Remembering Alexander Ginzburg

Ten years since his passing, a heroic Soviet dissident reminds us what a single individual can do to alter human events.

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.”

Ginzburg was a true actor in every sense of the word. The world was his stage, as were college auditoriums, cocktail parties and social gatherings, where he  entertained everyone from reporters to his cohorts. He didn’t compartmentalize anything and he couldn’t stand political correctness. For him, human rights were the same whether in Russia or America. His personal -- what he called -- "internal freedom" was acquired while in prison.

Once during a visit to a maximum-security prison in Walla Walla, Washington, he asked the warden if he could visit a prisoner in an isolation unit. Once there, Alik asked the prisoner to tell him how he was coping with his incarceration. The man behind the cage-like door had tears in his eyes when I told him who Ginzburg was. “ Why would this famous man visit me? I’m a nobody,” said the prisoner. When we left, Alik remarked that Russian prison cells were better because the cell door was solid while in American prisons there was no privacy for the prisoner. And this: “You never ask a prisoner the reason he’s in jail. That’s a private matter.”  Also, he gave me a note to translate for the warden. The note had his name and address in Paris, stating that if he could be of any help to the prisoner to please contact him personally.

He was known for his easy-going manner, the absence of cynicism (a rare quality among Soviet citizens) and selflessness. But after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ginzburg became visibly agitated, even angry at times. The reason was his frustration with the West and with certain dissidents within the new Russia. He was upset about the fact that human right advocates were not invited to participate in the changes that were taking place in the newly-formed government and that the West was blindly supporting the Russian political leadership. He knew that as long as the Soviet elite remained in positions of power very little was going to change on the ground, so to speak. The country was being auctioned off too the highest bidder and to those politically connected to the former regime. The principles of Human Rights and the Rule of Law were subjugated and ignored in a mass frenzy to acquire as much wealth and influence as possible. In other words, the house of cards had fallen and there was nothing being undertaken to promote a democratically free society. Many of the people Ginzburg knew had also caved-in or turned a blind eye to the reality of the new Russia. He was no longer a player and no longer needed in the good fight.

But if Alik only knew how much he had done, how many lives he affected and how instrumental he was in inspiring so many of those around him, perhaps he would not have felt so disheartened. Personally, Ginzburg transformed my understanding of right thinking and right action. He was uncompromising, yet gentle, intellectual, yet never heavy and over-bearing, wise in the ways of the world, but a clown in everyday matters. I feel very privileged to have crossed his path ever so slightly and over time have come to a greater appreciation of his influence personally and globally.

May he rest in peace and hold his rightful place in history for contributing to the evolution of men and women everywhere.

George Gerich is the former interpreter for Alexander Ginzburg, with whom he worked for over ten years.

See Frontpage's symposium with three former Soviet dissidents about Alexander Ginzburg, marking his passing ten years ago: Alexander Ginzburg and the Resistance to Totalitarian Evil, Then and Now.   

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