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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Old Dissident Lives Not by Bread Alone

I went to visit a dissident this week. In Soviet times, we would have met on the street, looking over our shoulders for the KGB. However hard life is in Russia now, at least that fear has gone. I simply went to her apartment for a cup of tea and a chat.

Natalya Sokolova lives in very poor circumstances. She is struggling to bring up four children on a meager state allowance of 100,000 rubles ($18) per month plus whatever her husband, Edik, can earn unloading vegetables at a street market. Her apartment is a slum, the stairwell outside smelling of urine, the walls inside hung with newspaper because she cannot afford wallpaper.

But Natalya herself, who opens the door to me dressed in a neat grey skirt and white blouse, radiates light. She is a person who has always had a strong purpose in life.

A biologist by training, she used to perform experiments on the brains of dogs in the same institute that preserved the brain of Lenin. That was her day job.

By night, she typed out carbon copies of banned books by authors from Alexander Solzhenitsyn to George Orwell. The dissidents Larissa Bogoraz and Father Dmitry Dudko belonged to her circle, which was active in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Relaxing at her kitchen table, as Russians used to do in the old days before they became too busy earning a living to have serious conversations, Natalya reminisced about her anti-Soviet activities.

"My apartment was an underground publishing house. My own mother, who was a strict communist, reported me to the authorities," she said, chuckling at the memory.

"The KGB came for me at 5 o'clock on a frosty January morning, but I wasn't in. I was talking to a friend on the street below. I saw the agents in the window of my apartment. Then they left. They arrested someone else and didn't bother coming back for me. You see, like factories, the KGB also had their plans to fulfill. They had fulfilled the plan for January, and so they didn't need to arrest me anymore."

We turn to the present. What does Natalya think of Russia's democracy?

"It's not so black and white now," she said, "but of course you cannot say that we have a proper democracy. The politicians are all corrupt. Lebed, Chubais, I see no real difference between them. Probably the people have the leaders they deserve. You cannot achieve democracy by presidential decree. Citizens must learn to take personal responsibility."

Natalya believes the present Russian authorities have no need of labor camps. "They control us by keeping us in a perpetual state of uncertainty, not paying our wages for example. They do not quite let us die, but neither do they let us live. People are obsessed with material problems: where the next meal is coming from."

Natalya, who at the end of the 1980s became a religious believer, tries to rise above the material. To her, that is what it means to be a dissident today. She teaches her children English and takes them out into the woods to paint watercolors. "I feed them when I can, but when they are hungry, I teach them that Man does not live by bread alone."