An Obituary for Valeria Novodvorskaya
Her name meant “the new courtyard.” She was one of Russia’s very last lions of freedom, and she tried all her life to urge her country to open a door onto a new courtyard, one free from the despair and wretched failure of the tsarist and Soviet past. She was one of Barack Obama’s most severe critics. She passed away on July 12, 2014, at the age of 64.* She was Valeria Novodvorskaya, and hers is a loss Russia can hardly bear.
Her advanced age did not prevent her from being a fully realized, modern woman. She took up blogging and regularly wrote for the website of the maverick Moscow radio station "Echo of Moscow." Her final blog post there, published ten days before her demise, is a succinct and devastating indictment of the people of Russia, issued not out of hatred for them, but out of faithful, desperate, unrequited love. It is very similar to Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
The post’s translators explain that Novodvorskaya succumbed to complications from a prior surgery, calling to mind the horrible reality of wretched medical care for those in Russia – the vast majority of the population – whose paltry incomes do not permit them to receive decent medical care. Novodvorskaya lived two fewer years than the Russian average for a woman, an average six years less than the average for an American woman.
The brief post is a heart-rending wail from the depths of Novodvorskaya’s soul, beseeching her countrymen to turn away from the path they followed in the days of Josef Stalin. Fearlessly throughout the Soviet era, starting at the age of just 19, Novodvorskaya roared and railed against the Soviet dictatorship, and for her trouble, like many other dissidents, she was declared insane, arrested, and placed in a psychiatric institution.
Novodvorskaya was three years old when Stalin expired, and she spent her entire life struggling to save her country from the cataclysmic course onto which Stalin had placed it. Imagine – but you can’t possibly – the joy someone born under Stalin felt when Boris Yeltsin dissolved the USSR and held Russia’s first genuine presidential election. Imagine her horror when less than ten years later, a proud KGB named Vladimir Putin seized power and headed the ship of state back onto Stalin’s course.
But this horror was nothing when compared to the sickening revulsion Novodvorskaya felt as she watched her countrymen embrace Putin and help him undo her entire life’s work. The people of Russia have allowed Putin to turn what once were free, independent broadcast television stations into lackeys of the state. They have allowed him to repeatedly jail some of his political opponents, murder others, and drive still more into exile. They have allowed him to militarize the state and to use force against tiny neighbors like Georgia and Ukraine, biting off chunks of their territory and seeking to recreate the USSR. They have allowed him to restore the national anthem of the USSR, a tune written to glorify Stalin, and they have allowed him to essentially nationalize the entire economy, diverting massive sums to repression and imperialism, just as his Soviet ancestors once did.
In 2010, Novodvorskaya did what the people of Russia have never considered doing: she apologized to the nations of Eastern Europe for the litany of Soviet atrocities visited upon them. A summary of her remarks in Tallinn, Estonia, states:
Novodvorskaya regards the divided memory and sense of frustration as the national psychological characteristics. Despite all of its national resources Russia has remained poor and uneducated. Suffering from its imperial complexes, Russia uses its limited economic resources only for cultivating hate and revenge. Especially after the war on Georgia, the West should have been more decisive, but instead Russia was not expelled from any international organizations.
This points out that it is not only the people of Russia who are repeating the errors of the past, but the people of the West as well. The West has been shockingly slow to react to Putin’s barbaric attacks on his neighbors, and this has only encouraged him toward more aggression.
A few months afterward, she gave another major address in which she eviscerated Barack Obama personally for his stunning cowardice in failing to rally to the support of the tiny segment of Russian society that bravely struggled against Putin’s domination. One was reminded listening to her of the Warsaw uprising in Poland during World War II. Poles, emboldened by the presence of Russian forces just across the river from their city, rose up in their thousands to challenge the Nazi overlords. The Russian forces just sat and watched the Nazis wipe out the Poles, and then, when the Nazis finally retreated, the Russians moved in and subjugated Poland, just as the Nazis had done.
But nobody paid any attention. Obama’s policy remained the same, he was re-elected president, and then, just as his opponent Sarah Palin had predicted, we soon saw Russian armor rolling into Crimea in Ukraine.
It was, undoubtedly, all too much for Novodvorskaya to bear. She said that Putin’s actions in Crimea reminded her of Soviet actions in the Baltics in the 1940s, but she could have carried that weight on her mighty shoulders. What broke her heart and destroyed her will to live were the craven actions of her fellow citizens, who appeared to have learned nothing from the decades of Soviet darkness and failure and who seemed prepared to condemn their children to relive the entire Communist disaster, this time with religion as an ally of the state rather than an enemy.
It is a merciful event that Novodvorskaya will not have to watch her country descend further into the pit of dictatorship and disaster. And her passing need not have been in vain – not if we here resolve increased devotion to that cause for which she gave the last full measure of devotion. We must deal with Vladimir Putin as if we remember our own history and as if we are human beings, not cattle.
Follow Kim Zigfeld on Twitter @larussophobe.
*Editor's note: A previous edition established Novodvorskaya's age at her death as 74. The error has been corrected.