John R. Coyne Jr. talks to Vladimir Bukovsky
in the April 1, 1977 issue of National Review
Toward the end of our conversation, Vladimir Bukovsky was asked if he thought NBC should be televising the 1980 Olympics in Moscow.
“Why not?” he answered. In fact, he might just enter the Games himself by proxy. “When I was in Holland not too long ago,” he explained, “a woman who had been sympathetic to me for many, many years presented me with a jumping horse. The horse had the same name that I have — Vladimir Bukovsky — because it was born on the date of my last trial. I intend to send this jumping horse to Moscow’s Olympic Games in my place. What I’d like to know is whether they will allow this horse bearing my name to enter the Soviet Union. For me, this is a Trojan Horse.”
Much of the conversation went this way — profound comments on life in the Soviet Union and the dissidents’ hopes for their country, frequently expressed anecdotally and even jokingly.
Earlier, for instance, we had been discussing the thirst among Soviet citizens for books published outside the Soviet Union and smuggled in.
“In the Soviet Union there is a tremendous market for such books,” said Bukovsky. “It has reached the point where recently the local paper in Klaypeda, a port in Lithuania, published a very lengthy article complaining about the moral degradation of Soviet citizens. The article pointed out that things have obviously reached a very low ebb, since Soviet sailors who come back to Klaypeda from foreign ports pay the Klaypeda prostitutes not with money but with forbidden works in Russian.”
A great contrast here between East and West, Bukovsky continues: “In this connection, I have been asked just what sort of French prostitute would like to be paid for her services with the works of Sartre.” I am tempted here to inject something strident about Sartre’s role as one of the premiere intellectual prostitutes of the age, but I restrain myself. We mull it over briefly, and decide that only an existential French prostitute would fill the bill.
Bukovsky is not the man we came prepared for. Solzhenitsyn is the archetypal exile from Nikolai Nekrasov’s Mother Russia, where it is always the nineteenth century — a brooding, prophetic, larger-than-life figure, the ghost of conscience past come to call a frivolous people to judgment. Solzhenitsyn is a formidable man, and this may well be a basic reason, albeit an unconscious one, why Ford and Kissinger refused to receive him — he frightened them.
But on the surface, Bukovsky is altogether different. Barely two months out of Vladimir Prison, one of Russia’s most infamous; he has lost his concentration-camp pallor and begun to fill out. He is compact, of middle height, and with his hand-knit sweater and short haircut could pass for an American college student, perhaps a member of the lightweight crew. He is a young 34, articulate and sure of himself, the only signs of self-consciousness surfacing when he briefly touches his prison-cut hair, now growing out. As he talks he smokes filter-tipped cigarettes constantly, and the way he holds and inhales them suggests that an unlimited supply of tobacco is still one of life’s great luxuries.
Bukovsky is an engaging man, easy to talk to, not at all formidable, except for those moments when, formulating an answer to a clumsily phrased question, his eyes go hard and he is suddenly twenty years older, as if he were looking inward at scenes that most Americans simply can’t imagine. And at such moments the interviewer suddenly realizes that no matter how fluently and spontaneously the conversation flows on the surface, just beneath there is an experiential chasm that cannot be spanned. No native-born American knows what it is like to spend nearly all his adult life in prisons, lunatic asylums, and labor camps as a political prisoner. None of us has been drugged, tortured, fed on bits of rotten fish, and forced to watch our friends die slowly, their only crime having been the desire to express dissenting political views openly and freely. And few among us can understand what it must do to the spirit to know that the political gestures you make, your sacrifice and punishment, will probably do nothing to alter the policies of the totalitarians bent on breaking you. Now can you, under such conditions, with no hope in sight, sustain yourself? And how can you suddenly emerge from those depths, your spirit not only intact but strengthened, joking and wisecracking as if life has never been anything but great fun?
Most of us, if we stretch our imaginations to the fullest, can guess. But Vladimir Bukovsky knows, for such things have formed the substance of his life.
