35.13 Ilya Gabai’s “Last Words” (21 January 1970)

<< No 35 : 31 March 1975 >>

The Final Speech of Ilya Gabai at his Trial

(Tashkent, 21 January 1970)

Although more than five years have passed since the trial of Ilya Gabai and Mustafa Dzhemilev (CCE 12.3), Gabai’s concluding statement at his trial has only recently begun to circulate in samizdat. Without attempting a full account of the contents of this vivid human document, the following extracts may serve to outline the moral position of its author [omissions indicated thus …]

I am being tried on a criminal charge because I openly placed my signature on documents which set forth an attitude close to mine on certain facts of our life. To hold an opinion different from the official point of view on questions of domestic and foreign policy is a right achieved more than one-and-a-half centuries ago. I think that it was for the sake of this natural right that the most outstanding actions of the last few centuries took place: the storming of the Bastille, the writing of tracts on voluntary servitude, or of A Journey from Petersburg to Moscow [1790].[1]  Countries which do not observe these laws of living are nowadays an exception to the norm. This is also recognized in the Constitution of our own country, which grants its citizens freedom of conscience, and freedom of speech and demonstration. In spite of this, from time to time the same old reservations appear, which allow dissatisfaction, disagreement and personal opinion to be classified as crimes.

A question springs to mind: why is it obligatory that the official viewpoint be that of the public at large? Was it really necessary for the achievement of general well-being that Tito should be universally considered an executioner and cats-paw of imperialism, that cybernetics should be considered a false science, genetics a vehicle for fascism, and Shostakovich’s creative work a cacophony, not music? Or did the people really need the sacrificial orgies of 1937, 1949 and 1952 in order to achieve happiness?

Why is it that from time to time dissatisfied people are dispatched to distant places? Is it because those who regard the rack and the iron collar as the best medical remedies speak in the name of the people? Or because “protest is not in tune with our traditions”? In these cases, people usually object that “we are not condemning anyone for their convictions but for spreading slanders”. That is, for two crimes: for lying or slandering, and for making this lie public. Nobody would object to such actions being indictable offences, especially as we can remember a great many proven slanders. In that case we might be able to expect some kind of judicial decisions in regard to the prose-writer Orest Maltsev and the playwright Mdivani . . . Professor Studitsky . . . the artists Kukryniksy, the journalists Gribachev and Kononenko . . . But these people go on successfully singing new songs, adapted to new times; a new generation of hate-inspired zealots has grown up, but all the same from time to time people keep on appearing in the dock, people who have not fallen in with the tradition of continuous unrestrained rejoicing.

At all times and in every language slander has meant saying what is not true. But in the course of this investigation not one fact has been proved or disproved. I deny that the documents I wrote or signed were slanderous […] I had no motive for disseminating libels. I do not think social ambition is a characteristic of mine, but even if it were assumed that I wrote out of political vanity it would be difficult to prove logically that I signed an open appeal to public opinion which distorted easily verifiable facts […] As regards dissemination, in my opinion convictions are not only ideas which a man wholeheartedly accepts, but ideas about which he tries to convince others. Thieves exchange glances or gossip shyly, in confidential whispers, but this is not how frank opinions are expressed. And if the point were only whether I had given something I wrote and signed to someone else to read, there would hardly be any need for this investigation; an openly signed appeal to public opinion presupposes that everything possible will be done so that the document reaches those to whom it is addressed […]

In many documents of which I consider myself the author or co-author, the following issue was raised — that recently in the life of society alarming analogies were beginning to appear with the period of so-called “cult of personality” […] The documents refer to the fact that recently a halo has appeared around the dethroned figure of Stalin. One by one, works proving Stalin’s wisdom and perspicacity are being published . . . Even if it were supposed that […] his actions were conducive to the common good, no amount of steel per head of population can serve as a justification for murder, no material prosperity can restore life to 12 million people and no amount of wealth could make up for loss of freedom, integrity and personal independence. If we take seriously the sarcastic advice of a great Russian writer: “Why should we cling to the word ‘freedom’ if we can replace it with the phrase: ‘better living conditions’?”, and if we close our eyes to the real conditions of life in Stalin’s time, then Stalin, as a symbol of harsh discipline and cheap vodka, can really appear to have been the highest incarnation of State wisdom and justice. But, in that case, popular pseudo-truths will squeeze out conceptions of human rights attained by civilization through suffering; in that case, a continuous loss of moral rights will result, and if new generations are successfully persuaded that the thirties were the years of labour victories and that was all, then who could deny another country its veneration of memories concerning the time when the people there also enjoyed an abundance of power, and faith, and respect, and enthusiasm, and terror, and spectacles, and steel per head of population? […]

