Vladimir Bukovsky and George Urban:

A Conversation

URBAN: A friend of mine with whom I once burnt the mid- night oil puzzling over "the meaning of life" was in the habit of saying: "Everyone must have a 'petit chateau' in his imagination where he can find shelter from the hard knocks and banalities of the human condition." I recalled this phrase vividly when I first read your book "To Build a Castle", for the "chateau" you were constructing for yourself during your imprisonments in the Soviet Union was (or so it seems to me) precisely that kind of refuge—a haven of hope and sanity in a world of coercion and psychiatric abuse.

 

BUKOVSKY: The way I came to think of the image of a castle takes me back to my childhood. I was a young teenager, thirteen or fourteen or so, when Khrushchev's impact began to be felt in the Soviet Union. Of course, at the time I did not understand half of what was going on around me; but what I did understand was that some momentous change was loom- ing and that I did not like the world into which I had been born. I was a voracious reader but could not bring myself to read Soviet literature. It wasn't that I was consciously hostile to it. I just had an instinctive dislike of the stuff because I found it mean and drab. So I ploughed through the Russian classics and the non-Russian classics in translation; and in my Russian books—Chekhov, for example—I ran repeatedly into scenes that occurred in spacious country houses which gave the reader a feel of a rather gentle, thoughtful, reflective type of living, light-years away from Soviet reality.

 

I spent some of my childhood in one of the historic quarters of Moscow, the Arbat. My grandmother often took me for walks there, and it was in the Arbat that I first saw old, gra- cious mansions of the kind I was to encounter in the classics. In other words, by the time I came to read about the sort of life people lived in a traditional and cultivated milieu I was already attuned to it, by the merging of a child's instinctive aspiration to a more inspiring order of things with the mys- terious beauty of the mansions in the Arbat.

 

URBAN: You were clearly not one of the success stories of ideological conditioning by the Soviet system. 

 

BUKOVSKY: No, I wasn't, even though I came from a fairly poor family, and was in reality nothing but a street urchin when these impressions began to register.

 

As time went on, I developed great love for those buildings in the Arbat and, looking back on my thinking as an adolescent, I suppose it would be true to say that those mansions represented a form of mental escape for me, although I wasn't aware of it at the time.

 

URBAN: Your genes seem to have been stronger than the impact of your environment. 

 

BUKOVSKY: Much stronger. What is more, style seemed to me more important than substance. The architectural grace of the buildings in the Arbat induced me to weave a whole world of values and ideas that began to sustain me spiritually.

 

URBAN: What you are saying is that Pol Pot and the Red Guards under Mao were, in their way, right. Your resistance to the system was greatly helped by the availability of the Russian classics and the survival of old buildings. Pol Pot took care to demolish all remnants of a "bourgeois" past, including books and buildings, and indeed even the spectacles through which to peer at them.

 

BUKOVSKY: From his point of view Pol Pot was right. Fortunately,  Stalinism was slightly less thorough, and the lip-service it had to pay to the Russian past made it impossible for the Stalinists to do a demolition job on the whole of Russian culture and history. They did it on selected parts, and at times best suited to their purpose.

 

URBAN: So the idea of a "castle" came naturally from your inclinations as a child and an adolescent?

 

BUKOVSKY: It developed from the skein of factors I have described. By the time I first went to prison, it was there.

 

URBAN: Perhaps it wasn't just a mental escape but a subconscious protest against your environment, against "proletarian culture" and "socialist realism”?

 

BUKOVSKY: Looking at it from today's perspective, I would say it was. Soviet reality is grey and ugly, and the artefacts of life are just tasteless and boring. I am grateful to my own choosiness as a child that I never read Soviet literature. I escaped its corruptions.

 

URBAN: You managed, in fact, to develop on a small and rudimentary scale something like your own sense of values and culture. A remarkable feat for a young boy.

 

BUKOVSKY: In a modest sense, yes. I would not go so far as to call it an "alternative culture", for my friends and I were too young and ignorant to think in such sophisticated terms; but as far as my own aesthetic ideas and values were concerned, yes, I think I did begin to develop alternative ways of feeling and being.

 

URBAN: In prison, your castle was, in fact, a life-saver. In the frightening void of your solitary confinement you hung on to it the way a drowning man hangs on to a lifebelt. Or, if you like, it was a source of hope, as faith and prayer are for a believer.

 

BUKOVSKY: It was all those things, but the castle also per- formed the simple function of occupying my mind and keep- ing it concentrated. This was most important. I knew people who went berserk in solitary. Any systematic thinking helped —such as remembering the plot of a classic novel, or solving mathematical problems.

 

URBAN: There are indeed many examples. George Faludy, the distinguished Hungarian poet, committed a large number of poems to his own and his fellow inmates' memory when he was in prison in Recsk. More recently, Irina Ratushinskaya preserved her sanity by writing poems even though she had nothing to write with.

 

BUKOVSKY: Please, don't mention poetry to me as a means of escape; I'm allergic to the stuff. We had a surfeit of poets and poetry in our movement. Poetry seemed to be oozing out of the pores of every young Russian who had a grudge against the Soviet system. Verses, poetry readings, and budding poets flaunting their alleged talent—I had my fill of all that by the time I was 19! But you are quite right: the castle was a symbolic and real means of escape. You could hide behind its walls; it imparted privacy and security.

 

URBAN: Some political prisoners in the Soviet Union needed all the religious faith they could summon to steel themselves for survival. You are said to be an agnostic—or is it an atheist? I would have thought a devout Baptist, or an Ortho- dox person like Solzhenitsyn, might wonder how you did it, seeing that so much of your challenge to the system had spiritual roots which were, nevertheless, not of the religious kind.

 

BUKOVSKY: You are asking me a question I have deliberately tried not to answer, because it is probably too early for me to answer it; but here is what occurs to me. My generation had brought itself up to disbelieve in religion. Our reaction was not against Christianity, but against Stalin and the worship of Stalin. We had been raised in the Communist religion, which we knew was nonsensical. We felt we had been betrayed and misled by our elders. The ceaseless and ubiquitous adoration of Stalin was a powerful vaccination against any form of belief—so believing, for me, became a symbol of gullibility.

 

URBAN: You went through the Pioneers and the usual Soviet education. You must have been very much part and parcel of the cult of Stalin.

 

BUKOVSKY: I was. I was eleven when Stalin died. As a child I did believe in Stalin, and thought he was something very close to being God. We sang his praise in prose, verse, and cantatas. The older generation had a broader view because they could remember the time before Stalin and the build-up of Stalinism. Those who decided to go along with the glorification of Stalin did so on rational or opportunistic grounds. But we were handed the cult of Stalin as a doctrine, and consequently rejected every type of faith as part of our opposition to the worship of Stalin. But our rejection did not end there. We hated and rejected "socialism" and all the other words of the Communist vocabulary as well, simply because they had been rammed down our throats by the Communist Party as part of the official philosophy. Children don't discriminate. Whatever had to be done under duress we rejected.

 

URBAN: Did you, nevertheless, appreciate the particular tenacity of the Baptists and Pentecostalists among your fellow inmates? We have much evidence that religious believers were more suecessful than most in keeping their integrity and hope alive. You will remember the record of Pastor Bonhoeffer and Father Kolbe under the Nazis, and one could quote the testimony of any number of religious prisoners in Communist camps. Irina Ratushinskaya is a good recent example.

 

BUKOVSKY: Religious faith gave strength to some people, but on the whole it appeared to me artificial and superficial. In a prison cell you get to know your fellow inmates extremely well—too well. One is not meant to know everything about another human being, but when you share a prison cell, you cannot avoid it. So it was that I found out more than I would have wished about the minds of my colleagues in prison; and so it was that I came to the conclusion that religious believers made unpleasant inmates.

 

URBAN: Were they intolerant?

 

BUKOVSKY: Not really—in a cell you have to be tolerant. It was rather that their faith did not strike me as being genuine. They were trying hard to convince themselves that they believed when in fact they did not. I could not trust their sincerity. For example: I was, at the time, pretty well versed in the Bible. The reason was that I had been asked to translate certain religious texts which contained a great many biblical quotations. This made me familiarise myself with the Old and New Testaments which I got to know pretty well (I have by now forgotten much of both). Well, one of the things you do a great deal in prison is to argue. I frequently fell into argument with religious prisoners and found to my amazement that their knowledge of the Bible was very small, or nil. Their faith was a new thing, a lifebelt under adverse conditions.

I am, mind you, not belittling the importance of having a lifebelt, but the faith of these people was skin-deep. Of course, I also met prisoners with deep religious convictions whom I admired and respected. One was a Ukrainian, Levko Lukyanenko, who was serving fifteen years when I shared a cell with him, and got another fifteen years as soon as he was set free for having joined the Helsinki Monitoring Group. He was serene about his fate.

 

URBAN: Did many of the religious prisoners acquire their faith actually in prison, under the pressures of imprisonment?

 

BUKOVSKY: Quite a few did. It was remarkable that people who had arrived in prison as Marxists were the most likely to change their Marxist convictions for religious ones. I knew Marxist Ukrainians who became fervent Christians and Marxist Jews who had forgotten all about their Jewish background but developed, in prison, a fervent Orthodox Jewish identity

 

This tells you something about the kind of mind these people had to begin with: they needed an ideology of some sort to relieve them of uncertainty; and if Marxism-Leninism could no longer do it, some other belief had to be put in its place.

 

URBAN: The history of Communism in Western Europe provides similar examples—disillusioned Communists turning to Catholicism or other forms of religion to replace, as you say, the loss of an all-interpreting set of values and ideas, and, above all, to give them hope.

 

BUKOVSKY: But you can have hope without religion. This may, however, not be the whole truth. The man who convinced me that hope without religion may not be enough for some people was Armando Valladares, whose book I have just read and written about. Here is a man who is deeply religious and, like most genuinely believing people, does not like talking about his faith—perhaps because he is conscious of Matthew 6, 5-6, perhaps because his natural modesty forbids him to do so. He is in Castro's prison, as he thinks, for life. He is exposed to the daily horrors of Cuban imprisonment—torture, humiliation, the sound of executions—and comes face to face with the fact that "here I may have to die". Under these terrible conditions religion gives him strength. "My imprisonment and my death will have an ethical meaning", he says. "Ethical meaning"— that I fully understand. If your life has to be sacrificed in the struggle against a great evil, you want to feel that your sacrifice fits into a meaningful order of things.

 

URBAN: I am fairly sure that if one collected an anthology of the last cries of those about to be executed, your point would be borne out by the evidence. Those I have come across in my life and in Western literature stress the condemned man's loyalty to some principle that will, as he hopes, not die with him . . . to country, cause, faith, or even ideology.

 

But I'm not sure I would agree with your observation that the religion of those who acquire it under the pressures of hardship is necessarily less profound or less worthy of our respect than of those who are given it at birth or acquire it under more serene conditions. I would have thought the acquisition of faith under extreme conditions is perhaps the most common and most human way of acquiring it, even though it may well be true that religion so acquired is less well informed than a man of high culture would wish. The Sermon on the Mount offers the Kingdom of Heaven to those "which are persecuted for righteousness' sake", but does not demand that they should be well-versed in religious literature. On the contrary, it is enough to be "pure in heart" to be admitted to the sight of God. Irina Ratushinskaya tells us: "I had started to appeal to Him some fifteen years before I held any religious literature in my hands.”

 

BUKOVSKY: I didn't mean to belittle the sincerity of the conversion of a person suddenly bereaved or struck down by some mindless act of man or nature. Sickness, frustration, poverty and defeat are part of the human condition, and those who cannot deal with them rationally seek a meaning and consolation in religion. This I respect. What I did not like in some of my fellow inmates was the transparent opportunism with which they changed from what they thought h a d been a winning horse to another which now looked more likely to be first past the post.

 

No amount of charity, not even the parable of the prodigal son, can persuade me to respect the Christianity of a man whose Marxism got unstuck and who therefore decided in his cluelessness to turn to another "divinity". You see, sincerity of faith is also a Christian requirement.

 

"Not everyone who calls m e 'Lord, Lord' will enter the Kingdom of Heaven", Jesus says in Matthew soon after the words you have quoted, and he warns those who are insincere that they will be punished: "Then I will tell them to their face, 'I never knew you: out of my sight, you and your wicked ways!'" {Matthew 1, 21-23).

 

URBAN: I don't think we can take this further without starting a different discussion. But you said: one could have hope without religion. This sounds commonsensical enough, but what in particular did you have in mind in the context of resisting the pressures of imprisonment?

 

BUKOVSKY: You can believe in your destiny—a destiny that tells you that you must challenge the wrong and the lies that surround you. What we had in my own case and the cases of my friends was, so to speak, a conspiracy of the hopeless. We never expected to be able to achieve any of the liberties we wanted. Personally I had a persuasive feeling that there was no way out, but the same feeling told me that I must preserve my sanity and fight t h e ideological insanity that surrounded us; and if I was to suffer and die for doing so, I might as well die sane. That was all.

 

Our movement was highly impractical. We never sought to achieve anything concrete; we never had a "programme". In the event, w e achieved, t o o u r amazement, a hundredfold what any of us imagined could be achieved, and did so perhaps precisely because we hadn't done any planning. W e were being propelled by an inner feeling of necessity. Certain challenges had to be met, certain lies had to be nailed, certain absurdities had to be unmasked. This was something we knew in our bones. We had to do it for self-respect, for sanity, for human dignity.

We were in the grip of an elementary revolt of the mind— but we had, as I say, no pragmatic model to guide us. We didn't want to "change" anything. We rebelled because we had been driven to rebellion. It was a question of self- preservation.

 

URBAN: Those Poles, Hungarians and Czechs who talk nowadays about an "alternative culture" and alternative ways of being and feeling are led, I am convinced, by a similar, uncalculating, elementary sense of rebellion. All rebellions in history tend to start in that manner—the programmes and rationalisations (and frequently the admissions of non possumus) come later.

 

BUKOVSKY: Looking back on that period, I would say we shared Albert Camus's philosophy more than any other. We rebelled because Authority told us, "You are going to be different", and we said "We are not!" We didn't just react to specific acts of arbitrary rule. We acted from a deep-seated conviction that our inner sovereignty was under attack and that we had to stand up for it. The mental pollution had to stop.

 

URBAN: You have seen the record of my conversation with Alain Besancon? We talked about the unreality of Soviet reality, the deadly farce of make-believe.

 

BUKOVSKY: Yes. Besancon's analysis is, I feel, spot on: he is one of the sharpest observers of the Soviet system. Soviet un- reality is all-pervasive even though everyone knows it to be unreal.

 

URBAN: Did you fall into some of those semantic traps that go with this unreal reality? Did you act as though the unreality had been real?

