Vladimir Bukovsky Financial Times Interview

The dissident who reckons there's nothing to be done:

John Lloyd is confronted with a bleak view of Russia's future when he meets intellectual Vladimir Bukovsky, a Soviet exile.


Publication date: September 4, 1993



by John Lloyd


If Vladimir Bukovsky cannot be president of Russia, he will have no more to do with it. It is the last straw. 'After all', he says, 'even in the country which I have made my home and which owes me nothing (Britain) I can be anything I want except the king of it.'


Bukovsky is one of the handful of dissidents, expelled from the Soviet Union in the early 1970s, whose prominence grew in exile (in Cambridge, as a don) and who have returned when the power which threw him out collapsed. He has tried to take an active part in the new politics but, in Moscow recently, he told a round table of intellectuals and politicians that 'the more I return here, the less hope I have of its reform.'


Bukovsky earned the right to speak the hard way: arrested and given a 12-year sentence in prisons, camps and mental hospitals in 1961 for attending the reading of a poem on Mayakovsky's suicide 30 years earlier. The poet, among the greatest of the literary enthusiasts for Soviet power, committed suicide when he could no longer fit his Bolshevik idealism to the tortuous path being taken by Stalin towards complete power.


In his memoirs, published in English as "To Build a Castle", Bukovsky speaks of his generation (or that tiny idealist part of it) reacting to the invasion of Hungary in 1956 with a feeling of betrayal: 'We no longer believed anyone. Our parents turned out to have been agents and informers, our military leaders were butchers.'


He still believes in no-one in the former Soviet Union. Professing a complete lack of illusion in the reform process, he sketches out an impoverishing, disintegrating and dangerous future for the country of his birth. The objection that he cannot be president - because of a clause in the draft constitution (78) which denies that right to anyone who has not resided in Russia for the past 10 years - is less an indication of presidential ambition than a view that the current authorities are almost as scared of those with a moral position as the old ones.


'They are the old apparatchiks in new clothes, after all. They cannot really change. I have said many times here - to undo the effects of the revolution you need a revolution, and there has not been one.'


Another sign of the times: 'Oleg Kalugin (a former KGB general turned publicist) wrote in the Mail on Sunday that he had been instrumental in developing the poison and the method of killing (Georgy) Markov (the Bulgarian dissident in exile in London). It was tested on a horse and the horse died. It was tested on a prisoner and the prisoner did not die. (Apparently Soviet prisoners are stronger than horses, which did not surprise me). Now - not a word of regret.'


'We are seeing a reaction already, a sluggish reaction at every level of power as the bureaucrats extend their authority. And the people round Yeltsin are usually not competent, and terribly provincial. They know nothing outside of their specialism or their district, nothing.'


He sees salvation nowhere. Yegor Gaidar, the former prime minister and now one of the leaders of the liberal-conservative wing of Russian politics, achieved little in the way of economic reform because 'he followed shock therapy, the Polish model of liberating prices, which was all right for Poland where there was already a large private sector. But (in Russia) it meant the enterprises simply put up their prices and cut production and no-one could stop them. They should have been privatised first - so obvious.'


Yet for the economist and politician (and self-announced contender for the presidency) whose strategy this is - Grigory Yavlinsky - Bukovsky expresses more contempt than for 'clever but too bookish' Gaidar. 'Yavlinsky is nothing but a self-publicist who uses his talent for getting known.' And for Professor Jeffrey Sachs, the main foreign influence on economic reform, the same strictures.


'All these people were brought up in the old system. They may have read good things but it would be better had they simply lived in England and had to pay taxes and buy food and pay the rent. Then they would have felt what a free market was like.' Bukovsky thinks Boris Fyodorov, the new finance minister, who spent almost two years in London at the European Bank, may, for that reason, have a little better grasp, if not much better chance.


Bukovsky, a neurophysicist by training, now makes his money by advising governments and companies in the former Soviet Union. His advice grows darker and darker, though he retains energy and wit and has acquired English self-irony ('the more gloomy the report you write for them the more they pay you'). His view, stripped down, is that the same fate will befall Russia as befell the USSR: it will disintegrate, messily, perhaps bloodily, perilously for the world.'


'Look, you must understand that what is happening here is not democracy. It is the coming to power of the bureaucrat. The dream of the bureaucrat in the Soviet system was to tell his boss to go to hell. Now he can. Now it is happening at every level.'


'If Moscow cannot control and pay, then the regions and the republics will break away. Imagine the leaders of the Far Eastern Military District sitting around one day. One says: 'Are they paying you anything?' The other says: 'No, nothing.' So they say: 'OK, who needs them (in Moscow)?' And so, with the political leaders, they make a republic. For the people in the far east it would be very attractive: they could give the Japanese back these four stupid islands they want (the Kuriles) and get a lot of Japanese help.'


'The fact that they are all Russians won't be enough in the face of economic necessity. This inflation makes it more the case. So you will get them printing their own money to try to stop the inflation. And if you print your own money it is only a step to having your own central bank, your own government, your own country. And if you had a country which bordered on Yakutia (now called the Republic of Sakwa), which is fabulously wealthy in diamonds, it would be too much temptation not to send some soldiers in there and get some of the diamonds for yourself.


