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Vladimir Bukovsky, the Defiant: RIP

An abbreviated version of this article was published by American Thinker.

One of the first things famous Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky (1942-2019) told me about himself was that his roots were Polish. After the crushing of the Kościuszko Insurrection of 1794, his ancestor, Pan Bukowski, was taken prisoner by the Muscovites and shipped off to Siberia. This was a harsh introduction to Russian living for the family. Vladimir would continue into the footsteps of his forefathers.

This famous former dissident sat on the academic advisory board at The Institute of World Politics. He was a colleague. I contacted him initially because I needed help for my book, Intermarium: Lands Between the Black and Baltic Seas. Vladimir helped in procuring a research and writing grant for me. He was going to supply a blurb on the cover, but he prevaricated and then got seriously sick.

Early on from my readings and my conversations with Bukovsky, I concluded that it was neigh impossible to separate the man from the legend. The best descriptive for him would be “defiant.” He served nearly 12 years in prison, labor camps, and psychiatric wards. He must have undertaken at least a score of hunger strikes. One time, he endured 12 days without either food or water. He survived force-feeding when the wardens forced a rubber hose down his nose and poured liquid paste down. Usually, force-feeding entailed jamming the hose down his throat, though. Bukovsky survived that as well. He defied anyone who attempted to constrict his freedom, a predisposition which he, incidentally, credited back to his Polish roots.

Vladimir was born in the matrix of the Soviet Union, but, already as a teenager, he self-liberated. At 14, he heard about Communist leader Nikita Khrushchev’s secret speech blaming Stalin for slaughtering millions. Soon after, he rooted for the Hungarian freedom fighters in 1956. He started asking questions. He challenged the system. Upon his first arrest in 1959, the youngster refused to become a snitch for the Soviet secret police. And the KGB judged him, partly with rigid annoyance and partly with grudging admiration, unfit for recruitment.  You can read that in his secret police files.

Why did he fall afoul of the post-Soviet powers that be? Let me count the ways.  It started in the good old USSR, as mentioned, when he was a high school student. He questioned authority and would forever challenge so-called assumed wisdom. Vladimir produced a hand-made illegal newssheet, which got him expelled in 1960. After completing high school equivalency courses at a night program, he enrolled at Moscow State University as a biology major. Simultaneously, Bukovsky joined an informal poetry circle and helped produce the group’s samizdat publication. He proceeded to mock in writing the Communist Youth organization (Komsomol).  He was detained, interrogated by the KGB, and duly expelled from MSU in 1961.

Two years later, Vladimir was arrested, tried, and sentenced to two years for anti-Soviet agitation. They locked him up in a psychiatric ward (psikhushka), where he was “diagnosed” with “symptomless schizophrenia.” According to Soviet “science,” anyone opposing Communism had to be a schizophrenic, even when he did not display any symptoms. He was medicated forcibly. Bukovsky told me that the trick was to learn how to regurgitate the psychotropic drugs so the hospital wardens and nurses would not notice.

After getting out in 1965, the intrepid dissident plunged right back into anti-Communist activities.  He co-organized a demonstration and a petition drive in solidarity with other Soviet dissidents. For this, he was rearrested and thrown back into the red looney bin. Now things turned tougher. The KGB wanted to turn their prisoner into a vegetable. Forcible administration of drugs and their doses increased. Luckily, the regurgitation trick continued to serve the dissident well. Vladimir endured half a year of this but was unexpectedly released after half a year in mid-1966.

Six months later, Bukovsky joined a demonstration in defense of other non-violent protesters who were on trial or under lock and key, only to be seized himself and tried for violating a ban on public protest. In his defense, he invoked Soviet law which Soviet judges and secret policemen were apparently violating. Because Vladimir refused to express remorse for demonstrating, he was sent to the Gulag: a penal colony with a forced labor regime in Bor in the Voronezh region. His sentence was three years. He got out in 1970.

Drawing on his experiences in the Gulag and, in particular, in psychiatric wards, the dissident began compiling records on the Soviet abuse of psychiatry. To add insult to injury, he discovered that some of the Communist psychiatrists who worked hand in glove with the KGB were treated cordially in the West and even invited to scholarly conferences at some of the leading institutions. The work of the medical monsters who facilitated the torture of political prisoners was treated seriously by some in the West. Bukovsky resolved to expose it. He managed to get his report smuggled out to the West.

Consequently, a veritable storm broke out among French, British, and other psychiatrists, some of whom demanded transparency from their Soviet colleagues and believed the dissident accounts of abuse. For this, Vladimir found himself under pre-trial detention in isolation, and almost a year later received a sentence of 12 years for “slandering Soviet science.”  While serving his sentence, he secretly co-authored a manual on how to beat the Soviet system of interrogation to avoid being accused of insanity. The manual eventually found its way to the West, where it was widely disseminated.

Bukovsky became a cause célèbre. The KGB was livid. In 1976, at the height of détente, the Kremlin decided to further burnish its “liberal” credentials. Thus, Moscow agreed to swap the perky freedom fighter for the head of the Communist party of Chile, Luis Corvalán, who was incarcerated following a successful military coup to thwart a red revolution in that country. Compliments of General Augusto Pinochet, Vladimir was thrown out of the USSR and landed in the West.

