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For Your Freedom, and Ours

part 1, 2, 3

On August 21, 1968, totalitarianism seized the heart of Eastern Europe and compressed it with uncommon malevolence.

President Lyndon Johnson said, "The Soviet Union and its allies have invaded a defenseless country to stamp out a resurgence of ordinary human freedom."

The Soviet Union had invaded Czechoslovakia. The action had been prompted by a communist reform movement called the "Prague Spring." A liberal politician named Alexander Dubcek led the Prague Spring, and he was an admirer of Nikita Khrushchev and of Khrushchev's secret speech. Dubcek wanted to build socialism with a human face.

Pavel Litvinov, once a leader of Moscow's human rights movement, revisits Red Square, the site of his historic protest.
photo by Charles Maynes

"We hoped that something like that can happen in Russia," says Pavel Litvinov, a leader of Moscow's human rights movement. "There was a feeling that if they send troops to Czechoslovakia, we were expecting it every day for several months, then they would arrest all of us, and they would stop human rights movement, and freeze the development of ideas of freedom in the Soviet Union for a long time."

Four days after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, as the Kremlin's bells struck noon. Litvinov and seven of his friends went to Red Square, the historic plaza in the center of Moscow. They were there to protest. It was an unprecedented move. The first anti-government group demonstration of the post-Khrushchev era. They did so peacefully, silently. They brandished a Czechoslovak flag, and some banners. Litvinov's read: "for your freedom and ours."

Thirty-seven years and a lifetime later, Pavel Litvinov finds himself living in the U.S., teaching here, at Hackley, a private school in Tarrytown, New York. Litvinov, an American citizen, teaches physics. I recently met with Litvinov and his students at his high school physics lab. They knew Litvinov had done something during Soviet times, but they didn't know the details. I told his students what had happened on Red Square.

"He was arrested by the KGB," I said. "He was roughed upped. He spent many years in Siberian exile. He ultimately became an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience. Any reaction to that?"

"Wow," said one student. "Yeah," said another.

"Now that I've told you a little more about your teacher, do you have any questions you want to ask him?"

One student began, "What first brought you into the sphere of dissident activities?"

"Soviet propaganda always told us that it brought happiness to everyone, that there is no exploitation, no inequality, that there is complete liberty," said Litvinov. "When I first realized that they were all lying, I started to get angry against them, and that probably made me dissident."

"How did you come to the conclusion that they were all lying?" the student asked.

"It's very important to understand that plenty of people knew they were lying," said Litvinov. "Because they saw what was written in newspapers and they saw real life, so everybody saw a discrepancy. The question was to take responsibility for that knowledge and say I cannot live with that lie, I have to do something."


Continue to part 3