Part One: A Conversation with Vladimir Bukovsky

Frank Gaffney has an extraordinary conversation with one of the greatest heroes of the 20th century, Vladimir Bukovsky. Bukovsky spent 12 years in Soviet confinement, during which he spent time in the psychiatric prisons of the USSR. He has fearlessly fought for human rights and freedom of speech for over fifty years. You can listen to the audio of this Secure Freedom Radio interview here

FRANK GAFFNEY:

Welcome to Secure Freedom Radio. This is Frank Gaffney, your host and guide for what I think of as, well, an intelligence briefing on the war for the free world. This is, of course, a war that has been going on for years, decades indeed. Ronald Reagan described it as a phenomenon that every generation must confront. Threats, existential threats to freedom. A man who has lived through and chronicled and helped warn the rest of us about the ongoing threats of totalitarianism in our own time is, I’m very pleased to say, our first guest. His name is Vladimir Bukovsky. He is one of the preeminent dissidents of the old Soviet Union and fought relentlessly against its form of totalitarianism, the existential threat that it represented to freedom, chronicled, among other places, in his superb book To Build a Castle. It’s also the subject of a new book, well, not so new – new, hopefully, in terms of its English translation, to be released soon, I’m told, Judgment in Moscow. Mr. Bukovsky is a neurophysiologist by training. He spent a lot of time, in fact, having, among other punishments meted out to him by the Soviet regime, time in psychiatric wards. And he has lived to tell the tale and we’re so pleased and so honored, really, to have a chance to talk with him a little bit today. Vladimir Bukovsky, welcome back to Secure Freedom Radio.

VLADIMIR BUKOVSKY:

Thank you.

FRANK GAFFNEY:

I wanted to start, if I could, Vladimir, with just a short appreciation, if you would, of some of the horrors that you and countless others in the Soviet Union and the Soviet empire more broadly experienced during its reign of terror, the end of which we all celebrated in 1991 in a fashion. Let’s talk first about some of your experiences as they sort of exemplify what went on.

VLADIMIR BUKOVSKY:

Well, the worst periods of terror in the Soviet Union happened before I was born. It was in the 30s, in the 20s, 30s. The civil wars and collectivization of peasants. And then the political purges. That was worse. I was born in 1942. So I didn’t live under that. But I still had about ten years to live under Stalin. And although I was just a boy, I do remember many things about it. So that’s the beginning. Of course, after Stalin’s death in 1953, the regime became softer. The mass repressions as Stalin practiced were stopped. Although the political repressions continued. So you would be imprisoned for disagreeing with the regime or criticizing it publicly or telling even a joke about it. But it was nothing as compared with what our parents had to live through in the 30s and 20s.

FRANK GAFFNEY:

And yet, what you did live through, especially when you became publicly known to be a critic of the Soviet system, was pretty horrific, both in terms of your time in mental institutions and the gulag as well. Again, not everybody experienced the full horror of all of that, but the repression was pretty awful even for the ordinary Soviet citizen. But talk about your own experiences briefly if you would, Vladimir, in terms of how Soviet communism treated those who dared to disagree with its program and agenda.

VLADIMIR BUKOVSKY:

Yeah, well, I became personally familiar with this when I was sixteen. Because together with my classmates we just concocted a school magazine. Nothing special, one corporate typewriter, you know. With jokes about school life and teachers and things like that. And little did we know the regime would consider it to be ideological subversion. This started as a joke. And suddenly, we were all kind of summoned to serious talks with the party officials and I was expelled from school and I was officially forbidden to continue my education, which actually made me very angry. I mean, it’s one thing when you hear the stories about repressions and executions, this all happened to someone else. But when anything happens to you, it’s much more powerful. You become personally involved. And you feel obliged to retaliate, to fight back. So that’s what happened when I was sixteen. And that is nearly sixty years ago. And ever since then, I never stopped trying to fight with them.

