SOVIET HISTORY LESSONS
A letter, a medal, a ring. Gertrudis Hartman remembers
Their paths crossed before they met. He was the most illustrious Russian
political prisoner of the era — fearless in his battle for human rights, and dazzlingly intelligent. And she, a young Dutch equestrian, — original, inventive, and relentlessly off-beat — was the one who figured out how to save his life.
While the rest of the world helplessly agonized over Vladimir Bukovsky’s plight behind bars, Gertrudis Hartman came up with a simple solution: "Let us exchange Bukovsky for Corvalan."
The year was 1973. Bukovsky was withering away in one of the harshest Russian prisons on starvation rations. And Hartman wrote to General Pinochet suggesting what would become the prisoner exchange of the decade, an unprecedented political trade-off. "If you release Corvalan, then the Soviets would release Bukovsky," she ad-libbed in her spontaneous letter to the Chilean dictator.
Like many laudable people of the era, Gertrudis took Vladimir into her heart without knowing him. But their bond lasted beyond her campaign — as if “governed by fate,” some would say, or "written in the stars," as more poetically-inclined of those who knew them would sometimes suggest. Why? Because she ended up among the select few who retained his confidence and his affection until his final years.
Pinochet's initial response to Hartman was tentative. But she persisted after receiving his first inconclusive letter, would send him books about the plight of the political prisoners in the USSR, and continue pressing the matter.
Corvalan, of course, was the less charismatic part of the equation. While Bukovsky went to prison for exposing the abuses of psychiatry in the USSR which caused an international uproar (and in this way saved many people's lives), the head of the Chilean communist party, by contrast, was known for derailing trains, plotting explosions, and other subversive activities during the "revolutionary struggle" in Chile. Plus, he enjoyed much better detention conditions than the death-dealing cells of the KGB prison where Bukovsky was barely surviving.
"His prison conditions were good," Bukovsky would explain about Corvalan during his lecture in Prague in 2013. "He had not been punished or tried — he was in pre-trial detention. Soviet journalists were allowed to see him every week. He was actually not happy that he was traded. He would give interviews to the Italian communists, saying, ‘I was against this. But the party decided that I should agree, so I agreed.' "
Conditions of Bukovsky's prison regime were, by contrast, dire. A campaign for his release led by his mother publicized his failing eyesight, his appearance of an "Auschwitz victim," his heart and kidney diseases, and stomach ulcers caused by cruel rations-cutting punishments.
When the exchange finally took place on December 18, 1976 at the Zurich airport — after lengthy negotiations involving the U.S. Department of State — the world saw a man of spectral appearance: hollow cheeks, gaunt stature, "the next thing to a ghost," as British parliamentarian Lord Bethell (and subsequent friend of Bukovsky) would describe in his memoirs. "His cheeks concave, his hair a quarter-inch of bristle, his colour a shiny grey of someone who has recently been very close to death."
Amsterdam, January 1977.
Pinochet would comment two days later in the French newspaper La Nouvelle Republique: "The Russians responded in evasive and distant terms to our initial exchange proposals. We pressed on, and as a result, they gave in."
Amidst the media mayhem which accompanied this unprecedented political deal between the East and the West, with hundreds of interviews and TV appearances Bukovsky had to endure, the name of Gertrudis Hartman became obscured by louder titles, names, and brands. Shortly following his exchange, Bukovsky would meet Margaret Thatcher, Winston Churchill Jr., Helmut Kohl, U.S. president Jimmy Carter, and numerous high-ranking European and American politicians. He would speak in front of huge audiences at the World Economic Forum in Davos and in front of the largest trade unions the United States.
Left to right: Vladimir Bukovsky with President Carter (March 1977); speaking at a press conference in Zurich (December 1976); and meeting Congressman John Ashbrook (March 1977).
"This was the time when the Western public's interest in and sympathy for our cause was enormous," Bukovsky would later write in his book To Choose Freedom. "The desire to help and to understand was palpable. Our movement was advancing swiftly to center stage, becoming a factor in international politics and thus arousing formidable adversaries. It was not the time to take a holiday or to slow the pace."
