I have thought about the great Russian dissident and human rights activist Valeriya Novodvorskaya almost every day since her “untimely” death earlier this summer. The quotation marks around untimely are not meant speciously. Strictly speaking every death is untimely in the sense of being untimed, if not also badly timed. Yet Novodvorskaya’s sudden demise at the age of 63 in a Moscow hospital—of toxic shock syndrome, caused by her chronic health problems—was exceptionally inopportune. The outsized influence and adulation-worthy levels of reverence she and her astringent honesty enjoyed among Russian liberals is difficult to relate to non-Russian speakers.
Commencing her life as a suicidally brave dissident against Soviet power, she was a moralist in the grand Russian intelligentsia tradition. By force of circumstances she had fashioned herself from an early age into a garrulous thorn in the side of Soviet authority. Her implacable critique was sustained after the Soviet Union’s collapse. She would become one of Russia’s most impassioned and fiercest critics of the malignant effects of Vladimir Putin’s rule on its nascent civil society. Her life was emblematic of the experiences of the 1970s and ’80s generation of Soviet dissidents, and her passing marks the definitive end of an era as her generation passes into memory. The wildly contrary reactions her death elicited from various sectors of the Russian public also had the unfortunate outcome of proving prescient her dark prophecies regarding the metastasis of Putinism within the body politic.
Born in the provincial Belorussian town of Baranovichi to a doctor mother and an engineer father, Novodvorskaya first came to blows with authority at the age of 19. Learning of the existence of the gulags, she protested the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia by distributing leaflets inside the Kremlin that criticized the Soviet invasion through poetry: ‘’Thank you, the Communist Party for our bitterness and despair, for our shameful silence, thank you the Party!” The subsequent arrest led to two years of incarceration in a Kazan psychiatric ward with a diagnosis of that peculiarly Communist mental health problem: “sluggish schizophrenia.” Those embryonic experiences of rebellion would set the tone of the rest of her life as a bulwark of the liberal democratic opposition.
Upon her release and return from exile to Moscow (in itself an echo of the experiences of generations of anti-Tsarist revolutionaries) she became involved in every sort of dissident activity imaginable, ranging from mimeographing Samizdat to organizing secret meetings and fledgling democratic parties. More than a dozen arrests followed and led to three or four major prosecutions for “anti-Soviet activity.” The judicial persecution and prosecutions continued well into Perestroika, though with markedly less severe results. During the 1990s she charged onward with characteristically incendiary criticism of the fashion in which Russia waged the Chechen wars. She was likewise brutal on the matter of Yeltsin’s cringeworthy incompetence and buffoonery as well as the economic shock therapy reforms that caused misery for millions of Russians. She became involved in forming several left-liberal political parties and lost several Duma elections in a row.
Yet no compilation of her dissident activities or list of the numerous causes to which she lent her acerbic wit and pen can elucidate her personal attractiveness. Tenaciously nerdy, she had a bashful smile and a kindly cherubic face. It was enclosed by a pair of rectangular librarian spectacles as thick as telescopes. She enjoyed telling the story of an ancestor who was a knight errant serving the Polish crown with the Order of Malta. A paragon of bookish charms, the power of her writing and speaking style lay in an interplay between sententious formality and sprightly blunt vernacular—an odd parallel inversion of Putin’s own speech patterns: gangster argot tempered by law school legalese.
Novodvorskaya’s somewhat libertarian-inflected brand of liberalism was of a kind calculated to upbraid and discomfit a certain kind of complacent Western liberal. She had no compunction, for example—and saw no contradiction with her militant feminism—with denouncing Muslim women for wearing garbage bags over their heads. She saw tragedy as a normal state of affairs in Russian history and was not a person who encouraged the worship of plaster saints. Her last published article took as its subject the life and work of Isaac Babel. “Evil charmed him,” she concluded.
No one could accuse Novodvorskaya of being charmed, although there was something charming about the unadorned nature of her presentation of a world in which evil warred with good. The hundreds of badly lit and ruminative YouTube videos that she produced debating the issues with her comrade in arms Constantin Borovoi were an updating of the late-night dissident kitchen arguments of her youth for the Internet age. These were often predicated on quirky, even surreal premises, such as when she appealed directly to the Russian-backed rebel separatists in the industrial eastern Donbass region. “Dear Donbass separatists,” she chided, patiently trying to explain that they were being used for nefarious purposes by the Kremlin. “Do you know who Putin is?” she inquired of them. “He is a beast, he is a Stalinist, he was spawned from gloom, he is from Mordor, he is the real Sauron!” The alignment of plainspoken verbal felicity with rhetorical prowess and an irreproachably high standard of rectitude was the reason she got away with saying what she did without sounding histrionic.
Her inability to enter parliament was in itself a reproach to the theoretical capacity for democratic self-governance of a people ostensibly renowned for moral seriousness. “How is it,” a Siberian-born Jew who had immigrated to Odessa in the early ’90s asked me, “that clowns like Vitaly Milonov and Vladimir Zhirinovsky can be elected to the Duma when truly great people like V. stand no chance?” After she died (the funeral was an immensely moving affair attended by thousands) the agonistic clash over her legacy was contested in the modern-day coliseum of the social networks. Liberals traversing the breadth of the Soviet Union’s 15 republics and the Russophone Diaspora wrote majestic paeans to the moral greatness of Russia’s modern-day “Don Quixote.” Former member of the Duma Vladimir Ryzhkov charted the genealogical roots of her role to the dissident tradition of “Radishchev, the Decembrists, Pyotr Chaadayev, Vissarion Belinsky, Alexander Herzen, Nikolai Ogarev, Nikolai Chernyshevsky, Georgy Plekhanov, Vladimir Lenin, who at times listed his occupation as ‘writer,’ Andrei Sakharov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.” Mikhail Iossel, a professor of English at Concordia University in Montreal wrote online that: “she was, simply put, the bravest person in Russia.”
