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On the eve of Passover, a Russian Jewish heroine resists Putin

Alla Gutnikova is a Russian Jewish woman, and one of the former editors of the Moscow Higher School of Economics’ student journal “DOXA.” Gutnikova, along with four of her fellow editors, was sentenced to two years of correctional labor each for their role in a video questioning whether it was right for Russian teachers to discourage their students from attending rallies protesting opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s incarceration. They were charged with “inciting minors to take part in illegal opposition protests.”

As the Russian government brutally shuts down dissent from its own citizens over its invasion of Ukraine, acts of courage and resistance like Gutnikova and her colleagues have done are increasingly rare, and their dream of a liberal Russia grows increasingly unlikely. On the eve of Passover, we felt it important to share the voice of a powerful Jewish woman speaking truth to power.

I am not going to speak of the case, the search, the interrogations, the volumes, the trials. That is boring and pointless. These days I attend the school of fatigue and frustration. But before my arrest, I had time to enroll in the school of learning how to speak about truly important things.

I would like to talk about philosophy and literature. About Benjamin, Derrida, Kafka, Arendt, Sontag, Barthes, Foucault, Agamben, about Audre Lorde and bell hooks. About Timofeeva, Tlostanova and Rachmaninova.

I would like to speak about poetry, about how to read contemporary poetry. About Gronas, Dashevsky and Borodin.

But now is not the time nor the place. I will hide my small tender words on the tip of my tongue, in the back of my throat, between my stomach and my heart. I will say just a little.

I often feel like a little fish, a birdling, a schoolgirl, a baby. But recently, I discovered with surprise that Brodsky, too, was put on trial at 23. And, since I have also been counted among the human race, I will say this:

In the Kabbalah there is the concept of tikkun olam – repairing the world. I see that the world is imperfect. I believe, as wrote Yehuda Amichai, that the world was created beautiful for goodness and for peace, like a bench in a courtyard (in a courtyard, not a court!). I believe that the world was created for tenderness, hope, love, solidarity, passion, joy.

But the world is atrociously, unbearably full of violence. And I don’t want violence. In any form. No teacher’s hands in schoolgirls’ underwear, no drunken father’s fists on the bodies of wives and children. If I decided to list all the violence around us, a day wouldn’t be enough, nor a week, nor a year. My eyes are wide open. I see violence, and I don’t want violence. The more violence there is, the stronger I don’t want it. And more than anything, I don’t want the biggest and the most frightening violence.

I really love reading. I will now speak with the voices of others.

At school, in history class, I learned the phrases “You crucify freedom, but the soul of man knows no bounds” and “For your, and for our, freedom”.

In high school, I read “Requiem” by Anna Andreyevna Akhmatova, “The Steep Path” by Evgeniya Solomonovna Ginzburg, “The Closed Theater” by Bulat Shalvovich Okudzhava, “The Children of Arbat” by Anatoliy Naumovich Rybakov. Of Okudzhava’s poems I loved most of all:

Conscience, honor and dignity, There’s our spiritual army. Hold out your palm to it, For this, one fears no fire. Its face is lofty and wonderful. Dedicate to it your short century. Maybe, you will never be victorious, But you’ll die as a human.

At MGIMO [Moscow State Institute of International Relations] I learned French and memorized a line from Édith Piaf: “Ça ne pouvait pas durer toujours” [“It could not last forever”]. And from Marc Robine: “Ça ne peut pas durer comme ça” [“It cannot go on like this”].

At nineteen, I traveled to Majdanek and Treblinka and learned to say “never again” in seven languages: never again, jamais plus, nie wieder, קיינמאל מער, nigdy więcej, לא עוד.

I studied Jewish sages and fell in love with two proverbs. Rabbi Hillel said: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” And Rabbi Nachman said: “The whole world is a narrow bridge, and the main thing is to have no fear at all.”

Later, I enrolled at the School of Cultural Studies and learned several more important lessons. First of all, words have meaning. Second, we must call things by their names. And finally, sapere aude, have the courage to use your own mind.

It’s ridiculous that our case has to do with schoolchildren. I taught children the humanities in English, worked as a nanny and dreamed of going with the program “Teacher for Russia” to a small town for two years to sow intelligent, kind, eternal seeds. But Russia – in the words of the state prosecuting attorney, Prosecutor Tryakin – believes that I involved underage children in life-threatening actions. If I ever have children (and I will, because I remember the greatest commandment), I will hang a picture of the Judaean governor Pontius Pilate on their wall, so they grow up in cleanliness. The governor Pontius Pilate standing and washing his hands – such will be the portrait. Yes, if thinking and feeling is now life-threatening, I don’t know what to say about the charges. I wash my hands.

And now is the moment of truth. The hour of transparency.

My friends and I don’t know what to do with ourselves from the horror and the pain, but when I descend into the metro, I don’t see tear-stained faces. I don’t see tear-stained faces.

Not a single of my favorite books – for children or adults – taught indifference, apathy, cowardice. Nowhere have I been taught the words:

“we are small people”

“i am a simple person”

“it’s not so black and white”

“you can’t believe anyone”

“i am not interested in all that”

“i am far from politics”

“it’s none of my business”

“nothing depends on me”

“competent authorities will figure it out”

“what could i have done alone?”

No, I know and love very different words.

John Donne says through Hemingway:

No man is an island, all by himself. Every person is part of the Mainland, part of Land; and if a wave sweeps away a coastal cliff into the sea, Europe will become smaller. And likewise if it washes away the edge of the cape or destroys your castle or your friends. The death of every person diminishes me as well, for I am one with all of humanity. And so, don’t ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for you.

Mahmoud Darwish says:

As you prepare your breakfast — think of others (don’t forget to feed the pigeons). As you conduct your wars — think of others (don’t forget those who want peace). As you pay your water bill — think of others (think of those who have only the clouds to drink from). As you go home, your own home — think of others (don’t forget those who live in tents). As you sleep and count the stars, think of others (there are people who have no place to sleep). As you liberate yourself with metaphors think of others (those who have lost their right to speak). And as you think of distant others — think of yourself (and say, I wish I were a candle in the darkness).

Gennady Golovaty says:

The blind cannot look with wrath, The mute cannot yell with fury, The armless cannot take up arms, The legless cannot march forward. But, the mute can look wrathfully, But, the blind can yell furiously, But, the legless can take up arms. But, the armless can march forward.

I know some are terrified. They choose silence. But Audre Lorde says: Your silence will not protect you.

In the Moscow metro, they announce: Passengers are forbidden on the train heading to a dead end.

And the St. Petersburg [band] Aquarium adds: This train is on fire.

Lao Tzu, through Tarkovsky, says:

And most important, let them believe in themselves, let them be helpless like children. Because weakness is a great thing, and strength is nothing. When a man is just born, he is weak and flexible. When he dies, he is hard and insensitive. When a tree is growing, it’s tender and pliant. But when it’s dry and hard, it dies. Hardness and strength are death’s companions. Pliancy and weakness are expressions of the freshness of being. Because what has hardened will never win.

Remember that fear eats the soul. Remember the Kafka character who sees “a gallows being erected in the prison yard, mistakenly thinks it is the one intended for him, breaks out of his cell in the night, and goes down and hangs himself”.

Be like children. Don’t be afraid to ask (yourselves and others), what is good and what is bad. Don’t be afraid to say that the emperor has no clothes. Don’t be afraid to yell, to cry. Repeat (to yourselves and others): 2+2=4. Black is black. White is white. I am a person, strong and brave. A strong and brave woman. A strong and brave people.

Freedom is a process by which you develop the habit of being inaccessible to slavery.

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