Bukovsky’s refusal to fit into the mold shaped for him by the Soviet state began in high school, from which he was expelled for publishing a satirical journal. Because he was a good student, he was later admitted to Moscow University, but was again expelled, for helping to put out another journal and participating in poetry readings. In 1963 he was arrested for the first time for distributing copies of The New Class, a crime roughly equivalent to passing out Conscience of a Conservative on the Berkeley campus, and was shipped off to a prison — mental asylum in Leningrad where he spent 15 months, a period to which he refers as “15 months of hell” In 1965 he helped organize a peaceful Moscow human-rights demonstration, calling, among other things, for adherence to the Soviet Constitution, for which be was returned to the asylum for another half-year. In 1970 he compiled case histories of eight political prisoners confined in mental institutions and sent them out to the West, providing the first hard proof that the Soviet regime routinely uses psychiatric treatment to break political dissenters. For this, Bukovsky was arrested and sentenced to seven years in prison, five years in a hard-labor concentration camp, and live years of internal exile. It was the first part of this sentence that Bukovsky was serving when the KGB whisked him out of Vladimir Prison and put him on a jet to Zurich, still handcuffed, to be traded for Chilean Communist Party chief Luis Corvalan. Thus, Bukovsky gained a sudden freedom he did not expect, and the Soviet regime for the first time tacitly admitted that it does in fact keep political prisoners.
If you listen to Radio Moscow’s English-language transmissions in the evening, as I frequently do, you’ll hear Bukovsky mentioned in nearly every half-hour segment, usually as “a common criminal” or a “terrorist.” In the Sixties, says Bukovsky, they variously referred to him as a schismatic, a reject, or a lunatic. In the early 1970s he was promoted to “a paid agent of Western imperialism.” In 1976, when, through the offices of organizations like Amnesty International, the plight of Bukovsky and others like him was broadcast throughout the world, the Soviet First Deputy Minister of Justice wrote, as Bukovsky puts it, “a most lengthy article about me which took a whole page in a Soviet newspaper. In it he accused me of committing all those acts which even the courts had not dared charge me with.
“Ever since that they’ve done nothing but increase the charges against me. Now that I’m in the West, and traveling from country to country, I find that in each one the Soviet embassy has a press release on me ready when I arrive. And each time they accuse me of graver sins. While I was in England, for instance, they accused me, for all intents and purposes, of being a spy. And here in America, they are accusing me of having helped the criminals in the Soviet Union — the gangsters. So, as you see, their appreciation of me keeps growing.”
So it does. But the Soviet spokesmen, as is their wont, never back up their accusations with specifics, for the simple reason that they can’t. The official charges against Bukovsky are well known, a matter of record, and each of those charges is purely political. Were similar charges leveled at an American political dissenter, the worst punishment he could conceivably face would be to appear on an endless round of TV talk shows. There is, in certain circles here, a tendency — no doubt a vestigial leftist reflex from the days when we forgave the Russians everything from the Great Terror to the pact with Hitler — to equate the situation of the Russian dissidents with that of American protestors like Angela Davis.
But that, of course, is pure moonshine. Angela Davis is free to race about the country calling for the downfall of the government and complaining to anyone who is willing to listen about the abridgement of her freedom to speak; at the most, she risks a sentence for something like inciting to riot, followed by fast hail. But Bukovsky and Sakharov and Aleksandr Ginzburg faced imprisonment in concentration camps and asylums, where no one in power would strenuously object if they chose to die. Bukovsky points out that Ginzburg, who was recently hauled off to prison for political offenses, suffers from both acute ulcers and acute TB. It is not unlikely that he will die before his release. And that, in short, is the difference between a Bukovsky and a Davis; and anyone who attempts to draw parallels between them might as well also compare the plight of the Chicago Seven to that of Jews in Hitler’s Germany.
Bukovsky and his fellows are laying nothing less than their lives on the line, and, as their willingness to suffer for their beliefs without hope of support attests, they are doing it for no ulterior or self-serving motives. Bukovsky is not a defector. He is an exile who did not ask or expect to be exiled. But now that he is forced to live outside his country, he does not intend to let up in his fight for human rights in the Soviet Union. He intends instead to build a Trojan Horse.
