Volume 3 Number 8
Dissident Ever
01 August 1990

What made the grandson of Stalin’s foreign minister take on the power of the Kremlin? Bryan Hamlin and Michael Brown describe the education and struggle of a dissident with an unlikely pedigree.

When Pavel Litvinov walks in Moscow's Red Square this month for the first time since 1974, it will have poignant memories for him. It was here that he and a handful of Russian dissidents demonstrated against the Warsaw Pact invasion which crushed Czechoslovakia's `Prague Spring' in August 1968. As a result, he was sent to Siberia for five years.

The sacrifice of Litvinov - and of six other demonstrators who were tried and convicted - did not go unnoticed in Czechoslovakia. `We did not forget your heroic deed,' wrote Alexander Dubcek, leader of the suppressed government, in an open letter published in the Soviet newspaper Izvestia this February - a sign of the times in itself. `Let us invite you to Czechoslovakia for whose freedom you raised your voice of conscience and truth. Striving for freedom, humanism and social justice knows no borders.'

In particular, Dubcek wrote, he was `deeply touched' by Litvinov's banner which - echoing a historic slogan - stated `For your and our freedom'. Litvinov, who now lives in New York, hopes to visit Czechoslovakia when the new democracy marks the anniversary of the invasion this month.

The demonstration was staged, ironically, at Execution Place in Red Square, close to Lenin's Tomb. For Litvinov the irony was particularly strong. His grandfather, Maxim Litvinov, was one of Lenin's original Bolshevik comrades, who served as Foreign Minister under Stalin from 1930 to 1939, fell from favour while Stalin was courting Hitler in the summer of 1939 and became Soviet Ambassador to the United States after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941.

Pavel Litvinov has pleasant memories of his grandfather who encouraged him to read by giving him books, including the great Russian classics of Tolstoy and Pushkin, and checking later to see if he had read them.

Pavel's grandmother was an Englishwoman, Ivy Low, whom Maxim had married in 1916 when he was the Bolshevik representative in London. A writer who translated Russian classics into English, and somewhat eccentric, she was `always a revolutionary at heart'. Later, when Pavel Litvinov became a dissident, she thoroughly approved. But as a boy, he was suspicious of her - for, as his schoolfriends said, `anyone who speaks Russian with a strong English accent must be a spy'.

As a schoolboy Pavel was a member of the Young Pioneers. At the age of 12, he broke down and wept when the news of Stalin's death was announced at his school - and had to be dragged from a fight with a boy who smiled. He was shocked when an uncle made fun of Stalin's successor, Georgi Malenkov, at a family gathering. His father took him aside and told him that some great wrongs had been done by the country's leaders. It was the beginning of his re-education.

Then came Nikita Khrushchev's historic denunciation of Stalin at the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956, and the subsequent thaw which brought tens of thousands of prisoners back from Stalin's labour camps, describing the atrocities they had experienced. `Almost everyone knew of someone who came from the labour camps; it had a tremendous influence.'

Stand for truth
Litvinov and his friends believed that the revolution had been distorted under Stalin; `Collective leadership would bring it back to true Leninism.' So Litvinov pressed ahead in the Komsomol (the Young Communist League) in the belief that he could improve his country through a career within the Communist Party.

They were heady months as repressions eased. But disillusionment came quickly. That autumn Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest, crushing the Hungarian revolution. Litvinov was then 16 years old. `It was a tremendous blow for us all - like a wound,' he remembers. `After that, we didn't want anything to do with politics. We felt disgusted by the official propaganda.'

Litvinov's parents urged him to put his energies into science in the hope that he could avoid the propaganda that bombarded those in the humanities. (Many of the dissidents who were to emerge in the Sixties were scientists, notes Pavel: `Science at least taught us to think straight.')

With the overthrow of Khrushchev in 1964 the relatively liberal period ended and the long Brezhnev stagnation began. Litvinov completed his Master's degree and began work at the Institute of Fine Chemical Technology.

The Khrushchev thaw had inspired many brilliant people with a determination to change their country. Their methods, and consequently their careers, took different paths. But at least a few of these `children of the Twentieth Party Congress' were clear that they had to make a simple stand for truth. For them, the crackdown came quickly. Writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel were put on trial in Moscow. Poet (now Nobel Laureate) Joseph Brodsky was arrested in Leningrad. In 1967 Litvinov's friend Alexander Ginzburg was arrested and he became personally involved.

He started visiting Ginzburg's mother each day after work, despite being watched by KGB agents. `I will show them I am not afraid,' he told himself. To begin with he and his friends simply wanted to demonstrate compassion to those being persecuted, and to disseminate accurate information about their trials. `We felt we had to challenge the official Soviet morality' whereby anyone under suspicion was treated as an enemy and facts were continually distorted.

