On December 4, Natalia Gorbanevskaya was read her last rites at the Russian Orthodox Church of the Presentation of the Virgin Mary in the Temple and buried at the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Gorbanevskaya—poet, translator, human rights activist, first editor of the Chronicle of Current Events, participant in the August 1968 Red Square demonstration—died on November 29 at the age of 77. In 2005, she took part in the filming of Vladimir Kara-Murza’s documentary film They Chose Freedom. Below are excerpts from her interview.



On samizdat and the Chronicle of Current Events:

For me, the samizdat began in the mid-1950s, when poets and poems began to appear that we, my generation, either did not know at all or knew very little—even the poems that had been published a long time ago but then disappeared. We gave each other these poems. Those who had typewriters retyped them. I think a very radical step in this poetic samizdat was Alexander Ginzburg’s journal Syntaxis. He collected the poems of young poets who were not (or almost not) being published and published three issues of Syntaxis, with ten poets in each. In the third issue, published in Leningrad, Joseph Brodsky was published for the first time. Later, in the West, Brodsky would always say: “This is Alexander Ginzburg, my first publisher.” I joined Ginzburg, retyped these journals several times at his home. My own poems were supposed to appear in the fourth issue of Syntaxis, which was not published because Ginzburg was arrested.

At that time, a lot of information began to appear. First, we learned that there were large political prison camps, that there were tens of thousands of political prisoners in the Soviet Union—not just a few dozen people, as we had thought. Information on prison camps, on trials, on extrajudicial persecution, on open letters began to accumulate, and there was talk that we should start publishing something regular, something systematic. It happened that I went on maternity leave in March 1968—I was expecting my second son—and I decided that it was time to try to publish this information bulletin. And on April 30, the first issue of the Chronicle of Current Events was published. The first issue was small, twenty-something pages on a typewriter. I made seven copies. I gave six of them away and kept the seventh to make new copies from it.

It was very important that, from the outset, we decided not to give opinions. We provided information—it was up to the readers to form opinions. There were very few digressions from this principle, and they were always pointed out by us. That is why the Chronicle attracted people. It was not propaganda; it was information. It was the truth that you couldn’t find in Soviet newspapers.

“For me . . . the demonstration and the beginning of the publication of the Chronicle of Current Events . . . are incommensurable. I believe that I did a much more important thing when I began publishing the Chronicle.”

The demonstration against the invasion of Czechoslovakia was, of course, an important turning point in my life and in the lives of my friends, but for me, these two events—the demonstration and the beginning of the publication of the Chronicle of Current Events—are incommensurable. I believe that I did a much more important thing when I began publishing the Chronicle.


On Soviet punitive psychiatry:

This was a psychiatric prison; all the regulations were the same as they would be in a regular prison. And then there was also “treatment.” Some medicines did not exist in 1960 or in 1963—for example, a medicine called haloperidol. Vladimir Bukovsky, when he was in a psychiatric prison, was not treated with haloperidol. I was. This is a medicine to combat hallucinations, to combat “voices”—that is, auditory hallucinations—and delirium. In a normal clinic, a patient is given this medicine for a month, and then the doctors assess whether it has worked. This medicine has a side effect that made it so valuable to punitive psychiatry—it causes the same symptoms as Parkinson’s disease.

Again, in a regular psychiatric hospital, haloperidol is given together with corrector medicines, which remove those symptoms. How did I receive haloperidol? First of all, [I spent] all my time in the psychiatric prison, and then four months in the Serbsky Institute, without any assessment periods, without checks on whether [haloperidol] had removed “voices,” hallucinations, and delirium. But I did not have “voices” or hallucinations in my anamnesis, and if psychiatrists considered my views to be “delirium,” they did not cure this “delirium.”



As for the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and corrector medicines, because there was a chronic deficit of everything in our country, there was no deficit of haloperidol, but there was a deficit of corrector medicines. And in Kazan, neither I nor other political prisoners who were being given haloperidol were given corrector medicines. I did not have trembling hands, [but] I had other symptoms of haloperidol: the feeling of being tied and shackled, as if I had chains on me. When I went to walk—we had courtyards on the ground, not on the roof, as in Butyrka [Prison]—we had two hours, and I spent the first hour running, trying to throw off these chains.

It was impossible to concentrate. I would begin to read, I would read to the end of a page, and I would not remember what was at the beginning of that page.

Every morning you test yourself: Have you already lost your mind, or not yet? Needless to say, the very fact of asking yourself this question every morning weakens your mental health. Are you still healthy or not? Maybe you’ve already begun to lose it but haven’t noticed? I was constantly tortured by one thought—How long will I stay here? Because when you are sent to a prison camp, you have a sentence. But there is no sentence for “treatment.” When will I be released? More importantly, what will I be when I am released? When I do regain my freedom, will I be able to understand that it is freedom? Will I know the difference between freedom and prison?

“Freedom, conscience, and responsibility—these were the foundations of everything we did.”

[The poet and mathematician] Alexander Yessenin-Volpin once asked me: “So, you spent two years and two months [in psychiatric prisons]. Would you exchange that for three years in prison camp?” I said, “Alik, not just for three—for seven.” God forbid anyone else repeat this experience—not even those who tortured me.


On the August 25, 1968, demonstration and the human rights movement:

On August 21, I felt that I could not react to this otherwise: I had to go out and publicly demonstrate that I was against [the invasion]. I think all of us had somewhat similar motives.

A nation minus even one person is no longer an entire nation. A nation minus me is not an entire nation. A nation minus ten, a hundred, a thousand people is not an entire nation. So they could no longer say that there was nationwide approval [for the invasion of Czechoslovakia].

For me—and maybe for others too, I cannot speak for them—going to that demonstration was a selfish move: I wanted to have a clean conscience.

Our goal was freedom. Our freedom. But without forgetting such things as conscience and responsibility. Freedom, conscience, and responsibility—these were the foundations of everything we did.

May God forgive me, I was never an optimist; I was almost certain that I would not live to see the fall of communism. And I am very happy that I was mistaken. I think that some small contribution toward this was made by me and by all of us.