Freedom and Democracy in Russia, Then and Now
Among the Americans watching the Russian assault on Ukraine with horror and hope is one 81-year-old retired math and physics teacher for whom these events resonate in a very personal way. More than half a century ago, Pavel Litvinov—then a Soviet citizen living in Moscow—was one of eight brave people, out of a population of more than 230 million, who publicly protested the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia to crush the “Prague Spring” of liberalization. The group’s protest in Red Square lasted less than five minutes before they were hauled away by plainclothes KGB agents.
The parallels to today’s situation are eerie. Once again, a despotic regime in the Kremlin, fearful of freedom and change, has ordered the invasion of a nearby country that has chosen a liberal course. Once again, it takes courage for Russians to protest—though the consequences aren’t nearly as dire. Today, most protesters who are detained get off with a fine or a few days of detention. In 1968, Litvinov was tried and sentenced to five years of internal exile in Siberia; two his codefendants were also exiled, two others served time in labor camps, and two were forcibly confined to psychiatric hospitals. (The eighth participant, 21-year-old Tatiana Bayeva, avoided criminal charges because both she and her fellow protesters claimed that she was not involved but had only come to watch; she was still expelled from college and later remained an active dissident.)
Litvinov—who spoke to me in Russian last week by video chat from his home in Irvington, New York—is struck by the similarities between the Kremlin’s war on Ukraine in 2022 and the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. In both cases, he says, “the real goal was to neutralize a threat from the country next door. But the fear is not of a military threat. The fear is: How can it be that these people on whom we look down a little, who can’t even speak proper Russian, will become a European country? That means death to the entire Soviet and imperial Russian tradition. Brezhnev knew that. He might not have been able to speak two coherent words, but he knew it in his gut and never doubted it. And today, Putin knows it too. There are many reasons why Ukraine and why now, but the main cause is that a free country cannot coexist with an unfree one next to it”—especially when the two countries’ relationship is as close as that of Russia and Ukraine. Litvinov points out that about half of Ukrainians have relatives in Russia and numerous Ukrainians work in Russia in seasonal jobs. “The thought that these people, these Ukrainian laborers, will suddenly become free, will be associated with the word Europe—that was intolerable,” he says.
While such routine intermingling did not exist between the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia in 1968, the cultural ties were still close enough to be concerning to Soviet authorities. Because Czechoslovakia was a fellow member of the “Eastern bloc” of “people’s democracies,” many Soviet professionals, scientists, scholars, and artists had extensive contacts with their Czech counterparts. What’s more, Czech newspapers and magazines sold freely in Moscow shortly after publication. Litvinov, who speaks of those distant events as if they happened last month, recalls that he and his friends, young intellectuals and artists who had come of age during the post-Stalin “thaw” and hungered for more freedom, routinely picked up day-old Czech papers at the kiosk at daybreak and read them in rapid-response Russian translation provided by members of their circle who were specialists in Slavic languages.
Interestingly, Litvinov says, his friends had usually associated the “wind of freedom” from the West with Poland more than Czechoslovakia: “Poles were feistier and more combative.” But all that changed in 1968 when the reforms steered by Alexander Dubček, then first secretary of the Presidium of the Central Committee of the Czech Communist Party, became an experiment in “socialism with a human face,” with freedom of expression and independent civic activism. “Czechoslovakia, in its own gentle and nonmilitant way, became the freest country [in Eastern Europe], and the KGB realized something had to be done about them,” Litvinov sums up. Some of the excuses, he recalls, were startlingly similar to the ones offered today for the invasion of Ukraine—including claims that the Czech government harbored plans to join NATO and that NATO troops were poised to overrun the country if Soviet tanks hadn’t gotten there first.
The major difference, of course, was that Czechoslovakia was crushed with minimal resistance (though enough for nearly 200 people to be killed). “I later met some Czechs who felt it was humiliating that the Czechs did not rise up and fight, that they lost,” says Litvinov. But under the circumstances, he says, that was almost certainly the best course: “Dubček could have mounted an insurgency and led the country’s defense, but he chose not to, and he was probably right. But today, free Ukraine, after nearly ten years of freedom, has the capacity and the weapons to fight.”
And yet Litvinov, a child of the Soviet elite—his grandfather, Maxim Litvinov, had been the people’s commissar for foreign affairs in the 1930s and Soviet ambassador to the United States in 1918-19 and 1941-43—made his own choice of futile resistance in August 1968, along with the other seven. At the time, many observers wondered how this could have happened in a country where political conformity was enforced by a totalitarian juggernaut. New York Times correspondent Henry Kamm, who covered the protesters’ trial in October 1968, credited an “inexplicable personal alchemy.” But Litvinov sees it in much less dramatic terms: “There was no sense that I was doing something different from what I had been doing until then.”