FRANK GAFFNEY:

Yeah. You say that, Vladimir, and I’m sure that it is true and in some cases, obviously in your own, but for most people, they were cowed by threats of such retaliation. And the example that was made of people like you and your fellow dissidents. And all for being what they called antisocial elements, I believe. This led to the mass incarceration of millions of people over the years.

VLADIMIR BUKOVSKY:

Oh, yes. Oh, yes. In my whole time, it was not millions, it was thousands. So it was small in scale, but pretty severe. At the age of nineteen, I had to run away, of all places, to Siberia. Because I knew they issued a warrant for my arrest, the KGB, the political police. And I didn’t like to sit and wait till they come and fetch me. I thought it’s stupid. So I used some – my friends who lived in Siberia, and I ran away there. And during the geological expeditions, so I was spending half a year in Tagil [PH]. I was pretty sure the KGB wouldn’t find me there. And indeed they didn’t. They actually didn’t even try to find me. They were happy I am out of sight, so to speak.

FRANK GAFFNEY:

But they caught up with you later.

VLADIMIR BUKOVSKY:

Yeah, but then I had to go back. I mean, I couldn’t live in Tagil [PH] my whole life. So I have to return back home as soon as I came. Within several months, they arrested me.

FRANK GAFFNEY:

You have, not only as I’ve said, Vladimir Bukovsky, chronicled all of this with extraordinary clarity and articulation, but you have also done an awful lot to try to exhume from the archives of the Soviet Union what went on during all of these periods. And when we come back in a moment, I want to talk a little bit with you about some of your insights and in particular your efforts to hold the regime accountable for what it did. That and much more with Vladimir Bukovsky, the author of To Build a Castle, right after this.

FRANK GAFFNEY:

The great, courageous, indeed heroic Vladimir Bukovsky is in the house virtually. We are catching up with him about, among other things, some of his experiences in the old Soviet Union and we’re going to be talking with him both about what he tried to do to ensure that the rest of the world knew the full horror of what that enterprise entailed and also what it means for our own time that it was not properly held accountable. Vladimir, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us. We talked a little bit about your personal experiences with the Soviet communists in the mental institutions and the gulag as well as sort of internal banishment in Siberia. But talk a little bit about your efforts as the Berlin Wall fell and the months afterwards to gain access to the archives of institutions like the KGB to chronicle what actually took place during those years of terror and repression.

VLADIMIR BUKOVSKY:

Well, after I was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1976 in prisoners exchange for a Chilean communist, I lived in the West, published several books, got education and so on. And I became pretty well known in Russia. For anyone who opposed the regime there, I was pretty well known. And many of them were my friends. So as soon as the regime was in deep crisis and on the verge of collapsing, I went there and talked to people who were likely to succeed, Zhizhnen [PH] and Glakura [PH], Yeltsin and his entourage. Some of them I knew, some of them I just got to know, and – at the third meeting, and it was in April of ’91, before the Soviet Union collapsed, I already discussed with them the necessity to put the regime on trial. I explained to them that unless we go through this process, they’re not likely to revive, to recover from all these days of totalitarian regime. And I was always quoting the example of Nazi Germany, which could recover only because it had the Nuremberg Trials of the most notorious criminals amongst the leadership of Nazi Germany. And also a process of de-nazification. Unless we have these two things, the whole country, we are not likely to recover. And I nearly persuaded these people. And it so happened within several months, there was a coup in Moscow with the apparatchiks trying to seize power and to resist the developments in the country. As a result of which, the country rebelled and the regime collapsed. And indeed those with whom I talked in April, they became the leaders of new Russia.

FRANK GAFFNEY:

Right. Notably, Yeltsin, of course, himself.

