Prayer for the soul of Natalya Gorbanevskaya by Fr. Meerson-Aksyonov at Christ the Savior Church.
On December 7, on the 9th day after her death, a memorial service was held for the Soviet-era dissident poet Natalya Gorbanevskaya, famous for having joined 7 other brave men and women in a short-lived demonstration on Red Square in 1968 to protest the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia that led to their arrest and exile.
Natasha was pushing a baby carriage that day at noon with her three-month old infant son. Because of her two sons she was spared jail,but then later put forcibly in a psychiatric hospital, which led to an outcry in the West, and even a song in her honor by Joan Baez.
Now we are fortunate finally to have a song in Russian by one of her own people, Vasily Kolchenko, an emigre bard in New York City.
The service took place at the Church of Christ Our Saviour, which is on E. 71st Street in a small building, part of which is rented out to a gym to help pay the rent.
The priest is Fr. Mikhail Meerson-Aksyonov, himself a dissident who supported the Soviet dissidents for many years. I was glad to see he was still thriving. I remember him from the Sakharov Hearings in Congress in 1979 when I worked at Freedom House, and various funerals over the years, including for the mother of Ludmila Alexeyeva. In 1986, Fr. Mikhail sang the prayer of the dead for my ex-husband's brother, Mikhail Shatravka, who disappeared during a short leave from a psychiatric hospital, where he had been pumped full of debilitating drugs, and was later found dead in the steppe in a home-made shalash (lean-to), having died of exposure in the cold. He was one of many people whose health or even lives were lost to the terrible abuse of psychiatry for political purposes by the Soviet government.
At this modest little Russian church, there were two women to sing the vigil beautifully, and then the prayers for the soul of Natasha. Most of the service is sung, with periodic walks to kiss the icons. As you know, you stand during Russian Orthodox church services. But at this church, there are a few chairs at the side for the infirm or the non-religious.
Vladimir Kozlovsky has written up the story very vividly for BBC Russian Service, particularly noting Father Misha's homily, where he talked about his 35 years of priesthood in America, where he would pray for the dead at such similar occasions of just a handful of old friends and family present -- say, for example, the Whites, or the followers of Vlasov, the controversial Russian general who went over to the Nazis.
What was important about Gorbanevskaya, he said, was that she didn't use bullets or bombs, but went out on Red Square with her baby carriage, and such brave actions of conscience ultimately toppled what seemed like the monolith of the Soviet Union.
This little ceremony with the handful of people, mainly stooped and gray, prompted Father to remark that this generation and this era was passing from the stage. And this is what I wrote about in my article musing about the contrasts (and yet rooting in Soviet history) of Pavel Pavlensky, the aktionist, and Natasha. What a difference! As I wrote, Natasha never raised her voice. I remember her also at the 1979 Sakharov Hearings and similar occasions in later years as business-like and "delovoy," not given to the frets and hysterics for which some dissidents were infamous.
(L-R) Vladimir Kozlovsky of Russian BBC, Pavel Litvinov, and parishioner.
After the service, a modest wake was organized (pominki) with some bread, slices of sausage, and that hard-and-soft baked roll with the surprise inside -- sometimes sour cabbage, sometimes apple, sort of like Russia itself. There was some heavy red wine as well.
As always at these sorts of functions, everyone sat in a very rapt, attentive circle all listening to each speaker take turns. Russian parties aren't like American parties, where people break up into twos or threes to chat, or if they are sitting at a table, they just talk to the person next to them. Instead, they are all in a collective -- or for an occasion like this, I guess you could call it a kind of sobornost', which is that mystical Russian Orthodox word meaning community of the living and the dead.
There were some solemn toasts, and then Pavel Litvinov read a eulogy which he has also published at colt.ru with other dissidents of the era.
He explained that in fact, Natasha's banner didn't say "For Our Freedom and Yours," which is what Alexander Hertzen and the Polish fighters had as their slogan. (Some people think of this as a Polish slogan and don't know about Hertzen). In fact, she had it reversed (and I mixed it up although I knew better, looking at the banner), and it said "For Your Freedom and Ours" because she felt that little Czechoslovakia was the first one they had to think about and free from the Soviet Union, and if it would be freed, the USSR might follow. And indeed, that's exactly how it worked, with the Velvet Revolution in 1989 preceeding the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
I couldn't help thinking of a funny poem written by Nikolai Williams, the mathematician and husband of Ludmila Alexeyeva, in which he wrote sardonically about the fearful tiny Czechoslovakia having to be invaded as it was a threat to the powerful Soviet Union. I wonder if anybody has that poem.
