The most difficult thing is to write a tribute to a dear friend, Vladimir Bukovsky . One stumbles towards a dialogue which is not possible any longer.
We became good friends instantly, and the last thirty years of my life, half of it, I was privileged to be-friend, to write and film about, and to work together as a colleague historian with that very rare person. Strong, fiercely intelligent, fearless. The lion of a man. As a real lion, Volodja was lonely, always, in all aspects of his life. People with such standards and such independent behaviour are always on their own. It was his destiny.
Bukovsky was a talented writer – his first and in my opinion, his best book, To Build a Castle is a classic. It better could be fiction, like Adventure of Count Monte-Cristo. Because to think that everything described in the book was real events happened with a real person is really painful. But it was real.
I once wrote that Building the Castle should be a part of any school curriculum, doubly so in Russia, as it does teach what decency and dignity are about in the real terms of real life.
The world knows Vladimir Bukovsky as leading dissident figure, a crusader against the totalitarian regimes, a freedom fighter in the literal meaning of the word and the original sound of the well-known term. But people probably did not bother to have a closer look into the origin of that heroic personal standing of a young Soviet man against the overwhelming system.
Vladimir Bukovsky lived in the Soviet Union first 34 years of his life, 12 of them being imprisoned. He was arrested 4 times, in a galloping fashion, giving him just a few months of freedom between his terms in Soviet prisons and Gulag camps being arrested first when he was just 22. What for? For public insisting on a possibility to speak, to discuss not even capitalistic system, but the form of another socialism, more human one.
For public insisting on a possibility to have a different opinion – and not to be jailed for that, as he did with few of his friends trying to defend dissident writers Sinjavsky and Daniel who were put on shameful and insane, in a typical Soviet motto, public trial in the early 1960s. For possibility for citizens to have their own opinion – and not to be punished for that. Those few brave boys were publicly claiming the basic human rights for enslaved Soviet people, and the system punished them in a crushing way.
Bukovsky and his friends had become subjects of what is known now, thanks to him, as ‘Soviet punitive medicine’, namely subjecting normal healthy people to criminal psychic ‘treatment’ and experiments in the nightmare-like special departments of the Soviet psychiatric clinics. The worst possible Kafkian world, only real one, on alive human beings.
Bukovsky, the only one of the Soviet dissidents ( they were few ones, anyway), did manage to collect the evidence of that criminal treatment of their own citizens by the Soviet authorities and get it abroad, to be published there to the astounding world. It is because of that crucial deed he has become well-known in the West, and the campaigns for his release has become the international cause.
I remember how he told me that Simone Veil, at that time the French Minister of Justice, came to Moscow in a fur to give it to Volodja’s mom to sell it, to help them financially. We know that she spoke with the Soviet authorities on his release too, as did many other heads of the States, including president Carter with whom Volodja has discussed it later on when visiting him in the White House, after his historic exchange with Louis Corvalan, the head of the Chilean communist party in December 1976.
I am sure that comrade Corvalan was escorted to Moscow with all possible comfort. And I do know that ill and weak after long hunger-strike Bukovsky who was put in the plane to Geneva with his mother, sister and terminally ill nephew, was handcuffed all the time until the very moment of landing. He was escorted by the officers of Soviet Alfa special forces unit. The enemy of the state, seemingly. What could he possibly do against them on that plane?
Being freed, the first thing that Bukovsky did, was to complete his education. He studied neurophysiology at Standford and graduated from there in the early 1980s. He was not that open personality, and only he knew to detail his personal need to get to the bottom of the function of the human brain, the brain that they did aim to destroy so efficiently back home. He never worked as a scientist.
Not even because he was busy with political activism, but because the university life was not for him. He was a talented writer, and he knew what and how to do in his life. To free his friends, to help others oppressed by totalitarian regimes, to write his books and articles to let his voice to be heard. He really did care about freedom – because he paid an utterly high price for it. And he understood the others – because of his experience of imprisonment. He has told me that all that he did in his life, he did ‘first and foremost for himself’. This is what is self-dignity is about.
Together with the friends and soul-mates, he organised The International of Resistance and for many years he was on the leading frontier of the real fight for real, not fantasied-about and not fancy, human rights. He was deeply impressed by the cruelty of Cuban system which was aimed to crush human beings completely, and told me that ‘in comparison with Cuban treatment of people in their prisons, the rest is pale, even Soviet psychiatric wards’. He was fair and compassionate for the people imprisoned by the totalitarian regimes. He knew it intimately, and he devoted his life to fighting that encompassing inhumanity.
He fought for the Baltic states as a lion. He fought for Soviet Jewish refuseniks as father and brother. He fought for DDR prisoners as bravest soldier.
