Underground News in the USSR (2017)

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Since this website was launched late in 2015 it has been moving and, at times, remarkable to see how universal is the curiosity about the Chronicle, its history and its background.

Following up a lead from the Wikipedia page about the Chronicle or, perhaps, other mentions, there have been visitors from every continent (apart from Antarctica). Interest is by no means restricted to Western Europe and North America.  One of the most enthusiastic and appreciative responses came from a Mexican media monitor, a colleague from Article 19, who was deeply impressed by the dispassionate tone of the reporting and the punctilious correction of the slightest mistake.

Nevertheless, a request for an interview from a website primarily concerned with the plight of journalists in contemporary Iran is  something special. This suggests that the story of the Chronicle is not just a lesser known facet of Soviet history, but may also continue to resonate today, and in countries that were never part of the Soviet bloc.

What follows is a slightly expanded and annotated version of the June 2017 article by Roland Elliott Brown on the Journalism is not a Crime website. It was published there in English and, naturally, translated into Farsi.

John Crowfoot

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Underground News in the USSR:
A Chronicle of Current Events (1968-1982)

Two decades before Communist Party leader Mikhail Gorbachev brought the word glasnost, or ‘transparency’ into official Soviet politics, a small group of dissidents and their families risked intimidation, loss of employment, arrest, and imprisonment or exile, for editing and circulating in the USSR an underground, typewritten periodical that documented abuses of human rights and publicized uncensored writing.

cover of issue 6 (Russian)

A Chronicle of Current Events, Issue 6, 28 February 1969

Launched in 1968 to mark the 20th anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, A Chronicle of Current Events (at first titled “Human Rights Year in the Soviet Union”) reported on hundreds of political trials and human rights abuses during its 15-year existence. As one of the Chronicle’s contributors, Alexander Podrabinek, has noted: “There just came a moment when society was ready for something like it.”

Adds John Crowfoot, a researcher and translator who has gathered all the English translations of the Chronicle on a single website:

“There was already a tradition in Russia of passing unpublished documents around (в списках) going back, at least, to the 19th century. In the Soviet Union, if you had a typewriter, you could make six copies at once using carbon paper. The next person would retype the appeal, article or entire novel – again making six copies – and so it went on.”

The Russian word samizdat, the term used to describe such secret publications, is a portmanteau of sam, or ‘self’, and izdat, or ‘publish’. It entered common use in the 1960s.

Until A Chronicle of Current Events appeared, says Martin Dewhirst, a Glasgow University lecturer who prepared the periodical’s contents for broadcast on Radio Liberty, samizdat was mostly devoted to banned poetry and other literary works: “It wasn’t until the mid-1960s that samizdat became more political. One reason was the 1964 trial of Joseph Brodsky.” The poet was prosecuted for ‘anti-Soviet’ views and ‘social parasitism,’ the latter charge referring to his assertion that poetry was his profession. Frida Vigdorova, who attended the trial, secretly took notes which she later circulated in samizdat.

In 1966, the writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuly Daniel faced a high-profile trial in Moscow for their ‘anti-Soviet activities’ in publishing satirical writings abroad. Once again, people at the hearings took surreptitious notes, which contributed to the “White Book”, a samizdat record of the trial. The two men were sentenced to hard labour in penal colonies, for seven and five years, respectively.

“This was the first big trial, and it got the authorities worried,” Crowfoot says. “People in the USSR protested and both Sinyavsky and Daniel refused to admit they were guilty. Two years later, the person who compiled the White Book was also put on trial.”

His name was Alexander Ginzburg; his co-defendant was the young poet Yury Galanskov. When they were arrested, supporters across the Soviet Union wrote petitions in their favour. But on 12 January 1968, both men were sentenced to five and seven years, respectively, in ‘corrective-labour’ camps. In 1972, Galanskov died because of medical neglect of his bleeding ulcers in a Mordovian camp. The Chronicle published the details surrounding his death.

Galanskov &amp; Ginzburg

Yury GALANSKOV (1939-1972) and Alexander GINZBURG (1936-2002)

Launching the Chronicle

The first edition of the Chronicle appeared on 30 April 1968. John Crowfoot comments:

“The first editor of the chronicle, Natalia Gorbanevskaya, was an interesting, tough character. She was a literary specialist, a translator from Polish, and she could also type very well. She believed the new periodical should have two elements: reports about what was happening, written in very restrained, precise language; and a summary of what else was currently circulating in samizdat,[2] from fiction to political tracts and discussions of philosophical issues.”