 

BUKOVSKY: I read that part of your conversation with Besancon very carefully and thought I was lucky to have been born too late to have to contend with the full force of the collective schizophrenia that gripped Russia under Stalin. By the time I was politically conscious enough to grasp what was happening around me I had developed great distaste for all things Soviet and created a private world for myself (based, as I said, on classical literature). I simply lived outside what remained of the unreality—and plenty remained and remains to this day.

My political consciousness was the result of having read Alexander Herzen: he instilled in me the language of protest. The need to seek an alternative to the Soviet system was there in my mind from the beginning. That you can't instill; you either have it or you haven't. But the cutting edge of my attitude was due to Herzen's formulations.

 

URBAN: Would you look upon yourself as a “Westerniser"?

 

BUKOVSKY: I'm certainly not a Slavophile. I share many of Herzen's ideas but I'm a scientist by inclination and profession. I never saw much sense in making a sharp, not to say divisive, distinction between "Slavophiles" and “Westernisers".

 

URBAN: Do you agree with Alain Besancon's characterisation of you as a man who has taken the logical step of not only reject- ing Soviet unreality, but of purging his mind of the last scraps of Soviet consciousness by the simple device of having his mind reshaped by science?

"I admire Vladimir Bukovsky. He took the conscious deci- sion that it was not enough to be a dissident and an emigre. He took up biology as a hard science because he knew that the habit of mind that goes with scientific inquiry would immunise him against ideology more effectively than any 'counter-ideology'. . . . Bukovsky's way is the honourable way, and the only one that can be really effective.”

 

BUKOVSKY: I'm afraid Besancon may be admiring me for the wrong reasons. My interest in biology is an old thing—I had it as a child and adolescent. I did not develop it as a reaction to the semantic traps of Soviet ideology. It's true, though, that biology helped me and still helps me to keep the insanities of Sovietism at bay. It's an implied corrective to nonsense.

 

One also has to remember that in the Soviet Union science is the common escape of intellectuals who want to keep their integrity—science and mathematics. These disciplines are extremely difficult to politicise. They provide a safe haven for those who want to use their minds to some purpose and evade the corruptions of the system. That is why there are so many scientists in the USSR and why theoretical physics, for example, is so highly developed.

 

URBAN: The number of Soviet mathematicians and physicists American universities are able to absorb always struck me as just short of a miracle, especially at a time of retrenchment.

 

BUKOVSKY: It is, as I say, explained by the large numbers, and the high quality that competition produces. The gifted Russian's escape from ideology ultimately benefits Western science and technology. . . .

 

URBAN: A short-sighted policy which Gorbachov should be anxious to correct.

 

BUKOVSKY: He should, but whether he can is quite another matter. But to come back to your question about semantics: my first clash with Soviet thinking came at school when I was about fourteen. Official dogma required us to believe that man's mind is shaped by economic and social forces. I revolted against this idea and did so empirically: here I was, an urchin, living with criminals under miserable housing conditions in one of the poor districts of post-War Moscow. Was I being shaped by my social environment? Not at all. I was developing ideas that were diametrically opposed to my environment.

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Here was my great friend Kolka. He came from a large and equally poor family where the father was a drunkard, the mother a prostitute, a couple of the sons were criminals—and yet Kolka was a most decent fellow.

 

"How is all this possible, teacher?", I said to our school- master. I just wouldn't buy his rubbish. I believed that there was something at the core of every human being that was not shaped by economics or the environment—that man was autonomous. At the time I didn't realise that I was questioning the very basis of the Marxist system. That came to me a little later, but I was glad to have done so so early in life.

 

URBAN: If we were to be very pedantic we might add that the I Marxist canon was somewhat amended by Engels's interpretation. Writing (to J. Bloch) on 21 September 1890, he stressed that "according to the materialistic conception of history, the production and reproduction of real life constitutes in the last instance the determining factor of history. Neither Marx nor I ever maintained more.”

 

Engels pointed out that constitutions, legal theories, political and religious conceptions and institutions all have an impact on determining the course of history, and those Marxists who thought otherwise misunderstood the theory and were turning out "a rare kind of tommy-rot". He added almost by way of apology that—well, to make a point is not enough. You have to drive it home by exaggerating your message and shocking the reader into agreement:

"Marx and I are partly responsible for the fact that at times our disciples have laid more weight upon the economic factor than belongs to it. We were compelled to emphasise its central character in opposition to our opponents who denied it, and there wasn't always time, place and occasion to do justice to the other factors in the reciprocal interactions of the historical process.”

 

BUKOVSKY: At school we were, of course, not made aware of such refinements. Indeed the Soviet system is based on a very narrow interpretation of Marx, and that was the kind of Marx we had rammed down our throats.

 

URBAN: ”Vulgar-Marxism", as Georg Lukas was in the habit of calling it in 1945 and 1946 in his lectures at the (Bishop) Pazmany Peter University (as it then was) in Budapest— without, of course, saying whom he had in mind as the "vulgarisers".

 

BUKOVSKY: Whatever Engels may have said about applying shock tactics to beat down the opposition, the fact is that the logic of Marxism does require that the economic-social factor be recognised as the determining factor in understanding society. It was that factor (whether correctly interpreted or not) that gave the Bolshevik Revolution its legitimacy and the entire Soviet system its raison d'etre. I happen to believe that Soviet society is a highly accurate realisation of the Marxist canons. It is, at best, a half-truth to say that Marxism degenerated in Russian hands—that it assumed the despotic characteristics of Russian history of the last 400 or so years. It is precisely because the system is so true to Marx that it is at odds with human nature. And that is why it is so repellent and ultimately untenable. I learned all this, as I say, at the tender age of fourteen in the slums of Moscow, and to this day I have had no reason to change my mind.

 

URBAN: Would I be right in thinking that imprisonment for you was in some ways a refuge from the feverish life of a dissident—a place of retreat, if you like, where you could read and think and "recharge the batteries"? Some of your observations in your memoirs lead me to that conclusion. In one place you say that you were, after your "hectic" life outside, quite glad to be sent to the Lefortovo Prison because "nothing depended on me any longer". Did you gain a sense of inner freedom that had eluded you outside?

BUKOVSKY: I told you at the beginning of this conversation that our little movement was launched—launched itself, would be a better way of putting it—with a very simple moral idea. We said: "As far as we're concerned, we are not going to be part of the machinery of official society. Leave us alone." We weren't planning to make a revolution. We had no programme. We were just anxious to isolate ourselves from the whole polluting unreality of the Soviet system.

Little did we suspect that in a totalitarian system there is no such thing as neutrality or isolation. The moment we did what we did, we were making a highly political statement which was immediately seen as such both by the Soviet authorities and by observers abroad. But, more important, we were ourselves soon forced to see our activities in that light, too. We discovered that our "dissent" thrust responsibility on us for all sorts of things we had never considered our responsibility: the nation, the state of society, liberty, and so on. We became the centre of social and political turmoil, and having said a we had to say b, too. We came face to face with the notion of responsibility concerning a whole range of questions which made our original wish to live away from Soviet society in calculated isolation rather Utopian.

 

For me, this meant a kind of enslavement. I was and I am a very private person. I am happiest when I'm left alone. I dislike all forms of social involvement, and I hate politics. You can imagine how unhappy I was to discover that my ambition to be lifted out of Soviet reality had plunged me even deeper into it.

 

I didn't ask to be imprisoned and I didn't like it inside, but I was quite determined to make the best of an unpleasant situation and utilise it in very practical ways. I learned English; I studied biology; I buried myself in books that one couldn't obtain outside but were readily available in the prison libraries. No one in the KGB had thought of raiding the prison libraries for forbidden literature! In that sense, I was freer than I had been outside.

 

URBAN: Some prisoners looked upon imprisonment as an occasion for introspection—or doing penance for mistaken lives, a sin ideology, whatever. In the Great Purge of 1937-38 faithful Communists were searching their hearts in prison to discover where they had gone wrong in interpreting the sacred books — whether Stalin had been misled by dishonest courtiers and so on. Alexander Weissberg gave us one good account in his book "The Accused" (1951).

 

BUKOVSKY: I was totally untouched by ideology; I was a realist. What I did find prison quite useful for was the inner freedom it gave me to think for myself, to test myself, and to get to know other people. The prison cell is an incomparable laboratory for looking into the hidden recesses of the human soul, for discovering what motivates people, for analysing their fears and phobias. Prison offers you a Shakespearean panorama of human nature, and that is a great source of education.

 

Another thing I discovered in prison was the scope of my own mind. I suddenly found that my head was full of ideas— ideas I had no time to concentrate on when I was outside; in prison I had the inner freedom to sort them out.

 

URBAN: Weren’t you, then, really in retreat? Let me tell you about a somewhat analogous experience I underwent some twenty years ago. I was sent to hospital with mumps—I'd caught it from my children. This, for me, was "prison". I had a high temperature—high enough to make me see the world in its (as I thought) true dimensions. The problems I had brought in from "outside" kept bubbling to the surface of my mind—but they seemed trivial. Did I really worry about such things "out there"? Why—they had such simple and obvious solutions! Suddenly, right and wrong stood out with great clarity. There was a transparency on the faces of people I saw walking in the hospital gardens. They were going somewhere with a purpose. The sun shone on the late February snow with an openness that seemed to be saying: this is the way snow and sun were meant to be since the day of Creation. The world was "transfigured" and my mind was at rest. If I didn't feel, "God's in his Heaven, all's right with the world", I felt something pretty close to it. Friends of mine who spent time in prison tell me that they underwent similar changes ofperspective.

 

BUKOVSKY: That happened to me only under severe conditions—when I was put in solitary or went on hunger- strike. On such occasions, it is true, my confused ideas had simple and often beautiful solutions, and many things I could not disentangle outside fell into place. But let me tell you, as a physiologist, that the arrival of that august transparency and plasticity of things that seem unattainable outside prison is a deception. Once you are back in your normal surroundings, the complications and grey colours reassert themselves.

 

URBAN: Might it not be the case that high fever, solitary confinement, or simply isolation through imprisonment induce us to imagine that we are in the “anti-chamber of death", with all the happy hallucinations that the act of dying is sometimes said to conjure up in our minds?

 

At the same Hungarian University where I heard Lukas lecture after the War, the philosopher Pal Harkay-Schiller ran a somewhat unconventional seminar on human behaviour in extreme situations. "Have any of you ever been dead, ladies and gentlemen?", he asked a startled audience one fine spring morning. As many of the students had just come back from the War, from concentration camps, or Soviet captivity, the answer to that question was frequently "Yes—in a way. . . . “ What the professor wanted us to describe was the mind of a man on the verge of death—and we had people in our seminar who had been put up against a wall but were, at the last minute, not shot for some reason; soldiers who had been abandoned for dead in the Russian winter; a girl who had been herded into a gas-chamber but came out alive because that morning the pressure was insufficient for the killings; and the like. What came out of this rather gruesome questioning was accounts of "fear and trembling”— but of fear resolved, as the supposed moment of death moved closer, by a great calm, a sense of overpowering clarity, and a resolution of all the tangles.

 

BUKOVSKY: I did, to some extent, have a similar experience while I was in a punishment cell in 1974.1 had been on hunger strike and was badly undernourished. I was suffering from stomach ulcers and in constant pain. My skin was peeling off. I was so weak that standing up was an effort, and when I did manage to stand up, the world was in a spin around me. I was convinced that I would die but the consciousness of death approaching didn't make me panic. I was composed, serene, stoical. "So this is what it feels like to die", I thought to myself, as I watched my reactions with the eyes of an outsider.

 

Yes, I did feel a great peace descending on me, but it was the peace of helplessness and resignation rather than the kind of august clarity and disentanglement that your Hungarian veteran students seem to have experienced.

 

Experiences of this sort vary. I had Lithuanian partisans in my cell who had fought in the Lithuanian resistance and were barely alive when they were captured. They had hallucinations, but whether these were healing hallucinations of an all-encompassing "transfiguration" or hallucinations inspired by animal fear, I could not tell.

 

URBAN: Do you miss prison? 

 

BUKOVSKY: NO, I don't. 

 

URBAN: Did you ever miss it?

BUKOVSKY: NO, I didn't, but the great advantage of living in a free society is that you can create your own seclusion, your own solitude, if that is what you need for your work or your happiness. You cannot call this house I live in "a prison"; but very often I lock myself in, don't answer the door or the telephone, don't go out for meals, because I have something to think over or write. I need the concentration of solitude because I hate writing and find it extremely difficult.

 

URBAN: You create your own prison. 

 

BUKOVSKY: Yes, but you cannot equate a freely chosen seclusion with imprisonment.

 

URBAN: My reading of Solzhenitsyn's life-style in Vermont is that he feels deprived without the constraints and regularity of camp life and is trying to recreate them. The electric fence around his grounds and his great reluctance to see people or even pick up the telephone are telling us something.

 

BUKOVSKY: Only that the man is busy writing and doesn't want to be distracted or interrupted. His fence is a signal-wire to keep out the moose and elk, nothing more sinister. He has a large estate.

 

URBAN: Solzhenitsyn’s work came out of the challenge of two concentric prisons: the general prison of Soviet society and, within it, the camp in which he was held. My impression is that he is slightly ill-at-ease in the permissive climate of American society. Hence the fence and the monastic order in his life.

 

BUKOVSKY: I don't know Solzhenitsyn all that well, but I do know that he is engaged in monumental labour. The sheer size of his output makes it essential for him to be functional and economical with his time and energy. Indeed, his self-imposed regime in Vermont is so rigorous that it outdoes the austerity and regularity of prisons I have known. Whether, and to what extent, he "needs his prison" I cannot tell you, because there is, as I say, an alternative explanation. But it is possible that both explanations are in a sense true, or even that they feed on one another.

 

URBAN: Alexander Zinoviev once told me that he felt deprived /without his Soviet "collective". I would have thought that, for Solzhenitsyn, Soviet camp life was the speck of sand that irritates the oyster into producing the pearl. American society is uncompetitive in that respect.

 

BUKOVSKY: It's possible; but we'll have to suspend judgment until Alexander Solzhenitsyn comes along to tell us. He is most unlikely to say "I need my camp", but I doubt whether that would make you change your analysis of why he lives the way he does.

 

URBAN: I once had a discussion with Don Salvador de Madariaga on a similar topic, taking Arnold Toynbee's "challenge-and- response" for our cue. We were wondering where one should draw the line between "useful hardship" and "hardship that kills"; for it was clear to us that a man or civilisation that has too easy a time of it, or is just treading water, is unlikely to be creative. We observed that between the unchallenged type of human life and the experiences of Auschwitz there were many gradations of hardship that put the right mixture of pressures on us to make us more "creative" or just more "fully rounded" and more sensitive human beings. I took the view that a good deal of historically- or socially-induced suffering was good for us. Salvador de Madariaga, on the other hand, felt that the ordinary hardships of human life—sickness, bereavement, frustration, the terrors of old age, the disloyalty of friends, and so on — were enough to equip us with the “right” amount of suffering, and here was no need to ask a Franco or a Stalin to provide additional punishment, or to have famine or war visited upon society. He was probably right. It seems to me that your own experiences fall into the category of profitable suffering, for imprisonment and the pressures of Soviet society in the 1960s and 1970s — though still appalling by Western standards — were no longer what they had been under Stalin. 

