by Sara Rhodin ’02, history department
In his 1978 essay, the “Power and the Powerless,” Vaclav Havel, the esteemed Czech dissident and later president of the Czech Republic, tells the story of a manager of a fruit and vegetable stand who places a sign in his window– as instructed by the Communist authorities– exclaiming “Workers of the World Unite!” Why does this aforementioned greengrocer display such an enthusiastic cry for unification of the world’s workers in his window? Does he really care about the unification of workers, or has he even given thought to what such a unification would look like? Likely, Havel argues, the vast majority of greengrocers in Communist Czechoslovakia don’t even think about the signs they place in their windows or care about the message they are conveying by engaging in this act except to say, as Havel puts it, “I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace.” It’s an action stemming from a deep fear of losing one’s freedom, livelihood, and in the most banal of terms, “a relatively tranquil life.” But by engaging in this action, by placing this seemingly empty slogan in the window of his store, the greengrocer is taking a political stance; he is lending legitimacy to a totalitarian regime in order to protect his own interests.
Now, who can blame him, really? Havel, who spent much of the late seventies and early eighties in prison, was an exceptional human, someone who was willing to give up his own freedom to fight for the freedom of others. Whether or not this is an effective, or even laudable, approach to civil disobedience is debatable. But what is clear is that Havel saw that the true defense against oppression is for everyday citizens to be cognizant and to take responsibility for their actions, however small and meaningless those actions might seem.
I was thinking about this essay this morning while sitting in Sunday meeting for worship. My transition to becoming a history teacher stems in part from a desire to take greater responsibility for my actions and for my community, and I associate the origins of this desire with a trip I took to a former GULAG for political prisoners in rural Russia in fall 2011. Since then, as the seasons change and the air grows colder and more somber this time of year, I am reminded of that visit and the impact it has made on the way I view what it means to live an examined life.
At the time of my trip to Perm-36, I was twenty-seven, and a bit lost. I, in a way, had realized the dream I set out for myself as a George School student. I worked for an international human rights organization, where I had a decent salary, cosmopolitan, erudite colleagues, and an international travel schedule that required me to keep my passport in my purse in case of any last-minute trips abroad. I lived in New York City, where I was surrounded by bountiful cultural opportunities, the best food in the world, accomplished, independent friends, and seemingly endless potential. But I was far from fulfilled and feeling stuck. I began to feel like my job was too comfortable, and that both professionally and personally, I was not living like a self-actualized person, ready to take responsibility for her actions, even when they affected the lives of others.
Suffering from this not yet identified ennui, I flew into Perm, a provincial industrial city bordered by the Ural mountain range, marking the start of a month-long work trip to Russia, Poland, and Strasbourg, France. In Perm, I was visiting a former camp of the Russian GULAG, where a group of activists, in collaboration with the human rights organization Memorial, were establishing a museum in honor of the political prisoners interned there and an educational center for young, human rights-minded activists and scholars. Early one Saturday morning, I was to meet a stalwart of the Soviet human rights movement, Victor Shmyrov and his wife, Tatiana. Along with a young Russian activist, the four of us hopped in a beat up van and drove 120 kilometers along dirt roads and through potato fields that were every once in a while interrupted by small Soviet factory towns and collective farming villages.
Victor was a kind, plump, red-nosed storyteller with a deep laugh, the kind of man I imagined every Russian grandfather to be before I ever went to Russia. Once a political prisoner at the camp himself, his connection to the place was still vivid and deeply personal. He spoke about his experiences as a prisoner simultaneously with deep remorse and nostalgia. Especially haunting to me was when he showed me the bunk bed he shared with the great Soviet dissident, Sergei Kovalev. Their friendship, in the way that he described it, sounded so relatable and familiar, not unlike the dorm relationships I hear my GS students discussing. Yet it was formed by this great tragedy, the deprivation of freedom, in one of the harshest, stifling environments of the twentieth century.
On the way back to Perm, over the three hours of dark, rickety driving, Victor told me a story that changed my life irrevocably. The story involved Sergei Kovalev’s son, Ivan, who had also been a Perm-36 prisoner. In the late 1970s, Ivan was a young dissident, publishing a widely-read samizdat, or underground periodical, called Victory. His girlfriend, Tatiana Osipova, was also an anti-Soviet activist working for the Moscow Helsinki Group.
At the time, this was incredibly dangerous ground to tread and, like many of her fellow activists, Tatiana was arrested and sent to the only camp for female political prisoners in the Soviet Union at that time. Knowing his newspaper would reach Tatiana through underground networks at the camp, Ivan published a love letter to her in Victory. He himself was then arrested, and sent to Perm-36. Using the same underground networks, Tatiana and Ivan sent each other love letters carved onto clear plastic toothbrushes. Because you had to hold the toothbrushes up against the light at the perfect angle to see the messages, their words went unnoticed by guards.
