“ Open up.”
It was a crisp March morning in Leningrad, 1988. The KGB had unlocked the door to Tim Gadaski’s communal flat and silently made their way through the corridor to his bedroom door. There, however, they were temporarily stopped in their tracks.
“Being on the slightly ‘underground side of things, I knew the rule that leave a key in the lock so it’s impossible to open.”
Why were the Soviet secret police outside Tim’s bedroom? The explanation could be found in a file named ‘Case 64’ which had landed on the desk of a man Viktor Cherkesov a few weeks earlier. Cherkesov, a functionary in the KGB’s 5th department, was tasked with pursuing dissidents and nonconformist thinkers in the U.S.S.R. He was investigating my father, Tim Gadaski.
As a young student at the University of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Tim had begun publishing a radical magazine. The magazine was called The Democratic Opposition. It was, for a time, the official weekly publication of a political party named The Democratic Union, the first party openly opposed to the regime for nearly seventy years. Together with his friends and co-editors Vladimir Yaremenko and Anna Jermolaewa, Tim set about distributing his magazine among Leningrad’s political ‘underground’. The magazine proved a big hit – the trio would bring 500 copies to Democratic Union party meetings on Saturday mornings and sell out within minutes.
In the week before the raid, the editors of The Democratic Opposition had decided to publish an audacious poem entitled Russia. In an incongruously upbeat tempo, the poem described Russia crying out for mercy while Lenin forced his ‘wrinkled member’ into her. It was a play on words which also works in English – ‘member’ denoting both a Communist Party cardholder and one’s manhood. Entire stanzas were devoted to Lenin boasting that his member, like he himself, was ‘great yet humble,’ ‘rivalled by no other member of the Central Committee,’ whilst knowing deep down it was in fact ‘small and thin.’ Where critics throughout the Soviet era had erred on the side of caution and stuck to using pointed references and ‘Aesopian language’ to curb the ‘pen of the censor,’ ‘Russia’ shed allegory in favour of crass symbolism and plain ridicule. For Tim and his fellow editors, it was a bold and defiant step into the darkness – especially where Lenin was involved, they were pushing ever further into the realm of the forbidden.
Just a few years earlier, no one would have dared to publish such subversive material. When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985, he promised change. The new government assured Russians that state censorship laws would be relaxed, and much lip service was paid to policies such as glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reconstruction). However, Gorbachev’s verbal promises were only translated into concrete legislation in 1990 with the hallmark ‘Law on the Press.’ In the interim years, dissidents like my father and his friends at The Democratic Opposition found themselves in a complex and incredibly unpredictable situation. It was evident that much of the apparatus of the Soviet police state remained the same. The old hands of the KGB were still just as determined to prosecute subversive activity; new functionaries such as Cherkesov, keen to rise up the ranks, were equally willing to punish dissidents. Many of my father’s friends spent nights in the rat-infested cells of the infamous Bolshoy Dom (The Big House), the KGB headquarters by the Neva River. The secret police complex was jokingly referred to as the tallest building in Leningrad because it was rumoured to extend so far underground.
And so, the latter years of the 1980s were in many ways just as uncertain as those which followed the Soviet Union’s collapse. There was a strange dissonance between the Kremlin’s messages to the Russian people and the actions of the KGB – it was not clear what the law really was, a terrifying and arbitrarily violent experience for all those subjected to it. The peculiar limbo in which the U.S.S.R. now found itself is perfectly embodied in the absurd pantomime which was played out at the weekly meetings held by The Democratic Union in Kazan Cathedral Square, in the centre of Leningrad. There, in the shadow of two gigantic busts of the generals Kutuzov and Barclay de Tolly, heroes from the Napoleonic wars, my father would join a ragtag group of Democratic Union organisers to discuss democracy.
“These meetings would eventually be dispersed. First the police would come, and they would be told to get off whichever high point they were stood on. So, they would climb on the sculptures and shout, and the police would climb after them and try to drag them off. This would then all be photographed and published the next day in samizdat [illegally self-published dissident literature]. It might even be reported by some Western radio stations, like the BBC, Voice of America or Radio Free Europe. These we tried to listen to.”
It was not just the Soviet Union’s authorities which were struggling to find their feet in the world of pronounced glasnost. Its citizens were also working out how to negotiate this new landscape of limited freedom of expression. As Vladimir, the author of the poem “Russia” recalls:
“At the Democratic Union party meetings, we discussed principles. I said we needed to destroy the system altogether, that we needed to create a completely new system. But aside from Tim and Anna, the majority of people disagreed. They promoted the notion that it was only reform we needed, that socialism – communism – was a great theory which simply had not been realised correctly; and we could find ‘socialism with a human face’. The undercover KGB agents in the room supported this We, however, believed reform was impossible.”
This difference in opinion between The Democratic Opposition’s editors and the Democratic Union’s membership on how to go forward was the single most important question concerning anti-Soviet activism at the time. The dilemma could often be encapsulated by one dividing line: the enduring discussion around Lenin.
“Within the Democratic Union party there were still many people, the majority even, arguing that Leninist ideas had been distorted,” Tim tells me. “It wasn’t far away from the official doctrine; Lenin was good, it was only Stalin who was bad. It was he who distorted and perverted everything, and all we need to do is return to Lenin, the truth of Marx, and this would restore ideological purity, and so on.”
It was a dispute which had been raging since the Stalin years and indeed has still not been resolved in the present day. A popular joke during Stalin’s era went: “Why did Lenin wear shoes, but Stalin wears jackboots? Because Lenin knew where he was going!” Nowadays, one can still find a Lenin statue in almost any city in the former Soviet Union, but Stalin is a rare sight. In March of this year, the German Marxist-Leninist Party won a court case to place a statue of Lenin outside its headquarters, the first of its kind in western Germany. In Ukraine, on the other hand, a campaign is still ongoing after several years to rid the country of all remaining monuments to the Soviet leader. Such is Lenin’s legacy.
