Editor’s Note: Jay Nordlinger recently interviewed Vladimir Bukovsky, the legendary Soviet-era dissident, at Bukovsky’s home in Cambridge, England. For the first two parts of this series, go here and here.
Talking with Bukovsky, I ask him to give me a comment or two on Yeltsin — Boris Yeltsin, the first president of the new Russia. He does.
“He was a tragic figure. He was kind of half born — I don’t know how to put it. He was part and parcel of the Communist regime, and he suddenly realized that the whole thing was wrong — and then he was on both sides at the same time. That was the trouble with Yeltsin. That’s what made him a tragic figure. He couldn’t decide what to do with his life. He couldn’t go all the way against the Communists. He went against them, but did not finish it. Yes, he was a tragic figure.”
• Bukovsky’s book Judgment in Moscow: Did he mean it to be a Nuremberg? A partial Nuremberg? A mini-Nuremberg? “Theoretically, that’s what I tried to achieve, but there is nothing like an actual trial, a real trial. We all know the difference: One is moral, the other actual.”
Along with many others, Bukovsky would have liked to see an actual trial, in any form. “Someone asked me — a member of Yeltsin’s entourage — ‘Well, who’s going to be the judges?’ A very tricky question. I said, ‘Look, I don’t care. Choose twelve people off the street, and that would be okay with me.’”
I think of the old phrase, about juries: “twelve good men and true.”
“Without a trial — a Nuremberg-style trial — the regime was bound to return,” says Bukovsky. He is speaking of Vladimir Putin and his Soviet ways. “In Germany, if we hadn’t conducted denazification, if we hadn’t convened the Nuremberg tribunals, the Nazi regime would have come back to power. Under a different name, in a different guise, but it would have come back.”
• Much to the annoyance of many of us, the Nazis have always been the object of more opprobrium than the Communists, including the Soviet Communists — much more opprobrium. When I think of this subject, I think of Paul Hollander, the Hungarian-born sociologist and writer. Like many of his countrymen, he lived under both Nazi and Communist regimes. No one was better on the subject of the Nazis and the Communists, and the world’s differing views on them, than Paul.
Paul has just died. I mention this to Vladimir, and we reminisce a little. Bukovsky once collaborated on a book with Hollander, and Sidney Hook as well. In 1987, the three of them put out Soviet Hypocrisy and Western Gullibility.
• “Did the Czechs do best?” I ask Bukovsky. “Havel and your other friends there — did they do the best?” What I mean is, Of all the people in the former Soviet empire, did the Czechs do the best in accounting for the past and decommunizing? “They tried,” says Bukovsky, “but they did not succeed. The whole thing got stuck. Lustration was completely lost in the courts.”
Too bad. “No one has done it right,” says Bukovsky. He then says, almost as an afterthought, “No one could.”
• He has a memory of the Gulag. It was 1968 or so. He was in “one of the transit jails,” and some workers said to him, “You’re against this system? Well, good: We’re against it too. But what would you do with people like us if you came to power?” Bukovsky looked at them and said, “Have you ever heard about jury trials?” They had not. Bukovsky spent “a good hour,” he says, explaining to them how justice works in a democratic system.
• Some people say, “Move on. Can’t we just move on from the USSR and all that? Can’t we leave the past in the past and get on with life?” Bukovsky virtually explodes at this, with good reason. It is the most animated he will be in this entire conversation.
“Listen,” he says: “Saying that today is ridiculous.” Saying “move on,” he means. Look at Venezuela, he says. Look at Russia. In Russia, Bukovsky sees the revival of the Soviet system.
And without knowing about the past, how can you deal with Putin now? “Putin will provoke the West again and again,” says Bukovsky. “What he is doing now, you remember, used to be called ‘brinkmanship.’ He will push things to the limit — to test the strength and resolve of the West.”
Today’s politicians are totally unequipped to deal with this, Bukovsky says, in part because they are ignorant of the past.
Putin is a Soviet man, according to Bukovsky — “a product of the system.” The Russian president did not spend all those years in the KGB for nothing. “Everything that comes from him has a birthmark on it,” says Bukovsky: a Soviet birthmark.
In the days of the USSR, he says, Soviet leaders would always talk about “encirclement”: “capitalist encirclement.” The Soviet Union was the first state in history for the workers and the peasants, and the capitalists were jealous and resentful, so they were “encircling” the Soviet Union.
Putin pulls the same trick, says Bukovsky, using slightly different language, but sticking with “encirclement.” As Kremlin propaganda has it, the West is always plotting against Russia, ever hostile. In reality, says Bukovsky, the West doesn’t give a damn about Russia. He knows this, having lived in the West for more than 40 years.
But this propaganda about the West keeps the masses in line, distracting them from the many, Russian-made ills around them.
• I ask Bukovsky whether he feels any kinship with Russia — any affinity, any sympathy, any fellow feeling. Not anymore, he says. “You have to shrug your shoulders and say, ‘Well, you asked for it, you got it.’ For Chrissake. Why would a country, at last free of the KGB, elect a lieutenant colonel in the KGB as president? Can you imagine the same thing happening in Germany? Some Gestapo officer elected the chancellor? I doubt it — even in Germany.”
• If Boris Nemtsov had succeeded Yeltsin, instead of the KGB officer, Putin, that would have been a whole different ballgame — a different Russia. Nemtsov was a liberal democrat, and he was the leader of the opposition, after Putin got entrenched.
“That wasn’t on the table,” says Bukovsky. “We were all close friends of his” — remember, when Bukovsky says “we,” he means Soviet-Russian dissidents and democracy activists — “and we all hoped that one day he would be president of Russia, but it was never serious, never meant to be.”
Nemtsov was killed, of course, within sight of the Kremlin in 2015. Did the government kill him?
“Oh, I’m sure,” says Bukovsky. “Putin’s structures killed him. If anyone is killed in Red Square, the killer or killers must have approval from the Kremlin. Red Square is the one place in the whole of Russia where every millimeter is monitored. Nothing could happen in Red Square without the authorities’ knowing about it, you see?”
I do see.
Bukovsky says of Nemtsov, “He was a good friend. He was a very decent fellow. Yeah.”
See you tomorrow, ladies and gentlemen, for the final part of our series.