 

 BUKOVSKY: Freedom is an inner quality which cannot be bestowed or taken away by anyone but yourself. Using for a moment the crude terms of the market economy, I would say you can almost always have your freedom if you are willing to pay the price for it. In the Soviet system the price of freedom is exceptionally high, in the Western liberal democracies it is exceptionally low. In a Soviet prison you may decide to help a friend who has been unjustly punished, and be punished yourself for helping him. Or else you may decide, "I'll ignore it", and escape punishment. The choice is yours; it's a question of how much you are prepared to pay for your inner freedom. I was gratified to read that Valladares in Cuba felt the same, although his imprisonment by a vindictive Castro was closer to the horrors of Stalin's camps and prisons than mine was.

 

It's been frequently held against me that "Ah, but your time inside was a mild affair! You could talk back; you could demand to read the Soviet Constitution—and the prison governor himself would bring it to you so that you could write your complaints. You could lecture your interrogators. You could do many things, because the context had been changed and torture had been ruled out. Now, in 1938! In 1938 they would have beaten you into pulp, and your friends abroad would never have heard about it.”

 

Well, it's perfectly true that under Stalin the price of inner freedom was exceedingly high, but even then you could attain it. Varlam Shalamov, who spent years under severe conditions in the frozen Far East in one of the worst of Stalin’s camps, tells us that even there you could preserve your inner freedom. The price was high—oh, it was high!—but you could have it. In other words, so long as the system doesn't kill you, you're likely to emerge a "better", a "more sensitive" man.

 

 URBAN: But what, in your judgment, would be the right mix of hardships? Poets, playwrights, philosophers have given us a great many memorable words about the creative beauty of unrequited love, the fascinations of "Inferno" as distinct from the placid tedium of "Paradiso", and the like. But one wonders whether people undergoing the agonies of unrequited love, or roasting in the fires of "Inferno", would approve of their ordeal if you told them: "Ah, but you are the anvil on which the future Dantes and Goethes will hammer out their immortal work!”

 

BUKOVSKY: To forge character, promote independent thinking or even to fulfil himself, man needs to run into obstacles and be constantly challenged. When I lived in the USA I noticed that most people around me in California were miser- able although they lived in highly relaxed and comfortable conditions. Why? Because they lacked the challenges of hardship. They were in search, not of food or shelter, but of them- selves. They had "identity crises". The Californian asked "Who am I?", and went off to the psychiatrist to find a reassuring answer. And it wasn't only Californians, but Americans in general who seemed to suffer from the sort of self-questioning that comes from too much comfort, too much superficial living, and too little suffering.

 

Challenges can have degrees of usefulness. There are challenges that stimulate some people but not others. Suffering, too, has its gradations. Some lead you to a better understand- ing of the human condition while others send you into depression. There are anvils that temper you and anvils that kill you. Hardship may lead some people of strong character and great stamina to feats of creativity, religious insight, sacrifice and the like, but these exceptional achievements are usually attained under conditions that would simply destroy the majority of ordinary people.

So let's not rejoice too much over the achievement of those who were lucky enough to become heroes, because the peaks they represent for us are surrounded by mounds of the un- sung dead. I will never subscribe to the argument that the Soviet system is good for you because its particular beastliness produces exceptional dissidents. The novelist C. P. Snow could not bring himself to criticise censorship in the USSR because he felt it showed that Russian writers were being taken seriously! . . . No, the price is too high, far too high.

 

URBAN: But you do agree that challenge and hardship are necessary for the good of any society; and a Christian society, which most of our societies still say they are, should, in theory at least, welcome suffering as a gift that brings members of that society closer to the sacrifice of Christ.

 

BUKOVSKY: Well, the British have understood in their instinctive and inarticulate way that hardship is essential to the stamina and character of society. Whether it is the Puritanical heritage or some less elevated factor (such as indifference and apathy) that has induced them to live their lives under maximum discomfort, the fact is that their lives are about as un- comfortable as it is possible to make them in the 20th century. Most of their homes are uninsulated and ill-heated. Their beds tend to be damp, too short, and too narrow. Their food is indifferently cooked and available only at highly restricted hours. Their bathrooms are cold; their trains draughty, noisy, underheated and unpunctual. Their plumbing is unique in the Western world in that it stops functioning at three degrees of frost; and so on.

 

Can all these be coincidences? I don't think so. There is, at the back of the minds of the British people, a subconscious assumption that too much comfort is bad for your character and that you need to be challenged.

 

URBAN: Your explanation has the virtue of being all of a piece, but that, I fear, does not necessarily make it true. While the tradition of self-mortification and "doing without" has deep roots in British culture, the characteristics you describe have to do more with basic inefficiency and straightforward indolence than a by now (alas) vanished Puritanical Christian past. Let's not, however, be tempted into a discussion of "The English— are they human?”.

 

BUKOVSKY: Let me add just one thing: British middle-class parents never stop telling me how much they suffered in pub- lic school and how much they hated it. But the first thing they do when their children reach school-going age is to send them to the same public schools, where conditions are not dissimilar from those one has in Vladimir Prison: harsh discipline, the tyranny of the older "inmates", physical punishment, poor food, and so on. Parents wouldn't do this to their children if they didn't feel that those tough conditions were "good" for them and their nation—-unless, of course, there is another factor at play here: the British people's peculiar attitude to children. I was amazed to see that the British do not like children and do not treat them well. They prefer pets. Whether this has to do with self-hatred in the Puritanical sense (the child being the carrier in nuce of original sin, which has so powerful a hold on you as an adult) would re- quire more profound thinking than we can give it in this conversation.

 

URBAN: You said a little earlier that there are, in a totalitarian Y society, no neutral topics. Even your attempt as a member of a group of adolescents to isolate yourself from Soviet reality became a political statement which saddled you with responsibility for things entirely outside your personal experience. I was glad to hear you say that, because it confirms what I have been telling my friends and colleagues ("communicators") for a number of years. Communication by radio to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, for example, brooks neutrality as little as does Soviet society—and this is something Western politicians and communicators do not always find easy to understand.

 

BUKOVSKY: The Western approach to propaganda—let us be absolutely clear, at least in our own minds, that it is propaganda we are talking about—is strangely antiquated. It is an attitude that pre-dates radio, pre-dates newspapers, and belongs to the steam-age of communication. It fails to appreciate what totalitarian society is like and how it goes about conditioning the mind of the citizen. The word "propaganda" has come to be looked upon as unclean, and in American usage the awful euphemism of "public diplomacy" has taken its place. This prissy attitude is something to be marvelled at. It reminds me of Queen Victoria's reaction to the news brought to her by an adviser that a submarine had been successfully tested and that this offered a revolutionary addition to British naval power. "I don't want to hear about that", she is alleged to have said. "It is utterly un-English for officers of the Royal Navy to fight enemy shipping without showing their colours.”

 

URBAN: Mrs. Margaret Thatcher, the British Prime Minister, had the audacity a few years ago to compliment the BBC on its excellent track record in international "propaganda", expressing the hope that it would do even better in the future. The BBC's indignation was boundless. The then Managing Director of the External Services protested in the "Letters" column of "The Times" that the BBC was doing no such thing. It was providing objective news and fair comment. As a wartime listener to the BBC I can testify that propaganda is exactly what the BBC does and did, but it does it with such consummate skill and so fine a sense of hypocrisy that it manages to lure its own communicators into believing that what it does is not propaganda. Such self-deception is, surely, the hallmark of the best in propaganda.

 

BUKOVSKY: The ineptitude of the Americans in this area is especially surprising. It is they who invented advertising, both crude and subliminal, and yet their understanding of the Soviet attitude to propaganda is infantile and their inclination to play that particular intellectual game to good effect is small. What the Americans don't realise is that, at the turn of the 21st, century, communication in the international field is one of the weapons (and, I would say, one of the vital and indispensable weapons) in the West's continuing engagement with the Soviet system. Anyone who has studied Lenin and has learned the first three lessons about the Soviet system knows the immense importance Communism attaches to "agitation and propaganda", both in keeping the system on a steady keel and in subverting its supposed critics and adversaries abroad.

 

That is why there is no such thing as "objective" broadcasting to the Soviet Union. Putting Shakespeare on the air is a most political act (need I say why?). Broadcasting jazz and rock music is a political act. Recounting the history of Kievan Russia is a political act—and not broadcasting the history of Kievan Russia is a political act, too. When you address yourself to a totalitarian system, whatever you say or don't say is a political statement. That American Senators and Congress- men do not grasp this is something I cannot understand, except in the rather devastating sense of the USA not considering itself to be a player in the field of world politics. If that is really so, we're all in trouble.

 

URBAN: You are echoing a sentiment Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick expressed in the melancholy sentence: "The Soviets are playing to win, whereas we are trying to get out of the game." She eXpressed it, mind you, critically—I don't believe she would want to get out of the game; indeed, I'm certain she would want to win it—but your description of the USA as a reluctant player is not unlike hers.

 

BUKOVSKY: Here is something about the character of Americans that people in the Soviet Union find hard to comprehend. A superpower given to high moral rhetoric but unable to see which side its bread is buttered! I sometimes feel that the USA is either too virtuous or too infantile to deal with the affairs of this sinful world. The two may even be connected.

 

URBAN: Irangate, it is claimed, has weakened the American Presidency—and weakened it, in the European judgment, unnecessarily. It is said to be another "own-goal" in a series in which we cannot afford too many. Will Moscow rejoice or snigger?

 

BUKOVSKY: It isn't as clear-cut as that. In one sense—yes, the Soviet leaders are rejoicing. The US government has lost some of its credibility; the President's authority is under- mined; it doesn't now take a lot of daring to twist the lion's tail. The Soviets realise that the USA has suddenly become more vulnerable, and lost no time exploiting this weakness to improve the Soviet position in Afghanistan.

 

For let me assure you that it is by no means coincidental that the Soviet "truce-offensive"—the offer to recognise Islam as the official creed of a future Afghanistan, and the bizarre move to lure back the King—were made at a time of maximum American confusion in high places. Dobrynin knows what he is about. At any other time, Washington would have exposed such Soviet moves as propaganda, but with the Iranian scandal on their hands, the Americans were subdued and, by omission, they allowed the Soviets to score some important points in the world contest of ideas.

 

The Kremlin is also gratified to see the Presidency's authority generally weakened: after the revelations of Irangate, any American President will find it much harder to run under- cover operations of the kind the Soviets are so adept at running against the USA. Congress has done some of the Soviets' work for them.

 

URBAN: Are you saying that the American Constitutional system is inadequate for dealing with totalitarian regimes?

 

BUKOVSKY: That is exactly what I am saying. It is antiquated. It is 200 years old. Two hundred years ago it was not unrealistic for Americans to imagine that they could keep out of "foreign entanglements". Even during much of the 19th century the USA could rely on the protection of the seas and the British Navy. Not today. It takes a missile fifteen minutes to cross the globe, and propaganda covers the world in a fraction of a second. The separation of powers and the Americans' proclivity to drive democracy to its grotesque extremes have made the USA a difficult country to defend. 

 

I doubt whether American democracy could survive in the vicinity of a powerful dictatorship. Yet, because the world has shrunk, America is now a direct neighbour of the Soviet system, even though the American people have so far refused to take in this drastic change in their geography.

 

URBAN: It seems to me that the Soviet elite find it difficult to make I realistic judgments about US motives and US intentions. They cannot make sense of that vast and alien spectrum of factors that American policy-makers have to work with and work against. I'd dearly like to know whether the Soviet oligarchs laugh at us in their lighter moments, or whether they feel that we are in the business of hatching super-clever conspiracies to wipe them off the face of the earth.

 

BUKOVSKY: They often laugh at the contortions and clueless- ness of US policy. But they also believe that the farce has to be taken seriously because the plot has been specially laid on by the Americans to "pull a fast one" on the Soviet leader- ship. The men in the Kremlin are Marxist-Leninists. They believe in conspiracies. Until quite recently, they thought that the fumblings and failures of the US authorities were deli- berate shows of incompetence to confuse the world, but that behind it all was hidden a clever, no-nonsense capitalist government, a kind of Comintern-in-reverse, which was pulling the strings and controlling the players. So the Soviet leaders were never quite sure whether the laugh was on the Americans or whether it was they, the Soviets, who were being taken to the cleaners.

 

URBAN: Our attribution of smartness to them is matched by their attribution of fiendishly clever policies to us. 

 

BUKOVSKY: Yes, it is. The Soviet leaders have to believe that "the capitalist enemy" is very cunning—or else, how come they haven't managed to eradicate it internally in all these years?

 

URBAN: It was remarkable, however, that at the time of the Watergate scandal the Kremlin showed no "Schadenfreude" and was keeping quiet about Nixon's tribulations. Two explanations have been offered. First, that Nixon had been the architect of detente, which the Soviet leaders were anxious not to damage. Second, that giving a blow-by-blow account, in American fashion, of the unravelling of the President's authority and his creeping impotence as chief executive might have had a copy- cat effect within the Soviet system: "Aha! So that's how one exposes a powerful man's abuses of authority. We have men infinitely more guilty than Richard Nixon!"

 

BUKOVSKY: I don't think our leaders held back on Watergate for that sort of reason. It was more important for them not to present the American side as weak or even weakening. In order to maintain its grip on the population, the Soviet system must show itself to be facing a powerful enemy.

 

If you suddenly display on the pages of Pravda the ineptitudes of the US government and the ignorance of American politicians—well, where is the big devil? If the Americans are so ham-fisted, why do we need all this expenditure on nuclear weapons? Why our vast standing army? 

 

Why the permanent mobilisation of Soviet society? Why the ubiquitous warning that "the enemy is listening"—when all the enemy is doing is squabbling and shooting himself in the foot? No, that wouldn't have done; so the Watergate affair was played down. The myth of the big devil had to be kept going.

 

URBAN: Soviet man! This is a hoary topic, but for me it has a continuing fascination because it is the key to the question “Is there such a things as ‘socialism’ or ‘communism’ in the USSR?” You have said that the concept of Soviet Man was the starting point for all the illegalities you experienced in your country. 

