|Valery Chalidze, Vera Slonim Chalidze, Ilya Slonim, |
Vicki Bonnell, Tanya Litvinov, with the Slonims'
dog Mr. Triqué. Moscow 1970-71.
Valery Nikolaevich Chalidze, physicist, legal scholar, and founder of the Human Rights Committee in the Soviet Union, died on January 3, 2018. For unrelated reasons, I could not attend the memorial for him in New York but I recalled a few episodes from our long association, wrote them down and had our mutual friend Jerry Schecter read them at the event. With the first anniversary of his death fast approaching, I decided to publish my recollections here.
* * *
I. Legal Counsel
|Valery Chalidze and Vicki Bonnell. Moscow 1971.|
After Vicki and I were officially wed, we ran into a problem: Vicki’s visa – she was a US exchange student – was running out, and the authorities refused to extend it. Both of us were aware of the few mixed marriages that ended in forced separation and heartbreak. Chalidze, by then, had already formed the Human Rights Committee and had been dispensing legal advice, gratis, to people who had grievances against and were exasperated by the Soviet system. Though we were friends and practically relatives, on this occasion he received us in his famous room as our legal counsel, in a formal manner – black coat, white shirt and black tie. "An undertaker," Vicki quipped under her breath when we walked in. We knew the place was thoroughly bugged but, according to Chalidze's strategy, openness and transparency was our strength and worked in our favor. Besides, we had nothing to hide. We laid out and then discussed our situation, periodically rolling our eyes at the ceiling where, we assumed, the listening bugs were located. Chalidze’s sage prescription was simple: Vicki was to throw herself at the mercy of the Soviet State, that is to say, she was to cable a petition for extending her Soviet visa to Nikolay Podgorny, the titular head of Brezhnev’s USSR. She was to do so repeatedly. Preferably, once a day. We followed the counsel’s advice.
To send the cables we used the Main Telegraph Office on Gorky Street. I still remember the face of the postal clerk in the window. She was trying to stay impassive, as she read and counted the words scribbled on the cable form, wondering whether to laugh or scream at the hutzpah of the American girl who was directly petitioning the head of the all-mighty USSR. But rules were rules, and the cables were accepted and sent. What happened next is still shrouded in mystery. Vicki never received a response. Alas, Chalidze’s prescription did not work as well as we hoped. Still, we got more time to spend together: she overstayed her visa for a couple of weeks, ostensibly waiting for a merciful response from Nikolay Podgorny. The advice may have helped also in another way – by elevating our case to the "Kremlin level" so that a few months later I was granted permission, unprecedented at the time, to leave the workers’ paradise for permanent residence with my American wife in the United States.
II. Fortune Cookie
Less than a year later, a law professor from Georgetown University Law School, Samuel Dash, visited Chalidze in Moscow. He was impressed. Before saying goodbye, Sam Dash pulled out a piece of his Law School stationary and hand-wrote an invitation to Chalidze to present a series of lectures at Georgetown on the human rights in the USSR. Those were tough times for Soviet dissidents. Emigration had not yet become a real option. What defined the horizon for people like Valery was jail or Siberian exile. Chalidze knew the calculus, and he was ready to face the music (if one is ever ready for an ordeal). As I write this, I recall Vera telling me that they decided to formalize their relationship, in part, for her to have the right, as a spouse, to visit Chalidze in prison. But instead of a prison sentence, Valery received a call from the authorities to pick up his passport for the visit to the US. He must have been stunned. He later told me that while getting his papers, he caught a glimpse of Sam Dash’s invitation sitting on the official’s desk: the Russian word – fake (липа) – was scrawled over it in a thick red pencil.
On Thanksgiving Day 1972, I was at JFK with my friend Joseph Brodsky (like me, а recent arrival in the US, a "refuJew," as he joked over our status) to greet Valery and Vera. In the evening, like seasoned New Yorkers (neither of us was a US citizen then), we broke bread, so to speak, over their first truly American meal: Mushu Pork and Kung Pao chicken at a Chinese restaurant in the Village. There was a lot of excitement over this most American of all the emigre holy communions. We had all known each other back in Russia, and we were delirious to have been able to reconnect in NY. Fate saved best for last. As Valery cracked his first ever fortune cookie, a thin strip of paper fell on the brown oilcloth. It had just four words: “Change for the better.”