Issue 1 covered the five-day Moscow trial of Galanskov and Ginzburg and two others accused of ‘anti-Soviet’ agitation, and it detailed the repressive measures the State took against people protesting against the closed nature of the trial, to which neither press nor public were admitted. The issue also carried an appeal to the Budapest conference on Communist and Workers’ Parties over the trials, and an account of the trial of a Christian political organization in Leningrad.

The individuals behind the Chronicle were not journalists in the Western sense. Yet over time they built up a network of reliable sources throughout the Soviet Union, and established a collective ethic that stood in contrast to the often exaggerated and emotive tone of the State-controlled Soviet press.

“A number of them were natural scientists and already established in their fields,” says Crowfoot. “They were biologists, mathematicians and, in one famous case, an astrophysicist [Kronid Lyubarsky]. They had a strong sense of objectivity. They did not want any pathos in what they reported even if the subject was tragic. They were determined to be as accurate, dispassionate and informative as they could.”

***

Unlike ordinary newspaper and magazine editors, they dared not establish a formal editorial board or name themselves for fear of being exposed to the very dangers they were documenting. Their message to readers was to pass the Chronicle on to people they trusted, but never to try and trace the chain back to the editors, lest they endanger the publication. Martin Dewhirst comments:

“Trust is an absolutely key factor of Russian society. Russia has always been a ‘low trust society’. Soviet citizens had to possess an intuitive feeling that ‘Mr. A is absolutely trustworthy, Mr. B is not.’ The Chronicle’s first editor Natalia Gorbanevskaya was finely attuned to the people she was dealing with and sensed whether someone was trustworthy enough not to spill the beans if that person was detained or arrested.”

Dangerous Work

The world could not ignore the Soviet Union in 1968.

On 20 August that year, with forces from five East European Warsaw Pact countries, Soviet tanks and troops invaded Czechoslovakia. Their aim was to crush the reformist ‘Prague Spring’ movement and overthrow the popular Czech communist leader Alexander Dubcek. The invasion caused international outrage and led many foreign communists to reconsider their allegiance to the Soviet Union.

Inside Russia, where State propaganda spun the invasion in Moscow’s favour and the cost of protesting was high, the response was muted. Nevertheless, Gorbanevskaya was one of eight protesters who gathered in Red Square to denounce the invasion. She had her three-month-old son with her, and managed to escape immediate detention.

The Chronicle devoted its third issue, dated 30 August 1968, to the invasion. It included an open letter from Gorbanevskaya to the international press, describing the scene of the Moscow demonstration:

“At midday we sat on the parapet at Place of Proclamation [next to St Basil’s Cathedral] and unrolled banners with the slogans – LONG LIVE FREE AND INDEPENDENT CZECHOSLOVAKIA (written in Czech); SHAME ON THE OCCUPIERS; HANDS OFF CZECHOSLOVAKIA; FOR YOUR FREEDOM AND OURS. Almost immediately a whistle blew, and plainclothes KGB men rushed at us from all corners of the square. They ran up shouting ‘They’re all Jews!’ ‘Beat the anti-Sovietists!’ We sat quietly and did not resist.”

The issue also reprinted a Samizdat pamphlet on the invasion entitled “Let Us Think for Ourselves”. It prompted readers in the USSR to imagine a foreign communist invasion to alter the course of Soviet communism:

“Supposing a few of our ardent heirs of Stalin or of [secret police chief Lavrenty] Beria suddenly decided to call on our Chinese, Albanian and other brothers to come to their aid? What if the tanks and parachutists of these brothers suddenly appeared during the night in the streets of our towns? And if their soldiers, in the name of rescuing and defending the ideals of communism — as they understand them — began to arrest the leaders of our Party and State, to close the newspapers, shut down the radio stations, and shoot those who dared to resist?”

Gorbanevskaya was arrested the following year and in 1970, to discredit her, she was sent to a strict-regime mental hospital in Kazan, five hundred miles east of Moscow. She was released in 1972 and emigrated to France in 1975.

Natalya Gorbanevskaya with sons

Natalya GORBANEVSKAYA (1936-2013) with her sons

“This treatment was a threat to everyone working on samizdat,” Dewhirst says. “They might be sent not ‘merely’ to a corrective-labour colony or a prison, but be regarded as insane, because, as former CPSU Secretary-General Nikita Khrushchev had said some years before, only somebody who was mad could be opposed to the Soviet regime.”

***

Several of Gorbanevskaya’s colleagues, Sergei Kovalyov, Tatyana Velikanova, and Tatyana Khodorovich, kept the Chronicle going. Contents included early accounts of Soviet efforts to suppress the novels of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, coverage of Soviet abuses of psychiatry, and articles on the rights of ethnic and religious minorities. It continued to cover trials and the judiciary’s violations of Soviet law.

