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Heroes and Villains: A Talk with Vladimir Bukovsky, Part IV

Vladimir Bukovsky in Moscow in 2007 (Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters)

Editor’s Note: Jay Nordlinger recently interviewed Vladimir Bukovsky, the legendary Soviet-era dissident, at Bukovsky’s home in Cambridge, England. Parts I-III of the series are here, here, and here. The series concludes today.

We are talking over the waterfront — or a good deal of the waterfront — here on the back patio in Cambridge. But, as I’ve mentioned, I also talked by phone with Vladimir Bukovsky last September. At that time, I asked him about Crimea: Putin’s swallowing of.

He said that Putin “did it for his own internal reasons.” He wanted to show Russians, along with the world, that “he doesn’t care about anyone or international law.” He is a big, strong man. He is “playing on people’s emotions.”

Crimea is a test, said Bukovsky. There has long been a principle about the changing of international borders. Putin has broken a taboo. He rubbed the nose of the West in the annexation of Crimea, to show that he is a criminal and that he can do whatever he wants, without anyone standing in his way.

From here on out, instability — including the changing of borders — becomes easier. That’s the game.

Also (said Bukovsky), there is the idea of bringing back the Soviet Union as much as possible. Even a morsel helps. Revanchists regret keenly the loss of Ukraine.

• You remember Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian intelligence defector who was murdered in 2006. He and Bukovsky were friends. In May 2015, Bukovsky was set to testify in Britain’s Litvinenko inquiry. Then his home was raided, and he was subsequently prosecuted “for having ‘prohibited images’ on his computer.”

I am quoting from Bukovsky’s bio at the Oslo Freedom Forum, where he has been a speaker. The bio continues, “It is widely believed that Bukovsky was framed and a victim of KGB kompromat, the planting of fabricated and compromising evidence.”

Let me now quote a piece I wrote in 2017, about Yuri Dmitriev:

Probably the dirtiest card in the Kremlin’s hand is child pornography, or any other kind of child abuse. Everyone recoils from it, everyone is repulsed by it. The person accused of such a crime is stained forever. The Kremlin played this card in Soviet days, and it is playing it now. The longstanding word is kompromat, i.e., compromising material.

In a December 2016 article, the New York Times reported, “The idea that Europeans and Russian opponents of the Kremlin are sexual deviants with a taste for pedophilia is a strange but recurring theme in Russian propaganda.”

The Kremlin’s latest victim, where the child-porn card is concerned, is Yuri Dmitriev.

Yes, outrageous case.

That Times piece is written by Andrew Higgins, and it is superb. Bukovsky is featured in it. I will quote a little:

“The whole affair is Kafkaesque,” Mr. Bukovsky said in an interview. “You not only have to prove you are not guilty but that you are innocent.” He insisted that he was the victim of a new and particularly noxious form of an old K.G.B. dirty trick known as kompromat …

In February 2018, Bukovsky’s case was postponed indefinitely, owing to his ill health. The case has enraged his friends and, of course, delighted his enemies. The great Bukovsky tainted, in the late years of his life? A Soviet dream.

I talked with Bukovsky about the case, in our September phone call. He said he could not say much, owing to legal constraints or precautions. But he did tell me something interesting, on the matter of proving one’s innocence: “As we say in Russia, ‘One cannot prove that one is not a camel.’”

If you ask a Russia expert whether the FSB (i.e., the KGB) framed Bukovsky — and I have experience here — he will likely look at you as though you were an innocent child and say, “Um, yeah. That’s what they do.”

• Here in Cambridge, I ask Bukovsky, “How do Russians abroad treat you?” “I have no idea,” he answers. He then says, “It depends on who, of course.” He continues, “I must say, I was surprised when I fell very ill and required very expensive heart surgery. A lot of very rich Russian refugees actually contributed. It was amazing. I didn’t even know them, but, for some reason, they were impelled. Including Khodorkovsky.”

He means Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the tycoon who was imprisoned by Putin for ten years and is now in the West, leading his organization Open Russia. (I have talked at length with Khodorkovsky, as well as Bukovsky, and will tell you about this in due course.)

“Do you get fan mail?” I ask Bukovsky. “I used to,” he says, “but that has now stopped, because I’ve changed my e-mail address several times.” “Do you get hate mail?” I ask. “Not for a very long time,” he says. “The last time was something like five years ago. I was accused of being a Zionist spy.”

“An honor,” I say. “The Mossad is a distinguished outfit.”

• He talks about the Russian government, up to its old tricks (so many of them — so many tricks). They claim to be “encircled” by the West, as we’ve mentioned before. They always have to pretend that a Western wolf is at the door, so as to keep the masses riled up and distracted.

