Vladimir Bukovsky's To Build a Castle
reviewed in the British and the American press.
A collection of articles from 1978 to 1981.
The Boston Globe (Boston, Massachusetts)
25 February 1979
By Raymond Nadeau
This is truly an exceptional achievement, unlike anything to have come out of the Soviet Union before or since Stalin. It is much, much more than just another “voice from the chorus.”
At 36, Vladimir Bukovsky has spent one third of his life in Soviet prisons, labor camps, and psychiatric hospitals. From the moment of his first arrest, while still a high school student, to his sudden expulsion in 1976, Bukovsky’s determination was to survive, and to learn the intricate workings of the Soviet legal system in order to fight back. Fight back he did, and more often than not he paid dearly for his tenacity. From one end of his country to another he suffered the agonies of internal exile. Certainly, we have read of these horrors more often than we like to remember, yet Bukovsky’s case stands out sharply in contrast to other men like Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov.
Bukovsky was of a generation that held little hope for socialism and certainly none for Leninist-Stalinist socialism. He and his friends fought the authorities with a youthful determination which found little room for sentiment. Indeed, at no time in Soviet history had men so courageously defied the authorities in the face of almost certain imprisonment or death. For the first time, the “politicals” were not condemned to the torment of other prisoners. Instead, they were looked to for guidance, support, courage. And they brought with them hope.
Enduring torture, starvation, and the worst forms of humiliation, Bukovsky learned the details of the Soviet legal system. He created a bureaucratic nightmare of appeals and demands which he knew were all within the limit of the Soviet law. Knowing how badly informed Soviet jurists were about procedural law, he devoured the criminal codes like detective novels. He found legal means of defending his right to conscience that even some lawyers knew nothing about. He was, in fact, that unique Soviet prisoner, his own defense counsel. Of course, this proved to be an embarrassment to the government, which forced them to invent new laws countermanding those already in existence.
Bukovsky also recorded in secret and with great detail, psychiatric case histories, and the diagnoses of doctors convinced that dissidence was a form of “creeping schizophrenia.” These he smuggled to the West, asking that they be presented to the World Psychiatric Association, meeting that year, 1971, in Mexico City. Because the entire Soviet bloc threatened to walk out, the assembly ignored the issue. Yet Bukovsky had made his point and did not lose his spirit.
After 12 years of this suffering, the Soviet government responded in the way Bukovsky had at first envisioned. The system, unable to deal with the accurate charges being made against it, began to fumble and to frighten even itself. Bukovsky would not give up. The government’s reaction was lacerating and ultimately inept. They had no choice. World-wide pleas for Bukovsky’s release made extermination impossible. Their only choice was to throw him out.
Fortunately for them, in the face of detente and the Helsinki Agreements, an exchange could be made. So quite suddenly, Bukovsky was exchanged for Chilean communist leader Luis Covalan, which in effect exposed, if only implicitly, an admission of guilt on the part of the Soviets, that they were in fact guilty of political repression. That the exchange was made between the Pinochet regime and the Soviet Union, was, in Bukovsky’s words, “a symbol of the times.”
No review can do justice to this book or to Bukovsky. The justice comes in its being read, for Bukovsky is a marvelous writer. His attention to detail may be horrific, but it will move you as it should. His description of his final flight from his homeland is one of the most moving passages in memory. And Bukovsky is not without humor and tenderness. Yet most important is the determination that emanates from the book.
When Bukovsky met with Jimmy Carter in February of 1977 (the first Soviet dissident ever to be received at the White House), the President asked how the cause of human rights might be promoted thought the world. Bukovsky’s answer: “Be consistent. Be persistent. Never vacillate. Don’t be timid or afraid.”
“To Build a Castle” is an extraordinary book. One feels privileged for having read it.
The Observer (London, United Kingdom)
29 October 1978
By Edward Crankshaw
The castle was dreamed up, built, furnished in detail, peopled, its magnificent grounds laid out, all in the author’s young imagination as a sort of therapy to keep himself alive, interested, alert and fighting in his cell between KGB interrogations and in solitary confinement in the punishment “box”. It kept him sane. What, he asks, did the idiotic questions of his tormentors mean when he could turn his back on them to light the candles in his own great hall in the company of his friends?
But castle-building was confined to those periods of Bukovsky’s recurring imprisonments when he was without books, without writing materials, without anything but his thoughts. Given half a chance, he was teaching himself English and reading, reading, reading, reading to make up for his broken education.
He had plenty of time. He was first arrested as a student, and by the time he was 35 he had spent just over a third of his life in prisons and labour camps and lunatic asylums. Then, because of the Western reaction to his smuggled revelations, because the KGB saw no way of suppressing him without killing him (no longer comme il faut as a matter of course), he was ejected from the Soviet Union like a foreign body in exchange for a Chilean communist who was more to Brezhnev’s taste. And now he is at King’s College, Cambridge, getting on with his interrupted studies in biology.
His castle was more than a dream: it was a real fortress of the spirit. Most readers of this review will have seen Bukovsky on television and will have some idea of his persistent and absolute defiance of the embattled might of the Soviet State. It is, I think, a unique record. There have been, and are, many extremely brave freedom-fighters (more than we know) in the Soviet Union, but it sonly Bukovsky, I think, who has regarded imprisonment and police persecution not as an oppression to be avoided if decently possible (and if not, endured) but as a mark of victory, of positive achievement.
And yet there is not the least flavour of the death-wish or willed martyrdom about him. He went to prison because he insisted on behaving in a certain way, and the very fact of arrest and re-arrest was proof of success. He is the only prisoner I have ever heard of who arranged his life on short release with only one thought in mind: to get so much done, so fast, that he would not have to reproach himself with idleness and wasted opportunities once he was back inside. The only suggestion of escapism from the world into prison is to be fond in his recurring sense of disillusion and digest when he finds himself once more, however briefly, with the freedom of the streets.
This book is a panorama of Soviet life in and out of prison, seen from below; it is an enthralling, if allusive, account of the now famous protest movement; it is the record of a personal odyssey of remarkable quality. But some of the most moving and illuminating passages have to be quarried. Bukovsky’s masterpiece is his life, and I think his story of what life would have made a sharper and more immediate impact on more readers if he could have satisfied himself with setting down quite matter-of-factly what he did and what others did to him in chronological order.
Do not, however, be put off by the somewhat baroque attack: read on and you will be gripped. Perhaps it is only through this sort of free fantasia that the author could bear to tackle his own past and at the same time develop the impetus in which savage irony, almost inexpressible scorn for the present rulers, and the untamable sense of humor can inform and bring alive a picture of Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, seen from the inside and out of prisons and camps, dominated always by the fathomless corruption and stupidity of the party bureaucracy and the better-known brutality and stupidity of the KGB.
Against this squalor flickers the bright flame of heroic few, known as dissidents — an inadequate and misleading word. For the dissidents of the Soviet Union may be numbered in tens of millions but they keep their heads down. The ones we hear about are the few who speak out in active protest. And Bukovsky has a good deal to say about their lives. They are human beings, with human weaknesses, not saints, but brave. Bukovsky’s categorical and utterly simple statement of faith, his and their faith in individual action, is one of the most moving passages in the book:
In fighting to preserve his own integrity he is simultaneously fighting for his people, his class, or his party. It is such individuals who win the right for their communities to live — even, perhaps, if they are not thinking of it at the time.
“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.
That is how a man begins building his castle.
I should add that, as one would expect, there are some revealing and shattering glimpses of Mr. Brezhnev’s treatment of those of his fellow-countrymen he decides to call insane. We see the notorious psychiatric trio, Lunts, Morozov and Snezhnevsky, off-parade and en pantoufles. It was Snezhnevsky who invented that marvelous mental disease, “sluggish schizophrenia.” According to Bukovsky this was not devised for the benefit of the KGB, but only exploited by them. Somehow this makes Snezhnevsky more sinister and dangerous than the out-and-out rogue I had imaged him to be.
The Des Monies Register Sun (Des Monies, Iowa)
06 May 1979
By Joan Bunke, Book and Arts Editor
Vladimir Bukovsky is the kind of human being William Faulkner was talking about when he said, in his 1950 Nobel speech: “I believe that man will not merely endure; he will prevail.”
Fractious teenager, jailhouse lawyer, prison operator, nonconformist, idealist, activist — Bukovsky was more than a survivor.
In his battles with Soviet officialdom from the early Sixties until his expulsion from Russia in 1976, Bukovsky prevailed. He also built more than the castle of the title. He and other political prisoners built bridges to civil and human rights for many of their countrymen.
Bukovsky writes the same way he has lived, with vigor, with humor, with a sense of shaping things. “To Build a Castle” reads like the adventures of Peck’s Bad Boy on crusade with the Knights of the Round Table. This maverick knows how to tell a story and believes that good jokes are “worth volumes of philosophical essays.”
At age 17, Bukovsky (b. 1942) first ran afoul of the Soviet system. His contributions to a magazine parody of Soviet life earned his headmaster the sack, his father a Communist Party reprimand and young Vladimir p prescription for lifelong tempering “in the furnace of work.” But he wanted to study at the university. Officially barred, he forged his way in.
Later, with friends, he formed a “kind of open-air club,” reading forgotten and suppressed writers’ work in Mayakovsky Square.
