in the cinema, and children from the industrial peripheries in the cities mixed with the children of the nomeklatura. In the 1950s the division disappeared between “Soviet” people and the descendants of pre-revolutionary classes, the “former” people. After all, both had passed through the equalizing cauldron of the camps and the war. These past horrors inspired this incredibly optimistic culture of the 1960s. There was a sense that everything terrible was over: Hitler and Stalin were dead; the Civil War was over. And as for World War III – come on, that’s a load of nonsense! We had absolutely no sense of fear. When I read American memoirs from the 1950s, I am stunned by the fear of the Soviet Union that existed at the time. We had absolutely no fear of America, nobody scared us with war at school. I guess this was official Soviet pacifism for you. After Stalin’s death, the mantra repeated to children was: “You won’t have to fight – we’ve done your fighting for you!” The authority of the war generation that came to power after Khrushchev was also built on this.

One might say that the free man of the 1960s was the Stalinist Soviet man liberated of Stalin. Soviet society in the 1960s and 1970s was built on people who had been educated under Stalin; in other words, pacifist, idealistic and liberal socialism relied on people who had survived Stalin. People toughened by Stalin’s industrial ethics and by the labour quotas they had to meet or face the gulags. And as long as these people continued to work, industry – personified by impoverished technicians and engineers – continued to produce sputniks. These people were incapable of not doing their job well, they were simply too scared. This synthesis of fear, hope and progressive spirit gave rise to the 1960s style in culture, economics and politics.

“An interview with Gleb Pavlovsky”, Ivan Krastev and Tatiana Zhurzhenko, Eurozine