Vladimir Bukovsky:

Statement to the U. S. Helsinki Commission


Washington, D. C. 


February 23, 1977. 

Over the decades during which the Soviet regime has existed, a number of international agreements on the need to observe human rights have been concluded. I do not intend now to analyze in detail the qualities and deficiencies of each of them, but I wish to make clear that the essence is not the quality of the agreements themselves but how far Western countries are ready to insist on their fulfillment. The last in the series of these agreements was the Final Act of the Conference on European Security and Cooperation which, despite its obvious drawbacks, contains a number of clauses obliging all its signatories, including the Soviet Union and East European counties, to respect the rights of their own citizens. However, from the very beginning, the Soviet Union had no intention to fulfill this part of the agreement, attempting to relieve itself of all obligations by referring to its sovereign rights. 


The Soviet Union’s attitude to the West and, consequently, to cooperation with the West, is easily shown by the example of article 64 of the RSFSR Criminal Code (and the equivalent articles in the Codes of the other Union Republics). According to this article, any citizen of the USSR, trying to escape from the Soviet Union or refusing to return to it, is considered a traitor and is on the same footing as a deserter who has gone over to the enemy. Such a person may be punished by imprisonment from ten to fifteen years or by execution. What peaceful cooperation or detente can we talk about if the Soviet Union continues to force into the minds of its own citizens hostility towards European countries and the United States of America, reserving to itself the right to preserve a cold-war climate inside the country? It is obvious that the Soviet Union does not have the slightest intention of bringing its internal legal system into line with international agreements, let alone allowing the peaceful coexistence of ideologies. There is no freedom of movement in the Soviet Union. And one can only be amazed by the blindness of people in the West who do not see the Berlin Wall in the middle of Europe. The Soviet Union is similarly fenced in. 


Dozens of my fellow-prisoners are still in the USSR’s prisons and camps only because they tried to leave the USSR or, once they had left, returned voluntarily. Vladimir Balakhonov, a U.N. employee who asked for political asylum in Switzerland in 1973, returned to the Soviet Union of his own free will after a Soviet consul gave him assurances that he would not be subject to repression. He was sentenced to twelve years and is now in Vladimir prison. Vasily Fedorenko was given fifteen years for an attempt to cross the Soviet-Czechoslovak border and is in Vladimir prison on a special regime. He has been on a hunger-strike for more than a year in protest against his illegal sentence. Nothing is known of the fate of the pilot Zosimov, returned by Iran to Soviet authorities for punishment. Twelve Jews, who received sentences of between eight and fifteen years for the famous Leningrad hijack case, are still in detentin. Incidentally, the merit of these people is that they were the first to attract the attention of the world public and of Western governments to the problem of leaving the USSR. But even now this problem cannot be considered resolved. People are subject to persecution including imprisonment for many years, for the mere expression of a wish to leave the country. 


For example, Anatoly Marchenko was exiled to Siberia for trying to exercise his right to leave. Even after the Helsinki agreement, which plainly stipulated the principle of reuniting families, Ida Nudel has not been allowed to join her sister in Israel and she is threatened with legal and psychiatric persecution. According to the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group, the possibilities of leaving the Soviet Union have grown sharply worse since the Final Act was signed: emigration is now limited to cases of narrowly understood reunification of families. The problem of return to the USSR for those who have left has not been touched on. Everyone who decides to leave does so once and for all, without any hope of ever returning. Therefore, he practically has to decide to become a refugee. 


Under the same article 64, any attempt by representatives of various peoples of the USSR to realize or even discuss their right to national self-determination, as provided for in the Soviet Constitution, is seen as treason. Principle Eight of Part One of the Final Act speaks of the right of every people to define its own external and internal political status in conditions of complete freedom. However, the people so the USSR have never had conditions of complete freedom let alone any real possibility for self-determination. I can bear witness to the fact that there are still hundreds of people in prisons and camps who were sentenced after the Second World War for their part in national liberation movements in the Ukraine and the Baltic republics. In the sixties and seventies dozens of people were condemned for so-called “bourgeois nationalism”, that is for participating in discussions of prospects for national self-determination or even just for a cultural renaissance of their peoples. Due to limitations of time I am unable to name all of them, but I shall mention only those who have been imprisoned several times for “bourgeois nationalism” and are currently in a prison camp. They are the Armenian poet Pairuir Airikyan; the Ukrainians, historian Valentin Moroz, linguist Svyatoslav Karavansky, teacher Danilo Shumuk, historian Ivan Gel, poet Mikhail Osadchy, writer Vyacheslav Chernovil. Yuri Shukhevich has spent four years at liberty since the age of fifteen. He was sentenced to five years in prison, five years in a special regime concentration camp, and five years’ exile for writing his memoirs. The Ukrainian poet Anatoly Lupinos, is in the Dnepropetrovsk psychiatric prison under forced “treatment” for an unspecified time. He earlier served a ten-year camp sentence. 


