IN MEMORIAM: VLADIMIR BUKOVSKY 1942-2019

by Alissa Ordabai-Hatton.

 

All the flowers in the world can't change the devastating fact of his death. My inability to do anything for him anymore aligns the reality into layers of still emptiness, which closes in and reiterates again and again its one and only message: "He is gone." Bouquets made by artists in North London where I grew up and where he will lay to rest — despite all their eloquence — cannot unite the living and the dead and will never explain to me how things should continue in a world where he is no more. 

 

He used to say that above anything else he was an inmate and that the prison ethos had shaped his very being. It's true:  His life had a particular way of austerity about it, of the kind one only arrives at through prolonged confinement. His writing and lectures bore the same stamp of gravitas, as did his Cambridge home where the decor echoed the mood of the castle he had been building in his imagination during long spells in punishment cells. 

 

For all that, he was extraordinarily charismatic, tactful, and had an impeccable aesthetic sense, which he did not flaunt, but which was flawless, and — it seemed to me — stemmed from the same place as his phenomenal intuition and his talent for convincing people. He never talked about mysticism, denied any belief in the supernatural, but the way he at times described the simplest life occurrences betrayed an innate and deeply authentic poetic gift. 

 

A touch of mystery would also transpire in how he populated stories about some of the key stages of his life. Among the characters he’d bring in was the wild cat "with amber eyes" who served as his muse while he was writing his first book in the cottage of Churchill's grandson, and hares he imagined dancing under moonlight to enliven the dreary Soviet landscapes following his second prison release. And, of course, he chose a medieval castle as his imaginary escape from the horrors of prison. All of this betrayed the rarely seen, flickering glow that seeped from underneath the firmly shut door which protected his inner life and which no one could enter. 

 

Much of his private story will forever remain untold. He was the man of his era — the time when society had no vocabulary for emotional scars left by prison and torture.  But he wouldn't have become who he was if he hadn’t gone against his time and his era, and if he hadn’t possessed qualities which were at once eternal and rare — qualities each of us recognizes immediately because we all have them too, but often in inadequate measure. In Bukovsky those traits constituted his very essence. Courage, wisdom, and an unshakable belief in primacy of human dignity determined not only the course of his own life but also the measure of dignity the rest of the world was prepared to recognize in Soviet people. Bukovsky was one of the very few whose fearless resistance saved the honor of all other inmates of the Soviet camp — the entire 240 million of them.

 

He, however, did not think of himself in those terms and did not see himself as a hero. "All I have ever done I have done for myself," he would say. "And I wanted one thing, - he told journalist Dmitry Gordon in 2012, - To stay true to myself." This kind of luxury which only the rare few could afford in the USSR remains unattainable in the majority of post-Soviet countries, and now begins to seem like a luxury in the West which Bukovsky deservedly criticized in his later years. 

 

Retaining his personal dignity, however, did not blind him to how dignity was understood by his fellow Soviet citizens. Russia's economic collapse of the 1990s did not stir any compassion in him. "If you have nothing to eat, why don't you eat your Ph.D. theses?" he wrote in his book Judgement in Moscow, addressing the impoverished intelligentsia whose specimens would timidly scurry past him in the Moscow streets of the early 1970s, hurriedly explaining how their dissertations were more important than supporting dissent. 

At the same time he was neither bitter, nor vengeful, nor arrogant. Moral survival in camps, solitary cells, and mental hospital prisons demanded the exact opposite — qualities which he was born with and which his life journey only strengthened: kindness, intelligence, and an ability to let go. To let go of the bad and, unfortunately, of the good. With time he said goodbye to his health which had already been damaged by prisons, and in recent years — to his leverage upon the upper echelons of world politics. He had no power over his friends' departure from political establishment ("Our influence is confined to our time," he wold say) and he wasn’t too concerned about his health — the other side of the coin to the ferocious productivity of his major-league human rights initiatives.

 

What tormented him relentlessly was Russia's ill destiny which in his later years he said he had stopped mourning, but his associates and those close to him knew how badly Russia’s moral downfall afflicted him. Ruthless in his analytics, he nevertheless loved the country he was born in, did not wish its destruction and was breaking up over the revanche of the KGB / FSB. As an individual and a thinker he eclipsed the scale of his own biography (which was extraordinary) and understood events deeper than an ordinary analyst. He perceived our planet in its entirety and knew that as long as the Soviet regime remains uncondemned, its various incarnations will continue to corrupt and poison the entire world. 

 

The wind always returns — this he understood while yet young, so he named his first book accordingly, to echo a passage in the Ecclesiastes which speaks of good things always persevering and circling back to their starting place. And the eternal spirit which Bukovsky embodied for the incomplete 77 years of his life will return to us again. It will reside in scientists, teachers, activists, writers, and musicians. "Mortal for everyone, yet untouched by the cycle of aeons," is how an ancient alchemical text described the spirit of Vladimir Bukovsky. And I wish him on this day, which is the day of his funeral, to become free, be surrounded by light, and to express his entire full self no matter what happens for him next beyond the veil of the greatest mystery of all. 

New York, November 2019

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Bukovsky at AFT/AFL

Vladimir Bukovsky talks about freedom and captivity with the American Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of Labor in February 1977.

    Bukovsky at AEI

Vladimir Bukovsky heads discussion at an American Enterprise Institute dinner in his honor in June 1979.

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Bukovsky FT Interview

Vladimir Bukovsky predicts Russia's disintegration in  a 1993 Financial Times interview.