Long-time Russian dissident fights on.
After 57 years of fighting the KGB and totalitarians of every stripe, Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky was scheduled to go on trial in England this week for charges of “making and possessing” child pornography. Despite being gravely ill, Bukovsky, 73, has fought vigorously against the charges and claims they are Kremlin-manufactured. After an almost month-long hunger strike, England’s Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) ruled to postpone his scheduled May 16 trial date. But Bukovsky’s fight is not over.
A resident of the UK, Bukovsky has long been associated with anti-Putin dissidents, such as the late Boris Nemtsov. He claims that he first heard of the KGB plot to frame him as a child pornographer in spring 2014. The following winter he fell ill with “some rare bacteria that did not respond to any treatment.” Despite his illness, he testified in the trial of Alexander Litvinenko, the former FSB agent who was murdered in 2006 with a cup of polonium tea. When asked whether he had any “doubt” as to who was responsible for Litvinenko’s murder, Bukovsky answered “none.” He was sure it was the Kremlin.
Bukovsky is no stranger to tyrannical regimes. He survived 12 years of Soviet labor camps, psychiatric hospitals and prisons, endless slander campaigns, and a forced deportation. “My God,” he says, “over the last 57 years, what haven’t I heard?” But the child pornography case, he says, is different.
Bukovsky made his rebellious spirit known at the age of 10, when he quit the Communist youth group the Pioneers when his role required him to punish a classmate. In his 20s, he revived the poetry reading protests of the 1950s at Mayakovsky Square in Moscow. As he and his friends read poetry by Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, and their own samizdat work, the Soviet authorities rolled in with bulldozers. In 1963, Bukovsky was sent to a psychiatric hospital for the possession of anti-Soviet literature. Thus began a total of 12 years in prisons and camps.
In labor camps and prisons, ideas saved Bukovsky’s life. He realized that compromising with Soviet authorities only led to a loss of freedom. Since the whole Soviet system was constructed on submission, he insisted on radical refusal. For example, he once encouraged a polite Ukrainian fellow to curse wildly at his KGB interrogators. That way, the man would be seen as useless and would no longer be called for questioning.
During interrogations, Bukovsky gained psychological control over his surroundings by retreating into his mind and shielding himself from intimidation. It was this sense of individual responsibility and inner power that influenced his 1979 essay The Soul of Socialist Man, in which he urged Soviet citizens to “overcome” their frightful, uncertain inner self, the self that had been raised in a world of propaganda and lies. He wrote:
“… In fighting to preserve his integrity, he is simultaneously fighting for his people, his class, or his party. It is such individuals who win the right for their communities to live—even, perhaps, if they are not thinking of it at the time.
“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.”
In 1971, Bukovsky delivered 150 pages of Soviet psychiatric records to the West that revealed the horrific use of mental institutions to eliminate opposition. The records caused international condemnation and ultimately resulted in the 1983 withdrawal of the Soviet Union from the World Psychiatric Association. Five years later, Bukovsky was deported to Great Britain in exchange for the Chilean communist leader Luis Corvalán.
After settling in Cambridge, Bukovsky maintained his undying suspicion of the Soviet state, along with the no-compromise mindset that he developed in prisons and camps. He often recounted an anecdote from 1979, when the Americans came to the Soviets and inquired about cooperating on security for the Olympic games. “No, that won’t work for us, because we have different understandings of who terrorists are,” Andropov told the Americans, according to Bukovsky. “You, for example, consider our friends in the liberal movements terrorists, and, on the other side, your president receives famous terrorists like Kuznetsov and Bukovsky.”
To Bukovsky, Soviet officials were Machiavellians who used “tricks, pranks, and stunts” to get what they wanted – and he criticized the West for falling for it. Americans, he said, were comfortable in their decadence, self-centered, and eager to accept the dream of a changing Russia. The West had lost itspioneering spirit because of the cozy cradle provided by government programs and wealth, or “a few decades of peace, prosperity, and Social Security.”
