Lezing Maxim Osipov – Tegen de macht

‘Russian language and culture can stand up for themselves’ – Maxim Osipov in zijn lezing in De Balie

Op vrijdag 28 oktober organiseerde PEN Nederland in samenwerking met De Balie in Amsterdam een programma over Russische dissidenten die zich afzetten tegen de macht in hun land. Hoofdgast was de Russische schrijver Maxim Osipov die op verzoek van PEN Nederland een lezing schreef die hij op de avond voordroeg. Zijn lezing is hier na te lezen.
Bekend van het boek De wereld is niet stuk te krijgen is Osipov een van de vele Russische schrijvers, dichters en andere creatieve geesten die recentelijk naar Amsterdam zijn uitgeweken om hier in vrijheid te kunnen leven en werken. Hij is tevens erelid van PEN Nederland.

Voor wie de avond, getiteld Tegen de macht: Russische dissidenten, heeft gemist, kan die via deze link alsnog bekijken en beluisteren. De bijeenkomst maakte deel uit van het meerdaagse Vrijdenkersfestival in De Balie in Amsterdam.

Maxim Osipov

October 28, 2022
De Balie, Amsterdam

It is my great honor to address you today, but along with gratefulness for being invited to this wonderful place I am feeling other emotions — a mixture of timidity and surprise. I am neither a dissident nor in fact even political activist. I am a Russian writer, until recently I was also a practicing physician, a cardiologist, a founder of a small, but still functioning charity fund, and before that — a medical publisher, an author and an editor of numerous scientific books. Throughout my professional life I, like many of my friends, tried to say and do simple things that make sense, as Tolstoy beautifully said about one of his female characters. Some things were working for us, some weren’t, but in the end we found out that we had lost — historically and spiritually, and many of us had to emigrate, to flee the country where we were born, grew up, raised our children, lived to see our grandchildren born, and began to grow old; to leave behind our homes and friends, and the graves of our parents. We hate war, hate the one who unleashed it, but we also weren’t planning to abandon our homeland (motherland, fatherland) — every word, whichever you choose, starting with whichever letter, capital or lowercase, feels dirty, dishonored. Some say that when you lose, you learn your true worth. Soon we will learn — because that’s what we are, losers. Some of us left in order to avoid political persecution, some — out of disgust, suffocation, unwillingness to live in a totalitarian state. Would you let your children and grandchildren line up in Z formation? No. Absolutely not. Saying goodbye to our homes and possessions was easy: it is inappropriate to grow sentimental when Russian bombs are falling on Kharkiv and Kyiv, Dnipro and Lviv. However, we don’t exactly feel we’ve done well for ourselves. Signing petitions, composing anti-war letters, attending protest demonstrations — clearly, that was not enough. Let me briefly recall the course of events that led to this situation.

I’d like to begin with a kind of confession. In the course of my life I made two big political mistakes — at least two that I am aware of. In 1996, when Yeltsin was running against the Communist Zyuganov for the presidency of Russia, I so badly wanted Yeltsin to win that I openly told everyone I knew that, had I the opportunity to tamper with the final tally, I would without hesitation add millions of votes for Yeltsin in order to prevent the Communists from taking control of my country again. Now, when I hear about violations of every sort during elections in Russia I always remember what I myself asked for 25 years ago.

The second mistake happened in 2000. This was the year that Putin came to power. The elections took place in March, and in January tragedy struck my own family. In January my sister, her husband, and her 11-year-old son were killed by two men who broke into their apartment to rob them. At the time of the elections, the murderers had yet to be caught. My only desire at that time was to have them arrested, and looking at the poor state of Russian police (for example, policemen had no working phones at the station and I had to buy them cell phones myself), I repeatedly said that I wanted to have a so-called “strong hand” in power, that I wanted to live in a society where everything was under control. In other words, I wanted to live in a police state.