'Soon there will be no national services or culture: they will not pay for them. Even now they cannot pay for communications, railways, roads, and do you think the rest of the country will continue to support the Bolshoi (Theatre)?'


'Yeltsin cannot keep it together. People think he is strong and decisive because he acts well in a crisis and he looks tough: actually he cannot take decisions and compromises all the time. When people were burning their party cards in the streets it took him months to decide to leave the party.'


'Look how he hesitates to take the initiative against the parliament] He has a fear of being blamed for acting in an authoritarian manner - because of his past, when he was part of such a system. But no leader from outside that system would have paused for a moment to do what has to be done.'


He repeats himself. 'This is not a democracy. Norris McWhirter (publisher of The Guinness Book of Records) once told me what it was. He said there is a word for Russia. It is a kleptocracy. Everyone steals everything. In a paper I did for a company, I was hunting for a parallel state to Russia and I found it: it is Nigeria. All the business is concentrated in the capital, and it is fantastically corrupt. Yet you cannot say it is not a democracy sometimes: you cannot say it is not a market economy.'


Bukovsky worked for some part of last year in the archives of the Central Committee of the Communist Party - opened then to scholars and the curious, now closed once more. There he found sustenance for his long-held belief that the CP and the KGB had, especially in the era of detente, gone a long way to suborning the liberal and left parties of the west.


'It was the old story: the Menshiviks and the Bolsheviks. The Menshiviks always believed that you could bring them back into the fold, convince them you don't have to use these terrible methods. These illusions persist.'


The contemporary illusion against which Bukovsky still attempts to tilt is the western belief that its fear of an imploding Russia can be exorcised by throwing money at it. 'If there is one thing you should say, it is: don't give them the money! Don't do it! The West gave billions to Gorbachev and it is impossible to find a single dollar of it. Where did it go? And this will go the same way. It will just disappear.'


What is to be done? 'Nothing. Nothing to be done. Maybe in some years the country will come together again, the various parts will federate. Maybe. But to stop what is now happening - nothing to be done. 




Vladimir Bukovsky on RTVD Part Two
NVC Radio.png
Vladimir Bukovsky on NVC Radio
On Vladimir Bukovsky's Birthday
Vladimir Bukovsky heads a discussion at the American Enterprise Institute
Crack-Up. A US foreign policy essay by Vladimir Bukovsky
Vladimir Bukovsky on censorship in his letter to Radio Liberty
Vladimir Bukovsky's foreword to Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon
Vladimir Bukovsky's foreword to Abuse of Psychiatry by Sidney Bloch and Peter Reddaway
The Political Condition of the Soviet Union. Vladimir Bukovsky sums up Russia's ideological crisis in his enduringly perusasive 1987 essay. 
Vladimir Bukovsky in correspondence with Zbigniew Bujak on liberty, national identity, and solidarity
Against All The Odds. Vladimir Bukovsky's foreword to Andrei and Lois Frolovs' book about their transatlantic love story

Dina Kaminskaya

Vladimir Bukovsky's lawyer Dina Kaminskaya remembers his 1967 trial in her memoires.

Victor Krochnoi

Vladimir Bukovsky's foreword to chess master Victor Krochnoi's autobiography.

The Bell Ringer

Vladimir Bukovsky's short story published in Grani magazine in 1967.


Vladimir Bukovsky seminal 1984 essay on Russian government's propaganda and subversion strategies.

Peace as a Political Weapon

Ludmilla Thorne reports from Vladimir Bukovsky's first post-exchange residence in Switzerland.

Mother Courage


Vadim Delaunay writes in verse to his friend Vladimir Bukovsky following their 1967 trial.

Vadim Delaunay


Anatoly Krasnov-Levitin writes about Vladimir Bukovsky in a heartfelt essay following Bukovsky's 1971 trial. 

Anatoly Krasnov-Levitin

Vladimir Bukovsky warns against censorship in his 1976 letter to Radio Liberty / Radio Free Europe.

Radio Liberty and Censorship

Vladimir Bukovsky's foreword to Andrei and Lois Frolovs' book Against the Odds: A True American-Soviet Love Story.

The Frolovs


Vladimir Bukovsky's 1982 essay on the USSR-inspired peace movement sweeping over the West.

Pacifists Against Peace

Vladimir Bukovsky's obituary written by Alissa Ordabai.

Alissa Ordabai on Vladimir Bukovsky

Grigory Svirsky remembers Vladimir Bukovsky and Victor Feinberg.

Grigory Svirksy


Lord Bethell

Vladimir Bukovsky remembered by Lord Nicholas Bethell in his memoires titled Spies and Other Secrets

Boris Pankin

Boris Pankin, a former Russian Ambassador to Great Britain, recalls his days in London and his encounters with dissidents.

Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Gershovich tells a story of Nabokov's contribution to saving Bukovsky from a Soviet prison.