The attitudes Tim, Anna and Vladimir held towards Lenin did not win them many friends in the Democratic Union party.
“They hated us,” says Vladimir. “There was one undercover KGB agent named Yuly Rybakov. He was the first to demand that I be expelled from the party after the publication of my article “The Name of a Corpse”, in which I suggested that Leningrad be renamed St. Petersburg and Moscow be named Leningrad, as that was where Lenin’s corpse lay. After the publication of my poem “Russia”, they called us to a party meeting and forced me read it aloud. Lots of people laughed and clapped, but one girl named Katya Molostvova went berserk; she tried to attack me, but Tim held her back. So instead she spat at me. Her dad was a former political prisoner, a devout Marxist-Leninist. He believed Lenin was good and that Stalin had spoiled everything. There were others who wanted to beat us up too, so we were forced to leave. In our absence, they voted to expel us from the party.”
There was a happy ending to the story, however. Katya fell in love with Yuly, the alleged KGB agent, and they later got married. Vladimir chuckles and with a glint in his eye adds that Yuly Rybakov would go on to serve three terms as a member of the Russian State Duma after the Soviet Union’s collapse.
As the KGB agents slammed their shoulders against his bedroom door, Tim Gadaski’s mind was racing. Although he had been asleep only a few minutes earlier, he knew that they were here because of The Democratic Opposition. Luckily, he lived in an old house, and in the corner of his room was a wood-burner. He shoved the most offensive copies of the magazine into the stove, and set his publication alight. Having smelt the smoke from the fire, the agents commandeered an axe from his neighbour’s flat and began hacking down the door.
“I knew it wouldn’t last long. I was frozen. I was twenty-one years old and I didn’t have much experience. But I’d burnt the things I wanted to burn – primarily the issue with the “Russia” poem. I opened up and in they came.”
Although the editors defiantly continued to publish The Democratic Opposition in the weeks after the raid, the authorities soon returned. This time they confiscated typewriters and printing materials from all three editors’ apartments.
“Our flat was thirty-five square meters, and yet the search lasted ten hours,” Anna recalls. “They took all the materials related to The Democratic Union, the magazine, and many of my artworks. I have not seen them since, despite our official requests for them to be returned years after the case was closed.”
The KGB didn’t stop there. For months after the raids Tim, Vladimir and Anna were hounded around Leningrad by the secret police. They were pulled in for arbitrary interrogations and often only escaped trial by the skin of their teeth.
“I remember how they used to follow us,” laughs Vladimir, who now lives in Austria. “I’d take my dog out for a walk in the morning and there’d already be two agents standing there, who would follow me wherever I went with my dog.”
The KGB’s tactics eventually paid off and the The Democratic Opposition went out of print. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the trio of editors found out that the only reason they had not ended up behind bars was that in the time it took for their case to be processed, the U.S.S.R. had already collapsed.
Many years later, at a party in Vladimir and Anna’s flat, a guest who had been invited by a friend, drunk on vodka, inadvertently confessed to knowing the history of the flat very well indeed. He bemusedly asked whether they had found all the listening devices yet.
In those tempestuous years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, despite all of Gorbachev’s promises, with the benefit of hindsight it is easy to forget that things could have gone very differently. It is only the ghost of Fukuyama who still believes that the Soviet Union was bound to collapse once it set off on a path of reform and concession. Almost a century of oppression had taught Russians better than to presume change would come; many felt that the reactionary forces in the Communist Party could return at any moment and clamp down on the little freedom which had been granted. As Viktor Tsoi, the now immortal lead singer of Leningrad’s up-and-coming rock band Kino, opened his song Change! (1989), “Instead of warmth – the green of glass / Instead of fire – smoke.”
Little did the editors of The Democratic Opposition know, as the KGB sifted through their belongings, that the labour camp ‘Perm-36’ had still been accepting new inmates until a few months earlier. Like Alexander Solzhenitsyn and millions of others, they were charged with ‘anti-Soviet propaganda,’ the infamous Article 70 of the Soviet Union’s criminal code. This would have landed them between five and seven years in the camp. What’s more, their nemesis Cherkesov, the apparatchik behind the relentless harassment and intimidation, was notorious for his harsh sentencing. They were fortunate not to feel the full force of Article 70. It had cost millions their lives. This, however, was the last time it was ever used.
While recently living in Russia, I paid a visit to the site of Perm-36. As I walked through the uninsulated barracks where many prisoners had died in their sleep from hypothermia and exhaustion, through the fields where the enemies of the state had shovelled dirt for the final time in December 1987, I thought of my father. To think that he had come so close to being incarcerated here – potentially for an indefinite period of time, like so many political prisoners – sent shivers down my spine. fallen, I site of Perm-36. This story could have had a very different ending.
Now when the editors of The Democratic Opposition recall the lengths they went to publish their magazine, there is one prevailing idea which runs through all their stories: hope. Theirs was a forward-looking time, when a new generation prayed for something to change so that they would not relive the tribulations their parents had faced. Perhaps the last time Russians had felt this way on the same scale was seventy years prior, when it was Lenin who was galvanising forces against a tired autocratic regime. Yet what followed in both cases was certainly not what many of the idealists had in mind.
The passing of Lenin’s 150th birthday last month led to much rumination within Russia and beyond on his legacy. It is the more unfortunate aspects of his rule which appear to be the most durable. Institutions, methods, and figures from the Soviet era still control Russia . It is the unexpected similarity between Lenin’s Russia in 1917 and my father’s Russia in 1988, however, that separates them from The hope of their eras has been lost.