This is not a full review; not yet. Here is a link to the current US Amazon listing for the book; I will be re-posting a cleaned-up review later this year. I mentioned the specific project to publish an e-book English version of this book, and I await the final form.
After reading the copy I had, I posted the following review to Goodreads:
Amazing book, chronicling Bukovsky’s run-in with the absurdities that kept the Soviet Union afloat for a while. Specifically exposes the abuse of psychiatric diagnoses for imprisoning/abusing political targets. I am a child of the 1980s, so Bukovsky’s narrative is of an earlier Soviet Union that is forgotten by many. Just as Nazi era narratives are important, this is very important for people to read to know what it was like to be an individual caught up in the machinery of the Soviet Union.
There is a thread of humor, reminding me of Crime & Punishment by Dostoevsky, where I just had to laugh. The pyramid scheme of prisoner complaints to gum up Soviet bureaucracy was genuinely funny.
Key passage in the book:
Why should I do it?” asks each man in the crowd. “I can do nothing alone.”
And they are all lost.
“If I don’t do it, who will?” asks the man with his back to the wall.
And everyone is saved.
That is how a man begins building his castle.
I bolded the bit from the book itself.
This is important. It is the heart.
THE ETERNAL STRUGGLE OF THE INDIVIDUAL IN A TOTALITARIAN SOCIETY
Let’s get the nitty-gritty: this is the memoir of Vladimir Bukovsky, born into the USSR in 1942, who grew up in the system and was not really outstanding in any way as a child… until his individuality rebelled at the lies he saw in the system around him.
I know many will have trouble reading this book and not apply it to various political situations of today; I understand that. Indeed, there are governments as tyrannical as the Soviet Union still in existence, if not more (I’m pretty sure North Korea is much much worse.) I know I kept thinking about certain things…
…but I snapped out of it, as the specific details in Bukovsky’s memoir are rather vivid, and do not really connect to my own juvenile revolts over The Man ™, which was but a shadow compared to the KGB. If you can bitch and moan on your facebook page or twitter feed, and the worst thing that happens to you are your posts are deleted or your account is closed, this is nothing on the reality of being to be thrown into prison for questioning the system you’re in. It’s nothing on having a government who will bar you from schools, jobs, places to live. Who will just shuttle you around so that media can’t talk to you.
To be sure, we have all read Holocaust memoirs, but these were the memoirs of people who were of a group, by identity, particularly singled out for destruction. That was a horror beyond, and it’s pretty easy to say “Never Again!” when you see the ovens and gas chambers.
The Nazi regime lasted from 1933 to 1945. That’s it. 12 years. It caused the death of tens of millions of people, not only in terms of the Holocaust, but the millions killed in WWII and other related activity. It’s been estimated that 26 – 27 million Soviets died in the war.
The USSR lasted from 1917 until 1991, and some claims various aspects of the old USSR still remain or are bubbling back up. Joseph Stalin was ruler of the USSR from 1923 to 1953, and some have estimated that he’s responsible for 20 million deaths, not including WWII deaths. There’s the Holodomor, the Great Purge, and more. Here’s an obit for Robert Conquest, a major figure in digging up the truths of the horror of the Soviet Union.
But those are the horrors of the masses. And that was in the “bad old days” of Stalin, which were supposedly gone when he died.
Bukovsky was just a kid when Stalin died, so all that mass murder was in the past.
But the brutality wasn’t gone. Bukovsky saw the lies being propagated to prop up the Soviet system, and his essential self rebelled. The one thing that shone through for me was that Bukovsky was not willing to parrot the lies like all good Soviets should. He was a second Augustine, or Thomas More, refusing to accede to the false in order to make life “easier”.
Especially as he knew it wouldn’t make his, or anybody else’s, life easier.
That’s the important part of the bolded statement, and something people really need to think about. What is really important to you? Are you sure?
Because if that’s important to you, are you requiring somebody else to take the lead before you act?