BUKOVSKY: The idea of Soviet Man is so diffuse that any ruler or any KGB officer can interpret it in any way that suits his purpose. Broadly speaking, it depicts a non-existent type of human being—one who "builds Communism", endorses the policies of the Party, fights for "Peace", and condemns the machinations of "Imperialism". This is the gross propaganda side of the concept. In practical life, however, more subtle use is made of it. You are blackmailed into saying whether you regard yourself as a Soviet Man; and if you don't, there's hell to pay.

 

URBAN: You write in your book: “ ‘You are a Soviet Man’, says the KGB detective, ‘and therefore obliged to help us’. And what can you say in reply? If you're not Soviet, what are you? Anti-Soviet? That alone is worth seven years in the labour camp and five in exile.”

 

The strange thing about the idea of Soviet Man is that it is not written into the Constitution any more than the role of the Party General-Secretary. (What, one may ask, is Mikhail Gorbachov doing in the Kremlin as General-Secretary, seeing that he is neither President nor Prime Minister?) Soviet Man is a purely ideological concept. In law you are a Soviet citizen, but you need not be a Soviet Man. One of the achievements of your Civil Rights group was to have made that distinction, and to have educated the legal sense of the citizen to a point where he would demand the enforcement of the letter of Soviet Law and the Soviet Constitution.

 

BUKOVSKY: Alik Volpin was the father of the idea in our circle that we should insist on a clear distinction being made between ideology and law. We said: Yes, there is such a thing, on paper at least, as a "Soviet citizen"—but there is no such thing as "Soviet Man". Despite the totalitarian nature of the system, the comrades could never quite translate ideology into legislation. Hypocrisy and the needs of propaganda always demanded that the penal code and jurisdiction should reflect certain civilised standards that the rest of the world would accept, no matter how consistently they were being violated in daily practice. They looked good to the Webbs and to the Lion Feuchtwangers, and that was of great propaganda value to the young dictatorship.

 

URBAN: And the double-talk worked. Harold J. Laski wrote these lapidary words about Andrei Vishinsky, Stalin's Public Prosecutor, after a visit to the Soviet Union in 1935: “I was disposed to think of him essentially in his capacity as prosecutor. . . . I found him a man whose passion was law reform. . . . He was doing what an ideal Minister of Justice would do if we had such a person in Great Britain.” What you and your group did was to turn Soviet hypocrisy to good account, demanding not only that "sin should be paying tribute to virtue", but that some of the sinning should cease—a most daring undertaking.

 

BUKOVSKY: It was, and for a simple reason: if the Soviet Constitution and Soviet Law were to be strictly translated into reality, the system would collapse. Everyone knew that they were not meant to be taken seriously. Popular opinion accepted the farce and the double-think as the inescapable backdrop to the fiction of "socialism". We thought otherwise.

URBAN: How does a group of very young dissidents force the mighty totalitarian empire to respect its own laws and the Constitution?

 

BUKOVSKY: We did it by stages and (as I said) without any planning. Of course, we could not force the authorities to do what they were determined not to, but bit-by-bit we insinuated our way of legal thinking until it caught on and established itself as the natural method for voicing dissent.

 

Don't forget that in 1917 the Bolsheviks abolished legality and independent jurisdiction, ushering in that profound sense of official lawlessness and indeed barbarism that paraded for a long time under the name of "revolutionary justice". They assaulted the people's sense of religion and subverted all existing norms of morality. That was the barren land we had to sow on.

 

I am amazed to see, 25 years after our first efforts, that those little beginnings have now become the established way of protest. Whoever has a complaint or wants things changed will refer to the existing legal instruments and beat the public drums to draw attention to his demand. In other words, we have induced the authorities at least to talk the language of Law, and that is the first step to making them respect the Law. In an ideological system that is the only way in which an essentially lawless society can be slowly transformed into something resembling a normal society.

 

URBAN: Isn’t that slow transformation now being boosted by Gorbachov's own insistence that "socialist legality" must be strictly observed?

 

BUKOVSKY: Yes it is, even though the pre-Gorbachov history of the enforcement of "socialist legality" does not give one a lot of hope for the future. Not only that, but look at the slogans Gorbachov is now using to open up Soviet society. Glasnost (openness)! Why, we used to go to jail for demanding it! Our very first demonstration in Pushkin Square in 1965 had one single slogan: "Glasnost", and now it is the General- Secretary of the Communist Party pinning it to his mast. The reason? Gorbachov is an intelligent man; he understands what the people want and how to muster support for himself. His interpretation of "openness" is not the one we demanded, but it is a step in the right direction.

URBAN: Western historians and students of the Soviet scene have often noted that the sense of law, and of individual rights and civic courage, is weak in Russian society. Russian history and tradition are blamed for much of this weakness. Going by the amount of persuasion you had to use on your fellow prisoners to make them understand their legal rights, and the many complaints and appeals you wrote on their behalf, it would seem that you had direct experience of both the Soviet sense of legalised lawlessness and the ordinary Russian's isolation from the law. I tend to believe that even the elementary courage of saying "These are my rights, and I'll stick to them" will have to be implanted in the Russian people by some revolution from above, and it may well be that Gorbachev's reforms will promote that awareness as one of their perhaps unintended consequences.

 

BUKOVSKY: You're touching on a sore point. One question that tormented many of us in the dissident movement in the Soviet Union was the question of our national worth. Why was it that other countries were mature enough to attain and maintain democratic government and the Russians were not? Was there a consciousness of law and responsibility missing from the Russian psyche—a willingness to assert our rights as individuals? What explained our role as the greatest oppressor of nations in the world—our reputation as a universal trouble-maker?

Well, as long as I was inside the Soviet Union I found any number of cosy if self-accusatory explanations: the heritage of serfdom; the traditions of Czarism; the destruction of the law by the Bolsheviks; the mockery of jurisdiction under Stalin (the Show Trials); and so on.

 

But when I began to live in Western Europe and especially in the USA, my implied sense of guilt and inferiority as a Russian fell away. For what did I experience? I discovered that the ordinary Frenchman's and German's sense of law was every bit as tenuous as that of the ordinary Russian, and that in many ways the conformism of the Western citizen was more bovine and depressing than anything I experienced in the Soviet Union. I found conformism, timidity, and sheer ignorance especially sobering in the USA. Your law-conscious, individualistic, brave and upright Americans were conspicuous by their absence. Like the hedges and lawns around American homes, the average US citizen's mind seemed to be cut to a single basic pattern; and woe betide those who failed to conform.

 

All this induced me to rethink some of the received readings of the Russian character and to come to the conclusion that we would be no worse as citizens of a future liberal democracy than are members of other nations. Indeed, in some respects your Russian is more individualistic because he has a stubborn strain of anarchism in his blood. He hates authority and derives great pleasure from outflanking and defeating it. I doubt whether, in any competition for individualism and non-compliance, your dutiful German or American, with his impeccable record as a taxpayer, could hold his own against a true-blooded Russian.

 

URBAN: Are you saying that a return to some form of Stalinism would prove impossible in the Soviet Union? If the Russians are as anarchistic as you say they are, both Lenin and Stalin might have had a piece of truth on their side when they insisted that "barbarism could only be defeated by barbarism". Mightn't, paradoxically, barbarism a la Lenin and Stalin—and, who knows, a la Gorbachov—be the first steps towards democracy in the unhappy context of Russian history and society?

 

BUKOVSKY: Absolutely not. There can be no return to Stalinism in the Soviet Union. Chekist terror is a thing of the past.

 

URBAN: Even though there are no institutional guarantees against either?

 

BUKOVSKY: Yes, despite the lack of institutional guarantees. Even totalitarian systems go through stages of natural development and decline. The Soviet system has aged; it is rapidly declining. It couldn't muster the self-righteousness and ideological drive to install another reign of terror.

 

The backdrop to Stalinism was Civil War, two World Wars, and the fierce commitment of a fairly large number of Communists. That combination of factors cannot be repeated. Never again will the Soviet Union have Communist leaders with so profound a sense of ideological drive that they would, or could, terrorise the vast majority of the population.

 

URBAN: Mightn’t the exigencies of a profound economic crisis force even relatively "liberal" leaders of the stamp of Gorbachev to impose order on the Soviet peoples—in the name of "perestroika" and, ironically, “democracy"? So far we have bailed out the Soviet system every time it found itself in deep trouble. But what if we stopped doing so and said, as we might under present conditions: "Your economic weakness is greatly to our advantage. We'll do nothing to give you another breathing space"? Wouldn't the Soviet system have to revert to some form of Stalinism?

 

BUKOVSKY: First, I don't think for a moment that the West would or could exploit the economic crisis of the Soviet system in terms of a well thought-out and coordinated policy. It would probably pay "protection money" the way innocent and frightened people often do, given a tough enough extortioner. Secondly, economic hardship would certainly not induce the Kremlin to return to Stalinism. On the contrary, it would force it to move even further and faster towards a market economy than it is already doing. The NEP (New Economic Policy) of the early 1920s was the system's typical response to the crisis of the economy. It would respond in the same way now, as it is indeed doing.

 

URBAN: We should, then, let the Soviets stew in their own juice and not fear the incalculable reactions of a cornered system?

 

BUKOVSKY: That's right. In order to hasten liberalisation in the USSR and cause the Kremlin to take up a more peaceable posture towards the outside world, the pressure has to be kept up. It is already paying dividends. Gorbachov's spectacular climb-down on INF (Intermediate Nuclear Forces) could not have happened without it.

 

URBAN: But to return to “glasnost”. Could that slogan prove dangerous for the cohesion of Soviet society? Could it perhaps prove dangerous for Gorbachev himself?

 

BUKOVSKY: It is, in my view, dangerous for the system. It is my deep conviction, and that of many of my friends, that the Soviet system cannot exist as an open society. You can open it up a bit to let off steam and to assist you in installing a new leadership—but then you have to close it down again or face the consequences. That Gorbachov has hijacked the slogan of glasnost from the dissidents shows that he has a keen sense of what has to be said and what he has to avoid saying in the critical situation he is now facing. But he also knows that "openness" cannot be implemented.

 

URBAN: Hasn’t he gone beyond "glasnost", though—demanding, in fact, reforms and a thorough reorganisation of society . . . which amount, in the Soviet context, to revolutionary transformation? Gorbachov does use the words "revolutionary trans- formation", referring not only to change in the economy but also to radical change in the behaviour of people and institutions.

 

BUKOVSKY: Gorbachev fist spoke exclusively about revolutionary change in the economy. It was only after the 27th Party Congress that he began to widen the term to include other areas of Soviet life; and his emphasis continues to be on economic reconstruction. It is the Soviet Union’s economic backwardness the upsets Gorbachev most, because he sees it as a great hinderance to putting the Soviet empire on the map as an all-around superpower. One has to be extremely circumspect in using the word “revolution” in a Communist environment. 

 

URBAN: I think Gorbachev is aware of that, yet he hasn’t shied away from using the word "revolution" on a great many occasions and in a non-economic context. Addressing the Khabarovsk Party aktiv on 31 July 1986, he said: "The current restructuring embraces not only the economic but all other facets of public life: social relations, the political system, the spiritual and ideological sphere and the style and the methods of the work of the Party and of all our cadres. Restructuring is a capacious word. I would equate the word restructuring with the word revolution. Our transformations, the reforms mapped out in the decisions of the plenum of the Party's Central Committee and of the 27th Party Congress, are a real revolution in the entire system of social relations, in the hearts and minds of people, in the psychology and understanding of the modern period and, first of all, of the tasks engendered by rapid scientific and technological progress.”

 

BUKOVSKY: Taking Gorbachev's various utterances as a whole, though, I would still insist that he is principally concerned with the economy. He is hoping that the reform of the economy can somehow be accomplished without everything else being reformed too, because "everything else" would mean unbuttoning the whole straitjacket of the Soviet system. That he does not want to do. In a subsequent passage of the speech from which you have just quoted, Gorbachov makes it very clear that the "revolution" he advocates must happen "not beyond the boundaries of socialism but within the framework of our system, revealing the potential of the planned economy, socialist democracy, culture and the human factor".

URBAN: But even if Gorbachev did want to confine himself B to the reform of the economy, he would still be Marxist enough to realise that you cannot do that without affecting the "superstructure"—your political life, your arts and letters, and so on. But Gorbachov has gone far beyond the notion of just economic "restructuring"; and even where he does not use the word "revolution", it is quite clear from the context that radical change in the economy and beyond the economy is what he has in mind. For example, talking to workers of the Gagarin Aviation Works in Komsomolsk-on-Amur on 29 July 1986, he said: "I can see that a lot of problems have accumulated here. As I listen to you I become even more convinced that every- thing we have started is correct. A great deal has been piled up, a great deal, and we need a large bulldozer to sweep it away.” And later, answering complaints about enterprise management, he made some observations (to the applause of the workers) that are especially unlikely to make him popular with the “Nomenklatura": "It's essential that the manager does not take the view that having been appointed to his post he's now a kind of apanage prince. . . . The people must know everything and keep a check on it, because the human factor is the most important one. . . . What kind of socialism is it if things are kept from the people? Is this some private concern of entrepreneurs? . . . We've taken the country thoroughly in hand. We have strength enough; we have character enough. No one is going to knock us off the track.” These are, to my mind, pretty radical sentiments in an ossified Marxist-Leninist environment even if they don't herald the institutional reform of the system. They must be anathema to a great many people in the Establishment.

BUKOVSKY: What is so fascinating about the drama we can now observe unfolding under Gorbachov is that he and his supporters understand the crisis of the Soviet system in exclusively Marxist terms.

 

The Soviets have been building their society since 1917 according to the books, and the books have produced a diseased Marxist system. Now they are being forced to apply to it the critical apparatus of Marxism. This is ironic, because traditionally Marxism was harnessed to the understanding and then the destruction of slave-owning, feudal, and bourgeois societies in the hope of preparing the way for the consummation of history in a socialist and then communist world society.

 

Marx did not say what precisely would happen under a socialist system nor did he say whether or how his theory would apply under "socialism". All he said was that he was no "Marxist" and that it would be absurd to build a political party on Marxism. The rest was left open. Now that the world's first truly "scientific" Marxist society is in deep trouble, it remains to be seen how the tools of Marxism can help it to attain a measure of health.

 

URBAN: Whether Gorbachev is trying to do it exclusively by applying Marxism is not self-evident. Many would say that Gorbachev's—and Deng's—rescue-operations represent heavy borrowings from the market economy and capitalism: such as their insistence on the profitability of enterprises, competition, wage differentials, ownership by local cooperatives, and the like.

 

BUKOVSKY: Let's look at the way in which Gorbachov and his supporters define the crisis. They say, in true Marxist fashion, that a conflict has developed between "social relations" and "productive forces”.

 

URBAN: In plain English, that the ruling class has a vested interest in keeping things as they are because upheavals in the economy would threaten their privileges. 

