Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

The Trials of Vladimir Bukovsky

The great anti-Communist dissident, who died late last month, fought to hold the Soviet regime accountable.
November 11, 2019
The Trials of Vladimir Bukovsky
Soviet-era dissident Vladimir Bukovsky arrives at Cambridge Crown Court in Cambridge, east England, on December 12, 2016. (JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images)

Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky—who died late last month in Cambridge, England, two months short of reaching 77—was one of the unquestioned heroes of the 20th century, a key figure in the struggle against Communism. He was also a personal hero of mine as a closeted teenage dissident in Moscow in the late 1970s and then as an ex-Soviet immigrant in the United States in the 1980s. Heroes can disappoint, and that was sometimes true of Bukovsky, a man of vast complexities and contradictions. Yet ultimately, Bukovsky’s legacy will be the story of his indomitable courage and truth-telling.

For the free world’s sake, we should hope that his legacy lives on.

Born in the Bashkiria region of southern Russia (now Bashkortostan), where his journalist parents took refuge during World War II, and subsequently raised in Moscow, Bukovsky had his political awakening as a teenager during Khrushchev’s “thaw.” At 15, he had his first run-in with the authorities, getting thrown out of school over his involvement in kid samizdat—a handwritten humor magazine. He managed to get his diploma from an evening school and get into Moscow State University to study biology; but in 1961, as the thaw was starting to chill again, he was expelled for helping organize street readings of forbidden poetry and writing an essay scathingly critical of the Komsomol, the Young Communist League.

Two years later, Bukovsky was arrested for circulating copies of a banned book (The New Class, an analysis of Communist Party elites by Yugoslav political scientist Milovan Djilas) and diagnosed as mentally ill, a then-new Soviet strategy for dealing with dissent. Forcibly hospitalized for nearly two years, he emerged undaunted. In the late 1960s, he organized several protest rallies, an unprecedented thing in the Soviet Union; those activities earned him another stint in a mental hospital and then, in 1967, three years in labor camps on charges of instigating public disturbances.

In his final statement at sentencing, the 24-year-old dissident was unflinchingly defiant. He defended his right to demonstrate peacefully (protected by the Soviet Constitution, no less!), repeatedly chided the judge for interrupting him, and scandalized the court by comparing the actions of Soviet authorities to the suppression of Mayday protests in Franco’s Spain. He ended by affirming that he felt “absolutely no remorse” and pledging to organize more demonstrations—“once again, entirely lawful”—after he served his time. Samizdat transcripts of his speech went viral, as we would say nowadays; the great émigré novelist Vladimir Nabokov praised it as a “heroic” declaration of freedom.

In 1972, Bukovsky was tried for the last time—this time for smuggling out files that documented the political use of punitive psychiatry in the Soviet Union. His seven-year prison-camp sentence was cut short in 1976, when he was exchanged for Chilean Communist leader and Pinochet regime prisoner Luis Corvalán and speedily whisked away to Zurich. (This trade inspired a popular Russian verselet riffing on Soviet propaganda’s depiction of Bukovsky as a common “hooligan”: They’ve exchanged a hooligan/For Comrade Luis Corvalán./Where, oh where to find some twat/That for Brezhnev we could swap?) Between prisons, forced-labor camps, and mental institutions, Bukovsky spent a total of twelve years—more than one-fifth of his adult life—as a political prisoner. The brutalities he endured included not only beatings but excruciatingly painful force-feeding during a hunger strike.

In exile, Bukovsky settled in England; while he completed his science studies at Cambridge (and at Stanford in the United States), receiving a Ph.D. in neurophysiology, his life’s mission was still the tireless fight against the Soviet leviathan. He informally advised Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. In 1978, he published a memoir, To Build a Castle: My Life as a Dissenter. He co-founded an anti-Communist group, Resistance International, and led the movement for the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. His 1982 article for Commentary on the USSR’s manipulation of Western peace movements was widely distributed as a pamphlet.