People around Bukovsky came and went over the next four decades. He earned his degrees at Cambridge and Stanford, led a heavyweight alliance of anti-communist organizations, served as unofficial advisor to Reagan and Thatcher, retrieved vital information from the Soviet archives, and led scathingly erudite attacks against Putin’s regime. Some old friends he knew from his Moscow days would remain his loyal supporters forever. Others would spin out of his orbit. New friends were being gained by the hundreds. One human rights initiative would follow another, and each demanded his attention and participation. But throughout it all Gertrudis Hartman maintained her bond with him.
Alissa Ordabai: Gertrudis, your name is legendary because not only did you come up with the idea of Bukovsky’s exchange, and worked so hard for his release, but also remained his confidante, his friend, and his intimate companion throughout his life. This is remarkable. You were one of the few constants during his life in the West.
Gertrudis Hartman: Bukovsky used to joke: "Erasmus from Rotterdam and Gertrudis from Rotterdam!" And he used to say that after my death I should give my brains to research.
A.O.: But much of your relationship was also profoundly serious.
G.H.: I have a golden wedding ring that Vladimir gave me, and his Medal of Freedom. I visited him, his mother Nina Invanovna, and sister with her son in December 1977 in Uetikon am See in Switzerland. I stayed in a hotel. Vladimir brought me to the hotel, and we spent a lovely romantic evening together. He held me in his arms and there was no end to kisses. When I was flying back to Holland, he promised me a golden wedding ring. In the first days of 1978 I got a letter from him, and inside the envelope there was a golden ring. With a card, which said, "Has the ring fitted your finger?" I wrote back: "Yes!" In his view, it was as if I was married to him. His name and his age were engraved on it. I wear it day and night.
When I visited him for the first time in Cambridge, he said, "My house is your house." Many people visited him in Cambridge, but I did not go too often. It would perhaps have been better for him if I went there more often.
A.O.: Bukovsky used to say that his years of being under the KGB surveillance have taught him to be secretive about his women friends. I suppose he always thought that if he publicly identified his closest loved ones, it would put them in danger. In his book To Build a Castle he writes that those whom he really loved received no public attention from him because he knew it could potentially turn out to be disastrous for them. He had the same fears for his mother while still in Russia.
G.H.: I did like his mother, she was a friendly lady.
Gertrudis Hartman trimming tree branches in Vladimir Bukovsky's garden.
Gertrudis Hartman by the entrance to Vladimir Bukovsky's house in Cambridge, UK.
A.O.: His father was a different story, though. They famously did not get along.
G.H.: Vladimir did not like his father. Later the father married another lady. When the father died, his wife asked Vladimir if he wanted to have his house in Moscow after her death, and Vladimir didn't want to have it. Vladimir once told me, "My father didn't love me," and I said, "I love you. You don't need him."
Night out in Cambridge, UK.
In a steak restaurant in Amsterdam.
A.O.: Did you write to Bukovsky while he was in prison?
G.H.: The letters I was writing to Vladimir were reaching him through his mother, Nina Ivanovna. Joziena van het Reve-Israel, reader in Russian studies at the University of Amsterdam would have her students take my letters and pictures for Bukovsky to his mother in Moscow. The students smuggled my letters and pictures to her, and she would pass them on to Vladimir. Photos of me, my daughter Pauline, and my son John-Henry kept his spirits up, and the spirits of his friends in the camp. When the guards asked who this was, he would tell them this was his aunt and her two children. He used to hide those pictures among his camp clothes. He later told me, “You, John-Henry and Pauline have seen the entire Siberia with me.”
I also knew Joziena’s husband Karel van het Reve, he gave me copies of Yuri Galanskov's "Human Manifesto".
A.O.: Karel van het Reve was a member of the Dutch resistance, and a critic of the Soviet regime. Our website Soviet History Lessons features his reports from Moscow from the early 1970s and they are remarkably perceptive. For example, about dissidents he says, "On the one hand, they are admired because they express what everybody feels. On the other hand, they are resented because they do what everybody should do but is afraid to do."
Vladimir Bukovsky, Gertrudis Hartman and Karel van het Reve.
Karel van het Reve and Vladimir Bukovsky.
When Bukovsky — at the end of 1972, already in prison — received an invitation from the University of Leiden to come and study with them free-of-charge, was that van het Reve's initiative?
G.H.: I suspect that it was. He was teaching Slavic literature at Leiden. Leiden has a connection to Russia: Peter the Great studied there, and many years later its students would smuggle letters to the Russian human rights activist Vladimir Bukovsky.
