Tom Gross

We must not forget the Soviet dissidents

Many were Jewish and some, like Victor Fainberg, were locked up in psychiatric prisons and tortured for years

February 08, 2023 14:20

On August 21, 1968, Warsaw Pact tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia. Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Hungarian and Bulgarian troops put an end to the ‘Prague spring’ pro-democracy reforms. (East German liaison officers joined them, but with memories of the Nazi era still fresh, even the Soviet leadership thought it unwise to include German troops.) 

There was outrage in the West. But those living under communist repression were too afraid to speak out – if, that is, they even knew what was going on. State media presented the military “intervention” as “brotherly help” to the people of Czechoslovakia in their “fight against counterrevolutionary forces… The Soviet people have been consulted and unanimously approved this decision.” 

But a brave few people were determined to protest. Four days after the invasion, on 25 August, eight people travelled to Moscow to demonstrate in Red Square against the invasion. They held small hand-written signs saying “For your freedom and ours” and “Hands off Czechoslovakia!” Within five minutes they were beaten by KGB thugs. Some were then sent to Siberian penal colonies.

Others faced what was described by those who experienced it as an even worse punishment. They were locked up in psychiatric prisons, subjected to horrific physical and mental abuse and held for years with genuinely mad people. One was the Jewish dissident Victor Fainberg, who died last month at the age of 91.

Fainberg, who suffered for standing up for Russian and Czech rights, was of particular interest to me because as an undergraduate during the final years of communism I went on trips to both Moscow and Prague to deliver materials to Russian and Czech dissidents (including Vaclav Havel, later Czech president) and smuggle out written testimonies and tape recordings they had made. 

(I perhaps felt an additional affinity because my maternal grandmother Vera Feinberg’s parents, also of Russian Jewish origin, were murdered in the Holocaust.) 

So I was looking forward to a first screening last month of a new film about Fainberg’s life, “Madly in Dissent,” by the exiled Russian film directors Ksenia and Kirill Sakharnov, hosted by the Czech and Slovak embassies in Israel, to which I was invited. But Fainberg died a few days before the screening and was buried in Israel.

The screening of the film in Tel Aviv turned into an impromptu memorial service for Fainberg, attended by other former Soviet dissidents now living in Israel. It was a moving occasion.

However, more than a month after he died, it is disappointing that no British or American newspaper has paid tribute to him, especially since he had a connection to London. 

Fainberg had been so defiant towards his Soviet captors, refusing to be broken by them, that eventually they released him and expelled him to Israel in 1974, although they made him leave his son Yuri behind in Leningrad. 

In 1975, at the request of Andrei Sakharov (who that year won the Nobel Peace Prize, though he was denied permission to leave Russia to collect it), Fainberg moved to London, then the centre of anti-communist dissidents, to set up the Campaign Against Psychiatric Abuse.

Fainberg became relatively well known in London, where he lived for four years. Tom Stoppard even dedicated his 1977 play Every Good Boy Deserves Favour to Fainberg and fellow dissident Vladimir Bukovsky. 

After Bukovsky managed to smuggle out evidence about Soviet psychiatric abuse – based on the testimonies of Fainberg and others – to Dr Dennis Leigh, secretary general of the International Psychiatric Association, Leigh, instead of helping, disgracefully sent the evidence back to the Soviet authorities. As a result, Bukovsky was sentenced to 12 years in a psychiatric prison. 

Fainberg’s daughter Sarah, a researcher at Tel Aviv University’s Centre for Air and Space Studies, told me that she thinks his bravery stemmed very much from his Jewish identity. “He suffered extreme psychological and physical antisemitic violence growing up (he was brought up in Kharkiv in Ukraine, and later moved to Leningrad to study philology) and this strengthened his character and made him want to fight oppression wherever he saw it,” she said. Indeed Fainberg later travelled to Grozny, Sarajevo and elsewhere to protest against war crimes there. 

“Madly in Dissent” is yet to gain a general release - or even a screening - in the West. The film’s co-director Ksenia Sakharnova, who moved from Moscow to Tbilisi last year, said her film is unlikely to be screened in Russia any time soon. “Not enough people in Russia even know dissidents were locked up in psychiatric hospitals,” she told me. But not nearly enough people in the West know either, and Ksenia’s film would be a good place to start. 

Tom Gross is a journalist, international affairs commentator and human rights activist.

February 08, 2023 14:20

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