With an almost childish smile, Chalidze kept repeating these four words. It seemed he was mentally toying with the idea that he had just received a validation from Lady Fortune herself. Over the years, there were many occasions to recall this omen: when he was taken to visit the Justices of the US Supreme Court, when he started his publishing venture, when he received one of the early MacArthur genius awards (1985), or when he met Lisa, who would soon become his wife, while on a speaking tour in the American West.
III. Press Conference
Fast-forward to December 1972. I was in Washington, staying with Jerry and Leona Schecter, my old friends from Moscow where Jerry used to head the Time Magazine bureau. Chalidze was giving his famous first press conference at Georgetown University on the state of human rights in the USSR. By then Time Magazine’s Diplomatic Correspondent, Jerry Schecter was going to attend and he took me to the press conference with him. I still remember one of the topics Chalidze spoke about before the Q&A: the mistreatment of political prisoners in Soviet labor camps. Citing UN nutritional standards, he accused Soviet authorities of subjecting political prisoners to a starvation diet, in effect, torture by hunger. The relevant nutritional data had been circulating in dissident publications for some time, but to hear this well-documented evidence summed up by the word “torture” spoken from a high podium by a well-known Russian dissident, with all of the Washington press corps in attendance, was a whole other matter. The words were like an exploding bomb shell. To this day, I remember the numbers — 800 calories, 1200 calories – as Chalidze delivered them in a calm and thoughtful voice… In case you are wondering what these numbers actually meant, the UN sets the minimum energy requirement for an adult at 1800 kcal.
The press conference was over. Reporters were rushing out to file their stories. I held back to avoid the stampede. The room emptied quickly and suddenly I found myself in the company of a three grim-looking middle-aged portly men in long coats and fedoras. They were unmistakable. Nashi!(out guys), flashed in my mind, as I realized I was surrounded by a clutch of Soviet reporters. I shuddered. At the time, I was beginning the project of translating into English the second batch of Nikita Khrushchev’s memoirs (Khrushchev Remembers, vol. 2), and I was anxious to avoid the attention of the Soviet security “organs” (my family was still back in the USSR and could face reprisals). I guess, I, too, was unmistakable. Before I could slink out of the room unnoticed, one of the fedoras nodded in my direction. Instantly, I was cut off at the path by a tall athletic–looking fellow with a square jaw and a flattened nose. I had not noticed him in the room before. With a carnivorous grin, he he cut me off before I could reach the door, pulled out a camera — it looked tiny in his huge paws — and snapped two pictures of me. Operation completed, he winked at me with a grin, as if saying "it didn't hurt, did it?" and stepped aside. I rushed out, my heart was thumping as if I had just escaped death. The next moment, I felt ashamed: just look at Valery’s fearless, dignified cool, and he was taking on the whole of the USSR! I came to value his temperament even more during the many hours we spent over the years discussing philosophy, law, our ex-wives, and, yes, of course, politics both in Russia and the US. In the end, politics poisoned our conversations, although the friendship never broke up. Now, I regret that our political biases, so small in retrospect, made our contact less and frequent as the new century dawned.
A few days after the Georgetown press conference, Soviet officials had Chalidze's passport confiscated, informing him that he had been stripped of Soviet citizenship. He never went back, even after Mikhail Gorbachev restored it to him in one of his early perestroika gestures in 1987.
IV. The Federalist
In 1990, a week before Thanksgiving, I was in Washington to give a paper at the annual meeting of American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies (I was already a tenured professor at Stanford then). All of a sudden there was a call from Valery. He had a new crazy scheme: Will I consider undertaking a translation of The Federalist Papers into Russian? A selection. 55000 words. And the deadline, I asked? It was Christmas. No way, I responded! And agreed. Only later did I find out that the project, which may have been initiated by Valery, was supported by Brent Scowcroft, National Security Adviser to Bush 41st. The idea was that apart from its distribution in the USSR, George Bush would present a copy of it as a special gift to Mikhail Gorbachev, who was then busy with a radical revision of the Soviet Constitution. The summit was scheduled for the end of July 1991.