 

BUKOVSKY: Yes, that's the gist of it, but they put it differently, and that's what intrigues me. Tatyana Zaslavskaya, one of Gorbachov's principal advisers and gurus, has restated and re-emphasised Marx's point that a clash between "social relations" and "productive forces" leads to trouble, and unless the reorganisation of the existing system of productive forces is taken in hand, Soviet society will continue on its downward slide. But, she asks, how can such a reorganisation be "entrusted to social groups that occupy rather high positions in the system and accordingly have a vested interest in its maintenance?" Her answer is: Never mind the vested interests—do it, because if you don't the clash will lead to social upheaval, turmoil, and even revolution.

 

Now, this is classical Marxism—suddenly applied to the ills of Soviet society. But she goes further and says that even a so- called "mature" socialist society is not exempt from this rule, and here we come to what I take to be Gorbachov's so far "hidden" agenda. Zaslavskaya asks: And what is the essence of a Marxist society? It is the public ownership of the means of production. She does not go much beyond putting the question, but I take it to be a hint heavy with meaning, for what the Gorbachov reformers are really driving at is some change in the ownership of the means of production. But that would be opening up Pandora's box, because we all know that the form of ownership established in the Soviet Union 70 years ago is "the dictatorship of the proletariat" which in turn means the dictatorship of "the advance-guard" of the proletariat, that is to say, of the Communist Party. Hence, in my judgment, the Gorbachov reforms point to a thorough reform of Enemy No. 1—the Communist Party bureaucracy itself; and they do so, as I say, strictly according to the letter of Marxist analysis.

 

URBAN: We are now talking about prediction, not facts. . . .

BUKOVSKY: We are, but I flatter myself I can read between the lines. Now, what kind of changes in ownership do the reformers foresee? They do not, of course, suggest that they would want to return the means of production to private hands or dissolve the Party (although they may mean both in their private thoughts). They simply imply that some change in the Communist ownership of the means of production must be put in train.

 

Remember that the Marxist definition of ownership (based on Roman law) is: owning, using, and managing. What do the reformers say? They say that Soviet society does not require that all three functions should be united in the hands of the Party—it is enough that the Party should have one or two, leaving the rest in the hands of "the public". This is truly amazing, for it foreshadows a wish to "restructure" Soviet society right from the bottom. The question is: Can an ossified, unfree society be made to be flexible and free? According to the Marxist tenets, it can. Gorbachov's people argue that in ancient societies slave labour was abolished when it ceased to be competitive. By a similar token, the present methods of "socialist" production are inefficient and must give way to more cost-effective ways of production. And if vested interests ("social relations") stand in the way, it's too bad for the vested interests.

 

URBAN:  We can see why Gorbachev is having a bumpy ride. The question of returning state property to "private" hands is, in fact, now being openly raised in the Soviet Union. The official excuse for raising it is the debate on the new law concerning the future of State enterprises, and more particularly the proposed issue of shares as part of the process of conferring financial autonomy on them. In one television discussion (Moscow TV, 10 March 1987), a viewer's suggestion that the devolution of control should lead to some form of private ownership was strongly rejected by Evald Figurnov, head of one of the economic departments of the Central Committee. But the manner in which the question had been raised and was turned down is intriguing because it indicates that "glasnost" is now inducing people to think—and to say—the unthinkable. Figurnov said:

 

"[The question] presupposes that the introduction of complete financial autonomy would lead to a transition from the property of the whole people, I should say, to that of a cooperative, or even of a private person, since everyone would have shares, or bonds, something that would represent one's personal, private property, wouldn't it? Well, I should like to emphasise that no such transformation of the property of the whole people into cooperative property, and much less into private property, will take place once the Law on the State Enterprise comes into force. Not at all. That is to say, the property of the whole people, in accordance with the tenets of the economic theory and political economy of socialism, will remain the same property of the whole people . . . there is not going to be private property here.”

 

BUKOVSKY: What fascinates me is the reformers' almost comical determination to stick to the framework and language of Marxism, never mind what they might really think. The muzhik is being encouraged to rent cattle. Rent cattle! The peasant family is given the option of renting a cow. Why this particular "reform"? Because renting a cow is not ownership; the peasant can exercise some of the ownership functions of having a cow—it can milk her and sell her products, but cannot own her. But even this "radical" innovation has failed to induce enthusiasm among the farmers for better production, and the reason for that brings me to another important point: you cannot reform the Soviet economy in a political vacuum.

URBAN: Which Gorbachov seems to be aware of. None of us can teach him about public relations and propaganda.

BUKOVSKY: Personally, he may be aware of it, but the people he has to work with aren't. It is, you see, not enough to offer the muzhik the cow he is milking. You cannot inject elements of a market economy into a Communist economy with any hope of success if you haven't obtained public backing for what you are trying to do. In a command economy you don't need public confidence—you just command. But the moment you offer the peasant the use of a cow you are asking for his initiative, for good husbandry, efficient marketing, and the like; and these he is not going to give unless he trusts you and your reforms. Renting of cattle has been a failure.

—But private plots are now being made more easily available, and the long-term "socialist leasing of land", as it is now euphemistically called, is about to be introduced for work- teams and even family units of not more than two or three people. If we go by the Hungarian examples, couldn't these reforms help to fill Soviet shops and markets with some of the items that are in chronically short supply?

 

BUKOVSKY: The Soviet peasants' mentality differs from that in Hungary. They don't take to private plots or work them the way the Hungarians do. For 70 years neither the Soviet elite nor the farming population or the working class was allowed to have any experience of running anything remotely like a market economy. No one in the USSR knows how a market economy operates. Cost-effectiveness, profitability, market- ing, quality control, and the like, are ideas that will have to be acquired through trial-and-error over a long period of time. "Profit" was a boo-word in the Communist vocabulary. Can you make it respectable overnight?

 

URBAN: Your diagnosis chimes in perfectly with what Gorbachov's men themselves now take to be the ills of the Soviet economy. As Academician Abel Aganbegyan (talking on Hungarian television, 4 March 1987) observed:

 

"You have got used [in the Soviet State Planning Committee] to issuing direct instructions to the enterprises on what they should produce and how much. This method will now disappear and it is said that you should go over to economic regulators. However, in reality you do not even know what they are, you have never come across this method. Thus you might feel that there is no longer firm ground under your feet. After all, you have worked in the accustomed way for decades. . . . They [the conservative managers] are afraid of independence, yes, they are afraid of being independent. What is more, if they are given independence, they fail to make use of it. They continue to ask permission to do this or that, even though they do not need permission any more."

 

What is remarkable about this statement is that Aganbegyan should have been quite so open about the ex- asperation which Gorbachov's policies are causing among Soviet managers, and that his critique should be quite so close to the views held by "antagonistic" observers such as yourself. Perhaps there is, after all, life left in the Soviet economy?

 

BUKOVSKY: To answer that comment, let me go on telling you how unfamiliarity with the facts of life in a non-command economy, together with pussy-footing piecemeal reform, can defeat the objectives of the reformers.

 

In the mid-1970s Brezhnev wanted to revitalise agriculture in the non-black-soil areas of Central Russia, where production had been poor. He came up with the revolutionary idea that people would produce more if they were paid more. Great investments followed; many millions were harnessed to the hope that "more pay will produce better results”— not in itself an irrational proposition in a market economy. But what really happened was that production actually declined in proportion to investment.

 

Why? Because the moment your farm worker was paid higher rates on the collective farm, he began to reduce the work he put into his private plot, on the simple principle that there was very little to buy in Soviet shops, hence you could only use a limited amount of money. Once you earned enough to buy what you needed—and what was available— you had done enough.

What I'm saying is that a basically sound economic idea can misfire if applied in an uncongenial environment. Partial reform is going to prove very difficult in the Soviet system. You'll have to open up the whole of the economy or face the prospect of repeating the Brezhnev experience and on a much larger scale.

 

URBAN: Mikhail Gorbachev’s reformism recently involved him in some revealing articulations about the way in which he envisages "democracy" operating in a revamped Soviet society. He suggested on more than one occasion that since the Soviet Union does not cater for "opposition parties" (and thus for reliable feedback), the Party itself would have to provide a wide spectrum of critical opinions. For example, talking to Soviet writers (on 19 June 1986), he said that the restructuring of society was made more difficult by the absence of a loyal opposition.

 

"We don't have an opposition. How then can we monitor ourselves? Only through criticism and self-criticism. And most of all through glasnost.”

 

This may strike us as a feeble remedy, especially as Soviet history is replete with enthusiastic calls for "criticism and self- criticism", none of which prevented the Soviet economy and the political system from ending up in its present crisis. Nevertheless, the fact that Gorbachev has had the courage to mention the need of an "opposition" shows that this entirely Soviet man has a realistic understanding of where the shoe pinches and what sort of footwear he would buy himself if he could start all over again.

 

Commenting recently to a television audience about the poor quality of Soviet industrial products, Gorbachev said:

 

“Only socialism could have tolerated these for so long; they would have bankrupted capitalism.”

 

That his real meaning was "A market economy would never have permitted the production of such shoddy goods" cannot have been lost on his listeners.

 

BUKOVSKY: Gorbachev has his ear to the ground and picks up a lot of popular wisdom. In the 1960s I travelled extensively in the USSR and used to run into the kind of sentiments Gorbachov is now voicing. "We have no opposition parties and no private ownership—is it any wonder that our state-run industries are mismanaged and public property is pilfered?", I used to be told. “Of course, under a master (khozyain), under a good owner, such things would not happen.”

 

The curious thing was that the people who talked like that had, for the most part, never set eyes on a "master" or "owner". But they had had it handed down from their parents, and perhaps knew in their bones that the “master” of a peasant household was the kind of fellow you could trust. All this is common wisdom in the Soviet Union; people will talk like that at the drop of a hat. The "good master" is what people in the Soviet Union widely feel is lacking in Soviet society, and Gorbachov seems to be sharing that view.

 

URGAN: A heritage from the ancient regime? From the Bible?

 

BUKOVSKY: It may be a bit of both, but it's predominantly ordinary peasant wisdom and common sense. You have a very similar phenomenon in England. Council houses will be poorly looked after; but the same council houses sold to the tenants will at once take on a different appearance. Ownership stimulates pride; self-interest demands that you maintain and improve what you've got.

I once saw an amazing spectacle in Siberia. A gang of young fellows was planting rotten potatoes.

 

"What are you doing?" I asked. "Those potatoes are dead, they will never grow.”

 

They laughed. "We're not paid to grow them, we're paid to plant them." But then they added: "Of course, none of this would be happening under a 'master'; he wouldn't allow it. But now—there is no ownership; nothing belongs to anybody. …"

 

That's the key to the malaise of the Soviet system.

 

URBAN: Aren't we, at this point, back to "Soviet Man" again formula for irresponsibility and cynicism? You said in your book that every citizen of the USSR harbours "a Soviet Man in his soul". One suspects that most people hate themselves for tolerating this hidden enemy; hence much of the collective schizophrenia of Soviet life. At the same time, how- ever, they realise that the maintenance of law and order, now that the Soviet system is an established fact, depends on the survival of this enemy within. It is not a dilemma I'd like to live with.

BUKOVSKY: Again, it's not a straightforward dilemma; it's a Soviet dilemma. Let me illustrate what I mean. One of the most fervently pursued aims of Soviet educational and psychological conditioning is to render the citizen helpless.

 

URBAN: To atomise society. . . .

 

BUKOVSKY: Yes, you put a man in a cell and tell him that there is no escape from it—that is the prototypical situation. In ordinary life this helplessness assumes milder forms; these can, however, be just as devastating. Take the notion of Soviet "elections". My release from one of my imprisonments, I think in 1966, coincided with "elections". To go or not to go to the voting stations is a headache for most citizens. You will not be sent to prison if you don't, but you are made to feel that you are a bit of a fool, a fusspot, and a pedant. How is that done? Well, your local election people will come up to you and say: "Please, comrade, come and get it over with. You really have to do it. You see, if you don't we'll be obliged to go on haranguing you until midnight. You would be punishing us, not the government, and why should you want to do that? These are not our elections; we haven't invented them. But we have children at home who have to be fed, and if you go on being difficult, how can we get home on time? . . ." They will give you this cynical and maudlin stuff until you can't stand it any longer and go to the voting booths out of a sense of exasperation and pity for these wretched propagandists. Well, in this particular case, I told my agitators that I really couldn't go and vote for the government—it was against my nature and all my convictions. "Oh, never mind your convictions", they assured me. "We understand your doubts. But please, just go to the voting station and write anything you like on your ballot paper." So, reluctantly, I went off to vote. "And what do I do to vote against?", I asked one of the officials. "Just cross out the name printed on your ballot paper", he said. So I borrowed his pen, crossed out the name of the one and only candidate, and dropped my vote into the box. I felt that I had demonstrated my displeasure. But had I? I shouldn't have knuckled under. I should have said, "To hell with your faked elections". But that is where the Soviet Man in my soul got the better of me. I accepted the situation because it seemed unalterable and I had been rendered helpless. "What difference would it make if I refused to vote?", I thought to myself; and that is a fatal thing to feel. Multiplied by 200 million, it makes for the preservation of the Soviet system.

 

URBAN: Would you say Soviet Man is a specifically Soviet-Russian phenomenon, or would Soviet Man arise in any Communist country? Would a Roman or a Londoner become Soviet Man too?

 

BUKOVSKY: Absolutely. Soviet Man is not a product of Russian culture or the Russian race, if that's what you're driving at. It could happen anywhere, and in some countries it might happen much faster than it did in my country. It is bound up with the nature of Communism, as you and Alain Besangon have recently demonstrated.

 

URBAN: But many distinguished historians and observers of the Soviet Union hold the view that abject Soviet Man is, to a degree, a hangover from serfdom.

 

BUKOVSKY: I don't think he is. Historians are usually clever people who believe that the ordinary man is as conscious of the past as they are. He is not; he is normally ignorant and uninterested. If you were to ask a simple Russian in the Soviet Union today, "What do you know about serfdom?", he would probably say that he had a vague recollection of what he had been taught about it at school, but that sort of knowledge would not influence his behaviour.

 

URBAN: But wouldn't he have inherited certain cultural attitudes? Wouldn't, for example, obedience to authority and the acceptance of paternalism be part of his heritage? We saw in Mao's China that Confucianism, with its respect for discipline and the veneration of one's forebears and elders, melted invisibly into the amalgam of "Maoism". Chinese Communism would be unthinkable without these influences.

 

BUKOVSKY: These are, to my mind, elements that can be found in any culture and can be encouraged to rise to the surface in the mind of any human being. Most of us succumb to violence or the threat of violence. Under certain conditions, most of us feel helpless or want to feel helpless. If you saw a friend of yours shot before your eyes for having done or said something that did not please the authorities, you'd think twice before repeating his offence, unless, of course, you had decided to be a kamikaze and wanted to court the risk of suicide—as we did. We did so as a matter of conscious deci- sion, but most people don't want to take that risk. Let me assure you that any human being would become Soviet Man under Soviet conditions, and I am certain that the ordinary American would become "Soviet Man" much faster than we did. Much faster.

