Monday, 29 February 2016

Spaces of Blue Week Five: Moments of Humanity in the Post-Stalinist Soviet bloc



"Without free, self-respecting, and autonomous citizens there can be no free and independent nations. Without internal peace, that is, peace among citizens and between the citizens and the state, there can be no guarantee of external peace."
- Vaclav Havel

After  Alexander Solzhenitsyn attended university and graduated from the department of mathematics and physics, he soon went on to fight in World War II. His fate would change in 1945, when he was arrested for letters he had written to a school friend that were critical of Joseph Stalin. Subsequent to his arrest, Solzhenitsyn spent eight years in prisons and labor camps and three years in exile. In 1956, Solzhenitsyn was allowed to settle in central Russia, where he taught mathematics and began writing in earnest. By the early 1960s, with government control being loosened in Russia, Solzhenitsyn saw his short novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich published in a leading literary journal. Based on Solzhenitsyn's own experiences, Ivan Denisovich described a day in the life of a Stalin-era inmate, and its authenticity struck a chord with readers, especially since it was the first such work to appear in post-Stalin Russia.

In 1964, however, the political tide soon turned against Solzhenitsyn when Nikita Khrushchev fell from power in and restrictions on cultural activities were reinstated. Solzhenitsyn lost government-sanctioned publishing privileges and soon had to resort to publishing through underground means. Despite the oppressive nature of his homeland during this time, Solzhenitsyn found success internationally, as publishers abroad clambered to release his work.

The First Circle appeared in 1968, and Cancer Ward followed later that year. These works secured Solzhenitsyn the 1970 Nobel Prize for Literature, but he did not go to Stockholm for the ceremony because he was afraid he would not be readmitted to the Soviet Union when he returned.
In 1973, The Gulag Archipelago, a literary-historical record of the Soviet prison/labor camp system that became a multi-tentacled monster under Stalin, started to appear in installments in Paris and the KGB has seized the manuscript in the Soviet Union. 

Upon the publication of Gulag, Solzhenitsyn was charged with treason and exiled from the Soviet Union. He eventually traveled to the United States and settled in the secluded environs of Vermont, where he continued to write.

In 1989, a literary journal published the first officially-approved excerpts from Gulag. Solzhenitsyn's Soviet citizenship was restored a year later, and he returned to Russia four years after that.
Andrei Sakharov


Andrei Sakharov is often called the "father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb," but most people know him as one of the twentieth century's most ardent and unrelenting champions of human rights and freedoms. It was for his work as an outspoken dissident to the Soviet regime that the Nobel Committee awarded him the Peace Prize in 1975. The citation called him "the conscience of mankind" saying that he "has fought not only against the abuse of power and violations of human dignity in all its forms, but has in equal vigor fought for the ideal of a state founded on the principle of justice for all." The Soviet authorities denied him permission to go to Norway to receive his award. 

Sakharov was recruited to work on the Soviet nuclear weapons program in June 1948 by his professor Igor Tamm. Later he wrote, "no one asked whether or not I wanted to take part in such work. I had no real choice in the matter, but the concentration, total absorption and energy that I brought to the task were my own." In a matter of months, the young physics graduate student came up with a totally new idea for an H-bomb design, one that he would call the "Layer Cake." 
His work on the nuclear program ultimately led Sakharov down the road toward dissent. Following the test of the first Soviet superbomb in 1955, Sakharov became increasingly disturbed by the consequences of his work: "When you see all of this yourself, something in you changes," he wrote. "When you see the burned birds who are withering on the scorched steppe, when you see how the shock wave blows away buildings like houses of cards, when you feel the reek of splintered bricks, when you sense melted glass, you immediately think of times of war... All of this triggers an irrational yet very strong emotional impact. How not to start thinking of one's responsibility at this point?" 

