I recall with shame and frustration the day Saint Isaac’s Cathedral was surrounded by military vehicles and hundreds of riot police bearing down on a tiny pocket of defenseless citizens with anti-Putin pickets. The quietly faded Russian “Snow Revolution” stung my memory and stole some sleep from me in the follow-up to our 2013 International Students For Liberty Conference last weekend. When Glenn Beck called Students For Liberty “Nazis” and “more fascist than some of the fascists I have seen” (one must shudder to think what those look like), and when Ann Coulter fashionably left our room of “pussies” to cower in shame for “sucking up to our liberal friends” on drug policy, I was genuinely thrilled we live in a country where deep and creative imaginations are given full rights to a public broadcast. It’s not like that where I am from.
The natural follow-up begins with honest discourse about liberty. Magatte Wade left a trail of burning words at her Sunday keynote address: “I’m all about the truth, because without truth, we can’t move forward.” So in light of colorful charges, let’s try approaching the truth about a movement of our so-called “pussies” and “fascists.” Let us acknowledge the young libertarians in the SFL network strung across six continents who could not attend the ISFLC, but who nevertheless remind us that they are pouring their hearts into activism for a freer world. If we only consider the 2013 SFL Student Awards, we will recall the African Liberty Students Organization that drove across three Western African states to spread the libertarian message through theater, or LIBEK, which daily strives to support young pro-liberty groups across Serbia, or Estudiantes Pela Libertad Ecuador, which grew a network from zero to four hundred inspired pro-liberty students in their country in the course of three months. Let us contemplate that we speak a multitude of languages in dozens of countries, none of which happen to define liberty with reference to the Republican Party. We claim opposing faiths, traditions, foods, and clothing. We are haunted by different bogeymen, stopped by different barriers, and governed by different tribes. There is practically nothing in common between the students in the global SFL network, except that we recognize the spark, the reason, and the heart in the philosophy of liberty—and we haven’t been afraid to stand up for it.
A cultural awakening of this sort is no small feat when philosophizing about ideal situations often comes at a high price. Perhaps too high a price for my mother country. In Russia, a state of perpetual un-freedom has petrified many people’s ability to imagine a world of mutual sympathy and individual rights. The backdrop of a frozen and chained society reminds me of the intellectual bravery and social entrepreneurship that is rapidly defining our libertarian generation across borders: And let us keep defining it, wherever we come from.
Similar to how Vladimir Clementis was removed from Communist leader Klement Gottwald’s photo after being accused of treason against the Czech Communist party in the opening remembrances of Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Russian authorities have managed time and again to attempt to remove our memories of freedom and revolt. Dissidents, enemies, strange ideas, people with pickets, homosexuals holding hands in public: these are among many cancers that must be removed with careful incisions out of the body politic. Subconsciously, we watch these operations on the street and begin to normalize a state of static un-freedom. 2011, in light of false parliamentary elections in December, was a year of rupture, and the ensuing results were perhaps a period of blissful forgetting.
I will not count how many times I watched unarmed students gathered on a peaceful square in favor of free speech and opposition to the regime surrounded by chains of riot police, dragged, beaten, stuffed into old Soviet buses and driven to the city outskirts out of our memories. How many times did we watch the tank-like police buses carefully sitting on select street corners, armed men blowing smoke and jeering in our faces while we passed by? When the first peaceful demonstrations were sanctioned in Saint Petersburg in mid-December, I won’t forget the steady line of buses ready to remove unpleasant elements nearby the bustle of my favorite street corner: the black Cathedral, an open food market and Dostoevsky’s old apartment. Institutions of truth, commerce, and memory. Nor will I forget when the police barged into our communal apartment on the eve of a demonstration demanding our documents, declaring we were there illegally, and threatening foreigners with deportation. Landlords assured us it was just an unfriendly attempt for a bribe: don’t be spooked, shake it off and carry on.
By spring, I bumped into a pair of British journalists inspecting yet another roundup of peaceful protestors at my metro station, guffawing and frustrated that the event was so small and practically un-reportable. Grandmothers were passing by sullenly with bags of groceries while a man was being dragged by his hair to the bus. The task was complete: our city was replete for months with quarantined theaters of violence. To some degree we became numbed to the prying war against us. If only you obey, you live well. In the closing remarks to her trial, Maria Alyokhina, one of the members of the now-famous band Pussy Riot, recalled what she felt when people became bewildered that she wanted to protect a patch of forest in the Krasnodar region: “people in our country have lost the sense that this country belongs to us…I doubt they even feel a sense of ownership over their own houses. Because if someone were to drive up to their porch with a bulldozer and tell them that they need to evacuate… these people would obediently collect their belongings…and go out on the street. And then stay there precisely until the regime tells them what they should do next.” But Maria Alyokhina is now also tucked away from our memory in a prison camp in the Perm region.
In the introduction to his Internal Colonization: Russia’s Imperial Experience, Alexander Etkind writes that in Russia’s imperial history, “oppression made culture politically relevant and power culturally productive” (3). In an endless lesson, we find that when the seat of power orchestrates culture and defends it with guns, we can lose more than just our political freedom: we lose our capability for the practice of sympathy. Our nerves are cut off from the sensation of liberty.
We lose ourselves.
I too am about the truth. And here it is: liberty doesn’t come as a package handed from the American founders; it is not about a desperate battle in the two party system, as Beck or Coulter would have us believe. In the current world-wide student movement for liberty, we are bearing a generational burden to live up to our human dignity, to demand our rights and liberties, and to spook the bogeymen who threaten us. Understanding liberty takes some thinking and study, and for that we have a wealth of authors. But the feeling of liberty arises from our hearts. Our efforts to protect it cannot roll to a dead stop at arbitrary barriers erected by ideologues. Defending liberty doesn’t stop with fighting for free speech, nor with gay rights or drug legalization. The more we experience, the more we understand that as long as we have ownership over ourselves, liberty is indivisible. And as long as we feel power over our destinies, we can actively call for a culture of peace, freedom, and justice in all aspects of our lives. Within Students For Liberty, this is a culture of thought that we will continue to herald across all borders.
I leave off with a passage from a tremendous twentieth-century novel:
“Does human nature undergo a true change in the cauldron of totalitarian violence? … The great Rising in the Warsaw ghetto, the uprisings in Treblinka and Sobibor…the uprisings in Berlin in 1953, in Hungary in 1956, and in the labour camps of Siberia and the Far East after Stalin’s death…the student protests that broke out in many cities against the suppression of freedom of thought… all these bear witness to the indestructibility of man’s yearning for freedom…. Man’s fate may make him a slave, but his nature remains unchanged.”
Vassily Grossman, Life and Fate (p. 216)