In recalling the life and impact of a man like Vladimir Bukovsky it is almost impossible to avoid the comparison to the saints of the early church who were so dedicated to a cause and who suffered for that cause. Bukovsky’s cause was free speech and human rights and he was prepared to suffer for that.
It will interest readers that Bukovsky’s first arrest and subsequent imprisonment was in 1963, aged 20, was as a result of the making and possession of photocopies of the banned book ‘The New Class’ by the Yugoslav Milovan Djilas. This was written in 1957 and exposed the corruption in the Yugoslav Communist Party. Djilas was imprisoned because of this outspoken book, and again later when he wrote ‘Conversations with Stalin’. As Yugoslavia in the late 50s and early 60s was trying to reconnect with the Soviet Union one can guess that both parties for different reasons did not like either book. Criticism by comparison was clearly not welcome. One can also guess that Bukovsky probably admired the courage of Djilas because he was speaking up from the experience of an insider. Having been thrown out of University two years earlier and involved in other dissident activity Bukovsky was clearly a marked man. The circulation of ‘The New Class’ was no doubt far too near the bone as it presented communist leaders and their bureaucrats as privileged and living on the back of the people.
The charge against him was under the criminal code section for ‘Anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda’ and he was convicted ‘in absentia’ by reason of his ‘insanity’, having been examined by Soviet psychiatrists and declared mentally ill. This was a development of punishment particularly after the USSR found it expedient to get away from the Stalinist ‘just kill or disappear’ system for any opposition. It was not only useful for the post Stalin leadership to distance themselves from the barbarism of Stalin internally, but also to show the nations in Africa and South America a better image but also to put away dissidents as ‘mad’.
The openly active Soviet civil rights movement is said to have began at a demonstration in December 1965 on Constitution Day. This was symbolic because the Soviet Constitution was a show-piece in terms of its content but a sham in reality as the Secret Police and the Party routinely ignored many of its provisions. Bukovsky was arrested and kept in various psychiatric centres. A new law was introduced in September 1966 classifying any public demonstration or gathering as a criminal offence.
Bukovsky always resisted using his knowledge of the law and penal code and this made him a dangerous opponent, and he never admitted regret to get a more lenient sentence.
His experiences in the psychiatric centres, now used widely in the 1960s and 1970s to punish interdependent thinkers in the Soviet Union and to deter through fear was exposed when Bukovsky smuggled documents out to the West detailing this political abuse. Bukovsky was arrested again in 1971 but serious medical opinion in the West had been aroused and an international row started, resulting in Soviet practices being condemned by the World Psychiatric Association.
International psychiatrists stated ‘The information we have about (Vladimir Bukovsky) suggests that he is the sort of person who might be embarrassing to authorities in any country because he seems unwilling to compromise for convenience and personal comfort, and believes in saying what he thinks in situations which he clearly could endanger him. But such people often have much to contribute, and deserve considerable respect.’
Eventually after being in prison until December 1976 the USSR exchanged him for a Chilean communist leader. He met western world leaders and in 1977 President Carter started to stress human rights as a part of his foreign policy. He finally settled in Cambridge, England, and resumed his studies in Biology getting a Masters degree. Early into his stay he wrote his story called ‘To Build a Castle – My life as a dissenter’. The book is a catalogue of the evils and crimes of the Soviet system, and many of the same characteristics can be recognised in totalitarian regimes. The title of the book refers to his mental way of resisting torture and the mind games of the interrogations and the punishment regimes and inhuman cells. He said ‘I set myself the task of constructing a castle in every detail from the foundations, floors, walls, staircases and secret passages right up to the pointed roofs and turrets.’ His stubbornness for freedom and independence was remarkable. They, the communist leaders, had to get rid of him because he was becoming and ikon like Mandela, or Solzhenitzyn, or the Dalai Lama. They couldn’t just kill him as Stalin would have done as they claimed to not be like Stalin but to be world leaders for human rights. But in reality they were the same so they found a new way to strike fear by incarceration in mental institutions-neatly from their point of view saying to revolutionary movements world wide ‘our dissidents are mad’.
He was finally allowed back into Russia in 1991 when Boris Yeltsin was the leading candidate for the presidency. Bukovsky’s convictions were annulled in the same year and his citizenship confirmed. He served as an Expert Witness at the Constitutional Court which was hearing a case concerning the banning of the Communist Party and the seizure of its property. The court case was only partly successful in that the CPSU was found to be an unconstitutional organisation but unfortunately its leading members not banned from public office. They found a way to continue as the Communist Party of the Russian Federation. Better but only slightly better than most republics of former Yugoslavia. As a trial expert Bukovsky was able to obtain access to the state archives and get copies of many secret documents of the Central Committee. These show a startling disregard for the judicial system, indeed it is clear that the courts were tools of the party when thought necessary. No a great surprise as the court system being merely and administration department of the party in every communist country.
Bukovsky warned in a 1992 interview of allowing former leading communist to have roles in government:
‘Having failed to finish off conclusively the Communist system, we are now in danger of integrating the resulting monster into our world. It may not be called Communism any more, but it has retained many of its dangerous characteristics. . . . Until a Nuremberg-style tribunal passes its judgement on all the crimes committed by Communism, it is not dead and the war is not over.’
In 1994, Bukovsky was critical of Yeltsin for being close to the KGB successors, the FSB and the old boys network, and feared a return to KGB domination and we know he was right.
Bukovsky published many of these documents in the book ‘Judgement in Moscow’ first published in Russian in 1996, and finally in English in 2019. The delay in the publishing of the English translation has been a big surprise but his criticisms in places of western weaknesses on human rights is strong, as is his reporting of influence and penetration of western political and other organisations such as the so-called peace movement, and funding of communist parties and terrorism worldwide. He pointed to those who worked for the Soviet Union as agents of influence, either through naivety or for money.
Bukovsky also criticised Westerners who have been taken in by the Soviet Union and its successors, especially academics who called themselves Soviet experts – ‘Kremlinologists’.
He clearly was not a believer in politics as the art of the possible, the art of compromise, or the art of survival. In the urban dictionary anarchists are defined as ‘anarchists are people who want to live under their own authority. political authority is what they are against, and some will go to extreme measures’ so in many ways Bukovsky was by inclination an anarchist. He was for not the negative parts of the historic anarchist movements, but the parts that disliked large government and valued individual rights and freedoms. Because he lived under his own high moral standard he criticised the use of torture by US forces in Iraq and he adopted a Eurosceptic position as regards the EU, fearing it would develop into a totalitarian system through political correctness and statism. He likened the Euro citizen to Soviet man, and the Euro state like the Soviet state.
Paul Satter in the Afterword of the book ‘Judgement in Moscow’ concludes that:
‘the need for a historical reckoning has to be faced….not only necessary to face the truth about the communist period, but also the post-communist period’ – ‘to achieve moral cleansing’ – ‘to create the conditions for…moral and political resurrection’.
This surely must be true of all former communist countries and only an obstinate modern martyr like Bukovsky could invoke words like this.
Vladimir Bukovsky passed away on 27th October 2019