Vladimir Bukovsky’s student years
Journalists from three countries —
Germany, the United States, and France —
report on Bukovsky’s student life in Cambridge.
Birgit Lahann reports from Vladimir Bukovsky’s first home in Cambridge.
“Welt am Sonntag” newspaper, Feb. 1979.
by Birgit Lahann
There he stands between the hose and the washing machine and the plates and the pots, between the table and the chair and the television, and laughs until the hole where his missing tooth once had been shows through. "I only moved in yesterday," says Bukovsky, running his hand through his hair and stepping over a pile of books. It was not easy to find a house in Cambridge. Did he buy it? No, just rented.
We are going into the living room. The winter sun shines through the window and into the fireplace. He closes the flower-patterned curtains, and we lie down into two armchairs that don't yet fill the empty space of the room. Bee Gees and Deep Purple records are leaning against the record player.
His fortune sits on the floor in the corner. He goes over there, picks it up, puts it on the table, spreads his arms: "To Build a Castle". Which is the the first book he wrote after his release, and which has become his bank, his insurance policy, his success. The Russian civil rights activist Vladimir Bukovsky -- exchanged for the Chilean communist leader Luis Corvalan after 12 years of suffering through Soviet camps, prisons and psychiatric institutions -- has written his memoirs.
With the royalties he can pay for his studies, his rent, and support himself and his mother and sister who live in Zurich, because the book is a bestseller in France and in Italy.
In his book Bukovsky recorded the most exciting psychological panorama anyone has ever created of the closed Soviet society: with wide literary breath, harsh, ironic, poetic.
He describes the battle he waged against the Soviet regime in the era immediately following Stalin's death. His weapon: intellect, persistence, and human dignity. Their weapon: prison terms for undermining the authority of the state.
Did he ever believe in communism? "No," says Bukovsky. "Not earlier and not today, neither in the Leninist kind, nor in the Stalinist kind." Could he imagine a new revolution in Russia? "The passive, terrorized majority would again willingly submit to a strong center. Which will end in a new dictatorship." And does he not give Russian communism a chance? With an ironic smile, he drops the corners of his mouth downwards and quotes the phrase that is popular among the Soviet scientists and the Soviet military: "You have to serve Russia. The communists will disappear sooner or later by themselves."
He lights the fifth Dunhill filter. How many does he smoke a day? "Fifty." Is that much? "That is less than the strong tobacco he used to turn into murderous cigarettes while in prison, wrapping it in pieces of "Izvestiya" newspaper.
Bukovsky not only lives like a true Cambridge Don, he already speaks English like an old Englishman -- fluent and easy and sometimes slurs the words. He learned his English in prison reading novels by Dickens and Thackeray, memorizing two to three thousand words a month in the process. Now he is studying neurophysiology at the most famous university in England, King's College, Cambridge.
He leans back and is amused by club rivalry in college circles. "Do you know this joke?" He asks and tells the story of a shipwrecked man who 25 years later is being rescued from an island and shows his rescuers his spartan abode where he had lived all those years. "But there's a lovely house back there," they say. "Why haven't you been living there?" "That couldn't be done," says the rescued man, "that was an impossible club."
And Bukovsky sits there in his dark trousers and a dark shirt, very informal, very relaxed and yet excited about the degree of his success. Lanky, like Shakespeare's Petruchio, he sits in the armchair, a prankster on the go, a bird -- full of humor -- with a stubble and tousled hair and laughs until the black hole comes out again.
He's not a martyr, not a is he heavy or ponderous. He never makes you feel inhibited by his life story. It never occurs to you to ask him anything in a minor key. But the story of his life sounds like an echo of a chapter from Dante's Inferno.
Vladimir was born during the evacuation in the Urals. He grew up in a suitcase, аs there were no cradles or beds. He began to talk late and to read early. When he was five, he became interested in newspapers. He loved caricatures above all else, especially Uncle Sam and John Bull, the American and the Brit who always got kicked down and fell into muddy puddles. After the war the family moved back to overcrowded Moscow. Four families lived in one apartment, and shared a toilet. In the evening his grandmother read him Grimm and Pushkin tales. When she would fall asleep, he would tugs her sleeve: "Grandmother, go on!" During the day he would stand with her in lines to buy food.