That was illegal, the police state said, and Bukovsky began his tour of prisons — hard-case prisons, forced-labor camps, people-killer camps in the Soviet North.
To keep his hold on reality, to avoid apathy, to live, he became a castle-builder. With a “fragment of pencil lead,” he writes, “I set myself the task of constructing a castle in every detail, from the foundations, floors, walls, staircases and secret passages right up to the pointed roofs and turrets. … I decked the tables and invited guests.”
He did more than keep sane. He figured out a way to use the system against itself. In Vladimir Prison, a place for “hunger strikers, sit-down strikers, troublemakers,” the officials decided to make the politicals work. No way, said Bukovsky. Using the official rules for appeal, the prisoners began “a war without quarter, a war of attrition. … We overwhelmed official channels with a veritable avalanche of complaints.” It took two years, but “the siege was lifted.”
Bukovsky drove the bureaucrats crazy. Do you understand the charge against you? officials asked. No, said he, explain it; show me what the criminal code says. No one could find a copy of the criminal code. The Constitution says what? Show me. It took officials four days to find a copy of the Constitution.
The “exceptional, heroic natures” he found among some of the fiercely independent criminal prisoners point up his own exceptional nature. His philosophy was simple:
“If I don’t do it, who will? asks the man with his back to the wall. And everyone is saved.”
All told, Bukovsky did 12 years’ time. Arriving in the West, Bukovsky couldn’t rid himself “of a strange sensation — as if … I had carried out something very precious and important … something that should never have been let out of the country.”
What country can afford to waste its natural resources like that?
13 November 1978
CAMBRIDGE, England (AP) — Two hears ago Vladimir Bukovsky was in cell no. 10 of Russia’s top-security Vladimir Prison and had his whole life mapped out.
He would finish his 12 years of prison, labor camp and internal exile in 1983. He expected to have “at best, a year of the fever called freedom” before his civil rights campaigning landed him back in jail. Then, probably death behind bars or barbed wire.
Now, as Bukovsky talks amid the clutter of biology books, empty glasses and an unmade bed in his dormitory room at Cambridge University, all that seems as long ago as a Siberian winter in the onrush of spring. He has a new life before him.
“I know for sure that these next three years I will study here, then possibly two years of research in biology,” he told The Associated Press in a recent interview.
Beyond that, he said, “life is not so determined as it once was.”
Bukovsky, 35, enrolled this fall in a three-year undergraduate program in biology at King’s College, Cambridge, one of several Western universities which extended invitations to him.
He says he wants to finish a college education cut short in 1961 when he was expelled from Moscow State University for protest activities that included organizing public poetry readings.
Two years ago Bukovsky was awakened every morning at 6 by a prison guard moving from cell to cell or by the national anthem blaring over prison loudspeakers. Now, he’s more likely to awaken to he gentle rolling of bells from King’s College Chapel or motorcycle roaring into action in a student bike park just below his window.
Bukovsky’s abrupt turn of fortune came in December 1976. Without warning, he was plucked from prison, handcuffed and bundled aboard a special Aeroflot flight with his mother, sister and nephew and flown to Zurich. There, on December 18, 1976, he was released and exchanged for Luis Corvalan, the Chilean communist party leader who also had been taken from prison and flown to the Swiss city for the exchange.
Bukovsky — his head shaven, his face cadaverous from a prison diet — became an instant celebrity, a symbol of a lopsided fight by a few independent individuals against a mighty state machine.
President Carter, presiding over a new administration committed to human rights, received Bukovsky at the White House. In Moscow, he was predictably called “scum” and “a plaything of malicious and bellicose reactionary forces in the West.”
Bukovsky since has traveled to a dozen countries to lecture on the human rights struggle in Russia. To his distress, he says, he’s found naïveté about Soviet intentions and some governments — particularly in Europe — too eager to make unilateral defense cutbacks. But he’s also found Western democracies more resilient than he had thought.
“In the year and 10 months that I’ve lived here,” he said, “I’ve found that hit system is much more stable than it appears. It is not so easily decayed.”
Between travels, Bukovsky has found time to write an autobiography, “To Build a Castle,” published in Britain October 26 and scheduled to be released in the United States by Viking Press early next year. The book, about his life in Russia, is a scathing indictment of the Soviet system.
But it also is peppered with Russian political jokes which, Bukovsky writes, are “worth volumes of philosophical essays” because they show “the thing that has left no trace in the printed sources — the people’s opinion of events.”
“One day Lenin’s body disappeared from the Mausoleum,” goes one classic. “They started a search fro it and frisked the Mausoleum. Inside they found a note: ‘Gone to Zurich to start all over again.’ “
Bukovsky himself has done that, and as did Lenin, Bukovsky closely follows news from Russia — of demonstrations, arrests and trials of dissenters. He said he gets from 10 to 30 letters a day, many about a campaign to get the 1980 Olympics moved from Moscow.
But he says he’s trying to ease out of public life, at least for now so he can concentrate on his studies. “I was forced by circumstances to get involved in public life,” Bukovsky said. “It’s not my field at all. My field is science. That’s one thing people don’t realize — that we’re not really politicians at all.”
In Russia, Bukovsky and other dissenters saw themselves as concerned citizens trying to persuade authorities to abide by their own laws. Bukovsky said he came to feel that a citizen who did not protest “is implicated in the crimes of he regime. I realized that the only way I could not be an accomplice was to be against it.”
Bukovsky was first arrested in 1963 and accused of “preparing anti-Soviet literature” because he had two copies of “The New Class,” a book by Yugolsav dissenter Milovan Djilas. He was declared insane and committed to a special mental hospital in Leningrad. Thus began years of confinement — in insane asylums, labor camps and prisons.
His last stretch started in March 1971 when he was charged with “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda.” One of his crimes was sending to the West a dossier of case histories documenting the incarceration of sane dissenters in mental hospitals.
Souvenirs of that time include stomach ulcer, apparently healing now, and arthritis of the knees, which he things he got in a damp, frigid prison cell. But the hollowness of cheeks is gone. Bukovsky is now a fit 165 pounds, compared to 130 pounds two years ago.
Though settled into a student’s grind at Cambridge and entertaining no hopes or illusions about going back to Russia, Bukovsky says he still considers himself “sort of prisoner on holiday.”
As his plane left Russia, his KGB escort informed him that he was “expelled from the territory of the USSR.” He was given a Soviet passport valid for five years. But there was no formal expulsion, and the KGB man told him his sentence “remains in force.”
“I still have something like 3 1/2 years to go,” Bukovsky said with a grin, noting he was probably considered in internal exile under his sentence.
“I’m supposed to be somewhere in Siberia,” he said.
Newspaper Enterprise Association
02 April 1979
Nina Bukovsky still does not see her son Vladimir too often. He is studying for a long-delayed biology degree at England’s Cambridge University, while she lives in Zurich with her daughter and grandson.
But she is content knowing Vladimir is no longer freezing, starving or bleeding behind bars. He spent 12 years of his 36 years in Soviet prisons, madhouses and labor camps simply for speaking out against a regime that does not tolerate dissent.
The Bukovskys were exiled from their homeland two years ago thanks to a worldwide campaign spearheaded by the motherly gray-haired woman. She described her political awakening though friend and interpreter Ludmilla Thorne during a recent U.S. visit.
Rebellion did not come early to Mrs. Bukovsky. Journalism was her profession and that of Vladimir’s late father, from whom she was divorced. She wrote for the children’s department of Radio Moscow for 20 — until she was fired as punishment for her son’s activities.
“I gave advice to parents on how to bring up their children,” she recalls. “But I brought up my own very differently.”
Vladimir’s career as a dissident began innocently at 16 when he helped found a high-school satirical magazine, prophetically titled “The Martyr.” The authorities deemed the publication “anti-Soviet.”
Vladimir assumed full responsibility for the magazine and was forced to transfer from his school to a less prestigious night school. His mother was told to put him to work in a factory to bring him to his senses. He refused.
“Something had snapped inside me and I was never again the same,” he explained in his autobiographical “To Build a Castle.”
“I knew for sure that I would never go to a factory to be tempered in the furnace of labor. They would have to kill me first.”
“He gave me my first lesson in courage,” says Mrs. Bukovsky of the incident. She admits she only slowly came to underhand why her son would sacrifice everything for the cause of human rights.
Vladimir reminded her frequently not to fear the authorities during the two difficult decades that followed. He compared dealing with them to being locked in a cage with wild animals; if you show you are afraid, the warned, they will destroy you.
Vladimir was first arrested in 1963 for photographing pages of a forbidden book, Milovan Djilas’s “The New Class.” He was committed to a psychiatric “hospital” and tried in absentia.
He was apprehended three times more. His last arrest came in 1971 for exposing the Soviet practice of treating dissent as insanity. He was sentenced to 12 years of prison, labor camp and internal exile.
Those were his mother’s darkest hours. “I realized he would probably spend the rest of his life in confinement,” she says.
Her repeated complaints to the authorities over the treatment of her son went unacknowledged. Barred from communicating directly with Vladimir, she once waited seven months just to find out whether he was alive or dead.
“Finally my eyes opened,” she says. “I realized we could not get justice from these institutions.”
After losing her job in 1971, she began sending messages out of the country via Western correspondents. She addressed her underground letters to heads of state, to the International Red Cross, to the United Nations.