Now both of my wishes have been fulfilled: we have fake elections and we live in a police state. Everything became clear very quickly. You may remember Putin’s answer to a question posed by Larry King: What happened with the submarine Kursk? — ‘It sank’, said Putin and smiled. It happened in August 2000. The last thing that I saw while leaving Moscow was a billboard ‘We are not ashamed’ — something unbelievable, inimaginable, totally different from true Russian culture and spirit, as we understood them. We were not aware at that time about the thousands of war crimes Russian army was about to commit in Ukraine. So this slogan and Putin’s disgusting smile are the most expressive symbols of his ruling our country for last 22 years. Think of the horrors this utterly  mediocre person has brought to tens of millions of people. To Ukrainians first and foremost. But think of the damage he has done to Russians, too — in some cases ruining their minds, and in others, like ours, their entire lives.


Being an émigré is not a merit, and to stay in a country that can rightly be called fascist and to keep a low profile is no merit either. I’d like to exploit a metaphor, suggested by the Russian poet Sergey Gandlevsky, a good friend of mine. Imagine that you are sitting in a train, and a gang of thugs, hooligans enters your car and starts terrorizing the passengers. One group of people moves to another car, a bigger group stays with their eyes down, pretending not to see the atrocities going on around them. From the ethical point of view these two groups are in a similar position. But there is a very small number of people who are trying to fight off the bullies, even if this fight is doomed to fail. Those people, rather than me, deserve to represent Russia here and elsewhere: they are unable to crush Putin’s regime, but they try to save the nation’s honor. These people deserve to be named, each of them, but I will mention just a few: Alexei Gorinov, Ilya Yashin, Vladimir Kara-Murza, Evgeny Roizman, Yuri Dmitriev and of course the first name to be mentioned is Alexei Navalny. Therefore, I would like to devote a large part of my speech to him. Let me cite some quotes from an essay on this exceptionally brave man, that I wrote in April 2021.


On January 13, 2021, when I learned that Alexei Navalny intended to return to Moscow, I posted the following to my Facebook page: “Once, at the circus, I saw a highwire act. The orchestra fell silent, and the audience did too. High up above our heads, a teenage boy was making his way along a nearly invisible tightrope. I was so afraid for him that I grew dizzy. And then a child’s voice burst through the silence: ‘Good boy! Hold on!’ Today’s news inspired the same sense of dizziness, as well as the urge to shout like that child.”


In those January days, our admiration for Navalny — who had only recently, miraculously, recovered from poisoning — outweighed our fear for him. He knew what he was doing. Or so it seemed. We compared him to Napoleon on the bridge of Arcole, to Ivan, the lucky fool of Russian fairy tales, even to Pushkin’s Pretender (“Providence watches him, of course”). Simply put, we saw him as a chosen man, a person endowed with a sense of destiny. This feeling was only intensified when, upon arriving at Sheremetyevo airport, Navalny selected the ideal background (a wall-size photograph depicting the towers and domes of the Kremlin) for an interview — his final interview while still at liberty.


“Why won’t the judge show herself — what is she, naked?” Navalny asks in court. Imagine the presence of mind it takes to joke under those circumstances. And then his final exclamation: “Russia will be happy!” — a cheerful phrase in place of the far darker, albeit accurate, slogans of previous years.


Heroism as a gift, as a form of genius that cannot be faked or imitated — this is what elicits such admiration from one segment of the population and such envy from another. It’s strange to envy a gift for politics as one might envy a gift for music or poetry, but it’s quite natural to envy personal heroism — natural and shameful. People, including those who nominally belong to the political opposition but haven’t discerned this envy in themselves, are now writing manifestos, expressing their disagreement with Navalny’s views. They fail to understand that this is no longer a matter of views. “I’m going out!” countless brave young people posted on social media after the Navalny trial, and then immediately took to the streets of their cities. Theirs was the only healthy way to respond, though it could land them in serious trouble.