And they spout this nonsense that “Russia is spiritually different from the West, and it is the spiritual that binds us together.” Bukovsky notes that they (the Kremlin) are “trying to promote the Orthodox Church into an ideological leader of Russia.” He remembers, with a sardonic laugh, “That church was singing hymns to Stalin! Half of them were KGB agents!”

I ask Bukovsky, “Were you ever religious?” No, he says.

• There was a rift — a painful rift — between Richard Pipes and Solzhenitsyn. I am oversimplifying, but the rift came down to something like this: Pipes thought that Soviet Russia had its roots in Russian history; that Soviet Russia reflected patterns in Russian history. Solzhenitsyn thought this was a tremendous slander, or libel, on the Russian people.

What does Bukovsky think of this debate?

“Look, they both were my good friends, particularly Pipes. With Solzhenitsyn, actually, you couldn’t be friends. It was good if you didn’t have a quarrel with him. That was already a great achievement. And, you know, I managed not to have quarrels with him. I hushed down my disagreements with him. Pipes and I were very open friends, very good friends. But mind you, he was wrong.”

Later, Bukovsky says, “We are talking about a nation that was beheaded. That went through a genocide. And, after that, judging a nation is unfair.”

• I bring up the question of illiberalism — illiberalism coming from the Left and Right. He mentions the Polish government and the Orbán government in Hungary.

Some people get carried away, he says, with being anti-EU and anti-Left. This comes, mind you, from the man who co-authored EUSSR: The Soviet Roots of European Integration.

Anyway, some people, wittingly or not, are led into the arms of Vladimir Putin. If Orbán is not careful, “his country will be swallowed by the KGB, and he won’t even notice how it happened,” says Bukovsky. And “since he has been my personal friend for many years, I did tell him this.”

(I wrote more on this issue in a blogpost yesterday, here.)

• What does Bukovsky think of Trump?

“Well, I like the whole thing. For me, it is a very good joke. My American friends are angry and argue with me. ‘You shouldn’t laugh at this.’ But I do laugh. It’s like a bull in a china shop. Trump is not a politician. He doesn’t know the ropes, he’s too self-centered, he talks too much — a person like that should never have been elected to any public office. But the good thing is, he disturbed the consensus of the swamp. He suddenly disrupted the universal consensus on political correctness and things like that. It’s very good he blew it up. Someone had to. For me, it’s very funny.”

Bukovsky, by the way, has never been a fan of the United States. On the contrary. He is open about this, as he is in general.

• What should be the stance of the West toward Putin?

“Don’t believe in all his bluffing. The man is good at bluffing. When people start being frightened that Putin will start a war in Europe or the Middle East or something — total rubbish. He wouldn’t venture anything like that. He will bluff his way to the top of the news, he will engage in brinkmanship, he will always test the will of the West.”

He will test it to the limit, says Bukovsky, but not step over the limit.

• “There are obvious heroes of the Soviet Union,” I say: “Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov, you. But I know there are unknown heroes, too. Can you tell me about some people you especially admire? People whose names I might not know?”

Bukovsky says, “There was an extensive group of Old Bolsheviks who completely disagreed with Stalin and went against him. Lots of them were murdered — killed, executed, tortured. I was privileged to know several of them who survived. They were great people. I did not agree with their philosophy at all.

“It was funny, because they would advise me to join the Communist Party. Why? ‘The party became degenerate, so it needs an influx of honest people to rejuvenate it, so why don’t you join them and try to do that from the inside?’ For Chrissakes. Our good friend Anatoly Yakobson — he died in Israel — he said, rudely, but correctly, ‘It’s like trying to cure a lady infected with VD by sleeping with her. You’re not likely to cure her, but you’re very likely to catch VD.’ He was absolutely right.

“Nevertheless, I had to respect these people.”

Bukovsky mentions a few names, including that of Sergei Petrovich Pisarev: “a guy who was tortured so severely, they broke his backbone, and the rest of his life he had to wear a special corset. But he didn’t sign any papers, he didn’t sign any false accusations, and they couldn’t break him. He was an Old Bolshevik, but, in all humility, I have to admit he was a great man.”

• One thing about this conversation, I have not really conveyed. Well, several things, but here is one: Bukovsky laughs frequently. Heartily, warmly, and enjoyably. He has any number of health problems, and he has been through a lot, heaven knows, but he laughs and laughs, and there is obviously a deep humanity in him. (He is also smart as hell.) He may be gruff from time to time, and with good reason — but he is lovable.

There is a coterie around Bukovsky, a group of helpers. I say to one of them, after I leave him — after I leave Cambridge — “I understand why you love him so much.”

Thank you for joining me, ladies and gentlemen — for joining us, Bukovsky and me. He is one of the rarest, most individual people I have ever met. I’ll talk to you soon.

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