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Holger Jensen
on dissent and dissidents

In the year 1970 Holger Jensen — at that time a young Associated Press correspondent — became the first reporter who, along with the CBS journalist William Cole, exposed the crime of Soviet punitive psychiatry — the practice of confining healthy people to mental hospitals as punishment for dissenting political views. 


Jensen’s and Cole’s revelations — based on a series of conversations with Vladimir Bukovsky — not only shocked the Western world, but ignited a campaign which has now become a legendary page in the history of human rights. 


After Vladimir Bukovsky was handed his 12-year sentence by a Moscow court in January 1972 for speaking to the Western media, the leading luminaires of the arts world — Tom Stoppard, Yehudi Menuhin, Vanessa Redgrave and Iris Murdoch — began to campaign against abuse of psychiatry for political purposes in the USSR.


This resulted in swift release of a significant number of dissidents from Soviet mental hospitals, and later in Bukovsky’s own release from prison in 1976.


"By drawing public attention to the system of psychiatric persecution in the Soviet Union, Bukovsky drew attention directly to our personal fate," wrote dissidents Natalia Gorbanevskaya and Viktor Fainberg in a letter to Kontinent magazine upon their release in 1976. "Thanks to him we got out fo the psychiatric torture chambers. Thanks to him, we are here, in the West, free and safe."


Neither Gorbanevskaya, nor Fainberg mentioned Jensen or Cole in their letter, but the omission was soon rectified by Bukovsky himself, who wrote about Jensen at length in his 1979 memoir To Build a Castle, lionizing his name for future generations of Russia’s freedom fighters. 


Today, on December 30, 2022 – the 80th anniversary of Vladimir Bukovsky’s birth — it is an honor for Soviet History Lessons to publish some of Holger Jensen’s recollections of his days in Moscow he had recently shared with us. 


On parents: My father was a Danish diplomat, my mother a stateless Russian who claimed to be a member of the nobility always bragging about her blue blood. Her family escaped execution in the Bolshevik Revolution by virtue of being in Harbin, in the Chinese province of Manchuria, home to so many Russian expats it was considered Russia's Far East.


On childhood: I was born in Shanghai, where my father was Danish Consul-General, and later grew up and went to University in South Africa before emigrating to the United States. Since my father could not speak Russian, and my mother could not speak Danish, they communicated in English, which is how I grew up in a trilingual family.


On time in Moscow: I came to Moscow as a young, 25-year-old correspondent for the Associated Press in 1969 as one of the few Russian-speaking American journalists then covering Brezhnev's Soviet Union. Like all foreign correspondents in Moscow I was assigned a KGB "tail," which is what we all called them, usually an agent posing as a member of a Russian news organization, fluent in English, who surprisingly enough shared all my interests and was extremely helpful in securing entree and interviews with government officials as long as the topics were "non-controversial." My tail, Volodya Pozharov, claimed to work for the Novosti wire service, was extremely pleasant, shared my love of hunting, helped me buy two fine Russian shotguns handmade in Tula and arranged teterev shooting trips to Brezhnev's personal hunting lodge on the Shosha River. He also begged me to "stay out of trouble" by writing on "safe" subjects such as tractor production in Kazakhstan. Of course I did not follow his advice. 


On Moscow dissidents: As a Russian speaker I did not have to use the "translators" who worked for AP's Moscow bureau, also of course KGB agents or informers, and began reporting on Moscow's small dissident community led by the likes of Andrei Amalrik and Pyotr Yakir. Relations with my tail deteriorated. Pozharov warned me that I was heading for trouble if I continued to associate with "hooligans, bearded rebels and ex-students." That's how I met Bukovsky. He was not as well-known to the Moscow press corps at that time as Amalrik or Yakir but his life story was all the more chilling to me because it was told by someone roughly my age, two years older actually, who professed to be living an "ordinary" life in a very non-ordinary society. He said he wanted the world to know what was happening to him and others like him in the Soviet Union. I told him I could write it but warned that it would land him right back in the gulag. He begged me to go ahead and after long and agonizing reflection I decided to do it, knowing what would happen to both of us.


