oDR: Opinion

Vladimir Bukovsky, the hooligan at odds with both Russia and the West

Why Soviet dissident, writer and campaigner Vladimir Bukovsky (1942-2019) was a global politician, and why his experience is important today.

Mikhail Kaluzhsky
13 November 2019
Demonstration in support of Vladimir Bukovsky, Amsterdam, 1975
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CC Bert Verhoeff (ANEFO) / WiKiCommons. Some rights reserved

Tom Stoppard was behind on a deadline. The playwright had promised composer Andre Previn a play that would include a role for a symphony orchestra. At this moment of crisis, which even great playwrights face, Stoppard met Viktor Fainberg, a dissident recently expelled from the Soviet Union to the West.

Fainberg’s stories about his years in a psychiatric hospital (a common fate for political dissidents in the Soviet Union) gave Stoppard an idea. The result was a play (Every Good Boy Deserves Favour) where a dissident and a psychiatric patient share a cell - with an invisible orchestra audible only to the latter. Stoppard dedicated the work to Fainberg and Vladimir Bukovsky, another Soviet dissident undergoing forced psychiatric treatment at the time.

By the time the play was in production in 1977, Bukovsky had already been released from prison and was in the West. Stoppard invited him to sit in on a rehearsal at Covent Garden.

“He came and stayed to watch for an hour or two. He was diffident, friendly, and helpful on points of detail in the production,” Stoppard wrote. “But his presence was disturbing… There was a sense of worlds colliding.”

Once a dissident, always a politician

In March 2011, Mikhail Gorbachev celebrated his 80th birthday with a fundraising concert at London’s Albert Hall.

The acts included both the German rock band the Scorpions and Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, while the audience comprised the great, the good and the fashionable. The former First Secretary of the Stavropol Regional Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union handed out prizes to an English lord, an American multimillionaire and a young African inventor. However, while the rich and famous, united by the idea of being “for everything good, against everything bad” were getting ready for the party, Vladimir Bukovsky was filing a suit at Westminster Magistrates Court, in which he demanded the arrest and questioning of Gorbachev for using armed forces against civilians. Bukovsky explained his action by the fact that Gorbachev was responsible for the murders of civilians in 1989-1991 across the Soviet Union - Baku, Tbilisi, Vilnius and Riga - and the need to reveal Western society’s double standards.

What Bukovsky was doing in 2011 was exactly the same as he had done at the rehearsal of Stoppard’s play: he was bringing two worlds together.

You could say that Bukovsky’s entire political life in the West consisted of making one world clash against another: the world of real totalitarianism and violence and the ideal world of freedom and justice. After settling in Cambridge, UK, he assiduously and systematically continued to do what he had begun as a Moscow schoolboy. An eternal dissident, he would have been a politician in the Soviet Union if the USSR had given critics of the regime the opportunity.

Bukovsky was 17 when he was expelled from school for producing a handwritten magazine.

At 18, he became one of the organisers of “Mayakovka” – regular meetings of young people and public poetry readings under poet Vladimir Mayakovsky’s statue in Moscow.

Mayakovsky Square, 1960s | Screenshot from 1962 film "I am walking through Moscow"

A year later, Bukovsky was thrown out of the Biology Faculty of Moscow University, and at 22 he was arrested for trying to make copies of The New Class, a treatise by the Yugoslav dissident Milovan Djilas which was banned in the USSR. He then spent two years in a psychiatric clinic in Leningrad, and a few months later – this was 1965, the first year of the new regime after the fall of Nikita Khrushchev – he was re-arrested and spent six months of forced hospitalisation for organising a “glasnost” protest demonstration in defence of Soviet writers Andrey Sinyavsky and Yulii Daniel.

Another two years later, in January 1967, Bukovsky was once again arrested for organising a demonstration in Moscow’s Pushkin Square, this time in protest against the arrests of underground publishers Aleksandr Ginsburg, Yuri Galanskov and their close associates. This time, Bukovsky was considered sane and sentenced to three years in a prison camp. He was released in 1970, aged 28. His final arrest came in 1971, after which he was sentenced to seven years in prison followed by five in internal exile for “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda”.

An international campaign in his support, however, led to his being exchanged in December 1976 for the General Secretary of Chile’s Communist Party Luis Corvalan.

