Pavel Litvinov: Raising a Toast to Our Hopeless Cause

Hackley Review Winter 2018-19 By Vladimir Klimenko

In August 1968, a 28-year-old physicist and fellow political dissidents protested the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia with a demonstration on Red Square. That protest landed Pavel Litvinov in Siberia, and down the path that eventually led to Hackley School. This past August, he returned to Moscow to commemorate the anniversary.

The day Vladimir Klimenko interviewed for a job as a Hackley history teacher in 2005, he heard this phrase a half-dozen times: “You must meet Pavel Litvinov.” Even if they couldn’t accent the syllables correctly (“PAH-vel Lit-VEE-nov” for those, unlike Vladimir, uninitiated in the mysteries of the Russian idiom), he could tell that his colleagues held the man in awe. After his final meeting in Headmaster Walter Johnson’s office, he encountered Pavel in the Admissions corridor. Warm, straightforward, and utterly unpretentious, Pavel wished Vladimir good luck and promised to take him kayaking on the Hudson later that summer if Vladimir landed the job. From that first kayak trip on, Pavel and Vladimir have built strong bonds based on layers of shared connection: Russia, civic and environmental activism, and love of the outdoors. They reconnected for conversation this fall.

For Pavel Litvinov, 2018 has been a busy year. In fact, the 50th anniversary of the Prague Spring and its subsequent suppression by Soviet troops has once again put the spotlight on the famous former Soviet dissident who, subsequent to his expulsion from the USSR, taught Physics and Math at Hackley for 30 years. Now, twelve years into his retirement, Pavel finds himself shuttling across multiple time zones and countries, immersing himself in countless gatherings, conferences, interviews and reminiscences about that late August day when he and seven other Soviet dissidents unfurled banners in Moscow’s Red Square against the USSR’s invasion of
Czechoslovakia. KGB agents immediately arrested Pavel and the other seven demonstrators, most of whom were soon convicted and sent off to forced labor camps or punitive treatment in psychiatric hospitals. Yet this tiny group of peaceful resisters soon became legends in their own country and abroad. Half a century later, discussing the lessons of that historic anniversary has become almost a full-time occupation for Pavel in his retirement.

Anybody who knows Pavel understands that this soft-spoken hero was never on a quest for celebrity. Despite his aversion to grandstanding, “he was such a natural with storytelling,” recalls Upper School Director Andy King, who often invited Pavel to discuss the Soviet politics and the dissident movement with students in his History and Government classes.

“There was such humility. I was always humbled by the bravery of what he did, as if it was a commonplace in the Soviet Union.”

Julie Lillis, who taught Modern European History before moving on to College Counseling, made a special point of combining two of her sections for a session with Pavel in the Chapel.

“He would give an hour-long brilliant speech – without notes, of course. And it was so well organized that, if you had written it down, you would have not seen anything out of place. The kids sat quiet as mice because it was so interesting. He included everything – Siberia, samizdat. He never held anything back. I appreciated that he was always so candid.”

Two of those Modern European History students who heard Pavel’s talks later ended up working as Hackley faculty. Recalls Middle School Math teacher Dianne Fahy, Hackley Class of 1992: “I remember when he spoke about being imprisoned and having to go work in Siberia. When he spoke about it, I remember thinking, as a kid, ‘That’s a real thing.’”

“He told stories about this life-altering decision as if that was simply what one did,” says Melissa Stanek, Hackley Class of 1990, now a Hackley teacher, coach, and dean. “That struck me even then, but I don’t think I really processed the meaning of that properly because he was so understated that I didn’t understand the sacrifices that his decision entailed.”

Pavel made his fateful choices within a context that most Americans find difficult to fathom. “We were not afraid, although we didn’t expect to win. During a mealtime gathering in Russia we would say, ‘Let’s raise a toast to our hopeless cause.’ It was said somewhat in jest, but it was also serious. It was a Russian form of existentialism. That kind of personal moral choice exists everywhere. It’s just that in Russia, it comes at a high cost.”

The trajectory of Pavel’s life begins with family lineage. Pavel’s famous grandfather, Maxim Litvinov, was the Soviet Foreign Minister in the early-mid 1930s, when the USSR struggled to break out of its diplomatic isolation and forge an international coalition against Hitler. (Historical footnote: Stalin’s decision to replace Pavel’s grandfather in 1939 with loyalist Vyacheslav Molotov foreshadowed the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the brief spell of Soviet-German rapprochement that coincided with the outbreak of WW II.) By the 1940s Maxim Litvinov had fallen out of favor with Stalin but, miraculously, managed to avoid arrest, imprisonment, or execution. During the late Stalin era, Pavel’s own parents, who lived among the Moscow elite, took a dim view of the aging dictator. But to protect their young son from the ever-vigilant secret police, they studiously avoided voicing their skepticism aloud in his presence.