The Cult of Stalin is not only an absurd pagan superstition. Behind it stands the danger that a mythical fiction may triumph, justifying human sacrifice, cleverly substituting the concept of living conditions for the concept of freedom […]

The file of my case includes evidence of my optimistic state of mind at the time of the 22nd Party Congress [1961]. In referring to this I do not wish in any way to underline my political loyalty. Truth demands an honest admission that this state of mind was the result of my habitual over-enthusiasm and inclination to be taken in by illusions. If I speak of this it is only in order to explain why I wrote and signed such letters, although I was fully aware of the hopeless nature of such actions. I have never wished, nor do I wish now, to be in the same position as those in preceding generations who did not notice the disappearance of about ten million people. I am convinced that a short historical memory and a continual readiness for triumphant rejoicing form the best soil for the growth of tyranny, and that the millions referred to were in the last analysis made up of the individual neighbours, colleagues and good friends whom the adults of 1937 were losing every day […]

Replacing debate by prison means throwing out a challenge to those people who are acutely aware of the fearful cannibalism of our century, and continually reminding them that it can be renewed any day. If fatigue or a sense of hopelessness ever lead me to act like Pilate, I shall cease to have any self-respect.

Some of the documents mention or specially examine the Crimean Tatar question. I am not a Tatar; I have never lived, nor wanted to live, in the Crimea, but I certainly have serious personal reasons for adopting this cause. I remember well Stalin’s last years, when I sensed especially keenly the complete defencelessness of someone belonging to a national minority. At that time anti-Semitism was arousing the most primitive and evil instincts; and when today I sometimes hear people talking about the Tatars, referring to Batu Khan’s attack on Ryazan [in 1237] as if it were yesterday, I mentally return to the period when I myself suffered personal injuries from that self-opinionated and irrational force  […] Let me say this: if the Tatars had indeed gone over to the Germans, this would have been a tragic mistake for their nation, but it would not have given anyone the right to dispose of their land. After all, it did not enter anyone’s head to start resettling the Rumanians, Hungarians or Italians. But the facts bear witness that this is not only an unfounded accusation, it is a deliberate lie […]

The Crimean Tatar people are still being oppressed, morally and physically; they are subjected to cynical, inhuman insults … I am glad that I have been able, in the smallest degree, to share in the honour of the Tatar people’s courageous and just struggle.

A few words on Czechoslovakia: I have always reacted and still react to the actions of the five powers as I would to any intervention or tyranny by strong powers […] The President of the Czechoslovak National Assembly said in those days: “The state and its sovereignty, liberty, our own development, the safety and existence of each citizen have been gravely endangered. We were forced to negotiate under the shadow of the tanks and aeroplanes occupying our country.” I have always been of the opinion that the state leaders of Czechoslovakia had a better basis for assessing their own affairs than did our journalists. The change in the Czechoslovak leadership cannot change my views, in the same way as the rearrangements in the leadership of our own country do not influence my convictions […]

Finally, I must refer in particular to my articles “Again and Again” and “Outside the Closed Doors of an Open Trial”, which examine from various sides the question, which seems essential to me, of what constitutes public opinion. Both articles are reactions to the arrest, and later sentencing, of a group of demonstrators. These people acted against the tyranny of a powerful government and convinced me once again that the truth is not upheld by mass meetings, that it cannot be ascertained by means of any organized headcount […]

I was not aiming to place the intelligentsia in opposition to the people, to cultivate a sense of superiority which is deeply alien to me. I simply wrote how the actions of five people (who had on the one hand a firm knowledge of the facts, and on the other the courage to act in accordance with that knowledge and the convictions resulting from it, not in accordance with the circumstances) expressed the actual state of public opinion […]

For a long time I have kept a newspaper from the year 1936. At that time Smirnov, Eismont and others were being tried and the workers of a number of factories were demanding the death sentence for these men, who have since been wholly exculpated. Playing on the words “worker”, “people” etc. unleashes in certain instances the dark forces of class arrogance […] Thomas Mann wrote: “We know that appealing to the masses as if to the people means pushing them towards hatred and obscurantism. Just think what has been done, both in public and in secret, in the name of the people! The same would not have been done in the name of God, of humanity or of justice.” The history of our country gives a great deal of support to these hard-won words […]

Knowing my own innocence, and convinced as I am that I acted rightly, I cannot ask for a lighter sentence. I believe in the eventual victory of justice and common sense, and I am sure this sentence will sooner or later be revoked by time.

[For the death of Gabai, see CCE 30.1]


[1] Alexander Radishchev, the author of this work against serfdom and the autocracy, was exiled for 10 years to eastern Siberia. The book was banned until 1905 but circulated in “several hundreds” of illegal handwritten copies between 1790 and 1830.