A.O.: But I think you were the most creative of all others in your approach to actions for Bukovsky’s release. You named one of your horses "Vladimir Bukovsky" and would take the horse to protest Bukovsky’s incarceration to the Russian Embassy in the Netherlands.
G.H.: We went with the horse to a demonstration near the Russian Embassy in the Hague, demanding the release of Vladimir.
Vladimir and Andrei Amalrik visited me once on my birthday in April 1977 at Smalle Ee and stayed for several days. Amalrik was riding the horse named Vladimir Bukovsky — in the garden and in the meadows surrounding Smalle Ee / Frisian. I wish Amalrik had not died.
A.O.: I am too young to have met him, but I think his death was such a great loss — it deprived Bukovsky of one of the smartest friends of his youth.
Demonstration in front of the Russian embassy in The Hague led by Gertrudis Hartman demanding release of Vladimir Bukovsky.
G.H.: Before his death Amalrik often visited Vladimir in Cambridge. He knew how much Bukovsky loved me. But I did not get to know a lot of Vladimir’s friends. He loved me and became annoyed when his Russian friends were starting to like me too. For example, he got annoyed with Vladimir Dremlyuga. Sometimes it was funny.
A.O.: Dremlyuga spent six years in Soviet camps for protesting the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviets. After coming to the U.S. in 1975 he founded a successful construction business.
G.H.: Dremlyuga was a millionaire and contributed money to help Vladimir set Russian soldiers free in Afghanistan. Some of those Russian prisoners of war were simply kept in underground holes. It was dark day and night for them. Dremluga traveled to Afghanistan to pay ransoms for some of those Russian soldiers to set them free. He told me these stories when visiting my house in Smalle Ee.
A.O.: Lord Nicholas Bethell — who also worked on Bukovsky’s prisoner release projects in Afghanistan — describes the ordeal of those prisoners in horrific detail in his memoirs: "kept in the hole in the ground," "dressed in rags," and "feet too swollen for shoes." He says they lived in cold cellars, "seeing the light of day only two or three times a year; did not know what month it was or that Brezhnev had died or that Andropov was not the country’s leader."
Vladimir Bukovsky and Andrei Amalrik in Smalle Ee, Holland, in April 1977 at the estate of Gertrudis Hartman with her horse named Vladimir Bukovsky.
But not all of Bukovsky's acquaintances whom he knew from the USSR behaved as admirably as Dremluga.
G.H.: No, not all of them. One of the friends of his youth whom he had known since school stole a lot of money from him and then disappeared off to Israel.
A.O.: But Bukovsky was so incredibly generous: with money, with assistance, with donations to political prisoners, with all the help he would give to people with finding them jobs, and providing them with the right connections. Do you know, for example, that he gave a colossal amount of money (which he earned through the Russian language reprints of his books) to the "Democratic Russia" party in the early 1990s?
G.H.: Yes. Just as an example, a widow of a high-profile Russian defector would often ask him for money. He has bought a house for his mother, and did a lot for his sister and her son who had, sadly, passed away young.
My son John-Henry had at one point spent a year with Bukovsky in Palo Alto, doing his studies. Later he did his studies at the University of Leiden. He is a lawyer. And he advised Vladimir to set up a foundation in Liechtenstein in order to buy his Cambridge house. Which Vladimir did.
Vladimir Bukovsky and Gertrudis Hartman in Bukovsky's Palo Alto apartment, 1985.
August 26, 1984. In Palo Alto, California
Here is another example: Bukovsky arranged a job for Gluzman at Stanford in the field of psychiatry, but he did not go because he did not want to leave his wife and stepdaughter. Semyon Gluzman used to write very, very nice letters to me. Vladimir would translate them for me.
Luba Yudovich from the San Francisco Bay area often visited John-Henry there during his time with Bukovsky. She took on a role of his mother, while Bukovsky took on a father role. Her boyfriend Leonid (Lyonia) was a professor at Stanford and worked at CERN in Geneva (the European Organization for Nuclear Research). I visited my son several times, and John-Henry and Leonid would pick me up from the San Francisco Airport. My son and daughter Pauline live in Amsterdam and Haarlem, and I live in the North of the Netherlands. My house was built in 1927, has 10 rooms and a big garden. A much bigger house and garden than Bukovsky's in Cambridge.
Amsterdam Central Station.
A.O.: Who was your husband?
