At noon, August 25th, 1968, on Red Square, eight people protest against the entry of Russian tanks into Czechoslovakia. « For your liberty and ours » is one of their slogans. This demonstration, which only lasts several minutes, marks a decisive turning point in the evolution of the Soviet dissident movement and still constitutes a major event in contemporary history. Victor Fainberg, then a guide at the palace-museum of Pavlovsk near Leningrad, is one of those eight demonstrators. After more than four years spent in restricted psychiatric hospitals, he leaves the USSR at the end of the 1970's for France, where he has been living ever since.
When he comes to meet me at the Montargis station, Victor Fainberg, who will soon be 87, almost walks with a youthful gait. Short with white hair, he comes straight up to me with an open smile, a copy of Le Figaro in his hand. His wife, Françoise, walks by his side. It has been six months since they left Paris and their small cosy apartment on Rue Mouffetard to move to Dammarie-sur-Loing in the Loiret, a tiny town of 500 inhabitants. Their new house, full of books and Russian knicknacks, dominates a verdant slope and the canal of Briare. In the distance, the forest stretches out: a magnificent view, limpid and calm - a gift or a promise of peace after a life that has been laden with suffering.
Without hesitation, Victor Fainberg recalls his early childhood as a "happy" period. He was born into a Jewish family at Kharkiv in the Ukraine, on the 26th of November, 1931. His father was an engineer in a city factory, his mother a "pedologist " (a profession which was considered to be innovative and progressive in the USSR of the 20’s and 30’s, until 1936, when it was forbidden as being "a bourgeois ideology"). At six years old, little Vika is already a "faithful Marxist-Leninist": he venerates Comrade Stalin and devours books evoking Red commissars fighting the evil White counter-revolutionaries. He is fascinated by films where heroic border guards capture spies and saboteurs.
It comes home to him that he is Jewish in Bouzoulouk, a small town in the Orenbourg region where his father is sent at the beginning of the great patriotic war to get a military factory up and running. When he arrives at school, Victor reads the words scrawled in chalk on the blackboard: "Fainberg : Yid". At 13 years old, he begins to stand up for himself: the offenders who call him a "Yid" find his fist in their faces. In 1944, when his family returns to liberated Kharkiv, he is in a fight every day. His parents end up consulting a psychologist, then a psychiatrist who prescribes six electroshock sessions. Very frightened of the authorities, but having faith in Soviet medicine, the parents obey. "As I watched the doctor turn on the current for the electrical discharge, I was thinking: I will be killed for several minutes. I made myself do it. I got used to it. That helped me afterwards, but it also made life very ugly."
Noon, Red Square
In her book, Red Square at Noon (1), Natalia Gorbanevskaïa – a remarkable poetess, a grand figure of Soviet dissidence and one of the demonstrators on August 25, 1968 – describes Victor Fainberg as a man having "the classic appearance of the suffering Jew." This exterior never prevents him from protecting himself; wherever he goes, Fainberg is subjected to anti-Semitic remarks that he cannot bear. Twice, he tries to pursue military studies. Despite his good grades, it always ends in the same way: anti-Semitic jeers, fights, expulsion. It is probably this prevailing and uninhibited anti-Semitism that provokes his awareness of the violence, injustice and lies on which the Soviet system is based. Fainberg ends up earning his living as an assembly-line worker in a factory, while following studies at the faculty of English literature at the University of Leningrad.
In the summer of 1968, Victor Fainberg, who already frequents the dissident milieu, finds new work: he is hired as a guide at the palace-museum of Pavlovsk, next to Leningrad. On August 20, 1968, Soviet troops invade Czechoslavokia by surprise. "At that time, they were bringing many Czech tourists into the USSR to demonstrate the reestablishment of the so-called friendship of the two nationalities. I spoke with a Czech student who had come to Pavlovsk and told him that I was going to demonstrate. He answered: ‘Don't do that, it’s prison for sure.’ But I thought that I was going to feel freer in prison and I actually did feel a great relief once I was in Lefortovo, the KGB prison. I understood what we were dealing with, and the only possibility of survival was to preserve the integrity of my character, whatever the consequences."
On August 25, 1968, they are eight at Red Square to demonstrate against the crushing of the Prague Spring by Soviet tanks: Konstantin Babitsky, Larissa Bogoraz, Vadim Delaunay, Vladimir Dremliouga, Pavel Litvinov, Natalia Gorbanevskaïa (with her son Joseph, only three months old, in a baby carriage), and Victor Fainberg. Tatiana Baïeva, a 21-year-old Muskovite student, is also among them, but during the inquiry, she declares that she found herself there by accident and so she isn't pursued, which has since created confusion as to the number of demonstrators. At exactly noon, the eight protestors sit on the ground and spread out their banners and posters under the windows of the Kremlin: "Hands off the CSSR," "Freedom for Dubcek," "For your liberty and ours."
