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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

One of Last Dissidents Sees Reason for Hope

PERM, Ural Mountains -- Of the millions of people suppressed by Soviet power since 1917, dissident writer Lev Timofeyev was among the last.

Taken from his home a few days after Mikhail Gorbachev assumed the helm of the Communist Party in 1985, the critic of Soviet economics was tried, convicted and eventually transported to the infamous Perm 36, a Ural Mountains labor colony for political prisoners. He traveled in a rail car that was packed so tightly he was infested with huge body lice by the time he arrived.

The camp commandant vowed to turn him into a "Soviet man," and he punished Timofeyev severely when he resisted. Within two years, however, as perestroika stirred the country, Timofeyev was freed and plunged into an unimaginable new world of liberty and political activism. In a few short years, the Soviet Union itself was dead.

A decade later, many Russians are ambivalent about the collapse of the Soviet Union. A significant number of them have regrets and mixed feelings about those -- such as Timofeyev -- who helped hasten its demise.

Timofeyev himself, like other dissidents of his generation, is not happy with everything that followed the breakup -- large-scale corruption, the collapse of the economy, the wars in Chechnya.

But don't try to convince him that all is bleak. Speaking on the shady, peaceful porch of the dacha where he now lives in Peredelkino outside Moscow, Timofeyev smiled when asked about his thoughts for the future.

"A person who lived his whole life in the Communist regime and saw it fall apart cannot fail to be optimistic," he said.

When Timofeyev, a serene, almost austere man in his mid-60s with salt-and-pepper hair, was asked what turned him into a dissident in the first place, he said it was just a desire to speak the truth.

His first book outlined the pervasiveness of corruption in the Soviet economy, making the point that it was impossible to behave legally in a system that required illegality in order to survive.

The book could not be published under Soviet censorship, but Timofeyev's typewritten manuscript was circulated among friends and copied in "samizdat," or self-published, editions. Before long, it came to the attention of the KGB. Agents had a difficult time finding him, Timofeyev said, because he wrote under his real name; the KGB presumed it was a pseudonym.

"I was surprised that they came so late," he said of his arrest March 19, 1985.

Timofeyev was charged under article 70.1 of the criminal code for "anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda" and sentenced Sept. 19 of that year to six years in a prison camp and five years of exile. (He was officially "rehabilitated" in 1992.)

On the day in December when he was to be shipped to the labor camp, his daughter, then 12, came to see him and bring him cookies. The guards denied them a meeting.

Today, Perm 36 has been turned into a museum. Timofeyev went back in June and showed the bare wooden room where he slept with 16 other inmates, all "politicals."

One of his strong first impressions of the camp was the anonymous, booming voice of a fellow inmate that came through the toilet pipe and into his isolation cell. "Who are you?" it demanded. Timofeyev never figured out whose voice it was.

Escape was impossible, he explained. The camp, about 10 acres, was surrounded by wooden stockades topped by guard towers. The prisoners could not see over the enclosure, and Timofeyev -- who arrived in a closed prison truck -- did not learn until the day he was released that a lovely river flowed past the camp's walls.

The routine was monotonous: Up early for a breakfast of kasha and weak tea, and then to work assembling small electronic components that would eventually be included in clothes irons.

Discipline was harsh. Timofeyev, for instance, was punished for gathering wild nettles in the cuffs of his pants. The nettles were highly prized by prisoners for making tea -- anything to get a few extra vitamins.

When disciplined, prisoners were moved to solitary confinement, where they slept in icy cells on frigid planks of painted wood. The only way to keep warm, Timofeyev said, was to cover one's body with letters from home, packing them under clothes as insulation.

"Cold was the main torture in the punishment cell. ... It was very, very cold."

"I learned to go to sleep with prayer," said Timofeyev, an Orthodox Christian. "I realized that if you go to bed and start reading a prayer, you can sleep even if it is terribly cold. Fifteen years later, I still think it is the best way."

Timofeyev spent two winters in the camp before being pardoned by Gorbachev on Feb. 5, 1987.

Toward the end, there were slight signs of a change in the political situation. A social room was set up for the prisoners, and for the first time they were allowed to view TV news programs. On New Year's Day, they were permitted the luxury of making a cake out of crackers and margarine.

And once, when Timofeyev illegally organized a prayer service, the guards observed but did not punish him.

His release ushered him into a different world in which open political activism was suddenly possible. Nevertheless, Timofeyev remembers feeling that Gorbachev's reforms would be fleeting.

"In 1987, everyone understood that [political liberalization] would not last for long. ... Now we realize that this push was like a snowslide and was impossible to stop."

Although he wasn't one to seek the limelight, Timofeyev nevertheless found himself addressing a throng of 100,000 people at the time of the failed Communist putsch in August 1991.

He was also in the room when former President Boris Yeltsin signed the decree ending the Communist Party's monopoly on power. "It was the most thrilling moment of my life," he recalled. "I had gone through a lot, but my chest was hurting, and I was ready to cry."

Timofeyev is relaxed in discussing the mistakes and missteps of Yeltsin.

"What we see now are a lot of things whose roots are connected to the Communist system," he said. "I am inclined to believe ... that Russia could not have taken a different route to development.

"We should take into account that the society has had almost a century of Communist training, where people were carrying out illegal activity. The illegal sphere now is taking its revenge on society by growing out of all proportion."

But things easily could be worse, he said.

"It is one thing when people are arguing in newspapers and another thing when blood is spilled. Thank God we were not given this memory."