 

URBAN: I cannot share that view, but I very much share your in- sistence that the only way in which the man-in-the-street can keep his integrity in tolerable order is to refuse to cooperate with the system. And we have just seen from the example you have given how very difficult that can be even for a man of your courage and intelligence. Bear with me if I reinforce your observations about "helplessness" with another example that impressed me. In his introduction to the bilingual edition of the poems of Marina Tsvetaeva, Professor Robin Kemball relates the tragic story of this most gifted of 20th-century Russian poets, who, after a short and tormented life in Western Europe and the USSR, committed suicide in the town of Elabuga in the Tatar Republic in 1941.

 

" . . . Alexander Gladkov, recalling a conversation he had with Pasternak a few months after Tsvetaeva's death (it took place on February 20, 1942), quotes him in his memoirs as saying: 'I am to blame for not dissuading her at the time from returning to the Soviet Union. What awaited her here? She lived like a beggar in Paris, she died like a beggar amongst us. But over here even worse was in store for her—the senseless, unspeakable tragedy of the annihilation of all her dear ones, which I still can't find the courage to discuss.' 

 

When Gladkov asked who was to blame for the fact that Tsvetaeva, back in her own country, had been condemned to lead the lonely, unsheltered existence that led to the tragedy of Elabuga, Pasternak (without a moment's hesitation) is said to have replied: 'I am!'—and then added: 'We are—all of us. I, and Aseev, and Fedin, and Fadeev. And all of us. . . . We were full of good intentions, but we did nothing, consoling ourselves with the thought that we were helpless. Oh, it is so convenient sometimes to think one is helpless. The State and ourselves. It can do everything, and we—nothing. Time and again, we decided we were helpless—and went off to have a meal. For most of us, it didn't even spoil our appetite. That is our common crime, the result of our criminal egoism."'

 

This shows your diagnosis of Sovietism as a low-intensity creeping disease to be absolutely right.

 

BUKOVSKY: It is a good example. Sloth and indifference are powerful ingredients of our nature. It's so much easier not to notice things than to notice them. The first doesn't require you to take action. The second does, and that can be uncomfortable for your conscience and take away from your prime TV time. It is, therefore, tempting to fall in with Sovietisation. It appeals to your sense of inertia and your instinct to go for the easy way out.

 

Perhaps the most difficult part of running against Sovietisation is the sense of ridicule to which rejecting it exposes you. You don't become, in average Soviet eyes, an heroic dissident, but a figure of fun. This can be more lethal to your morale than the fear of the KGB or Siberia.

 

And why do you become a figure of ridicule? Because you are thought to be tilting at windmills, resisting what is irresistible, and, not least, because you're wasting everyone's time. If you start making difficulties at meetings by speaking against some resolution that everyone knows has been handed down from above and has to be rubber-stamped, well, you are keeping busy and exhausted people from doing their shopping—and shopping in the Soviet Union is a full- time occupation. And why are you keeping them there? Because you want to satisfy some silly individual whim of yours. So, "Don't make an ass and a nuisance of yourself", your fellow citizens will sneer at you, and that is a powerful disincentive. I always felt it to be more powerful than the threat of arrest.

 

Another factor that keeps many people obedient and Sovietised is the pursuit of their talent—real or imagined. How do you exercise your talent in a totalitarian system? Only by going along with the system, because it alone can provide you with a stage, a platform, a publishing house, a microphone.

 

Of course, the devil never asks for too much. You are, in the beginning, asked to make only very small concessions, but those are enough to align you with the system and start you on your way to complete Sovietisation. One educated fellow I met in prison said to me:

 

"Why do so many people feel they must become dancers, singers, writers and so on, kowtowing to the regime in the ser- vice of their alleged talent? Why can't they be satisfied with being workers on the assembly line or garbage collectors? That wouldn't involve them in betraying their conscience...."

 

The answer is that talented people feel that bringing out whatever they have in them is more important than guarding their integrity. There's the rub.

 

URBAN: This does seem to me a rather Russian phenomenon. In Eastern Europe it was precisely the "talented" people—writers, journalists, television producers—who were the first to refuse to be wrapped around by the system and started those momentous movements of dissent and resistance that eventually resulted in the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 and the Czechoslovak upheavals of 1968—and who are now leading the dissent in Yugoslavia. And, again in contrast to the Soviet Union, they are looked upon by the people not as mavericks who are making themselves ridiculous by being out-of-step with the complicity of the ordinary person, but as respected vehicles of national consciousness and democratic values.

 

Why is it that the majority of Russian people do not identify passionately with distinguished dissidents such as yourself, or Solzhenitsyn or Orlov or Sinyavsky or Sakharov? Is it, as Galina Vishnevskaya told us, because they are jealous of anyone wanting a better or even just a different sort of life? If so, does this betray a commendable sense of egalitarianism under conditions of general hardship, or just straightforward bloody-mindedness?

 

BUKOVSKY: It isn't the case that the ordinary Russian does not identify with us. The Soviet Union is a vast country. Unlike Poland or Hungary, it is heterogeneous—there are 130 nationalities on its territory with almost as many languages and customs. These nations and nationalities have their own heroes and dissidents. Like your Hungarians in 1956 and Czechoslovaks in 1968, the majority of our dissidents tend to wrap themselves in their national colours and fight the Soviet system first and foremost as oppressed nations and nationalities.

 

URBAN: Might they be preparing to repeat the pattern of the M 1848-49 revolutions in considering their demands for national independence to be one and the same thing as their quest for democracy? Hungary in 1956 was, in the judgment of historians like Hugh Seton-Watson and Melvin J. Lasky, very much like that.

 

BUKOVSKY: That's what we are beginning to witness. But coming back to popular support for Russian dissent—we cannot, in the absence of figures, really tell how much support we have, or would have. Nor can we really claim that the intellectual type of dissident enjoys general support in Eastern Europe. In Yugoslavia the protestors are more concerned with national and even separatist issues than human rights, and dissenters like Milovan Djilas, though respected, carry no public influence. In Czechoslovakia, too, it would be an exaggeration to suggest that "Charter 77" has anything like mass appeal. The tendency to lie low and conform until cir- cumstances make it safe not to is not a peculiarly Russian trait.

 

But, as I say, we do have support in the Soviet Union. I can't tell you how widespread it is, and I don't know how public opinion would react if an opening occurred for radical change. But here are some impressions.

 

I once spent time in camp with a large number of ordinary' criminals. They represented a cross-section of Russian society, and were in the majority decent people who had fallen foul of the law by stealing food for their families or helping themselves to some building materials at their workplace. There was a muzhik I got to know rather well who had pinched three buckets of bran for his children and got three years—a year per bucket, as his judge had tactfully told him.

 

Well, one day the sentence of an influential inmate was up and he was being released. He called his gang and made a little speech by way of a valedictory. He pointed to me and said: "Whatever you do, protect this man because he's in for the common good—he speaks for all of us." I was amazed. I never expected him to speak like that—I had had very little contact with him.

 

Another example. Towards the end of 1971 I was on hunger strike in the central KGB prison in Moscow. I was having a legal squabble with the authorities because they had refused to agree that I should be defended by a lawyer of my own choice. As the Governor diplomatically explained to me, anyone going on a hunger strike was on a suicide mission—and to make that point absolutely clear, he put me in a cell where others normally awaited execution. A delicate touch, that.

 

My cell was a horrible, small, kennel-like establishment with all the "furniture" screwed to the ground so that you could do no damage to yourself or the warders. I will not treat you to the details of force-feeding because this was a form of deliberate torture, and it would, I'm sure, make you sick to be told the methods the KGB thugs used on me. The idea was to make the feeding so horrifying that you'd give up any idea of staying on hunger strike.

 

One night, about ten days into my strike and after a particularly gruelling session, I was in great pain and lay awake. In the small hours of the morning, I suddenly heard the trap-door open. One of the KGB guards was standing there looking concerned.

 

"What made you go on hunger strike?" he asked.

 

I explained why I'd been arrested and how I was trying to defend myself.

 

"I was sure you'd done nothing", he said. He was visibly moved by my story and the pitiful figure I must have cut. He had come to express his sympathy. This, happening in the citadel of the KGB, was something new to me.

 

Then there was my camp in the Urals (I went through, you will notice, quite a representative sample of these institutions). We'd been brought there for complete isolation, because the ordinary camps for political prisoners had proved too leaky for the comfort of the KGB. Not only did we have a network of communications with the outside world, with the guards serving as messengers, but these communications were so sophisticated that I, for example, had whole tape-recorded CBS news programmes smuggled in to me by courtesy of Alexander Ginsburg.

 

Well, the new camp was out in the wilderness. We had fresh and specially picked guards who proved resistant to our approaches. Not only that, but the prison regime was tightened up. We were desperate. When a prisoner's lifeline to the outside world is cut, half his life is cut too. The hardship and hopelessness began to take their toll; people began to die. The whole camp went on hunger strike.

 

But then a miraculous transformation in our fortunes occurred. The guards began to talk to us. We were told that our hunger strike was proof in their eyes that there could be no KGB stool-pigeons among us. (It is the standard fear of guards in the USSR that spies planted among the inmates will give them away if they show any leniency towards the prisoners.) For a stool-pigeon would not be asked and could not be persuaded to risk his life. So the guards began to cooperate. They would take messages to our friends outside, and life in the camp became bearable, as camp life goes in the Soviet Union.

 

URBAN: Weren't these guards reverting to the Russian people's basic good nature?

 

My father, a young conscripted lieutenant of the Austro-Hungarian Army in the First World War, spent a couple of years as a prisoner-of-war in Siberia. He used to tell me about the altogether tolerable life he and his fellow- prisoners were allowed to live in their camp near Chita. Indeed, as a child I often saw the programmes of the operettas and concerts which the prisoners-of-war mounted, the syllabus of the language courses they attended, the camp newspapers they wrote and printed, and even photographs of life in this Far Eastern Russian war prison. In one of these my father was shown with an armed Cossack guard on each side—the picture had been duly signed by the two Cossacks. In another, enormous beer-barrels were shown in which, I was later told, Chinese ladies of less than immaculate reputation had been smuggled in (with the guards' connivance) to entertain the inmates.

 

My father had nothing but good words to say about the way he and the other prisoners had been treated, and especially about the common sense and humanity of the Russian private soldier—the muzhik in uniform. In 1917 he escaped, and he got back to Hungary a few weeks before the War ended. Throughout his long and hazardous journey he was well treated by the ordinary people; they helped him with food, clothing, transportation.

 

Between 1917 and 1987 many things seem to have happened to the character of the Russian people. Where have all "the good Russians" gone?

 

BUKOVSKY: You cannot, under Marxism-Leninism, expect the ordinary Russian to behave as his grandparents did. In your father's day, and for centuries before that, it was the most natural thing for a Russian muzhik to help convicts on the run. He did it as a fellow-sufferer and Christian: "There, but for the grace of God, go I." Our literature is rich in examples. But when Communist ideology was injected into Russian thinking in 1917, fear and hatred were injected with it too. Helping a prisoner with so much as a piece of bread was declared to amount to complicity. The population was divided into angels (the proletariat) and devils (the class enemy), and you walked in fear of your life if anything you'd done could be interpreted as aiding "the enemy". So the ordinary Russian's reactions changed. He was desensitised and brutalised. The more significant, then, the awakening of his solidarity with the civil rights movement in recent years.

 

Solzhenitsyn describes in his great work how the principal problem inside the Gulags was the ordinary criminals' bitter hostility to the political convicts. That's now all gone. The moment you arrive in prison or camp as a "political" you are treated with respect. The common law criminals feel that you stand for the ordinary man's rights—that you are their representative, too. They would not be able to explain their feelings in these terms because they are mostly simple and inarticulate fellows, but they do understand your ability to speak for them, lay out the law and write petitions on their behalf. I spent much of my time in prison answering their questions, trying to solve their personal problems and deciding their disputes as a kind of umpire. Friends of mine who left Soviet prisons quite recently tell me that the same attitudes prevail today, only on a much wider scale.

 

We can, I think, infer from all this with reasonable certainty that our case is now well understood by the Russian people, and that if some of the fixtures were to come loose on the deck of the Soviet ship, we would have a lot of support in chucking them altogether.

 

URBAN: It's reassuring to be told that some of I the Russian people's collective fears are now being shed and that the popular conscience is reawakening, but when will the perpetrators come forward and say, as Pasternak did in that memorable passage about the death of Marina Tsvetaeva, "I am to blame. We are—all of us"?

 

You make a profound case in "To Build a Castle" for the assumption of individual responsibility as the only means of redeeming society from collective complicity. One is surprised that in a nation traditionally preoccupied with crime and punishment no one has yet come forward to say "I've done it—please listen to my story and judge me if you must", or sentiments to that effect.

 

Where have all the "judges" gone—the people's assessors, the camp-guards, the torturers, the executioners, the men and women who meted out "administrative justice", the informers, the denouncers, the bearers of false witness, those tens of thousands of servants of the Cheka, GPU, NKVD, MVD and now KGB, who created and ran the monstrous regime of the Gulags and starved the Ukraine into submission in the early 1930s? Why haven't scores of them escaped to the West to ease their conscience? Why was it left to Solzhenitsyn to assemble the evidence from the victims and survivors, but never, as far as I'm aware, from the men who waded deep in the blood of their own countrymen?

 

There is also another and more institutional side to this Soviet version of "die unbewaltigte Vergangenheit" (as the Nazi past is known in Germany). Marxism is a profoundly historical analysis of the successive activities of men. It claims that nothing in society can be understood without going back to the forces that shaped it. I fail to see how Marxism-Leninism can, in its Soviet incarnation, hope to gain a measure of health and acceptability without subjecting the Leninist-Stalinist past to a rigorous historical analysis, naming names, punishing those responsible, and publicly rehabilitating those who have been persecuted.

 

Khrushchev, with his speech at the 20th Party Congress, made a valiant beginning. He did half the job. Isn't it now up to Gorbachov to do the other half—to launch a series of "Stalin-crime trials" precisely in the name of loyalty to Marxism? I hasten to add in all fairness that Gorbachov and his sup- porters have themselves recently indicated that they want to see the past re-examined and accounted for. But will they do it? Can they do it? Going by your reading of Soviet psychology, it will prove an extremely hazardous undertaking. You speak in your book about the need to shatter "the internal excuses with which we justified our complicity in all the crimes''. Isn't it a lot easier to change institutions than the justifications of wrong-doing in the minds of men?