The demonstration, which only lasts several minutes, is violently dispersed by KGB agents in plain clothes. "Imagine a pleasant August day on Red Square, it’s 28°; tourists coming for the most part from other cities in the USSR are going for a walk… and all of a sudden, cries and slogans. Agents in plain clothes, all of them around 35 years old, run very quickly towards us and start to hit us and tear up our posters. But they are a little unsure, they don’t know how to evacuate us. Nothing was foreseen. While I was going towards Red Square, someone was following me but I was able to shake him off, so they had been taken by surprise. They leave to get a vehicle and we remain, seated. I'm covered with blood and I have four broken teeth in my hand. Suddenly, I see the crowd of tourists coming towards us in rows, in real formation, their faces full of fear. And they repeat: 'Comrades, but what are you doing, comrades?'!," remembers Fainberg.
Natalia Gorbanevskaïa writes: "I hardly saw how they were beating him: I was too busy defending our pennant. It was only at the depot that I saw him again. His lips were swollen and torn; he was holding some bloody teeth in his hands. Later, Victor recounted how he had been beaten: he was kicked in the face and head."
What was uniting these eight dissidents, some of them friends and others who hardly knew each other? "We would hope for nothing," responds Victor Fainberg. "Soviet citizens, we were filled with shame and this shame united all eight of us, although we were all very different. I was conscious that the crushing of Prague Spring did not only concern the Czechs and the Slovaks. It touched me personally as I was a citizen of the oppressing country. Natalia Gorbanevskaïa also speaks of the shame in one of her poems, where there is this line: 'When shame pushes us onto the square. ' " ("Когда на площадь гонит стыд")
Many years later, when Fainberg is already living in Paris, his friend, the writer Victor Nekrassov, also exiled, tells him this story: one day, he ran across a group of Soviet tourists who were moving about in rows, just as in the USSR, and Nekrassov, a former officer, approached them and curtly ordered them to "Tighten up the rows!" "And they did it! Because it was as such that they had been indoctrinated. That made me instantly think of our demonstration on Red Square when the crowd, moving in rows, was repeating, ´What are you doing, comrades, aren’t you ashamed?´! And they were turning their heads away, since the Soviet man should not even see such a demonstration. It was forbidden!", says Victor Fainberg, still amazed today.
With his four broken teeth, Fainberg "is of no value to the court." The trial should demonstrate that the protestors themselves have violated public order and were only beaten by respectable agents from the forces of law and order. With his toothless mouth, Victor Fainberg would certainly spoil this beautiful mise en scène. "The simplest way not to allow someone to appear before the court is to declare him irresponsible," notes Gorbanevskaïa in her book. While his cohorts are judged and condemned to three years of camp, or to several years of house arrest in Siberia, Victor Fainberg is interned in a psychiatric hospital of a restricted nature in Leningrad. Natalia Gorbanevskaya, the mother of two young children, is also judged psychologically "irresponsible" and interned at Kazan in the same kind of establishment.
"He who has never stayed in a place like that will have trouble understanding that entering one is the same as disappearing in a tomb" (2), writes Piotr Grigorenko, another emblematic figure of dissidence. General in the Soviet army, stripped of his rank and deprived of all his decorations for having come to the defense of the Crimean Tatars, he too is subjected to punitive psychiatric hospitalisation. In the hospital, which had been installed in a former prison, Victor Fainberg, considered to be insane and treated as such, has no rights. He can neither make a formal complaint about his living conditions nor seek an attorney. He can no longer see his son, aged 14, as visits by minors of less than 16 years old are forbidden.
However that does not prevent him from fighting back: he goes on a hunger strike with Vladimir Borissov, another interned dissident whose acquaintance Victor has made at the hospital; they do a second one afterwards, lasting 81 days. Beaten, attached to their beds, they are force-fed through one nostril (always the same one, so that it would hurt even more). Victor remembers this strike as a unique interminable journey during the course of which, despite everything, he keeps up his daily exercises, falls exhausted on his bed, then wakes up the next day to the same nightmarish atmosphere.
Meanwhile, a doctor observes them. He is the witness of their struggles, their tenacity. It is Captain Lev Petrov, who has the reputation of being the cruelest psychiatrist of the establishment, but it is only a mask he wears in order to better dissimulate his game. Dissident in his soul, Petrov makes their hunger strike known to the Western news correspondents based at Moscow. "He is the 'spy' who saved me," recounts Fainberg, who exits the hospital in February, 1973, then leaves the USSR in 1974.
Since our interview, Victor Fainberg has telephoned me several times to apologize: he wants to speak of Oleg Sentsov. According to him, we evoked too much of his own life and not enough about Oleg Sensov’s, while today all that counts is the destiny of the Ukrainian filmmaker, imprisoned in Russia, and his hunger strike. Victor Fainberg has addressed two letters to Emmanuel Macron; they remain without response: "It is as if I am reliving what I lived already so long ago."
Crédit Photos, all rights reserved.
Translated from French to English by Sally Gordon-Mark.
(1) Gorbanevskaya, Natalya (1972). Red Square at Noon. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. ISBN 978-0-03-085990-8.
(2) « Nous, dissidents », Recherches, n° 34, octobre 1978