Few remember him today, for reasons that should unsettle us all, but Vladimir Bukovsky was a hero from a dark age whose example confirms Mises’s motto, taken from the Aeneid: “Do not give in to evil, but proceed ever more boldly against it.”
Often glossed in the press as a “Soviet dissident,” Bukovsky was infinitely more important. He took on the entirety of the Communist behemoth and lived to see it fall — only to watch pieces of it rise again, he claims, and all with the conniving of the West.
Vladimir Konstantinovich Bukovsky seemed destined to be a dissenter. The son of true-believer communists, Bukovsky realized at age ten, when Stalin died, that a mortal god was no god at all. He began to distrust the propaganda of the Soviet state. Apparently preternaturally incapable of lying, to others or, most important, to himself, Bukovsky refused to acquiesce in the quiet suicide of the conscience that is the necessary condition for any totalitarian government to succeed. As an undergraduate, Bukovsky began taking part in public demonstrations against the Soviet regime, after which he was marked for life as an enemy of the state.
Bukovsky embraced this role. Like a handful of others — Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, of course, and poets Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstein, to name just a few — Bukovsky valued integrity above all else. He knew that communism was a lie and that everyone complicit with it was a liar, and he would not be a part of any of it. Tortured, imprisoned, subjected to psychological torment and physical deprivation, Bukovsky didn’t yield. He went on hunger strikes, published samizdat that circulated widely inside and outside of the Soviet Union, and made it the purpose of his life to tell everyone, everywhere: man must be free, and freedom and truth are ultimately the same thing.
Bukovsky detailed the decades of abuses and outrages in a book he published after the Soviet Union, grown tired of imprisoning him and increasingly wary of dissidents in general, exiled him. To Build a Castle, which Bukovsky put out in 1978 after he had settled in England, tells the story of the depravity of communist rule. In particular, and especially under Yuri Andropov (a man whom Bukovsky hated like no other), the Soviets learned how to weaponize psychiatry in order to diagnose those who resisted socialism as suffering from “sluggish schizophrenia” or some other nonsensical malady. Declared insane (as were thousands of other dissidents), Bukovsky relied on what he called “the implacable force of one man’s refusal to submit.” He was a tiny leaven of truth against the abuse of psychiatry, but even that small truth won out. The Soviets were eventually censured by their psychiatry colleagues in the West; Bukovsky had again not given in to evil, but had proceeded ever more boldly against it. In time, the Iron Curtain fell, and the Evil Empire, which had had a stranglehold on Eastern Europe and half of Eurasia, collapsed. Bukovsky had stared down the Soviet Union — the individual had defeated the collective.
It is at this point in the story of the Soviet Union that we in the West tend to swell with pride. We defeated the communist beast, we believe. Freedom prevailed.
The other half, the much more important half, of Bukovsky’s public testimony can be found in Judgment in Moscow: Soviet Crimes and Western Complicity. The English version was released this year, just months before Bukovsky died. The book had been published in Russian in 1996, and then in French and other languages, but editors in the Anglophone world refused to issue an English translation until some six months ago. This is where we must shift uncomfortably in our chairs. Like Solzhenitsyn, Bukovsky did not spend his new life outside of the Soviet Union fawning over the West. The whole truth of the dissident experience is that, yes, communism was wicked and destroyed hundreds of millions of lives, but the “Free World,” for its part, was largely compromised, too. Cowards and sellouts and even outright champions of oppression thronged the halls of power in the US, Western Europe, and elsewhere outside the putative orbit of the Soviet Union. It is for détente that Bukovsky reserves his most acidic scorn.
Bukovsky’s revelations are a bucket of cold water to the face. We did not defeat communism, Bukovsky argues. The communists, he says, never really went away. They changed clothes, became “liberals,” and went on terrorizing people who spoke against them. To be sure, Russia today is not the communist hellhole that the Soviet Union was. But Bukovsky still thought that the apparent collapse of KGB dominance in the early 1990s was a sham, and that the same system that tortured him remained in place to crush dissents in what became the Russian Republic. In Judgment in Moscow Bukovsky names names, including that of Vladimir Putin, and alleges that the KGB simply sloughed off its old image while carrying on with the same bad game. This is explosive stuff, and Bukovsky levels these accusations like a man virtually defying the authorities to re-imprison him. Which, in a way, he was.