A mere fifteen years after his expulsion, in 1991, Bukovsky returned to the Soviet Union when the regime against which he had waged a seemingly futile battle was limping toward extinction. After the failed coup of August 1991, the former “hooligan” was suddenly welcome in the new post-Communist Russia. Apparently, as he later learned, Boris Yeltsin’s advisors even considered offering him the vice presidency (which ultimately went to career military man Alexander Rutskoy and was later abolished, after Rutskoy joined the Communist/nationalist-dominated parliament in its 1993 rebellion against Yeltsin).

At the time, Bukovsky had one priority: a full reckoning with the Soviet past, similar to Germany’s postwar de-Nazification. In a 1999 Radio Liberty interview, he recalled that in September 1991, he had tried to persuade Yeltsin and his team to prosecute the 14 detained coup leaders and turn their trial into a Nuremberg-style judgment on the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, giving its crimes a full airing. Punishment, he stressed, wasn’t the issue:

I told them privately that I’m not a bloodthirsty man. They need to be found guilty, then you can release them in two or three years, I don’t care. What’s needed is to condemn the system, to break it forever and start a process of penitence and decontamination in our society.

Yeltsin didn’t want that. And that, I believe, is the tragedy of Russia; everything went wrong for them precisely because they didn’t do that.

Bukovsky felt strongly that, without such a reckoning, there was no place for him in the new Russia. Disgusted by what he considered inappropriate limitations on access to Communist Party archives, he resolved never to come back. But the same year, the wind shifted. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union, outlawed after the dissolution of the USSR, appealed the ban to Russia’s Constitutional Court. The government wanted Bukovsky as an expert witness, a position that would give him archival access. He was not allowed to make copies, but a handheld scanner did the job: By the time archive staffers discovered what he was up to, Bukovsky had what he called “thousands of priceless pages,” which were eventually posted online. (Not long after Bukovsky scanned these pages, scholars were given access to the same archival collection, and made these same documents—and many more—available to academic libraries. But Bukovsky remained understandably proud of his sneaky scans, which form the basis of his book Judgment in Moscow; more on that anon.) As for the courtroom proceedings, Bukovsky called them “a pale travesty” of the Nuremberg-like trial he had sought.*

Bukovsky’s relationship with the Russian leadership under Yeltsin remained contentious; in 1996, having publicly renounced his Russian citizenship (reinstated by Yeltsin in 1992), he was denied a visa when he tried to travel to Russia as a British subject. Still, he grudgingly respected Yeltsin as the man who dismantled the Soviet regime; even Bukovsky’s concerns about the Russian constitution’s outsized executive powers were primarily—and prophetically—about what Yeltsin’s successor would do with them.

Those fears became all too real with the rise of Vladimir Putin, the ex-KGB man who openly took pride in his past career. Bukovsky returned to his familiar beat, warning Western leaders and media against gullibility toward the occupant of the Kremlin. He also threw himself back into the fight for Russia’s endangered freedom, joining such opposition leaders as Garry Kasparov and Boris Nemtsov. In 2007, with Dmitry Medvedev poised to get elected president in a blatant charade to extend Putin’s power past the constitutional limit, Bukovsky tried his own presidential run. He was able to get a new Russian passport and travel to Moscow where, according to activist Vladimir Kara-Murza, people waited in line for hours in freezing cold to put down their signatures to nominate him. It was all for nothing: ultimately, the elections commission refused to certify Bukovsky as a candidate on the grounds that he had not lived continuously in Russia for ten years. (Among the other pretexts for the rejection was a true bureaucratic gem: While Bukovsky’s statement of candidacy listed his occupation as “writer,” the commission ruled that he had submitted no proof of being one.)

