Three minutes of freedom

I think everyone except apologists for the Soviets – our Communist parties (who want us to suspend out ties – military ones at least – with Israel over the Gaza raids, but kept their traps shut while the Russians and Chinese ran amok) included – is aware of and acknowledges the unspeakable horrors perpetrated by the USSR against its own people. In Ayn Rand’s “Return of the Primitive – The Anti-Industrial Revolution”, there is a chapter – “The ‘Inexplicable Personal Alchemy'” (the book is worth its price for this one piece alone) – in which she analyzes one such case from a 1968 NYT article about the trial and sentencing of five young dissidents (two others had been ‘dealt with’ differently – one was spared, the other was sent to a mental hospital) in the then Soviet Union. The dissidents had protested – spoken – in Moscow’s Red Square against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, but they were tried, and sentenced – not for dissent – but for having obstructed “pedestrian traffic.” During the proceedings each of them had something to say to the judge; one of them – twenty three year old Vadim Delone, a student and a poet, said this – “For three minutes on Red Square I felt free. I am glad to take your three years for that.”

The NYT journalist who covered the trial and a small protest by other dissidents in front of the courthouse – Henry Kamm – couldn’t understand how these youngsters could do such a thing – gather the courage to protest in a “politically inert nation”. He wrote-

The average citizen had no idea that five men and two women had denounced their country’s aggression and were being tried consequently on a charge of obstructing pedestrian traffic on the empty vastness of Red Square.

The only ones who knew were those who had been sent to the dingy street to pose as ordinary Communist youths or workers. Their mission was to observe and photograph the few who, through an inexplicable personal alchemy, have thrown off the leading conformity of the only society they have known and are condemned to be its outcasts.

Rand praises Kamm’s story and calls it a “remarkable example of journalism”. And then she explains what lies behind the “inexplicable personal alchemy”-

There is a fundamental conviction which some people never acquire, some hold only in their youth, and a few hold to the end of their days—the conviction that ideas matter. In one’s youth that conviction is experienced as a self-evident absolute, and one is unable to fully believe that there are people who do not share it. That ideas matter means that knowledge matters, that truth matters, that one’s mind matters. And the radiance of that certainty, in the process of growing up, is the best aspect of youth.

Its consequence is the inability to believe in the power or the triumph of evil. No matter what corruption one observes in one’s immediate background, one is unable to accept it as normal, permanent or metaphysically right. One feels: “This injustice (or terror or falsehood or frustration or pain or agony) is the exception in life, not the rule.” One feels certain that somewhere on earth—even if not anywhere in one’s surroundings or within one’s reach—a proper, human way of life is possible to human beings, and justice matters. It takes years, if ever, to accept the notion that one lives among the not-fully-human; it is impossible to accept that notion in one’s youth. And if justice matters, then one fights for it; one speaks out—in the unnamed certainty that someone, somewhere will understand.

It is not the particular context of a young person’s ideas that is of primary importance in this issue, but his attitude toward ideas as such. The best way to describe it would be to say that he takes ideas seriously—except that “serious” is too unserious a word in this context; he takes ideas with the most profound, solemn and passionate earnestness. (Granted this attitude, his mind is always open to correct his ideas, if they are wrong or false; but nothing on earth can take precedence for him over the truth of an idea.)

This is the “inexplicable personal alchemy” that puzzled Henry Kamm: an independent mind dedicated to the supremacy of ideas, i.e., of truth.

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