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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Big Brother Isn't Watching, But He's Still There

George Orwell didn't make anything up. Everything that was described by him in "1984" existed in the Soviet Union, and even partly continues to exist in the gloomy cellars of half-democratic Russia. The only thing that is different is the dosage. Until 1954, political repression gushed forth in rivers and waterfalls: After the death of Stalin, the rivers began to grow shallow and, from 1956 on, turned into streams. After 1988, political repression appeared in drops. And it has remained thus ever since.


But what I would like to turn to is the Ministry of Love -- the KGB (the present-day FSB, or Federal Security Service). The most distressing aspect of the '70s and beginning of the '80s was waiting for when it would be your turn. Every dissident was not simply under the surveillance of KGB head Yury Andropov, Vladimir Kryuchkov or their predecessors but, like Odysseus and his men, literally in the cave of Polyphemus.


When the KGB selected one of us dissidents to have for lunch, it was always the ones who worked best, wrote the most effective letters in support of human rights, held the most press conferences, kept the Solzhenitsyn Fund active or published an honest chronicle of current events. Those in the opposition underground faced other problems: The KGB always managed to get at the center of the narrow circle of those who put out leaflets and distributed samizdat books.


I tried to combine my clandestine opposition activities, that is to say publishing samizdat literature and trying to create illegal anti-Soviet organizations, with open dissident activities. So the risk was greater and I was disrupted more often than others.


Meanwhile, the country was silent; the cowardly, servile mass of Soviets fought in Afghanistan, went to party meetings, participated in subbotniki, the unpaid volunteer work on days off, and marched in the October parades.


Every time that a car stopped at night in front of my building on Maryinaya Roshcha, a small, quiet street, I involuntarily looked out the window from my second-floor apartment and wondered: Have they come? I wondered every time between 1969 and 1991. Twenty-two years. As an open opponent of the regime and client of the thought police, who powerlessly yet loudly showed contempt for the system, I could expect nothing else.


But they varied their methods. I was arrested on the street, at meetings, in the theater or at work, before astonished co-workers. I can't count the times they called me in my apartment at 6 a.m. When I returned home, they often came as if from under the ground, in the darkness, between the trees in my front garden.


When there was an order for arrest, putting up resistance simply wasn't done. Although more than anything else, I felt like shooting at these gebulniki, KGB agents, and saving the last bullet for myself. But neither the dissidents nor the underground publishers of samizdat ever had any arms.


If there wasn't an order for arrest, then you could hold on and resist. Afterward, they would twist you, pull at your arms and drag you by force. This made things easier, however: At least there was the illusion that you were fighting somehow.


Political prisoners had certain privileges: their own thought police (the KGB), their own witnesses, their own prison for interrogation (Lefortovo), their own etapy, stopping places for transported convicts, and their own prisons for serving their sentences and their own labor camps.


The gebulniki resembled members of the Interior Party. Not even their eyes had anything human or earthly about them. They wanted not simply to get evidence and testimony. The main thing for them was to seduce, break you and then make you love Big Brother.


For those who were not well known in the West or in scholarly circles there existed a Room 101: This was the most frightening place on earth. This was a form of psychiatric terror that no one was capable of withstanding. There were those who managed to be saved from it by a doctor who refused to participate in the tortures, or those who were saved in time through the West's protection, or by some other miracle.


If you landed in Lefortovo, you were put in a stone cell and locked up behind a steel door and from the doubled-barred tiny window just beneath the ceiling; you couldn't see anything through the opaque glass. And there was deadly silence, as with Aida and Radames in the pyramid, where they await their death. You had nothing to look forward to but hard labor in prison and absolute, hopeless hunger: The first 5-kilogram parcel was allowed only after half the term was served, and after that you could receive four parcels a year, if they were not taken away, or if you didn't break down and insist on your rights.


You were in the company of crude guards who tried to break and humiliate you. But here, at least you could stop clinging on to life and die. They would try to interfere, but if you were seriously ill, death was guaranteed, because they wouldn't try to cure you. And only then you could obtain peace and freedom in a place where there is neither the KGB nor the Soviet Communist Party. This is how Yury Galanskov, Vasil Stus, Vasily Marchenko and many others died. But the SPB, or special psychiatric hospital-prisons, were enough to make you regret even the labor camps. If you were given this punitive medicine, then you could be sure of a lifetime of being locked up in a torture chamber with real insane people, as on the island of Dr. Moreau. Only Moreau tried to turn animals into people, and the SPB attempted to turn people into animals.


First there was physical torture -- the dentist's drill, electric shock, injections of sulphazine, oxygen under the skin -- and if this didn't work, then there were psychotropic drugs that wiped away the intellect and took away your reason. You were let out only after you were so weak-minded that you were capable of doing nothing. The most well known SPBs were in Kazan, Oryol, Dnepropetrovsk, Suchany and Leningrad.


When you got out of the camps, you were sent to remote places, where it was impossible to live, where there were no books, no theater and no educated society. After you served your sentence, returning to a major city was out of the question. And human rights activity was brought to a minimum, since Western journalists resided only in the capital.


No one has been dismissed or punished for this. All the butchers from the Brezhnev and Andropov days have landed jobs in the FSB. The system collapsed, but the mechanisms for diverting democracy remain. They can be found in the Ministry of Love and all adherents of the Russian Communist Party and Power of the People. None of us can be sure that from the black walls of the past a hand will not drag us off to the museum-like hell of torture chambers, as was the case with Viktor Orekhov, Vil Mirzayanov or Alexander Nikitin.





Valeria Novodvorskaya is a former dissident. She contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.