In 1957 his concern about the biological hazards of nuclear testing inspired him to write an article about the effects of low-level radiation. In it he concluded that, the detonation of a one-megaton bomb would create 10,000 human casualties. "Halting the tests," he wrote, "will directly save the lives of hundreds of thousands of people." Over the next ten years he became more and more concerned with civic issues. And in 1968, while still working on the Soviet nuclear weapons program, Sakharov wrote an essay that would thrust him into the international spotlight.
"Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom", attacked the Soviet political system. In it Sakharov argued for a "democratic, pluralistic society free of intolerance and dogmatism, a humanitarian society which would care for the Earth and its future." A copy of the article was smuggled out of the Soviet Union and published in the New York Times. By the end of 1969 more than 18 million copies of the essay were in circulation worldwide.

Following the publication of "Reflections", Sakharov was fired from the weapons program. He became an increasingly vocal advocate of human rights and when he denounced the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan, the Soviet authorities were quick to respond, banishing him to internal exile in Gorki in January 1980. His long years of isolation finally ended in December 1986, when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev invited Sakharov to return to Moscow. 

Sakharov worked tirelessly to promote democracy in the Soviet Union until the very last day of his life. He was elected to the Congress of People's Deputies and appointed a member of the commission responsible for drafting a new Soviet constitution. On the day he died, December 14, 1989, he made a plea before the Soviet Congress for political pluralism and a market economy. Later that evening his wife and fellow dissident Elena Bonner found him dead in his study.


Vaclav Havel
 Anyone interested in reading a novel about the dissident culture during the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras might wish to read my review of The Big Green Tent 


 From New York Times obituary by DAN BILEFSKY and JANE PERLEZ DEC. 18, 2011

  Vaclav Havel, the Czech writer and dissident whose eloquent dissections of Communist rule helped to destroy it in revolutions that brought down the Berlin Wall and swept Mr. Havel himself into power, died on Sunday. He was 75.

A shy yet resilient, unfailingly polite but dogged man who articulated the power of the powerless, Mr. Havel spent five years in and out of Communist prisons, lived for two decades under close secret-police surveillance and endured the suppression of his plays and essays. He served 14 years as president, wrote 19 plays, inspired a film and a rap song and remained one of his generation’s most seductively nonconformist writers. All the while, Mr. Havel came to personify the soul of the Czech nation.

On Dec. 29, 1989, Vaclav Havel was elected Czechoslovakia’s president by the country’s still-communist parliament.  His moral authority and his moving use of the Czech language cast him as the dominant figure during Prague street demonstrations in 1989 and as the chief behind-the-scenes negotiator who brought about the end of more than 40 years of Communist rule and the peaceful transfer of power known as the Velvet Revolution, a revolt so smooth that it took just weeks to complete, without a single shot fired.

He was chosen as post-Communist Czechoslovakia’s first president — a role he insisted was more duty than aspiration — and after the country split in January 1993, he became president of the Czech Republic. He linked the country firmly to the West, clearing the way for the Czech Republic to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1999 and the European Union five years later.
Both as a dissident and as a national leader, Mr. Havel impressed the West as one of the most important political thinkers in Central Europe. He rejected the notion, posited by reform-minded Communist leaders like Alexander Dubcek in his own country, and years later by Mikhail S. Gorbachev in the Soviet Union, that Communist rule could be made more humane.

Even after Mr. Havel retired in 2003, leaders sought him out, including President Obama. At their meeting in March 2009, Mr. Havel warned of the perils of limitless hope being projected onto a leader. Disappointment, he noted, could boil over into anger and resentment. Mr. Obama replied that he was becoming acutely aware of the possibility.

It was as a dissident that Mr. Havel most clearly championed the ideals of a civil society. He helped found Charter 77, the longest enduring human rights movement in the former Soviet bloc, and keenly articulated the lasting humiliations that Communism imposed on the individual.

In his now iconic 1978 essay “The Power of the Powerless,” which circulated in underground editions in Czechoslovakia and was smuggled to other Warsaw Pact countries and to the West, Mr. Havel foresaw that the opposition could eventually prevail against the totalitarian state.
Mr. Havel, a child of bourgeois privilege whose family lost its wealth when the Communists came to power in 1948, first became active in the Writers Union in Czechoslovakia in the mid-1960s, when his chief target was not Communism so much as it was the “reform Communism” that many were seeking.