G.H.: I was married to Henk Hartman, a doctor — radiologist and radiotherapist — licensed in the Netherlands, the U.S., the U.K., and Canada. He worked abroad a lot — in Surinam, in the leper colony in the British Cameroon, was in charge of a hospital in Ghana for the Swiss Basel Mission there. He worked a lot with poor people.
He was older than me and I became a widow. He is buried in our family grave in Haarlem and I will go there too. Vladimir wanted us to be buried together, but I don’t want to be buried in London, because Pavel Stroilov is the owner of the grave.
A.O.: I understand that you didn't visit England after 2016.
G.H.: I didn’t like who was there at the house with Vladimir. Vladimir had rheumatism and pain in his hands. So I once painted his fence in Caribbean Blue. Boris later painted the fence black. My son says he would like to visit Vladimir’s grave, and so do I. Vladimir used to say to me: "You may not die before me" and "I will not survive you." I could have taken care of him. I used to be a hospital nurse. But he did not ask me. And I did not like the people who surrounded him in his last years. I regret I didn’t see him in his final days.
Left and right: Gertrudis Hartman on her estate as a young woman.
A.O.: Did he talk to you about death?
G.H.: He used to say to me that "after death there is nothing." And he got christened in the Russian Orthodox Church because he didn’t want to be a communist.
A.O.: Right after Bukovsky died, a Russian-speaking specialist in conservation and museum management published an open letter with his recommendations about things that could be done to preserve the memory of Bukovsky’s house, things that needed to be done without delay. He advised not to move or remove anything, and to photograph everything carefully from different angles. The idea was, as I understood it, to digitally capture the contents of the house, put it online, make it into an online museum. It would have been wonderful to make each object clickable and viewable, make books and art objects viewable in 3D. This museographer offered his consultations free-of-charge. I think a lot of Bukovsky’s friends feel profound sadness that this has not been done. And that he died without leaving a will. But then again, Bukovsky's main legacy is not of the material world.
"I found it difficult to recognize myself on this photograph -- this was such a long time ago. I only remember how I felt at the time -- akin to a wild mustang who had been released into the wild, because I have just been let out of the mad house. Perhaps this is the reason why you like this photograph more than others. Maybe here I look more like my namesake whom you love so much. Let this photograph remind you of both of us." V. Bukovsky.
G.H.: But you did a lot for him, and you keep his memory alive.
A.O.: I try to do what I can. I sold my house in London and used the proceeds to finance the Soviet History Lessons website to preserve the memory of his achievements. But despite how you felt about his surroundings in his later years, you must have such fond memories of his house.
G.H.: When I visited him, we would read together his e-mails before bed time. He would hold his cigarette in his left hand, with his right hand on the computer. I read only the English e-mails, and he read in English and in Russian. I would hang over his right shoulder with my head touching his. He said to me every evening, "Good night, darling, have nice dreams."
My room was upstairs next to his bedroom. No one could enter it without my permission. And I kept my bicycle in his shed. I set Vladimir free and never asked or forced him to do anything for me. Never asked for anything in exchange for my support of him.
Vladimir Bukovsky and Gertrudis Hartman in Switzerland, December 1977. Switzerland, December 30, 1977.
A.O.: This is a remarkably noble attitude. I have encountered people who campaigned for his release and to this day think he owes them something. These are the same people who deride him for becoming friends “with the wrong people,” such as Margaret Thatcher. I find this lack of respect for his intelligence, his education, and for his own judgement baffling. But there has, actually, been interesting academic research into different reasons why people wish to offer help to those who suffer in less fortunate countries. Some do it out of the goodness of their hearts, others — to seek personal validation and to feel superior to those they help. Your motives have been entirely noble, and I am sure he took note of that.
G.H.: Roxana Cogan, the wife of Professor Alexander Cogan at Stanford University, picked me up once from the San Francisco Airport, and said, “You are beautiful and you have a great understanding of Vladimir. You make sense for him.” Vladimir was the assistant to her husband Alexander Cogan, professor of neuroscience. Both are now dead. Their young son taught John-Henry and me how to use a computer.
Gertrudis Hartman on horseback, 1976. Smalle Ee.
A.O.: There is a very poignant photograph of you and Vladimir during one of your visits in Cambridge, sitting on a bench. You are both posed in such a quiet, confident harmony with each other.
G.H.: This is downtown Cambridge after shopping. Near the Church. You know, he didn’t really like to be photographed.
