Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 24, 2019

Dinner with the Dissidents, by John Tesarsch

Last December, a comment from a reader called Robin reminded me that I had a copy of John Tesarsch’s Dinner with the Dissidents and on her recommendation, I moved it up the TBR.  Unsurprisingly, since I’ve read and liked Tesarsch before, the book turned out to be interesting reading,  with a pertinent take-home message for our time…

Actually, there are two take-home messages: one is that we ought not be complacent about government surveillance in the form of those phone meta-data laws, and the other is that we let significant books lapse from our attention at our peril.

Almost at the end of the novel, the narrator has an airport conversation with a woman who has never heard of the iconic Russian author Solzhenitsyn, and he muses on the fate of his books — books which in the 1970s were required reading at senior secondary schools and tertiary institutions. In my young adulthood, everybody read Solzhenitsyn, and there was even a film of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. But now?

You often read, in critical reviews, that certain films or books have not aged well, as though this is an inherent defect of the nature found in cheap consumer goods, in the plastic toys we buy at Christmas for or children, that are never expected to last the year. The same criticism has been levelled at Solzhenitsyn, and in his case, I believe it is unfair.  Rather, much of his work is too demanding, if not confronting. (p. 303)

Well, the times have changed, and while during the Cold War education institutions were keen to ensure that the young understood the perils of communism, there isn’t the same impetus now since the fall of the Soviet Union.  But what Tesarsch is keen to show in his novel, is that while the surveillance methods of the past were clumsy by comparison, digital surveillance in modern states can be equally unfair, and equally damaging to innocent individuals.  (Or to those who are not guilty, which is not quite the same thing).

The story travels in two strands.  An ambitious young writer called Leonid Krasnov is planted into a circle of dissidents during the Brezhnev era in the USSR.  Lured by the promise of having his own work published, Leonid is supposed to pass on information about (and thus prevent the underground publication of) the exposé Solzhenitsyn is writing. (The Gulag Archipelago, which should date the timeframe as 1958-68, because that’s when TGA was being written but there is a #NoSpoiler event in the novel which puts the date at 1971).  Always plagued by doubt, but unable to extricate himself from the notice of the KGB, Leonid at first complies with what is asked of him, which is not a problem because he can’t find out anything more than what is already known by his superiors anyway.  But his shaky allegiance wavers when he falls in love with the cellist Klara, whose career has been terminated by her support for the dissident cellist Rostropovich — whose career had likewise been curtailed by the Soviets because of his support for the not-quite-so dissident composer Shostakovich.  (Shostakovich has had a good press recently, with sympathetic depictions of his career frustrations in Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time and The Conductor by Sarah Quigley, but in this novel, the composer’s ambivalent cooperation with the Soviets is regarded by Leonid as a sellout.)

Woven through this narrative is the second strand, narrated by the same man as an ageing bureaucrat in Canberra.  Exiled from the USSR, ‘Leo Borsky’ migrated under an assumed name to Australia to evade Soviet surveillance in the UK.  He married Beth (now dead) and had a daughter, Amy, from whom he is estranged.  It is part of his job to deal with that contentious meta-data legislation* that enables the storage of phone meta-data for surveillance purposes… and it comes to his attention that this data is being abused for political purposes.

As in Moscow, he was at first sanguine about Canberra’s surveillance:

The laws require the telcos and internet service providers to retain, for a minimum of two years, all the metadata for every customer.  And they enable a raft of government agencies to access that data without a warrant.  Civil libertarians complain that this is an outrageous invasion of privacy, and I accept they make a fair point.  But these are different times, and law-enforcement agencies need broader powers. If the libertarians were aware of the intelligence we have received about terrorism and organised crime, surely they would not be so strident with their complaints.  (p. 38)

And while the pressures are not quite the same as the heavy hand of the KGB, Leo confronts the same dilemma: should he share the information that he has?  Will it achieve anything?  In the absence of whistleblower protection, should he leak it, at considerable risk to himself, to gain the respect of his daughter and salvage his self-respect?