With Andrei Amalrik and others, Litvinov began to collect documentation on the trials of dissidents into samizdat (underground) publications. Studying the Soviet Criminal Code, they confronted the authorities through the law, holding the government to its own constitution. In January 1968, Litvinov and Larisa Bogoraz (wife of the now imprisoned Daniel) released an Appeal to world public opinion to foreign journalists and to Reuters newsagency, detailing the irregularities in the trial of Ginzburg and three associates. Next day newspapers around the world carried their statement, and the BBC and Voice of America broadcast it back into the USSR. The appeal became a classic document of the dissident movement, and made Litvinov a marked man. He lost his job at the Institute - with no prospect of employment elsewhere.

Letters poured in from all over the Soviet Union, with the grievances of Jews refused emigration, Tartars banished from their homeland, and so on. This mounting evidence of injustice demanded regular publication; so they created a samizdat journal, The Chronicle of Current Events.

On 21 August 1968, Litvinov and his friends met at the courthouse to monitor the trial of Anatoly Marchenko (who later died in prison on hunger strike). There they heard the news of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. They decided to make their protest in Red Square the following Sunday, aware of what the consequences would be.

They had hardly begun their `sit-in' demonstration when they were surrounded and beaten by plain-clothes KGB personnel. First to be bundled into a KGB car was a young engineer, daughter of the distinguished philologist and historian, Lev Kopelev. Maya Kopelev was soon to marry Litvinov and join him as he began his five-year sentence of exile 6,000 miles away from Moscow in a miserably cold Siberian village.

The Litvinovs' daughter Larisa (named after Larisa Bogoraz, who had also been convicted after the demonstration) was born in the depth of a Siberian winter. Litvinov worked in a fluorspar mine and spent hours chopping wood to heat their log cabin. Maya's health still suffers from that time. Yet neither of them speak of it with bitterness: `I have no regrets,' says Pavel.

In December 1972 the Litvinovs were allowed to return to Moscow, but the harassment continued and finding a job was difficult. Litvinov discovered that two friends, were collaborating with the police and decided to keep a low profile, but not for long. Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn were facing `a very harsh campaign'. Litvinov could not help himself. With Boris Shragin, he wrote a letter of support which was published in The Washington Post. Again he was plunged into human rights activities.

Shortly before his arrest in 1968, Litvinov had received a letter from an elderly Orthodox priest, Father Sergei Zheludkov. He wrote that in risking all for the sake of others, Litvinov and others were demonstrating how Christianity should be lived. Now back in Moscow, the Litvinovs linked up with this saintly old man. Finding him ousted from his parish, they took him in for long periods when he was in Moscow. He had a profound influence on both Pavel and Maya, as did the samizdat writings of Eugenia Ginzburg recounting her spiritual journey through years in the Gulag.

Litvinov describes himself, with a smile, as `a sort of agnostic Christian'. For him, faith has to be expressed in deeds. But he recognizes that `Christianity is part of me', imbibed through the literature of such as Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, along with the genuine concern for oppressed people that a socialist upbringing engendered.

No demagoguery
In December 1973, Litvinov was on his way to the annual human rights vigil in Pushkin Square when he was surrounded by four KGB men. They made it clear that either the Litvinovs emigrated or they faced a long term in a labour camp. Within three months Pavel, Maya and their two children were reluctantly leaving their homeland for America.

In New York the Litvinovs, fighters ever, have continued their work for those suffering human rights abuses, operating from their apartment in the high school where Pavel teaches. They joined the editorial team of Khronika Press, New York, which publishes a regular Chronicle of Human Rights in the USSR in the style of their samizdat chronicle, and has released Sakharov's and Bukovsky's writings in Russian. Litvinov served for some years on the Board of Amnesty International in America and has been active with the UN-affiliated League of Human Rights.

Amongst the photographs in the Litvinovs' living room is one of them both with Andrei Sakharov. Until his death, Sakharov was chairman of the nationwide Memorial movement, for which the Litvinovs are raising US-based support. Memorial began simply as a grassroots movement to keep alive the memory of those millions who perished through decades of oppression. But it has also become a growing political movement within the USSR.

Litvinov considers Memorial one of the most important developments in Russia: `Its strength is its moral basis. If you start at the point of the suffering of a vast body of people, then you must not let it be used for any demagoguery of hatred. The most dangerous thing for a country emerging from a repressive regime is to swing to the other extreme.'

He is concerned about the divisions within the dissident movement. `We dissidents have talked of tolerance,' he says, `but a lot of dissidents are so intolerant of each other. We have created our own new orthodoxy. We must fight to allow dissent among the dissidents.'

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