All Soviet dissidents are legendary, to one degree or another. Vladimir Bukovsky is especially so. He is held in awe by people whom the rest of us hold in awe. I’m speaking of his fellow dissidents. Bukovsky is a dissident’s dissident, so to speak.
A book of his, which originally appeared in 1995, is now being published in English for the first time. On his back patio, amid chirping birds, I talk with him about this and many other subjects.
And where is the back patio? In Cambridge, England, where Bukovsky has lived since the mid-1970s.
Bukovsky has had mighty health struggles — but he indulges his listener, his interviewer, gladly and ably.
• He was born in 1942 and quickly became dissident. Enrolled at Moscow State University for biology, he was kicked out at age 19. He had criticized the Komsomol, i.e., the Young Communist League.
I ask him, “Do you think you were born this way? Born to stick your neck out, born to get into trouble?” “Yeah,” he says. “There’s nothing you can do about it. I would feel uncomfortable if I tried to hide what I believe. It’s against my nature.”
Last September, I talked with Bukovsky by phone. At that time, he made this statement: “My formative years were post-Stalin. We learned that enormous crimes had been committed in the country: Millions of people were tortured and killed. Millions of people were rotting in the Gulag. This would be a shock for anyone to learn. I felt I had to say something and do something.”
• Here in Cambridge, he tells me about an encounter he had with a KGB general. The general interrogated him when he, Bukovsky, was very young. The general tried to get him to turn — to inform on the dissident movement. With the recklessness of youth, Bukovsky told him off.
Well, forget the recklessness of youth: I think Bukovsky would do the same at any age.
Anyway, Bukovsky told him off in foulest terms. These terms are “untranslatable,” he tells me.
Perhaps surprisingly, the general was not offended. “He just looked at me,” Bukovsky says.
And “this saved me a lot of trouble,” he continues, “because I learned much later that, as a result of this encounter, I had in my personal file an entry that said, ‘Not suitable for recruiting.’ So they never tried to recruit me again.”
I offer the opinion that “not suitable for recruiting” is a great compliment.
• “Have people said to you over the years, ‘Thank you for doing what I should have and could not, or did not’?” I put this question to Bukovsky. “There were people like that,” he answers. “But there were more people who thought that. I could see that message in their eyes. But they would not say it openly.”
And “I would not mind,” says Bukovsky.
“When you live in a totalitarian country, you learn not to be judgmental. You learn to be very cautious in your judgments because you know that people sometimes find themselves in hopeless situations.”
• Bukovsky spent twelve years in the Gulag: prisons, labor camps, and sadistic psychiatric hospitals. I ask him, “Did you ever think you would not survive?” “Oh, yeah,” he says. “It was the dominant idea.” He thought they would kill him. “Most of my friends never expected to live to the age of 30. We all thought it was a given. It was just luck that I survived. Most of my friends were killed.”
• I recall something that Charles Krauthammer said about Natan Sharansky, who (as Anatoly Shcharansky) was in the Gulag for nine years. He said that Sharansky emerged unscathed. He was in mental and emotional balance. “It was like he had gone to the Caribbean to lie on the beach for nine years,” said Krauthammer.
Bukovsky says, “It’s very simple: If you are not broken, you are unscathed. They failed to break him, therefore he is unscathed. It’s very personal.”
This strikes me as something you have to know from experience — and if you don’t have the experience, lucky you …
• We talk for a while about his parents. Both of them, initially, thought he was mad, challenging the Soviet state as he did. The state would crush him. By the end, however — before he was out of the Gulag — they understood and admired.
• In 1976, Bukovsky was released, exchanged at the Zurich airport for Luis Corvalán, the head of the Chilean Communist Party. What was that like?
“It was a very good day,” says Bukovsky, “but if you asked me was I jubilant or something — no. I suddenly felt how tired I was. Until then, you keep fighting, and therefore your tiredness is at bay. You don’t allow it to rule your life. You go on. Then suddenly …”
• Early in 1977, shortly after Inauguration Day, Bukovsky met with the new American president, Jimmy Carter. What did he think? “Naive,” he says, in a word. He found President Carter naive, and uncomprehending. “He was just a blank.”
Bukovsky further says he has “a funny story” to tell me. “Before I went to see Carter, I went to see Solzhenitsyn in Vermont.” He was with his fellow dissident and fellow exile, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, for three days, “talking almost non-stop.” Solzhenitsyn asked Bukovsky to call him after the meeting with Carter, to tell him how it went.
“So, I called him. The first thing he asked was, ‘How long was the meeting?’ I told him I was with the president for 40, 45 minutes. ‘Forty-five minutes!’ Solzhenitsyn said. ‘You should not have gone for so short a meeting. You should have refused.’”
What the great man, Solzhenitsyn, did not know is that 45 minutes is an eternity of a president’s time. Very few people — and even fewer private citizens — and even fewer foreign private citizens — get 45 minutes of a president’s time.
Solzhenitsyn could not understand this, says Bukovsky. “His idea was that Carter and I should go somewhere in the countryside, sit down, and talk half the night as Russians do, with a bottle of vodka, and then we would understand each other.”
In our earlier conversation — September — Bukovsky told me this: “Jimmy Carter was an honest and sincere man, but he had no idea what he was doing. He was incredibly naive for an American president. His attitude changed after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan.”
At the beginning of his presidency, Bukovsky said, “Carter had a human-rights approach, which was helpful. But he quickly dropped it in favor of traditional aims, especially arms control. That was a pity, because arms control was a bugaboo, a fantasy, a figment of the Western imagination.”
• Reagan? “He was more realistic,” Bukovsky told me in September. “He had above all a sense of mission: a sense of his mission to finish off Communism. He probably didn’t throw Communism on the ash heap of history, but he helped it get there. He speeded up the collapse of the Soviet Union.”
Here in Cambridge, he tells me, “We called him ‘Grandpa’ — ‘Grandpa Reagan.’” (When Bukovsky says “we,” he means Soviet dissidents in general.) “He was a member of the family. He loved Russian political jokes. Whenever he saw one of us, he would immediately ask, ‘Got any new jokes?’”
Reagan’s favorite joke, says Bukovsky, was this one: A man stands in line for buying a car. He puts down the money for his new car. He’s told to come and pick it up on a particular date, ten years away. “Morning or afternoon?” he says. “What difference does it make?” says the person in charge. “Well, I’m expecting the plumber in the morning.”
Bukovsky has favorite jokes of his own. One of them goes like this:
In the morning, Brezhnev goes out on his balcony and says, “Good morning, sun!” The sun says, “Good morning, Comrade Brezhnev, General-Secretary of the Communist Party of the Glorious Soviet Union!” After lunch, Brezhnev goes out on the balcony and says, “Good afternoon, sun!” The sun replies, “Good afternoon, Comrade Brezhnev, General-Secretary of the Communist Party of the Great, Historic Soviet Union!” Later, as the sun is setting, Brezhnev says, “Good evening, sun!” The sun says, “F*** you, Leonid. I’m in the West now.”
Says Bukovsky, “Reagan was great. He was a man of intuition. I was a close friend of Margaret Thatcher, and she was very cerebral. She had no intuition. She said she could do business with Gorbachev and all that stuff, and I had to argue with her about it for several years. Reagan was the only Western politician who did not swallow Gorbachev’s disinformation campaign.”
Ladies and gentlemen, I could go on — and will. I’ll see you tomorrow for Part II of this encounter with Vladimir Bukovsky.