Ivan was released a year before Tatiana. Three weeks before her release date, he heard a knock at the door. He opened it, and there stood a KGB officer holding a piece of paper in front of him. The officer told Ivan that Tatiana had been caught stealing and she was going to be charged and sent to a prison for violent criminals in the far east. There, in all likelihood, she would be shot. But, the officer stressed, there was one way that Tatiana could come home, that the whole mess would be forgotten, and that the couple could leave the country and never come back. If Ivan signed a document renouncing the human rights movement and swearing allegiance to the Soviet state, he and his love would be on a plane to the west within days. He had until eight o’clock the next morning to think on it.
Ivan knew that the charges were politicized and that his girlfriend was not a criminal. But still, having embraced the values of the Soviet human rights movement years before, he knew that his actions would not be without consequences. Could he put his own personal needs before those of the collective? Before his principles? He knew that, like the greengrocer, his actions to save his girlfriend, to maintain an essential level of “tranquility” in life, would mean to commit an extremely political act. This was not an easy decision for Ivan to make.
Nonetheless, the next morning he signed the document. Three days later a car picked him up and took him to the airport. He was escorted onto a plane headed for Vienna. A few minutes later, Tatiana was taken to the seat next to him, completely baffled. At the camp she had been told she faced prison time in the East, and was certain this meant death. The next thing she knew she was in a car, and then at the airport. She had accepted her fate. Ivan was the last person she expected to see on the plane. “How did this happen?” she asked, shaking. “Where are we going?”
He had to tell her everything. About the knock on his door and the KGB officer and the ultimatum and the offer. About the unbearable weight of making such a decision. Tatiana’s reaction didn’t surprise him: she was livid. “How could you do this?” she asked. “How could you sell out the movement and your principles for my sake?”
They landed in Vienna, and at a press conference of Soviet dissidents living in exile, Ivan and Tatiana admitted the decision Ivan made and the document he signed. Now, facing no other choice but to take responsibility for their actions, Ivan and Tatiana publicly resigned from the movement they cared so deeply about.
Though I found this an incredibly moving and inspiring story, I was also deeply unsettled by it. I spent the next few weeks in a bit of a malaise. On paper, I was doing principled work, yet it felt not quite right to be housed in a $500-a-night hotel in Strasbourg while carrying out a training session for Eastern European public health activists at the European Court of Human Rights. I became increasingly aware that I was more often in conversations focused on frequent flyer miles than on essential questions of rights, accountability, and civic virtue. I fulfilled the obligations of my job largely because I wanted to grow in my career and be an accomplished person, frequently, in greengrocer speak, placing signs in my front window to maintain a level of comfort and success I had become accustomed to. This was no way to live the examined life I had set out to live as a student at George School. I began a process to find a way to change this.
My path took me to some interesting places; a year ago, I was studying for advanced physics classes at Johns Hopkins, finishing the requirements for medical school. However, during my shadowing experiences in the emergency room, I felt like I was observing a factory line or fast-food restaurant function rather than a place where key existential issues were at hand. Last January, on a hiatus from Hopkins, I saw a posting for a long-term substitute history position at Baltimore Friends School and sent in my application right away. Though I had never intended on becoming a teacher, something about being responsible for students’ academic and intellectual development spoke to me in a way that Ivan and Tatiana’s story did. At Baltimore Friends, I found that the responsibility was so much larger than that; as a high school history teacher you guide students on their path to find the meaning of a good life and enable them to become truly individual selves. And I was lucky to find a full-time position at George School, where responsibility to educate the whole student, to help each unique young person find the right academic, philosophical, and moral path for them, reigns supreme.
It may seem strange to compare this sense of responsibility to that of a dissident living under a totalitarian regime, but the lessons from that story, and from the fable of the greengrocer are invaluable. The act of taking responsibility for our actions is what makes us human. It is something that we are forced to grapple with every day on various levels and though the stakes of, for example, blaming a late paper on printer problems, may seem low, a person is much more of a unique individual self when they are honest about their shortcomings and sincere about their actions and motives. In a way, I see the stories of the greengrocer and of Ivan and Tatiana as guiding lights. When the individuals of a community let go of their sense of responsibility, the potential for very bad things to happen in that society is immeasurable. As a teacher at George School, my responsibility to my students is weightier than I could have ever predicted. I am both responsible for being honest with them, and I am responsible for keeping them honest, for enabling them to take responsibility for their actions, for fostering their true, honest, individual selves. To use Havel’s words, I’m here to help them to see their actions as “articulated expressions of living within the truth.”
That responsibility, colossal and encompassing, is wonderous.