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From the Gulag to Brexit The life and death of Vladimir Bukovsky, the fiery dissident who shed light on Soviet punitive psychiatry

Source: Meduza
McCarthy / Daily Express / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Vladimir Bukovsky, a former Soviet dissident, has died in the United Kingdom at age 76. Bukovsky was also known for his criticism of Soviet punitive psychiatry and his unsuccessful run for the Russian presidency. He was permitted to leave the USSR in 1976 after spending five years behind bars. Bukovsky then settled in the UK, where he became known as a sharp critic of the European Union, among other things. Meduza summarized the life of one of the best-known critics of the Soviet regime.

Clashing with the Soviet government over poetry

In the summer of 1958, a monument to the futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky was dedicated in Moscow, and a poetry reading was included as part of the ceremony. However, the dedication soon devolved into a spontaneous event that would likely be called a flash mob today: Audience members simply started reading their own poetry aloud. Soon, the reading was extended into a series of similar events called “Mayak” (Lighthouse) or “Mayakovka.” One of the organizers of the series was Vladimir Bukovsky, then a soil biology student at Moscow University and a budding critic of the Soviet regime. The mood of the poems Bukovsky curated swung between the lyrical and the explicitly anti-Soviet. The latter category quickly earned him unwanted attention from the state. “The performances given by one sector of the youth are full of pessimism, resignation, and a spirit of opposition,” a report by the Central Committee of the Komsomol complained.

In 1961, the readings were officially banned (several members would subsequently be sent to prison). Bukovsky was expelled from university and interrogated by the KGB. Later on, a search of his possessions turned up a set of ideas Bukovsky had written down on how to democratize the Komsomol; an investigators later interpreted the notes as evidence that Bukovsky had attempted to “break up” the organization. Finally, in 1963, the young man was jailed for attempting to make copies of Milovan Đilas’s dissident volume New Class. That case led to Bukovsky’s first psychological diagnosis, “slow-onset schizophrenia,” and his first bout of forced psychiatric treatment in a special hospital.

After he helped organize a “transparency protest” in 1965 to defend the writers Andrey Sinyavsky and Yuly Daniel, Bukovsky was once again sent away for treatment, first to the Lyuberetskaya Psychiatric Hospital and then for eight months to the Serbsky Institute. When the resident psychiatrists there could not arrive at a consensus regarding Bukovsky’s diagnosis, he was released. The dissident’s third arrest came two years later after he helped set up a demonstration opposing the detention of Alexander Ginzburg, Yury Galanskov, and several other human rights advocates. In court, Bukovsky gave a sharply-worded speech arguing that the KGB was discrediting itself; his words resonated strongly enough for samizdat producers to begin copying them in print. Bukovsky was sentenced to three years in a prison camp for “active participation in collective actions that disturb the public order.”

The Mayakovka readings that Bukovsky helped organize when he was still a soil-biologist-in-training have continued to this day.

Telling the world about Soviet punitive psychiatry

With the end of Khrushchev’s thaw came a new problem for the Soviet Union’s security forces. On one hand, Communist Party leaders expected increased resistance to dissident thinking, but on the other hand, nobody wanted a return to the open terror of the Stalinist era. It was at that juncture that the KGB began recruiting more psychiatrists to its cause and interpreting anti-government activism as a range of psychological problems. “Slow-onset schizophrenia,” the diagnosis that was already so familiar to Bukovsky, began attaching itself to other dissidents more and more often. To “cure” that disorder, medical facilities prescribed strong-acting drugs and physical treatments that often resulted in permanent disabilities. Punitive psychiatry reached its peak in the Soviet Union in the late 1960s.

In 1971, not long before he was arrested once again, Bukovsky sent a 150-page document detailing the abuses of power committed by Soviet psychiatrists to a group of their Western colleagues. Excerpts from the document were soon published in the British newspaper The Times. An attempt to bring up the issue at that year’s World Psychiatric Association conference fell apart in the face of adamant resistance from the Soviet delegation. In 1974, Bukovsky and his fellow dissident Semyon Gluzman released their Guide to Psychiatry for Dissidents, a detailed account of how Soviet psychiatry’s potential victims could attempt to resist state violence.

In 1977, after Bukovsky had already left the USSR, the question of punitive psychiatry once again arose at the World Psychiatric Association conference, this time in Honolulu. This time, the Soviet representatives and their allies in the communist bloc had prepared in advance, with KGB Chairman Yury Andropov himself leading the effort to coordinate their arguments. Ultimately, the British delegation’s proposal to condemn Soviet psychiatric practices passed on a vote of 90 to 88. The Soviet government nonetheless continued to use psychiatry against internal dissidents right up until the start of perestroika.

Finding freedom thanks to a Chilean communist and fighting the Moscow Olympics

In 1976, Bukovsky, by then a dissident known even in the West, was serving his fifth year in prison. His fourth arrest had resulted in a conviction for “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda” in 1972. At the same time, another famous political prisoner was behind bars in South America for the third straight year: Luis Alberto Corvalán Lepe, the general secretary of the Chilean Communist Party, had been imprisoned as one of the victims of Augusto Pinochet’s military coup.

Bukovsky learned that he would be exchanged for the Chilean communist when he was already on a plane out of the USSR: A group of KGB officers took him on a specially reserved flight to Switzerland to complete the swap. The exchange soon inspired the Soviet Union’s best-known opposition chastushka, or rhyming ditty. Its composer, Vadim Delon, was prosecuted alongside Bukovsky himself in 1967.

The Bukovsky-Corvalán exchange.
Bukovsky Center

Bukovsky and his family chose Cambridge, England, as their new home in the West. There, the dissident finally got the biology degree he had been forced to abandon at Moscow University. Cambridge was also where he began writing in earnest.

