20 years under Putin: a timeline

On February 11 and 13, the Institute of Modern Russia organized two screenings of the documentary film They Chose Freedom. The screenings were followed by a discussion with Vladimir Bukovsky, one of the leading Soviet-era dissidents.


Screening in New York. Left to right: Rad Borislavov, Vladimir Kara-Murza, Vladimir Bukovsky.


On February 11, in New York City, the Institute of Modern Russia (IMR) and the Harriman Institute presented the documentary film They Chose Freedom. The second screening, organized by IMR in collaboration with Freedom House, took place a few days later, on February 13, in Washington, DC. IMR sponsored the translation and English-language production of the film, and, for the first time, it was presented to an English-language audience.

Special guests and speakers at the events included Vladimir Kara-Murza, IMR Senior Advisor and author of the film; Vladimir Bukovsky, writer, former Soviet dissident, and political prisoner; and representatives of IMR’s partners in New York and Washington: Rad Borislavov, faculty fellow at the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, Columbia University; and David Kramer, president of Freedom House.

The four-part documentary film They Chose Freedom tells a story of the dissident movement in the USSR from its emergence in the 1950s until the collapse of the Communist regime in 1991. It features interviews with prominent Soviet 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. According to Vladimir Kara-Murza, “The story of Soviet dissidents is one of the most inspirational and, ultimately, one of the most optimistic stories of the twentieth century. It is the story of a small group of people, 'armed' only with their consciences and their sense of dignity, which in the end proved stronger than a mighty totalitarian system with the world’s most developed machine of repression.”

The guests and speakers at the events shared the opinion that the screenings of They Chose Freedom were particularly timely and relevant. David Kramer argued that although many people like to say that “Russia today is not the Soviet Union,” the state’s current rollback of human rights and freedoms and increasing number of prosecutions and arrests of those criticizing the government reveal many similarities between the past and present. In Kara-Murza’s words, during a time “when Russia is once again ruled by a repressive authoritarian regime . . . it is more important than ever to hear and to heed the dissidents’ message.”

Vladimir Bukovsky, a legendary figure in the Russian democratic movement and one of the leading Soviet-era dissidents, pointed out that “unfortunately, the development went backwards in Russia, and suddenly our experience became relevant.” According to Bukovsky, today, many young people in Russia realize the importance of the experience of the Soviet dissidents: “I feel pleasure and pride, when [we are] call[ed] spiritual leaders and mentors. But it also pains me: I honestly hoped that their generation would have no need for that.” Bukovsky suggested that despite the multiple problems that exist in Russia, there have always been people in the country who will stand up for what matters to them—the people who have refused to remain silent. An example of this refusal is the December 2011 anti-government protests, during which some 120,000 rallied in Moscow.


Screening in Washington DC. Left to right: Vladimir Kara-Murza, Vladimir Bukovsky, David Kramer


The majority, however, prefer not to think of or remember the Soviet dissidents’ experience; this is “not a fashionable topic.” Moreover, as Vladimir Kara-Murza pointed out, “the heroes of the regime are the KGB people, rather than those who confronted them.” Not surprisingly, a film like They Chose Freedom is not shown on present-day Russian television.

According to Bukovsky, it is important that the new generation know the truth about the events that happened not that long ago in their country. In a number of countries such as Romania, Hungary, Poland, and Lithuania, efforts are made to increase public awareness of history, and summer courses on this subject are offered to young people. In Russia in general, however, many lessons of the dissident movement, the Soviet system, and the Cold War remain unlearned. Bukovsky believes this is true not only for Russia, but also for the West: “[The West] behave[s] toward Putin as they did toward Brezhnev: a typical appeasement, an attempt to find some agreement.”

In Bukovsky’s view, the Soviet dissidents “did not finish the job.” In many respects, the problem was that their efforts to persuade President Boris Yeltsin’s leadership to hold “a kind of Nuremberg Trial for the Communist system” did not produce the desired results. Consequently, there was “a return of some part of that Communist system, namely the KGB, to power.”

Bukovsky believes that there is no future for Russia's current regime; it is very unstable and may easily collapse. Much depends on Russian society: “If there is no strength in the society to end this regime, then the only option left will be a further fragmentation of the country.” At the same time, Bukovsky argued, today’s opposition has made a number of mistakes, one of which is the “obsession with the idea of creating a party.” In his view, “party politics is very bad for Russia now.” Instead, the opposition should develop a movement and focus its efforts on the regions, where the potential is quite significant.