The foreword Bukovsky wrote that year for a new Russian edition of To Build a Castle sounded a bitter note about post-Soviet Russia:

[Russian] society did not follow us; it never developed a consciousness of its freedom or responsibility, never figured out what to do with the political openness it received as a gift from above. After some ten years of flailing and moping, the people themselves went and chose the old familiar butchers as their rulers, at once ridding themselves of all the hard questions. . . .

Who needs my testimony of freedom today, in this seemingly doomed country, and what for? Can a new tribe of rebels rise from the chaos and accomplish what their cowardly fathers lacked the courage to do—finish off the remnants of a totalitarian regime that have evolved into a mafia, move aside the generations crippled by decades of slavery, and start building a new society? Alas, it’s difficult to believe that.

And yet ten years later, in a short column on his 75th birthday and in the final days of 2017, he wrote, “I’m not a pessimist and take a very philosophical view of everything, because I know everything will pass. The Soviet Union ended, Putin’s Russia will too.”

In the end, Bukovsky did not outlive Russia’s latest repressive regime. By the time he was in his early seventies, he was suffering from serious heart, lung, and kidney ailments; the years of imprisonment and a lifelong smoking habit had no doubt taken their toll. This was compounded by the shock and stress of a scandal that his friends and admirers unanimously regard as a diabolical Kremlin smear: a charge of downloading child pornography on which he was arrested in October 2014 and prosecuted more than two years later. Bukovsky indignantly denied all wrongdoing—at one point even going on a hunger strike to protest the charges—and blamed Putin’s hackers. The case has some murky elements: While the frame-up theory is hardly implausible given what a thorn Bukovsky continued to be in the Kremlin’s side (among other things, by pushing for a full investigation of the polonium poisoning of defector Alexander Litvinenko), prosecutors have claimed that he at first admitted downloading the images as part of research on Internet censorship. It is also a case forever stuck in limbo, since the trial was indefinitely postponed in February 2018 due to Bukovsky’s failing health.

It is a testament to Bukovsky’s iconic stature, at least among Russian dissidents and their Western supporters, that his reputation survived the unresolved charge virtually intact. And the final year of his life had another victory in store for him.

Judgment in Moscow, the book based largely on Bukovsky’s trove of secret Soviet-era files, was been published in Russia in 1996. It also appeared in nine more languages, including French and German—but not English.* Random House wanted changes at which Bukovsky balked; a British publisher was deterred by threats of a libel suit. Then, more than twenty years later, an English-language edition of Judgment was finally on track, thanks largely to an unexpected offer of help from a famous fellow émigré, pianist Evgeny Kissin. The book was published in May, with added content based on new archive material obtained by Russian lawyer Pavel Stroilov and with a foreword and afterword by leading Russia scholars Edward Lucas and David Satter.

Despite his poor health, Bukovsky was still doing book promotions. (To my great regret, I missed several opportunities for an interview because of scheduling conflicts.) His last appearance was a twenty-minute interview on a Christian podcast, “Janet Mefferd Today,” on September 27. He sounded tired but sharp and confident as ever as he discussed the crimes of the Soviet regime and the need for the West to learn the terrible cost of implementing radically egalitarian ideas.

A month later, Bukovsky’s condition took a drastic turn for the worse. On the evening of October 27, he passed away from cardiac arrest.

*   *   *

In many ways, Bukovsky was a man of remarkable insight and foresight. He was right about Soviet malfeasance during the Cold War; many of his claims about the Soviet hand in far-left activities around the world—from radical trade unionism in England to Palestinian militancy in the Middle East—were later vindicated by evidence from the archives. One memorable episode in Judgment in Moscow has to do with the Soviet transfer of over a million dollars in 1984 to striking British miners whose violence-riddled protests against coal mine closures threatened to bring down the Thatcher government. In 1992, Bukovsky, who had been baffled and exasperated by the Iron Lady’s affection for Mikhail Gorbachev, showed an already-retired Thatcher documentary proof that, as Second Secretary of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, Gorbachev had personally signed off on the payment (officially a gift from the Soviet trade unions federation). It was a painful surprise for Thatcher, who had apparently received personal assurances from Gorbachev that he knew nothing of the matter. Bukovsky relished the I-told-you-so moment, pointing out that “the difficulty of ‘doing business’ with communists is that they have the disgusting habit of lying while looking you in the face.”