I am poor student of American history and because I had never taken it seriously (did such a young country have history?), I nearly flunked my citizenship exam in 1974 (I though the Boston Tea Party was about liberty only to be told it was about taxation without representation). I had absolutely no idea what The Federalist was about. But I soon made up for my ignorance. Suffice it to say that working sixteen-hour days seven days a week, translating into Russian gem after gem of the Founding Fathers’ practical wisdom was a most effective intensive course in American constitutional history. I am forever grateful to Valery and our two other educated collaborators, the late Leon Lipson of Yale Law School and Lisa Chalidze, both erudite lawyers, who held my hand, so to speak, as I was digging deeper and deeper into the thinking of those remarkable sages, Hamilton and Madison, and struggling with rendering their thought into my native Russian, in which political discourse had been poisoned by decades of Marxist cant. Lisa's and Leon's help with conceptual understanding and American context was invaluable.
It did not take long to realize why The Federalist had never been translated into Russian. The hardest was the rendering of the concepts that had received short shrift in Russian political thought, dominated as it was, first, by the French and, later, German traditions (Rousseau, Hegel, Marx), with very little space left for the Anglo-Saxon political tradition. It is little exaggeration to say that American political discourse had no equivalent in Russian and had to be invented. It emerged in the course of back–and–forth I had with Chalidze, as we both poured over the translation, word by word, paragraph by paragraph, article by article, culminating in the rendering of the US Constitution into what I hope was plain Russian (our edition ended with the U.S. Constitution).
That December 1990 and well into January 1991, our phone lines for voice and fax machines (the Internet had not yet been popularized) hummed non-stop between my home Berkeley, California, and his in Benson, Vermont. I don’t know if Valery ever became a US citizen, but I have no doubt that in a deep sense, both of us became American in the process of preparing this volume: there is no immersion more profound than the rendering of another’s complex thought into your native tongue. At the end, I felt confident enough to write an introduction for the Russian reader.
Our American Federalist in Russian was finished sometime in February or March 1991. A year later, when the Soviet Union was no more, and Mikhail Gorbachev was its president emeritus visiting U.S., I was at a reception for him at the house of George Schultz at Stanford. Nikolay Vorontsov, who was also there, introduced me to Gorbachev, and I tried to press my signed and leather-bound copy of the Russian Federalist into his hands. Gorbachev took the book, looked at it, then at me, and shot: “I already have one.” Then, seeing my long face, he graciously accepted it, thanked me, and gave me his famous Gorbie smile.
I still do not know if Gorbie or his associates found the volume helpful as they were revamping the USSR Constitution. Regardless, their efforts soon became irrelevant. The USSR ceased to exist. Still, there was a great demand for the Russian Federalist in Moscow of the new post-Soviet Russia. Every time I visited there (and I often did in the 1990s), I took a batch of copies. The press run of 10000 copies was soon depleted. I gave away my own last copy to Sergey Yushenkov, a liberal Duma Deputy. I know the Russian Federalist was used by the legal scholars who shaped the Russian Constitution of 1993, Viktor Leonidovich Sheinis among them.
Oh what a waste, you might say, given the authoritarian regime that now rules Russia! Yes, you have a point. The stratospheric rise in oil prices in the early 2000s turned out to be more a greater driver of change in Russia than the ideas of The Federalist. But ideas —unlike oil, a renewable resource—take a long time to sink in and take effect. But they do, with time, as they have over the last three centuries of Russian history. I am confident that my Russian countrymen will have opportunities to benefit from The Federalist in the not so distant future, as they have benefited from the commitment to the rule of law – the common denominator for the opposition in Russia today — that Valery Chalidze, in one of his “crazy schemes,” planted in Soviet soil in the 1960s. Or in 1970 when he founded, along with Andrei Sakharov and others, the Soviet Union’s Committee for the Defense of Human Rights. He made a difference, as Gorbachev recognized as the was launching perestroika, and his legacy will continue to influence Russian legal and political thought and practice. R.I.P.
I will miss Chalidze.
May 27, Berkeley
May 27, Berkeley