An excerpt from the Telex sent by Holger Jensen to AP in New York on May 7, 1970 detailing Bukovsky's story: He is currently free, but expects to be arrested before the year is out. KGB agents keep him under daily surveillance. "You must have friends in this type of work," he explained. "The KGB follows you all the time and sometimes they pull you in for questioning. If no one knows about it, you just disappear. But if your friends know you’ve been arrested, you’re reasonably safe. They tell others. They attend your trial. They know the length of your sentence, and they know when you are supposed to be released. So dissidents never go anywhere alone, they never live alone and they always tell others what they are doing."


He lives in a small apartment with his mother, sister, her husband and their small baby. He earns 50 rubles a month as secretary to a sympathetic writer. But the job is only a front to prevent Bukovsky’s arrest on charges of "parasitism." The apartment and telephone are bugged. Bukovsky is trailed everywhere he goes by KGB agents. Every time he passes on a samizdat or talks to a foreigner he risks arrest. 


But he insists: "The people have to know what is happening here. The world has to know." 


Vladimir Bukovsky on Holger Jensen in his book To Build a Castle:


The authorities reacted nervously to the very first interview I gave to Holger Jensen about the psychiatric hospitals. I was summoned by the prosecutor who tried to intimidate me and  threatened me with prison. As if I didn’t know already that I was going to prison no later than in a year's time. The conversation was stupid — the usual bickering. He claimed that everything I had said in the interview was slander, and I offered to present evidence to him, to gather witnesses. What exactly the slander consisted of, he could not indicate, but refused to engage with the evidence or the witnesses I proposed.


- You know that we will always prove your guilt. 


I knew the sort of "proofs" they were capable of furnishing. This meant that I needed to collect evidence myself.


This was also when, for the first time, I have had a conversation with the authorities about emigrating.


- Why do you, with your views, live here? Leave for America.


Thousands of people before my eyes have been asking, demanding, begging to be released from the USSR. They were refused, expelled from work, declared traitors. And now suddenly it becomes as easy as moving to Cheryomushki: - Leave for America!


Here's a hypocrite! However, even if it really was that easy, I was not intending to go anywhere.


At the same time, the persecution of Holger Jensen began. He too was summoned to the prosecutor's office and was told that he had been driving his car incorrectly: while braking sharply, he allegedly frightened citizen Ivanov, who was now in hospital. For the next two weeks, someone regularly punctured the tires of his car, so that we could not go about our business with him. Cars of foreign correspondents are usually parked in the yards of special buildings where they all live. Both the yard and the buildings are guarded by the police — a stranger cannot enter. So who had been puncturing the tires?


One early morning, looking out of his window, Holger noticed a policeman, who, while carefully looking around, was walking from his booth to the parked cars. When he reached Holger's car, he took out a penknife and carefully stabbed the rear tires several times. Then he went to the front and stabbed the front tires too.


A month later Holger was stripped of his driver's license "for reckless driving." And then, as if on cue, people in Washington became worried:


- Why do we need a correspondent in Moscow who is unable to drive?


And they forbade him to transmit any more articles from Moscow — as if one needs a car in order to be doing this. The bosses in Washington also did not like our interview — it worsened relations between the USSR and the USA. Well, this was no shock to me — I never idealized the West. Obviously, over the decades a lot of sores and parasites have grown around the USSR  the way they grow around an old sore. So many cowardly theories, doctrines and self-justifications have been created that the line between "us and them" has long ceased to exist. And in order to release the infected fluid, one needed to break through many layers of the so-called "healthy tissue."


On what happened later: Reprisals against me were swift. I was kicked out of the Soviet Union for "activities hostile to socialist construction" and within a few months found myself reporting on the war in Vietnam. I was wounded in action there, then covered many other war zones, first for the Associated Press, later Newsweek, in the Middle East, Asia, Argentina and Africa.


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