A.O.: That is remarkable for a public figure. Especially given how attractive he was. Iris Murdoch used to admire what she called his "beauty," and a London-based Russian journalist Seva Novgorodsev once remarked: "He was so good-looking it was impossible to take your eyes off him."
G.H.: He was a lady killer! But he loved me for my soul.
A.O.: There is another photograph, of you leading a horse across shallow water. This is such a dreamy, beautiful image.
G.H.: This is with the horse Vladimir Bukovsky, on the river Smalle Eesterzanding. A boy who was our neighbor is on the horse, and the horse looks at the circles and its own reflection in the water. That horse followed me everywhere.
A.O.: Do you continue riding?
G.H.: I go horse riding with my friends in the forest. In the recent years I have visited Surinam several times. My husband worked as a radiologist for one year at the University Hospital Paramaribo in Surinam. I also spend times with friends and family in Holland and in Belgium.
A.O.: There is an article in your archive from a Dutch newspaper dated April 1974 which tells a story of you, of Bukovsky’s imprisonment, and of your horse which you named “Vladimir Bukovsky” and which you would bring to protests to the Soviet embassy. The article ends with a beautiful poem by Yuli Daniel translated into Dutch. The article says this poem had been inspired by Bukovsky. I have translated it into English for our English-speaking readers and will quote it here in its entirety:
The sound of crockery up in the sky
A violent banquet will soon detonate
But stallions of ours continue to thrive
Our steeds still roam the steppe
They are immortal, so praise them eternally
And we know the way to their domain
We'll put their bridles and halters upon them
And go like a lighting in pouring rain
The rain will drape tightly the dress that you wear
O Amazon, race your horse right after me!
The horses rush forward and they do not care
About dark curses, the heat, or the sea.
Because our horses reveal jolly colors:
Bright-green, reddish-sorrel, and blue
Having been shoed by a craftsman of gladness
For storm, and for racing, for me, and for you.
We'll see the big sun rise
Whole world in its glory
While fine horses graze
With hooves deep in night dew
G.H.: This is my favorite poem. It is called “Where is my steed?” I have it on the wall of my bedroom.
A.O.: It seems that Bukovsky somehow pulled a rather deep resonance with the poets of his generation. A famous Dutch poet Rutger Kopland had also dedicated one of his poems to Bukovsky. In it he warns Vladimir about the perils of the life in the West, and the hypocrisy of the Western political circles, and says poignantly, "Hatred goes dressed as peaceful people." Bukovsky himself abhorred those who tried to appease dictatorial regimes by inaction. And he always admired those who had the courage and the spirit to act. I guess in you he had found the embodiment of that spirit. But talking about literature, what other Russian writers do you admire?
G.H.: Turgenev is my favorite writer. Bukovsky gave all of his works to me. I always saw my relationship with Bukovsky as that of Pauline Viardot with Turgenev. I have had conversations with Professor van het Reve about Turgenev and he loved his works too.
A.O.: Bukovsky imagined living in his castle together with you. You have a wonderful letter from him where he says there is space in that castle for you, your children, and your horses. This is so incredibly touching.
G.H.: He was imagining living with me in his castle. He sculpted a model of it while living in the cottage belonging to Winston Churchill Junior. You must know about this.
A.O.: That’s right, this is where he wrote his book To Build a Castle. But talking of Viardot: her family famously avoided the topic of Turgenev for a great number of years each time when approached by Turgenev’s biographers. When I contact people and ask them to share their memories of Bukovsky, I always tell them that Russian history had suffered greatly because of the absence of recorded accounts of the key contemporaries of some of the Russian greats. For example, Pushkin’s wife never left any recorded recollections of her husband. And Russian culture has suffered a great loss because of this. So to finish our conversation I would like to thank you for everything you have so kindly shared with the Soviet History Lessons archive — your memories, your letters, your photographs. Vladimir Bukovsky was the founder of the human rights movement in the USSR and was the only one who went back to prison again, and again, and again, and again for the sake of speaking the truth and saving other people’s lives. His example is tremendously important for the young generation. So I thank you not only for masterminding the way to get him out of prison, but also for sharing your memories of him in such a wonderful way.
G.H.: You are welcome, Alissa. You keep Vladimir Bukovsky’s memory alive. I hope to see you one day.
A.O.: I hope to see you one day too. And I hope this is not our last conversation.
Copyright Alissa Ordabai.