This is the great lesson of Natalia Gorbanevskaya’s admirable life. A main voice of the Soviet dissident movement, Gorbanevskaya passed away in Paris at the age of 77. She was one of the few demonstrators in the Red Square, in August 1968, who dared to protest the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Their courageous action, dashed by the KGB, marked the birth of the human rights movement in the USSR. Their heroic defiance of the despotic Leviathan remains a most inspiring example of civic disobedience, under the most unpropitious circumstances. The secret police obtained a temporary victory, but, in the long run, Gorbanevskaya and her fellow dissidents were the victors.
The Soviet Union fell apart in December 1991. In recent years, Vladimir Putin’s regime has tried to impose the image of Yuri Andropov as a great statesman. In fact, he was an ideological hack and a brutal persecutor of all those who dared to challenge the regime. No wonder he is Putin’s idol. In August 2013, Gorbanevskaya went to Moscow to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the protest. Together with her friends, she was arrested again on charges of holding an unauthorized rally. Putin and his servants do not fear the ridicule. All they care about is power.
Trained as a psychologist, Natalia was a poet and a fighter. She was a main contributor to the “Chronicle of Current Events,” a samizdat publication documenting human rights abuses. Arrested in 1969, she was interned into the Soviet mental hospitals, charged with “schizophrenia.” The political use of psychiatry remains one of the most scurrilous pages in the sordid history of Soviet repression.
For the totalitarian system, any criticism amounted to a mental disease. Her case became an international cause célèbre. Joan Baez wrote a famous song praising Natalia’s courage. Forced into exile, Gorbanevskaya continued her struggle in Paris where she worked for Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. Her colleague, the Romanian writer and political thinker, Monica Lovinescu, praised Natalia’s unshakeable commitment to freedom. Her writings belong to the best of the dissident tradition. As a poet, she expressed the longing for dignity and happiness in times of suffering and despondency.
Let me quote these moving lines, an unperishable testimony of a noble spirit:
“In my own twentieth century
where there are more dead than graves
to put them in, my miserable
forever unshared love
among those Goya images
is nervous, faint, absurd,
as, after the screaming of jets,
the trump of Jericho.”
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