National Security & Defense

Did Britain Fall into Putin’s Trap in Prosecuting a Russian Dissident?

Vladimir Bukovsky in 2007 (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters)

Vladimir Bukovsky’s name, like that of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov, is synonymous with an almost unimaginable bravery and resilience in the face of Soviet totalitarianism. Born in 1942, Bukovsky was a founder of the dissident movement of the 1960s and 1970s. First arrested at the age of 20 for the possession of “anti-Soviet literature,” he was involved in organizing the December 1965 rally on Pushkin Square, the only opposition demonstration Moscow had seen in four decades. For his efforts, he was rewarded with twelve years in the USSR’s prisons, labor camps, and psikhushkas — political psychiatric hospitals.

In 1971, Bukovsky succeeded in smuggling to the West more than 150 pages documenting the Soviet Union’s abuse of psychiatric institutions to silence its opponents. Because of this, the West learned that the KGB routinely declared dissenters mentally ill to avoid embarrassing publiс trials and to discredit any regime opposition as the product of a diseased mind. In 1976, after months of negotiation between the Soviet and American governments, Bukovsky was exchanged for Luis Corvalán, the general secretary of the Communist Party of Chile. He has lived in Cambridge, England, ever since.

He has remained actively and vocally opposed to the Soviet system and to its successors, which in his view have not thoroughly enough expunged the dangerous elements of the Soviet regime. In a 1992 interview, he warned of allowing former Communists to play leading roles in the government of post-Soviet Russia:

Having failed to finish off conclusively the Communist system, we are now in danger of integrating the resulting monster into our world. It may not be called Communism anymore, but it has retained many of its dangerous characteristics. . . . Until a Nuremberg-style tribunal passes its judgment on all the crimes committed by Communism, it is not dead and the war is not over.

In 1994, Bukovsky warned that Yeltsin had become hostage of Russia’s security agencies. In his judgment, a restoration of KGB rule was therefore inevitable. He was correct. Bukovsky has not limited his criticism to Russia; he has also vocally condemned Westerners who have been gullible about, or complicit with, the Soviet Union and its successors.

Bukovsky has vocally condemned Westerners who have been gullible about, or complicit with, the Soviet Union and its successors.

In 2004, Bukovsky founded the so-called Committee 2008, along with Garry Kasparov, Vladimir Kara-Murza, and the late — murdered — Boris Nemtsov. The committee was formed to ensure free and fair elections in 2008, when a successor to Vladimir Putin would be elected. What happened instead is well known.

Bukovsky attempted to run in the 2008 Russian presidential election, but the Central Electoral Commission disqualified him on a triviality. In 2013, he published a collection of interviews in Russian describing Putin and his team as “The Heirs of Lavrentiy Beria” — Stalin’s last and most depraved secret-police chief. When the Russian Federation invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea, Bukovsky expressed the hope that Western sanctions would, at last, bring an end to the regime.

On March 17, 2015, Bukovsky offered his sworn testimony at the much-delayed inquiry into the 2006 murder, in London, of former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko. (The FSB is the state security organization that replaced the KGB after the collapse of the Soviet Union.) Litvinenko had defected to Britain in 2000, having taken a dangerous stand against the war in Chechnya. Litvinenko accused the Russian secret services of staging the apartment bombings in three Russian cities that killed almost 300 people. The series of explosions that hit four apartment blocks in September 1999, killing 293 and injuring more than 1,000, led the country into the Second Chechen War. These are widely believed to have been false-flag attacks, coordinated by the FSB to boost Putin’s popularity and win public support for a new full-scale war.

Litvinenko also accused Putin of ordering the murder of the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya and claimed that he had been ordered to kill the Russian businessman Boris Berezovsky, who had likewise turned sharply critical of Putin’s regime. (On March 23, 2013, Berezovsky’s bodyguard found Berezovsky dead, in a locked bathroom in his home in England, with a ligature around his neck. The police classified his death as “unexplained.”)