One way that the Soviet exiles carry on their fight is through the dissemination of information about repression within the Soviet Union and the nature of freedom outside its borders. This material takes different forms. There is the samizdat (self-published), which is copied and circulated within the Soviet Union, but also smuggled out, reproduced in magazine or book form, and smuggled back in as tamizdat. Tamizdat, which also refers to original émigré literature — a new book by Solzhenitsyn, for instance — is, according to Bukovsky, “distributed in the Soviet Union on the largest scale you can imagine.”
How large is that? No one knows for sure, but in 1970, Bukovsky and his friends attempted to find out just how many copies of the Chronicle of Current Events, a publication that documents instances of repression within the Soviet Union, were being distributed. “In spite of the fact that the network for distribution is extremely disjointed,” says Bukovsky, “we discovered, for instance, that in a small area such as Lithuania — in Lithuania alone — at least ten thousand copies were being distributed every month.”
There is also the tremendous black market for books mentioned earlier, and for a magazine called Kontinent, which Bukovsky says is very highly prized. Kontinent, which for the past two and a half years has been published in Paris by Vladimir Maximov, a Russian exile, now appears in 11 languages and features the works of Eastern European writers, exiled Russians, and authors inside the Soviet Union who smuggle their works out.
Another important source of information, says Bukovsky, is the radio stations that beam Russian-language broadcasts into the Soviet Union, among them the Voice of America and, when it can be heard, Radio Liberty. Such stations, according to Bukovsky, are listened to by millions, a cross-section of Soviet society. “When I was in Vladimir Prison.” says Bukovsky, “the wardens listened to the radio and from time to time reported to us what they had heard on the Western broadcasts.”
Bukovsky believes, however, that these broadcasts are less effective than they could be, primarily because of the guidelines laid down by a detente-conscious State Department. “Time and time again in recent years, information that was important to us, as well as discussion and debates taking place here in the West, were silenced because of the diplomacy being practiced at the moment. I’ve been informed, for example, that on specific instructions from former Secretary of State Kissinger, radio stations such as the Voice of America and Radio Liberty were strictly forbidden to mention the names of those people who needed help, who were arrested, who should have been supported.
“A few days ago we were at the State Department. We spoke to one of the important personages there, who informed us that the Voice of America is forbidden by the State Department to provide any commentary whatsoever…Because of this lack of commentary, because of the lack of understanding of the Russian mentality — Russian psychology — these stations are working, at most, at 60 per cent capacity.”
Bukovsky offers a homely example. “Recently here in the West I tuned in the Voice of America and I heard that in America there is an acute shortage of water. Just that, with no explanation.” Now imagine, for a second, a Soviet citizen somewhere out in a remote village who sits there and listens to this type of broadcast, And as he listens, he thinks to himself — well, all right, so I don’t have any electricity, I don’t have much meat — in fact, hardly any meat at all — but at least I have a well with water.”
Radio Liberty is caught in the same bind: “I’ve become acquainted with the guidelines which apply to Radio Liberty, and the situation there is much graver than I suspected. Those guidelines remind me of instructions I’ve come to know, laid down by the Minister of Internal Affairs of the Soviet Union.” Such guidelines, says Bukovsky, often render the whole effort academic. “Take the guideline, for instance, under which all employees are forbidden to convey any information which could be remotely construed as an encouragement to escape from the Soviet Union.”
“How can you interpret such a guideline? Take, for example, the case of Vladimir Maximov, who now lives very successfully in Paris, where he publishes Kontinent. If you describe his life in Paris, then you cannot help but break the guideline, for just by describing it you are in effect encouraging other authors to defect from the Soviet Union.”
Bukovsky dismisses the notion that increased commentary might encourage armed uprisings, as some of the more cautious among us apparently believe. Such encouragement may or may not have been a factor in the attempted revolutions in the satellites in the Fifties and Sixties, although the role of radio broadcasts in those uprisings has been highly exaggerated. In fact, the case can be made that they have precisely the opposite effect. As Bukovsky points out, armed uprisings most often occur when a people sinks deeply into despair; when there seems no other way out. But commentaries from the West, if properly done, can demonstrate that a better way of life is possible and thus can force the leaders of the Soviet regime to make concessions. Neither Bukovsky nor any of his fellow dissidents favor armed uprising. Nor do they think that any groups within the Soviet Union or its satellites still believe — if in fact they ever did — that the West would come to their aid militarily. But they do favor straight talk about the differences between life here and in the Soviet Union. Those broadcasts, like the tamizdat, are Trojan Horses, daily breaching the walls built around the Soviet bloc. And their cargo is not soldiers, but ideas.