For one thing, Litvinov and most of his fellow protesters were already open dissidents; for some, the turning point had been the trial in January of that year of four college students charged with “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda” for producing samizdat, self-published literature. “Psychologically it was even more important than the protest against the invasion of Czechoslovakia,” says Litvinov. “It was, essentially, the beginning of human rights activism: a protest against putting people on trial for exercising freedom of speech. Freedom of speech was, to us, the most important value.” (He sees this foundational priority of speech as embodied in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and even—despite his non-religiosity—in the opening line of the Bible, “In the beginning was the Word.”)
Idealistic to the core, Litvinov and his friends felt a deep affinity with nineteenth-century liberalism; he points out that even their most famous slogan from the August 1968 protest, “For your freedom and ours,” came from nineteenth-century Russian liberal Alexander Herzen, who shared such a toast with his friends the Polish exiles in London. It was meant, says Litvinov, “to affirm that there can be no freedom in a country that crushes another country’s freedom.”
Litvinov, who played a key role in planning the 1968 protest, also drew on twentieth-century experience; he had read extensively about protest movements in the West and about Gandhi’s struggle for the liberation of India. He suggested that he and his fellow protesters should sit down before taking out their placards (which they did, on an elevation in Red Square where public executions took place in the Middle Ages; the only protester to remain standing was the poet Natalia Gorbanevskaya, who had with her a baby stroller with her infant son in it) and should not resist when they were inevitably tackled by the KGB.
Nonetheless, the arrest was anything but peaceful. “As soon as we sat down, the gebeshniki [KGB agents] ran toward us,” recalls Litvinov. “They didn’t say they were KGB, though I recognized a couple of them, they had been tailing me for a while. They later testified at our trial and said that their place of employment could not be disclosed, so they just gave a post office box—the same one for all of them, five people. While they were running, they were shouting, ‘Parasites! Anti-Soviets!’ and, a couple of times, they also shouted openly anti-Semitic things—‘They’re Jews!’” For a few minutes, the gebeshniki in plainclothes ran around in a frenzy, apparently waiting for security-service cars to spirit away the rebels. (Litvinov was later told that they were afraid the protest would be spotted by Dubček, who was just then being delivered to the Kremlin to bend the knee to his conquering Soviet masters.) Meanwhile, some of the regular passersby—mostly out-of-town visitors who had come to see Red Square and had gotten more than they bargained for—tried to argue with the protesters, repeating the talking points they’d been fed by political instructors at work: for instance, that if Eastern bloc troops hadn’t gone in, “Germany would have invaded later that day.” Since one of the protesters’ placards was in Czech, one or two onlookers initially mistook them for Czechs and voiced some sympathy: Czechs could be understandably upset by the invasion of their country. Soviet protesters, on the other hand, were unambiguously treasonous.
Then, the cars arrived, and the protesters were tackled by the gebeshniki. “They hit everyone at least once,” says Litvinov. “Some woman ran up with a shopping bag that was filled with either bricks or volumes of Karl Marx and hit me on the head with it; I actually blacked out for a moment.” Viktor Fainberg, a museum guide with a degree in literature, got the worst of it: He tripped the gebeshnik who was attacking him and took a brass-knuckle punch that knocked out four of his front teeth. Partly for that reason, Litvinov says, Fainberg was never criminally charged but was packed off to a psychiatric hospital instead: “They sent him to the loony bin because they didn’t want to put him on trial with four teeth missing. And also, he was probably the most uncontrollable among us.” (Fainberg, now 90 and a citizen of France, is one of the three still-living members of the Red Square Eight, along with Litvinov and Bayeva, who also lives in New Jersey.)
Interestingly, while the outcome of the trial was entirely predictable, the behavior of some of its accidental participants was not. A young tourist from some town in the Urals who saw the altercation and was called as a witness—identified only by her last name, Yastrebova—testified that she saw the defendants being beaten unprovoked and felt it was wrong. “The prosecutor immediately asked, ‘And you think what they did was right?’ She replied, no, because in the Soviet Union protests need to be authorized,” recalls Litvinov. But Yastrebova was also adamant that the protesters did not initiate any of the violence. After the end of the trial, Litvinov says, his sister Nina approached the young woman to thank her; Yastrebova seemed genuinely surprised and asserted that she was simply telling the truth, the way her mother had taught her.
It’s hard to say how many people in the Soviet Union at the time knew about the protest, from foreign radio broadcasts or other sources, or how much of an impact it had. Litvinov and several of his codefendants were forced to leave the Soviet Union in the 1970s under the threat of new criminal charges and more time in Siberia, either in exile or in the gulag. It was only in the late 1980s and early 1990s that the Soviet, and then Russian, media remembered the Red Square Eight.
