Vladimir Bukovsky (1942-2019) and Robert Conquest (1917 -2015)
Last night, at the 42nd Annual Pumpkin Papers Irregulars Dinner, I delivered the following remarks to honor the memory of Vladimir Bukovsky.
I never had the joy of meeting Vladimir Bukovsky in person.
We connected over attacks against my book American Betrayal because they were so similar to attacks against his own work. He and his colleague Pavel Stroilov co-wrote two essays about the book and this phenomenon.
For me, of course, this was a very special bond.
Many of us are familiar with Bukvosky’s heroic story. Co-founder of the Soviet dissident movement, Bukovsky spent nearly 12 years inside Soviet prisons, labor camps and psychiatric hospitals before his release to the West in 1976. He was 33.
He threw himself into his role as an educator about the dangers of communism and socialism, the centrality of human rights. He met with leaders, starting with President Carter, and counseled many, including Margaret Thatcher. He leaves us numerous essays and two great memoirs, To Build a Castle, which came out in 1979, and Judgment in Moscow, which began to appear in Europe in 1995. It did not come out in English until earlier this year, nearly a quarter-century later.
There are historical echoes to be heard in the title, Judgment in Moscow. Among many --many -- amazing things, the book examines (and destroys) the reasons for the West’s failure to try and convict communism as Nazism was tried and convicted in Nuremberg.
As the subject of a eulogy, Vladimir Bukovsky poses a challenge. Yes, he was a hero, and his triumphs over evil are epic.
However, that for which he is renowned -- his life’s work to break communism’s hold on the world, and especially the West -- did not go as he had hoped and believed possible.
He writes about this, too, in Judgment in Moscow, and with painful candor. Remember, this was someone, who, by the age of 15, living in 1950s Moscow, thought of himself as “living in hostile surroundings, like an advance party of a universal liberation army operating behind enemy lines.”
After he visited his old neighborhood in the 1990s, he wrote: “I had dreamed of these streets in my prison cell. These alleys and courtyards had helped me escape from the KGb on countless occasions. These houses were the only friends I could trust completely.”
“Had this all been a dream," he wondered?“
“The houses and courtyards … were no longer there and the army did not come to the rescue of its scouts.
“It emerged, much later, that there was no such army.”
So, yes, Vladimir Bukovsky was an uncompromising messenger of Soviet crime, but he was also an uncompromising messenger of Western complicity in Soviet crime. He was a great champion of the Cold War against communism, but his fidelity to the facts made him a herald of the ideological Western defeat.
More than anyone I can think of, he said what he thought.
Détente was the greatest shame in the history of the cold war.
The Soviet game of arms control was deceit from start to finish
The “reformer” Gorbachev was an invention of western elites, buttressed by Soviet disinformation.
The Gorbachev years, he wrote, were the hardest most bitter years of his life.
But you must acknowledge the Political Realities, people were always telling him. He would reply that political realities must be created, not acknowledged. Otherwise, he said, back in the USSR he would have joined the Communist Party.
Maybe Bukovsky took Western ideals more seriously than most Westerners.
Maybe it was the steely principle of his approach.
“The main stimulus of the dissident movement , he wrote, “was not a desire to remake the system, but a refusal to be complicit in its crimes.”
Refusing to be complicit is the triumph in his life that is eternal.
In his young memoir, To Build a Castle, Bukovsky explains the Soviet dissident movement.
We weren't playing politics, we didn't compose programs … Our sole weapon was publicity. Not propaganda, but publicity, so that no one could say afterward: "I didn't know." The rest depended on each individual's conscience. Neither did we expect victory -- there wasn't the slightest hope of achieving it. But each of craved the right to say to our descendants: "I did all that I could.
These are the last words, also, of Judgment in Moscow.
It is hard to imagine a greater expression of devotion. Or a greater challenge to the living.
Vladimir Konstantinovich Bukovsky, Rest in peace.