A Dissident's Legacy

Vladimir Bukovsky, 1942-2019
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America lost one of its best friends late last month when Soviet-era dissident Vladimir Bukovsky died at 76 in Cambridge, England. The notoriously stubborn writer and non-violent activist inspired other dissidents by example, enduring a total of 12 years in phony psychiatric hospitals, prison and labor camps in the 1960’s and 70’s for speaking out against the tyrannical state. In spite of the harsh punishment he endured, Bukovsky successfully leaked secret documents to the West that exposed the Soviet practice of falsely declaring dissidents to be mentally ill—including himself.

Bukovksy made history upon his release to the UK in 1976, meeting with President Carter (who banned photographs to avoid outraging the Kremlin) and writing his masterful memoir "To Build a Castle", which landed him on Good Morning America and other national media. Beyond his warnings of Soviet treachery, he inspired others with his integrity. “We didn't arise as a political movement,” he said in 2014. “We were a moral movement. Our basic impulse was not to transform Russia, but simply not to be a participant in crime.”  

In the 1980’s, Bukovsky informally advised Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher not to trust the conciliatory overtures of General Secretary Gorbachev. He warned that covert Soviet influence and outright collusion were everywhere in the West, from campaigns for nuclear disarmament to deals with the devil next door being sought by European leaders. After the USSR collapsed in 1991, he was invited back to Moscow by an admiring President Yeltsin to assist in a courtroom battle with former members of the Communist Party.  

Unknown to Yeltsin, when Bukovsky returned to Moscow, he had another daring plan up his sleeve. Telling Yeltsin he needed access to top-secret Kremlin archives to prepare for the courtroom, Bukovsky used a Japanese portable scanner (which no one recognized) to openly copy thousands of pages of documents—meeting notes, requests for aid and action orders from the Central Committee for covert operations.

Back in England, he painstakingly assembled a lengthy new book, "Judgment in Moscow", which used excerpts from the secret files to tell the story of decades of Soviet subterfuge, internal crises and strife, and most strikingly, talks with Western leaders and media who sought to gain favor with Moscow. The book’s title alluded to the 1961 film "Judgment at Nuremberg", which portrayed the trials against former Nazi leaders for crimes against humanity. Bukovksy insisted that without a similar trial for Russia’s communists, the temporarily-defeated Communists would simply rebrand themselves as egalitarians and capitalists. The same crew would then return to totalitarian rule, Godless in theory and heartless in practice.

In short, Bukovsky saw Putin coming from day one.

Despite his worldwide reputation as a man of integrity and a tireless member of groups such as the Human Rights Foundation, Bukovsky’s book hit a wall. It was published in Russian, French and several other languages, but publishers in the United States and UK balked at putting their imprint on an English translation.

It was one of Bukovsky’s lifelong themes that while dissidents in Russia were willing to do hard prison time for publishing pamphlets, Westerners were only adamant about their morals and truths as long as their jobs, careers and personal comforts weren’t at risk. This, he wrote, was why publishers drew the line at a book that used Communist Party documents to accuse Western politicians of the era, including US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, of catering to Moscow’s interests. The book also included classified reports from inside the Kremlin that claimed an American TV network and a famous filmmaker had both agreed to make documentaries whose every frame would be approved by the Central Committee.

It didn’t help that, to most Western media professionals, Vladimir Bukovsky was an embarrassing right-winger. He was openly friendly with Margaret Thatcher and others who aided his work assembling "Judgment", and in later years with the pro-Brexit advocates in Britain’s UKIP. He was charged in 2016 with possession of child pornography, appalling to say the least, but a standard KGB tactic that continues in Russia today. The case was eventually stayed indefinitely.

Yet that same year, as a small team of volunteers began preparing a new English translation of "Judgment in Moscow", Bukovsky’s basic premise—that you never know which of your leaders is working a deal with Moscow—was suddenly no longer dismissed as a crazy conspiracy theory. Nor was his claim that American media moguls will set their consciences and national interests aside if it’s good for ratings. 

Vladimir Bukovsky is gone, but his legacy shouldn’t end with his final sentence in "Judgment in Moscow", “I did all I could.” He set an example for the rest of us: No one chooses to be a dissident. Instead, it happens to people who simply can’t live a lie anymore. “With his back to the wall, a man cannot sacrifice a part of himself, cannot split himself up,” he wrote forty years ago. “And an astonishing thing happens. In fighting to preserve his integrity, he is simultaneously fighting for his people.” His call to action is simple: Do what you can to preserve your own self-respect. You’ll know in your heart what that is.

Paul Boutin is the Executive Editor of Ninth of November Press.

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