Dissident under the slogan “For Your Freedom and Ours”.
“The glory of Soviet science is talked of loudly and at length and each of you feels you share some part of it,” Larisa Bogoraz wrote to Soviet scientists in 1975, appealing for them to help the imprisoned biologist Sergei Kovalyov: “Let us remember the shame of Soviet science too: the lines of scientific enquiry forbidden, the scholars forced out . . . Surely you can sense that when you make a choice between the fate of Sergei Kovalyov and research on the nucleus of cells – and favour the latter – you are not championing science, just your own place in it?”
That sense of moral choice was always very vivid for Bogoraz and put a full stop to her own career as a philologist at the USSR Academy of Sciences. She was sacked, stripped of her master’s degree in 1978 and later, in the 1980s, was even moved from her job as night watch at an institute on the instructions of the KGB.
Larisa Bogoraz’s sacking came after she and six others had stepped out on to Red Square at midday one Sunday in 1968 and unrolled banners protesting against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Violently broken up in three minutes, this bold display was the first public demonstration of its kind in the Soviet Union and recognised as the start of the human-rights movement that continues today.
At her trial in October 1968 Bogoraz said she would have preferred to have stayed at home and add her nameless voice to the protests of the great and famous – “but there were none”. The court sentenced her to four years of internal exile in eastern Siberia.
In her writings and in her behaviour, Larisa gave the impression of being a free spirit, in a country that at that time decidedly was not. When she and Pavel Litvinov, for example, protested against the imprisonment of the writers Yuri Galanskov and Alexander Ginzburg in 1968 as an assault on freedom of expression and violation of Soviet law, they addressed “World Public Opinion”. As this was one of the first appeals to international public opinion ever to have emerged from the Soviet Union, the boldness of the address gripped the foreign media.
Protests that Bogoraz put her name to would usually end with calls for people in other countries to set up their own national support committees. And they found a response. Around 50,000 people in West Berlin and the Federal Republic of Germany associated themselves with the 1974 “Moscow Appeal” against the deportation of the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Sixteen 16 British intellectuals — who included W.H. Auden, Julian Huxley, Bertrand Russell and Stephen Spender — responded to the appeal to “World Public Opinion”, after it appeared in The Times on 13 January 1968. The Writers and Scholars Trust was set up as a result and Index on Censorship began charting the state of freedom of expression the world over.
On paper Larisa Bogoraz’s life looks relentlessly bleak. Ill-health dogged her for decades; both men she married were also political prisoners — her second husband, Anatoly Marchenko, was imprisoned six times. It was his death on hunger strike in a labour camp in 1986, and the outcry it provoked, that finally triggered the large-scale release of political prisoners by President Mikhail Gorbachev.
Bogoraz’s wit, however, and what friends called her “intellectual and physical charm”, made her manner anything but tragic. She was frail, but she was also tough. One of the slogans at her Red Square demonstration had been “For Your Freedom and Ours”, and by the end of her life she had the satisfaction of seeing several of the things she believed in become reality, against the odds. Hunger is no longer approved as a way of punishing prisoners in Russia now, and international human-rights standards have been written into the Constitution, for human-rights activists to achieve with them what they may. The Gulag Archipelago — Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s chronicle of political imprisonment under Stalin — has also been published in Moscow. But the crimes of the Soviet secret police have never been judged by an international tribunal, as Bogoraz wanted; let alone by national courts.
Jewish and born in Ukraine, Larisa Bogoraz moved easily between different interest groups campaigning for human rights, but once wrote that she identified culturally with Russia. She joined the Moscow Helsinki Group in 1989 and piloted their Seminar on Human Rights in Russia’s regions until she retired in 1996.
In recent years she was critical of the conduct of the war in Chechnya, and opposed the notion of “pre-emptive war” that the United States and its allies declared on Iraq.
Larisa Iosifovna Bogoraz, philologist and human-rights campaigner: born Kharkov, Soviet Union 8 August 1929; married 1950 Yuli Daniel (died 1988; one son; marriage dissolved), married 1972 Anatoly Marchenko (died 1986; one son); died Moscow 6 April 2004.
Independent (London), Saturday, 10 April 2004