Pavel’s own political awakening came later during the Khrushchev-era “thaw,” when a loosening of censorship and cultural restrictions enabled his own age cohort to learn about Stalin’s crimes. Yet this new generation’s hopes for greater freedom would soon be dashed. Soon after Leonid
Brezhnev’s team ousted Nikita Khrushchev as the Communist Party leader in 1964, a new cultural and political freeze set in. Many of Pavel’s peers among the shestidesyatniki (“Sixties youth”) felt disappointed by this turn of events. Out of this frustration emerged a small but dedicated dissident movement, which Pavel, then a budding young physicist, joined.

Asked about his decision to become a peaceful oppositionist, Pavel reflects on embarking on a path that soon cost him a professional career and, not long afterward, his freedom.

“I expect a lot from myself,” he says. “I have not had to violate my principles. When I believed that something was necessary, I did it whether or not people joined me. So going out into Red Square for me was entirely natural. I had to say that not all Soviet people supported the invasion of Czechoslovakia. It felt natural; I didn’t have to think about it.”

Pavel explains that the members of his small group wanted to preserve their honor by carrying protest signs in Red Square, directly outside the Kremlin walls. Their demonstration was intended to publicly show the world that not all Soviet citizens approved of their government’s crackdown on the liberalization of Czechoslovakia. Pavel and his fellow-dissidents understood that theirs was a token gesture and that official punishment was liable to be harsh.

“I knew what might happen. In fact, I even expected worse. But I didn’t feel afraid. [We] chose this path ourselves. Our attitude towards others was, if you want to join us, fine. If not, we don’t judge. For us it was all about preserving our own sense of civic dignity. And yes, we were sent off to camps or locked up in psychiatric hospitals as punishment.”

His own punishment was five-year stint in a labor camp in the Soviet Far East. Remarkably, Pavel discusses those years without resentment or bitterness.

John Gannon, Hackley’s Director of Development and Alumni Affairs, remembers discussing this ordeal with Pavel over dinner.

“[My wife] Elizabeth and I once asked him, ‘What was it like living in Siberia in exile?’ He paused and thought. ‘I met a lot of interesting people there.’”

Release from the camp, however, did not mean that Pavel’s travails were over. Soon after returning to Moscow he was confronted by KGB agents who threatened to re-arrest him unless he agreed to emigrate. Thus began an odyssey that took him to the US and, two years later, a teaching position at Hackley.

The newly-arrived former political prisoner owed this unexpected professional opportunity to the vision of Donald Barr, who was hired to lead Hackley at approximately the same time. Pavel remembers his first Hackley Headmaster as “an old-school traditionalist and a staunch political conservative” who had great faith in the inherent nobility of the teaching profession. Pavel highlights Barr’s determination to elevate Hackley’s status and improve its reputation, strengthening the culture of philanthropy and setting higher expectations for student achievement. He characterizes the changes since he first arrived in the 1970s as “a massive improvement.”

“What changed was an attitude towards studying,” he says. “Everybody wanted to do well. It made teaching more pleasant.”

A rising endowment also enabled the school to attract better teachers. This, in turn, caused a snowball effect: an increased applicant pool boosted the academic caliber of the student body.
“Hackley began admitting stronger applicants. Over my last 10 years in particular we witnessed far more effort among the students: a stronger desire to study, earn good grades, and get admitted into more competitive colleges. Prior to Walter Johnson’s time, I hadn’t notice this kind of drive among students. I think that Walter deserves credit for this.”

Those strong students, as well as faculty colleagues, continue to revere the memory of the former exile who made Hackley his home.

Melissa Stanek remembers him as her own most memorable teacher when she herself attended Hackley. Having been taught by Pavel in both Physics and Pre-Calc, she offers an authoritative perspective. “He is brilliant. Pavel could figure out 1,000 different ways to convey the same concept. He had a knack of being able to speak to everyone.”

Melissa believes that Pavel’s pedagogical wizardry was based on a combination of creativity, challenge, kindness and engagement all fused together. “He knew how to hold people accountable without making it personal. He did that as a teacher and as a human being. In fact, Pavel was so nice that kids who did slack off wouldn’t try to deny it.”

To top it off, says Melissa, “he would throw out stories about interacting with brilliant physicists such as Andrei Sakharov. Or he might go off on a tangent about how you might construct a long-range ballistic nuclear missile.”

