Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Old Dissidents Never Die; They Raise Funds

It was in 1978, at the peak of the Soviet dissident movement, that the men who were following Alexander Podrabinek stood on his skis to prevent him from sliding away from them.

His watchers worked in teams of eight, around the clock, not so much to find out where he was going as to wear him down. When he went into a telephone booth, as the joke had it, they all tried to squeeze in with him.

"I wrote a letter to Andropov," said Podrabinek, referring to Yury Andropov, the head of the KGB, "and I told him, 'You should issue skis to your agents so they can follow me and not interfere with my recreation.'"

Soon afterward, at the age of 24, he was convicted of slandering the Soviet state in writings he smuggled abroad, and was sent into Siberian exile, as he had known perfectly well he would be.

Podrabinek, whose crime was to write an expose of psychiatric abuses, may have been one of the cheekier of the Soviet dissidents. But he shared with them a quality that seems, among a few stubborn people, to stymie repressive states everywhere. He refused to be intimidated or silenced.

It is a rare state of mind that he called "inner freedom" but could also be called orneriness. Podrabinek, for example, said that although he is culturally Russian he identified himself officially in Soviet times as Jewish simply because Jews were repressed.

"In general, dissidents were people who got fed up with putting up with lies, with idiots and slaves," he said over dinner recently. "You had to not be afraid. It's very simple. But you had to reach that point."

That time of severe repression has passed now. Russia may not be a garden of freedoms as President Vladimir Putin continues to tighten his grip. But it is not the Soviet Union.

The dissidents, once the brave conscience of their country, have mostly faded from view, and for Podrabinek, who is now 52, that is as it should be.

"Brecht said it: 'It's an unhappy country that needs heroes,'" Podrabinek said. "That's true. They are not needed in a normal nation."

The dissident heroes in Russia have been replaced by professional human rights workers -- often brilliant and dedicated -- with offices and clerical staffs.

"They are completely different people," Podrabinek said. "Another generation, another context. They are more efficient. They do it like work. For human rights defenders now you have to be good at fundraising, at organizing, at talking with the government."

He may well be the last in a line of political prisoners in his family. His grandfather was executed by Stalin, and his father and brother both spent time as political prisoners.

It is a sign of mellower times that his two grown sons and his teenage daughter are the first of four generations of his family not to have been arrested.

The dissidents were by definition misfits, and Podrabinek, though he seems to be having a good time, has not really made a go of fitting in now that times are a bit more normal.

He is one of just a few former dissidents who have tried to make the transition to post-communist human rights work, but he admits that he is not much of a fundraiser.

In 1987, taking advantage of Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost, he started Ekspress Khronika, a human rights weekly that briefly caught the public eye. When that folded in 2000, he founded Prima-News, a tiny human rights news agency that he said could soon collapse for lack of funds. He has about 400 subscribers, he said, but most of them cannot afford to pay him. The foreign financial support that sustains him could end at any time.

"I'm a poor businessman," Podrabinek said. "I find it uncomfortable to ask for money, to tell the truth."

A compact, energetic man in a black turtleneck sweater with a black stubble of a beard, he has not changed much since his skiing days, and is as irreverent as ever.

When the Kremlin said in September that it might restrict foreign travel by scientists, Podrabinek was ready with a sound bite.

"Today, they are setting limits on foreign trips for scientists," he told Ekho Moskvy radio, "and tomorrow, they will recreate an Iron Curtain around the country, so that nobody will doubt that we live in the happiest country in the world."

It was as a young ambulance paramedic that Podrabinek began to chronicle the widespread use of psychiatric imprisonment to punish and discredit dissenters.

In 1978, he was exiled to northeastern Siberia -- one of the coldest places in the world -- for having sent abroad the manuscript of his book "Punitive Medicine." In 1980, while he was still in exile, the book was published in English and he was convicted a second time for the same offense and sent to a labor camp. He served a total of 5 1/2 years.

Today, in this transitional period of Russian history, Podrabinek said, people cannot take their freedoms for granted. Things are inching backward, and it is possible that at some time in the future there will be a need once again for dissidents in Russia.

It was willpower, he said, that sustained him as a prisoner, and it is willpower that seems to be missing in Russia today.

"When I was in solitary confinement I made friends with a mouse, a tiny mouse that lived in my cell," he said. "I gave it crumbs of bread. When my hunger got very strong I got the idea of eating it. When you are hungry, you stop thinking rationally. But I didn't. I didn't eat my friend."

Although they have the right to vote and to speak out, he said, the Russian people today are as passive as they were in Soviet times.

"Russia is a big, heavy country," he said. "A very inert country. People don't feel their own personal dignity. They don't feel they are true citizens."

And so, as the government takes its small, sliding steps backward, they do nothing to defend their diminishing freedoms.

"A lot depends on us, how we relate to those in power," he said. "If we value our personal freedom, we will keep it. If we don't value it, we will lose it."

In fact, he said, freedom seems to mean less to post-Soviet Russians than the social and economic improvements in their lives. "That is what democracy is all about now -- money, a good life, material well-being."

Even the Federal Security Service -- the successor to the KGB -- has grown comfortable and materialistic, he said, its agents less dedicated than the men who lunged after him in the snow and stood on his skis.

In those years, there was a real battle raging between good and evil, he said, and both sides fought hard.

"Of course they watch," he said of the new generation of secret police. "That's part of their work. But they aren't as professional as the KGB. They get paid, thank God, so they are happy."