During the Prague Spring of 1968, the brief period when reform Communists, led by Mr. Dubcek, believed that “socialism with a human face” was possible, Mr. Havel argued that Communism could never be tamed.

After the Soviets sent tanks to suppress the Prague reforms in August 1968, Mr. Havel persisted in the fight for political freedom. In August 1969 he organized a petition of 10 points that repudiated the politics of “normalization” with the Soviet Union. He was accused of subversion, and in 1970 was vilified on state television and banned as a writer.

At the time, tens of thousands of Communists were expelled from the party, deemed too sympathetic to the Dubcek reforms that were being reversed by the Czechoslovak leader Gustav Husak. Mr. Havel kept writing, and in 1975, in an open letter to Mr. Husak — the leader he eventually replaced — he attacked the regime, arguing that Czechoslovakia operated under “political apartheid” that separated the rulers from the ruled.

The government, Mr. Havel wrote, had chosen “the most dangerous road for society: the path of inner decay for the sake of outward appearances; of deadening life for the sake of increasing uniformity.”
In 1977, Mr. Havel was one of three leading organizers of Charter 77, a group of 242 signers who called for the human rights guaranteed under the 1975 Helsinki accords. Mr. Havel was quickly arrested, tried and convicted of subversion; he served three months in prison. He was arrested again in May 1979 on a charge of subversion and was sentenced to four and a half years.

The severity of this sentence brought protests from the Communist parties in France, Italy and Spain. Mr. Havel was eventually released in February 1983, suffering from pneumonia.
In prison, he was prohibited from writing anything but letters about “family matters” to his wife. These missives, he said, enabled him to make some sense of his incarceration. One of his themes was a warning to his persecutors that by their repression of human freedom, they were ultimately undercutting their own existence.

His refusal to break with Charter 77 led to other, briefer periods of detention as his celebrity status grew abroad. In January 1989, he was detained and tried after defying police orders to stay away from a demonstration.

His release in May that year represented the beginning of the end for Czechoslovakia’s Communist government, which was badly out of step with reforms under way in neighboring Poland and Hungary and, under the leadership of Mr. Gorbachev, in the Soviet Union itself. 

During the 1980s, Mr. Havel refused government pressure to emigrate. Not widely known at home outside dissident and intellectual circles in Prague, he became a focus for some Western diplomats and visitors, who would tramp up to the top-floor apartment of a six-story house that his father had built and philosophize with Mr. Havel while gazing across the Vltava River at the Prague Castle, long the seat of the country’s rulers.

He earned virtually nothing from the menial job he was forced to take at a brewery, but had money from the royalties of publications overseas. He bought a Mercedes-Benz and decorated his book-crammed apartment with abstract paintings. He also owned the cottage at Hradecek where he died.

Mr. Havel’s chance at power came in November 1989, eight days after the Berlin Wall fell.
A tentative dialogue had already started when the police broke up an officially sanctioned student demonstration on Nov. 17, beating many demonstrators and arresting others.
Two days later, Mr. Havel convened a meeting in the Magic Lantern, a Prague theater, and he and other dissidents established the Civic Forum. It called for the resignation of the leading Communists, investigation of the police action and the release of all political prisoners.
The next day, about 200,000 people took to the streets in Prague, the first of several demonstrations that ended Communist domination.

It was in the theater’s smoke-filled rooms that Mr. Havel mapped the strategy and proclamations that finally undermined Communist rule. “It was extraordinary the degree to which everything ultimately revolved around this one man,” wrote the historian Timothy Garton Ash, who was present.
“In almost all the forum’s major decisions and statements,” Mr. Garton Ash added, “he was the final arbiter, the one person who could somehow balance the very different tendencies and interests in the movement.”

 But critics said Mr. Havel, a self-professed reluctant leader, learned to like power a little too much. Many Czechs were also disappointed that he refused to outlaw the Communist Party or to put on trial the system that had allowed neighbors to send one another to labor camps.

In July 1992, as Czechoslovakia began to break up, Mr. Havel resigned as president rather than preside over the split. He spoke then of the difficult metamorphosis from philosopher to politician.
“Putting into practice the ideals to which I have adhered all my life, which guided me in the dissident years, becomes much more difficult in practical politics,” he said, before being later elected president of the new Czech Republic.

