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.”