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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

POWER PLAY: Babitsky Case Redolent of Age-Old War




Every so often, an old discussion is resuscitated: What role did dissidents play during the Soviet era in a country where the majority of their fellow citizens were politically deaf and did not want to listen to their arguments? The story of Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky gives us a new answer to this very question.


Soviet dissidents created a whole school of social behavior whose major claim was that the individual should take a stand against the vast and powerful state. Thursday, a small community of former political prisoners and dissidents will celebrate the 70th birthday of Sergei Kovalyov, a dissident during the Soviet era and a leading defender of human rights in contemporary Russia. Back in the '70s, Kovalyov was an editor of the underground newspaper Khronika tekushchikh sobytii, or Chronicle of Current Events, which published reports about conditions in the inhumane Soviet Gulag.


In 1974, Kovalyov was arrested for those activities and sentenced to seven years in a labor camp, plus three years of exile in the north. He served his full sentence. During the KGB's so-called investigation of his deeds, one of his interrogators, a KGB major, asked with sincere curiosity: "Why? Why did you do all that for which your life has been ruined and you will go to jail?"


"What about conscience?" Kovalyov replied. "In addition to everything else, there is the question of how to look in the eyes of your own children."


I have a hard time believing the KGB major understood - just as the absolute majority of Soviet citizens did not understand - the essence of Kovalyov's answer.


Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky has proved that the tradition, the legacy of Russian dissidents, is alive and well. Yes, the individual should take a stand against the state, and sometimes he even wins.


Whatever reservations one may have about the Radio Liberty correspondent's reporting from Chechnya (which I myself found at times one-sided and biased), Babitsky fulfilled his major task. He managed to survive the impossible, to report the story he felt it was important the public know: about the beatings, tortures and violations of basic human rights in the filtration camp in the Chechen village of Chernokozovo. God only knows what it took for him to finally reach Moscow. Hunted, jailed, betrayed, sold, once again jailed - it looked as if all state agencies and institutions were after him. But he made it. He survived to get his story through. Kovalyov, like many other Soviet dissidents, can feel proud: Their lessons, for which they paid years in the Gulag, were not learned in vain.


Pyotr Chaadayev, a 19th-century philosopher, writer and Decembrist, once wrote: "I am not capable of loving my Motherland with closed eyes and shut mouth. The Motherland expects truth from us." Most of Chaadayev's books were forbidden in the Soviet Union. Still, his writings were very popular among the intelligentsia and dissidents. Even today they are remembered. So what if few know them today? Few knew them back then, too.


Whatever unfortunate turn Russia's fragile democracy may take, there is always hope. In a country where the state always comes first, the tradition of the individual's taking a stand against the state is still alive.


Yevgenia Albats is an independent journalist.