A Life of Integrity: Vladimir Bukovsky at 70

Reprinted from ImRussia.org.

Yesterday, on Sunday, December 30, Vladimir Bukovsky – writer, scientist, human rights campaigner, and one of the founders of the dissident movement in the USSR – celebrated his 70th birthday. IMR Senior Policy Advisor Vladimir Kara-Murza recalls the milestones in Bukovsky’s life – and urges the present-day Russian opposition to heed his advice.

Vladimir Bukovsky does not like to be called a politician, preferring to be known as a neurophysiologist, writer or, at the very least, civic activist. In truth, he never engaged in politics: he merely realized, at an early age, that he could not reconcile himself to live quietly with a criminal and mendacious regime that sought to make millions of people its silent accomplices. Bukovsky’s protest was a moral one. “We did not play politics, we did not draft programs for the ‘people’s liberation,’” he recalls in his memoirs, To Build a Castle (a must-read for anyone interested in Russian history). “Our only weapon was glasnost (openness). Not propaganda, but glasnost, so that no one could say ‘I did not know.’ The rest is a matter for each person’s conscience.”

“I did not know” was a popular answer among members of the older generation when asked by the youngsters of the 1950s about Stalin’s times. The public condemnation of Stalinist crimes at the 1956 Communist Party congress and (almost immediately) the brutal suppression of the Hungarian revolution, which showed that the nature of the regime has not changed, were formative events for Bukovsky. His protest activity began literally during his school days: he joined a clandestine anti-Soviet group and published an underground satirical journal. In response, he was expelled from school, summoned to a dressing-down by the Moscow City Communist Party Committee, and barred from studying at university (he nevertheless won admission to Moscow State University, only to be discovered and expelled a year later.)

Vladimir Bukovsky is one of the founders of the Soviet dissident movement, which was born in the fall of 1960 on Moscow’s Mayakovsky Square. There, a group of yet-unknown young activists, poets, and actors (including Yuri Galanskov, Eduard Kuznetsov, Vladimir Osipov, Ilya Bokshtein, and Vsevolod Abdulov) held public readings of banned poetry – Akhmatova, Pasternak, Mandelshtam, Tsvetaeva. They also read from their own works and the works of their contemporaries, which would soon be disseminated as samizdat (literally “self-publications,” the clandestine reproduction and distribution of banned literature). Samizdat, too, was born on Mayakovsky Square. The authorities responded in their usual manner: with dispersals of the meetings by bulldozers and snow ploughs; provocations by Komsomol (Young Communist League) operatives; beatings and arrests. Yet the “seditious” meetings continued in the heart of the Soviet capital for almost two years:

“That amazing community, which would later be called a ‘movement’, was being born. It had no leaders or followers…. Each of us, like a nerve cell, participated in this amazing orchestra without a conductor, compelled only by his or her sense of self-respect and personal responsibility for what was happening.” (Vladimir Bukovsky, To Build a Castle)

Vladimir Bukovsky was one of the organizers of the unofficial poetry readings on Moscow’s Mayakovsky Square, the birthplace of the Soviet dissident movement.

The Mayakovsky readings were only the beginning: one can study the history of dissent in the Soviet Union by reading Bukovsky’s biography. He was involved in organizing the December 1965 “Glasnost Rally” on Pushkin Square (Moscow’s first opposition demonstration in four decades); the January 1967 rally against political arrests (also on Pushkin Square;) and, probably his most important endeavor, the public campaign against “punitive psychiatry” used by the KGB against dissenters. After his first arrest in 1963 for “possession of anti-Soviet literature,” Bukovsky (then 20 years old) was brought to the office of Lieutenant-General Mikhail Svetlichny, the head of the Moscow KGB. “Svetlichny said a very simple thing,” Bukovsky recalls in the documentary They Chose Freedom. “‘Here is the arrest warrant. If you honestly tell us everything – where you got this book, who gave it to you, to whom you gave it [to read], I will not sign it, and you will go home. If you refuse, I will sign it, and you will go to jail.’ …  I found such a formulation insulting, and cursed at him. He did not say anything, just shook his head, signed the warrant, and said ‘Take him away.’”

Vladimir Bukovsky paid for his refusal to go along with the regime’s lies with 12 years in prisons, labor camps, and “special psychiatric hospitals.” Not once did he admit his guilt, ask for clemency, disown his words, or betray his friends. “We fought desperately against this regime of scoundrels. We were a handful of unarmed people in the face of a mighty state with the world’s most monstrous machine of repression. And we won. The regime had to retreat. And even in prisons we proved too dangerous for them.” (Vladimir Bukovsky, To Build a Castle) On December 18, 1976, a handcuffed Bukovsky was driven to Chkalovsky military airfield and, accompanied by a convoy from the KGB’s elite Alpha unit (that was its first operation), was flown to Zurich’s international airport. Communist Party Central Committee documents referred to this as “measures relating to the liberation of Comrade L. Corvalan1.” In the end, the regime was unable to defeat its enemy inside the country.

In the early 1990s, Vladimir Bukovsky and Member of Parliament Galina Starovoitova tried to convince the Russian leadership to conduct a trial of the Communist regime and the KGB in order to help the country comprehend its past and avoid repeating it.