Finally, there was the climax of Litvinenko’s attack on Putin: In July, 2006, he published an article on the Chechenpress website accusing the Russian president of pedophilia:

After graduating from the Andropov Institute, which prepares officers for the KGB intelligence service, Putin was not accepted into the foreign intelligence. Instead, he was sent to a junior position in KGB Leningrad Directorate. This was a very unusual twist for a career of an Andropov Institute’s graduate with fluent German. Why did that happen with Putin? Because, shortly before his graduation, his bosses learned that Putin was a pedophile. So say some people who knew Putin as a student at the Institute. The Institute officials feared to report this to their own superiors, which would cause an unpleasant investigation. They decided it was easier just to avoid sending Putin abroad under some pretext. Such a solution is not unusual for the secret services.

Litvinenko was poisoned in November 2006 with a lethal dose of radioactive polonium-210, placed by Russian FSB operatives in his afternoon tea in a London hotel. He died 23 days later.

Bukovsky had been Litvinenko’s close friend. At the 2015 inquiry into Litvinenko’s death, Bukovsky said, “[Litvinenko] would call me about 20 times a day, if not 30.”

The investigator asked him, “Were you ever aware of any threats made to him while he was in the UK?”

A: Oh definitely. There were constant threats.

Q: In your witness statements, one of the incidents that you mention was a phone call that he received while he was visiting you in Cambridge?

A: Yes.

Q: Can you tell us what you know about this phone call?

A: Well, it was around the year 2002, I think, very soon after he — his escape, and he was in Cambridge visiting me together with his son, his son at that time being something like eight-year-old boy. We were walking — it was spring time, we were walking in Cambridge, beautiful sight, the birds are singing and suddenly there was a call on his phone, so he answered it and became rather gloomy. By his replies, I understood that it’s some kind of threat, I asked him after the phone was over: what was it; oh, it was, he said, some former colleagues from Lubyanka, Lubyanka is headquarters of KGB; and they said to me, do you feel yourself safe, secure, in Britain; come on, remember Trotsky. That was just as we were walking across Cambridge.

Q: And the reference to Trotsky was a reference that you understood to be a threat?

A: Oh definitely, Trotsky was murdered in Mexico in 1940 or something.

Q: Trotsky was in exile himself, wasn’t he?

Q: Yes, and was murdered on orders of Stalin by — NKVD, at that time was called NKVD and not KGB.

Q: Did Sasha [Litvinenko] understand that too?

A: Oh definitely.

Oleg Gordievsky had been the KGB resident-designate and bureau chief in London; from 1974 to 1985, he worked as a secret agent of the British Secret Intelligence Service. In July 2006, Bukovsky and Gordievsky together wrote a letter to The Times in London. Putin, they warned, had rushed through the Duma two new pieces of legislation:

First, a new law enabling him to use his secret services as “death squads: to eliminate “extremists” anywhere abroad (including in this country).

Second, an amendment to existing law on fighting “extremism,” providing a much broader definition of that “crime” which, among other things, will include now any “libelous” statements about his Administration.

Thus, the stage is set for any critic of Putin’s regime here, especially those campaigning against Russian genocide in Chechnya, to have an appointment with a poison-tipped umbrella. According to the statement by the Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, the black list of potential targets is already compiled.

Within months of the letter’s publication, Anna Politkovskaya — journalist, writer, and human-rights activist, known for her opposition to Putin and the Second Chechen War — was dead. And so was Litvinenko. Referring to this letter, the investigator in 2015 asked Bukovsky, “Do you think that this is indeed what then happened to Sasha?”

“Exactly. Exactly.”

The interview continued:

Q: Has anything changed in the way that Russian authorities, intelligence agencies, and others, deal with dissidents since Vladimir Putin became president?

A: Yes. The emergence of Vladimir Putin was perceived by us not as emergence of a certain lieutenant colonel. It was definitely coming to power of KGB as an institution, and since I am so used to monitor the developments, we all knew in advance, as soon as he was pronounced to be a candidate for the presidency by Yeltsin, a successor, we knew we are dealing with KGB coming to power.

Q: What did that mean for political opponents and dissidents?

A: For political opponents and dissidents, it means repressions and even murder. For the West, it means the growth of aggressiveness, an attempt to establish the former Soviet sphere of influence in particularly Eastern Europe and among former republics of the Soviet Union. We knew it immediately.