The novel is a bit heavy-handed in places, laying on thick all the negative aspects of Soviet life, but perhaps this is necessary: younger readers might not be privy to the catalogue of Soviet privations relayed to us during the Cold War as evidence of the failure of communism.  (People forget, or never knew, that in WW2 the USSR was devastated by the German invasion and scorched-earth policy of retreat, and unlike the rest of Europe, allies and otherwise, the USSR received no help to restore its industries and economy under the Marshall Plan.  (See Steinbeck’s A Russian Journal (1948) for more about this). And at the same time, they had to spend big on defence to deal with a hostile NATO on its borders.  No wonder they had legendary queues for consumer goods).

Even so, the narrative tension is maintained by the authentic risks that Leonid/Leo’s dilemmas involve. Dinner with the Dissidents is a thought-provoking book, which shows in digestible form, why we ought to ensure that there are adequate safeguards against encroaching surveillance and its abuse.

There was a review by Judith Armstrong in The Australian Weekend Review (Nov 3-4, 2018) but that’s paywalled and I can’t find any other reviews online.

*According to Wikipedia, the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Act 2015 requires that the following types of information need to be retained by telecommunication service providers:

  • Incoming and outgoing telephone caller identification
  • Date, time and duration of a phone call
  • Location of the device from which phone call was made
  • Unique identifier number assigned to a particular mobile phone of the phones involved in each particular phone call
  • The email address from which an email is sent
  • The time, date and recipients of emails
  • The size of any attachment sent with emails and their file formats
  • Account details held by the internet service provider (ISP) such as whether or not the account is active or suspended.

Author: John Tesarsch
Title: Dinner with the Dissidents
Publisher: Affirm Press, 2018, 312 pages
ISBN: 9781925584851
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings $29.99 AUD


Responses

  1. Well, I’m intrigued I confess. Sounds like it might be my kind of thing and I do love Solzhentsyn. Mind you I love Shostakovich too, so I might be a bit less happy about him getting bad press…

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    • Well, the thing is that courage to confront a powerful oppressor always exists on a kind of continuum. If you look at the ways people responded to the German Occupation of France: there were people willing to confront them overtly and lost their lives, people willing to join the Resistance and help in covert ways, and people who got through it with passive resistance. There were also exiles who protested from afar from a place of safety (not that that was easy either). And there were always people who for whatever reason were put in the position of having to betray someone in order to protect someone else. Betrayal might mean naming names or revealing secrets, but it might also just mean not giving support to someone who needed it, staying on the sidelines.
      By definition the first category will be lionised as heroes, and the ones who were less overt and more cagey with their resistance were sometimes accused of collaboration or in the case of exiles, of not loving their country enough to stay and fight. Shostakovich probably fits somewhere along the continuum so there would be some who would criticise him. I’ve read criticism somewhere about him being evacuated on Stalin’s orders from St Petersburg during the siege. It’s all too easy to be holier-than-thou after the event, IMO, but it’s probably authentic for an author to have a character who admired the stoicism of Solzhenitsyn but was unimpressed by Shostakovich.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, I absolutely agree. It’s easy to be judgemental from a place of comfort but how do we know how we or anyone else would act in similar circumstances. And I see what you mean about the character’s viewpoint. I may well give this one a look!

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        • I think book groups would enjoy discussing this book to tease out these issues.

          Liked by 1 person

          • If I had a book group, I would suggest it…. ;)))

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            • LOL The only disadvantage to chatting about books on blogs is that it’s bad form to reveal spoilers. So all I will say is, this book invites the reader to pass judgement on the narrator’s character and motivations!

              Liked by 1 person

              • This was a shock to me when I moved from online reading groups to blogging! I suddenly realised that I couldn’t fully discuss the book, as we did in those groups, because of spoilers. I still find that a bit frustrating, but have got used to it.

                On the Solzhenitsyn not being read thing, there is also just that fact that some books go out of fashion. Why some do and some don’t is an interesting question but I’m not sure I’d agree that it’s because it’s too demanding? I think you might be right about relevance. I often think about DH Lawrence, and how we all read and loved him too in the 1960s and 70s but not now. Why?