One of her most poignant messages was to the 1975 International Women’s Year convention in Mexico City: “When my son is starved in prison, I cannot eat. When he shivers from cold in his prison cell, I cannot keep warm in my bed. When he suffers from pain, I feel pain in my own body.”
Westerners took up Vladimir Bukovsky’s cause. They demonstrated on his birthday before the Soviet mission to the United Nations and sent him countless letters and postcards.
“He did not get them, but the regime did,” she explains. “When the KGB gets sacks of mail, they realize people know what’s going on.”
The Bukovskys’ personal nightmare came to an abrupt end in December 1976 when Vladimir was exchanged for Chilean communist Luis Corvalan in the Soviet government’s first tacit admission that it keeps political prisoners.
But the plight of those left behind is never far from the Bukovskys’ minds. Mrs. Bukovsky says she things especially of the mothers of other political prisoners, who she fears are treated even more harshly today than they were two years ago.
“The authorities seem to be trying to simply stamp out the human-rights movement by any means,” she says. “Luckily, many young people are continuing to carry on the fight.”
What can Westerners do to help them? Mrs. Bukovsky uses the Russian word “glasnost” — publicity — through more demonstrations and letter-writing campaigns. She adds, “The hopes of the human-rights movement pivot on it.”
Star Tribune, Minneapolis, Minnesota
06 May 1979
By Joel Baer
Vladimir Bukovsky’s life as an opponent of the Soviet regime began when, in response to the Hungarian Revolution, he joined a secret organization of teenage boys with romantic but obscure political aims. Since the mid-50s he has been at the heart of the dissenter movement, as organizer of the celebrated poetry readings in Mayakovsky Square, distributor of samizdat (self-published) literature, and liaison with the Western press.
Thrown out of Moscow University in 1961 and imprisoned five times since 1963, he speaks with undeniable authority, not only on the savage repression of thought in post-Stalinist Russia, but also on the tremendous price one pays to retain the “sovereignty of the human conscience.” His book is a wonderful blend of autobiography, political critique and spiritual odyssey.
Bukovsky’s experiences in prison are gripping. He describes the wide range of Soviet prisons, their four “regimes” (degrees of severity), the KGB’s methods for turning prisoners into informers, and the prisoners’ ingenious countermeasures. We learn of the prison telephone — drained toilet pipes — and of the black market in drugs and intelligent that pits convicts and guards against the prison administration.
We learn, too, of the humor that sustains the prisoners in this conflict: “You say Lenin lives, okay let Lenin sort it out for me,” and they mailed their complaints to Lenin’s Mausoleum. On a hunger strike for the free choice of a lawyer, Bukovsky was force-fed through the nose; he observes wryly, “I had lived my whole life and never suspected there was a link between my nose and the Moscow College of Advocates.” Bukovsky survived prison with spirit and learned from it “the implacable force of one man’s refusal to submit.”
The lesson of open and passive resistance is what Bukovsky carries to those out of prison. The book contains his thoughts on a number of major issues — detente, the economy, crime, alcoholism and madness in the Soviet Union — but nowhere is he more cogent that in his critique of underground movements. The secrecy and rage of such movements guarantee that, if successful, they will betray the people’s hopes for freedom: “The underground only produces tyranny, only Bolsheviks of a different color.” Instead he appeals for moral opposition and the implacable power of the individual’s refusal to submit: “Man’s liberation couldn’t come from outside. It had to come from within, and until the majority of us had freed ourselves of the psychology of the underground, of the rage for justice, our descendants were doomed…”
Bukovsky’s political thought evolved with the development of his mind and personality. He is toughened by hard experience but manages to preserve the idealism of his youth. On one hand, he rejected the allure of the underground in favor of Alexander Yesenin-Volpin’s legalistic approach. (Volpin, who recently lectured in the Twin Cities, taught the dissenters to assume “the position of a citizen,” scrupulously obeying the laws in order to confront the regime with its own criminality).
But Bukovsky came to this position gradually and grudgingly, for he remains a romantic warrior at heart, a believer in an ancient chivalric code. “All my life … people who will stand shoulder to shoulder with me, no questions asked.”
This yearning explains his nostalgia for prison where political and “crooks” were comrades-in-arms against the “bosses.” It also explains the master image of the book, the castle. On the literal level, Bukovsky used to draw detailed pictures of an imaginary castle in order to escape the horror of prison life; symbolically he is building the Castle of Humanism where the Russian people may find dignity and take their ease. His castle is beyond time and place, yet its emotional center is the memory of feudal Russia, kept alive in this song of his grandmother:
Who the emperor-bell durst raise,
And swing the emperor-canon?
What gallant doffs not his cap
At the holy gates of the Kremlin?
Bukovsky seems to see his own heroism, the lyricism of the poet dissenters, the honor and resourcefulness of Russia’s convicts in terms of chivalric tasks or gestures “at the holy gates of the Kremlin,” now occupied by flabby, gray forms, terrified of the gallants below.
Perhaps Bukovsky exaggerates his importance to Brezhnev — the only false note is his conviction that the bosses are shaking in their boots at whatever he does. But if Brezhnev is not afraid of Bukovsky, he should be! This book will be widely read as political document, literary masterpiece and revelation of “man’s soul under socialism.”
The Baltimore Sun (Baltimore, Maryland)
25 February 1979
By Robert M. Slusser, Professor of Russian History at Michigan State University.
One of the more provocative and, to some people, irritating things Solzhenitsyn said in his Harvard commencement address last June was that the Soviet system, because of its cruelty and injustice, breeds stronger, more resilient human beings than are to be found in the more tolerant societies of the West. However dubious Solzhenitsyn’s back-handed compliment to the Soviet system may be as a general principle, it finds unexpected confirmation at the individual level when one contemplates the astonishing life story of Vladimir Bukovsky, now a student in biology at King’s College, Cambridge, but from his first arrest in 1963 to his forced exile from the Soviet Union at the end of 1976 the storm center of the dissident movement in Russia, a man who for a time seemed capable of defying and outwitting the entire ponderous apparatus of Soviet repression.
Born in Moscow during the Second World War, Bukovsky’s early life was spent in those ominous postwar years when the aged Stalin was moving to his gloomy and mystery-shrouded end. Then as young Bukovsky emerged into adolescence there came a rapid and confusing succession of political leaders struggling for dominance and, in the process, overturning or undermining some of the fundamental principles on which Stalin’s rule had been based. The climax of this process of ideological reversal came in the Khrushchev era, from 1957 to 1964. By no coincidence, it was this same period which saw the emergence of the dissident movement as a strong, viable new force in Soviet society. Intelligent, observant, and endowed with a kind of reckless honesty, young Bukovsky moved by a kind of inner compulsion to the center of the dissident movement and, by the end of the Sixties, had emerged as one of its most stalwart champions. Determined to crush or at least silence Bukovsky and his comrades-in-arms, the authorities not only imposed on them the well-tried repressive techniques developed over decades of Soviet rule, but introduced the use of mental hospitals as punitive institutions for political dissenters. Bukovsky’s prison career thus spanned the gamut of Soviet repressive measures. Somehow through it all he preserved his sanity and even a grim but irresistible sense of humor. One survival technique which he cultivated to excellent effect is alluded to in the book’s title: as a means of escaping from the violence and filth of prison life, Bukovsky concentrated on the construction of an imposing castle, complete with furnishings and guests, where he could exist on a spiritual plane.
Bukovsky’s book is therefore not just another contribution to that extensive library on prison and concentration camp life which ironically constitutes one of the principal glories of modern Russian literature. Because of his first-hand involvement with many key developments in the running battle between the dissenters and the Soviet regime, his book has the compelling interest of a primary source on the great spiritual drama now being played out in Soviet Russia. Only the future will tell whether Bukovsky should be regarded as the forerunner of a hardy new strain of heroic human being capable of defying the Soviet jailers or as one fo the last free-thinking spirits in a society doomed by its rulers to ever-increasing repression and conformity. Either way, he has written a fascinating book, at times exhilarating; at others profoundly depressing, but never dull.
Bukovsky’s style, which is conversational and colloquial, with liberal infusions of the colorful jargon of the prison camps, presents a difficult challenge to the translator. On the whole Michael Scammell has met the challenge successfully, but American readers should be prepared to encounter a number of British slang expressions with which they may not be familiar.
The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, Australia)
10 March 1979
By Barry Lewis
Vladimir Bukovsky seems to have been born to have been born to exemplify one of the central paradoxes of Solzhenitsyn’s novels — that in a totalitarian society the greatest freedom is to be found behind bars.
For 17 years he waged a relentless civil-rights campaign in the Soviet Union. Twelve of these were spent in prisons, labor camps and psychiatric hospitals, but they failed to break the spirit of this indomitable fighter.
Bukovsky took his dissent everywhere with him and organised hunger strikes and protests among his fellow prisoners in addition to compiling an important dossier on the abuse of psychiatry for political purposes in the USSR. It was the latter which alerted Western public opinion to his plight and brought about his expulsion in 1976 when he was exchanged for the Chilean communist Luis Corvalan.
Bukovsky’s hostility to the Soviet regime was shaped by his early experiences. As an adolescent of 17 he organised what seemed to be an innocuous school magazine, only to find himself arraigned before the Moscow City Committee of the party, accused of ideological sabotage. The verdict that he be “tempered in the furnace of labor” would have served as a warning to a lesser man that he was undertaking a losing battle.