Bukovsky’s testimony ended with this exchange:

Q: Do you have any doubt that that legal authorization has been and will be used by President Putin’s regime to exterminate its enemies?

A: Well, it is used and it was used and it will be used if Putin is still alive.

Q: Do you have any doubt as to the responsibility for Sasha Litvinenko’s murder?

A: None.

The inquiry concluded the Kremlin had “almost certainly” ordered Litvinenko’s murder. Prime Minister David Cameron froze the suspects’ assets as punishment for the “absolutely appalling” crime and threatened further sanctions on Russia.

Bukovsky was already in failing health. He had been seriously ill since 2014, when he contracted a rare infection that damaged his heart valves. On April 27, 2015, a bit more than a month after his testimony, the chief prosecutor for the Crown Prosecution Services made a rather surprising public statement:

Vladimir Bukovsky to be prosecuted over indecent images of children

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has authorised the prosecution of Vladimir Bukovsky, 72, for five charges of making indecent images of children, five charges of possession of indecent images of children and one charge of possession of a prohibited image.

Jenny Hopkins, Chief Crown Prosecutor for the CPS in the East of England, said: “Following an investigation by Cambridgeshire Police, we have concluded that there is sufficient evidence and it is in the public interest to prosecute Vladimir Bukovsky in relation to the alleged making and possessing of indecent images of children. It is alleged that, collectively, the images meet the definition of categories A, B and C, as defined by Sentencing Council Guidelines.

“The decision to prosecute was taken in accordance with the Code for Crown Prosecutors.”

Vladimir Bukovsky has been summonsed to appear at court on the following charges:

‐Five counts of making an indecent photograph of a child contrary to section 1(a) of the Protection of Children Act 1978, on or before 28 October 2014

‐Five counts of possession of indecent photographs of children contrary to section 160 Criminal Justice Act 1988, on or before 28 October 2014

‐One count of possessing a prohibited image contrary to section 62 (1) of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009

“I categorically deny making any indecent or prohibited photographs, pseudo-photographs or videos of children,” Bukovsky told the Guardian. “Indeed, I had no contact with any children whatsoever for very many years. These shocking allegations have been made at the time when I am suffering from a grave illness and my chances of survival are still uncertain. Nevertheless, I intend to defend myself vigorously on all charges.”

Bukovsky believes that Putin’s operatives planted what he says are some 20,000 indecent images of children on his computer and then tipped off the British police.

Bukovsky believes that Putin’s operatives planted what he says are some 20,000 indecent images of children on his computer and then tipped off the British police using Europol, the EU’s law-enforcement agency.

He was unable to appear as summoned on May 5, 2015. By then, he was suffering multiple internal-organ failures. He was flown to a Munich clinic for emergency heart surgery, after which he remained in a medically induced coma. The surgery went smoothly, but he was hospitalized for four months. In August 2015, Bukovsky appeared in court, in a wheelchair, to plead not guilty to all the charges. He was released on unconditional bail. He is to be tried on May 16.

Shortly after he was charged, Bukovsky sued the Crown Prosecution Services for libel. His writ accuses the service of “falsely and maliciously” damaging his reputation and abusing its powers. The CPS, he claims, went well beyond its statutory duty by making defamatory claims unsupported by any evidence. These claims, he notes, have been widely reported, particularly in Putin’s press organs. “I have been libelled and have no other remedy except pursuing this claim,” he says in his writ, continuing:

Throughout the 72 years of my life, my moral reputation had been spotless. It has been ruined in one day by the worldwide publicity given to the CPS allegations.

Damaging allegations of sexual nature, such as an allegation of “paedophilia” are, perhaps, the dirtiest weapon which can be used in public life. Such allegations concern the most intimate aspect of a person’s life. Very few people would have any first-hand knowledge which might be relevant to assess the credibility of such allegations. Sexual abuse of children is an extremely emotive matter to most people. In the minds of a very large proportion of readers — on this subject more than on any other — the “no smoke without a fire” logic is likely to prevail over “innocent until proven guilty” logic. 