Even though the USSR fell, the Soviet mentality never died, Bukovsky reasoned, because there was no international moral condemnation of communism as there was fascism or Nazism. For this reason, Bukovsky advocated a Soviet Nuremburg trial that would condemn the crimes of the USSR once and for all. Such a trial would, he wrote, demonstrate “absolute moral norms of behaviour,” and “[remind] a confused world of the basic principle of our Christian civilization — that we are given freedom of choice, and that consequently we are responsible for that choice.”
Then, on April 27, 2015, the CPS issued a statement titled “Vladimir Bukovsky to be prosecuted over indecent images of children” that detailed the eleven counts brought against Bukovsky, including “making and possessing … indecent images of children.” The statement also reminded the public that, “there should be no reporting, commentary or sharing of information online which could in any way prejudice these proceedings.
This reminder did not prevent a flurry of Russian news reports which affirmed that Bukovsky had beencharged “on as many as 11 counts, each of them relating to serious child pornography offences” including “several occasions of personally photographing the children.” Bukovsky himself learned of the charges from the media, according to Novaya Gazeta, and denied them before undergoing heart surgery. The surgery left him in a coma and caused him to miss the scheduled May 5, 2015 trial date.
Bukovsky sued the CPS for libel and accused them of a “deliberate, targeted … campaign” meant to damage his reputation. He claimed that the CPS, in an uncharacteristic move, sent the release out “to all the newspapers, to all the television channels, even the radio.” He also took issue with the ambiguous wording of “making” photographs, denying all charges on the whole but especially the charge that he played any part in producing the photos.
“Throughout the 72 years of my life, my moral reputation had been spotless. It has been ruined in one day by the worldwide publicity given to the CPS allegations, and for which the CPS has accepted responsibility,” Bukovsky stated in his writ, obtained by Claire Berlinski at National Review. “Frankly, I don’t care about the risk of being sent to prison. I have already spent 12 years in Soviet prisons having committed no crime in my life, I don’t expect to live for very long, and it makes little difference to me whether I spend the final few weeks of my life in jail. However, what is fundamentally important to me is defending my reputation.”
His libel suit was postponed several times. On April 13, British authorities set the court date for July 25, more than a month after his criminal case. “They consciously postponed the hearing to a date where it will no longer serve a purpose,” Bukovsky said. With that, he went on hunger strike on April 20 in an attempt to force the CPS to “reconsider this decision.”
“If they don’t give in, I’ll end up in the hospital. Or I’ll die,” he said in an April 24 interview, four days into his hunger strike. “I don’t know what will happen, it’s hard to say.”
The British court met two weeks into his strike, but again decided against speeding up the libel case. They did, however, place a “reporting ban” on it. Since then, thousands have signed a petition to the British Ministry of Justice appealing for an “independent review” of the case. Bukovsky finally ended his strike Monday when the court said it would postpone his trial until December 12, after his libel trial.
Bukovsky and his friends say that the Kremlin planted the roughly 20,000 still and moving images on his computer and used Europol, the EU law-enforcement agency, to inform the British police. In interviews, he seems unfazed by the Kremlin’s tactics and reiterates his distrust of the modern day Russian state.
“The KGB didn’t change at all, it is the same KGB, it only renamed. They are all came from the old KGB,” Bukovsky said nine days into his strike. “The current situation isn’t especially new, one expects such things,” he said five days prior.
He’s also accustomed to hunger strikes from his time in the USSR. “I’m used to hunger strikes, during my time in labor camps I often went on hunger strikes, about 20 times, not less. And one of them lasted a month, in the Perm labor camp,” Bukovsky said.
The one thing that’s different this time, he said, is the CPS’s “enthusiasm” to prosecute him for something that Western authorities would have in an earlier era brushed off as nonsense.
“During [Soviet] years, Western powers didn’t take [these claims] seriously,” Bukovsky said. “They understood that this was the work of the KGB, that it was disinformation, and completely didn’t pay attention to it.”
In 1830, Fyodor Tyutchev advised his readers to find truth and solace within themselves as opposed to the world outside, which was ever changing and subject to misinterpretation. “Live in your inner self alone,” he wrote. “within your soul a world has grown.”
Decades later, Bukovsky is realizing Tyutchev’s words in his fight for freedom. We can be sure he will press on.