Cambridge, England — 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. He 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.
Bukovsky was born in 1942 and quickly opposed the system: the system into which he had been born. He was kicked out of Moscow State University when he was 19. He had criticized the Komsomol, the Young Communist League.
“Do you think you were just born this way?” I ask him. Born to take risks, born to land in trouble? “Yeah,” says Bukovsky. “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.”
In an interrogation, a KGB general tried to get him to turn — to inform on the dissident movement. Bukovsky, with the recklessness of youth, told him off. Years later, Bukovsky was pleased to find something in his dossier: “not suitable for recruitment.”
He does not necessarily condemn those who made compromises, however. “When you live in a totalitarian society, you learn to be very cautious in your judgments,” he says, “because you know that people sometimes find themselves in hopeless situations.”
He spent twelve years in the Gulag: prisons, labor camps, and sadistic psychiatric hospitals. I ask, “Did you ever think you would not survive?” “Oh, yeah,” he answers. “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.”
Bukovsky was released in 1976, exchanged at the Zurich airport for Luis Corvalán, the head of the Chilean Communist Party. “What was that like?” I ask. “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, Bukovsky had a long talk with President Carter — “naïve,” he says of that president. He would also talk many times with President Reagan. Very different. “We called him ‘Grandpa Reagan,’” Bukovsky remembers. (When he says “we,” he means Soviet dissidents.) “He was a member of the family. He loved Russian political jokes. Whenever he saw any of us, he’d immediately ask, ‘Got any new jokes?’”
Resuming his education, after his gap years in the Gulag, Bukovsky studied at King’s College, Cambridge (biology). He has lived here in Cambridge ever since. Some of his years have been quiet, some have been tumultuous. We talk over the good and the bad, in an hour or two on the back patio, and I will detail this conversation in a series at National Review Online. But for now: What about this book, newly in English?
Go back to 1991 — when the new Russian president, Yeltsin, banned the Soviet Communist Party. The Party sued, and Yeltsin’s government asked Bukovsky to serve as an expert witness at trial. He agreed, on one condition: that he would have access to the archives — the archives of the Central Committee, the beating, black heart of the Party. He got it.
Off he went to Russia, armed with a laptop, a scanner, and other equipment. By day he combed through the archives, finding eye-popping material, and by night he copied this material, surreptitiously. He knew he had to work fast. He figured the archives would not be open for long, to him or anybody else. “I had a very limited window,” he says today.
The trial turned out to be a dud, not a Nuremberg-like reckoning, which Bukovsky and many others had hoped for. But Bukovsky had the documents in the West — the documents that he had copied, then smuggled out. He put them in a book, along with his comments on them. He called the book “Judgment in Moscow.” (In 1961, there had been an American movie, Judgment at Nuremberg.) It was published in nine languages, including Russian. The Russian translation was “thanks to Solzhenitsyn, by the way,” says Bukovsky. (He is referring, of course, to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the great dissident who wrote The Gulag Archipelago, among other pivotal books.) “He gave money for it.”
But the book was not published in English, the preeminent language in the world. Why? Thereby hangs a tale. Random House, the American publisher, had the rights to the book. But, in the end, the house refused to publish it. Bukovsky’s book was judged too hot to handle, in short. Random House demanded extensive revisions, which the author refused to undertake. In his characteristic fashion, he said, “Owing to peculiarities in my biography, I am allergic to political censorship.”
Judgment in Moscow is not a warm and cuddly book, let me say. Most dissidents, in my experience, are not warm and cuddly. Otherwise, they might not have been dissidents in the first place. Judgment in Moscow is a damning book. Its subtitle is “Soviet Crimes and Western Complicity.” Many people in the West are uncomfortable with the “complicity” part. Bukovsky thinks they should be.
After Random House backed out, John Murray, a British publisher, was set to publish an English edition. This house, too, ultimately backed out — chickened out, Bukovsky and his supporters say.
Was it frustrating to him not to have the book in English? “It was annoying,” says Bukovsky. “I wouldn’t say it was frustrating. I knew that you couldn’t hide this book, that it would get through anyway.”
Flash forward to a few years ago: Evgeny Kissin, the pianist, wanted to discuss something with Bukovsky. (Kissin, Russian-born, has been a British citizen since 2002.) It was not music. It was Judgment in Moscow. The book was greatly meaningful to him, and he wanted to see it published in English. He went ahead and made it possible, with determination and money. Bukovsky had long before given up on an English edition. He himself would not have bothered, he says. But Kissin and others — including volunteers — very much wanted to bother.
The book has been brought out by a small publisher in California, Ninth of November Press. (The Berlin Wall came down on November 9, 1989. The publisher’s motto is “Dissident books brought back for today’s readers.”) This new edition has a foreword by Edward Lucas and an afterword by David Satter. They are two leading Russianists of today.
According to Bukovsky, and not a few others, Russia has suffered badly from the lack of a Nuremberg, an accounting, a reckoning with Communism. There has been no decommunization, as there was a denazification. “Failure to finish off the Soviet system conclusively has led to its revival,” writes Bukovsky in his preface to the new edition. To me, he notes that a KGB man has presided in the Kremlin for almost 20 years. “Can you imagine the same thing happening in Germany? Some Gestapo officer elected the chancellor? I doubt it — even in Germany.”
Putin is “a product of the system,” says Bukovsky: the Soviet system. “Everything that comes from him has a birthmark on it.”
Needless to say, Bukovsky is gloomy about Russia and its future — but his Judgment in Moscow has touched a nerve and struck a chord with many people, some of them famous, such as Kissin, and some of them (most of them) not. Who knows what role the book might play in coming years? Bukovsky himself cites a verse from Fyodor Tyutchev, a Russian poet from the 19th century: “We cannot guess ahead / What echo our words will have.”