Farewell Natalia Gorbanevskaya, someone I came to know at the Prague Writers’ Festival. One of 8 to stare down Soviet tanks in Red Square, upon the invasion of the Czech Republic. She paid with forced psychiatric incarceration and injections.
[excerpt from] ‘Spring Edits, Velvet Living: Atwood, Kral and Gorbanevskya’ ONE Magazine, Scotland
That evening, Natalia Gorbanevskaya had been given the Spiros Vergos Prize for Freedom of Expression. Gorbanevskaya’s story made me sit up, and take note: on 25 August 1968, she and seven fellow Moscovites went to Red Square to protest the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Gorbanevskaya and compatriots sat peacefully in Lobnoye Mesto with a Czech flag and signs which read “We Lost Our Best Friends”, “Hands Off the CSSR” and “For Your Freedom and Ours”. In turn they were accosted by angry citizen informants, or “Seksots”, and later tried and sent to various camps and prisons. Gorbanevskaya was sent to a mental institution and forcibly injected with psychotropic drugs for a number of years.
One morning, in the hotel dining room watching Gorbanevskaya, I tried to look past her nervousness and erratic behavior. Her languages are Russian and French, so my only option was to observe. She’d befriended fellow poet Elena Schwarz, and together they made their way through the days of the festival in Prague. Gorbanevskaya could not sit for very long, spoke very loudly at times and seemed frustrated. When she went onstage to accept her Spiros Vergos award, she appeared to me to leap back to her seat in an instant but first acknowledged her fellow Samizdat writers, for keeping underground literature alive under Brezhnev’s nose. Whatever her anxiety, I imagine much of it was injected by the Soviet authorities years ago. During the Prague Writers’ Festival, I wondered what our desire to observe was injecting her with now. Later, with a translator, she commented onstage “I feel like an exhibition.”