Monday, July 10, 2023

Q&A with Paul Goldberg



Paul Goldberg is the author of the new novel The Dissident. His other books include the novel The Yid. He lives in Washington, D.C.


Q: What inspired you to write The Dissident, and how did you create your character Viktor?


A: My first two books were histories of Soviet dissent. The first was The Final Act (William Morrow, 1988), and the second, which I co-wrote with the dissident Ludmilla Alexeyeva, was The Thaw Generation (Little, Brown 1990, now available from the University of Pittsburgh Press).


Both are still around, and both were republished in Russia just before the invasion of Ukraine. My publisher there is the Moscow Helsinki Group, which has been disbanded by Putin.


It’s important, at least to me, that these books continue to live in Russia. And I am certain that The Dissident will get there, too.


Please note that the Helsinki Group played an important role in Russia’s history. It was a small group of people who took it upon themselves to monitor their country’s performance under the human rights provisions of the 1975 Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.


The idea of citizens monitoring their countries’ misdeeds caught on, and I would argue that it brought about the end of Communism.


As I wrote The Final Act and The Thaw Generation, I did a massive amount of reporting, and increasingly over the years I felt the urge to return to the story of Soviet dissent of the 1960s through the 1980s as a novelist. To me, the purpose of historical fiction is to show how people lived, how they talked to each other, what they knew, what they read, how they felt.


So, as I returned to this material in The Dissident, I was guided by an audio archive I created as I was writing The Final Act and The Thaw Generation. Also, having grown up in Moscow, I have an insider’s feel of the city. In my mind, I can walk through Moscow of 1976.


This was rich material, and it was in my possession.


Viktor is my invention, as is Oksana, his wife. Viktor is an all-around outsider. He is a refusenik, trying to escape to Israel, yet he is stuck in Moscow. Born in Kyiv, he has found acceptance among the Moscow intelligentsia. Viktor has a difficult relationship with his father, a hardline Communist, who is blocking his exit.


Viktor is a failed engineer, by which I mean that he would rather have been a writer, a journalist, a historian, or a literature scholar. Anything that doesn’t involve mortification of the mind. His engineering specialty is “boring,” as in drilling. The day he is fired from his job is the happiest day of his life.


To celebrate, he throws his slide rule into the Moskva River and improvises a dance.


His alienations notwithstanding, Viktor is not a nihilist. He is open to life, he is in love with Oksana (the novel opens with a wedding scene), he is enthralled with the West, and is fascinated by America’s top diplomat, Henry Kissinger.


Q: The Washington Post review of the book says, in part, “Despite its thriller-like trappings (which often fade into the background), ‘The Dissident’ is at heart an investigation into how people live under a dictatorship and what prompts some of them to revolt.” What do you think of that description, and how would you compare the Russia you depict in the novel with the Russia of today?


A: I am grateful to the reviewer for pointing this out, and to you for asking this question.


In The Final Act and The Thaw Generation, I sought to answer these questions as a historian. How does one live under dictatorship, what is the source of courage to rebel, and how does life change once you stood up and announced that you are done with nonsense?

Andrei Amalrik, a dissident, formulated this quite well, and I am paraphrasing here: Dissidents are people who, in a dictatorial state, choose to act as though they are free men and women.


There is a lot to unpack here. To start to behave as a free person, you must first develop the notion of how a free person behaves. You must invent freedom.


I tried to describe this process as a historian, but I could go only so far. As a novelist, in The Dissident, I could drill deeper. The Dissident is a Cold War thriller, yes. But more importantly to me, it’s a look into the act of imagining what freedom looks like--and how the exercise of inventing freedom can blow up in your face.


As for Russia of today, I am not seeing a repetition of history. What’s happening is both new and continuation of the old.


People do come out into the public squares to protest. And there is more of that to come. Much of what was accomplished by the dissidents—and when I say “the dissidents” I mean the human rights movement—is alive and well today.


I spend a massive amount of time watching independent news reports of the war in Ukraine, and the coverage I see is exquisite. There is a genuine news coverage capability among the anti-Putin crowd. This is new vs. the 1970s, and it’s important.


There are many independent news sites in Russia, and many are outside the country. I like watching Popular Politics, a YouTube channel run by Navalny’s crew, and I love the television channel “Dozhd’.”


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: Not really. In my previous two novels, The Yid and The Chateau, I had outlines, which I mostly followed.


That said, the best stuff in both novels showed up unannounced. I just set the stage and prepared to be surprised.


In The Dissident, I didn’t have an outline. I had parameters instead.


I knew the history and I knew the setting. The language was my language, the culture my culture. I set the time frame—January 1976. Then I made up the lovers and the heinous crime.


After that, I put one foot in front of the other.


Q: As you’ve said, you’ve written about the Soviet dissident movement before--did you need to do any additional research to write the novel, and if so, did you learn anything especially surprising?


A: I got all my surprises in my nonfiction books on this subject: the role of the CIA, the relationship between the dissidents and Western reporters, the relationship between the dissidents and the U.S. embassy staff, the distinctions between human rights activists and the Jewish emigration movement, the schism within the Soviet Jewry movement in the U.S., the role of Israel. It’s a lot.


These were the fundamentals, which figure in The Final Act and The Thaw Generation. I did some thorough reporting back then—now more than 30 years ago. I created an audio archive of interviews, mostly with dissidents. These were focused, hypothesis-driven interviews. I wanted to figure out what motivated these people--and I wanted to present it dramatically.


Strangely, as I wrote The Dissident, I remembered many of these interviews in detail. And whenever I needed to hear the voices of my characters—many of whom appear in The Dissident under their real names—I just found the tapes and played them.


In The Dissident, I have historical figures, Henry Kissinger, for example, interact with fictional characters. My objective was to show what it was like to be there, at that place and time. 


Recently, I sold my archive to the Blavatnik Archives. So, these documents will be available to historians.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am working on a novel set primarily in New York in 1943. The working title is “The Actor.”


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I am lucky to be doing this.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Paul Goldberg.

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