                Finally, re the surveillance thing, I was at a meeting the other day where we were talking about surveillance, and how much already is happening. It came out of my comment that I just want a TV I can talk to as in “Please record THE CRY” or “Please play yesterday’s CATALYST” (though I don’t need I suppose to say “please” to my TV!) Anyhow, I was talk to beware because if the TV could hear that it could/would also be listening the the conversations going on in the room. Hmmm…

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                • Well, I have to admit that although I read One day in the Life and Cancer Ward, I took one look at The Gulag Archipelago and decided that I already knew enough about the gulags to know that they were cruel and inhumane soi didn’t need to wade through a book that was three inches thick…
                  I think it may be more of a problem that (if what we keep hearing is true) if people are reading so very little and what they are reading is shallow, then there are probably a great many worthwhile and important books that are not being read and shared. We can get by if people haven’t read books about actual regimes that are no longer around (e.g. Stasiland and Solzhenitsyn) but it would be a real worry if people didn’t know about and understand 1984.
                  As for surveillance – people have no idea how much they are being monitored. I think we’ve lost that battle already.

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                • Oh no, I haven’t read TGA either. There are – and were – limits!

                  As for contemporary reading. I think people have been saying this about reading ever since we started getting new technologies – since cinema, radio, TV etc. While figures “may” show less reading of books per se (I haven’t checked), I don’t think there’s a reduction in people’s interest in and ability to take in serious content? At least, not when I look at the young people around me. They are seriously engaged in both the arts and in the issues we are facing as a world – climate, feminism, asylum-seekers, inequity and social justice (for indigenous people, LGBTQIA people, people with disabilities etc).

                  And yes, I think we’ve lost the battle already. I think our best protection is, probably, to keep our democracy strong because it seems to me that the issue becomes serious/life-threatening when you are in autocratic or totalitarian regimes. But of course the fact that surveillance is increasing could be a barometer of the decreasing health of our democracy. Oh, it’s too difficult – I’m going back to bed!

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  2. I enjoyed this review, thank you. Sounds like a Canberra-based author. One reason Solzhenitsyn has not aged well is that his work has been endorsed by the Putin government as important Russian writing on the era of Stalinist repression. This has not endeared him to Western Russophobes who falsely claim that nothing has changed in Russia.

    On the contrary, our societies are becoming more Stalinist as Russia becomes more liberal.

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    • Hello Tony:) You know, I did think of your book (Return to Moscow) as I was reading this. Thanks to that, I am alert to the negative ways Russia and the USSR are depicted in the west, we never tire of it, do we?

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  3. This sounds really interesting Lisa, and very pertinent.

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    • Cathy, do you have similar sort of surveillance laws as we do?

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  4. I’m pleased to see that you enjoyed this book Lisa, and such a good review will hopefully encourage more readers to pick up this interesting book

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    • Thanks, Robin, and thank you also for reminding me about it:) I don’t think I’ve mentioned this online, but it was your comment that made me reshelve my TBR so that the Australian books are all together instead lost among the other books shelved Dewey-style, and it makes them much easier to notice.
      Now I must ‘go back’ and read the novel that comes in between, The Last Will and Testament of Henry Hoffman. Soon.

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      • Re-shelving the TBR by country sounds a good idea. It would make things easier to find. And by the way, I just picked up The Bridge today as you wrote so positively about it a while ago. You’ve introduced me to so many good books over recent years. I have much to thank you for.

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        • That’s lovely Robin, I’m so pleased to hear that what I do here brings together readers and great Aussie books.

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          • And I forgot to say, I’m currently reading The Biographer’s Lover – another of your strong recommendations – and it seems full of promise.

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  5. Sounds like an interesting book, though the ‘displacement’ of the Gulag Archipelago would bug me. I’m glad you pointed out/implied that we often look at the Soviet Union through the lens of CIA misinformation. I certainly think that the Russian Revolution was warranted even if it was unable to be sustained in the face of unrelenting pressure from the West (and faults inherent in Lenin’s dictatorship model). We need more people to point out that the surveillance state being implemented by the right is no different, only more technologically advanced, than the Soviet model.

