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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Open Letters, Closed Minds

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It's open-letter season again. Let me tell you about open letters. They are important, both as what they are and what they pretend to be.

First, let's look at what they pretend to be: expressions of public opinion, or, rather, a well-chosen sampling of public opinion, to which officials can point in order to justify their actions. In Soviet times, it went something like this: "You don't like the persecution of Solzhenitsyn? But look: The entire staff of Big Huge Ball Bearing Factory No. 18 has written an open letter to Pravda condemning that anti-Soviet writer!" Open letters appeared at key moments in the history of injustice in this country. During the Great Terror in the 1930s, the public wrote open letters expressing its hunger for blood. Sometimes people signing open letters actually asked to be persecuted, like the prominent Moscow Jewish intellectuals who signed a letter asking to be deported during Stalin's anti-Semitic purges in 1953. He died before he could fulfill their so-called wish.

But if open letters are not in fact expressions of public opinion, then what are they? They are currency. A signature appended to an open letter in this country is always a form of payment. As with any transaction, you can tell a lot about a person by looking at how much he or she is willing to pay for what.

During the Great Terror, people thought that by signing open letters, when they had the opportunity, they were buying their freedom -- and perhaps, their very life -- by sacrificing their good names. Sometimes they were mistaken -- some would be arrested anyway, while others may not have been in any immediate danger -- but in any case, I believe, their actions are not for us to judge or second-guess, so great were the stakes every day. But after the terror abated, things changed.

One of the most despicable open letters was one signed in late March 1953 by three prominent writers: Alexander Fadeyev, Alexander Surkov and Konstantin Simonov. The letter called for purging the Soviet Writers' Union of "useless ballast," by which, the letter writers explained, they meant Jewish writers. The incredible thing about the letter was that it was written several weeks after Stalin died, when change was already in the air -- there is plenty of documentation that well-informed people like these writers had a sense of this -- and the three signatories were in no danger. The three writers were willing to sacrifice their good names anyway.

In the post-Stalinist Soviet Union, people signed open letters for one of two reasons: either because they weren't thinking -- this was probably the case when entire factories signed -- or because they were trying to advance their careers. This was the case when prominent people were chosen as the letter-signers. Some of the "big name" signers would then go on to promote this idea of public opinion in public, in the media or, if they could get access, in the foreign media. For example, in the 1980s, Vladimir Pozner used his excellent English to defend the decision to exile the dissident Andrei Sakharov to the city of Gorky. He claimed that Soviet public opinion demanded this action. Remarkably, this shameful chapter of Pozner's career has done no damage to his standing in today's Russia: He is the country's premier television personality. I'm still amazed anyone is willing to shake his hand.

So I suppose it's no wonder that the genre of the open letter has proven easy to resurrect and people are once again willing to sign. This week, Izvestia published just such a letter supporting the draconian nine-year prison sentence given to Mikhail Khodorkovsky and condemning the critics of the decision. "Those who accuse our justice system of bias and a lack of objectivity aren't even professional lawyers, and are in no position to evaluate the trial." In other words, shut up.

The letter is signed by a number of prominent artists, writers and others. All of them stand to gain by signing -- or lose by refusing. They include a film director who recently got state funding for a project, and a theater director who has just constructed a huge new building in the center of Moscow. What's one's good name compared to such riches?

If the face of such sliminess, what can one person do? I promise I will never again buy a ticket to another Stanislav Govorukhin movie or buy a tape of it; attend another show of Alexander Kalyagin's theater; buy a disc recorded by Murat Nasyrov or Alexander Rosenbaum (well, not that I would anyway); buy an outfit by Valentin Yudashkin or a book by Roy Medvedev; or support anything else produced by the signers of the letter. I hope you don't either.

Masha Gessen is deputy editor of Bolshoi Gorod.