“Soviet dissident Gorbanevskaya dies”, the BBC News headline reads. In fact, it is a title to which Natalya Gorbanevskaya, who passed away in Paris at the age of 77 this past Friday, and who is perhaps most famous for her role in the protest on Red Square against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968, would have objected.
The word “dissident” connotes something extraordinary, she explained to me when I interviewed her this time last year. And Gorbanevskaya was not trying to be extraordinary. She was trying only to hold herself to the standards of “normal people” who live honestly and speak their minds. Unlike the opposition in Russia today, she was not embarking on a political project, but rather a civic one. There was no civil society in Soviet Russia in 1968, but there were a handful of people—ordinary people, she insisted—standing out in Red Square clutching a sign that proclaimed, “For your freedom and ours”.
But she was extraordinary. A professional poet, Gorbanevskaya was one of the founding members of The Chronicle of Current Events, arguably the most famous samizdat (self-published) journal to come out of Soviet Russia. The Chronicle kept track of human rights abuses, trials, protests, and other underground publications in Russia and the broader Soviet Union. Each issue opened with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”.
It was in The Chronicle that Gorbanevskaya publicly documented the trial of her fellow Red Square protestors. As a young mother of two, she was not immediately persecuted, though she was shortly thereafter imprisoned in a Soviet psychiatric hospital, where she was being “treated” for schizophrenia with which she had been diagnosed for political reasons. After her release, Gorbanevksaya emigrated to Paris, where she remained connected to the Russian literary and (for lack of a better term) dissident community through her work as an editor of the Russian émigré journal Kontinent.
That took not only extraordinary courage and determination, but extraordinary commitment to her sense of self. I asked her if she saw herself first as a poet or as a protester. “I am who I am”, she replied.
She was who she was. And so she founded underground publications and stood in Red Square as people yelled at her for being “anti-Soviet”. And so she withstood separation from her two young children and psychiatric abuse. And so she continued her commitment to her native country even after leaving it, stripped of her citizenship. Because she was, in a system that demanded her to be something else entirely, who she was. And she was, dissident or activist or poet or protester, extraordinary.