As soon as he came to power, Mr. Havel steered his country toward the West. On his first visit to the United States as president, in February 1990, Mr. Havel stressed that American financial aid was not as important as technical assistance to help his country — historically an industrial power — compete again in the international marketplace.

At home, Mr. Havel’s role evolved into one of educator and moral persuader. In weekly radio talks, he often addressed human rights, touching on issues that were delicate in Czech society. He championed, for instance, the rights of Gypsies, or Roma, despite surveys that showed that most Czechs would not want a Gypsy as a neighbor.

Early in his presidency, he also went against popular sentiment when he formed a commission to inquire into the expulsion of three million Sudeten Germans after World War II.
Political ideas, not economics, interested him. His country, widely considered to have made a smooth transition from Communism to market democracy, came in for his devastating critique in December 1997, when he attacked corruption and the sell-off of government-run industries in a thinly veiled barb at his political nemesis, the longtime prime minister — and now president — Vaclav Klaus.

Expressing disdain for what had happened to Czech society under Mr. Klaus — an ally of convenience in the days of the 1989 revolution — Mr. Havel told Parliament that a “post-Communist morass” had allowed “the most immoral people” to achieve financial success at the expense of others.

While many in the West worshiped Mr. Havel, in his native country he was regarded with deep affection but also ambivalence, and even scorn. His slogan during the revolution that truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred was mocked by foes, who accused him of naïveté. But he never lost his childlike idealism and would sign his name with a small heart.




In Philip Kaufman's surprisingly successful film adaptation of Czech author Milan Kundera's demanding 1984 best-seller, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Daniel Day-Lewis stars as Tomas, an overly amorous Prague surgeon, while Juliette Binoche plays Tereza, the waiflike beauty whom he marries. Even though he's supposedly committed, Tomas continues his wanton womanizing, notably with his silken mistress Sabina (Lena Olin). Escaping the 1968 Russian invasion of Prague by heading for Geneva, Sabina takes up with another man and unexpectedly develops a friendship with Tereza. Meanwhile, Tomas, who previously was interested only in sex, becomes politicized by the collapse of Czechoslovakia's Dubcek regime. The Unbearable Lightness of Being may be too leisurely for some viewers, but other viewers may feel the same warm sense of inner satisfaction that is felt after finishing a good, long novel.
 


Sometimes we are forced to choose between self-interest and the greater good. Under pressure at critical moments, we make choices that define who we become. People who remain silent when their government persecutes and imprisons those trying to peacefully reform it, not only make a regrettable choice for themselves; their decision is passed down to future generations. How remarkable it is then, when those who were persecuted, rise up and not only overcome tyranny through non-violence, but forgive those who abandoned them in the crucial moment. The Power of the Powerless, narrated by Academy Award winner Jeremy Irons, is a film that deals with this poignant subject by telling the inspiring real-life story of dissidents like the playwright, Vaclav Havel; the struggle against tyranny during the communist era in Czechoslovakia; and young people who provided the final impetus to bring down Czechoslovakia's communist regime during the Velvet Revolution of 1989. The film also investigates the relevance of the Velvet Revolution today and asks why a majority of young Czechs know nothing
about it.
 

Winner of the Best Director prize at the 2013 Berlin Film Festival, Barbara is a simmering, impeccably crafted Cold War thriller, starring the gifted Nina Hoss as a Berlin doctor banished to a rural East German hospital as punishment for applying for an exit visa. As her lover from the West carefully plots her escape, Barbara waits patiently and avoids friendships with her colleagues-except for Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld) the hospital's head physician, who is warmly attentive to her. But even as she finds herself falling for him, Barbara still cannot be sure that Andre is not a spy. As her defensive wall slowly starts to crumble, she is eventually forced to make a profound decision about her future. A film of glancing moments and dangerous secrets, Barbara paints a haunting picture of a woman being slowly crushed between the irreconcilable needs of desire and survival. Germany's official Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film.













No comments:

Post a comment