 

BUKOVSKY: The problem of individual responsibility is encapsulated in your quotation from Pasternak. A lot of people felt and feel the way Pasternak did but very few had the courage to say so. The system makes for silence. It proffers compliance as the lesser evil. To stand up and say: "Yes, we have known all about the executioners, the deportations. . . . Yes, we closed our eyes so that we wouldn't feel responsible", this takes an heroic person and an abnormally heightened type of consciousness. And then to be derided, to boot, for "tilting at windmills" by the very people whose rights you are trying to protect at great risk to yourself is a little too much even for a courageous man to bear. When a policeman threatens you under investigation, "Don't be a fool, toe the line", he may very well steel your resistance, but when the same is said to you by ordinary people you have known and liked all your life, your inclination is to give up in disgust.

 

If you want to induce Soviet people to allow their better selves to come forward and take responsibility, you have to change the entire context of their lives. You have to make it safe for them to speak the truth. Perhaps that context is now being slowly changed under Gorbachov. It's too early to say, but if so, I am certain that people will eventually come forward and do exactly what you have suggested is expected of them. Individual writers have already done so in the emigration. Men like Lev Kopelev have owned up—"There's blood on my hands", he says, in effect, in his autobiography. They tell us how blindly they believed and cooperated, and how slow and painful it was for them to exorcise this self-delusion and regain a measure of self-respect.

 

But what you seem to be suggesting is something much wider. You would like the Soviet Union to cleanse itself through an act of collective repentance, and you're right. This is what Solzhenitsyn demands and what I also feel has to be done. Soviet society must go back to the 1930s, '40s and '50s, and dig up the crimes of the era of Stalin. We must relive Stalinism if we really want to stamp on it. If we don't do it and do it quickly, Soviet-Russian society will never be able to shed the stigma of collective complicity. There are, of course, different ways of doing it. Solzhenitsyn wants to see it done on religious grounds; my own grounds are secular—but we both want the same thing.

 

URBAN: But you agree, don't you, that names will have to be named, trials held, and individuals as well as entire classes of people rehabilitated?

BUKOVSKY: Naturally. This is what we all expected Khrushchev to do after he had broken the ground with his speech at the 20th Party Congress. But he didn't do it. It turned out that he used de-Stalinisation merely as a tool for establishing himself in power. He didn't go to the ideological and institution- al roots of Stalinism, he didn't punish the guilty (except the men around Beria, and removing them was part of the power struggle)—and, consequently, the spectre of Stalinism has never stopped haunting the USSR. What is more, once in the saddle, Khrushchev encouraged the cult of his own person to replace that of Stalin and made himself both hated and ridiculous for it. He proved the truth of Marx's observation that things tend to happen twice in history—first as tragedy and the second time as farce.

 

URBAN: I do not share the current Western euphoria about Mikhail I Gorbachov's reforms, but—talking as we are about digging up the crimes of the Soviet past—Gorbachov's people themselves are now pushing the reform movement in that direction and saying so quite openly in the teeth of opposition. Vitaly Korotich, editor of the Soviet journal "Ogonyok", had this to say to the "Christian Science Monitor" on 20 February 1987:

 

"Up to now we've been shadow-boxing over reforms. Now it's a real fight. There are real threats. Real phone calls. People call and say 'things will go back to the way they were, and then you'll shut up'. I don't think there is any alternative to what Gorbachov is doing. I know I don't want to live the old way. . . 

 

The opposition came from some of the editors. Of course they didn't say 'We're against glasnost'. They said, 'Do we really need to touch on all the painful points in our history? Our system?' Gorbachov took the opposite line. He told the meeting, if we have real democratisation, that means that everyone can be criticised, including himself. . . . Is it necessary or not to talk about 1937? I think so. Until we resolve the question of Stalin we'll never move forward. Other people object. They say: 'Do we want to create the impression that the achievements of socialism were based on a crime?' And others—very sober people— feel that, well, Stalin may have been a bandit, but he got things done."

 

BUKOVSKY: It is, of course, gratifying to see that people like Korotich, who didn't always talk the way he does now (and who knows how he may be talking tomorrow?), demand the resolution of "the question of Stalin". But I'll believe it when I see it. Khrushchev promised the same thing with much greater fanfare and in more open language, and the results were non-results.

 

URBAN: The point Korotich raises is an incisive one. Would the exposure of the past really repair the reputation of the Soviet system ("We had the strength to face what had been done in our name and to punish the perpetrators")? Or would it prompt the public to say: "The Soviet system was conceived and born in crime—nothing but more wickedness is likely to come out of it”?

 

To put it another way—would the Soviet public think of the reforming leaders: "Whatever your protestations, you're all tainted with the same brush"? Or would it rather say: "It's remarkable how, behind bureaucracy's stony facade, a great deal of doubt, dissent, and even rebellion—and some honest men—appear to have survived"?

 

BUKOVSKY: For the intelligent and realistic Soviet observer, all the current talk means very little unless talk results in action. The Soviet public is hard-bitten—it will advance no trust to this or any leadership. If the US and West European governments want to make advance payments to the Gorbachov team in terms of Arms Control concessions and economic aid—that is their business. But I can assure you that the Soviet public will not. Remember one thing: no government and no leader in the USSR enjoys a "presumption of innocence". The ordinary man's attitude to authority is to say: "Show me that you are not guilty", and that is as it has to be in the light of the Soviet past.

 

URBAN: Nevertheless, some of the pronouncements of Gorbachov's economic advisers make me think that behind their scholastic language there lurks a genuine will to break out of "the system". Tatiana Zaslavskaya, for example (whose vocabulary is, incidentally, by no means always scholastic), let it be known to a Yugoslav journalist: "The top leaders should first introduce a process of freeing people from their chains and giving them their rights. . . ." True, she spoke these remarkable words in a socio-economic context and to a Zagreb paper, but language of this kind has a way of making the rounds, turning up in unexpected places and having unforeseen results. Mightn't sentiments so unequivocally expressed induce the Soviet people to temper some of their scepticism?

 

BUKOVSKY: Not at all. Soviet history has always been long on declarations of libertarian intent and short on results. "Democratisation"—"the even better enforcement of Socialist legality" (I always liked that "even")—"the exploitation of the hidden reserves of the socialist economy"—"criticism and self-criticism". . . . Why, hardly a year has passed since 1917 that slogans of this kind have not been hammered into the consciousness of the Soviet citizen.

 

But out of the slogans came poverty-as-before and national-imprisonment-as-before — first because Stalin was Stalin, then because Brezhnev was Brezhnev, and Cherneriko was Chernenko. No one blamed the system; no one blames it today.

 

URBAN: There is an old Negro proverb which says: "Cheat me once—shame on you. Cheat me twice—shame on me."

 

BUKOVSKY: That sums it up. The Soviet people—a very patient people—will not be cheated yet again.

 

URBAN: What would you want a completely enlightened Gorbachov to do? How would you define your criteria for saying whether he has, or hasn't, begun to walk down the road that leads to fundamental change in the system?

 

BUKOVSKY: Ah, that's a good question, because it has, or should have, an immediate relevance to Western thinking about Gorbachov's Russia. The Western public is confused—the political class is deceived or is perhaps deceiving itself in the hope that somehow or other the problem of Soviet power and the Soviet system will go away. Eventually it might, but here is what I think should be our yardstick.

 

First, the Soviet system has sprung from a concept. It is an ideological society. To change it you must go back to the theory. Nothing less will do or can do. Nothing in fact works in Soviet Russia unless a theoretical justification has been given or the sacred texts have been amended or repudiated. That should, ideally, mean the repudiation of Marxism as an anachronistic concept, irrelevant to our problems at the end of the 20th century.

 

But, for obvious reasons, we cannot expect the Soviet leadership to do that. They would be signing their death warrant. So what is it we can expect, and what is it the Soviet peoples should insist on?

 

It should be quite possible and feasible for the Gorbachov leadership to say at some point in the not too distant future that, in the post-industrial, high-technology age, the idea of "antagonistic" contradictions between "socialist" society and "capitalist" society is nonsense. This would mean repudiating the class struggle and, of course, the dictatorship of the proletariat.

 

URBAN: Can you see the Church turning its back on the Trinity, Original Sin, and the Immaculate Conception?

 

BUKOVSKY: NO, I can't—and neither can I see the Soviet leaders turning their backs on Marx and saying so. But much has been done in history in the name of an idea that has, in fact, become meaningless. I would expect that a truly reforming Soviet leader would keep the sacred names and slogans going, while marching, in reality, to a very different tune. He could learn from the Chinese.

 

URBAN: But aren't some of Gorbachov's covert critics even within the Party leadership doing precisely the opposite—using the language of "glasnost" and "perestroika" to promote pre-Gorbachov and indeed Stalinist types of ideas? V. V. Shcherbitskiy, for example gave us the following interpretation of "restructuring" at the 25th Congress of the Ukrainian Komsomol:

 

"Restructuring provides conditions and calls for the re-birth of the romanticism of intense shock work. . . . Our dynamic times call for new heroes and true champions of restructuring and acceleration. We are confident that the Komsomol will bring forth young heroes of our times! The creation of a museum of the Stakhanovite movement would undoubtedly facilitate the moulding of such heroes.''

 

I thought this was a fine case of "The voice is Jacob's voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau. . . . "

 

BUKOVSKY: Shcherbitskiy is undoubtedly at odds with what you and I take to be Gorbachov's message. We shall see whether he will last as a member of Gorbachov's Politburo. But coming back to the criteria by which I would measure Gorbachov's reforms, I would say, secondly, that he and his colleagues will have to level with Soviet history. The question is: how far do we expect them to go in rehabilitating the victims of the Soviet past? There are some who say that clearing the name of Bukharin would be enough—and the least difficult because some of Gorbachov's economic policies are in fact similar to those Bukharin advocated at one stage of his life. Others say: If Bukharin, why not rehabilitate the Mensheviks? Some go further still: they feel that, with the bankruptcy of Soviet collectivised agriculture increasingly exposed and the Gorbachov team's drive for "private" production making the headlines, the time has come to repudiate the collectivisation of agriculture in the 1929-32 period and the massive crimes associated with it, especially in the Ukraine.

 

URBAN: Aren't you now voicing the rather exacting demands of a small, educated elite who tend to believe that no political action can be taken without philosophical justification? Doesn't the evidence of "life itself" (as the Communists are in the habit of saying) tell us a different story?

 

BUKOVSKY: Not at all. Marxism is an historical concept. The Soviet system is its direct and gravely sick offspring. But it, too, is constructed in such a way that you cannot change any part of it without offering an internally consistent set of ideological and historical reasons.

 

The third thing that I would insist would have to be changed is Soviet Law. Article 28 of the Constitution says that the Soviet Communist State supports revolutionary and national "liberation" struggles throughout the world. So long as this stipulation remains one of the governing principles of the Soviet state, the Kremlin will go on having an excuse for expansionism.

 

This is something the rest of the world cannot tolerate and the present Soviet leadership cannot afford, if, that is, Soviet protestations of "peace" are to have any credibility. If the Soviet leaders want peace let them show the world that they will not be going to war in the Third World or sponsor wars by proxy and subversion. Let them change the Constitution and, for example, withdraw from Afghanistan as a first step.

 

There is, further, Part 3 of Article 64 of the Penal Code. This states that a civilian leaving the Soviet Union without lawful authorisation commits a crime no different from military desertion in war. What does this mean? It means that civilian citizens of the Soviet Union are "at war" with the rest of the world—that Soviet civil society as a whole is at war with the rest of the world. How can this be made to square with Soviet peace propaganda? The Soviet Government must delete this stipulation of the Penal Code if it wants to put its relationship with the outside world—and the Soviet people— on a new footing.

 

Moreover: how are we to interpret the continuing existence of the International Department of the Central Committee? Surely this is the Comintern in disguise, and thus directly subversive of the stability of countries with which the Soviet Union says it wants to live in peace. If Gorbachov and his men mean business, they must abolish the International Department as a serious stumbling-block to peaceful cooperation with the international community.

 

URBAN: Would you want the Soviet leadership to end the monopoly position of the Communist Party and reintroduce a multi-party system?

 

BUKOVSKY: I would—but we cannot expect them to go that far; and it would not be necessary.

 

URBAN: Meaning that the reforms you have just sketched out would be enough to dismantle the Communist system as we know it?

 

BUKOVSKY: Not quite. I have made a study of the medium and long-range prospects of the Soviet system, and my read- ing of the future, taking into account the Gorbachov-factor, is roughly as follows. The Soviet Union is in rapid decline. The decline can be slowed down in the hope that "something will turn up" on the way, but it cannot be stopped. If radical re- forms are not made, the system has about 20 years before it unravels and the empire crumbles. If Gorbachov's reforms and future reforms—including the radical ones I have just mentioned—are put in motion, then, and only then, can the Kremlin hope to buy time and postpone the day of reckoning.

 

URBAN: I'm a little sceptical about prognostications. Didn't Andrei Amalrik ask, in a famous tract in the 1960s, "Will the USSR Survive Until 1984?" He thought it wouldn't, but it did.

 

BUKOVSKY: There is always a risk attached to forecasts, but I hold these views on the best evidence I have and the best extrapolations I am capable of making. 

 

URBAN: I keep coming back to the point: can you ask the Soviet leadership to commit what amounts to suicide? What amounts to suicide? Whatever Mikhail Gorbachev is, he is not stupid. He can, I am certain, see as clearly as either of us that repudiating the class struggle and opting out of the "internationalist duties" of the Communist state would totally undermine the system's title to legitimacy. Once the system is open, culturally liberal, free-market oriented, and non-expansionist in its international relations, it is only time before the public will say: "Can't we have all these things more fully, more cheaply and with greater sense of self-respect under a properly elected democratic government? What need is there for the costly pretence of 'socialism'?"

 

BUKOVSKY: I don't think the Soviet leadership has much choice in the matter. That the threat to the system is grave and the leadership realises that it is—all this we know from Gorbachov himself. He is, in effect, asking the Western world to assist him in slowing down the decay and postponing the demise of Soviet Communism. Hence his return to the zero- option without SDI strings; hence, in large part, his cultural and economic liberalisation and much else.

 

URBAN: Should we go along with him?

 

BUKOVSKY: To a limited degree—yes. What do I mean by "going along"? Gorbachov is now trying to decentralise some of the economy, conferring the responsibilities of management on individual enterprises. The West should not go along with that until and unless the reforms have begun to bite. But once restructuring is really under way, the West should contribute to the speed and particular character of decentralisation by offering to cooperate with these increasingly self-managed enterprises. It could hasten the liberalisation of the system from within.

 

In other words, the West should neither automatically go along with the reforms, nor automatically refuse all of Gorbachov's pleas for assistance. It should, under certain conditions, take part in the reform process on the assumption that, while Western help might indeed slow down the withering away of the Soviet system, it might nevertheless lead to a gradual dismantling of its totalitarian characteristics, and could do so without cataclysmic upheavals. This would seem to me to be the most painless way to go, and the most realistic.

