Lyudmila Ulitskaya was originally a geneticist in the USSR, but fell afoul of the Soviet authorities and lost her scientific position during the 60s. She ended up as a writer ... her novels, several of which have won prizes, becoming very popular in post-Soviet Russia.
Recently, Ms. Ulitskaya has corresponded with Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who is currently serving a jail sentence. In Soviet times Mr. Khodorkovsky was a Komsomol (Communist Youth) functionary, later became one of the wealthiest beezinessmeni in post-Soviet Russia, but then fell afoul of the post-Soviet authorities (the government of Vladimir Putin) and ended up in jail.
In one of her letters, below, Ms. Ulitskaya mused about their experiences in Soviet times and immediately after. The White House referred to is the one in Moscow, of course, the main Russian government building and the site where Boris Yeltsin led a famous pro-democracy demonstration in 1991. The letters, translated from Russian, can be found at:
Lyudmila UlitskayaYou clearly exceeded the boundaries of what was allowed (quite deliberately, as I understand). You broke an unwritten rule (deliberately or not), i.e. you overstepped the line of what was permissible in a higher circle than I've ever entered. To be quite honest, I've never wanted to. This is what I would like to talk about. We all select our own lines which we will not step over.
For example, my friend Natasha Gorbanevskaya went out into Red Square in 1968 with her three-month old child and was later locked up in a mental institution. She may not have been completely lacking in the instinct of self-preservation, but it was clearly not very well-developed. I wouldn't have done this even without a child. Simply out of animal fear. But I couldn't take part in a vote of censure at a general meeting in the Institute of Genetics, where I worked at the time. I stomped out of the hall accompanied by the envious stares of my colleagues at the moment when I should have been raising my hand. This was my boundary --- a very modest one. The price I had to pay was not high --- I was fired at the first opportunity. I ended up writing books.
The children of the 60s generation read typewritten copies of Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago and Orwell's 1984 at the age of sixteen. They kept their distance from the authorities and, at best, wrote their dissertations, worked as doctors or lift operators, or took part in a social movement which later came to be called "dissident." Some of the children of this generation went through the prisons and camps in the 1970s-1980s when they grew up, and some emigrated to the West.
When I appeared before the Komsomol faculty committee, because I needed a character reference, it was with a feeling of revulsion and a travel permit in my pocket. I was confronted either by hard-boiled party hacks or idiots --- but I did manage to answer the question about who the secretary of the Communist party in Bulgaria was. That was in the 1960s, and you were there, or in the neighbouring office, in the early 1980s. You were undoubtedly a member of a circle of people with whom I was, to put it mildly, not on friendly terms. But it turns out --- and this is what surprised me in your letter --- that some of these people in the 1980s did have "positive" motivation. You were there, a talented young man, dreaming of becoming a "factory director," of manufacturing something meaningful, and doing it well, perhaps even weapons to defend the country. In that environment you encountered "progressive" people like Yeltsin, and retrogrades like Ligachev. You were inside the system, you found your place there and created a team. You say you weren't interested in ideology, that your "desire to lead" was what mattered. But this aspiration is a pretty good definition of the concept of "careerism." I don't mean that as a swear word, but a definition. A career, an occupation is an important part of a normal man's life. And a woman's too, these days.
But to me it seemed that the system's rules of the game were such that a decent person couldn't accept them. You were a boy from a good family. How was it possible to grow up a "faithful" Komsomol member with no doubts who were friends, and who were enemies? You say it was possible. I have no reason not to trust your analysis. I must have been biased by my complete hostility to everyone who was in the party and involved with the party. In the 1980s at all levels of government (down to bathhouses and kindergartens) social ideology was a spent force and there was only an empty skeleton left. I see now that the picture I had was incomplete. Perhaps I was even completely wrong. Such was my revulsion for the Soviet system that I couldn't imagine that at that time of late Communism one could rely on, or trust anyone. Or even find anyone to look up to. For me, Yeltsin was just a party worker, and I was very upset when all my friends went rushing off to the White House. I sat sadly at home and wondered why I didn't want to go to the demonstration with everyone else.
Several days later I said that if there were a purge, as there was in Germany after the defeat of the Nazi regime, then it would restore my faith. There was a lot of enthusiasm around, and I couldn't help sharing it. But there was no purge: almost all the bosses stayed the same. They changed places and a few were thrown out. I understand that Yeltsin had charm, flair and good intentions. But it ended badly --- he handed the country over to the KGB. Those were the "clean hands" he found. I think you too recognize this, although you express it differently. How do you assess the figure of Yeltsin today, a decade later? If there has been a re-assessment, then when was it?
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Khodorkovsky replies: As for Boris Yeltsin, I'm not impartial here. I understand all his shortcomings. What's more in 1999 I thought it was time for him to go, though I did not welcome Putin's candidacy, and Putin knows this.
But Boris Yeltsin was a great man. A monolith. A true Russian Tsar, with all the plusses and minuses that go with that. He did a lot of good things, and a lot of bad ones too. It's not for me to judge which of the two won out.
Would it have been possible to have pulled off a greater, or a better, transformation of Russia than he did? Could it have been done without a "Thermidor" and a new stagnation, without a return of "comrades from the KGB"? Without the Chechen war, without the storming of parliament? Almost certainly. But we couldn't. And I don't meant him --- I mean all of us. And anyway, what right have I got to stand in judgment?
When we met, I was twenty-three. And I want to preserve these memories of mine. He's dead now, and I'd rather hold onto those memories--- Submitted by Dr. Phage