But Bukovsky failed to make the usual compromises, not just with the regime but, more importantly, with himself. He rejected the easy casuistry that he could do more good by pretending to be a model member of society than by campaigning openly for justice and freedom of expression.
Although he paid for his intransigence by spending lengthy periods in prison, he utilised his intermittent spells of freedom to organise poetry readings in Moscow’s Mayakovsky Square, or to campaign for the release of fellow dissidents and writers.
Two factors helped confirm Bukovsky in his belief that open protest was the best course to adopt.
One was the contrast afforded by the case of Tarsis and the notorious trial of Sinyavsky and Daniel in 1966. All three were writers and had sent their manuscripts to be published in the West. But, whereas Sinyavsky and Daniel had used pseudonyms, Tarsis had had his works issued under his own name. The difference proved crucial. Tarsis was allowed to leave Russia without being tried, but Sinyavsky and Daniel received heavy prison sentences. The prosecution made much of their cautious duplicity: to the ordinary Soviet citizen the fact that they had used pseudonyms seemed to confirm their guilt. Bukovsky was determined not to fall into the same trap.
The second factor was Bukovsky’s friendship with Yesenin-Volpin, an eccentric and brilliant legal scholar.
At first Bukovsky listened with amused indulgence to his friend’s insistence on legality and adherence to the Soviet constitution — after all, hadn’t Bukharin, one of the authors of the constitution, been among it first victims? However, he decided to give Yesenin-Volpin’s ideas a try and it was out of their early successes that the human-rights movement began to grow.
To Build a Castle is a lucid account of the ensuing struggle for intellectual freedom in Russia in the 1960s and early 1970s and a startling expo of Soviet prison life. Bukovsky exploits his natural gifts as a writer to enliven the historical chronicle with his own hair-raising and at times amusing experiences.
His intellectual rejection of tyranny is skillfully balanced against his description of the practical tasks facing a dissenter when he finds himself in prison, and indeed much of To Build a Castle reads like an inspired manual for beating the Soviet penal system.
One method is to clog the bureaucratic works by writing a flood of complaint and pitting departments and officials against each other. Minor functionaries, moreover, frequently give way to prisoners’ demands out of fear of losing bonuses which may be withheld if numerous complaints against them are received, whatever their substance.
On a personal level, Bukovsky realises how important it is to avoid disorientation, especially when you find yourself in “the box” — solitary confinement. His own self-psyching method was to build a castle in his imagination, picturing the precise location of rooms and even the position and colours of the furniture. It was this which gave him the strength to reject the blandishments of his interrogators and to refuse to make concessions or collaborate as some of his friends had:
I lived for hundreds of years in that castle and shaped every stone with my hands. I built it between interrogations in Lefortovo, in the camp lock-up and in the Vladimir punishment cells. It saved me from apathy, from indifference to living. It saved my life.
However, just as open resistance and legal protests were beginning to make some headway in Russia, the State discovered a trump card up its sleeve — incarceration in psychiatric detention centres instead of prison, thus obviating the need for trials and providing a convenient front for psychological and chemical manipulation of dissenters’ personalities.
Few took Khrushchev’s statement seriously that people who expressed dissatisfaction with the system were mentally ill until it was realised that prominent opponents fo the regime were being transferred from the Lubyanka and Lefortovo to the infamous wards of the Serbsky Institute.
Bukovsky shows how easy it is to be diagnosed insane with professors of psychiatry working hand in glove with the State can declare that “ideas about a struggle for truth and justice, are formed by personalities with a paranoid structure” or when your protests against psychiatric abuse and use of sulphur drugs are blandly dismissed as “persecution mania.”
Bukovsky survived these ordeals, again by fomenting inter-departmental rivalries — this time between the adherents of the theory of “sluggish schizophrenia” and those who diagnosed “paranoid psychopathy” in an attempt to provide a theoretical justification for the treatment of dissenters’ “delusions.”
To Build a Castle should be read by all those concerned for human rights. It is a monument to a generation of Russian dissenters, their courageous defending lawyers and the few honest psychiatrists whose struggle for justice, due legal process and the right to dissent holds out the greater promise for a society which still fails to adhere to its own far from perfect constitution.
Hartford Courant (Hartford, Connecticut)
01 April 1979
By Edward J. Foote
Vladimir Bukovsky started out wrong as a teenager. To him and his fellows at school the Komsomol and party apparatus had a comic side, and the boys put together a satirical review. This interested the KGB in Bukovsky’s “talents”, and from that time forward he was never free from police surveillance. One thing led 2to another and soon he was in jail, in labor camps, and in psychiatric hospitals, where a concerted and longwinded (though ultimately unsuccessful) attempt was made to prove him insane.
“To Build a Castle” — the castle being the endless structure Bukovsky sketched on scraps of paper while serving out his time in solitary — is another horrifying document in the indictment of the Soviet socialist system. Now 35, Bukovsky has spent more than half of his adult life behind bars. He was finally expelled from the Soviet Union in 1976 and completing his education at King’s College, Cambridge.
His point here is that citizen protest in any regime can work. In his case, the pressure of the world human rights campaign, crusading American and British newspapermen, and Amnesty International helped him escape the tentacles of the KGB.
No reader can remain unmoved by this chronicle of how one Russian decided to remain obstinately unSoviet. “To Build a Castle” is but the first stop along the way to the formation of a new literary personalty for Bukovsky. All those who treasure the progress of the human spirit, and common sense, along the road from darkness into light will wish its author well.
Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, New York)
11 March 1979
By Margaret Torgersen
How could one manage without the descriptive term “Kafkaesque” when it comes to recent books about the Soviet Union?
Yet in the case of Vladimir Bukovsky, who was exchanged by his government for a Chilean communist in 1976, after having spent 12 of his 35 years in one kind of prison or another, even Kafkaesque fails to sum up the frustration, the bewilderment, the hopelessness, the bizarre sense of personal annihilation that results when a Soviet citizen resists the government.
Kafka, after all, was interpreting the human condition as he saw it. The incidents in his stories added up to a metaphor for life as an absolute puzzle. But in Vladimir Bukovsky’s account, there is very little of the allegorical, except in the title, which refers to Bukovsky’s method of retaining his sanity while in prison. In “To Build a Castle” the argument involves the inhuman condition, namely the status of the individual under a dictatorship.
Argument is the main substance of the book: it is a superb plea for the personal moral stand versus what Bukovsky considers the useless effort to organize an underground.
Growing up in crowded Moscow after World War II, rapidly becoming streetwise and skeptical of the system, Bukovsky soon outgrew the exhilaration that flinging with dissent first brought him, the romance of shared danger, the faith that combined efforts would achieve what individual ones could not.
He came to believe that the one hope for true freedom in the middle of the 20th century lay in one person’s decision to dig in his heels and refuse to accept what was being dished out. In a state where closest friends and dearest family members could always prove to be informers, only one’s own soul could be relied on.
We have in this dramatic autobiography not only the painful documentation of official cruelty but also a carefully worked out philosophy of what fighting back entails.
It means months and months of reading, hundreds and hundreds of written complaints, and thousands of assessments of what is constitutionally permitted and what is not, since Bukovsky maintains that even in Russia, the government considers it desirable at least to appear to be within the law.
Most difficult, and most essential, it means a willingness to go back to jail or camp or insane asylum again and again and again.
Bukovsky’s physical stamina is more baffling, at least to this craven reader, than his emotional and mental stability. How could he hold out through beatings and hunger strikes, cold and disease?
He makes no attempt to explain why he was able to endure when others equally brave could not. He admits to no religious faith, and his vision of humankind is not in the slightest rosy. His humor is cynical, his self-portrait appears almost cocky rather than dedicated.
In fact, one almost sympathizes with the Soviet interrogators who constantly enquire of him, “Why do you keep knocking yourself out when you know you’re only going to wind up in prison again?”
Answer that one you’ll have the key to the insoluble puzzle.
Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois)
04 February 1979
By Jane Majeski
Vladimir Bukovsky became a dissident when at the age of 17 he started high school magazine that contained mild jokes about life in Soviet society and the authorities retaliated by denying him the right to pursue a university education. By participating in the fight to introduce basic human rights into the Soviet Union, Bukovsky consciously chose a way of life that led him to spend 12 of the next 17 years in Soviet prisons, labor camps, and psychiatric hospitals until he was exchanged in 1976 for Luis Corvalan, a communist imprisoned in Chile. Although Bukovsksy’s experiences with the KGB serve as an outline for the book, they are more important in providing him with a platform from which to launch a critique of Soviet society.
Arguing against the theoretical bases of Marxism as well as the consequences of tis implementation in Russia, the portrait of Soviet society that emerges from Bukovsky’s brilliant attack is one of the most persuasive yet to appear. Denying the possibility of successfully creating a Marxist utopia, Bukovsky says, “This dream of absolute, universal equality is amazing, terrifying, and inhuman. And the moment it captures people’s minds the result is mountains of corpses and rivers of blood. … People attain absolute equality only in the graveyard and if you want to turn your countryside into a gigantic graveyard, go ahead, join the socialists.” The lack of consumer goods, meat, and other necessities of life, the housing shortage (one-third of Moscow’s apartments are still communal) are cited as further reminders of the failure of this utopian experiment.
