For many Czechs, Russia’s Natalya Gorbanevskaya was nothing less than a hero, one of eight people in 1968 who protested on Red Square in Moscow against the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia. All of the protesters were arrested and as punishment she was sent to a psychiatric hospital. A few years after her release in 1972, she emigrated to France where she continued to work as a poet translator and human rights activist up until her death at the age of 77 last week.
A little earlier I spoke to Milan Dvořak, who interpreted for Mrs Gorbanevskaya on several occasions in the Czech Republic, including on her last visit in October. I asked him whether she had considered her act of protest 45 years ago one of bravery but also folly.
“If you asked her I think she would have answered ‘Both’. But for us it was of course a very courageous act. We have to remember what kind of a country the Soviet Union was: it was a very ‘closed’ country where it was very hard to communicate with like-minded people. Although the system under Brezhnev was different than under Joseph Stalin, it was still very brave. To go out into the open with opinions differing from the official propaganda was very courageous to the brink of being folly.”
Those who took part also paid the price: they were either imprisoned or put into psychiatric institutions. Given she was a young mother at the time, did she ever regret the decision?
“No, no she didn’t. What she wanted was for her children to grow up in a free country, so she did what she did, in a way, for her own young boys. Later [in France] she remained outspoken on human rights and she remained active in that way until that way until her last days. A little over a month ago she was in Prague to voice her views and she did so very succinctly.”
That was on her last visit when she received an honorary medal from Charles University for her dedication to human rights and freedom. Did you have a chance to meet with her?
Would you say she was pleased with the recognition that she received?
“I would say so, yes. Of course, she did what she did not to receive awards. That was just a by-product of her actions. She was a true champion of human rights and an advocate for freedom and I think that was really the main meaning, in the end, of her whole life.”
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