ON VLADIMIR BUKOVSKY'S BIRTHDAY
by Alissa Ordabai
Two months have passed since Vladimir Bukovsky's death. Today, on his birthday, his departure doesn’t feel like just another sad episode of 2019 or another death of a celebrity. Neither does it leave behind a forlorn heartache. Instead, it rips open a gaping chasm revealing the terrifying outlines of our future. The future which compels us to change and look for an inner Bukovsky within. Either that, or admit that post-Soviet countries have no hope for a rule of law and their inhabitants have no hope for a right to choose their own destiny.
I was born in the year when Bukovsky was starving in the Vladimir Prison -- a terrifying Soviet penitentiary where many perished and not one inmate was ever released intact. A thousand factors and circumstances divided us, but we had one thing in common. My entire childhood, every day -- be it ordinary or celebratory -- had a scent of decay in the air. At times it was barely noticeable, and at times overwhelming. It seeped into every house, apartment, school, street, office, university, museum, and theater.
Years later its source became apparent. It was the stench of the Vladimir Prison and all other labor camps, jails, and psychiatric hospitals -- diluted and suspended in the air of one big camp called the USSR. And it sowed fear in Soviet citizens. This fear dictated words and gestures of every single teacher in my school, gimmicks of every pop star on the radio, and phrasing of each sentence in each textbook. And when Bukovsky was dying of hunger in the Vladimir Prison, my Central Asian provincial town reeked of his punishment cell where he was losing consciousness.
Half a century later and after his death, it turns out that all the agony of his prison years -- torture, hunger, freezing cells, and beatings in mental prison-hospitals -- all of it remains intact, suspended in the air the West is now breathing too. You don't have to possess any special "spiritual vision" described by Russian writer Victor Pelevin, but you simply have to be alive and know history, in order to see "GULAG's prisoners in rags wheeling their carts through financial districts of world capitals."
And Bukovsky still remains in his eternal punishment cell, and nothing has been redeemed and nothing has been understood. Sometimes it seems that his punishment cell determines and divides everything around us. Those who have been there, have been redeemed. Those who haven't, are cursed, and this is why Bukovsky's death goes right to the soul of so many.
Speaking of the soul, he was still a child when he first began his attempts to understand what it is and how it compels some to seek justice and some to stay silent. But his subsequent studies in neuroscience at Cambridge, and later at Stanford, disappointed him when failed to provide answers to his cardinal questions. In this world we can only arrive at truth through our deeds, and theorizing doesn't make us better or nobler.
Bukovsky's actions served not only as a conduit between the everyday and the domain of ultimate meanings. They also gave direct answers to questions "Why?" and "What for?" The terrible thing about his death is that today's world doesn't want to hear his answers. Instead it asks its own rather intelligent questions: What was the point of suffering so horrifically if the KGB remains in power? What was the purpose of it all, if citizens of entire countries remain disenfranchised and in the grip of fear?
Music -- being able to convey a higher reality -- provides us with the easiest way to grasp that everything he had done was not in vain. Rachmaninoff -- a visionary fellow countryman of Bukovsky -- manages not to prove, but to show how seeming absurdity can give birth to perfect harmony. Bukovsky's rare talent wasn't spent fruitlessly on years in filthy barracks, putrid punishment cells, and torture-chamber psychiatric jails. And there was a higher purpose to the price he had paid for reinstating the basic fundamentals about human dignity. For during his time the notion of dignity had been negated to the point where it had to be proven all over again, and with a huge price tag attached to such proof.
Bukovsky's prison photographs make for a harrowing viewing now that they are beginning to emerge from the archives: They evoke respect, and fear, but above all -- pain. None of us who is capable of feeling, learning, and advancing, wants to see this gladiator. Instead one wants to see a young man who still has an opportunity to study, to learn new things, to love, to laugh, to grow, to expand.
He could have reached spectacular heights in literature, art, and science, but his best years were spent in confinement, exhausting his strength and taking away chances one can never claim back. All this in order to prove the plainest, simplest truths to us all. It is unbearably shaming to look into these eyes. Even for those who weren't even born at the time. But sometimes it seems to me that only they feel ashamed.