The most damning indictment of the experiment by Bukovsky is the government’s deliberate undercutting of the Soviet ideal extolled in propaganda. In the socialist reality those who succeed are immoral — liars, informers, thieves. “It is a deliberate and systematic plan to corrupt the people. … Wages are beggarly and everyone steals. … Is it that the authorities don’t know? Of course they know. And they even prefer it that way. A man who steals isn’t in a position to make demands. And if he does become so bold, he can easily be put away for theft. Everyone is guilty.” Despite the publicity received by political prisoners, the vast majority of Gulag’s population is composed of common people. (Bukovsky estimates that one-third of the Soviet people have done time in a camp at some point in their lives).
The future Bukovsky sketches for Soviet society is pessimistic. In his view, a revolution would only create another totalitarian state after a bloodbath; the prospect for building a democratic society by Soviet citizens’ gradual assertion of their constitutional rights is improbably in the face of a regime that believes “the least inalienable right possessed by a single individual instantly deprives the regime of a morsel of power.” For those who would see progress in de-Stalinization and detente, it is well to recall that in 1961 the number of people imprisoned in psychiatric hospitals was negligible (indeed there were four such hospitals) whereas today it is estimated at between 5,000 and 10,000. (Attempting to enter foreign embassies accounts for a number of patients. As there is no law denying Soviet citizens the right to enter an embassy, it is the only way they can be punished).
The courage and moral integrity of Bukovsky and other Soviet dissidents, who persevere in their fight for freedom at such great personal cost knowing the relative impossibility of achieving results, cannot be admired enough. That these few risk so much — “that no one could say afterward: ‘I didn’t know’ “ — should serve to prick Western conscience. Yet, in this age of the Helsinki agreements and moral diplomacy, petitions by Soviet prisoners to the UN go unanswered; the situation in Cambodia and the Vietnamese boat people are nonevents today in the way that, despite the evidence, the Stalinist purges did not exist in public consciousness in the ‘30s.
Longview News Journal (Longview, Texas)
26 August 1979
By Ron Wilson
A Russian joke: “Look, children,” the Soviet teacher tells her pupils, pointing at a map. “Here is America. The people there are very badly off. They have no money, therefore they never buy their children candy or ice cream and never take them to the movies. And here, children, is the Soviet Union. Everybody here is happy and well off, and they buy their children candy and ice cream every day and take them to the movies.”
Suddenly one of the little girls bursts into tears. “What’s the matter, Tania, why are you crying?”
“I want to go to the Soviet Union,” sobs the little girl.
This fable is more than a joke, claims former Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky in his To Build a Castle: My Life as a Dissenter (Viking Press, 1979). It recalls the instant when “almost every inhabitant of the Soviet Union” first realizes the reality of this country is a far cry from what the nations’s leaders portray the country as being.
For some that instant of realization sets them on the path of dissent. So it was with Bukovsky.
As a high school student, Bukovsky first ran afoul of the authorities when he helped pen a school publication satirizing certain aspects of Soviet political life. He was called before the Moscow Soviet and severely criticized. Later he would be arrested for organizing unauthorized poetry readings on a public square.
But what sets Bukovsky apart from other dissidents are his actions while in prison. Confronted with brutality, he organized hunger strikes. Faced with oppression, he demanded his jailers follow the letter of the law. Dashed by harshness, he began a massive letter-writing campaign — flooding Soviet bureaucracy with as many as 400 complaints. And through self-sacrifice and gutsy courage, he effected at least some change in the Soviet prison system.
But harsh prison conditions are only part fo the inhumane treatment Soviet leaders mete out to men of Bukovsky’s ilk. Much more terrifying is “Soviet psychiatry.” Thrown into mental wards with murderers, paranoiacs and criminals, dissenters are effectively isolated from the real world, which they can reenter only by confessing their mental “ailment” and promising to bring their actions into line with demanded behavior. To persuade the unyielding, Soviet psychiatrists employ “three remedies for violence” in their hospitals. An injects of aminazine makes the patient fall into a stupor, ceasing to be aware of his surroundings. Or an injection of sulfazine, sulphur, will cause excruciating pain, bringing high fever for several days. Or third — and this “remedy” administered in a psychiatric ward — the “rollup.” Nurses wrap patients in wet canvas which shrinks as it dries. The excruciating pain makes the patient-prisoner faint. Nurses loosen the bonds so the patient recovers, then they tighten them again.
But aside from recording the horrors of prisons and psychiatric wards, Bukovsky reports insightfully on contemporary Soviet life. Why, for instance, can’t Soviet leaders declare a general amnesty for political prisoners? The answer is entirely economic. Since consumer goods are in such short stock, the entire economy would be stretched to the breaking point if hundreds of thousands of new consumers suddenly assailed the market. Also, the influx of consumers would strain the already fearsome housing shortage — prisoners don’t need housing in the camps, they build their own. And finally, any goods shoddy enough for Russians to reject are dumped onto prisoners, who can’t quibble over quality.
During the respite of freedom, Bukovsky toured Siberia on a scientific expedition. Near Lake Baikal his truck passed 50 miles of paved roads lined by pleasant bungalows — all in the miss of trackless Siberian wasteland. And among the pleasant cottages was a well-manicured golf course. Why this anomaly? Simple, Bukovsky answers. In 1960, Eisenhower was to summit with Khrushchev there. The entire village was built to hoodwink the American president.
But what of dissenters themselves? How can Americans help them? By making the Soviet government aware oppression will not be tolerated. For only adverse public opinion can force the leadership to change its set course of action.
And how does Bukovsky characterize the leaders of his homeland? Thus: “They divide up the caviar, salami and imported goods among themselves in secret. They’ve built villas for themselves, with high fences and armed guards, so that nobody can see them guzzling their caviar. They don’t give a tinker’s damn for us, whether we live or die.”
To Build A Castle fills an important niche in dissident literature. More personal than Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, it is eminently readable. And despite the author’s untold misfortune, it is written straightforwardly, almost with an understated style, largely devoid of personal bitterness.
Definitely worth reading.
United Press International
17 December 1978
CAMBRIDGE, England — When the human rights dissident Vladimir Bukovsky arrived two years ago in Switzerland, the Western public was alarmed by news photos of a gaunt survivor of 12 years in Soviet prisons, labor camps and mental hospitals.
At that time Bukovsky was the subject of world-wide interest, having been released from jail and expelled from his country in exchange for Chilean communist leader Luis Corvalan. Now a sturdier-looking Bukovsky hopes to regain International attention for his new book, “To Build a Castle,” to be published January in America by Viking Press.
This fall he resumed biology studies at Cambridge University after a 17-year gap stemming from his expulsion in 1961 from Moscow University simply for being what he remains today — unyielding in his convictions.
While discussing the book and current Soviet issues in his dormitory room, Bukovsky drinks tea and smokes cigarettes. These daily staples of student life were precious rarities for him two years ago.
“To Build a Castle” is a taut, emotional record of how the Soviet government tried without success to break Bukovsky’s will through the abuse of psychiatry and imprisonment. It was for supplying information to the West on Soviet abuse of psychiatry, that he received a 12-year sentence in 1972.
The book’s title refers to an elaborate, disciplined thought process which helped him survive: “I set myself the task of constructing a castle in every detail. … I lived for hundreds of years in that castle and shaped every stone with my own hands. I built it between interrogations in Lefortovo, in the camp lock-up and in the Vladimir punishment cells. It saved me from apathy, from indifference to living. It saved my life.”
The latest book by a Russian dissident to stir the American public has been Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “Gulag Archipelago.” Bukovsky compares this book to his own. “In ‘Gulag,’ Solzhenitsyn writes about the Stalin regime and past persecutions. My book deals with later events from the mid-fifties to the seventies. It is more about the present movement, not so much a historical background, but about how people after 50 years of repression have strengthened to resist.”
As Bukovsky sees it, Americans can best support the Soviet dissidents’ campaign by electing sympathetic American officials who realize the danger inherent in Soviet-American detente.
“The idea of detente is to maintain stability, but actually it allows the USSR to perpetuate the existing system under a guise. Russia doesn’t want to make big changes,” Bukovsky says, shaking his head.
Looking ahead, Bukovsky thinks the possible successor to Brezhnev, Konstantin Chernyenko, will be equally intransigent on human rights issues.
“Their reaction is not one of individuals, but of the system. They are too much within the system to change anything.”
In contrast, Bukovsky thinks President Carter’s stand on human rights has dampened a bit, but it’s not Carter’s fault. “Carter was very good at the beginning of his term, but he was pulled down by European governments such as France and West Germany. So I wouldn’t blame him for inconsistency, as I’m sure that he was sincere about it.”
This inability of Western powers to form a strong united front against Soviet policies is symptomatic. Bukovsky agrees with the main points of Solzhenitsyn’s speech at Harvard University earlier this year on the decline of the West.
“It’s strange to see such relaxation in the West, such a lack of concern for danger to their freedoms. It’s a cowardly thing,” Bukovsky says with distress.
Likewise, the West is off guard if it is too optimistic about recent developments in China and Romania, he notes.
Bukovsky predicted that recent relaxations permitting free speech in China would be short-lived. “Of course it would be better if this free speech truly happened for Chinese people. But don’t deceive yourselves as to its purpose. I am surprised at the way Western public opinion always overestimates thse things. It’s exactly what we had under Khrushchev in the sixties. It was a temporary thing calculated to establish better relations with the West. And the West thought it was ‘liberalization’. “ He says that last word with a sarcastic edge.