Bukovsky later became one of the activists who initiated the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, which was intended to protest the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan. In The Daily Telegraph, he wrote an op-ed titled “How Russia breaks the rules of the Games.” For The Wall Street Journal, he asked, “Do athletes want the KGB to win the Olympics?” After the scholar Andrei Sakharov joined the boycott campaign and it began to take off internationally, more than 50 countries’ delegations stayed away from the Moscow games.

Rejecting Russian citizenship and running for president

Following the collapse of the USSR, Boris Yeltsin, the first president of the Russian Federation, granted Bukovsky Russian citizenship (though his Soviet citizenship had technically never been revoked). The former dissident later said he rejected that status “almost as soon as they gave it back.” Bukovsky’s abandonment of his Russian citizenship was reportedly meant as a form of protest against a new bill that he felt would add excessive presidential powers to the Russian Constitution.

In 1992, Yeltsin invited Bukovsky to act as an expert witness in an upcoming trial against the Soviet Communist Party. The tribunal’s organizers intended the proceedings to play a role in Russian history that would echo the role of the Nuremberg Trials in German history: They hoped Russia’s Constitutional Court would condemn the Soviet regime as the Nazi regime had been condemned before it and that communist ideology itself would be banned in Russia forever. However, the court ultimately ruled only that “a narrow group of communist functionaries maintained a regime of unlimited, violent power over an extended period of time” in Russia. It did not issue any form of judgement against the Communist Party as a whole. Bukovsky, meanwhile, copied numerous secret documents from the KGB and Central Committee archives while preparing for the tribunal. Those papers later became the basis for his book The Moscow Trial.

Also in 1992, Bukovsky was nominated to run for mayor in Moscow, but he withdrew his own candidacy. He was also discussed as a potential alternative to Yeltsin and the Communist Party candidate Gennady Zyuganov in Russia’s 1996 presidential elections, but those rumors did not spur any official movement toward the post. Finally, in 2007, Bukovsky (by then already an avid critic of Vladimir Putin) agreed to be nominated as the singular opposition candidate in Russia’s next presidential election. For that purpose alone, he applied for and received a Russian passport. Among those who swore to advocate for Bukovsky’s candidacy was Yabloko party head Grigory Yavlinsky, who promised to withdraw his own candidacy for the former dissident’s benefit. However, Russia’s Central Election Commission rejected Bukovsky’s application to register as a candidate based on the fact that he had not lived in Russia for the previous 10 years.

Following the election, Bukovsky continued to issue harsh critiques of the Russian regime and demand Putin’s removal from every post he occupied. He also supported the international sanctions against Russia that were introduced after its annexation of Crimea. In 2014, the Russian government refused to renew Bukovsky’s passport, arguing that officials had been unable to find evidence that he had Russian citizenship in the first place.

Advocating for Brexit (years before it was even a thing)

In 2004, Bukovsky wrote a book titled EUSSR: The Soviet Roots of European Integration in which he warned that the European Union might develop into a new kind of USSR. The book was co-authored with Pavel Stroilov, a former Gorbachev Foundation employee who had fled Russia because, in his explanation, he had stolen a number of confidential documents from the country and therefore feared for his life.

Bukovsky later said that he had discovered KGB plans for such a transformation during his time in the Soviet government’s archives and found evidence that numerous pro-Soviet agents had infiltrated the EU’s governing structures. He cast doubt on the EU’s commitment to democracy, calling it analogous to a marriage forced by a sudden pregnancy. The former Soviet dissident also joined the United Kingdom Independence Party, one of the groups that ultimately initiated the Brexit referendum. British newspapers dubbed him a “patron” of the party. Stroilov also collaborated with UKIP leaders.

Resisting child porn charges

Bukovsky faced what may have been his most painful criminal accusation many years after the Soviet Union’s collapse. In 2015, British prosecutors accused the 72-year-old writer of possessing child pornography. According to the prosecution, Bukovsky first encountered the images while conducting research on Internet censorship and then decided to collect them “like stamps.”

The former dissident himself categorically denied the charges against him, but he lost a slander lawsuit against his prosecutors in part due to the vagueness of the suit itself. “The charges against me have been repeated in every media outlet, they’ve shocked the entire world and ruined my reputation, and now I’m being told they never existed!” Bukovsky fumed after his lawsuit was turned down in court.

In 2018, the case against Bukovsky was suspended because of the defendant’s declining health. It was never reopened.

Writing books and not pulling punches

Many Russian-speaking commentators have recommended marking Bukovsky’s death by reading his books. In 1978, the dissident published And the Wind Returns, an often ironic account of his time in Soviet prisons. Letters of a Russian Traveler followed; it compared Bukovsky’s experience of Soviet and Western lifestyles. On social media, Russophone users have taken to quoting Bukovsky’s harsh critiques, especially those that feel especially relevant today. For example, this is what the dissident had to say about how European countries and the United States responded to the totalitarian Soviet regime:

“I never internalized any illusions with respect to the West. Hundreds of desperate petitions to various bodies — the UN, for example — never received a response. Isn’t that already telling in itself? […] It’s not the first time “friendly relations” with the USSR have been built on our bones. But the most abominable thing is that the West has always tried to justify itself with all kinds of unintelligible theories and doctrines. Just as the Soviet individual piled up countless excuses to make it easier to participate in total violence, this is how the West placates its conscience. Sometimes, the excuses are even one and the same. But violence always comes back mercilessly for those who support it. And those who think the borders between freedom and unfreedom line up perfectly with the borders of the USSR are cruelly mistaken.”

Text by Pyotr Lokhov and Dmitry Kartsev

Translation by Hilah Kohen

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