Thanks to the president’s ongoing commitment to bring us together by uniting the National Football League against him, the timing of Rocky Mountain College’s Common Read couldn’t be better.
In the NFL, the Lions are lying down with the Rams, and the Cowboys are sharing a peace pipe with the Redskins. They may have their quarrels between the yard lines, but when the president starts calling them sons of bitches, they stand, or kneel, together.
At Rocky, events associated with the Common Read begin next week. At 7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 2, at Losekamp Auditorium, Rocky will show “The Farm,” an award-winning documentary about life at Angola State Prison in Louisiana. Ben Stewart, the author of this year’s Common Read selection, will speak at 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 6, at First Presbyterian Church, 2420 13th St. W. The event is free and open to the public, but seating can’t be guaranteed.
Stewart is the author of “Don’t Trust Don’t Fear Don’t Beg: The Extraordinary Story of the Arctic 30.” The nonfiction book is an account of a 2013 protest by Greenpeace environmental activists of Russian offshore oil drilling in the Arctic. When protesters left the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise and tried to board a Russian drilling platform, they were arrested, and the Arctic Sunrise was towed to Murmansk.
The 30 activists were threatened with charges of piracy, which could have carried a 15-year sentence. Following international protests, they were released after two months in a Russian prison.
I’m unenthusiastic about the book. Stewart writes in a breathless style — his favorite rhetorical device is the comma splice — that leaves me weary. Moreover, he was the communications director for Greenpeace, which means that he is far from a neutral observer.
But it is a compelling story, and it opens up a world of possibilities. In my writing classes, I used it to introduce students to the many ways in which people cope with oppressive governments. I started with Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whose groundbreaking account of life in a Siberian prison camp helped him win a Nobel Prize but ended in the banning of his works in the Soviet Union and his eventual exile.
From there we vaulted back a century to Fyodor Dostoevsky, the all-time heavyweight champion of 19th-century novelists, who was condemned to death for his membership in a group that sought emancipation of the serfs. His sentence was commuted, and Dostoevsky turned his experiences into art of unsurpassed depth and insight.
We returned, then, to the Stalin era, and to Varlam Shalamov, who endured even longer and harsher conditions in Soviet prisons than Solzhenitsyn. Shalamov refused to assist Solzhenitsyn in the gathering of information for the epic “Gulag Archipelago,” and he died in relative obscurity, but he left behind heartbreaking stories collected in the unforgettable “Kolyma Tales.”
Among the lesser lights of Marxist rule was Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who wrote the introduction to the edition of Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” that I had students read. Yevtushenko was something of a rock star poet in the 1960s for mild protest poems like “Babi Yar,” the site of Nazi massacres in the Ukraine during World War II. But he made his accommodations to Soviet rule and managed to live out his life teaching in Tulsa, Okla.
“I was never courageous,” he wrote in a poem I read to students. “I simply felt it unbecoming / To stoop to the cowardice of my colleagues.”
In his introduction, Yevtushenko quoted Bertolt Brecht, the German playwright and poet who fled Germany during the Nazi era, was blacklisted by Hollywood movie studios and testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
After the war, he moved to East Berlin and pledged allegiance to the Socialist Unity Party. But he quickly learned that Marxism wasn’t quite as advertised. When East Germans rose up against the Soviet Union in 1953, the Writers Union distributed leaflets calling on East Germans to redouble their efforts to win back the confidence of their government.
“Would it not be easier,” a disillusioned Brecht wrote, “in that case for the government to dissolve the people and elect another?” This week, we are looking at Pussy Riot, the punk rockers who invited Russian prosecution for their over-the-top protests.
Then there were the Greenpeace activists themselves. Dima Litvinov is the great-grandson of a revolutionary who smuggled arms to the Bolsheviks and ended up as Soviet ambassador to the United States. Litvinov’s grandfather was publicly shocked by Soviet atrocities in the Ukraine and East Prussia and was sentenced to prison, where he befriended Solzhenitsyn. Litvinov’s father was exiled after he unveiled a Czechoslovakian flag in support of the Prague uprising of 1968. Litvinov’s own arrest in the Arctic Sea was his third in those waters.
Pete Willcox, captain of the Arctic Sunrise, also had a history of activism that went back generations. His grandfather had to go to the U.S. Supreme Court to win back his passport, which was confiscated in 1952 after he attended a peace conference in China. Willcox attended his first protest, of a coal-burning power plant, when he was 5 years old. When he was 12, he marched with civil rights protesters from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. Later he captained the boat of legendary folk singer and protester Pete Seeger.
Eventually, all of these trails lead back to Henry David Thoreau, whose 1849 essay on civil disobedience inspired the two most famous nonviolent protesters of the 20th century: Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi.
Thoreau, an ardent abolitionist, was jailed for one night after he refused to pay his poll tax to protest the Mexican War. It was a pleasant stay, compared to those of the famous Russian dissidents, but it inspired Thoreau to write this sentence: “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”
Given all that, and given the Soviet Union’s horrendous record on the environment — by the time it dissolved, three-fourths of its surface water was polluted and the Aral Sea was on its way to extinction — Greenpeace’s naïve, provocative protest begins to make sense. Is prison the place for a just man in a country whose minister of health dispenses this advice: “To live longer, you must breathe less”?
From there we go to a president who thinks that kneeling for the national anthem should be a firing offense. No doubt many, if not most, Americans agreed. But as generations of activists and protesters have learned, if you are going to make a difference, you have to offend somebody.