And Romania’s independent line in the Warsaw military pact is “not a new thing, because for years her main idea has been not to be too allied with USSR.”
Besides, Rumanian President Nicholae Ceausescu ultimately shares the same hard-line view as the Soviets when it comes to internal repression of human rights advocates, Bukovsky stresses.
He answers questions succintly, but not without feeling. Nor is his face stoical; it is creased with tension, and the awareness that he has much more to accomplish shows through.
Now he focuses on an international campaign to remove the 1980 Olympics games from Moscow. The campaign has met support in Britain, but Bukovsky has no idea how it fares in the U.S. However, he doesn’t predict a hearty American response. American television executives wouldn’t want to see a rift in their massive investment deal with Soviet officials over the games’ coverage, he points out.
But holding the games in Moscow would be “disastrous. The Soviet government wants to make a big show only to embellish itself, to try to persuade people that nothing bad ever happens there.” Besides, the International Olympics Committee is breaching its own rules to allow an authoritarian regime to play host, he adds.
The sale of technology to the USSR is another area where the profit motive outweighs exhibiting a decisive moral position, Bukovsky says. American businessmen easily circumvent legislation restricting such sales “by using their Western European affiliates to carry on trade outside the U.S. government’s sphere of influence.”
Bukovsky applauds Sen. Henry Jackson’s, D-Wash. practice of hinging Soviet-American technological trade with positive Soviet initiatives on human rights.
In Britain, labor — not management — has disappointed dissidents by failing to unite in protest against trade union activist Vladimir Klebanov’s confinement in a mental hospital.
The former Soviet miner had tried to organize a union to air workers’ grievances. The London “Daily Mail” in a recent editorial chided the executive committee of Britain’s National Union of Mineworkers for remaining silent on this.
Bukovsky comments, “The main ideal of trade unions is international solidarity. They are proud of this, like when they deal with South Africa. But many are completely silent on the question of Eastern European countries.” Yet he names other British trade unionists who have spoken out for Russian dissidents and says he’s confident more support will develop.
He also is optimistic about how well British newspapers have informed their public on Soviet issues. The press here publish more on this than their American counterparts do, he claims. The French and Italians also maintain astute coverage of Soviet events.
Recent polls in those two countries have forecast a peak and gradual decline of Eurocommunist forces. But Bukovsky doesn’t put much faith in their prophesies. The French and Italians especially keep abreast of Soviet issues because he says with a bitter laugh, “For them it is like looking into their own future.”
The Daily Utah Chronicle (Salt Lake City, Utah)
18 May 1979
By Jacoba Atlas
In a recent 60 Minutes broadcast, ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov, who defected from the Soviet Union in 1974, told an incredulous Mike Wallace that it was impossible for anyone to be honest in the USSR. Shocked, Walace repeated, “You mean a couple of hundred million people are incapable of being honest?” To which Baryshnikov answered, “Lying to each other every day.”
We’ve been learning something about those daily lives in the growing body of testimony about life in Russia since the revolution, written not by outsiders, but by men and women who love their country and would like to see the wind of dictatorship heal. The latest addition to the dissent library is Vladimir Bukovsky’s To Build a Castle (Viking, $17.95), an eloquent memoir written by Russia’s most famous dissident.
Bukovsky now lives in Cambridge, England, where he has, at 35, resumed his biology studies. He was released from the USSR after years of tireless campaigning by his mother and various world-wide organizations. His crime : speaking the ruth in a nation that prefers silence and lies. Bukovsky subtitles his book My Life as a Dissenter, and much of his memoir is spent discussing how and why he broke with his government. There was for Bukovsky no blinding revelation when he realized the Soviet Union was sick: instead, there was the slow realization of rules and regulations that made no sense, and prejudices that damned and punished the innocent without mercy. Bukovsky struck back by reading forbidden books, reciting forbidden poetry and generally refusing to be intimidated by repression.
He paid dearly for his independence. In and out of various prisons, tortued, abused, medicated, Bukolvsy suffered all the indignities we are now learning are commonplace for dissenters in the Soviet Union. But his memoir is remarkably free from bitterness or blame. Instead it’s a skillfully written account that’s filled with humor and insight. We’re given glimpses of life in Russia as we rarely see it, including one fascinating section on the meaning of jokes in the Soviet Union — one of the few acceptable means of expressing anger at the state.
What’s perhaps most telling in To Build a Castle (a mental exercise Bukovsky practiced in prison to keep from going insane) are the observations on the bleakness and paranoia in the USSR. His book makes it very clear that every citizen in Russia is a potential informer, that lying is a way of life and betrayal commonplace. But even though his subject matter is gruesome, Bukovsky is not. He is no Solzhenitsyn demanding his pound of flesh. Bukovsky retained his sense of humor and his perspective on life. When he finally reached Switzerland he wrote that he felt he carried a gift out of Russia that no KGB agent could have discovered — a dangerous gift that never should abbe been allowed to leave — the gift of honesty and laughter.
The Boston Globe (Boston, MA).
16 April 1979
United Press International
CAMBIRDGE, England — Vladimir Bukovsky, the Soviet dissenter who paid for his objections with 12 years in prisons, psychiatric hospitals and labor camps, has surrendered, with honor, to a microscope.
At 35, Bukovsky is a freshman at Cambridge University, studying biology 12 to 15 hours daily.
He has taken time out to write a book, “To Build a Castle,” to lobby for fellow dissidents still in Russia and move into his own house. But the studies come first.
“I have always wanted to do research in the physiology of the brain,” he said in the stark living room of his “absolutely mediocre” home.
“That is what I still want.”
Two years have passed since his release to the West in exchange for Chilean communist leader Luis Corvalan. In that time, nothing has dimmed the vision that sustained him during 12 years of incarceration.
You might say he is between castles.
The three-bedroom house bought for him in Cambridge bears no resemblance to the elaborate edifice his imagination built and decorated flagstone by flagstone, turret by turret, tapestry by tapestry, to keep him sane during those years.
“I lived for hundreds of years in that castle and shaped every stone with my own hands,” he writes in his book. “It saved me from apathy, from indifference to living. It saved my life.”
“Not now,” he answers wryly when asked if he wants to build it in real stones. “I am waiting for the time.”
It is an active wait.
Despite the strain of competing with students half his age and answering up to 30 letters a day, he resolves to finish the course the started 18 years ago at Moscow University. He was expelled for editing an avant-garde poetry journal.
“It’s harder for me to absorb, to concentrate, to memorize,” he said of his advanced age for college. Being past adolescence helps, he says, and then he laughs: “But not on exams.”
This is not a haunted man. The sickly, hollow-cheeked prisoner who got off a plane in Switzerland in December 1976 is now a relaxed, much fleshier college student dressed in brown cords, striped sox and moccasins. His easy humor and intense, quick mind never falter.
Receipts from his book, now out in seven languages, have provided financial comfort — a way to pay for the schooling Cambridge invited him to undertake and provide support for his mother, sister and nephew, who live in Switzerland where the boy is being treated for cancer.
He enjoys long talks into the night with his fellow students and gives what time he can to the campaign to boycott the 1980 Olympics in Moscow and to consult with organizations like Amnesty International.
The West, for him, is a tool, a vehicle, a place for now where he can do what he wants.
He is in charge of his life. He always has been — at the unsanctioned poetry readings he arranged in Moscow’s Mayakovsky Square, at the Serbsky Institute where the special diagnostic department declared him insane, in a Soviet court before his sentence to 12 years of prison and exile in 1972.
“No matter how long I remain confined,” he said at the time. “I shall never renounce my convictions.”
It is integrity that matters for hm, then and now. He doesn’t waste time pondering the ambiguities and human failings that are life in the West.
He has thought about what’s wrong with it.
“There is no such thing as capitalism left in the West,” he laments. “Even in America it surprised me. Socialism has been introduced in the minds of the people. It is accepted psychologically, mentally by them. You se it in the inefficiency of the bureaucracies and in the way work itself seems to be of real interest to the people. They aren’t so interested in getting money.”
Though he has been active in the drive to establish labor unions in the Soviet Union, he thinks those of the West, particularly in strike-ridden Britain, “have developed a system of hostage-taking.”
“I buy a ticket to go somewhere and take my bags to the airport,” he said. “I am told there is an industrial action and I must sit there. And the man next to me is trying to get to France before his mother dies. … And we are made hostages to someone else’s dispute. It is a violation of my human rights.”
He is disappointed US President Jimmy Cater has apparently let up on his campaign for human rights throughout the world.
“It was excellent,” he said. “It was exactly what was needed. He (Carter) was prepared to force the issue, but didn’t get the support it needed (from Europe) and now the moment is lost.”
The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, North Carolina)
20 May 1979
By Sandy Rosenberg
Vladimir Bukovsky realized early in life that he’d have to fight for his freedom, his sanity, his survival. At 17, he was reprimanded for publishing a poetry magazine and ordered to work in a labor camp, rather than study at the University of Moscow. The young dissenter fought back.
After secretly applying to the university, he studied biology for a year, until he was discovered by the government. They prevent him from taking his exams, branded him as “a failed student” and expelled him for life.