Breaking with convention

It might be tempting to describe Bukovsky’s activities after 1976 as “a new political life”. But while his methods may have changed, his principles hadn’t.

In the west, Bukovsky incessantly wrote political articles and books, the best known of which was his prison memoir And The Wind Returns. He was an advisor to Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher on relations with the USSR and a founder and president of Resistance International, an international anti-communist organisation that existed between 1983 and 1988. He also took part in an enormous number of public campaigns and published a huge amount of formerly secret Kremlin and USSR Security organisation documents in his 1996 book Judgment in Moscow, whose subject was the subversive activities of the Communist Party and the KGB around the globe.

It’s important to realise that the target of Bukovsky’s political and journalistic activity was not only the Soviet Union and, after 1991, Russia. Apart, perhaps most notably, from Natan Sharansky and Yulii Edelstein in Israel, former Soviet dissidents did not engage, and still don’t engage, in the political life of their new homelands.

Here again, however, Vladimir Bukovsky was an exception to the rule. He didn’t confine himself to Russian issues, instead actively applying his own ideological priorities, which gradually grew in clarity and precision, to the political realities of the West. It was, in fact, the possibility of free speech and participation in political life that created his holistic agenda. Bukovsky wasn’t part of the left and liberal mainstream in Western political thought – he was a Libertarian, Conservative and Euro-sceptic.

Vladimir worked as a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, an American libertarian think tank headquartered in Washington, D.C. It was natural that his rejection of all state control was a logical correlation to his belief in the interconnection of personal and economic freedoms.

Bukovsky (second from left) at the Fifth Sakharov Congress, Amsterdam, 1987 | CC Rob C. Croes (ANEFO) - GaHetNa (Nationaal Archief NL) 933-9888 / WiKi Commons. Some rights reserved

The main object of Bukovsky’s fervent reproof was probably the EU. His commitment to take a stand against all forms of highly concentrated state power led to his systematic dislike of European integration. At the start of the 2000s he even coined the term “EUSSR”. In 2010, he wrote:

“This pattern of dictatorship, oppression, and lack of freedom of speech is rising not only in third world countries, but also in Europe and the United States. Europe faces the emerging monster of the European Union, which looks suspiciously like the Soviet Union in many respects - though admittedly only a pale copy.”

Bukovsky was, in a sense, a “Brexiteer” long before the concept of Brexit was born. His patronage of UKIP hardly surprising in this regard. This suspicion and fundamental objection to seeing any positive aspects of European unity were based not only on the idea of a “government over governments” as an unconditional evil. Bukovsky, who received access to the documents published by him in Judgment in Moscow in the early 1990s, was convinced that the idea of a “common European home” was not only deeply socialist in itself, but was the result of direct actions by the leaders of the moribund Soviet Union, who were aiming to counteract the pro-market policy of some European leaders, especially Margaret Thatcher.

“The left-wing parties and the Soviet Union had opposed European integration very much because they perceived it as a means to block their socialist goals,” he said during a speech to the European Parliament in 2006 (on the invitation of the Hungarian Fidesz party). “From 1985 onwards they completely changed their view. The Soviets came to a conclusion and to an agreement with the left-wing parties that if they worked together they could hijack the whole European project and turn it upside down. Instead of an open market they would turn it into a federal state.”

A war on all fronts

Is the European Union like the Soviet Union? To what extent do Euro-integration, common regulations and a multi-layered organisation restrict or promote the freedom of citizens and states? Are Europeans threated by the introduction of a single ideology?

Unfortunately, we can’t ask this question today – and not because Remainers or Eurocrats forbid it, but because this issue is overheated. Our current political debates are adding nothing to our understanding of the issue – they only complicate things. And Vladimir Bukovsky’s Euroscepticism seems less like a systematic agenda than sarcastic political journalism, and nothing more.

But in order to properly assess Bukovsky’s political modus vivendi in the West, we need to return to Russia. Indeed, we need to return to 2007, when Bukovsky ran in the Russian presidential campaign.

The very fact of a former Soviet dissident standing in a presidential election is unprecedented. Since 1991, the people who fought the regime in Soviet times have preferred largely to stay away from power, even if they have in some way supported, say, Boris Yeltsin. There are very few exceptions to this rule: Sergey Kovalyov, a former Human Rights Ombudsperson and parliamentary deputy, former Duma members Gleb Yakunin, Vyacheslav Igrunov and Yulii Rybakov, as well as Foreign Ministry official Vyacheslav Bakhmin.

