Ginzburg was a true actor in every sense of the word. The world was his stage, as were college auditoriums, cocktail parties and social gatherings, where he entertained everyone from reporters to his cohorts. He didn’t compartmentalize anything and he couldn’t stand political correctness. For him, human rights were the same whether in Russia or America. His personal — what he called — “internal freedom” was acquired while in prison.
Once during a visit to a maximum-security prison in Walla Walla, Washington, he asked the warden if he could visit a prisoner in an isolation unit. Once there, Alik asked the prisoner to tell him how he was coping with his incarceration. The man behind the cage-like door had tears in his eyes when I told him who Ginzburg was. “ Why would this famous man visit me? I’m a nobody,” said the prisoner. When we left, Alik remarked that Russian prison cells were better because the cell door was solid while in American prisons there was no privacy for the prisoner. And this: “You never ask a prisoner the reason he’s in jail. That’s a private matter.” Also, he gave me a note to translate for the warden. The note had his name and address in Paris, stating that if he could be of any help to the prisoner to please contact him personally.
He was known for his easy-going manner, the absence of cynicism (a rare quality among Soviet citizens) and selflessness. But after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ginzburg became visibly agitated, even angry at times. The reason was his frustration with the West and with certain dissidents within the new Russia. He was upset about the fact that human right advocates were not invited to participate in the changes that were taking place in the newly-formed government and that the West was blindly supporting the Russian political leadership. He knew that as long as the Soviet elite remained in positions of power very little was going to change on the ground, so to speak. The country was being auctioned off too the highest bidder and to those politically connected to the former regime. The principles of Human Rights and the Rule of Law were subjugated and ignored in a mass frenzy to acquire as much wealth and influence as possible. In other words, the house of cards had fallen and there was nothing being undertaken to promote a democratically free society. Many of the people Ginzburg knew had also caved-in or turned a blind eye to the reality of the new Russia. He was no longer a player and no longer needed in the good fight.
But if Alik only knew how much he had done, how many lives he affected and how instrumental he was in inspiring so many of those around him, perhaps he would not have felt so disheartened. Personally, Ginzburg transformed my understanding of right thinking and right action. He was uncompromising, yet gentle, intellectual, yet never heavy and over-bearing, wise in the ways of the world, but a clown in everyday matters. I feel very privileged to have crossed his path ever so slightly and over time have come to a greater appreciation of his influence personally and globally.
May he rest in peace and hold his rightful place in history for contributing to the evolution of men and women everywhere.
George Gerich is the former interpreter for Alexander Ginzburg, with whom he worked for over ten years.
See Frontpage’s symposium with three former Soviet dissidents about Alexander Ginzburg, marking his passing ten years ago: Alexander Ginzburg and the Resistance to Totalitarian Evil, Then and Now.
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