He would not stand by. “One must not let oneself be paralyzed,” Bukovsky says, “one cannot afford to be apathetic: that is precisely when they put you to the test, to the limit — and try to break you like a stick across their knees … they main thing is to survive, think only of today, thank God you’re still alive.” Bukovsky’s will to survive was tested again, in and out of KGB offices, prison cells, labor camps and mental asylums.
Bukovsky would not bend. “The reasons that had landed me in jail in the first place would land me there again and again. These reasons were immutable just as Soviet life itself, was immutable, just as you yourself could never change. You would never be allowed to be yourself, and you would never agree to lie and dissimulate … there was no other way out.”
To Build A Castle is a piercing account of the atrocities of Soviet power: the bloodshed, the persecution, the mental anguish forced upon so many prisoners of the Soviet regime. From his first arrest for his participation in poetry realigns at Mayakovsky Square in 1963 to his unprecedented expulsion from Russia in exchange for Chilean communist leader Luis Corvalan in 1976, Bukovsky tells of the humiliating sense of being unfree, hopelessly impotent, without rights. He describes the prison system at Lefortovo and the inhumane living conditions (lack of food, warmth, and even a latrine bucket).
The torture was excruciating: sulfur shots caused severely high temperatures leading to unconsciousness; aminazine injections forced he prisoner into a permanent doze, and the roll-up treatment caused the prisoner to fall unconscious or to suffocate from shrinking canvas strips wrapped as tightly as possible around his body.
To Build A Castle is a powerful testimonial of life. It applies to both yours and mine. The problems the Soviet people face concern mankind. “We shall never be rid of this terror,” says Bukovsky, “never acquire freedom and security, until we … refuse to recognize this paranoid version of reality and oppose to it our own … values. The pampered Western democracies have forgotten their past and their essence, namely that democracy is not a comfortable house, a handsome car, or an unemployment benefit, but above all the ability and the desire to stand up for one’s rights.”
To Bukovsky, the fight for individual freedom, is the building of a universal castle.
13 July 1979
By John Bausman
During his battle for individual rights in the Soviet Union, when he daily risked police harassment, beatings and arrests, no one doubted the courage of dissident Vladimir Bukovsky. “The bravest man I ever met or ever expected meet” was how one acquaintance described him in 1971 just after his arrest for the fourth and last time.
Now we have his own account, written in exile in Britain, of how a product of Soviet schools and society became a dissident and fought for his views despite vicious and harrowing KGB tactics to dissuade him. Police bullying, mental hospitals, labor camps and prisons failed to break his resolve.
Bukovsky tells a fascinating story well. His description of the brawling, slum-like conditions of daily life in Stalin’s Moscow is vivid.
Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of once revered Josef Stalin stirred doubts in Bukovsky, then a bright teenager, and he began to perceive the Soviet system as riddled with incompetence, corruption, theft and selfishness — all in clear contradiction to official propaganda.
His first scarped with the law came in high school, where he was involved in producing a satirical magazine displeasing to the authorities. He was expelled, and his career as a dissenter began.
Between 1963 and 1971 he was arrested four times, charged with such offenses as possessing a forbidden book, helping organize a demonstration, leading a demonstration, compiling documents on Soviet abuse of psychiatry and sending them abroad.
What made this bright student, who could have found a comfortable niche in the Soviet system, endure the punishment and brutality? Bukovsky answered the question with another: “If I don’t do it, who will”.
The Daily Advertiser (Lafayette, Louisiana)
05 July 1981
By Corinne Jude
Just finished reading Vladimir Bukovsky’s “To Build A Castle: My Life As A Dissenter.”
Bukovsky is, of course, a Russian who so loves his country that he spent most of his adult life in prison. He endured horrible living conditions, sub-freezing temperatures at hard outdoor labor and starvation to the brink of death, yet he lived to tell his tale.
When quite young, the future dissenter became a member of the Young Pioneers and repeated a pledge “to stand fast for the cause of Lenin and Stalin and the victory of communism.”
By the time he reached his early teens, he was disillusioned with the communist double standard where law and justice were concerned.
He refumesed to join the Komsomol, which he knew was under the direct control of the communist party. Instead, he became a member and leader of an illegal organization that was to persist for years in fighting to force officials to interpret the laws of Russia as they were written.
Bukovsky is a brilliant young man, and although he was unable to escape the torture inflicted upon him by those who recognized him as damaging to the party line, his eloquence and steadfastness never wavered. Never a retreat from principles he advocated. Never an apology for with he knew was right.
Fighting alone. Bukovsky’s philosophy goes far beyond the common instinct of self-preservation. He put up a valiant fight, and he writes:
“When a man is alone, with his back to the wall, there is no retreat. He cannot split himself up into parts, sacrifice a part and still live. So the instinct of self-preservation drives him to extremes — he prefers physical death to spiritual death. And an astonishing thing happens. In fighting to preserve his dignity, he is simultaneously fighting for his people. It is such individuals who win the right for their communities to live.”
He was finally forced to leave Russia. The party recognized the fact that he would never retreat from his principles and that his death in Russia would serve to further inflame his followers and would make a martyr of him. For through his persistent cry for justice, he had indeed gathered an inspired and voluble following.
What a pity that the patriotic glow that suffuses the consciousness of most Americans at this time of the year ebbs away so quickly. All too soon, people return to carping about the shortcomings of the American way. And they take verbal pot shots at those they deem responsible. They themselves, of course, are never, never responsible.
They could inundate their legislators with avalanches of letters and calls when they become aware of injustices. Instead they peevishly complain. They can vote out the greedy and corrupt. Instead they mouth insults about them. And too often they vote for those, corrupt or not, who promise them material advantages.
What democracy is. Bukovsky on the subject. “Some people in the West have forgotten that democracy is not a comfortable house, a handsome car, or an employment benefit but the ability and the desire of individuals to stand up for their rights. Their politicians have tried to compromise with the Soviet regime and are evading the only solution — moral opposition. We who have grown up in an atmosphere of terror know just one remedy — the position of a citizen.”
Here in the United States, where we can wield the power, if only we will, one sometimes wonders… Do we deserve this country?
The Boston Globe (Boston, MA)
11 February 1979
By Mary McCrory
He sought to live as a human being in a socialist society, and went to jail. He had his friends tried to show that it was possible to live as citizen under the Soviet Constitution. He organized a careful, lawful demonstration for an open trial for Sinyavsky and Daniel. He got three years in a labor camp.
Bukovsky is a Solzhenitsyn with a sense of humor and a lyric strain. He managed to be amused under harrowing conditions. He used the Soviet law that allows every prisoner the right to petition any state or public institution or official person with a complaint, and that requires an answer within a month, to jam the system, and rive droves of bureaucrats to the wall. He organized hunger strikes, work strikes. The only time the intended terror touched his soul was during his confinement in Leningrad special hospital, where he watched lunatics being beaten, tortured, crippled, injected — and feared for his sanity.
He kept his reason by building a castle in his mind, constructing every turret and terrace, pondering each picture. He planned parties, selected the guest list and the wines. When he was returned from interrogations, he would swing open the oak doors of his study and resume his review of the evening over an imaginary brandy.
This “socially dangerous” person was eventually deported, exchanged for a Chilean Communist and lives now in England.
Why do they do it? Why do they treat their most creative and productive people — or anyone else — in this obscene fashion? Bukovsky thinks they have no choice, given their monstrous, inefficient system, which produces drunkards, thieves and economic chaos while the socialist dream of a well-fed, contented populace is forever somewhere over the rainbow.
And could we enter into a pact that involves the life and death of the planet with this stupid and cruel government? The question is answered by someone with the credentials, both as a scientist and a human being, that do not require examination.
The New Yorker
30 April 1979
by Jeremy Bernstein
Near the beginning of Vladimir Bukovsky’s “To Build a Castle: My Life as a Dissenter,” the author presents a parable — a parable that summarizes his life. “In Siberia, I once heard of a method for hunting bears,” he writes. “Somewhere near the bear’s usual track you place some bait in a pine tree… Then you suspend a good, solid heavy block of wood from the nearest suitable stout brunch, blocking the bear’s path to the bait but swinging freely… Sniffing the bait, bruin shins up the trunk and comes face to face with the block of wood. Being what he is, he… simply shoves it aside and crawls on. The block of wood swings away and comes back, thumping the bear in the ribs. Bruin loses his temper and gives the block a harder shove, and naturally the block comes back harder as well… Eventually the block of wood knocks him unconscious and out of the tree. This is an approximate description of my relations with the powers that be: the longer the stretch [in prison or mental hospitals] they gave me, the more I tried to do when I was let out; and the more I did, the longer the next stretch they gave me. However, times were changing and my possibilities were growing, and it was difficult to say which of us was the bear and which the wooden block…”
In December of 1976, Vladimir Bukovsky, his mother, his sister, and a seriously ill nephew were brought to Switzerland in a Soviet plane and exchanged, under the supervision of the United States Ambassador, for the Chilean communist leader Luis Corvalan. Bukovsky was then thirty-three and had spent twelve years of his life in Soviet prisons or mental hospitals. During his brief, intermittent periods of freedom, he had done much, in almost impossible circumstances, to alert the West to Soviet abuse of psychiatry and psychiatric confinement as a means of silencing dissidents. Bukovsky is now studying biology at King’s College, Cambridge. Yet his book, which is sometimes ironic, sometimes detached, sometimes written in cold fury, but always compelling, is not a story that ends in a triumphant burst of freedom. Like Solzhenitsyn, Bukovsky did not want to leave his land and his language. He wanted to make that society a fit place for free men to live. “To Build a Castle,” like “The Gulag Archipelago,” will stand as dissenter’s testimony and a warning about the present state of Soviet life.