Nonetheless, their protest was a key moment in the rise of the Soviet dissident movement that, whether or not it helped topple the Soviet regime, nevertheless kept the spirit of freedom, civic activism, and independent thought alive in the totalitarian state. Litvinov recalls a conversation, some years ago, with a man who had participated in the August 1991 protests against the Communist hardliners’ coup intended to topple Mikhail Gorbachev and undo his reforms. The man, who had spent three nights in an enormous crowd camping outside the Moscow White House—the seat of Boris Yeltsin’s coup-defying government of the Russian Federation—told him that the core of that crowd consisted of people who had imbibed foreign broadcasts and samizdat in their youth and had been inspired by the dissidents of the 1960s and 1970s. “It was very gratifying to hear that,” says Litvinov.
Today, of course, that victory of democracy has been undone by the return of authoritarianism, cranked up to the maximum in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine. On the day I interviewed Litvinov, March 22, the news had just come in that Russia’s Supreme Court had affirmed the Putin government’s decision to close down Memorial, the nonprofit founded in 1989 to preserve the record of Soviet-era repressions and to engage in present-day human rights advocacy; given Memorial’s strong connection to the Soviet-era dissident movement, this felt like the end of the line. Litvinov pointed out a symbolic detail that, he said, no one else had apparently noticed: The Supreme Court building was the same one where “the first big dissident trial was held” in the Soviet era—the 1966 trial of writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel, prosecuted for writings published abroad and deemed anti-Soviet. “That was the first big case,” Litvinov told me. “And now, this is the last case that shuts the door on dissident life, since Memorial continued the dissident tradition of defending freedom of speech.”
In the United States, where he came in 1974 with his wife Maya Rusakovskaya and their two children, Litvinov resumed his work as a physics teacher (he taught at the Hackley prep school in Tarrytown, New York for over 20 years until retiring in 2007) but also continued to be active in human rights advocacy with a particular focus on the USSR. Unlike many other ex-Soviet dissidents and émigrés, he did not feel compelled to embrace conservative politics as a natural extension of his anti-Soviet views; while Litvinov has spoken of Ronald Reagan—with whom he met at a White House lunch along with seven other exiled Soviet dissidents in 1982—as a great president for his policies toward the Soviet Union, he has also strongly praised Jimmy Carter for his stance on human rights. In a 1977 CBS News interview, asked by Dan Rather what his political views were, Litvinov replied that they were very simple: “I believe in democracy and freedom.” Much later, in a 2015 interview to the independent Russian website Colta.ru, he said that he tended to avoid the word “anti-Communist” because of encounters with far-right types who used it to demonize social democrats. A self-styled proud liberal, Litvinov campaigned for Barack Obama and was active in an internet group of Russian Americans against Donald Trump—decidedly a minority view in the Russian émigré community.
Today, Litvinov—who still frequently gives talks to various audiences via Zoom—gives Joe Biden very high marks for his handling of the Ukraine crisis, expresses great fondness for Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, and says that “we seriously underrated Trump” as a savvy politician who “knows exactly how to talk to the public he needs” and how to keep supporters intimidated by turning viciously on those he can afford to dump. “He’s not afraid to scare his supporters,” Litvinov says, “because the only people he wants around him are either ones who will kiss his rear end or ones who are just like him. And that’s his strength.” Still, he adds, “I don’t think he’ll be back.”
Litvinov anxiously follows the events in Ukraine and gets frustrated with specious arguments that blame the West and NATO for Putin’s war while ignoring the fact that NATO is a pact for common defense, not aggression. He also closely follows the events in Russia, where he still has friends and relatives who can’t or won’t leave for various reasons—as well as ones who are leaving. (Litvinov himself traveled to Russia regularly from 1990, when he was taken off a KGB blacklist, and until the COVID pandemic hit; now, future travel looks uncertain for both health and political reasons.)
What does he make of this year’s antiwar protests in Russia, which are relatively small but certainly dwarf the eight-person 1968 Red Square demonstration? Could these protests have an impact on further developments? Litvinov ponders the question carefully. “I think,” he says, “that both Ukraine’s behavior and [Russia’s] relations with the West will play much more of a role—unless these protests grow to a level no one anticipates, and a kind of February Revolution will happen” (a reference to the liberal revolution of February 1918 that overthrew the Russian monarchy). Then he adds, “Today, one can predict anything. But I don’t have any thoughts on the subject, just strong feelings.”
Still, at the end of our conversation, he does make a prediction of sorts: What’s happening in Ukraine today is a harbinger of liberal democracy’s revival. “I never believed democracy would perish,” Litvinov says. “It can be lost in certain places, for a certain amount of time. But who would have thought that Ukraine would make a 180-degree turn while Russia remained stuck in the Soviet Union?” Ultimately, he is convinced that “if the world does survive, it will survive only with democracy”: “I’m not saying this because I like democracy, but because, objectively, democracy is the only system that can handle [the modern world]. It may be a socialist democracy; I think there will be more government, but it won’t reach the point of the scare stories conservatives tell.”
“Basically, I’m an optimist,” Litvinov sums up. Then he pauses a moment and amends the self-description: “An optimistic realist.”
Correction (April 11, 2022): An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to Pavel Litvinov’s current residence. He lives in Irvington, New York, not Fort Lee, New Jersey.