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    • This book is on my pile of books to lend you when you eventually get here for a catch-up!
      You know, today everyone recognises that the French Revolution was an event that not only was of benefit to France but also to the rest of the world, which evolved towards democratic reforms in order to stave off a similar revolution elsewhere. There were, of course, #understatement excesses in France which everyone regrets, but they are not the lead item in the histories.
      With unrestrained capitalism in the ascendant we are not likely now to hear anything positive about the Soviet Revolution, and especially not from emigrees who fled the regime. But there were benefits, not the least of which was that Stalin’s rapid industrialisation fought off the Third Reich and deserves more credit than it gets for preventing a Nazified Europe and UK. That would also have given Hitler all their resources and their colonial possessions too including Africa, India, most of SE Asia and much of Latin America. It would have been an easy steal to take China too.
      It would have been the Third Reich v the US on its own…

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      • Great answer! Don’t get me started on The Scarlet Pimpernel.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’m not sure the 100s of millions murdered by Stalin would agree with the benefits of “rapid industrialisation”, not to mention forced collectivisation and de-kulakisation. TGA was not CIA misinformation. Even if only half of it was true (being extremely charitable to the regime), it is still too damning for most of us to comprehend. Atrocities that have never been properly acknowledged, much less confronted Nuremberg-style as they should be. But I digress, I enjoyed Dinner with the Dissidents. It inspired me to re-read TGA and got me onto Vasily Grossman “Life and Fate”, which I am currently enjoying.

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        • You’re right, Dan, and I’m certainly not trying to justify those deaths by the benefits of rapid industrialisation. But we in the west should not forget that we owe the defeat of Hitler to that rapid industrialisation, and it would be a very different world if Hitler had defeated Russia, which they likely would have if the Tsars had still been in power because Russia was hopelessly backward.
          Life and Fate is brilliant. Which one are you reading, the one previously published, or the new edition which includes a lot that was edited out of the first one?

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          • The Russians are definitely owed a huge debt of gratitude for outcome of the war, but how many of them were fighting with a bayonet at their back, and how many were rewarded with a stint in the gulag for being captured or wounded, or simply for having seen life outside the USSR? Even while appealing to his “brothers and sisters” to defend the fatherland, Stalin never paused in his genocide and terror. Sorry to bang on about this, but I constantly find people who have no idea how bad he was. Everyone has heard of Hitler, but amazingly not Stalin. Regarding the edition I’m reading, I’m not sure? Published 2006, Vintage Classics, introduction by Linda Grant. Does that help? I hope I’m not missing out on anything! (That will bother me now). Another book I was going to mention in relation to the earlier thread above, about people’s survival strategies under oppression etc, is “Second Hand Time” by Svetlana Alexievich. I loved this book. One of the key points it makes is that the reason no one wants to talk about the atrocities of the era (and it wasn’t just Stalin; it was happening before and after him too), is that if you survived, you are complicit in some way. You were either an executioner or the executed (figuratively speaking – mostly).

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            • Bang away, Dan, I think I’ve read enough about Stalin to know about him, but I think you’re right that many people don’t (and even fewer know about Mao, but that’s another story).
              I *think* it’s the NYT that has just published the complete Life and Fate. As you know, it’s a long book in the 2006 edition (which is what I read too) but apparently there was a lot more of it that was pruned. I read that at about the same time I read Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad so I had both a Soviet and a Western perspective on what happened.
              I’ve read Second-Hand Time too, and for a more digestible slice of life in the gulags than Solzhenitsyn I’d suggest Kolyma Tales, by Varlam Shalamov, they are fiction but based on the authors own experience.
              And you are right about atrocities ‘before’: very few people who marvel at the beauty of St Petersburg have any idea how many people died building it.

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              • I read Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad a while ago too. I never realised what an important book it was at the time, but lately I keep hearing it mentioned. Now I’m thinking I better read it again. Thanks for the recommendation. I’ve heard of Kolyma Tales. I think Solzhenitsyn might have mentioned Shalamov somewhere (not sure about that). And regarding AS works being out of fashion, I find that hard to explain. I keep trying to lend The First Circle to anyone I can. Maybe my lack of success is telling… ;-)
                Thanks for the chat.
                Dan

                Liked by 1 person

  6. […] regime in Canberra.  If you don’t know just exactly how your data is being monitored, visit my review of Tesarsch’s book, I’ve pasted in a summary from […]

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  7. […] with the Dissidents (John Tesarsch, Affirm), see my review. I know, I shouldn’t, I’ve only read one of the shortlist — but I really liked this […]

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