Remembering Bukovsky, 1942-2019

A farewell to a titan.

Vladimir Bukovsky, one of the greatest dissidents in the history of the Twentieth Century, has died in England at the age of 76. For those of us who knew him, and were fortunate enough to work with him, his passing marked a profoundly sad day. 

For years, Bukovsky was a constant advocate for imprisoned anti-Communists, locked up because of their alleged mental infirmities. He smuggled their court documents to the West, along with documents purporting to show his own mental derangement. Instead of charging him with anti-Communism or crimes against the state, he was “diagnosed” with mental illness and placed in a psychiatric institution. 

Bukovsky was swapped for Chilean Communist Party Chief Luis Corvalan in 1976, and he resumed his studies at Stanford University, where the school administration played a nasty trick on him. A group of Soviet scholars was touring the West, advocating, as usual, for peace. Bukovsky recognized some of the better-known scholars from his years in Soviet jails; they had been among his torturers. He made this point to those who had invited the Soviets to Palo Alto, and urged them to call off the visit, but they were not put off from their peace mission.

Shortly thereafter, Bukovsky left the United States. It was a turning point in his meanderings. Although he was very fond of President Ronald Reagan and CIA Director William Casey, he found himself at odds with a culture that was hostile to his own deep-seated anti-Communism. Luke Harding writes in The Guardian:

His autobiography, published in English in 1978 as To Build a Castle and in Russian under the title And the Wind Returns, gives a vivid portrait of life in Soviet jail. He wrote: “Strange things happened to time. On the one hand it seemed to pass with preternatural speed, beggaring belief. The entire daily routine with its ordinary, monotonously repetitive events – reveille, breakfast, exercise, dinner, supper, lights out, reveille, breakfast – fused into a sort of yellowish-brown blur, leaving nothing for the mind to cling to.

“On the other hand the same time could crawl with agonising slowness: it would seem as if a whole year had gone by, but no, it was still the same old month, and no end was in sight.”

He had an easy-going friendship with Casey, with whom he shared schemes aimed at doing in the Soviet Empire. On one occasion he concocted a method for undoing a Soviet plot in Eastern Europe. Casey loved it, and gave Bukovsky his best advice: “Do it yourself. Don’t tell CIA about it; they’ll screw it up.”

Once he had established himself on the outskirts of Cambridge, Bukovsky’s home became a constant meeting place for anti-communist activists. England was a handy locus for Russians and East Europeans, as well as for North Americans. Both Reagan and Thatcher came to believe that the Soviet Empire could be undone, thanks to the tiny dissident movement, and Bukovsky was its leader.

The breakthrough came when Gorbachev fell. For a few months, it was possible to view previously-classified documents. Steve Bryen and I equipped Bukovsky with a laptop and a scanner, and he set off for Moscow. For weeks, Bukovsky copied correspondence between top Politburo officials and their foreign counterparts, illuminating the ways in which the leaders of the West communicated with Kremlin leaders. Before Bukovsky, it was not widely recognized that leading American senators such as Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts were attempting to coordinate the actions of KGB officials with those of Western sympathizers. Bukovsky made off with thousands of such documents.

The outcome of Bukovsky’s investigation was his book Judgment in Moscow, long since published in French, German and Italian, and just released in an English translation. Harding notes:

When Putin became president, Bukovsky was quick to realize what this meant for Russia: the KGB was back. He supported Russia’s fissiparous democratic opposition, which found itself slowly and ruthlessly strangled. In 2007, he tried to stand as a presidential candidate against Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s seat-warming successor. The Kremlin disqualified him.

Putin didn’t want to run against Bukovsky, and so he banned the great dissident. Now that Vladimir has passed away, there is no longer a leader of the Russian opposition, and Putin rules supreme.

And we miss him.