There was no “logical” explanation for Bukovsky having become a dissenter. Unlike Soviet Jews who, for professional or educational reasons, wish to emigrate but cannot obtain permission to do so, and are therefore dissenters whether they like it or not, Bukovsky could have had the best that Russian life has to offer. All he had to do was to follow the system. His father, a writer, was a dedicated communist, and a passionate believer in the collective farms; he wrote often in the press about the virtues of the collectives. In the end, his son became an embarrassment to him, and relations between them became increasingly difficult. But it was natural that at age eight Bukovsky should be inducted into the Young Pioneers, which — as the translator of the book, Michael Scammel, points out in a footnote — is a Party-supervised version of the Cub Scouts. (Throughout the book, Scammel has provided extremely helpful footnotes, which explain some of Bukovsky’s references and put others in context). In the Soviet Union, the most promising young people are selected for the Pioneers, and so come under Party supervision at an early age. At the induction ceremony, Bukovsky recalls, the children were given red scarves to wear, and swore that they would always “stand fast for the cause of Lenin and Stalin.” In due course, one becomes a member of the Komsomol (the equivalent of the Boy Scouts), and then, if everything goes according to plan, a member of the Party.
In Bukovsky’s case, everything did not go according to plan. The Young Pioneers were expected to set example for their classmates and to censure those who misbehaved or got poor marks. Because he was one of the best students, Bukovsky was made chairman of the Pioneers in his class. Once, at age ten, he was called upon by a teacher to reprimand another student:
I had a bright idea: this boy’s name was Ulyanov, the sedame as Lenin’s, and I began telling him that he was bringing disgrace to our leader’s name, that with a name like that he ought to be studying the way Lenin studied, and I added something to the effect that Lenin himself would have been most upset if he knew of this boy’s behavior. I must have been very eloquent and convincing, and also offensive, because all of a sudden he turned red, scrunched up his face, and burst into tears.
“You bastard!” He said. “You swine!”
The teacher found all this excellent, but the incident was so traumatic for Bukovsky that he resigned his post and refused to wear the red scarf. At about the same time — during Stalin’s anti-Semitic campaigns of the early fifties — a group of boys began beating up a Jewish classmate, knowing they would not be punished. Bukovsky did not join in the beating, but neither did he try to stop it. The next day, he avoided the only other Jewish boy in his class. “Whether I felt shame or disgust, I do not know,” he writes. But he was to recall these incidents as shameful; and at the age of fourteen, when he was expected to join the Komsomol, he refused.
After Stalin’s death, Bukovsky tried to learn about the history of the communist regime. Since Soviet citizens were not allowed to read back issues of Pravda, his principal source was Lenin himself: “Here was the entire Revolution, the entire Civil War, still living in Lenin’s notes and comments! And knowing our later history, it was easy to see where it had begun.” Around the time of the Hungarian uprising, Bukovsky joined the secret organization. To this day, he is not sure what its goal was, but the members, who, like him, were teenage boys, instructed each other in how to recruit new members and what to do under interrogation. Although the organization never achieved anything, the methods Bukovsky learned were valuable later. As an adult, however, he came to believe that all secret organizations — even that boyish one — end in tyranny: “You cannot achieve democracy by going underground.”
When Bukovsky was in the tenth grade, his troubles with the Soviet authorities began in earnest — the first swing of the wooden block. He and some schoolmates started a literally magazine that specialized in parodies of Soviet life. “It was all just a joke,” he writes. But the joke led to a furor that cost the principal of the school his job and subjected Bukovsky’s father to a Party reprimand and Bukovsky himself to an audience with the Moscow City Committee of the Party, which decided that it woud be “premature” for him to enter a university before he had lived for a while in a workers’ collective, where he could “straighten out” his mind.
Bukovsky had no intention of working in a collective; he took the university examination without asking for permission and passed it. Khrushchev was in power, and for a while, at least, there was an efflorescence of Russian literature. Samizdat — the private copying and distribution of writing that was formally forbidden — had began. A corollary to this was reading of modern poetry publicly, and soon illegally, in Mayakovsky Square, in Moscow. In this “samizdat culture” Bukovsky saw “the only possibility of living, the only alternative.” In 1960, he started organizing poetry readings. Within a year, he had been beaten up and threatened by the K.G.B., and in 1963 he was arrested and imprisoned.
Most of “To Build a Castle” has to do with Bukovsky’s life in prison and psychiatric hospitals. The images are so graphic and the writing is so strong that at times the book is all but unbearable to read. What kept Bukovsky sane and alive was a remarkable physical constitution, his spiritual determination, and his intelligence, which he applied to manipulating the system. The Russians, it seems, are eager to preserve legal and bureaucratic forms. The Soviet constitution spells out the rights of citizens, and does not exclude prisoners. In reality, prisoners’ rights have little meaning except that they provide an opportunity for endless formal complains — most of which led nowhere, but all of which must be responded to. While Bukovsky was in prison, he organized veritable factories for these complaints, in which both the political prisoners and the ordinary convicts became involved. They would send hundreds, even thousands, of complaints to the appropriate authorities, and occasionally, through sheer volume, were able to effect a small but vital change in theire welfare, such as getting a rest day when they were assigned to forced labor.
The cruder forms of physical torture practiced under Stalin have now given way to the physical and psychological tortures practiced in the psychiatric institutes. In 1963, Bukovsky had his first experience with these “special hospitals.” Physically, they are prisons, in which the political inmates are confined with psychiatric patients of every descriptions. Occasionally, the political inmates would have interviews with psychiatrists: “To get a discharge the doctors bluntly demanded that you acknowledge your sickness and condemn your previous behavior.” Bukovsky describes the “remedies for violence” used in the psychiatric institutes, and notes that there were Soviet doctors whose psychological theories seemed tailor-made for the K.G.B. For example, the Moscow psychiatrist Andrey Snezhnevsky introduced the notion of “creeping schizophrenia.” This was the slowly developing form of schizophrenia which was said to be socially dangerous even though its outward signs could be detected only by Snezhnevsky and his school. “Creeping schizophrenia” was a common diagnosis for the dissidents, and many who entered the special hospitals with this diagnosis never got out alive.
In February of 1965, Bukovsky was discharged into the care of his mother as a “convalescent paranoiac” But he was soon leading demonstrations against trials of dissidents, and in December he was back in a special hospital. This time, his case began to attract international attention, and after eight months he was released. But in 1966 a new decree was issued by the government which, in effect, prohibited the preparation or dissemination of any comment, written or oral, against the regime. This provoked a new round of dissent. (The physicist A. D. Sakharov publicly joined the dissidents. Bukovsky expressed his regret that in the Soviet Union there were no Sakharovs among the psychiatrists.) Again Bukovsky was arrested, and was sentenced to three years in prison. While in prison he was often in solitary confinement — in “the box”, as it was known. He kept his sanity by building an imaginary castle. Planning the castle, furnishing it, choosing guests to invite to dinner, filling out the library — all this “was enough to occupy me for my entire spell in the box, and still there were plenty of problems left over to solve the next time,” he writes. “Even now, with my eyes closed, I can retrace that castle in every detail. Someday I shall find it — or build it.”
After reading Bukovsky’s book one is confronted with the question what, if anything, we as citizens of democracies are to do in response to such abuse of Soviet citizens by their government. That Bukovsky is alive and studying biology in Cambridge is, of course, consequence of diplomacy. But diplomacy in our society ought to be an expression of the will of individual citizens. We cannot escape our responsibilities simply by delegating them to the State Department. Scientists appear to have a peculiar part to play in this. There is no other area in which cooperation with the Soviet Union has been as successful on a personal level as in the exchange of scientists and of their ideas. Scientists in the West have learned a great deal that is valuable from their Russian colleagues, and, on individual basis, have developed affectionate relationships with many of them. But, especially after the trail of Yuri Orlov — who in 1978, having attempted to monitor the observance of the Helsinki accords, was found guilty of “anti-Soviet agitation” and imprisoned — many scientists have come to feel that this cooperation must take a new form. Robert Marshak, a distinguished physicist who has been a leading figure in the development of Soviet-American scientific exchange, recently suggested, in an editorial published in the journal Physics Today, that western scientists cancel visits to Soviet laboratories and conferences in protest against the imprisonment of Orlov. Marshak quoted a letter written by an American to a Soviet colleague: “I am a scientist, not a lawyer, and independent of the apparent logic of the law a scientist knows when the answer comes out wrong. In my view, as I have told you before, Yuri’s actions were not wrong; but his arrest was wrong, the conduct of his trail was wrong, and his sentence was also wrong.” After the Orlov trail, Marshak himself, along with several of his colleagues, refused to attend a Soviet conference. And in March of this year some twenty-four hundred American scientists publicly declared that because of the imprisonment of Orlov and other dissidents they would curtail — and in many cases end altogether — their professional cooperation with the Soviet Union. In the words of Marshak editorial:
Above all, the Soviet government must realize that the alienation of scientists and intellectuals throughout the world and in their own country is too high a price to pay in our increasingly interdependent world.
Part of this price is the sense of revulsion and outrage one has after reading a book like Bukovsky’s.