At school he would annoy the teachers, as one should, daydream during boring Russian lessons until one day the teacher said, visibly moved, "Children, the spring is coming!" It was December.
As a member of the pioneer organization, he forced a boy to self-criticize and for the first time saw the dreary effects of ideological demagogic indoctrination could have on a person.
He protested, refused to join the Young Communists League and published a satirical student magazine together with like-minded students, which only appeared once because it contained verses similar to these:
Take the hammer, then the sickle,
That do our Soviet land recall.
Bang or reap, whichever you pick,
It makes no odds, you'll get fuck all.
The director got fired, and Bukowski's father, a journalist -- once praised by Stalin and accepted into the Writers' Union following this -- received a reprimand from the Communist Party.
But his fight had already started three years earlier, at the age of fourteen. Because when he was fourteen, the Soviets invaded Hungary and quashed the uprising.
Until then, Bukovsky had only played war with his friends. Until then he had only fought against "enemies". And the enemies were the Germans. "Given that nobody wanted to be the Germans, each side considered itself "ours" and the others -- the Germans." When Hungary got strangled, Bukovsky felt ready for anything.
"Oh, romance, blue haze, our souls were torn like rags."
He becomes a member of a clandestine organization. "We smoked and swore like troopers, spoke filthily about women, drank vodka, and ahead of us all we could see was a void." They rehearsed emergency situations, tested each other out, spy on each other in order to develop skills, become "refined to the point of cynicism", but secretly each of them "perhaps unconsciously thirsted after death”.
Bukovsky was arrested for the first time in 1963. He made a copy the book titled "The New Class" by the Yugoslav critic and writer Milovan Djilas. And Djilas was forbidden. The combat with the police apparatus began in prison.
Bukovsky took the laws at their word and demanded those word to be followed to the letter. He wrote complaints because you were allowed complain. He taught thieves and murderers to complain. And suddenly there were 75,000 complaint letters against the Vladimir prison administration. Nobody read them. But the sheer volume of them! The prison slips into the league of badly run penitentiaries -- no more awards, no trophies, no banners.
Bukovsky gets punished. They put him in isolation. He starves in the damp solitary confinement cell. He has a one cigarette left, but no fire to light it. For three days he tries to run up the cell wall to light it on the lightbulb. He collapses in tears.
"I feel pain, therefore I am" is Descartes' philosophy of existence, modified for isolation cells. Deprived of outside stimuli, his imagination kicks in: he draws castles on scraps of paper, designs them from cellars up to battlements, furnishes them, invites friends over, and pours wine into goblets. And when the KGB man calls him for interrogation, he thinks, "These poor fools, they don't know that soon I'll be back with my friends, resuming our interrupted conversations by the fireplace."
"The castle," says Bukovsky, "saved my life back then." But he also has some wonderfully funny anecdotes. Bukovsky tells them with laconic charm. He is in Troitskoye, the psychiatric institution near Moscow. Which resembles a dive bar. Everyone pulls their money together and the hospital attendants buy vodka. On the first evening Bukovsky gets his glass -- and falls over. Then he gets used to it. Patients and hospital aides drink every day. But once they drank themselves bare. Everyone has run out of money. Where could one some? A pickpocket says, "Let me out for an hour." They do. He gets street clothes, an attendant accompanies him, and after an hour both are back -- with twenty-five rubles. "The feast went on."
Bukovsky goes into the kitchen and empties the ashtray, cleans it, puts it back in the room. We are going into town, to King's College. You can get there in twenty minutes if you walk fast. Does he do this on foot every day? "Yes."
Before he found his house, he had a room in the university. That was convenient. And pleasant, because he likes to sleep in late. "I'm a late bird," says the late bird. But there was no telephone in the college, and he had to make calls every day -- to his mother in Zurich, to publishers, to friends. He waited in queues in front of the telephone booths and froze.