Now the cheerfulness has evaporated, ceding way to profound despair. Navalny is in prison, being tortured with sleep deprivation, refused medical assistance. Every day brings darker, more depressing news. The political world has turned black and white. It’s pointless to reason in terms of right vs. left, parliamentary vs. presidential republic, nation state vs. federation. The nature of the conflict is plain as day: life vs. its absence, light vs. darkness. Society has been plunged into a state of moral catastrophe, of impotence. Neither immersion in our work, nor retreat into our private lives, nor emigration can save us. Sure, there’s your small circle of friends, there’s Facebook — which has taken the place of real social institutions and fostered the illusion that we’re among our own kind — but take a closer look and you see Russian life shrinking, growing faint. First one, then another decides to leave: but how will that help Navalny and hundreds (if not thousands) of other political prisoners? No, even if you leave, even if you distance yourself from the tragedy, you won’t stop watching it. “We’ve got to do something…” “Well, we lived through the Soviet era…” “What does the Soviet era have to do with it? If you’re going to draw comparisons, then let’s talk about Germany in the mid-’30s…” These are the conversations that make up the whole of Russian life.


I’d like to end on a consoling, if not entirely optimistic, note, but where can I find one? All I can do is to repeat what I started with, but quietly, under my breath: good man, hold on… Just think — maybe he’ll make it?


So, that was what I wrote a year and a half ago. Since then, Navalny has received a new, very long term of imprisonment for something he is obviously not guilty of. The conditions of his detention have become even more unbearable, and he has been joined by new victims of the regime, a few of whom I mentioned earlier. The comparison of my home country to Germany in the mid-’30s was even more accurate than we thought then. Although then and perhaps even long before Russian society was internally prepared for a catastrophe: each generation of Russians experienced its own catastrophe, that in part is an answer to the question of why many of us seemed to take it easy. We can say, that Russia has not survived the 20th century, which can be proven even statistically: at its beginning citizens of the Russian empire made up 10% of world population, now this proportion equals less than 2%, and the war that Russia wages against independent Ukraine will only accelerate Russia’s degradation and disintegration. Wishing defeat on the country where I was born and grew up is hard, but the alternative is much scarier.


There is one thing, however, that gives me confidence in Ukraine’s ultimate victory: watching the official Russian TV-channels one can observe a diminishing sense of righteousness about the war. There is hysteria, but no sense of right, of entitlement. In Russian language the word right (pravota) has the same root as the words truth (правда) law (pravo) and righteous (pravednik). Without a sense of rightness, even a false one, the war can’t be won, that is for sure.


Finally, I would like to speak about what I was asked in the first place — how do I see the role of the Russian writer, the artist in the current situation. I think the key word here is humility. It is not our stories or speeches that determine the fate of the world, but the courage of the Ukrainian people and its President, their fighting spirit and, of course, the readiness of Western countries to render military and economic aid. Moreover, the sense of national shame, disgrace, experienced by each of us, can hardly encourage us to make great artistic discoveries. As for the so-called cancellation of Russian culture, it is quite obvious that it is not happening in Europe, but mainly in Russia itself, where theatres are closed, the freedom of speech, freedom of the press these days is severely restricted. This process started not now, but long ago. Here is what I wrote in 2017: “You just don’t know the whole truth.” You’ve heard that said countless times by anti-European Russians in Paris, in Rome. That’s all they talk about: people don’t like us here, don’t like us there. My friends, you know where they like us least of all? In Moscow, at home.” As for the fact that these days someone in Poland or the Baltic States is not dancing the “Nutcracker” or is not staging “Boris Godunov”, we cannot do much about it. The criminal gang that seized power in my home country has nothing to do with any kind of culture, whether you call it imperialistic or not. The only comforting thing I have to say in this regard is that all wars come to an end, and this one is no exception. Russian language and culture can stand up for themselves, so Tchaikovsky will remain Tchaikovsky, and Pushkin will remain Pushkin. And we too will remain who we are.