He was also right, of course, about the need for de-communization and for a proper judgment on the Soviet regime: Had this happened, he noted in a 2017 Radio Liberty roundtable discussion, “no Putin would have come to power,” and no debate could exist on whether Joseph Stalin was a monster or a strong leader.

Like many ex-Soviet dissidents, Bukovsky was often harshly critical of the West and especially scathing toward the Western left—for the most part, with good reason. Judgment in Moscow, subtitled “Soviet Crimes and Western Complicity,” documents many examples of Cold War-era excuse-making, moral equivalencies, and whataboutism that had the effect of whitewashing totalitarian evil, as well as a deplorable readiness to treat Communist regimes as respectable states. At the same time, Bukovsky did not fall into the trap of reflexively siding with everything on the right. While he regarded Jimmy Carter as naïve, he also had high praise for Carter’s commitment to human rights. He was strongly critical of Richard Nixon’s role in détente. In the mid-2000s, he raised his voice against the use of torture by the United States during the war on terror, writing that if cruel and degrading treatment of captives “is a necessary tool for winning the war on terrorism, then the war is lost already.”

Unfortunately, Bukovsky’s strong convictions at times led him to darker places. He could get somewhat trigger-happy in branding people pro-Soviet or even outright Soviet stooges. He was one of the foremost champions of Diana West’s 2013 conspiracy-theory tome American Betrayal, which claimed that the Roosevelt and Truman administrations were essentially Soviet-controlled (and which was shredded by historians who are generally hawkish on Soviet espionage and infiltration, such as Ronald Radosh, Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes).

There were other dives into conspiracy theory. Having come across evidence that the Gorbachev-era Communist Party elite harbored fantasies of the Western European community joining with a democratized Eastern bloc in a socialist-lite, Soviet-friendly united Europe, Bukovsky began to see the European Union as a Soviet project and a looming dictatorship; in 2007, he penned a booklet titled EUSSR: The Soviet Roots of European Integration. (This argument was all the more far-fetched given that, in Judgment in Moscow, he conceded the Soviets were hostile to European integration efforts until the late 1980s.)

It was a position that brought Bukovsky into an unlikely alliance with pro-Putin Euroskeptics, like England’s Nigel Farage and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. Bukovsky was, at least, aware of the problem: In a fascinating interview last May, Bukovsky expressed concern that, in the words of National Review’s Jay Nordlinger, “[s]ome people get carried away . . . with being anti-EU and anti-Left” and “are led into the arms of Vladimir Putin.” Specifically, Bukovsky warned that Orbán should worry about his country being “swallowed by the KGB.”

Bukovsky’s loathing of Western, and especially American, liberal elites also led to a peculiarly sympathetic view of Donald Trump, not as a leader—in the Nordlinger interview, Bukovsky readily admitted Trump was unfit for office—but as a lib-triggering smasher of “political correctness” whose victory was “a very good joke.” The man justly outraged by the left’s “we’re just as bad” response to Soviet crimes was bafflingly cavalier about the president of the United States taking a similar line toward a KGB-run Kremlin regime. In the column published on his 75th birthday in late 2017, Bukovsky scoffed at people in the West who once dismissed dissidents’ warnings of Soviet subversion as paranoid but now “see Russian hackers everywhere.” He had a point; yet one could just as easily turn this around and ask why he was suddenly so unconcerned with Moscow’s meddling.