That other commentators were not as gracious was to be expected. Novodvorskaya had badgered and shamed Russians for their unabashed complicity and brackish collusion with reactionary forces for two decades. She had been brazen in equating the current regime with that of Soviet authority. The methods and mentalities of the regime were a direct continuation of Soviet rule, she repeated over and over. To its credit, President Putin’s office issued a disingenuous avowal of condolence despite the fact that Novodvorskaya never skirted an opportunity to denounce him as a revanchist dictator. “In any case,” she intoned in one of her final articles, “the current crop of Chekists are also sadists, no less than the previous ones. Those who captured the Romanov’s purse and palaces were never satisfied, and so began slashing and choking while building their ‘heavenly kingdom.’ ”
It was not an unusual occurrence in tuning in to listen to the live calls on her radio program, to hear some quasi illiterate “patriot” begin showering her with expletives and anti-Semitic abuse. For many nationalists she was the personification of the “treasonous intelligentsia elite.” Still, the sheer might of the vitriolic outpouring that accompanied her death was bracing. In the chat rooms, the Internet forums, the newspapers, and to a certain extent on national television, a frightening wave of jingoistic resentment and rage was being mobilized. There was the grotesque mockery of her famed celibacy (she died an outspoken virgin, married to the cause like a nun). Others denounced her as a traitor and made fun of her physique. In fact, some of the condemnations were so chauvinistic and vile that the renowned Moscow conceptualist poet Lev Rubinstein was forced to issue a damningly eloquent denunciation of such people’s values and conception of heroism:
Such people [as Novodvorskaya] bring mirth and agitation to fools. For fools, a hero is some kind of grim, camouflage clad scarecrow, festooned with military ribbons and strings of tigers’ teeth. The Juvenile teenage mentality of a large segment of the Russian population understands heroism only through the external attributes of adolescent posturing: a shiv with an ornate handle in hand, an ominous stare, slow menacing speech, spiting like a sniper’s shot through clenched teeth. But a short-sighted elderly teacher they despise with all their rotten souls. They openly laugh at her and make obscene gestures with impunity right under her nose.
Here apart from anything else was evidence that the spring culmination of the Maidan square revolts with the annexation of the Crimean peninsula had thoroughly radicalized the Russian population. In around March of 2014, the Russian character changed. Logging onto Facebook or Twitter, Skyping with Russian friends or calling relatives in Moscow one began noticing an odd transfiguration brewing in the atmosphere. Russian friends, colleagues, and distant relatives in Moscow and St. Petersburg, as well as casual acquaintances of Russia’s fabled creative class, were suddenly frothing at the mouth about “marauding fascists” and the right sector. These were educated middle-class people, skeptical of the government and of Russian TV—the people that one had formerly considered the sane and principled core of progressive civil society. Now some kind of nationalist fervor had taken hold of them as they celebrated the rescue of Crimea from the clutches of a cabal of Ukrainian bogeymen.
If on occasion her reflexive dissident critique shaded into conspiracy theorizing, this was done in the service of unmasking the conspiratorial style that had come to dominate contemporary Russian political life. In a country where “political technologists” concocted sham political parties and precipitated revolutionary advances in the art of “information warfare,” her uncompromising honesty constituted a radical palliative. She was the first major Russian intellectual to publicly ascribe to government involvement in the plane crash in Katyn, Smolensk, that killed the Polish presidential delegation and immolated the cream of the Polish ruling elite. It was something that one could not avoid thinking about five days after her death when the Donbass separatists brought down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. The timing of her death left many liberals grappling to comprehend how it could have happened in the middle of the current crisis. It felt like we had lost a relative rather than an outspokenly cheeky political pundit. Disbelief caused many to turn to their own conspiracy theories as an explanation. “How could she possibly die now?” was the governing impulse. At least five Russian and Ukrainian liberals that I spoke with about her death that week ascribed it to a conspiracy. “They finally killed her,” they said.
Novodvorskaya kept hectoring us about a return to Stalinism and a recurrence of popular cultic worship of “the great leader.” Now, three months after her death Russians are engaged in an orgy of slavish celebrating of Putin’s birthday. The raising and toppling of statue—with all iconoclastic and idolatrous implications—has played a great role in this crisis. Two weeks ago, a jubilant Pro-Ukrainian crowd in Kharkiv replicated the act of iconoclasm held in Kiev in December (hundreds of Lenin statues have been torn down in the last 8 months). It is ironic, then, that the first monument to the living embodiment of the Russian intelligentsia will be erected in Ukraine rather than Russia: Last month, a consortium of young lawyers from the Odessa bar association secured permission from the city and began collecting funds to erect a statue to Novodvorskaya’s memory.
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Vladislav Davidzon, the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review, is a Russian-American writer, translator, and critic. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.
Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Russian American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.