What does he do after lectures? He goes out to drink tea with friends. And then? Does he go to the cinema, to the theater? No, he studies in the evenings. And reads everything he can get his hands on from the Russian underground press. On television he is only interested in political programmes and old films. And when the Times went on strike, he read the Herlald Tribune.
He doesn't do any sport. "I always hated gymnastics." And he no longer plays chess either. Even in prison he didn't like doing it. "Chess is a confrontation," he says. "And when one is defeated every time, it can become dangerous."
Did he follow the Karpov-Korchnoi confrontation? Sure. But they played their matches so clandestinely that he assumed they were both hypnotized.
We go to a tea room across the road from the university. I want to bring him a sandwich. But he isn't hungry. Although he didn't have lunch, and now it's five o’clock.
He tells me about Solzhenitsyn, whom he visited in America and who works like an obsessed man on his "Truth About the USSR." He says he has been trying to call Sakharov for months. But whenever his wife says "Hello" at the other end, the line breaks down.
Bukovsky, who uses his face and hands when telling stories, is open, fresh, alert. He looks like someone who has returned from the inferno with his health intact.
Does he still have dreams about the camp and the prison? "Very seldom," he says and adds with a laugh: "Thank god. I am, actually, someone who believes that dreams can come true."
And have his years in the West changed him? He used to be more reserved, more active, always on the go. "But I kept saying what I thought in Russia too," he said. "The only difference was the I was being locked up for it in Russia."
Translated from German by Alissa Ordabai.
BUKOVSKY: A Graduate of the GULAG.
Los Angeles Times, February 10, 1980.
by Mary Blume
Cambridge, England — King’s College, founded in 1441 by Henry VI, traditionally attracts Etonians, but even in these egalitarian days when students wear jeans and play pinball in the college bar, one of them stands out. He is older, carries a serious black plastic briefcase and cannot bicycle to his digs because of an arthritic right knee, the souvenir of a stretch in Vladimir Prison, 100 miles northeast of Moscow.
Vladimir Bukovsky’s education has been conducted mostly in Soviet prisons, labor camps and insane asylums were he has spent 12 of his 37 years and undoubtedly would have remained had he not found himself, one surprising day in 1976, wearing civilian clothes for the first time in six years and being bundled into an aircraft for Switzerland. He had, had he learned en route, been exchanged for the Chilean Communist Luis Corvalan.
Bukovsky’s mother, sister and nephew also were expelled and live in Zurich where the nephew, now 15, is being treated for cancer. Bukovsky is a second-year biology students specialized in the psychology of the brain, a suitable subject for a man who had been diagnosed as suffering from a disease invented for dissidents, sluggish schizophrenia. Even as a boy, his instinctive distrust of the regime led him to the sciences: “I hated the humanities — history, literature, even geography — because they were so saturated with ideology that there was nothing left”.
Bukovsky is sturdy and genial, fluent in English from reading Dickens and James Fenimore Cooper in jail, and very relaxed for a man whose life is so full of purpose. In earlier times, his first thought each time he was released was to accomplish all he could — “cramming 25 hours into 24, stretching a week to a month” — before, inevitably, he would be arrested again.
He never allowed himself the double dangers of hope or despair: “There is no hope in such a situation so there can be no despair,” he says. “It is a kind of a way of life.”
He is not impatient with the aimlessness and inconscience of ordinary people because patience, he says, is the first thing you learn in prison. Habits remain. “I am more or less seasoned to hunger, although now there is no need to be. I keep forgetting to eat, sometimes for a whole day.” He retains an acute sense of each passing moment.
“I have to follow a timetable, almost like a train. Seven hours of study each day, plus traveling, following campaigns, answering letters, keeping contacts with the Soviet Union. But there is no personal risk involved. At the beginning, I was surprised by the lack of personal risk.”
In adapting from GULAG to academie, this lack of risk shames him. “All the information we get here goes back to Russia, but it’s more difficult to invite people to do something when you’re abroad, safe.”
The summer after Bukovsky was expelled from the Soviet Union, he wrote an extraordinary book, “To Build a Castle: My Life as a Dissenter,” which has been widely translated and has enabled him to pay his Cambridge tuition. He is ineligible for either a British or Russian scholarship and is just as glad. “I’d rather pay for myself.”