 

URBAN: But wouldn't even qualified rescue operations of this kind (one-sided moratoria and the like) amount to bailing out the Soviet system and making it stronger? Wouldn't it, also, be ignoring the evidence of history to believe that so sophisticated a policy could be consistently pursued by a disunited West and a less than perfect American leadership?

 

As for economic cooperation: joint ventures with decentralised and self-managed enterprises have been tried, especially in Yugoslavia, and found wanting. Admittedly, Yugoslavia is, as a result of Western cooperation, a more pleasant and more liberal place to live in than the Soviet Union, but it is hardly a model that either the Soviet population or Western governments would make great sacrifices to emulate.

 

BUKOVSKY: For a system as hide-bound as the Soviet, the Yugoslav model is not to be despised as a transition. In any case, a beginning has to be made, and we are now in the position of seeing a semblance of a beginning being made by the Gorbachev leadership. The West's best policy is to accelerate the "acceleration", widen the "openness", and boost the "restructuring"—always bearing in mind that its purpose is not to help the Soviet system, but to make it disappear without drama.

 

URBAN: There are, as I see it, at least two dangers in giving Gorbachov the sort of vitamin-injection-cum-pain-killer that you tentatively suggest. The first (to which we have already alluded) is the danger of making the Soviet state stronger and the Soviet empire more enduring—perhaps, as you say, in the short term, but perhaps permanently. At present the Soviet Union is a superpower in military terms only. In most other respects it's closer to being a Third World country. Mightn't your carefully timed economic assistance nevertheless make us into suppliers of the proverbial rope with which the Soviets have always said they would one day string up the suppliers?

 

BUKOVSKY: Well, as we are indulging now in a bit of crystal-gazing, let me be slightly speculative. I don't think that danger would arise. We are talking about retiring the Soviet sys- tem. The moment you do that, the Soviet empire goes with it. And once the Third World part of the empire is lost and the East European dependencies crumble as part of the disintegration of totalitarianism at the centre, I doubt whether the Soviet Union itself could maintain its integrity within its present borders. The Baltic states would be the first candidates for independence, followed perhaps by the Ukraine and others, mainly in Central Asia.

 

What you are left with, then, is the Russian Federation, which should be no threat to the world. Anyone who knows the state of Soviet industry, the backwardness of the Soviet exploitation of natural resources, the environmental and social problems the country faces, realises that it will take at least two generations for a reduced Russian state to attain a sense of normality, and very much longer to turn itself into any kind of "power". Real superpower status will be completely outside its reach.

 

URBAN: The second danger I can foresee is this. Coming to the temporary assistance of the Gorbachov team by helping them to bury themselves without a fuss would, in the short term, probably make the system look rather attractive in the eyes of Eurocommunists and even a great many American liberals and European social democrats. They would have some reason for saying: "We can now see that the Soviet sys- tem is reformable. Excise the alien element of Stalinism, and Marxism gains afresh relevance to the condition of man at the turn of the century. . . . " Voices of that kind can already be heard on the strength of the mere promise of the Gorbachov reforms, no matter how firmly men like Igor Ligachev and Aleksandr Yakovlev go on telling us that under no circumstances will "democratisation" be allowed to lead to political pluralism, much less a multi-party system.

 

Ligachev said this in Saratov on 4 March 1987:

 

"[Western critics] still cherish the hope of weakening our system from within the path of democratisation and turning it into a channel for political pluralism. These are pipe dreams."

 

Yakovlev (speaking to the Spanish press on 11 March 1987) put it even more forcefully:

 

"Sometimes we are told: 'You are now going towards liberalisation; you are going towards a Western type of democracy.' Nothing of the kind. We are moving away from it. We think and even hope that in certain respects you will have to follow our example."

 

Gorbachov wants your "transitional" period to become permanent. He has pointed out time and again: the main hope of the capitalist enemy is to preserve the Soviet Union in its present backward state and to increase its difficulties through foisting on it senseless military spending. The main fear of the enemy is a successfully restructured, modern, competitive and attractive Soviet system.

 

I cannot fault Gorbachev's analysis. Wouldn't your shrewdly conceived tactical cooperation result in helping the Soviets to re-establish their reputation as a reformable system, reviving some of the ideological and political magnetism the Soviet model once had but mercifully lost over the last 30 odd years?

 

Summing up the results of G. P. Razumovskiy's visit to the 26th Congress of the Austrian Communist Party, a "Pravda" despatch observed (on 28 March 1987):

 

"It was particularly noted that the [Communist] party organisations are showing sincere interest in the restructuring which is now taking place in the Soviet Union, and this creates favourable opportunities for stepping up the activities of the Austrian Communist Party and attracting new members to its ranks."

BUKOVSKY: I don't share your concern. We are talking about a transition. If my analysis is correct, there will be no time for a "social-democratic" type of USSR to put down roots and make an impact on the world. The logic of economic devolution will make for ever greater openness and de facto pluralism. I can foresee no stable state occurring in the gradual unravelling of the system as we have known it, and nothing for the European Left and American liberals to get too hopeful about.

 

URBAN: I don't want to spoil your I scenario, but I'm fairly certain that practical officials sitting in the State Department, for instance, or the British Foreign Office, would shake their heads and say that no government could build its foreign policy on so large and so speculative an historical forecast. They would refuse to accept that US or Western foreign policy should aim at dismantling the Soviet system (that, they would say, was a strictly internal matter); and they would be horrified by the suggestion that our policies should somehow assume or (perish the thought!) contribute to the disintegration of the Soviet state. Milder suggestions have sent American and European diplomats into paroxysms of indignation. President Reagan and Mrs Thatcher could probably tell us a tale or two about the "deformation professionnelle" of officials manning the State Department and the Foreign Office.

 

BUKOVSKY: Well, if that were to be the State Department's reaction, then the State Department would be plainly wrong. It isn't a question of whether the Soviet system is on the way out, but under what circumstances and at what speed it will make its exit. Gorbachov knows this as much as you and I do.

 

Some years ago Dr Helmut Sonnenfeldt suggested that an "organic relationship" between the Kremlin and its client states in Eastern Europe was a desirable American objective and deplored the fact that such a relationship did not exist. This was an erroneous analysis at the time, and it would be doubly erroneous to go along with it today. If, as I am convinced, time is up for the Soviet system, then (to repeat) the only sensible thing for us to consider is how to make the Soviet decline crisis-free for the Soviet leadership. This will leave plenty for the State Department people to do. No area- specialist would have to join the dole queue.

 

URBAN: So what practical action do you suggest Western governments should take in the immediate future?

 

BUKOVSKY: So far Gorbachov and his team have only been talking about reforms—no real reforms have yet been instituted.

 

URBAN: The openness, moreover, comes from a closed circle of leaders. The freedom of discussion is decreed by fiat. Decentralisation itself is centrally directed. The "revolution" is from above, and so far well under control.

 

BUKOVSKY: Yes; unless we can see early and convincing signs that reforms are really happening, the West should provide fresh incentives for the perestroika to take off and fly. This would have to mean stepping up pressure on the Soviet empire in terms of increased military competition including, of course, SDI, and refusing to relax pressure on the USSR's Third World components as well as Eastern Europe. Western governments should be especially careful not to give massive economic assistance or offer technological cooperation at the present juncture. This would kill the reforms and jeopardise Mikhail Gorbachev's plans for a generally reorganised Soviet system.

 

URBAN: Your scenario assumes that Gorbachov will remain at Y the helm and that the cohesion of his team and their reforming zeal will remain intact for the foreseeable future. I wonder, and so do others. Galina Vishnevskaya, for example, believes that Gorbachov is cast in the mould of Khrushchev—an iconoclast and impatient reformer while fight- ing to establish himself in power, but a conservative once he is safely home and dry, and has spawned his own mafia.

 

BUKOVSKY: Gorbachov's power appears to be safe at the moment. It is true that he is facing opposition in many quarters, but this opposition is neither strong enough nor smart enough to threaten him.

 

What does leave the new team's power base open to doubt is the safety of the socialist empire itself, because that is endangered by the poor performance of the Soviet economy. Gorbachov is not much worried about the working man's standard of living in Voronezh, though he would clearly like to push it up. What does worry him is the inability of the Soviet system to sustain the burdens which Cuba, Ethiopia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Nicaragua and the East-Central European states have placed on it. His empire is built on quicksand.

 

URBAN: Old-fashioned imperialism used to draw economic benefits from the colonies. The Soviet variety exports the command-economy to the new dependencies as part and parcel of the export of "socialism" and makes them just as bankrupt as the mother country itself. Famine in Ethiopia, the upheavals in Yemen, food-rationing in Cuba and Nicaragua give us some measure of the effects of "socialist internationalism". Moscow's imperialism is certainly unselfish in a grotesque sense of the word. . . .

 

BUKOVSKY: Blind and dogmatic would be a better way to describe it—and someone has to pay the bills. The urgency behind the present reform movement comes from Gorbachov's realisation that the Soviet economy will simply not be able to carry "world socialism" on its back and compete, at the same time, with the US in the arms race. Who, then, will be footing the bills? Who, in fact is footing them now? Naturally, the hated and derided capitalist system.

 

The next question a reasonable man must ask is why is the West so obliging? My answer is that the Soviet Union, seeing itself as the hub of "world socialism", has been conducting, as its raison d'etre demands, a non-shooting war against the rest of the world over the last seven decades. Since Watergate and the US debacle in Viet Nam, Soviet expansionism and the Soviet nuclear build-up have accelerated, and after a careful weighing of "the correlation of forces" the Soviets seem to have come to the conclusion that they could now undermine the US as a world power by making trouble for it in its soft underbelly in Central America.

 

Through Cuba and Nicaragua they could reach Mexico, and if Mexico could be manipulated to turn itself into another Viet Nam or Nicaragua, American arms and attention would be so fully occupied on America's long southern border that NATO would become an orphan and the Soviets would come a mighty step closer to achieving the main objective of their entire post-War policy—that of detaching the US from Western Europe and becoming the dominant power on the Euro- Asian landmass. The "Finlandisation"—and worse—of Western Europe would then be a heartbeat away.

 

URBAN: An outflanking movement on the grand scale. . . .

 

BUKOVSKY: Yes. The Soviets' earlier attempt to outflank Western Europe via the oil factor and Arab unrest in the Mediterranean failed; it is now the turn of Central America and with a much better prospect of success.

 

All these are, in effect, warlike actions. Western Europe and the US are under duress. The public can feel this; they can feel it but cannot deal with it. Their and their governments' reaction has been to put off the moment of truth by paying Danegeld to the Soviet Union.

 

Let's call a spade a spade: those American computers which have recently converted the antiquated machinery of the Romanian police-state into one of efficient oppression, and those West German steel-rolling mills which now augment Soviet military production (for example, the automated works in Lipetsk), are sophisticated bribes the West is paying to keep the Communists at bay—in addition to being lucrative business for short-sighted bankers and industrialists.

 

URBAN: What you're saying is that we are being "held to ransom".

 

BUKOVSKY: That is exactly what is happening. The Soviets are drawing a regular supplement to their budget from the Western taxpayer. He is now obliged to support not only his own country's military expenditure to protect him against the Soviet threat, but also the Soviet military budget, which makes that protection more and more difficult, and more and more expensive.

 

URBAN: But mightn't a hardbitten Western citizen argue that it is better to bribe the enemy and keep him quiet than to fight him? What's wrong (in an imperfect world) with appeasing a murderer if that stops him committing murder? When people like Genscher and Giscard say that we should somehow or other "help the Soviet Union", and especially assist it in making a success of its new course under Gorbachov, that is what they really mean, although they aren't in a position to phrase it quite so candidly.

 

BUKOVSKY: Being held to Soviet ransom is not only dishonourable but also counter-productive. You will remember Lenin's phrase about "useful idiots"—and the old Communist practice of passing the beggar's hat around when you are in difficulty, but punishing your benefactor as soon as you are out of it. The overall curve of Soviet policy since 1917 vis-a-vis the rest of the world shows rapid expansionism—I will not go into the details; the facts are well known. Bribes and appeasement have never stopped the Soviets from spread- ing their power across the world, using Marxism-Leninism as their passport, and periods of internal reform both under the Czars and under Soviet rule have been especially notorious for their expansionism.

 

Right now, under Gorbachov, the October Revolution is being remembered in these words on its 70th anniversary.

 

"We live in a world which has changed profoundly under the influence of our Revolution. More than one-third of mankind has already cast off the fetters of capitalist exploitation. Socialism exists, it is developing, it is growing stronger as a world system. There are no more colonial empires—there are dozens of young sovereign states.

 

The forces of the international proletariat have multiplied and their interests are expressed by Marxist-Leninist communist and workers' parties. Mass, democratic, anti-imperialistic and anti-war movements are developing. The general crisis of capitalism is deepening."

 

Address by the Central Committee, 14 March 1987

Such ideas are unlikely to be put in cold storage in response to aid-and-trade by the United States or West Germany.

 

URBAN: You mentioned "the correlation of forces"—the Soviet term for "linkage". The USSR is a totalitarian country in a state of permanent mobilisation and with a message to the world. Linkage for a state of that sort is a natural policy and one relatively easy to put into practice. Not so for the Western world. I can foresee no set of circumstances—short of a "shooting war"—under which any Western country would agree to put itself on a war footing. Nor can I foresee the West following a grand conceptual design to counter that of the Soviet Union, much less any willingness to link one issue to another or even to pursue a common economic policy. We will probably go on supplementing the Soviet military budget in the name of peace, and eliminate our own INF forces on the reasoning that the ramshackle Soviet system has ceased to be a threat.

 

BUKOVSKY: The ultimate cause of Western clay-footedness is twofold. First, the Western, and especially the American, in- ability to comprehend the conceptual character of the Soviet system and the ideological roots of Soviet policies. Second, the inability to come up with a conceptually-based policy of the West's own making, and the will to apply it consistently over a long period of time. Apart from Dr Henry Kissinger (who is intellectually a European), American politicians just do not think in conceptual terms, and have neither the sophistication nor the patience to challenge the Soviet leaders on their own ground. They could take a lesson or two from Gorbachov.

 

For all these reasons, my hope for a free world is not anchored in "the free world". It is anchored in the fallibility of the Soviet system, which has a fine record of having repeatedly saved the West from its own follies, and will no doubt do so again. I am just a little saddened to see that the world's most advanced nations should be so barren of ideas and deficient in willpower when offered an opportunity to take a hand in shaping the demise of Communism and the decline of the Soviet empire.

Published in the Encounter magazine in two parts:

Encounter magazine, November 1987; and

Encounter magazine, January 1988.