For so many of us in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, Bukovsky’s name had the air of a legend, since he had been forcibly ejected from the Soviet Union in 1976. Soviet authorities had grown afraid of his ability to organize the prisoners wherever he was jailed, but turning him into a martyr was also unattractive. Remember that this was the 1970s, when there were still strong voices in Europe and on both sides of the U.S. political aisle in support of holding the Soviets accountable for their treatment of dissidents such as Bukovsky, Andrei Sakharov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
In his writings and public statements, Bukovsky remained steadfastly in favor of direct opposition to the Soviet Union, condemning for collaboration and collusion those such as Henry Kissinger who favored amoral realpolitik. Bukovsky saw clearly that the “peaceful coexistence” touted by Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev and his successors was a sham. No nation capable of imprisoning and torturing its citizens the way the Soviet Union did, Bukovsky said, could ever be a part of a civilized world of human rights and individual liberty.
I met Bukovsky for the first time in the newly liberated Prague in 1990, at a conference for Soviet dissidents and their supporters hosted by Czech President Vaclav Havel. Unfortunately, according to Bukovsky, Havel was the only world leader to offer direct support to the Soviet dissident movement.
It’s bittersweet to recall Havel and Bukovsky in this context, because there was a brief moment when I and others in the democracy movement hoped that Bukovsky would emulate the dissident Czech playwright’s transformation into a political leader and national conscience. In May 1991, when the Soviet Union’s collapse was only months away, I helped organize Bukovsky’s first visit to Russia since his deportation 15 years earlier; I interviewed him on Leningrad TV.
There were rumors that Boris Yeltsin might be persuaded to select Bukovsky as his running mate in the first Russian presidential election, to be held that June, but Yeltsin instead chose Communist military man Alexander Rutskoy at the last moment. It was perhaps as fateful a missed chance for the destiny of Russia as when Yeltsin later rejected Boris Nemtsov as his successor, instead anointing a former KGB lieutenant colonel, Vladimir Putin.
With dissolution of the Soviet Union, Bukovsky focused on exposing the crimes of the Soviet intelligence services that had tormented his life and the lives of so many others. He hoped to see a Nuremberg-like trial for Soviet communism, a complete public accounting and purging of the security apparatus. He understood that this was essential not only to root out the KGB in Russia so that democracy might flourish, but also to reveal the true horrors of the Soviet regime to every Russian and the world.
It was a clear sign of things to come when Bukovsky’s work in the KGB archives was shut down in 1993. There would be no lustration, no truth commissions, just a feeble charade in 1992 to (briefly) ban the Communist Party. The Soviet KGB archives would remain secret and, while the rest of us were still flush with hope and failed to read the signs, Bukovsky’s keen moral compass did not fail him. He declined to return to Russia from Britain, knowing that a nation that refused to disavow its brutal past was charting a course to return to it.
Bukovsky’s criticism of Putin made him a target of a typical KGB smear campaign in the last years of his life, and it is a pity that he wasn’t better protected in his adopted home. (His friend Alexander Litvinenko met an even worse fate, fatally poisoned in London by Russian intelligence in 2006.)
Bukovsky’s warnings about not making common cause with despotism are needed more than ever today. As he wrote in “Judgment in Moscow,” “The voice of conscience whispers that our fall began from the moment we agreed to ‘peaceful coexistence’ with evil.” We have fallen far indeed, and the voice of Vladimir Bukovsky will always be with us to hold up the mirror of history to anyone proclaiming the need to find common ground with dictators.