STUMP » Articles » Remembering Vladimir Bukovsky, 1942 - 2019, Soviet Dissident » 27 October 2021, 18:48

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Remembering Vladimir Bukovsky, 1942 - 2019, Soviet Dissident  


27 October 2021, 18:48

This is a little different from my usual content on STUMP. That said, I’m not only about public finance, pensions, and mortality trends.

I’m also very anti-Communist, and I am involved in the Soviet Memory Project. Our main project is Ninth of November Press, which is named in honor of the day the Berlin Wall fell.

So far, we’ve published three books, two of which were by Vladimir Bukovsky. I will talk a little about each book, as I was involved in the publication of both. We also have a facebook group: Bukovsvky Center

To Build a Castle: a dissident memoir

To Build a Castle was originally published in 1978, soon after Bukovsky was exiled to the West. He spent most of the rest of his life living in London. We re-published the book in a new translation in 2017, as an e-book, with additional notes for reference as so much time had passed. (Sorry to say, we haven’t gotten the publication rights for hardcover/paperback. You can find used, very old copies out there, but of course I’m going to recommend getting our version.)

A description of the book:

A major document in the literature of human rights, this now-legendary memoir, by one of the most prominent of the Soviet-era Russian dissidents, was a world-wide bestseller when first published in 1978.

At the age of 20, as punishment for his political protests, Vladimir Bukovsky was falsely declared insane and committed to a psychiatric hospital—standard practice for communism’s critics in 1963. But the quack doctors and brutal guards who kept him captive didn’t realize: Bukovsky wasn’t locked up with them. They were locked up with Bukovsky.

In this compelling, beautifully-crafted memoir, Bukovsky details with equal parts burning outrage and bitter humor the cruel theater of life for Soviet prisoners of conscience. But he also recounts how he found his inner truth and strength, and built a fortress around it—the imaginary castle of the title—in which he could remain safe from the daily assaults on his body and mind.

Bukovsky refused to break under the pressure of 12 years’ incarceration in a series of psychiatric hospitals, labor camps, and some of the Soviet Union’s worst prisons. More than that, though, he turned the tables on his captors and oppressors—the USSR under Brezhnev—with a series of rebellions, pranks, and persistent goading that ultimately led Soviet officials to trade him for a high-ranking Communist prisoner in the West, as a means of getting Vladimir Bukovsky out of the country at last.

In To Build a Castle, Bukovsky offers powerful firsthand testimony to the importance of personal integrity and perseverance under seemingly boundless, endless oppression and abuse. Over nearly forty years, Bukovsky’s story has inspired dissidents, prisoners, and those trapped by circumstance: Even in chains, you can be free.

I’ve been sharing a quote from the book daily, both at the Bukovsky Center facebook group and in this twitter thread.

It is a fast read, with lots of humanity therein, but I don’t want to use high-flown rhetoric, as the bit that is really amusing and compelling is the dark humor throughout, and especially the tricks Bukovsky, his fellow dissidents, and even outright criminals played in the Soviet prisons in the post-Stalin era.

The funniest gambit, to me, was the mass production of complaint letters they produced (until those letters stopped being responded to) — a plot line out of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, with a dozen men copying out texts, making each letter only one page (so that it wasn’t thrown out immediately), picking their targets carefully (complain about somebody who somebody else in the bureaucracy wants to get rid of), and overwhelm the system with volume so that functionaries can’t make their quotas.

The issue is that everybody knows about the hideous gulags, but the “softer” side of the Soviet system after Stalin wasn’t much better.

As Bukovsky keeps reminding the reader, the whole system could perpetuate only due to lies and fear. Bukovsky refused to be afraid, refused to add to the lies, and thus he was deemed insane (as were other political prisoners).

Simply refusing to go along with the lie was threatening to the system.

As Bukovsky wrote, anybody willing to stop lying knew what was going on. It was a lie from top to bottom. Then they had to lie about the lies.

Bukovsky doesn’t just write about what it was like in the prisons – whether the work camps, the prisons with real criminals, or the psychiatric prisons where most of the inmates were political prisoners unwilling to go along with the lies. You had to be crazy to deny the glory of communism, after all.

Judgment in Moscow: documenting the useful idiots and more

The next book is important, but this is a tougher read as it’s intended to compile the evidence of what was going on in the Soviet Union, and the willing dupes (or not-so-duped, but fellow travelers) in the West.

Judgment in Moscow comes from Bukovsky’s (and others’) activities when, after the Soviet Union fell, Yeltsin let back some of the former dissidents… and allowed them access to some archival documents. But Bukovsky got his hands on a little more than was allowed….

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, legendary Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky had the opportunity to steal thousands of classified documents from the Soviet archives. Judgment in Moscow is about the secrets exposed by those documents. It reveals the inner workings of the Soviet regime and the complicity of many in the West with that regime.

Judgment in Moscow was an international bestseller published in nine languages, but has only now been published in English for the first time (in May 2019). It was previously at Random House, but Bukovsky refused to rewrite parts of the book which accused prominent Westerners of behind-the-scenes dealings with the Soviets. In this edition, the author quotes correspondence with his editor, who says, “I don’t disagree, but I simply can’t publish a book that accuses Americans like Cyrus Vance and Francis Ford Coppola of unpatriotic — or even treacherous — behavior.”

This book is huge and it’s not a personal narrative as much as To Build a Castle is. It’s an important record of what had gone on, and a variety of players, many of whom are now dead but some who still live on and still are in positions of power. (But really, most of them are dead.)

Bukovsky had dreamed of having a version of Nuremberg trials, but for the Soviet Union, so that the lies would be cleared as to who did what. This book is more intended to be a historical record, so that people stop denying that yes, the “softer” Soviet bosses were just as repressive as the ones that came before. And that many outside the USSR played into these behaviors.

I’m glad Bukovsky lived long enough to see the book published in English. All of the English language versions officially published are from our 2019 edition. It’s available in e-book format, hardcover, and paperback.

Of the two books, I recommend To Build a Castle to get the personal view; Judgment in Moscow to get the comprehensive view.

Prior posts on Bukovsky

Here are all my prior posts on Vladimir Bukovsky (as well as some other Soviet Union-related content):