I was with Volodja in Moscow in August and September 1991 when the Soviet system collapsed in a blink of an eye. Since the first moment, he did grasp the importance and validity of the documents of the regime which were covering rooms, stairs and any place of the buildings at the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party compound in Moscow in unbelievable quantities.
At any meter of that vast place, one could see tons of papers, all stamped with Secret, Top Secret, and Special File marks. Those were not military secrets. Those were the papers of the nucleus of power in the Soviet Union. Priceless throve of first-hand knowledge of the very process of their decision-making during the decades.
I examined many of those documents with Volodja. We did not know to cry or to laugh. To cry on seeing in front of us who and how decided on lives of millions -as in the case of the Soviet military operation in Afghanistan, to laugh on reading on unparalleled idiocy – like Gorbachev blaming Elena Bonner to be a Zionist agent who dictates to Academician Sakharov ‘not his, but her and her masters’ thoughts and all these under-minding ideas’. And many, many other first-hand documents on the decades of activities of the Soviet Union abroad, in unimaginable waste of money taken from their own citizens to secret print-houses in Belgium and pumping trillions into Africa.
Volodja never was a merchant, not a bit of it. He did not trade the documents on the mechanisms of Soviet international influence. He wrote his other important book Moscow Process and it was published in Russian in the early 1990s. It took the West almost 25 years to publish it first in French in 2014, and now, almost 30 years on, in English, in May this year. Why is that? Why it took the Western publishers so long to publish the book entirely built on documents? Because the truth uncovered in those documents is quite unpleasant also for many Westerners, and because Bukovsky never was a deal-maker ready for substantial, principal compromise.
In the early 1990s, recent Soviet Politbureau members were the ones who quickly found a solid Western partner to strike a multi-million deals of publications based on the Soviet archives which were very politically correct and did not cause any effect but were quite profitable for members of the projects. There were also some recent KGB generals who turned their knowledge and some documentation into the highly profitable business of supplying silly and cheap plots to electronic game business, and to the Hollywood plots-tube.
Bukovsky lived differently. He withdrew his candidacy for Mayor of Moscow in 1992 realising that he would be used, and most likely would not survive physically in that jungle of first post-Soviet years. He did not withdraw his candidacy in the face of the Russian presidential elections in 2007 and did feel sorry about it ever after. He did not lose his judgement. He said that me at the time that he ‘has nothing to lose, and if his friends asked him to stand, he is doing it for them’. I just not quite sure if the friends respected him enough asking him to pose in something which was a farce.
Bukovsky’s integrity was his most precious possession. And it is on that he was attacked so cruelly, this time by the British authorities, towards the end of his life, in 2014. Two British prosecutors, both females, one acting for Cambridge and another more senior, deputy head of the prosecutor office, all of them suddenly ordered a search of Bukovsky’s house, and on the seized hard-disk of his computer porno-materials were found. How did the prosecutors know about that vile paedophile? Was he a member of a known group? No. How did they know that in that very house that very material could be found on the hard-disc of that particular computer? As it turned out, the material was there but it was not accessed. Volodja’s house was opened for his friends – and their friends as well. He was travelling often, and the house could be accessed in his absence, too. His computer could be accessed also at the times when he was at home, he had particular life-style and going to bed very late, he was awakening late. One wonders.
It was the time of a wide all-Britain operation on famous people who were accused of paedophile activities, as it turned out, most of them were accused wrongly. Many of them died in shame. At the beginning of October 2019, a special report of the formal inquiry into that extraordinary witch-hunt in Britain was published. It is an unbelievable reading. In plain English, the author of the report, the head of the special commission, calls Scotland Yard’s activities on that direction as ‘instituted idiocy’. The investigations and criminal cases, as the case against Bukovsky, were completely unfounded. People who were shamed publicly died. Prosecutors and detectives who crushed the lives of great people are still working or having a nice life with lavish pensions. Orwell is paled completely with this reality of Britain today. In the case of Bukovsky, his friends are sure that the attack on him has been orchestrated. I personally asked Boris Johnson, the leading MP at the time, to help Volodja, and he did what he could at the moment.
Bukovsky did never recover from that outrage against him in the free Western society. He had to undergo a very complicated operation on an open heart in Germany in 2015, and having bad diabetes, never fully recovered. His noble heart stopped on the evening of October 27th, 2019 at the Cambridge hospital. He was 76, and could well have lived another decade.
It is surreal to think that I can not call you, Volodja.
But people like you, the best of us, never disappear. There are very few people who could be like you. But there are many who can learn what decency and dignity is about reading your books, listening to your interviews and seeing films where you are addressing us, with your unbeatable humour, your elegant irony, your vast and deep knowledge, your giant intellect, your wit, your strength and your will to live with your back straight.
So long, Volodja. You did this world far better although the world was not gracious to you.
October 28, 2019