What is most troubling about Bukovsky’s revelations is that, while all of this was going on and while the Soviet dissidents were screaming to make it known, the West stood by, did nothing, even helped the totalitarian terrorists (for that is what they are, and what Bukovsky rightly calls them) clean up the messes they made. Even after the Kremlin folded, nobody dared be the one to give Bukovsky a platform to say that it was not just Brezhnev and Khruschev and Gorbachev who had been involved — Cyrus Vance, Willy Brandt, Henry Kissinger, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Richard Nixon, David Rockefeller, even Francis Ford Coppola were all, according to Bukovsky, somehow complicit in furthering or even strengthening the Soviet grip on power. That Bukovsky retained his sanity in the face of KGB mind-torture is remarkable; that he remained sane even after realizing that the USSR’s “enemies” were also on Moscow’s side is nothing short of miraculous.
As Bukovsky says in Judgment in Moscow and repeats on his invaluable website: “The movers and shakers of today have little interest in digging for the truth. Who knows what one may come up with? You may start out with the communists, and end up with yourself.”
Indeed. By means of a daring theft of archival materials (both with an accomplice and on his own), Bukovsky obtained thousands and thousands of pages of documents from the heart of Soviet power: the KGB, the prison system, the Politburo, the standing committees, the dreaded state security apparatus (chekists, Bukovsky calls them, after the Bolsheviks’ twisted political police, the Cheka). These papers reveal a world turned upside down. The West bent over backward to accommodate the Soviets, even help them along. And when Russian dissidents abroad began complaining too loudly, the Soviet leadership — masters of disinformation, propaganda, and “the big lie” — simply declared that it had turned democratic, Bukovsky alleges, and soldiered on.
Bukovsky says that Mikhail Gorbachev, whom the West believes brought down the Soviet Union through glasnost and perestroika, was both author and tool of this farce. Gorbachev, Bukovsky argues, helped sell the “reform and opening” movement in the USSR and overseas, but in the end he, too, was shunted out by the KGB, who had been in control of the entire process. Eventually, one of the KGB’s own, Vladimir Putin, became president of the “Russian Federation,” and immediately revived the old Soviet practice of hounding, and often killing, those who spoke out against the kleptocracy in the Kremlin. Bukovsky’s friend, Alexander Litvinenko, a former member of the FSB (the latest iteration of the KGB), was taken out by Russian agents in November of 2006 in London using polonium-210 mixed with tea. No one has ever proven that Putin ordered the murder, and the case officially remains unconnected to the Russian leader. Nevertheless, Bukovsky alleges that the British authorities worked to suppress the fact that the Russian state had committed extrajudicial murder right under the noses of MI-6. If this is ever proven, then it greatly strengthens Bukovsky’s case that the holdovers from the defunct KGB have regrouped and are back to their old tricks, governing Russia by stealthy terror.
But the status of post-Soviet Russia is not really what is at issue. Because the Soviet system was, essentially, a “gulag archipelago,” a tremendous prison and machine for carrying out psychiatric and physical terrorism, Bukovsky advocated a “judgment in Moscow,” a trial like that held in Nuremberg after the end of the Second World War. Only a massive “truth-and-reconciliation commission,” Bukovsky argued, such as the ones held in Chile and South Africa, would suffice to bring the nightmare of communism to an end. Just as the National Socialists — whom Mises resisted, ‘yielding not to evil’ — had been held to account at a public trial, so, too, Bukovsky says throughout Judgment in Moscow, must the Soviets, and everyone who helped them, including in the West, be brought to justice. The truth, and the truth alone, laid out in the sunshine for everyone to see, could stop the machinery of terror whirring, even all these years after the Soviet Union fell down dead in the dust.
Reading Judgment in Moscow, one understands that this trial will probably never happen. Bukovsky understood it, too. As Bill Gertz details in Deceiving the Sky, the West continues to appease communism. We like to think that we won the Cold War, but Bukovsky reminds us that it was truth-tellers from inside the gulags — where Bukovsky himself spent twelve years incarcerated — who did the real work of resisting the Soviet menace. When the game changed and the Soviet Union disintegrated, the West congratulated itself on its apparent victory and then went right on refusing to take the moral high ground against collectivist totalitarianism. This, more than anything the Soviets did to him or to his fellow dissidents, was what drove Bukovsky nearly to despair.
Judgment in Moscow is essential reading for anyone who is interested in how the Soviet Union ended (and didn’t, as Bukovsky asserts), and in how the West propped up the failing regime much longer than it otherwise would have lasted. Most important, though, Judgment in Moscow is a testimony to the power of truth. It cost Vladimir Bukovsky everything to speak it, even if that meant just refusing to repeat the official lie of the party line. Nearly everyone around him, then and now, chose to go along with untruth instead.
“Tu ne cede malis,” Mises wrote, quoting Virgil, “sed contra audentior ito.” Now, more than ever, we must hear these words, and act on them.
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