Bukovsky was the exception. While continuing his political activity in the West, he flung down a challenge to the Kremlin. He had no illusions of either electoral success or the nature of power in Russia, but he wished to show that resistance was possible.

After a meeting of an initiative group in support of Bukovsky, Moscow writer Nikolay Gladkikh commented: “Although I myself am part of very distinguished community, I feel that for the first time in Russia I have seen a person of courage, someone who calls things by their absolutely real names: aloud, systematically, without any diplomatic silences, allusions or hints at what we all understand or discuss amongst ourselves”.

The most important thing with Bukovsky was his fundamental rejection of conventional commonplaces and clichés. Don’t compare him to Nigel Farage. Compare him instead with Noam Chomsky. They may have completely opposite views, but they have a similar passion and readiness to question the stereotypes of the moment. And Bukovsky’s own experience made him completely fearless.

This is why he refused to see Gorbachev as a peaceful reformer, and criticised Yeltsin for his inconsistency. He didn’t flinch from saying that European peace and anti-nuclear movements were financed by the Soviet Union.

He was critical of the European Union, feminism, the ban on smoking in public, compromise and European governments’ double standards – for their intellectual conformism, the replacement of political tools with moral values and the priority of group interest over individual rights and freedoms.

It would be completely wrong to think that Bukovsky brought a two-dimensional view of the world from his Soviet experience of resistance – a division into “us” and “them”. He saw parallels between the triumph of political correctness and the Communist idea of a ruling ideology, and at the same time remarked on the similarity between the methods of the CIA and the KGB when he condemned the torture in American secret prisons.

After Bukovsky

It’s possible that the experience of Bukovsky, whom it’s now so easy to label as “far-right”, might still be of use. We need to remember that his predictions have, unfortunately, been coming to pass.

In the first place, this relates to his vision of the future of Russia and the former USSR. The accuracy of the analysis of the post-Soviet situation made by Bukovsky back in the early 1990s is simply startling. In 1993, he was already talking about the coming triumph of the kleptocracy:

“For them [Communist party leaders], democracy generally just means a well controlled socialist ‘democracy’, whilst at best, the market economy just means corruption. So the best we can hope from them is a crackdown on any private initiative, and the worst is an attempt to justify their own corruption by references to the same market economy. In other words, if these people are capable of creating anything, it would most likely be a new mafia to replace the old – a new political system which, for lack of a precise name, I would call kleptocracy, by analogy with kleptomania.”

Bukovsky’s predictions on Europe are no less accurate. Take the Kremlin’s policy of a “friendly stranglehold” on individual European countries (he calls this “Finlandisation”), and the realisation of its possibilities for aggression: Bukovsky was talking about the murder of Aleksandr Litvinenko long before the conclusions of the official investigation.

And talking about Europe, Bukovsky always also had in mind its relations with both the USSR and Russia. But it wasn’t Europe as such or even Russia that was at the centre of his thoughts. If the flabby political muscles of the European establishment prevent it from effectively opposing Russia, this is not only an issue of Kremlin hydrocarbons. It also concerns countries bereft of proper support, which are victims of Russian aggression. European leaders may talk about human rights being an EU priority, but in Russia the number of political prisoners is only rising.

Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina read Bukovsky’s memoir in a prison colony. We don’t know – at least, not yet – what Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose only sin is that they don’t believe in God in the way the Russian government would like them to, are reading in Russian prisons. What do imprisoned anarchists read? Or Crimean Tatars? Bukovsky’s prison experiences could help them get through their own sentences. But it’s much more important to set them free. And for that they need another of Bukovsky’s experiences.

This is the experience of the fearless deconstruction of the conventional and convenient, and we need it precisely today. Not only for Russian political prisoners, but for ordinary Europeans. And especially now, when groupthink is taking over and critical and sceptical points of view are hard to find. When intoxication with your own rightness blocks your view and you can’t see past people’s ideologies. When the political and intellectual elite call any threat to their own comfort “populism”. When traditional political parties and institutions are in desperate crisis, while people with competing ideas are swiftly radicalising.

The real freedom fighters may be critics of European integration and political correctness. Just like Bukovsky’s critics, they are not all necessarily agents of the Kremlin.

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