Skip to comments.Alexander Ginsburg -- obituary
Posted on 07/21/2002 5:35:17 PM PDT by dighton
Alexander Ginsburg, who has died aged 65, was one of the architects of the dissident movement in the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s.
A constant irritant to the KGB and its political masters, Ginsburg served three terms of imprisonment for his activities. From 1960 to 1962 he was incarcerated in a labour camp. He was again arrested in 1967, and sentenced to five years.
Then, in February 1977, the authorities finally lost patience, interrogating him for 17 months before he was tried and convicted of anti-Soviet agitation, and sentenced to eight years. In the event, however, he and four fellow-dissidents were exchanged in New York for two Soviet citizens who had been jailed in America for spying.
Ginsburg had been administrator of the so-called Solzhenitsyn Fund since its inception in April 1974, two months after the novelist had been expelled from the Soviet Union.
The fund was based on the royalties derived from Solzhenitsyns book The Gulag Archipelago (although a quarter of its money was raised inside the Soviet Union), and existed to help Soviet political prisoners and their families. By the time of Ginsburgs arrest in 1977, it had disbursed some £216,000 to hundreds of people.
Mindful of the need for caution, Ginsburg and his colleagues ensured that the money was sent legally to banks in Moscow; after the state had taken one third in tax, what remained was distributed in roubles. When the authorities found out about the fund, Ginsburg was forbidden to receive any of the money; so donations were sent to friends and sympathisers.
The KGB then attempted to halt its distribution by telling the families of political prisoners that, if money was accepted, their loved ones would endure even worse conditions in the camps.
Ginsburg incurred further disapproval when, in 1976, he became a founder-member of a group in the Soviet Union which monitored breaches of the 1975 Helsinki agreement on human rights.
His interrogation after his arrest in 1977 was carried out by a team of six KGB officers. Their job was to break me down, he later recalled. Their main weapon was blackmail. They said that, unless I co-operated, they would arrest my friends and colleagues. But I knew that they would do that anyway, whenever they wished.
Then they threatened me with the death penalty for treason. I replied that, as far as I was concerned, the death penalty would be the best possible outcome. This surprised them. They then started making use of my illness, my duodenal ulcer. They created conditions under which I was bound to be in continual pain, through lack of medical attention.
But at least I knew that they would not try to kill me before the trial. This is because I was a defended person, someone whom the West knew about and was likely to make a fuss about. Without this form of defence, political prisoners just die.
Although, under Soviet law, the period of investigation was technically limited to one year, this was extended by a special decree signed by President Brezhnev.
Ginsburg finally came to trial in July 1978. His wife, Irina, was ejected from the court on the second day, having called a prosecution witness a liar, and was not allowed back.
At the end of the proceedings, Ginsburg dismissed his lawyer, and wound up his own defence, telling the court that he did not consider himself guilty, and that he did not ask for mercy. He was sentenced to eight years and sent to a labour camp in Mordovia, where he was put to work grinding glass sheets for the manufacture of mirrors.
The trial received worldwide publicity, and diminished support in the American Congress for a further American-Soviet treaty to limit nuclear strategic arms.
In April 1979, without warning, Ginsburg was transferred with four other dissidents to Moscow, where they were informed that they were to be deprived of their citizenship and deported. They were given civilian clothes (Ginsburg was presented with a baggy Bulgarian suit) and put on an Aeroflot plane to New York, where they were exchanged for two Soviets who had been jailed for espionage.
At a press conference to welcome him to the West, Ginsburg did not please his hosts when he remarked: I would never have left the Soviet Union of my own free will . . . It is clear that we have not found ourselves in an earthly paradise in America.
And he criticised the deal which brought about his release as undignified. That said, Ginsburg went to live with the Solzhenitsyns at their home at Cavendish, Vermont.
His wife, meanwhile, remained in Moscow with their small sons, Alexander and Aleksei; they could have accompanied Ginsburg to America, but elected to remain until they could get permission for the Ginsburgs adopted son Sergei, then aged 19, to go too. This was refused in June 1979. Irina and her two sons finally joined Ginsburg - without Sergei - in January 1980.
By this time the exiled dissident was internationally famous, and in January 1980 he was invited to Downing Street to meet Mrs Thatcher. He embarked on a series of lecture tours around America, and continued his work managing the Solzhenitsyn Fund.
Ginsburg also testified in Washington before a congressional committee monitoring Moscows compliance with the Helsinki agreement. Ginsburg told the committee: I want to stress that the mistreatment we find in [labour camps] is not the result of perverted actions on the part of individual guards. In fact, everything is done in accordance with regulations and special instructions; that is the most terrible thing of all.
In an interview with Nicholas Bethell in 1980, Ginsburg tried to explain the reasons for the Soviet Unions aggressive foreign policy, such as her invasion of Afghanistan: It is nothing to do with world revolution or imperialism in the old sense. It is simply that the Soviet system cannot exist without expanding.
It has to be constantly demonstrating its own strength, in order to maintain the totalitarian system. It is a defensive movement in the sense that it needs to defend itself against the Soviet people.
In the same interview he called for a boycott by the Western nations of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, and for an end to cultural exchanges and the sale of technology to the Soviet Union (Why make things easy for them?).
He also suggested that media such as Radio Liberty, Voice of America and the BBC should transmit more broadcasts, in more languages, to the Soviet bloc.
Alexander Ilyich Ginsburg was born in Moscow in 1936. He studied journalism at Moscow University from 1956 to 1960, and at the Moscow Historical Archive Institute from 1966 to 1967.
But his career as a dissident began in 1959, when he edited the first of three issues of samizdat (self-published) poetry for Sintaksis, the first underground magazine in Soviet Russia. He also participated in demonstrations, and in 1960 he was expelled from university and sentenced to two years in a labour camp.
In 1966 he published The White Book, a collection of material on the trial in 1965-66 of the dissident writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuly Daniel (the English version appeared under the title On Trial: The Case of Sinyavsky and Daniel). After his second term of imprisonment (1968-72) Ginsburg was forced to reside at Tarusa, 50 miles from Moscow and his family. Meanwhile, he had become a close friend of Solzhenitsyn, and worked as secretary to Andrei Sakharov.
Ginsburg did not remain long in America after leaving Russia. He decided to settle in Paris, where he worked as a journalist for the emigre weekly La Pensee Russe. He also continued to lobby vigourously on behalf of the dissidents he had left behind.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union he elected to remain in France, and became a French citizen in 1998. He had little time for President Putin, whom he described as a former low-level cop employed to spy on the families of Soviet troops. He recently said that a normal, liberal society was unlikely to come about in Russia for another 80 years.
Alexander Ginsburg died in Paris on Friday. He is survived by his wife, whom he married in 1969, and two sons.
© Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2002.
Do svedanya, Citizen Ginsburg. Thank you for your courage.
Mr Ginsberg was indeed a great warrior!
I agree. But the spelling is "GinsbUrg." "-Erg" is the bongo player.
Bumped and bookmarked.
As time goes by it's easy to forget just how evil the USSR was.
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