*   *   *

It is tempting, in paying tribute to a man of such magnitude and heroism, to leave out the less admirable parts. But Bukovsky was too complex for a hagiography. He was a man of vexing paradoxes, many of them on display in Judgment in Moscow. This is a book that calls for a crucial moral reckoning but sometimes makes grave charges on a flimsy basis, that contains a wealth of unique historical information but sometimes comes across as grossly uninformed. (For example, it suggests that Angela Davis was cleared of conspiracy to murder charges in 1972 because of California’s abolition of the death penalty.) It is a book that chides American intellectuals for anti-Americanism but also detours into a gratuitous passage lampooning Americans as a culture-less, materialistic herd of “mentally retarded adolescents” obsessed with the endless “pursuit of happiness”—a concept Bukovsky ridicules based on the misapprehension that “pursuit” is synonymous with “chase.” Despite a #NotAllAmericans disclaimer, the caricature is grating, especially since it includes some truly bizarre assertions—e.g., that America’s excessive health craze has resulted in salt virtually disappearing from restaurants.

Such hit-and-miss judgments reflect a more fundamental problem: a tendency to view Cold War issues such as McCarthyism or the Vietnam War solely through the prism of how they related to the Soviet Union and international communism, not of what they meant to Americans. It is an understandable and very human flaw, and it certainly a more forgivable blind spot than the reverse—i.e., talking about McCarthyism while ignoring communism’s toll. But, regrettably, it was a mindset that reduced Bukovsky’s reach and influence in the West.

There is no question that Bukovsky was prone to intransigent, categorical, and extreme judgments (and not just on the Cold War and communism: When I heard him speak at the Economic Forum in Krynica, Poland in 2009, his sensible warning about the dangers of national security overreach quickly segued into a dismissal of terrorism as a made-up problem). And yet you could also argue that if anyone had earned the right to such judgments, it was Bukovsky. It probably takes intransigence, and an extreme temperament, to challenge a totalitarian state, take everything it can throw at you, and soldier on. Commenting on Bukovsky’s legacy on Radio Liberty, Kara-Murza asserted that, at least until recently, state security service trainees studied Bukovsky’s case as a rare example of someone who could not be broken by any means.

Whatever mistakes Bukovsky may have made, that legacy remains intact. He was a man who, with a handful of courageous friends and allies, took on the Soviet regime and showed that it could be resisted nonviolently—a tradition of civic resistance that, as he noted in recent years, persists in the Putin era as well. (The people he inspired ranged from Nemtsov, who reportedly called him “the pure conscience of our movement,” to the punk feminists of Pussy Riot, one of whom quoted Bukovsky in her final statement at trial.) He helped shape anti-Communist Western opinion in the late 1970s and in the 1980s, pushing for more focus on Soviet human rights violations and more pressure on the Soviet regime. He played a key role in exposing the Soviet political abuse of psychiatry, a particularly heinous and infamous practice. His memoir, To Build a Castle, is not only an invaluable document of the dissident movement in the Soviet Union but a testament to the power of an individual armed with integrity.

This remarkable passage from the book sums it up:

To be alone is an enormous responsibility. With his back to the wall a man understands: ‘I am the people, I am the nation, I am the party, I am the class, and there is nothing else at all.’ He cannot sacrifice a part of himself, cannot split himself up or divide into parts and still live. . . .

“Why should I do it?” asks each man in the crowd. “I can do nothing alone.”

And they are all lost.

“If I don’t do it, who will?” asks the man with his back to the wall.

And everyone is saved.

If a well-deserved memorial to Russia’s dissident movement is ever built, these words should be carved into its wall.


[*Corrections: The paragraph describing Bukovsky’s scanning of Communist Party archival documents has been amended to note that the trial Bukovsky participated in was an attempt by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union—not the Communist Party of Russia—to appeal its ban. The ban was upheld. That paragraph has also been altered to clarify the role of other scholars in publishing archival documents. Also, a sentence suggesting that the 1996 Russian-language edition of Judgement in Moscow was the first to be published has been corrected; the French edition came out in 1995.]

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.