Bukovsky hastens to add that he does not intend to be hypercritical of our radio efforts. Although he strongly opposes the limitations put on commentary, he does believe that VOA and other stations, among them the BBC, do an excellent job of transmitting basic information. Like his fellow dissidents, however, he hasn’t a good word to say about detente. He believes, for instance, that Brezhnev’s speech in Prague in 1973, reported in the Boston Globe’ and National Review but ignored by much of the national media, succinctly summarizes the official Soviet view of detente.
We are achieving with detente what our predecessors have been unable to achieve using the mailed fist,” Brezhnev reportedly said. “We have been able to accomplish more in a short time with detente than was done for years pursuing a confrontation policy with NATO . . . Trust us, comrades, for by 1985, as a consequence of what we are now achieving with detente, we will have achieved most of our objectives in Western Europe. We will have consolidated our position. We will have improved our economy. And a decisive shift in the correlation of forces will be such that, come 1985, we will be able to extend our will wherever we need to.”
Says Bukovsky: “I was not at all surprised by Brezhnev’s statement. But what does surprise me is the fact that politicians in the West can’t seem to understand what he’s talking about. Western politicians simply don’t understand the psychology of Brezhnev, the psychology of the Soviet leaders. But you ask if Brezhnev meant what he said. You don’t have to ask me. Ask the smallest child in kindergarten in the Soviet Union, ask any collective farmer, ask any Soviet citizen if Brezhnev really meant it. Every last one of them will tell you, Yes, indeed, that is exactly what he meant.”
Bukovsky’s estimate of the effects of detente is identical to the one provided by James Burnham in the March l8 NR. Said Burnham: “The Soviet Union has received from the West, at minor cost, equipment, technology, and know-how that has greatly strengthened and upgraded the Soviet economy, filled critical Soviet deficiencies in agriculture and industry, and given the Soviet leadership increased flexibility in allocating resources.”
And what have we received in return? Little, as Burnham points out, beyond a wider market for such things as Pepsi Cola. The Soviet regime has not softened since detente began: it remains totalitarian. And detente, the dissidents add, provides it with the wherewithal to remain that way. The talk was once of the fat Communist. Stuff him with Western goods, the argument ran, and he would become sated, his appetite for armaments and expansion effectively dulled. But that Communist is fat now, and his appetite shows no sign of abating. That it ever would, of course, was a peculiarly American fantasy, growing out of a bizarre view of the world derived in part from our own odd intellectual blend of parlor Marxist notions about human nature and a bourgeois faith in the perfectibility of man. But the Communists behaved precisely like Communists. Today, we have suddenly come to realize that, if that fat Communist were lean and hungry, he might be turning furiously inward, striving to develop the wherewithal to make a batter life. But we have taken care of much of that for him, and thus he can concentrate on the matters dearest to his heart, such as arming himself, and suppressing dissidents.
The crucial moment, says Bukovsky, arrived at the end of the Sixties, when the leaders of the regime came to realize that if they were to keep up, they desperately needed to modernize their industry to automate and computerize. But this modernization, says Bukovsky, could not be carried out without “freedom of creativity,” which would make it possible to develop along the same lines as the West, and which would include allowing Soviet scientists to create their own systems of computerization and automation.
“In 1970, the question also arose of modernizing separate industries. Two points of view developed. One was that industry should be decentralized and liberalized — liberalization in that context meaning greater material incentives for the workers, greater opportunities for management to trade and sell their goods and perhaps to hire and fire people. But this point of view obviously did not suit the political leadership; the men who controlled the party machine, for it would mean loss of power.”
“So there developed an alternative solution to the problem. Instead of modernizing and liberalizing Soviet industry, why not buy all the necessary machinery and equipment from the West? And the West was very willing. The result? They agreed to a formula which turned out to represent the crudest possible interference in our internal affairs.”