He settled in England, where he successfully pursued a degree in biology at Cambridge University, where he settled permanently. Further, he trained as a neuropsychologist and continued his career as a writer and a human rights campaigner. He published prodigiously. Vladimir exposed Communist crimes globally, as well as Western naiveté regarding the Soviet Union. He joined numerous initiatives championing freedom. Among others, Bukovsky animated the American Foundation for Resistance International, which aspired to coordinate all anti-Communist activities by the captive people in all countries afflicted by Marxism-Leninism. At the height of Gorbymania in the West, Vladimir and his associates dared to question the sincerity of Secretary General of the Communist party of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev. They pointed out, quite correctly, that the Soviet leader wanted to save Communism and not destroy it.

In 1992, at the invitation of Russia’s president Boris Yeltsin, Bukovsky returned to Moscow. The Kremlin solicited his assistance in putting together evidence for the public trail of the Communist party for its crimes. Yeltsin eventually scrapped the idea, but not before Bukovsky was able to copy over a million pages of secret documents from Stalin’s archives. While Vladimir scanned away right in front of their noses, the KGB guardians of the documentary treasure trove had no idea what either a scanner or a laptop was, so, while watching him curiously, they never interrupted him. Later, to his own great surprise, the former dissident was permitted to fly out of Moscow undisturbed with his computer full of archival goodies.

In 1995, Bukovsky’s opus magnum, Judgement in Moscow, emerged from this research trip. Published in several languages, sadly, it had to wait nearly 25 years for an English translation and publication. Because we failed to smash Communism after it tripped, he warned us about the resurgence of post-Communism and its threat of metastasizing in the West in the form of political correctness and socialist etatism. Vladimir further cautioned everyone about the European integration and its totalitarian potential. He even published a work under an appropriate title: The Soviet Union or the European Union, or a Dissident in the Archives of Gorbachev (Unia Sowiecka czy Związek Europejski, czyli dysydent w archiwach Gorbaczowa, Warsaw 2005).

He never slowed down. Participating in public debates, book promotions, and other activities both in the West and in Russia, Bukovsky traveled widely and took part in politics, including standing for office, among others, of Moscow’s mayor and the Russian Federation’s President – against Putin’s lapdog Dmitry Medvedev. Vladimir was truly intrepid.

At his funeral, a teenaged girl reacted emotionally to his passing. She treated him like her grandfather. She is the daughter of the Russian family who shared Bukovsky’s dilapidated home. Vladimir had a sister, but no wife and children. This was a conscious choice. Upon emerging from Communist detention for the first time, Bukovsky resolved never to start a family. “If you want to fight for freedom, you must not constrain yourself with a wife and children. Remember: sooner or later you will taste persecution; they will send you to jail. You do not want to inflict that upon your family,” he told IWP non-resident fellow, Dr. Tomasz Sommer, who eventually became his publisher in Poland. Subsequently, rumors swirled about Bukovsky’s sexuality. Whatever his preferences were, he never advertised them. He behaved like an old fashioned 19th century bachelor with discretion and privacy.

This is a pertinent point because the issue of his sexuality continued to surface in public discourse. It was not because of our sex-obsessed age but, rather, because of the Kremlin’s active measures (aktivnye meropriatya). Homosexuality compromised one in the eyes of most fellow Soviets, so the charge was sometimes used to stigmatize political dissenters. At the end of his life, when he was in a medically induced coma in a hospital in Germany, “someone” broke into his home at Oxford and planted child porn on his computer. A “concerned” and anonymous source tipped off the British police; a magistrate issued a search warrant; vile content was duly found; and the unconscious Bukovsky was solemnly charged with pedophilia. Fortunately, when he returned to the land of the living, he was fully exonerated. Throughout, Vladimir had no doubt: it was Moscow’s hand that endeavored to besmirch him and his legacy of freedom.

He was always full of unorthodox ideas. Arguably the most shocking to us was his opinion about the Muscovite state and its successors. Bukovsky told Dr. Sommer explicitly: “It is not my fault that I was born in the Soviet Union. Why should I harbor any sentiment to that entity? And Russia was a logical way to the USSR, even if many fabulous people lived there…. Therefore as long as Russia does not fall apart into several entities, it will remain dangerous. A divided Russia is in the interest of the world, just as a united central Europe [Intermarium] is in the interest of the world…. This is not a question of nationalism and resentment, but of physics and balance. Big and demoralized Russia will always harm her smaller neighbors. Only its dividing and balancing can eliminate the danger, although not completely because Russia is a universe of slavery.”

When he took seriously ill, he did not complain. He’d always say that he was game for whatever caper we could cook up. We were thinking about another book trip, and I threatened, jokingly, to send Dr. Sommer to England to fetch him. Bukovsky responded: “Tomek is too tiny to drag me on his back.” I understood only then how sick he was. I had no idea how seriously Bukovsky’s health had deteriorated.  I’m only sorry he never reconciled himself with God.

But at the end, Vladimir had the last laugh: He was buried a hundred yards away from the grave of Karl Marx at Highgate Cemetery in London. Non-conformist, defiant, and free, Vladimir Bukovsky, RIP.

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
Washington, DC, 15 November 2019