Russia has recently lost one of her towering personalities in the fields of political dissent, human rights defence, political memory, social criticism and humanities. Professor Yuri Nikolayevich Afanasiev (1934–2015) was a prominent historian and democratic activist. The founder of the Russian State University for the Humanities, Professor Afanasiev appears to have been the voice of humanism, conscience and liberty in Russia and beyond.
People of my generation in Lithuania will never forget the fact that Yuri Afanasiev was the first Russian (and Soviet) historian who openly spoke about the occupation and annexation of the Baltic States in 1940 and then repeatedly in 1945, putting it black on white that Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia have never been legitimate part of the USSR. In doing so, he dealt a blow to the regime and its legitimacy acting side by side with the great Andrei Sakharov, both members of the Soviet Parliament at that time.
His was a time of hope. No matter how flawed and troubled, the era of Perestroika allowed room for visionaries, former dissidents, dissenting minds, naysayers, and humanists. To compare to Vladimir Putin’s Russia with its aggressive opportunism, cynicism, instrumentalism, and total absence of conscience and ethics in politics and public morality, Mikhail Gorbachev’s USSR and Boris Yeltsin’s Russia seem to have been a miracle in terms of hope and possibilities to change the unfortunate pattern of Russian history.
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Afanasiev has always been mercilessly straight and overt about that describing it as the pattern of political serfdom, no matter whether traditional or slightly modernized. When Vladimir Putin succeeded Boris Yeltsin as President of the Russian Federation, Afanasiev became especially outspoken on what he termed the “matrix of the un-changeability of Russian history.”
His ideas shed new light on the most dramatic encounters and clashes of ideas and political forces in Russian history, from Piotr Chaadayev and Alexander Herzen to Soviet political dissent in the twentieth century. He implied that every short-lived moment of freedom and liberalization of political life in Russia is inexorably followed by a backlash and an outbreak of political reaction and autocracy with nearly zero chances to reach out to the realm of freedom.
Courageous, strong, decisive and resolute in action, Afanasiev was sombre, gloomy and pessimistic in his words and commentaries. I have always had a feeling that he was a Hamlet-like hero of his time – the one who knows the value of inner and political freedom, and who is aware of how rotten and hopeless his country is to attain it. His was a brave and beautiful mind coupled with pessimism deeply embedded in the twentieth-century Russian intelligentsia. Yet Afanasiev’s mind tinged with a sort of cultural pessimism did not prevent him from acting as a fearless fighter on the political stage.
I remember Afanasiev from our personal exchanges, as I had him on my TV show when I acted as the host of an intellectual and political debate programme on Lithuanian TV. At the same time, I had a privilege to invite him to several seminars and conferences held in Vilnius, Kaunas, Lithuania, and in Brussels during my mandate as a member of the European Parliament (2009–2014). To his credit, Yuri Afanasiev never sought cheap popularity or quick claptrap. He was able to challenge or even dismiss his friends’ opinions never allowing himself to caricature or demonize the political forces he disliked and was wary of the most.
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The architect of the winged expression “the aggressively submissive majority” with which he described, with the stroke of genius, the unimaginable degree of conformism and opportunism in Russian politics and public affairs, Afanasiev remained deeply pessimistic about the future of his country. In this, he differed from his friends, fellow dissidents and human rights defenders, who were far more optimistic.
Yuri Afanasiev lacked the optimism of Andrei Piontkovsky coming from Piontkovsky’s confidence in progressive and freedom-loving forces of Russia without being naïve about her dark forces. Yet Afanasiev sounded like Andrei Piontkovsky or Sergei Kovalev when it came to the universality and indivisibility of human rights. A committed andunbreakable, albeit pessimistic public intellectual, Afanasiev appears to have been nearly a perfect embodiment of the Russian dissidents’ slogan “For our hopeless fight.” You stand up and fight being perfectly aware that eventually you will be stopped on your way – at best, ignored, or worse… we all know what.
Whatever the case, Yuri Afanasiev fought for the right cause and lived the life of a true hero of his time. Writers and thinkers who never compromise on the moral grounds and who never betray theircreed or the mode of grasp of life, may fail to reach the minds and hearts of their contemporaries, yet the generations to come will be their true audience and readership.
This is more than true of a beautiful dissenting mind – Yuri Afanasiev.