Bukovsky’s dissent was based not on politics but on human rights or in the better Russian phrase, defense of the law. “We who were born and have grown up in an atmosphere of terror, knew of only one remedy,” he wrote in his book, “the position of the citizen.”
Defense of citizens’ rights ranged from supporting public poetry readings to demanding public trials for dissidents to harassing officials with all the Catch-22s — and 23s and 24s — of Russian law by bombarding them with complaints (“If each cell has five men and each man takes six subjects, each of them has the chance to write out 30 complaints a day while making up only six himself”) so that the entire system became unhinged. “Truly we were born to make Kafka live,” he says.
Bukovsky became a dissenter at the age of 14 when he refused to join a youth organization, “I didn’t understand; it was an instinctive reaction to what I don’t like,” he says. “I was 14 at the time of the 20th Party Congress. It was a tremendous shock to learn that your countrymen have been involved in killing 60 million people. That influenced a whole generation. A totalitarian state has to try to put you within a bloody circle — everyone has to be stained with blood.”
He refused the stain. “I am rather a stubborn man,” he says. The fight goes on, centered now on protests against the arrests of Tatyana Velikanova, the editor of an underground journal, Father Gleb Yakunin, Antanas Terletskas, Danilo Shumuk and Levko Lukyanenko, Bukovsky’s cellmate for a year. Publicizing their arrests is important, Bukovsky says, because the Russians are sensitive to foreign criticism. “Even gangsters want to be loved.”
The arrests are part of the pre-Olympic Games clean-up. Bukovsky considers the Games a vast con job. “There is no way they can be counterproductive to the Soviet Union,” he says. “Visitors’ movements will be tightly controlled. NBC has agreed to leave all its electronic material behind after filming the Games. One event will take place in Estonia, which is still occupied territory. According to our calculations, the Soviets will gain half a billion dollars. Where everyone else loses, they will win.”
Bukovsky has traveled widely in the West, including several trips to the United States that ranged from meeting Washington bigwigs to lecturing under the sponsorship of the AFL-CIO. He thinks the labor unions are more aware of the Soviet menace than the government.
The West has surprised him by being less capitalistic than he expected and much more inefficient. “As psychological types, people here are less competitive than in the Soviet Union. Because they are safe here they don’t have to compete. We had a terrible kind of natural selection. The people who couldn’t compete to survive died out.”
While he would like to devote his life to scientific research, Bukovsky has contempt for scholars who meddle in politics. “That’s one of the disastrous things in the United States — the academic people. Education takes the place of brains. Kissinger may have been a good professor but his policy to the East was a disaster.
“I am not anti-Communist. I am not anti anything. I don’t like certain ideas because they bring terrible results. It’s OK for French professors to educate students who then go home to Cambodia and kill two-and-a-half million people. They are for human rights, not for human responsibilities. What are rights if you don’t take responsibilities?”
Responsibility is personal. “I am afraid of strong ideologies, they justify string ends,” Bukovsky says. He resents the Western tendency to lump all dissidents into one group. “They are individuals; there is quite a spectrum from Marxist liberals to religious to conservative types.
“It is not coincidence that there has never been any organization within our movement,” Bukovsky says. “The most dangerous thing is when you start to limit your conscience in order to achieve something. That’s when everything starts to go wrong.”
13 November 1978
CAMBRIDGE, England (AP) — Two hears ago Vladimir Bukovsky was in cell no. 10 of Russia’s top-security Vladimir Prison and had his whole life mapped out.
He would finish his 12 years of prison, labor camp and internal exile in 1983. He expected to have “at best, a year of the fever called freedom” before his civil rights campaigning landed him back in jail. Then, probably death behind bars or barbed wire.
Now, as Bukovsky talks amid the clutter of biology books, empty glasses and an unmade bed in his dormitory room at Cambridge University, all that seems as long ago as a Siberian winter in the onrush of spring. He has a new life before him.
“I know for sure that these next three years I will study here, then possibly two years of research in biology,” he told The Associated Press in a recent interview.
