Index on Censorship, inspired by Soviet dissidents, marks 50 years of fighting for free speech

The brave protests of 1968 spawned an organisation that is still giving voice to Putin’s critics today

In August 1968, as Soviet tanks rolled into Prague, a small group of students and writers in Moscow organised a protest in solidarity with the people of Czechoslovakia. The poet Natalya Gorbanevskaya and seven other dissidents sat down in Moscow’s Red Square and unfurled banners with slogans that have a chilling resonance today: “We are Losing Our Friends”; “Shame on Occupiers”; “For Your Freedom and Ours”; and “Long Live a Free and Independent Czechoslovakia”.

This extraordinary act of courage was met with customary brutality. The activists were arrested and most served long sentences in penal colonies. Gorbanevskaya was sent to a psychiatric hospital.

Václav Havel, the dissident playwright who became president of Czechoslovakia in 1989, later wrote: “For the citizens of Czechoslovakia, these people became the conscience of the Soviet Union, whose leadership without hesitation undertook a despicable military attack on a sovereign state and ally.”

These dissidents were also the inspiration for the free expression organisation Index on Censorship, which turns 50 this month. Among their number was young teacher Pavel Litvinov, who was sentenced to five years in a Siberia labour camp. Earlier, Litvinov had co-authored a pamphlet entitled Appeal to World Public Opinion, calling on the west to wake up to the suppression of dissent in the Soviet Union, which he likened to Stalin’s show trials of the 1930s. “We appeal to everyone in whom conscience is alive and who has sufficient courage,” he wrote and described the crackdown as “a stain on the honour of our state and on the conscience of all of us”.

British poet Stephen Spender organised a telegram of support from artists and intellectuals including fellow poet WH Auden, philosopher Bertrand Russell, composer Igor Stravinsky and writers JB Priestley and Mary McCarthy. Two weeks before the Red Square demonstration, Litvinov outlined proposals for a support network for “the democratic movement in the USSR”. He suggested a committee of “universally respected progressive writers, scholars, artists and public personalities” from the west to keep the fate of Soviet dissidents in the public eye. He gave his plans to Dutch human rights activist Karel van Het Reve to smuggle abroad.

Litvinov’s idea was to establish an organisation in support of intellectual dissidents: a version of Amnesty International exclusively for writers, artists and academics. Many early meetings took place in the offices of the Observer, with the support of editor David Astor. But when the young translator Michael Scammell joined the organisation, the idea emerged of a magazine publishing and promote the censored work of writers worldwide.

The first issue appeared (with Scammell as editor) in spring 1972 and included poetry from Gorbanevskaya, recently released from the psychiatric hospital, and two short pieces from the most celebrated anti-Soviet writer of all, Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

If Vladimir Putin is inspired by his Soviet predecessors, his internal opponents should be inspired by the tiny handful of protesters who raised their banners in Moscow in 1968. I was reminded of their bravery in the early days of the invasion of Ukraine, when Sofia Rusova, co-chair of Russia’s trade union for journalists, stood alone near Red Square holding a sign reading, “War with Ukraine is Russia’s disgrace.”

Despite the obvious parallels, 2022 is not the same as 1968, and Ukraine is not Czechoslovakia. There have been considerably more than eight Russians protesting against this invasion and still they braved a Soviet-style crackdown on demonstrators to come out in numbers in the Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine and Russia itself.

Critical outlets such as Dozhd (TV-Rain) and radio station Ekho Moskvy have stopped broadcasting. But Novaya Gazeta, whose editor, Dmitri Muratov, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021, is still publishing, as has the Moscow Times. Encrypted electronic media such as messaging apps Telegram and Signal make a total blackout impossible. Rusova, the lone Moscow demonstrator, has not been carted off to a psychiatric ward and has gone on posting updates about media freedom via social media.

In 1992, after the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Pavel Litvinov wrote in Index magazine: “Only a few people understood at the time that these individual protests were becoming part of a movement the Soviet authorities would never be able to eradicate.”

The heirs to Gorbanevskaya and Litvinov have taken to the streets of Russia, and Index on Censorship will be proud to amplify their voices.

Martin Bright is editor at large with Index on Censorship


Martin Bright

The GuardianTramp

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