This book has a copyright of 1979, written after Bukovsky was summarily booted from the country (recalled at the end), and well before the USSR collapsed. Perhaps the specific abuses he detailed were still going on in 1979 (at least in some form), but Bukovsky didn’t know the ultimate fate of the USSR when he wrote this. He was still fighting the Soviet Union, as he still fights against current Russian political problems.
His story wasn’t over, but he was capturing a specific period of his life, when he was in-and-out of Soviet prisons & psychiatric institutions (operating as prisons for political prisoners, in addition to the real psychiatric cases). There is a semi-chronological thread, with multiple flashbacks. We start in media res, as he is being transferred from one prison to… who knows?
We’ll find out, and we find out the path of how he got there, how he survived, and his words for future freedom fighters.
REACTION IN QUOTES
It has been a bad week for me, so I’m mainly going to quote some bits of the book, as well as explaining why I thought these passages were compelling.
I will do these in the order they appear in the book. When I republish this post, this will be re-arranged and edited.
No matter how many prison memoirs they might have read, they will never be able to understand these trivial and minor details. Take this bedstead, for instance, made of welded metal rods. It’s got a kapok mattress on it and looks completely normal. But it seems that cons sleeping on beds like these have been going on hunger strike to get the gaps between the rods reduced. How peculiar—those beds have been in use for twenty years at least, and it never occurred to anyone before to complain about the gaps between the rods. What’s the matter with those cons? Have they gone mad, don’t they want to eat anymore, are they trying to get in trouble? The painstaking researcher might perhaps ransack the prison archives and come up with the fact that at about the same time the prison governor ordered the prisoners to give up all their old newspapers and magazines. A perfectly reasonable regulation, obviously designed to prevent the prisoners from cluttering up their cells with trashy literature. Very commendable. But not even the conscientious researcher would see any connection between these two events, and only a con would perceive the vital link—what if, for instance, you were able to sleep on the bed only by stuffing magazines and newspapers between the mattress and the rods? And the instant they were taken away the bedstead became an instrument of torture? During the night the mattress would sink between the rods and you ended up sleeping on an iron grille.
That paragraph comes from explaining the odd cause-and-effect of prison regulations being changed and a rebellion over something seemingly entirely different occurs. It put me in mind of all sorts of workaround people come up with, whether in prison or outside, to deal with something that, at its core, is unacceptable (in this case, the beds) and you do enough to make it acceptable (e.g., stuffing the beds full of newspaper to make it more comfortable)… but when some outside constraint prevents those workarounds, all of a sudden you get complaints. This is not specific to the Soviet system obviously.
We must live for Russia, the Communists will one day disappear of themselves. (This argument is a favorite with scientists and the military.)
My comment when reading was: “And yet…. that’s what seems to have happened”
I may have been too hasty.
The collapse of the Soviet Union specifically, and the Eastern Bloc in general, is interesting. I think you can see the seeds of the collapse in Bukovsky’s memoir. But when he wrote this, the fall was over a decade away.
And those Communists may not have gone away.
I happen to think that Communism did go away in Russia and the ex-Soviet republics, but that the totalitarians are still around. After all, we have would-be totalitarians in the U.S., though they don’t quite have the follow-through.
In the Soviet Union they even made a serious attempt to turn apples into pears, and for fifty years based biology on that belief. It is said that for twenty years an eccentric Englishman cut the tails off rats in the expectation that they would produce tailless offspring, but nothing came of it and he gave up. What can you expect of an Englishman? No, that’s no way to build socialism. He lacked sufficient passion, a healthy faith in the radiant future. It was quite different in our country: they cut off people’s heads for decades, and at last saw the birth of a new type of headless people.
I guess Lysenkoism can work… just in a different way.
Right after that piece came:
This dream of absolute, universal equality is amazing, terrifying, and inhuman. And the moment it captures people’s minds, the result is mountains of corpses and rivers of blood, accompanied by attempts to straighten the stooped and shorten the tall.
This, of course, puts one in mind of the Vonnegut story Harrison Bergeron.
Also, one starts to see the drumbeat of the individual vs. the group. The reality of individual differences versus a totalitarian spirit to make everybody the same. The distinction between liberty and equality — equality before the law, sure, but forced equality in all things? How does that even work? I can’t give other people my intelligence (though I can share knowledge), and they sure as hell can’t take my pain.