“There is a myth,” Bukovsky continues, “perpetuated by many of your businessmen here in the West, that trade without preconditions is strictly a neutral instrument in the relationship between two countries.” But this, he insists, is simply not so. Such trade with a totalitarian country, in fact, may prove the most cruelly partisan of all. “Ultimately, the question boils down to this: Do you interfere on the side of the government of the Soviet Union, or do you interfere on the side of the Soviet people? “When I was being taken out of the Soviet Union. I had on handcuffs, and on those handcuffs was written, MADE IN USA. To a great extent this trade that is not conditional means precisely that — it means selling to our state handcuffs for our people.”
Handcuffs for the people — a powerful symbol for detente.
We also spoke of other, more hopeful, symbols, such as Carter’s letter to Sakharov. That letter is being criticized in various quarters for various reasons, some of them, understandably enough, partisan political reasons. It’s a fine idea in principle, the arguments seem to run, but diplomacy is a complex business, and pressures for such things as human rights should he exercised quietly, and only among leaders at the highest levels. Perhaps. But that means business as usual. That’s how it has been done for the past decade, and one result is that the Soviets remain as indifferent and repressive as ever. Carter’s gesture, however, has revived hope among dissidents that someone at the highest level does indeed sympathize with them. Carter’s letter is for the dissidents a symbol of hope, and for men who have sustained themselves without encouragement through years of indescribable suffering, such a symbol can be a powerful source of moral support. And on the practical level, there is good reason to believe that Carter’s letter, more than any other single factor, has prevented the regime from imprisoning Sakharov for what it calls his “slanders” against the state. Whether Sakharov’s immunity from arrest will continue is uncertain. The intensity of the attacks against him over Radio Moscow increases nightly.
Bukovsky views his own visit to Carter as a symbol of equal strength, press photographs or no. What is important, he says, is that through their meeting, “the American people, in the person of its President, has expressed its moral support of the movement for human rights in the USSR which defends the same principles and values that are dear to the hearts of the American people.”
The debate over our approach to human rights will intensify in the months ahead, in many cases breaking on predictable political lines, and goring many ideological oxen, both right and left. But there is no doubt it is having an effect. Radio Moscow, which insists that the Soviet dissidents are insignificant and not worthy of attention, devotes much of each of its half-hour segments to denouncing those insignificant dissidents. And surely, without the uproar over repression, Vladimir Bukovsky would not be free today.
The Soviets may yet turn nasty and imprison them all, including Sakharov. But more likely, they will begin a mass expulsion of all identified dissidents. If so, we will find out whether Bukovsky’s estimate of the width and depth of his movement is in fact accurate. “Our movement represents an iceberg, and we are just the tip. The authorities make attempts time and time again to remove the tip of this iceberg, and they succeed. But when they do, the iceberg simply rises.”
Who are the people who make up the bulk of this iceberg? According to Bukovsky, they come from every walk of Soviet life — workers, middle managerial types, students, technocrats, even the military. If this iceberg does in fact exist, and there seems no good reason to doubt that it does, then the current Soviet regime faces hard times indeed, with ferment spreading within, and a growing number of exiles such as Bukovsky outside, lending moral support and building those Trojan Horses.
It’s time to leave, and we ask a few final obligatory questions, such as what he conceives to be the ideal society. He laughs and says, “The word ‘ideal’ frightens me. ‘Ideal’ inevitably leads to more perfect concentration camps.”
Throughout the conversation he has refused to categorize himself. He is certainly not a Bolshevik, he says. He is not a Menshevik. He is not a Trotskyite. He is not a socialist. But we are political animals, and we know that everyone, whether he admits it or not, wears a label. Who is he, what is he, what does he want?
As we prepare to leave, he smiles softly, with perhaps just a touch of sadness, and gives us our answer.
“Perhaps it’s difficult for you Americans to understand all this. Freedom here is simply like air — you breathe it and you take it for granted.”
And that, we realize, is all there is to it. Political and ideological subtleties, which we have come to mistake for basics, are irrelevant, and our search for deeper meanings and motivations is perhaps symptomatic of the way that many of us have lost touch. But for Bukovsky, his soul tempered by the fires of totalitarian tyranny, it can all be summed up in one word. The word is freedom.