Whole peoples who were deported in Stalin’s times are denied the right to return to their homeland: these are the Crimean Tatars, Meskhi, and the Volga Germans. If the Germans are now managing to emigrate to West Germany, experiencing the usual difficulties associated with leaving (arrest, persecution, and humiliation), the Crimean Tatars, expelled from the Crimea, and the Meskhi, expelled from Georgia, are still deprived of the freedom to choose their place of residence inside the Soviet Union and are subjected to continuing cruel persecutions. The Crimean Tatar activist Mustafa Dzhemilev has been imprisoned for the fourth time. His life is now in danger after prolonged hunger-strikes.


At present, movements for national rights are inseparable from the general movement for the rights of man. As a participant in this movement, I should like to point out that the necessity of observing the law always formed part of our traditions. Samizdat, peaceful demonstrations and protest petitions were and continue to be our practical expression of Constitutional freedoms. Our information journal A Chronicle of Current Events, founded in 1968, carries the text of article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on its masthead. Again in 1968 signatures were collected for an appeal to the USSR Supreme Soviet with the proposal to ratify the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Our Constitutional actions were answered by repressions, since they were described as anti-Soviet propaganda, defamation of the Soviet system or infringements of public order. Signed sheets of the appeal were confiscated during house-searches. Several times during house-searches (and always to this day in places of detention) the text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was confiscated. In a number of verdicts participation in compiling and distributing the Chronicle of Current Events was considered a crime. 


Hundreds of people have been imprisoned for participation in this movement, for their beliefs and opinions. Soviet punitive organs and propaganda deny the existence of persecution for one’s beliefs in the Soviet Union; according to official statements, nobody is imprisoned for his views in the Soviet Union, only for his actions. At the same time, expression of one’s views is understood as a criminal act. Incidentally, Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not separate the right to hold any ideas and opinions from the right to express them. Alexander Chekalin, a fitter, was sentenced to five years in a concentration camp in 1971 just because he had written a remark on a voting slip during “secret” elections to the Supreme Soviet. In this remark he expressed his opinion of Soviet electoral procedure. Dozens of people have been sentenced only because they have complained to the country’s authorities and international organizations. The honored teacher of the Moldavian republic, Yakov Suslensky, who survived a seven-year sentence by a miracle and was released in January of this year, was imprisoned for a letter to the U. N. Secretary-General, which the KGB got hold of while in was in the mail. 


Such practices force people to be hypocritical, teach them to think one thing and say another. They violate people’s conscience. There is no freedom of information in the Soviet Union. Soviet law rejects it in principle. Exercising the right to receive and impart information by any means is punishable under Articles 70 and 190-1 and is considered to be a criminal act.


I was arrested in 1971 and sentenced to seven years in a concentration camp and to five years’ exile just because I had, openly without making a secret of it, told the correspondents of the Associated Press and of C.B.S. in Moscow what I had seen in prison, camps and madhouses. During my “trial”, which lasted for only a few hours, clippings from American newspapers containing an interview with me were shown as evidence and the C.B.S. film with my participation was shown. None of the judges spoke English, but the court nevertheless refused my request for a translation of this material. They said that everything was already clear. I can certify that more than a month before the court examination and the verdict, a KGB investigator told me the term of my imprisonment. 


The following people are now imprisoned in concentration camps and prisons for distributing publications about infringements of human rights in the Soviet Union, such as the Chronicle of Current Events, the Chronicle of the Lithuanian Catholic Church, and the Ukrainian Herald: Nijole Sadunaite, Sergei Kovalev, Vyacheslav Chernovil, Gabriel Superfin, and others. 


