27 February 2024

Natalya Gorbanevskaya RIP

It may seem odd to write two obituaries in a row, but by a strange coincidence, Daniel Weissbort's death was followed less than two weeks later by the death of the former Soviet dissident and Russian poet, Natalya Gorbanevskaya, who inspired some of his best translations. They were both members of my generation, and while I'm getting used to bad news of this nature, it's always a shock to lose friends with whom you've had a shared history.

Natasha was one of eight brave individuals who risked the wrath of the Soviet government to demonstrate in Red Square against the invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. Having recently given birth to a son, she escaped the arrest and trial of her seven comrades and instead reported on the trial's progress in great detail in samizdat. This led her, together with fellow dissident, Lyudmila Alexeyeva, to found the influential underground journal, Chronicle of Current Events, which was renowned for its accuracy and objectivity (and we shouldn't forget the courage and the huge contribution of women to the Soviet dissident movement).

After closely covering the trial of her fellow demonstrators in the Chronicle Natasha self-published" a collection of her articles, with relevant documents, in a samizdat book called simply Noon, which was published abroad as Red Square at Noon. This quickly led to her own arrest, but instead of being tried, she was subjected to a particularly nasty form of retribution reserved by the Soviet authorities for dissidents. She was consigned to a psikhushka (madhouse), politely known as a psychiatric hospital. For the revolting details of how these affected sane people, see To Build a Castle by another victim, Vladimir Bukovsky, now available as an eBook, which I translated into English in 1978. Bukovsky now lives in England, by the way.

Come to think of it, Natasha probably affected my life in a way I never thought about till now (and she certainly never suspected), because I think it must have been her Chronicle that inspired two other Red Square demonstrators, Pavel Litvinov and Larisa Bogoraz, to send an appeal to Stephen Spender and other intellectuals in the west to found an organization that would follow and publicize persecutions of artists and intellectuals not only in the Soviet Union, but in other countries with repressive regimes elsewhere in the world. I was the first director of the new organization and my first major decision was to start Index on Censorship, a journal with a different character from Natasha's Chronicle, but inspired by a similar philosophy.

I got to meet Natasha after she emigrated to Paris in 1975, but didn't know her well. I was surprised the first time we met by how diminutive she was. Short and slim, with tousled hair and dark-framed glasses, she was nothing like the image I had formed of her as a kind of revolutionary amazon, storming the barricades of a dictatorial regime. She displayed a matter-of-factness and lack of pretentiousness (qualities not always found in her fellow dissidents) that indicated a true modesty, but she was also a firebrand. She was a true heroine: a courageous defender of human rights and a moral leader. Perhaps  the best tribute to her uncompromising honesty came last August when she and a small group of other surviving dissidents returned to Red Square to celebrate the 45th anniversary of their original protest, and  were arrested by Putin's gendarmes for holding a rally without a permit.