Vasily Kolchenko, originally from Ukraine, biologist and bard sings at wake for Gorbanevskaya.
We were blessed with a bard on this occasion as well, Vasily Kolchenko, who by day is a biologist of some accomplishment, even making medical breakthroughs, and a teacher in college, and by night, a poet composing his own works. Or by early morning, as it happened, as he said he got up at 4:00 am to pen this ode to Natasha's brave act:
"Не было выбора проще.
Ждал неуютный восход.
Вышли на Красную площадь,
Мыслей бессонная пляска
Не отменяет рассвет.
И по брусчатке - коляска
Вместо солдат и ракет".
I couldn't do it justice now with a translation, but it's basically about how she came out on Red Square, knowing in advance the outcome, with the baby carriage and not the soldiers and missiles.
This recording is only made off a cell phone, and I will try to find out more about whether this bard has any CDs we could buy. He seems to appear sometimes at various evenings, i.e. at the NY Public Library.
This being an evening with other poets and the well-read and erudite Russian and Ukrainian intelligentsia (Gen. Petro Grigorenko's son Andrei recited some Ukrainian verse), someone commented that the image of the baby carriage goes back to Eisenstein's famous Battleship Potemkin, about the uprising of the Battleship Potemkin and the tsar's soldiers shooting on demonstrators. There is the famous scene where crowds of people are massacred by relentlessly approaching soldiers, a mother is shot, and the baby carriage rolls down the Odessa Steps unattended.
Except, there never was such a historical event. It was a Soviet propaganda film, meant to dramatize the tsar's abuses. It didn't happen. There were no steps and no students nor old lady in a pince nez and no baby carriage. There was a demonstration with some people shot but they weren't on the steps and that wasn't the whole of the story, given the many more that the Soviets were to massacre by the tens of millions before they were done.
In any event, there was that false baby carriage from Soviet propaganda which any New York alternative theater afficionados think of as gospel both as art and politics, and then there was Gorbanevskaya's real baby carriage.
How could you take a baby to a demonstration where you knew you would be arrested? Well, for some people, the answer is: how could you not? What kind of country do you want?
As always at this occasion, some people went on too long or off topic, your faithful correspondent included. That is, I articulated an idea nobody liked. First, a younger woman who had made Facebook friends with Gorbanevskaya, who was doing interviews with dissidents for the Pushkin Society asked whether the Soviet dissidents had any influence or whether they had support. She compared the question to the Vlasov issue, in which you could ask whether there was X percent for this general at the time or later in history.
Of course, the Soviet dissidents had nothing to do with Vlasov. Sure, broadly speaking, Soviet dissidents including everybody from leftist liberals in Moscow to Ukrainian and Lithuanian nationalists, some who had fought as partisans. But usually the notion of "dissident" hewed to the idea that Amnesty International itself later dropped, which was "not to use or advocate violence". So the Forest Brothers or UPA/OUN fighters in political prison were not put in the prisoners of conscience list. One participant at the wake who had "sat with" the Vlasovites and similar fighters in Soviet prisoners said some were antisemites and others were decent.
But I put the question this way: how many Russians today wish to go abroad, and have even been able to go abroad, at least to Slovakia or Turkey for a vacation? Answer: a huge percent. So I say, that's really the percentage who supported the Soviet dissident movement.
And naturally I got howls of objection. First, because everyone said that most Soviet people didn't support the dissidents, they were that "aggressive obedient majority" of ill repute. Secondly, they said, oh, but that was just the Soviet Jewry movement, fighting to emigrate to Israel or the United States. While someone cited a poll claiming that every fifth Russian wants to move abroad, nobody could seem to take my point about what real support there was for human rights, which the dissidents fought for, even if people didn't identify personally with their boldness.
The Soviet dissidents fought for ideals, for principles. They fought for the Helsinki Accords. Sakharov wasn't just for Jewish emigration, but any group's emigration and spoke out for Volga Germans and Pentecostals. Everyone wanted the right to travel and return -- or not -- Sakharov even went on a hunger strike when his wife wasn't let out for medical care. Freedom of movement was really important. And that's what the Soviet dissidents fought for, although you'd never know it, to hear how they are knocked today by people who buy real estate in Virginia and shop at Harrod's.
I asked Pavel if the story I had was true, about the first issue of the Chronicle of Current Events, which Natasha edited herself. I had heard the story that the male dissidents had got together and were smoking and talking and arguing about "what is to be done," but Gorbanevskaya simply sat down and put the issue together and got it done. He said that it wasn't quite like that (well, he would...) but that yes, she had done the issue herself...
Fr. Mikhail Meerson-Aksyonov, chronicling his generation passing from the scene.