20 years under Putin: a timeline

On March 24, the Institute of Modern Russia and the Legatum Institute co-hosted the London screening of They Chose Freedom, a documentary film on the Soviet dissident movement. The panelists, who included the legendary Soviet-era dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, discussed both the history and the present-day challenges of standing up for human rights and freedom in Russia.


Left to right: Vladimir Kara-Murza, Anne Applebaum, Vladimir Bukovsky.


The London event was the first public screening of They Chose Freedom in Western Europe. The documentary, written and produced by Vladimir Kara-Murza, tells the story of the dissident movement in the USSR from its emergence in the 1950s until the collapse of the Soviet dictatorship in 1991. It is narrated primarily through interviews with prominent Russian dissidents: Elena Bonner, Vladimir Bukovsky, Vladimir Dremlyuga, Viktor Fainberg, Natalia Gorbanevskaya, Naum Korzhavin, Sergei Kovalev, Eduard Kuznetsov, Pavel Litvinov, Yuri Orlov, Alexander Podrabinek, Anatoly (Natan) Sharansky, and Alexander Yesenin-Volpin. The Institute of Modern Russia sponsored the translation and English-language production of They Chose Freedom as part of its commitment to preserving the legacy of those who have dedicated their lives to the struggle for freedom, human rights, and the rule of law in Russia.

The discussion, moderated by Anne Applebaum, director of the Transitions Forum at the Legatum Institute and an eminent historian of the Soviet Gulag, featured the film’s author, IMR senior advisor Vladimir Kara-Murza, and the legendary Russian dissident and writer Vladimir Bukovsky, who spent 12 years behind bars for his “anti-Soviet activities” before being forcibly expelled to the West in 1976.

“Dissidents fought against the lies and injustice of the Soviet regime in the face of prisons, labor camps, and psychiatric torture, knowing that five minutes of publicly demonstrating in the square would cost them years behind the walls of the Gulag,” Kara-Murza said when introducing his film. “They were the people who saved the honor of the Russian nation while the majority remained silent. . . . Today, as Russia once again lives under authoritarian rule, as the Kremlin is once again sending its troops to other countries, and as Soviet-era lies, censorship, and repression have returned as official policy, it is more important than ever to hear and to heed their message.”



While affirming the similarities between the Soviet system and the current Kremlin regime, the panelists also pointed to important differences between the two. “The Soviet media was stupid and boring, very easy to understand and ignore,” Applebaum noted. “[The] contemporary Russian [government’s] use of the media is very sophisticated. Putin often tries to absorb his critics and reuse some of their arguments himself.”

“It was in a sense easier for us,” concurred Vladimir Bukovsky. “When monopoly on truth is absolute, one word becomes a weapon. By standing up and saying something publicly, you can actually defeat [the regime]. Today, when we have the sophistication of propaganda, the multiple voices confuse people. We were not creating mass movements; we were two or three thousand people across the Soviet Union. And that was enough for our purposes. The current regime, being authoritarian rather than totalitarian, cannot be defeated by a small group of people. Today, you need mass movements.”

“Russia is a strange country,” he continued. “It’s always a horrible political system [there]. But at the end of the day, there are plenty of people who will stand up and fight against it. That is something that never ceases to amaze me.”

One of the guests at the event, referring to Kara-Murza’s assertion that Soviet-era dissidents were “saving the honor of the Russian nation,” asked if there are people today who are saving the honor of Russia. “Plenty,” Applebaum responded, pointing to the recent mass rally in Moscow against Vladimir Putin’s policy in Ukraine as an example.

The audio recording of the discussion is available here.