Oh look, here’s the next piece of text I highlighted:
Is it really surprising that whenever you get striving for equality and fraternity, the guillotine appears on the scene?
Well, it can certainly make us equally tall. Or equally dead.
You have to learn to respect the right of even the most insignificant and repulsive individual to live the way he chooses
It’s the American way!
This is likely the story of my own forebears who came to the U.S. – the Campbells are notorious jerks, and we probably hightailed it because nobody could stand us. Also, we weren’t known for our wealth. Therefore, we should be a little more tolerant of fellow insignificant jerks.
People attain absolute equality only in the graveyard, and if you want to turn your country into a gigantic graveyard, go ahead, join the socialists.
The tasks and methods of the KGB have changed little since Stalin’s times, but whereas then they needed a plethora of enemies and plotters with which to scare the people, they now need the machinations of swindlers and racketeers. The only difference is that there really are racketeers everywhere and there’s no need to invent them. The spirit of enterprise is indestructible in man.
A quick note — while Bukovsky himself was a political prisoner, he was put into prisons and mental hospitals with actual criminals and psychiatric cases. Some of the prisoners he details are con men or thieves, and some of the stories he has to tell of the camaraderie with these men are very interesting.
Here’s one aspect I had never thought about, but it makes sense once Bukovsky notes it:
But the thing he failed to understand was that without this stealing the Soviet economic system wouldn’t work at all. Without these rigged figures and manipulations hardly a single target would be met, and without this private, hence illegal, initiative, nothing at all would be produced in our country. All these collective and state farms that have become showplaces, with turnovers in the millions, wouldn’t have survived for one minute if they hadn’t been managed by clever swindlers.
Bukovsky comes across to me as an inherently honest man, but here he wasn’t really arguing for honesty for honesty’s sake, but that he was pointing out the only way the rotten system was able to keep going was because of black markets, forgers, thieves, etc.
Kind of like the newspapers-stuffed-in-the-cots.
Only Soviet justice considers financially rational conduct of the economy to be criminal.
I remember once sharing a cell with a character whose only crime was that of behaving as a normal commercial entrepreneur, doing no harm to anyone. He went to a coal mine and offered to remove their slag heaps for them for a moderate fee. The director was pleased—he had already had several reprimands for those slag heaps, and they were in the way. Then this chap went to some collective farms and offered their chairmen some cheap slag for building their cow barns. The chairmen were also happy. My cell mate next went with the collective farm trucks and some peasants and removed the slag from the mine. Everyone gained from it, all parties were in raptures, and a mass of financial problems was solved at a stroke—and my enterprising comrade got six years in jail for it.
In creating our laws mainly for propaganda purposes, our ideologists had overreached themselves. Actually, there was nothing to stop them from not bothering with a Constitution and simply writing: “In the USSR everything is forbidden except what is expressly permitted by decisions of the Central Committee of the CPSU.” But this would have led to unwanted complications, and would have made it harder to spread the Soviet form of socialism among the gullible abroad. Therefore, they wrote a Constitution with a plethora of rights and freedoms that they simply couldn’t afford to grant, rightly supposing that nobody would be reckless enough to insist on them being observed.
You see, in the USSR, many of the rights that Americans (and others) have enumerated in their own Constitutions are written down. But it’s a complete lie. It’s really only words.
The late Justice Scalia once wrote: “Every tin horn dictator in the world today, every president for life, has a Bill of Rights” — a formal Bill of Rights means nothing by itself. Even if the words are exactly the same, people in different countries don’t have the same rights. The freedom of speech, demonstration, etc. was an outright lie in the USSR, and may even be a lie in Russia today.
But having had our laugh we were obliged to agree that if you answered lawlessness with lawlessness, there was precious little chance of ensuring observance of the law. There was simply no other way. In exactly the same way, answering violence with violence would only multiply violence, and answering lies with lies would never bring us closer to the truth. Once again our disheveled computer was right.
