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Mikhail Shishkin delivers the keynote speech at the 2017 Oxfam Novib/PEN Awards for Free Expression

Friday 20 January 2017 - 10:40am

MSKOur son is three years old. Some time ago we took him to an art museum. We went from room to room, searching the canvases of the great masters for doggies, kitties, birdies, and horsies. One painting depicted a pregnant Virgin Mary. My son asked why she had such a big belly. I told him there was a baby inside, and that it would soon be born. We walked on. Once we had made it through a few more rooms, my son ran back to the Virgin — to see whether the baby had been born yet.

In 1968, in protest against the incursion of Soviet tanks into Prague, several people walked into Red Square and unfurled banners that read: ‘For Our Freedom and Yours’. They were immediately arrested. I was seven years old at the time, and I knew nothing of what had happened. But the whole vast country knew nothing of it either. These people’s lives were ruined; they faced years in prison or the insane asylum. After the collapse of the Soviet Union they became the subjects of articles, books, and films. Their actions came to serve as a symbol of resistance, and they were now regarded as heroes in the struggle for freedom.

When the KGB archives were briefly opened, it turned out that other people in various cities across the sprawling empire had also protested in August 1968 and had also ended up in prisons, but no one at all had heard about their protests and their ruined lives. Human rights organizations in the West knew nothing about them, and nobody had demanded their release. They never became the subjects of articles, books, or films, never became heroes. They received no prizes, and no one raised toasts in honour of their courage at international PEN conferences. They never attained the glory of martyrdom, but were simply tortured to death, quietly, out of sight.

For a short time it seemed that these brave people had defeated the system, that their sacrifices had not been in vain. But their victory was an illusion.

‘On 11 September 2016, the chief of the penal colony, Kossiev, came to my cell with three guards. They started beating me. They beat me four times that day, kicking me when I was down on the floor. After the third beating they shoved my head into the toilet. On 12 September 2016, some guards came to my cell, cuffed my hands behind my back, and hung me up by the handcuffs. This hurts the wrists terribly, twists the elbows, and causes excruciating back pain. I hung that way for half an hour. Then they took off my underwear and said that, if I didn’t stop my hunger strike, they would bring in another inmate to rape me.’

This is an excerpt from a letter by Ildar Dadin, a political prisoner thrown in jail for walking out in front of the Kremlin and protesting, all alone, against the war with Ukraine — ‘for our freedom and yours’. Once he walked out with a banner that read: ‘Keep silent! And when they come for you tomorrow — the next person will be silent.’

My country, which had taken a gulp of air in the 1990s, has again plunged into the swamp of fear and silence.

In man, the need for freedom is counterbalanced by at least as strong a need for fetters.

To my father’s mind, the dissidents who had fought for freedom of speech were not heroes but traitors. At 17 he himself had volunteered for the front, to defend his fatherland. The state had killed his own father, my grandfather, as an ‘enemy of the people’. In defending their fatherland, slaves were defending the state that had enslaved them. Nothing new in that. In a play about Ancient Rome, Dürrenmatt put the following words in Romulus’s mouth: ‘The state always calls itself “fatherland” when it is getting ready to slaughter people.’

Those who fight for freedom find themselves in opposition not only to the repressive state, but also to the majority of its population. They are fighting for the freedom of their people, but most of those people either believe them to be traitors, or, at best, deem their sacrifices meaningless. For those who are accustomed to surviving, disquisitions on the principles underlying civil society are about as relevant as rules of table-setting are for those who queue up for free soup. As far as the majority is concerned, the very concept of free speech is discredited and represents the all-permissiveness of evil.

