DAY OF THE DISSIDENT
The world was richer by far for two frail, principled lives which ended in July 2017
Irina Ratushinskaya and Liu Xiaobo: born within a year of each other; dying of cancer eight days apart. Yet they had so much more in common than chronology.
Irina Ratushinskaya was sentenced to seven years’ hard labour in a Soviet prison for writing poetry inspired by her Christian faith, serving this punishment in the 1980s. We think of the gulag as belonging to Stalin’s purges, but it endured much longer. In her outstanding memoir, Grey is the Colour of Hope, she observed: ‘There are days and weeks when you can’t stand up because of hunger. I was quite close to death.’ Her case became widely known and Gorbachev ordered her early release. Having moved to the west, she eventually returned home, declaring: ‘To be a Russian poet, I need to be together with my people.’
Liu Xiaobo was one of China’s most influential academics in the years that Ratushinskaya served her sentence. His angular personality and confrontational style meant he was respected rather than loved by most but his fearlessness was never in doubt. As the pro-democracy movement gained momentum in April 1989, he returned from a post in the US to support the cause, joining in a hunger strike. When the massacre came on June 4, he stayed put, trying to negotiate safe passage for students. Liu was given a short sentence because he signed a confession. Having helped draft a charter for democracy in 2008, he was further sentenced to eleven years in prison where he was kept until his cancer became incurable. He was refused permission to travel abroad for treatment and died under guard while in hospital. Liu was famous for the award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 which he was not able to receive, affording the Norwegians the perfect photo opportunity of an empty seat at the ceremony.
We like to think of freedom of speech as a linear progression: as each decade passes, more people have more space to say what they like. Yet in recent years, this thesis has suffered. With the end of the Soviet Union and the hope of reform in China, the 1990s were promising years for openness. The mantra of democracy and the markets were supported by the enlightenment values of freedom of association and speech. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the economic crash of 2008 have weakened this position and Beijing and Moscow have been careful to exploit it, offering a different analysis which affords people space to make money and – in some cases – become stunningly wealthy, provided they curtail their criticism of the governments which have permitted this. Thus the so-called Washington consensus has been replaced by the Beijing consensus. And other nations have been watching closely.
The World Press Freedom Index – one measure of liberty of speech - ranks Russia 148 out of 180 nations where 180 is the least free for journalists. China is placed 176. Citizens of the UK and USA might note their nations are ranked 40 and 43 respectively; not quite where they might suppose.
The early Church grew in a hostile environment. Despite severe persecution, they insisted on obeying God by preaching the Gospel rather than slavishly accepting political inhibition on their cause. God has given us the freedom not to trust in him, so secular authority should afford room for people to be sceptical about its actions too. When St Paul preached in Athens, he was deeply distressed by the plethora of idols on display but, rather than taking a hammer to them in disgust, he debated with others openly and peaceably over the nature of worship. Freedom of belief and speech are in the Church’s originating impulse.
When there is public debate about the right of people to express unpleasant views in a democracy, there is often a figure who pompously opines that they disagree with what such people say but would defend to the death their right to say it. Many of us can be grateful this stance will never be tested, which makes it so easy to say in the first place. Liu Xiaobo and Irina Ratushinskaya were two who pretty much did. Ratushinskaya’s faith would doubtless offend some and Liu could probably have started an argument in a room by himself, but they were fearless purveyors of truth.
You never know who has the courage to risk all by speaking truth to power until the moment arrives. In July 2017 we marked the passing of two such in a matter of days. The world was richer by far for their frail, principled lives.
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