Beyond that, he said, “life is not so determined as it once was.”
Bukovsky, 35, enrolled this fall in a three-year undergraduate program in biology at King’s College, Cambridge, one of several Western universities which extended invitations to him.
He says he wants to finish a college education cut short in 1961 when he was expelled from Moscow State University for protest activities that included organizing public poetry readings.
Two years ago Bukovsky was awakened every morning at 6 by a prison guard moving from cell to cell or by the national anthem blaring over prison loudspeakers. Now, he’s more likely to awaken to he gentle rolling of bells from King’s College Chapel or motorcycle roaring into action in a student bike park just below his window.
Bukovsky’s abrupt turn of fortune came in December 1976. Without warning, he was plucked from prison, handcuffed and bundled aboard a special Aeroflot flight with his mother, sister and nephew and flown to Zurich. There, on December 18, 1976, he was released and exchanged for Luis Corvalan, the Chilean communist party leader who also had been taken from prison and flown to the Swiss city for the exchange.
Bukovsky — his head shaven, his face cadaverous from a prison diet — became an instant celebrity, a symbol of a lopsided fight by a few independent individuals against a mighty state machine.
President Carter, presiding over a new administration committed to human rights, received Bukovsky at the White House. In Moscow, he was predictably called “scum” and “a plaything of malicious and bellicose reactionary forces in the West.”
Bukovsky since has traveled to a dozen countries to lecture on the human rights struggle in Russia. To his distress, he says, he’s found naïveté about Soviet intentions and some governments — particularly in Europe — too eager to make unilateral defense cutbacks. But he’s also found Western democracies more resilient than he had thought.
“In the year and 10 months that I’ve lived here,” he said, “I’ve found that hit system is much more stable than it appears. It is not so easily decayed.”
Between travels, Bukovsky has found time to write an autobiography, “To Build a Castle,” published in Britain October 26 and scheduled to be released in the United States by Viking Press early next year. The book, about his life in Russia, is a scathing indictment of the Soviet system.
But it also is peppered with Russian political jokes which, Bukovsky writes, are “worth volumes of philosophical essays” because they show “the thing that has left no trace in the printed sources — the people’s opinion of events.”
“One day Lenin’s body disappeared from the Mausoleum,” goes one classic. “They started a search fro it and frisked the Mausoleum. Inside they found a note: ‘Gone to Zurich to start all over again.’ “
Bukovsky himself has done that, and as did Lenin, Bukovsky closely follows news from Russia — of demonstrations, arrests and trials of dissenters. He said he gets from 10 to 30 letters a day, many about a campaign to get the 1980 Olympics moved from Moscow.
But he says he’s trying to ease out of public life, at least for now so he can concentrate on his studies. “I was forced by circumstances to get involved in public life,” Bukovsky said. “It’s not my field at all. My field is science. That’s one thing people don’t realize — that we’re not really politicians at all.”
In Russia, Bukovsky and other dissenters saw themselves as concerned citizens trying to persuade authorities to abide by their own laws. Bukovsky said he came to feel that a citizen who did not protest “is implicated in the crimes of he regime. I realized that the only way I could not be an accomplice was to be against it.”
Bukovsky was first arrested in 1963 and accused of “preparing anti-Soviet literature” because he had two copies of “The New Class,” a book by Yugolsav dissenter Milovan Djilas. He was declared insane and committed to a special mental hospital in Leningrad. Thus began years of confinement — in insane asylums, labor camps and prisons.
His last stretch started in March 1971 when he was charged with “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda.” One of his crimes was sending to the West a dossier of case histories documenting the incarceration of sane dissenters in mental hospitals.
Souvenirs of that time include stomach ulcer, apparently healing now, and arthritis of the knees, which he things he got in a damp, frigid prison cell. But the hollowness of cheeks is gone. Bukovsky is now a fit 165 pounds, compared to 130 pounds two years ago.
Though settled into a student’s grind at Cambridge and entertaining no hopes or illusions about going back to Russia, Bukovsky says he still considers himself “sort of prisoner on holiday.”