The majority is always convinced of its own wisdom and righteousness. The wisdom of the majority is the experience of survival, accumulated over the course of many generations. This survivors’ wisdom is issued like a verdict of guilt: To die defending one’s homeland from the enemy, or to save a child from a burning building — that is heroism — but whom are you saving? Why needlessly ruin your life, risk your freedom, lose your job and your friends, if you aren’t going to change anything anyway? And most importantly, by sacrificing yourself, you’re also sacrificing the people closest to you! Who gave you the right to turn the lives of your loved ones upside down? You’re prepared to die for something that has no material existence — for words. On one side of the scale, you have living, breathing human beings, who depend on you. On the other — words: freedom of the press, civil rights, respect for the constitution. Are beautiful words really worth more than your loved ones? Only infantile romantics, who haven’t developed a sense of responsibility, can act this way. This willingness to die for beautiful phrases is merely prolonged youthful maximalism. You are fanatics! You are driven by the energy of self-destruction; you haven’t grown up enough to build a house, plant a tree, lavish your child with love. But those things are so important — it’s so important, say, to take your son to a museum on Sunday! You reject real life in favour of abstract ideals. All you’re concerned about is the salvation of your soul! Your heroism is simply selfishness turned inside out. Isn’t it selfish to save your soul while destroying your family? You’re just a biological anomaly, a special breed with an underactive survival instinct — that’s scientifically proven! Some people simply have a pronounced need to become victims. These people seek sweetness in martyrdom, and this all-consuming passion is stronger than any drug. Nothing pleases them more than mounting the scaffold. Submitting yourself to humiliation, you sense your own moral superiority. You feel yourself to be the elect, the very best. And don’t you dare say you did it for us! No one asked for this sacrifice! And above all, you’re simply naive. To believe that freedom, honour, and kindness will triumph on this sinful planet is to believe in miracles. Can you really derail your life for the sake of your faith in the word, your belief in miracles?

Fear is a source of life; it’s just as natural as breathing or eating. It’s the survival instinct. Those who sacrifice themselves for the sake of principles pit themselves against nature itself. For them, the meaning of life lies not in survival, but in the preservation of human dignity.

In the 1930s, Boris Pasternak was asked to sign a letter demanding the execution of certain ‘enemies of the people’, and his pregnant wife dropped down at his feet, begging him to sign it — for the sake of their child. He said: ‘If I were to sign this, I’d be a different man. And the fate of a child born to another man doesn’t concern me.’

This isn’t heroism — it's something different. It’s the inability to cease being yourself.

A month before he was killed, Boris Nemtsov said in an interview: ‘People must decide for themselves whether they’re willing to take the risk or not. I can only speak for myself. I’m glad that I’m able to tell the truth, be myself, and not kowtow to wretched, thieving authorities. Freedom is a very dear thing.’

These people aren’t victims. They consciously choose freedom, every time. Given countless opportunities to reject their sense of themselves, they always make their own choice, even if it means prison and death. They are the freest people of all.

Elias Canetti once wrote: ‘I ask myself whether, among those who build their leisurely, secure, dead regular academic life on that of a writer who had lived in misery and despair, there is one who is ashamed of himself.’

I have a feeling that all of them — those who walked into Red Square in 1968, and Anna Politkovskaya, and Boris Nemtsov, and Ashraf Fayadh, and Malini Subramaniam, and many, many others — ask us: are you not ashamed? Their very lives pose that question.

These people are inconvenient, like one’s conscience. These people and their fates are a living reproach to each and every one of us.

I am ashamed.

Precisely because we cannot express our gratitude and acknowledgment to all of them, known and unknown, we must express these things to individuals — and by extending our acknowledgement, admiration, and gratitude to a Palestinian poet and an Indian journalist, we also extend them to all those who have walked out and will always walk out onto the public square ‘for our freedom and yours’, no matter how dangerous it may be. This is an expression of gratitude to thousands and thousands of wonderfully brave people, even if we never learn all their names.

‘Seven people in Red Square are seven reasons why we can never hate the Russians,’ one Czech journalist wrote about the demonstrators of 1968. In continuing their struggle, even without the slightest hope of victory, these people — at all times and in all countries — are doing very important work: they are preserving the honour of their nation and of humanity at large. Through their struggle, they justify our existence on this planet. They do it in order to prove that the values ​​for which they suffer are real. They do it out of love for life. They do it so that someone can take a child to a museum on Sunday in their place, so that we can believe in miracles.

I think I’ll take my son to the museum again. Who knows? Perhaps the child has been born.

Translated by Boris Dralyuk


Ashraf Fayadh and Malini Subramanian win the 2017 Oxfam Novib/PEN Awards for Freedom of Expression