Physics teacher Andrew Ying, who runs the Independent Research Program initiative originally inspired by Pavel, regularly invites Pavel back up to the Hilltop in order to address the students.
“He always comes back with great messages,” says Andrew. “The main theme of his visits are how the students who are in this program now are the next generation of thinkers. As such, they need to learn to question everything. This obviously comes from his political experience and viewpoints.”

According to Andrew, Pavel’s salient messages revolve around themes of the value of healthy skepticism combined with a moral and intellectual responsibility for the future. “We have to question what’s out there. Can we trust it?” says Andrew, paraphrasing Pavel. “He tells them that they are future scientists who will make future changes. This is very empowering for the kids.”

By now, Pavel’s legacy spans across multiple generations of Hackley students. Andrew notes, “We have these [alumni] guest speakers who are scientists come back and say that their ability to think is due to him.”

Pavel and I have been Skyping in Russian for over 30 minutes. He and Julia Santiago, his wife of 25 years, have been fighting back illness since their flight back from a Russia-themed conference in Las Vegas. I feel vaguely guilty for encroaching into his recovery period, but can’t resist a final question that addresses the multiple dimensions of the man: “To what degree does your love of nature influence your own moral or spiritual credo?”

Pavel’s reply flows out as easily, as if it were some oft-recounted story.

“Our link to the Earth is something that’s ingrained in our very nature. As people we inhabit these little boxes, but we ourselves are actually living organisms on the Earth. The more we feel the planet to be our own environment, the happier we will be.”

He recalls how, as a child, he would accompany his father, a climber, on high-altitude treks in the Caucasus Mountains. Pavel credits that experience with learning to “breathe differently.” This marked the beginning of a decades-long abiding love for trails and mountains, something that became evident to me when I would get Pavel’s early week reports of how many miles he managed to cover on foot over the previous weekend.

Nowadays he and Julia maintain a regime of hiking at least a six-mile loop through local parks near their house. “Even this minimal walk helps me feel that I’m in a different place, living a different life.”
Pavel’s love of nature is what joins his civic activism, passion for exercise, and intellectual curiosity.

“I started reading a lot about evolution and biology after retiring. I feel that we are all connected to the trees, insects, animals. We carry many of the same genes.”

He pauses briefly before melding scientific musings with poetry:

“We are all one blood, so to speak.”

Pavel says that he intuitively felt that all creatures on Earth were linked by a living thread even before reading the works of Richard Dawkins.

“I feel connected to all livings things,” he says. “I would even include rocks and cliffs, but that’s a matter of pure aesthetics. Insects, birds, and trees, on the other hand – those I consider my relatives.”

I point out that our present predicament on the planet clearly shows that not all homo sapiens share his perspective.

“Is our situation terrible or not so terrible?” he asks rhetorically. “That depends on what we choose to do to protect the planet. Of course there is a danger of humans destroying a big part of the world.”

He pauses.

“I now feel about this problem the way I used to feel about human rights. Defending the environment is a part of human rights.”

Pavel frames this point across both issues and generations. He recalls the time in 2013 when Russian authorities imprisoned his son Dima Litvinov, a Greenpeace activist, for protesting against a Gazprom oil drilling venture in the fragile Arctic environment. At that time Pavel flew to San Francisco to address an audience of several thousand environmentalists.

“There was a lot of talk about the dangers posed by Arctic drilling to polar bears,” he recalls.

“I said that we always need to stand up for the weakest. Towards the end of World War II, Soviet officer Lev Kopelev, the father of my ex-wife, was arrested for defending German women who were raped by Red Army troops. I - for defending the Czechs. My son Dima - for defending polar bears. What did all three categories have in common? They were all vulnerable.”

His comments mark a fitting finale – a send-off worthy of a movie postscript. By now Pavel himself, his voice getting hoarse, appears vulnerable to me. Before logging off I invite him and Julia to join us this winter for dinner and hot drinks around my outdoor fire pit. “Let’s not pass up the chance,” I said, “to raise another toast to our hopeless cause.”

“Pavel is an important figure in the lineage of great Hackley faculty. Yes, his teaching inspired many budding scientists and mathematicians. However, I see signs of his life story — the way in which he lived his life, his global perspective — that have left a larger and perhaps more lasting impression on the school as a whole. Pavel was part of a cohort of legendary teachers that sought to ‘pop the Hackley bubble’ and today’s students continue to enjoy the benefits of his legacy.” -- Michael Wirtz, Head of School