As his plane left Russia, his KGB escort informed him that he was “expelled from the territory of the USSR.” He was given a Soviet passport valid for five years. But there was no formal expulsion, and the KGB man told him his sentence “remains in force.”
“I still have something like 3 1/2 years to go,” Bukovsky said with a grin, noting he was probably considered in internal exile under his sentence.
“I’m supposed to be somewhere in Siberia,” he said.
Freedom is an inner quality that cannot be measured
Interview with Vladimir Bukovsky by Annie Epelboin
in La Quinzaine littéraire magazine. Sep. 1, 1981.
Annie Epelboin: Straightaway: I think your second book has disappointed the public who admired you when discovering "To Build a Castle". Did you expect this?
Vladimir Bukovsky: Of course. It is a book I wrote in a hurry, in response to my editor. I am actually astounded to see the success the first one has had in France. I really do not understand it.
Annie Epelboin: In your second book you criticise this "freedom", which you supposedly acquired upon you arrival in the West. And you claim that in the Soviet Union, through the hardship you encountered, you felt as free as here. Isn’t it a rather paradoxical statement?
Vladimir Bukovsky: No, we are either free or we are not, it is an inner quality that cannot be measured. What I wanted to highlight is that within this very measure it demands a tension or a choice, irrespective of external conditions. And our tendency is to trade it, at least partially, for a more peaceful life. This leads to voluntary slavery and to this rigid form that is socialism, as we know it in the USSR, which takes charge of this desire for peacefulness and walls you in at the same time. That’s what explains this society better than any ideology. And since this exchange of freedom against comfort has reached its peak point in the USSR, a person realises that the measurement is complete and wants to pull himself together. Thus, he makes a concrete choice, which, often, means prison, but which allows him to feel that he has attained his freedom.
Annie Epelboin: It is therefore a very powerful subjective experience?
Vladimir Bukovsky: Of course, and many Soviets have had this same experience. For instance, I had a friend in school, right-minded, perfect Komsomol member, but one day, they wanted to enlist him to fight against protesters. He refused and clearly shared his reasons in public. It didn’t last more than ten minutes, but it was enough to destroy his career: no thesis, no job was waiting for him in Moscow. Even though he didn’t go to prison, his life became very hard. But he never had any regrets and, later, he said to me that those ten minutes were the most intense moment of his life, the most powerful feeling.
Annie Epelboin: Did you lose that feeling in the West?
Vladimir Bukovsky: It isn’t as sharp, but I think I will always have it; it’s part of my nature. I am always driven by contest dynamics, which puts me in a situation of opposition against the world order, even this one. Regarding Afghanistan, for instance, I am in conflict with governments, which, here, merely try to avert the worst and maintain at all costs their own interests in relation to the USSR.
Annie Epelboin: How do you think Westerners experience their freedom?
Vladimir Bukovsky: They do not know it through its limits. Thus, they often need to resort to extremes to discover it, they invent limits, obstacles, to accentuate that feeling: this partly explains terrorism or the struggle against atomic energy.
Annie Epelboin: You are going to work in the USA. Isn’t that a country which enjoys particular prestige in the Soviets’ mind?
Vladimir Bukovsky: I am only going because they offer better research conditions. England has really good scholars, great education, but it lacks money for research, otherwise I would have stayed there. As for the Soviets, it’s a bit like children who ask: who is stronger -- an elephant or a crocodile? To them, the idea of a super-powerful nation is appealing, a place where the scientific sector seems more developed. When I arrived here, I was shocked to learn that Japanese technology was more advanced than in the United States, but no Soviet would ever believe it, especially since we defeated them in the war…
Annie Epelboin: And what is the image of France, in the eyes of the Soviets?
Vladimir Bukovsky: It lost its moral authority. Yet, it was the guiding culture in the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, but they see there has been some sort of moral decline. We would gladly say that English society is manly, able to defend itself and maintain its positions; it would be difficult, no offence, to say the same about France, aside from de Gaulle. We had the impression of a futile and vile speculation on the part of the government to gain the good will of the Soviet State, and we were very upset by it. Cinema and fashion, however, remain attached to a positive image… Unfortunately, I don’t speak French.