But Bukovsky was the kind of giant who amidst the depth of prison gloom met darkness with light. His fire was such that rare few could stay near him for long and remain unchanged. He transformed everything around him: not just the fellow inmates, but also prison guards, and even rules of the labor camps he was in. Some of those who knew him referred to his gift of persuasion as "hypnotism", and he indeed had a rare ability to see the essence of people and phenomena, and, as a result, to understand and influence them.
This gift later served President Reagan and Prime Minster Thatcher, NATO generals, British parliamentarians, and hundreds of other people who have changed the course of history and who tried to decipher how and in the name of what the USSR was existing. It also served many Russians who thanks to Bukovsky were able to understand Western values. This unique link between two civilizations -- the man who knew both paradigms so intimately and so thoroughly -- this link is now broken and nothing can replace it: no bilingual hotshot from Harvard or Oxford, let alone no one in Russia. With his departure there is now much less reason and understanding in Washington, in London, and in Moscow.
A cavalcade of books about death and loss which is now lining up on my shelf, is trying to convince me that grief shatters our lives and then puts them together anew, making them more whole. Each of them, in the best tradition of self-help, tells stories of bereaved parents, children, husbands, and wives. And not one gives any description of the people they mourn, what they were like, or what has departed with them once they were gone.
Out of this procession of books which were written to help survive the unsurvivable
(because the person who survives is not the same person anymore) there isn't one book that would tell me how to grieve for Bukovsky or how to carry on without him. And he was so multifarious, yet unchanging. And he never spoke of so many things. Especially about all the people whose lives he had changed: prisoners of war he helped return home, the persecuted he helped to get to safe harbor, the torn-apart families he helped reunite.
Image of Bukovsky as an iron-clad paladin had been fostered by his American and European friends -- Reagan and Thatcher above all -- who were in awe of his courage. He, however, regarded himself without a hint of conceit or affectedness, and his friends knew him as a man of phenomenal grace and warmth. At the time when the Bukovsky-led Resistance International was conducting global-scale projects, he was doing all his work from a primitive desk he had bought during his early student years in England. He never replaced it, just the way he never moved to London, and, living in Cambridge, never owned a car, preferring public transport instead.
His greatest asset were his friends, he used to say. There were "hundreds" of them when he was still as schoolboy, and their number grew in direct proportion to the increasing turmoil of his life, then doubled when he settled in England. Nabokov, who called Bukovsky "a precious man" died shortly after Bukovsky was expelled from the Soviet Union, and they have never met. But Bukovsky knew a great number of people who have defined the 20th century, including Rostropovich, Brodsky, Galich, Solzhenitsyn, Bruno Bettelheim, and Michel Foucault. With many he worked on joint projects, with many he argued, and could funnily and casually relay things such as a dinner toast he once gave to Sartre at the Élysée Palace in which he wished the marxist existentialist “to be born anew".
He had a rare ability to almost instantly see through people, and would brighten like a child when encountering someone who was sincere, honest, and openhearted. At the same time he completely lacked any naiveté, and deployed his phenomenal courage not only to keep his own life truthful and authentic, but to scrutinize the world he lived in. He knowingly went where integrity neighbored with pitch-dark hell, and where boundless viciousness sat next to bravery and honor.
Answers to fundamental questions he brought back up from those depths were his own, as was the language he chose to convey them. He never talked about tears, but when he wrote about "spasms" that gripped him every time betrayal struck him in his youth, those with an ear for heartache knew he meant crying. He never talked about fear either, but we shivered from it when he spoke of feeling "hit like by a cupful of vodka" in an account of one particularly nasty interrogation.
The fact that he was disliked by his own father was a classic sign fate gives to those whose destiny is to transform society. Where Bukovsky had come from had little to do with essayist Konstantin Bukovsky, but had everything to do with the fate of Russia. Bukovsky's own fate strangely and vividly intertwined with the fate of his country -- with its brutal cruelty, its cryptic coincidences, its tragedies, deep injustice and endless capacity for hope and light, even when no light could be seen at all.
The course of Russian history will determine the future of the rest of the world. Let us hope that everything that is honest and just in Russia has its friends and supporters -- the greatest asset there ever can be. It is devastating that Bukovsky now can support his country only through words that have been left in his books and recordings. He, however, remains one of the most important, courageous and astute supporters Russia had ever hoped to have. And, consequently, a friend and supporter of those who believe in its revival without prison guards and secret police at the helm.
New York, December 2019