As far as the right to receive information is concerned, this is very limited for those living at liberty and almost non-existent in camps and prisons. Article 25 of the Corrective Labor Code prohibits prisoners from receiving any publications produced outside the Soviet Union. A political prisoner in Vladimir prison, Nikolai Budulak-Sharygin, did not receive one single copy of the English Communist newspaper, The Morning Star, which its editorial office used to send him at the request of his English wife. Even the UNESCO Courier, the Russian version of which is published in Moscow, is forbidden in Vladimir Prison. The infringement of the right to receive and impart information also applies to personal correspondence. Of the tens of thousands of postcards, which as I now know were sent to me from abroad, I received just three during my detention. For months I was not given letters from my mother and the few letters which I was able to write out of prison (one letter every month or two) were continually confiscated under trumped-up pretexts. Seven political prisoners in Vladimir prison were finally obliged to give up their correspondence altogether. 


The Soviet system of corrective-labor reeducation for political prisoners constitutes a monstrous crime, relying on punishment by hunger, solitary confinement, deprivation of medical help, and all this is done with the aim of forcibly changing religious, political, and national convictions. 


All this is what those internal affairs of the Soviet Union really are, the ones with which it will not allow interference, which it covers with its sovereignty. And, quite often, the West accepts the Soviet point of view on interference in its internal affairs. 


One can say confidently that the Soviet leadership has never intended to observe the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, or the Third Basket of the Helsinki agreement. And it will not observe them unless Western states and societies firmly and systematically work towards their fulfillment. For me it is quite obvious that all these international documents will remain unfulfilled until the Soviet Union brings its internal legal system and practice into line with its international obligations. 


Quite recently the Soviet Union confronted you with a direct challenge by declaring that monitoring observation of the Helsinki agreements was a crime. The leaders of the Moscow and Ukrainian Helsinki groups, Yury Orlov and Mikola Rudenko, and other members of these groups, former political prisoners Alexander Ginzburg and Oleksy Tykhy, have been arrested. The fate of these people, and of the Helsinki agreement itself, depends on the reaction of Western countries: will the world be able to stand up for its own understanding of freedom or will it adopt the principles of “socialist democracy”?


In order to defend basic freedoms and to support civil rights, and national and religious movements in the USSR, it is essential:


  • to investigate infringements of these freedoms in the U. N. Human Rights Commission, in UNESCO, and at the forthcoming Belgrade Conference;


  • to demand the admittance of observers into Soviet political camps and prisons, psychiatric hospitals, and to political trials;


  • to obtain free contact between Western Helsinki groups and the Moscow, Ukrainian and Lithuanian groups, including meetings with arrested members of these groups;


  • and, finally, to make trade and economic ties depend on the observance of civil rights agreements. It is clear that a country which does not fulfill these agreements will easily break others. 


I should like to issue a very serious warning: Western public opinion, parliaments, and governments must have patience. The West is too impatient: after some attempts which have brought no results, you easily let your arms drop and you despair. And the Soviet Union, knowing the West, certainly banks on such a reaction and, as recent arrests have shown, will stick to a hard line. And again a certain viewpoint can arise: “It is better not to anger the Soviet leaders” — they bank on that, too. You must understand that a new wave of repressions in the Soviet Union does not demonstrate strength, but the Soviet Union’s fear in the face of rising opposition from within the country and international solidarity with this opposition, particularly in view of the simultaneous unprecedented rise of opposition in all the East-European countries. 


I do not hesitate to state that the fate of the world depends on the conduct of the Western nations at this time of growing crisis. A firm, relentless and constant stand by the West will force the Soviet Union to recognize political realities. 


I don’t want to be misunderstood. I am not against attempts to seek peaceful settlements of all the problems which divide us. I am for detente. But it must be a real detente and not a self-deception. 


Not at the price of basic principles on which your country was founded. 


Not a capitulation to the advance of communism which is the way the Soviet Union interprets detente to its own people daily.


It must be a detente with a human face. 


Vladimir Bukovsky.


Washington, D. C. 

February 23, 1997. 

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Vladimir Bukovsky on RTVD Part Two
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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
First hundred days of Yeltsin. Vladimir Bukovsky explains why reforms in Russia failed following the 1991 coup. 
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Vladimir Bukovsky's first  days in the  West. Chronology and interviews
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Got Light? Vladimir Bukovsky's darkly romantic foreword to Richard Klein's book Cigarettes Are Sublime.

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.