The next time Vladimir Bukovsky came to Russia was at the invitation of Boris Yeltsin in 1991, before the attempted August coup d’état – and again just after the coup, when barricades were still being dismantled near the Moscow White House, and when the empty pedestal from the toppled statue of KGB founder Felix Dzerzhinsky was still hand-painted with a swastika and hammer-and-sickle – with an equal sign between them. “Let us not flatter ourselves – the dragon is not yet dead. He is mortally wounded, his spine is broken, but he still holds human souls in his clinging paws,” Bukovsky said at a rally on Mayakovsky Square in September 1991. “The Lubyanka [KGB] archives, seized by the Russian government, contain secrets of dreadful crimes. Only by making them public, by handing them over to an objective international commission, will we be able to cleanse ourselves from this filth.” Unfortunately, Bukovsky’s call was not heeded. The new Russian authorities, unwilling to “rock the boat,” refrained from fully opening the archives, from officially condemning the Communist Party and the KGB for their crimes, and from introducing lustrations for those who had participated in the crimes. A genuine moral renewal of society never took place. Russia’s young democracy was not protected from a comeback by the ideological successors of Yuri Andropov and Vladimir Kryuchkov. This comeback came just eight years after the democratic victory of August 1991. As Bukovsky had warned, “it is like dealing with a wounded beast – if you do not finish it off, it will attack you.”

Today, Bukovsky is not retiring or leaving public life – and his upcoming 70th birthday will do nothing to change that. His experience in fighting the KGB system is too relevant; his advice too valuable; his standing among the leaders and supporters of the present-day Russian opposition too high. During the frozen (in all senses of the word) winter of 2007, at the height of Putin’s power, Bukovsky was nominated for president by the democratic opposition as a symbol of moral protest. The line of people wishing to sign his nomination papers extended for seven hours; the Sakharov Center could not accommodate everyone, and people had to wait outside in Moscow’s freezing temperatures.

In December 2007, Vladimir Bukovsky (center) was officially nominated for president of Russia by an assembly of voters in Moscow. The Central Electoral Commission headed by Vladimir Churov denied him access to the ballot.

“The opposition needs a candidate for president – strong, uncompromising, decisive, with irreproachable political and, more importantly, moral authority,” read the statement of the Initiative Group that nominated Bukovsky, “Russia needs its own Vaclav Havel, not a new successor from [the KGB].”

1 Vladimir Bukovsky was exchanged for Chilean Communist Party leader Luis Corvalan, who had been jailed by General Augusto Pinochet.

There are few people like Vladimir Bukovsky in any society – let alone Russian society, which has been wrecked by decades of Soviet dictatorship, and by 13 years of Putin’s cynical authoritarianism. It is likely that the coming years will bring significant changes to Russia. During this critical period, Bukovsky’s words will be very important. This time, they must be heard.

  • Carol

    Dear Mr. Bukovsky, I hope you live for many, many more years. Happy 70th Birthday.

  • Alex Kovnat

    Happy Birthday Vladimir B! May you see many more sunrises and sunsets.

  • Rostislav

    I join the congratulations with all my heart – Mr. Bukovski's book (with his autograph from the days when he was discussing here in St.Petersburg this chances to be a candidate for our Presidency) is one of the most precious treasures of my library. Many happy returns of the day! Rostislav, Saint-Petersburg, Russia.

  • Ghostwriter

    I'd like to wish Mr. Bukovsky a very happy birthday. He deserves a lot more.

  • Jossi

    Happy Birthday Mr. Vladimir Bukovsky. I read a great deal of your writings and I admire you for your integrity and your courage. Not many people have your guts, only a few, and these few like you are making and forcing change. Unfortunately too few people have understood the dangers, which are even more radical than in the past.

  • daisey rigo

    uptil I looked at the paycheck that said $9688, I didnt believe …that…my mother in law had been truley earning money in their spare time at their computer.. there sisters roommate started doing this for only about eighteen months and resantly took care of the morgage on there house and bought a top of the range Honda. read more at,…….. BIT40.ℂOℳ

  • Lester HUnt

    Dear Mr. Bukovsky: Please live and write more books! *To Build a Castle* is a great one.

  • Stephan

    Mr. Bukovsky, please write something about German chancellor Angela Merkels past revealing that she was a Stasi spy in 1980 spying on Robert Havemann.

  • EarlyBird

    What a fantastic and brave human being. You'd think that communist dissidents inside the USSR would get a lot more press, but people don't seem to understand the horrors that were Communism. They were eclipsed in the popular imagination by the Nazis. Sad.

  • sabi sabev

    A true Hero!
    I was a teenager living in Communist Bulgaria, when i read the article of Wladimir's exchange with Luis Corvalan. Found the story in Newsweek or Time, magazines that where almost illegal then, And my eyes opened about his ordeal and bravery. He became very inspirational to me, living in a grimm and gray system.

    Respect, always,

    & Happy Anniversary!

    —Sabi
    -

  • isola jane

    Happy Birthday! I found your letters from 1979 ! You wrote:¨I presume you will find your way eventually ,if you are not looking for help¨ …Remember? …and, I found my way,and I got a lot of help! I am still living on the French Coast and hope your still enjoying Cambridge.!!I wish you health and joy!
    affectionately
    Jane Isola Blackburne