In December 1976, after twelve years of incarceration, forced labour and ‘punitive psychiatry’ under the Soviet regime, Vladimir Bukovsky was flown to Zürich airport and exchanged for the imprisoned Chilean Communist leader Luis Corvalán. His remarkable story, along with those of his peers, is told through an intimate series of interviews in the documentary They Chose Freedom: The Story of Soviet Dissidents.

The film follows the story of Soviet dissidence from its earliest incarnations in the late 1950s and early 1960s, until the capitulation of the Soviet regime in 1991. The narrative is led by interviews with prominent members of the movement. Survivors of the Red Square demonstration against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 discuss the treatment they received at the hands of the Soviet authorities. First-hand accounts are given of the Soviet ‘punitive psychiatry’ which treated political dissent against the regime as a psychiatric illness. In one especially emotive interview, the late Yelena Bonner is heard describing the internal exile of her husband, the Russian nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov, who was arrested in January 1980 following his public demonstration against the occupation of Afghanistan, and sent to the city of Gorky, in an area of western Russia off-limits to foreigners.

In the final chapter, the interviewees offer their perspective on the current situation in Russia. Alexander Podrabinek draws contrasts with the collapse of the communist movement in countries like Poland and Czechoslovakia, where the transition of power put former Soviet dissidents in leadership positions. The political chaos surrounding Russia’s own transition, however, led to the rise of a former KBG agent. Adducing the example of the Chechen wars, Podrabinek argues that, just as the USSR always claimed to be “surrounded by enemies”, the post-Soviet Russian government needs enemies to sustain its identity and public approval. Although Bukovsky, remains essentially pessimistic for the future of the country, the sentiment which prevails as the film draws to a close is that even in today’s Russia, just like in Soviet Russia, the voice of only a few people could redirect the entire nation.

The panel discussion which followed addressed four key issues arising from the film:

  1. The role of modern-day dissenters in the Russian system;
  2. The ideology emerging from Vladimir Putin’s presidency;
  3. The international community’s options for response; and
  4. The implications of the developing Ukrainian crisis.

“When a monopoly of truth becomes absolute, one word becomes a weapon,” said Bukovsky. Nevertheless he acknowledged that, whilst 2-3,000 dissenters were enough to effect change in a totalitarian regime like the Soviet Union, today’s situation calls for a ‘mass movement’ of dissent. Offering the example of the Maidan protest in Ukraine, Bukovsky argued that such a movement was not impossible. Yet, he recognised that most modern-day dissidents in Russia are simply leaving the country. “People just want to live their lives; they don’t want to be killed in a square by a sniper.”

Turning to the question of Russian ideology, moderator and Director of the Legatum Institute's Transitions Forum, Anne Applebaum, raised the point that the ideology emerging from President Putin’s regime was one of ‘anti-west and anti-decadence’, in favour of an ill-defined, conservative way of life which is being lost: “It’s not very coherent yet—but it’s something they seem to be trying to build”. Bukovsky concluded that President Putin’s only ideology is misguided nostalgia for the Soviet regime, which ultimately “will lead him back to exactly the point at which the Soviet Union collapsed.”

A recurring question from the floor was on the international community’s options amid the crisis. “We are talking about a gang,” said Bukovsky on the Russian government. “The gang works for the leader and the leader works for the gang and if that connection is broken, the leader is removed”. Bukovsky thus argued that by exposing his colleagues to sanctions from the West amid the Ukrainian crisis, President Putin was putting himself at risk of internal mutiny. “You can only change this from inside,” argued Vladimir Kara-Murza on the subject of international intervention. The last two years, he argued, had witnessed a ‘sea-change’ in Russian public approval. “We had a rally in Moscow in 2007”, Kara-Murza explained, “we had 500 people and we thought that was a great success—in December 2011 we had 120,000 people protesting against Putin in Russia and just a week ago we saw tens of thousands of Muscovites march through the centre of the Russian capital, protesting Putin’s war against Ukraine”. Kara-Murza thus offered his optimism for a fundamental shift in Russian politics from within.  “No matter how bad the situation is, there are always people willing to stand up against it,” Kara-Murza argued.

Kara-Murza acknowledged the value of international sanctions. He believes the one important difference between the political situation in Russia today and the Soviet regime, is the involvement of Russian politicians in west-European society: “Andropov and Brezhnev did not send their kids to study in London, or open western bank accounts, or buy property in the West”. The choice between reforming their governmental conduct in Russia and losing their financial freedom in the West would, Kara-Murza argued, force many Russian politicians to reconsider their actions. Discussing the Ukrainian crisis, Kara-Murza said “It is unfortunate that it took the possibility of war in Europe for the western world to implement its sanctions—we’ve been arguing for these sanctions for four or five years”. Bukovsky shared Kara-Murza’s frustration, adding “if the west had reacted to the war against Georgia, then we would not have the situation in Crimea today."

Closing the discussion, Kara-Murza addressed the argument that Russia “isn’t ready” for democracy. “I find that deeply offensive,” he explained. Kara-Murza argued that the Russian people, deprived of free elections for more than 15 years, have not been able to show the world the system of government they want. Yet on the few historical occasions when Russia has achieved a free election, the results were promising for democracy. The 1906 parliamentary election, Kara-Murza explained, saw a land-slide victory for the Constitutional Democratic Party, whilst the supporters of autocracy did not win a single seat. When a free election was held after the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917, they were rejected by three quarters of the population. Then in 1991, when Yeltsin opposed the Soviet Union, he was elected by a majority of 59 percent to 17. Thus, offering the concluding statement of screening, Kara-Murza explained that “history refutes the argument that Russia isn’t ready for democracy.”

About the Film
They Chose Freedom, written and produced by Russian historian and television journalist Vladimir V. Kara-Murza, tells the story of the dissident movement in the USSR, from its emergence in the 1950s until the collapse of the Soviet dictatorship in 1991. The film is narrated primarily through interviews with prominent Russian dissidents: Elena Bonner, Vladimir Bukovsky, Vladimir Dremlyuga, Viktor Fainberg, Natalia Gorbanevskaya, Naum Korzhavin, Sergei Kovalev, Eduard Kuznetsov, Pavel Litvinov, Yuri Orlov, Alexander Podrabinek, Anatoly (Natan) Sharansky, and Alexander Yesenin-Volpin. The Institute of Modern Russia sponsored the translation and English-language production of They Chose Freedom as part of its commitment to preserving the legacy of those who have dedicated their lives to the struggle for freedom, human rights, and the rule of law in Russia.

Further Reading
London, Kiev, Moscow - What Next? Panel Discussion (6 March 2014)