Given this, to a widely known person like me, the press release making such allegations is far worse than any criminal charge. Frankly, I don’t care about the risk of being sent to prison. I have already spent 12 years in Soviet prisons having committed no crime in my life, I don’t expect to live for very long, and it makes little difference to me whether I spend the final few weeks of my life in jail. However, what is fundamentally important to me is defending my reputation. The CPS press release is not merely a report (fair or unfair, accurate or inaccurate) of what has happened or might happen in the criminal court. As far as I am concerned, that press release has already done me far more damage than any hypothetical prison sentence ever could.

The criminal charges brought against him, he notes, do not literally involve “making indecent photographs.” The word “making” suggests that he was charged with being present at, or participating in, the abuse of a child. But under British law, “making” an indecent photograph comprises such acts as “downloading” — which one might easily and unwittingly do by opening a document or an e-mail infected with a virus. No reader, Bukovsky argues, could reasonably be expected to know this. His libel suit continues:

To a limited extent, I can and will defend my reputation by rebutting the allegations in the criminal court, but only to a very limited extent. The CPS Statement was misleading. It conveyed even dirtier, and more damaging, imputations, over and above the allegations in fact made in the criminal proceedings. One of the consequences is that I shall have no opportunity to rebut those imputations in the criminal proceedings. My only remedy is a libel claim.

He further notes in his lawsuit that the charge of “possessing indecent images” is nowhere near as damaging as the charge of “sexual abuse of real, specific children.” The former, he says, “may be ridiculous; the latter is monstrous.” Most readers would grasp instantly that planting images on a victim’s computer is child’s play for sophisticated Kremlin hackers. But the use of the word “making” rather than the word “possessing” — the actual criminal charge — leaves readers around the world imagining that these allegations must be true.

“A publication of this nature has disastrous consequences for a person’s reputation,” he writes. “The statement was published at the time I was already gravely ill. At that point in time, it was not likely, let alone certain, that I would survive and be fit enough to answer the allegations, to stand the criminal trial, or to be able to bring these proceedings.”

If the images were, as Bukovsky charges, planted by the Kremlin, it is clear that the object of the exercise was not to kill him. Nature was obviously well on the way to taking care of that. It was to prove to anyone tempted to follow Bukovsky’s path that the punishment for challenging the Kremlin is worse than death. The punishment is to become — in the eyes of history — someone who should never have lived in the first place. These charges, uncontested, would tarnish any man with an ineradicable stain; they call into doubt Bukovsky’s entire life, testimony, and legacy.

The libel case, to be heard in the High Court, has now been postponed three times, for reasons unexplained. Bukovsky believes it has been postponed to spare the CPS embarrassment. He naturally fears he will die before his name is cleared. Russia’s state media, which gleefully repeated and republished the criminal allegations, will, he predicts, ignore the verdict when he is acquitted. And thus he has gone on a hunger strike. It is not his first hunger strike, but it is his first that is meant to protest the actions of a Western government. His last such strike was four decades ago, during the Brezhnev era. He will continue the hunger strike, he says, until “the High Court finally finds time to hear my complaint.”

But surely the hunger strike is apt to kill him? He seems to prefer the idea of dying this way to permitting the Kremlin to have the last word. “I’m not afraid of it,” he told the Guardian. “How can you be afraid of something inevitable? It isn’t a senseless death. It’s a purposeful death. I’m an old man anyway.”

On May 3, his application to speed up the libel trial was refused. The judge, although not requested to do so, imposed a blanket ban on all reporting about his application, evidence, arguments, the hearing, his own judgement, and the gag order itself.

A petition addressed to the Departmental Ministry of Justice, signed by some 6,000 “former Soviet political prisoners, their relatives, and descendants,” implores “all just and fair-minded people of Britain to bring pressure to bear on the UK government and the CPS by demanding an immediate independent review of Bukovsky’s case.”

“We consider Bukovsky a man of gigantic moral stature,” write the signatories. “Imagine the tragedy now if Bukovsky were to die before his case is heard.”

Claire Berlinski is the author of Menace in Europe: Why the Continent’s Crisis Is America’s, Too. She writes for She is now crowdfunding a new book about Europe titled “Brave Old World.”

Claire Berlinski — Berlinski is a journalist who lives in Istanbul. She is the author of Menace in Europe: Why the Continent’s Crisis Is America’s, Too, and There Is No Alternative: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters.


The Latest