Remembering Alexander Ginzburg

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It has been almost ten years since the passing of Human Rights activist and Soviet dissident Alexander Ginzburg. He died on July 19th, 2002 in Paris. I was his interpreter for over ten years during his lecture tours of college campuses. During that time we visited almost 150 colleges where Alik (as everyone called him) spoke on “The continuing struggle for Human Rights in the Soviet Union.”

In my opinion, if we were to trace the beginnings of the fall of the Soviet Empire, it would not be an overstatement to say that the disintegration of the U.S.S.R started in 1959 when a 23-year old frustrated journalist decided to publish a collection of poems in a small book he titled Syntax. Ginzburg put together a series of poems composed by “zeks” or “zakluchoniyi” (prisoners) who had been incarcerated during the 40’s and 50’s in the prisons of the Gulag.

What made it remarkable and unprecedented at that time was that Ginzburg printed this book himself and identified himself as the editor on the back page. This had never been done. In 1959 only the government had the exclusive authority to publish any form of written material. So began the era of “samizdat” (self-publishing). After three issues, Ginzburg was arrested by the K.G.B. and sent to Lubyanka prison.

This action was not unlike when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white passenger in Alabama. Today, Parks is considered to be the “First Lady of Civil Rights.”

The next milestone came in 1967. Ginzburg had obtained a copy of court proceedings from the court stenographer during a closed-door show trial of two dissident writers Sinyavsky and Daniel. Subsequently, he published a White Book, which compared the official newspaper articles of the trial with the actual process that took place in the court. Once again, this was a first. He then brought the publication to the offices of the astonished K.G.B. agents. (“The agents, literally, kicked me down the stairs. They didn’t know what to do with me.” Alik said).  The White Book was smuggled to the West and once again he was arrested.  This time he received a sentence of five years hard labor.

Soon after he was released, Ginzburg took it upon himself to become an administrator of the Solzhenitsyn Fund for Political Prisoners. Then, in 1975, he joined 10 other dissidents to form the Helsinki Watch group, organized to monitor the Soviet Union’s human rights violations. The Soviets had just signed on to the Helsinki Accords and the Watch Group began gathering information on human rights abuses. Each member of the Watch Group was assigned various groups. Ginzburg was given the task of monitoring the State’s persecution of the smaller Christian denominations, for which he was, again, arrested in 1978 and given an eight-year prison term.

In 1979, President Carter succeeded in negotiating an exchange of two Soviet spies for several Soviet political dissidents and Alik arrived in New York — to his great surprise, since he didn’t know about the exchange and thought he was being transferred to the Siberian Gulag. It was only when he saw the Manhattan skyline from the airplane window that he realized he was a free man. “I just couldn’t understand why they gave us new suits in Moscow and why they assigned two agents sitting behind me on the plane. Where could I go sitting in a plane?” he said.

Alexander Ginzburg is a perfect example of what a single human being can do to affect the course of human events. Alik was a short, thin, balding man wearing granny glasses and a crooked arm (which was broken while in prison and never set by doctors).

He smoked two packs, sometimes three packs, of unfiltered Camels every day. His fingers were yellow from the nicotine. He drank daily, usually bourbon, which he chased down with beer. He had but one suit and after a year of lectures he finally acquiesced and bought a new one which, he said, was the first suit he had bought for himself (at the age of 48).

But it was his spirit, intellect and humanity that exemplified his uniqueness and brilliance. The first thing we would do when arriving in a new city (after loading up on bourbon and Camels) was to go and look for a bookstore. If there were no Russian books, he’d buy thick computer catalogues, like phone books, and would spend hours studying them. When the tour was over, in New York, after picking up his check from the speaking fees, Alik would go on a shopping spree of computers, cameras, short wave radios, telephones and other electronics and ship all of it to Russia to his friends and dissident groups.

Because of his unique combination of personality traits, the man didn’t need any money for personal expenses; no matter where we went he would be invited to people’s homes and be given whatever he needed – and he needed very little. He was Mozart-like: a benign rascal with mischievous eyes, clever, smart and very funny. He was always on and ready to entertain. He’d rarely lose an argument except to Solzhenitsyn (he said: “I would try to argue with him, but it was no use, the man knew more then I.”) Once during a lecture Q&A Ginzburg was asked what his political orientation was. “The only thing more to the right than me is this wall,” he answered. When being interviewed by a newspaper about his opinion of president Reagan’s political positions, he turned to me and said, “We’re going to write tomorrows news headline, watch.” The next day’s city newspaper read: “ Russian dissident says Reagan is too liberal.”

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  • Philip Hamm

    Congratulations, George!
    A.G.'s rememberance is as important today as his writings were at the time of his self-publishing.
    In this time of Putinism, reflecting on history will be crucial to understanding the turmoil that is now taking
    place in Russia and in those "satellites" of the old USSR..
    Keep the writings coming, George, and as A.G.'s "interpreter", with poetic license, project A.G.'s current "impressions" for him of the world his body left behind. By doing so, you extend his value if not his lifework.