From Pussy Riot’s ”Punk Prayer” to performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky’s scrotum nailing , we’ve had more than a few tell-tale signs that Russian authorities are not comfortable blurring the lines between art and political activism. But these examples are just the latest in a tradition that began long ago.
We were no heroes. We just found the force, at a particular time, to act according to our conscience.
In Moscow’s Red Square , eight people gathered to protest the invasion, and among them, holding her 3-month-old baby, was a writer named Natalia Gorbanévskaya.
Protesting was daring enough, but when she unrolled a banner that read “For your freedom and ours,” she expressed her solidarity with Prague’s citizens and became an international symbol of the fight for freedom under Soviet rule.
Seven of the protesters were arrested, beaten and put on trial, but Gorbanévskaya escaped detainment as a mother of two young boys. This wouldn’t be her last brush with Soviet authorities, though, because rather than keep her head down, she reported on the proceedings and continued campaigning for her friends.
Gorbanévskaya was expelled from university for her political activism, but she found refuge from the suffocating Soviet environment by using her words to tell the story of a generation torn between their inner ideals of freedom and their reality of repression.
To denounce the state’s system of institutionalized fear, she co-founded and wrote for the Chronicle of Current Events , a clandestine publication dedicated to human rights. Her articles got her arrested in 1969.
Soviet authorities diagnosed Gorbanévskaya with “continuous sluggish schizophrenia” after her arrest, confining her to a prison’s psychiatric hospital for three years. She refused to talk about the abuse she endured, choosing instead to exorcise her demons through poetry:
It’s good when the breathing in the next room
is my sons’ and not a cell-mate’s;
it’s good to wake up, not groaning
at an envenomed reality.
Institutionalizing Gorbanévskaya did little to stifle her message; if anything, it propelled her story into the international consciousness. Her book about the demonstration and trial was published in the West as Red Square at Noon , and she was immortalized in Joan Baez’s ” Natalia .”
“I am convinced that if you and I are still alive and can walk the earth, it’s because of people like Natalia Gorbanévskaya,” the folk singer said.
Three years after her release from the hospital, death threats forced her out of Russia to Paris, where she continued her work as a poet, journalist and rights activist until she died in November at age 77. Just before her death, she visited Russia to mark the 45th anniversary of her fateful demonstration and stood once again in Moscow’s Red Square. Unbelievably, history repeated itself when Russian authorities broke up the protest and detained 10 of the activists for holding an unsanctioned rally. As before, she was excluded from detainment.
I am convinced that if you and I are still alive and can walk the earth it’s because of people like Natalia Gorbanévskaya.
Russia’s authoritarian attitudes toward artistic protest are what continue to make Gorbanévskaya relevant today. Nadejda Atayeva, president of the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, remembers Gorbanévskaya as a source of inspiration. “She was a person of principle who knew how to defend a position,” she said, adding, ”She passed her confidence on to us.”
Likewise, Alexander Cherkasov, the prominent human rights campaigner for Chechnya and chair of the “Memorial” Human Rights Center, remembers her as “a wonderful person” and explains that “back then, as even perhaps in part now, opposition to the regime was aesthetic in style. It was poets and artists who protested even before the emergence of a human rights movement.”
Above all, Gorbanévskaya saw her activism as a way of speaking truth to power.
She passed her confidence on to us.
“One must begin by postulating that truth is needed for its own sake and no other reason,” she wrote.
In exchange for that truth, she was arrested, tortured and forced into exile. But her efforts weren’t in vain. Her courage brought hope to others and made way for the establishment, in 1972, of the Index on Censorship , an organization that promotes freedom of expression worldwide (it launched its first publication with a series of Gorbanévskaya’s poems).
When asked if she saw herself first as a poet or as a protester, Gorbanévskaya replied, “I am who I am.”
Who she was is an example of remarkable courage, and her legacy lives in her fellow artists who continue her fight for truth.
Why you should care
Because she taught us to resist repression and speak truth to power, no matter what the cost, and her legacy continues to influence artistic activism today.