The “disheveled computer” was Alik Volpin, a mathematician (Wikipedia post here), with an excellent point. Many revolutions were born in lawlessness in many respects, so once the old order was thrown off, why should other people be lawful when you weren’t?
Power rests on nothing other than people’s consent to submit, and each person who refuses to submit to tyranny reduces it by one two-hundred-and-fifty-millionth, whereas each who compromises only increases it.
This isn’t as strong as my main pull quote, but it’s the main idea. It doesn’t matter if you can’t organize a group. You should resist as an individual, and not worry whether others are submitting. Refuse to submit. That particular pull quote above once next on my marked quote list.
Man can get used to anything, accustom himself to any loss, and accommodate any absurdity. But there is in man a kind of spring, a limit to his capacity for elasticity, beyond which something inside him snaps. He then ceases to believe in what is going on.
This is to explain why so many ordinary people in his story, who weren’t ideological in any way, just stopped going along. They just couldn’t take it anymore.
Similarly each of us, like a nerve cell, participated in this amazing conductorless orchestra, spurred on only by a consciousness of our own dignity and a sense of personal responsibility for what was happening around us.
What a real organic revolution is like. A bunch of like-minded individuals, without structure or hierarchy.
It wasn’t a political struggle, but a struggle between the living and the dead, the natural and the artificial.
The true and the false.
They were human beings, after all, and dying to hear something new.
Also, the human and the machine.
Until people learn to demand what belongs to them as a right, no revolution will liberate them. And by the time they learn, a revolution won’t be necessary. No, I don’t believe in revolution, I don’t believe in forcible salvation.
And the last bit, I will quote without comment:
“The handcuffs are American, by the way,” said the agent who took them off, and he showed me the trademark. As if I didn’t know without his help that almost from the very beginning of this regime, the West had been supplying us with handcuffs. Did he think he was disillusioning me? I had never entertained any illusions about the West. Hundreds of desperate petitions addressed, for example, to the UN, had never been answered. Wasn’t this sufficient indication? Even from Soviet institutions you got an answer—maybe senseless, but it came. But over there the ground just swallowed them up.
As for the so-called policy of detente—the Helsinki agreements and so on—we could feel on our backs in Vladimir Prison who gained from it. It wasn’t the first time that the West’s “friendly relations” with the Soviet Union had been built on our bones. The most repulsive thing of all was that the West tried to justify itself with all sorts of intricate doctrines and theories. Just as Soviet man created a countless multitude of self-justifications to facilitate his collusion with total violence, so the West too likes to soothe its conscience. Sometimes these self-justifications are the same. But violence relentlessly revenges itself on those who support it. Those who think that the frontier between freedom and unfreedom corresponds with the state frontiers of the Soviet Union are cruelly mistaken.
As for the book overall — above, I’m pulling very serious quotes above, but there’s both a mixture of the absurdity of Kafka (coming from the Soviet system) as well as the inherent humor and humanity of Dostoevsky. The details about the criminals Bukovsky spent time with mainly highlights the individual humanity of those men, and is not so much about the USSR, per se.
The pacing is very good – you never really wallow, there’s always something next to think of and to see (or smell) – and even for one as me who is not really all that familiar of the USSR of the 1960s and 1970s, Bukovsky provides enough context and detail for an outsider to understand.
There is some very nasty stuff in the book, by the way, and there were a few items that jumped-out-of-nowhere, so to speak, but given this is primarily a prison memoir, I can’t say that I wasn’t expecting those sorts of details. So just keep that in mind.
This book is uplifting only to the extent that we know the USSR is gone… though many of the people complicit in that system are still around. The main uplift is the strong statement that one person, by resisting, by refusing to comply with an unjust system, can make a change. Bukovsky did, and many of his fellow dissidents did. Keep that to heart.
PREVIOUS POSTS ON BUKOVSKY
- 6 July 2016: Please Help Vladimir Bukovsky: Russian Freedom Fighter
- 13 July 2016: Happy News for Vacation Time!
- 17 October 2016: Please Help Claire Berlinski Cover Bukovsky
- 10 December 2016: Vladimir Bukovsky Makes the New York Times
There will be more to come!
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