In June 1972, the Committee for State Security, or KGB, arrested two of the Chronicle’s contributing editors, Pyotr Yakir and Victor Krasin. “Yakir and Krasin were threatened with the death penalty,” Dewhirst says. “They didn’t want to be shot, and this threat, whether or not it was genuine, caused them to break down psychologically. It almost finished off the dissident movement in the early 1970s.”

The Chronicle did not appear again until May 1974. Then Kovalyov, Velikanova, and Khodorovich surrendered their anonymity as distributors of the periodical, and held a press conference for foreign journalists at which they handed out several intervening issues of the Chronicle.

Action Group members (1974)

Left to right (1974): Sergei KOVALYOV, Tatyana KHODOROVICH, Tatyana VELIKANOVA, Grigory PODYAPOLSKY

Kovalyov was arrested later that year and sentenced in 1975 to seven years in a labour camp. In 1977, Khodorovich was pressured into leaving the USSR. Velikanova was finally arrested in 1979. She was then sentenced to five years in a labour camp and five years of internal exile and was released, eventually, in 1988.

Persecution of the Chronicle’s editors continued into the early 1980s. The 64th issue, dated 30 June 1982, was the last to circulate. A 65th issue was prepared but never released: its editor, Yury Shikhanovich, was arrested in November 1983. After 15 years, the Chronicle, and much of the dissident movement, had been crushed.

The Chronicle remembered by a reader

Vera Chalidze was a woman in her twenties living in Moscow when the Chronicle and other samizdat publications were circulating.

She first discovered underground writing in the form of tamizdat – underground texts from abroad (tam is Russian for ‘there’) – through her parents; she followed the Sinyavsky-Daniel trial closely.

Vera’s cousin, Pavel Litvinov, was one of the eight protesters arrested on Red Square in August 1968, demonstrating against the invasion of Czechoslovakia. While she knew Gorbanevskaya personally, she did not know at the time that Gorbanevskaya was the new periodical’s editor. Chalidze remembers reading and re-typing copies of the Chronicle in secret:

“For me, because I was young and sort of irresponsible, it was extremely exciting. I was part of something dangerous, something banned. But it was also very informative.”

Foreign radio stations like Radio Liberty and the BBC Russian Service were limited in their access to events taking place inside the country. The Chronicle, she says, had reliable sources ranging from the big cities to the provinces. Like the editors, readers of the Chronicle were taking a big risk. Looking back, Chalidze says:

“The anxiety was pretty high if I was carrying it or passing it on to another person. There was always fear that one was being followed by the KGB, and there was always a risk of putting somebody else in danger. But for me, it was romantic. I am ashamed to say that I was curious to know how I would stand up to being imprisoned or sent to the camps. I had read about the camps, and in my naiveté, I was quite curious to experience it. I did it, in part, as an adventure.”

Issues of the Chronicle were regularly smuggled out of the Soviet Union, through the diplomatic bags of Western embassies or with //travellers from Eastern Europe. After a while it was only one of many samizdat publications, but those concerned with human rights in the Soviet Union were always keen to read what was widely regarded as the best of those sources.

Gorbanevskaya on Red Square, 2012

Red Square (August 2012) Natalya GORBANEVSKAYA and protestors “For Your Freedom and for Ours”

A RAF-trained Russian language expert, Martin Dewhirst often travelled from Glasgow to Munich to analyse and help prepare the information in the Chronicle for broadcast on Radio Liberty, the US-funded Russian language service. He comments:

“Whenever a new issue of the Chronicle arrived, it immediately jumped to the top of the queue. We always had a backlog of samizdat, but the Chronicle was regarded as extremely reliable. It contained very few factual mistakes and any that did appear were carefully corrected in a later issue, so that the compilers and editors couldn’t be accused in the Soviet press of being slanted or dishonest.”

Today, as the world debates a proliferation of ‘fake news’ on social media and mainstream media outlets struggle to stay afloat financially, the Chronicle stands as a model publication.

“They had extremely high journalistic standards,” Dewhirst says. “I’m amazed at how much lower standards are today, even in reputable newspapers published in London. This was high-quality stuff. The Chronicle was the best answer to Soviet lies and Soviet misrepresentation.”

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NOTES

[1] Brodsky was sentenced to work in a northern labour camp. His sentence was commuted 18 months later because of international pressure.

[2] The samizdat update reports began with Issue 5 (10 December 1968), which led with a “Survey of Samizdat in 1968”.