VLADIMIR BUKOVSKY:

Yeah, Yeltsin and his immediate aides and assistants. And the other people who helped him. So in August of ’91, as soon as the regime collapsed, I went to Moscow to see them and renew this explanation that we need to put the regime on trial. I even discussed it with the temporary appointed head of KGB – someone, Bakachin [PH] who Yeltsin appointed, temporary to head the KGB with the purpose of dismantling it. And I came to see him and our conversation was televised in Russia. And in this conversation, I raised the question of a need for a trial for some kind of catharsis, which would prey on the country of what crimes it committed. [UNCLEAR] And he actually agreed with me on two reasons that we do need such a process. But unfortunately he didn’t live too long in that post. By December, the Soviet Union disappeared. And his position together with the Soviet Union disappeared. And of course he had no time to implement anything of that kind. And then, lucky for us, the communists believed they can actually fight back. And they sued Yeltsin and his government in the constitutional courts of Russia. Arguing that his actions, Yeltsin’s actions, were unconstitutional. Because as soon as the Soviet Union collapsed, Yeltsin insisted on banning the communist party. Proclaiming it to be unconstitutional. So the communists sued him in the constitutional courts, hoping that it would help them to restore their previous position or at least to return everything, the property, the records, things like that. So my friends in Russia, they just asked me to come and help them with this trial. So I did and by the summer of 1992, I was in Moscow. I was granted permission to subpoena any documents from the secret archives of the central committee, politburo of central committee. And I used it as much as I could. As much as time would permit me. I brought with me a small laptop computer. At that time, it was considered to be a technical miracle. But it had a hard disk of forty megabytes. By that time it was considered to be incredible. And also I brought a hand-held scanner. Which was at that time still in the experimental stage. It was not on sale yet. But I found some people who were actually producing it, designing it and asked them for one copy. So with these kind of instruments, I came and having the permission to work in the archives, in the secret archives, of central committee, I used this opportunity to scan as many documents as I possibly could. Legally, I was not allowed to do that. And the instructions of the time still in place [UNCLEAR] in Soviet time, but they would not change yet. I was not permitted to copy any documents or even to quote them. But I understood that the people wouldn’t know what I am doing. See, this technology was quite new even in the West. And I reckoned the people, the officials in archives wouldn’t understand. And indeed, they didn’t. I was sitting down and scanning document after document and they didn’t really realize what I am doing.

FRANK GAFFNEY:

The image of you hunkered down inside the belly of the beast, scanning away when you weren’t supposed to be copying anything is poetic. And so, just very quickly, Vladimir, the most important of your findings from those archives?

VLADIMIR BUKOVSKY:

I have got a massive amount of documents, thousands and thousands. And I have to limit myself by years, let’s say from ’61 to ’91. Because you couldn’t embrace everything. It was impossible. There were literally billions of documents.

FRANK GAFFNEY:

But like totalitarians throughout history, they copiously record it.

VLADIMIR BUKOVSKY:

They recorded everything. You wouldn’t believe it. In this sense, they were no different from Nazis. Nazis also documented everything they did, apparently for posterity. So I saw the same was happening in the communist times. They just believed these documents would be important later as historical evidence of how they built socialism, you know. Apparently something like that. So even basic documents were still preserved. In the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, since it happened so quickly, the Soviet Union collapsing, six days of a coup, they had no time to even look into all those archives. All they could destroy was the current documentation concerning the coup and things like that. And anything older than that they simply didn’t look into. And lucky for us, in August of ’91, the crowd surrounded the building of central committee and it was huge. The employees were evicted. And the new guards were replaced at every entrance. So the archives was in this way captured. They were virtually in the hands of Russian, new Russian authorities. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen with the KGB archives. They were in a separate place completely. And no one did anything about it, so we still didn’t see any KGB documents. But the central committee documents were captured altogether. And I had the privilege of looking through them and requesting or subpoenaing documents after documents according to the registry. And after some procedure, I would receive copies of these documents.

FRANK GAFFNEY:

And for how long were you able to inspect these documents and how far did you get in that period?

VLADIMIR BUKOVSKY:

From June to December. And that was as long as the trial continued in constitutional court. I was officially made an expert in the constitutional courts of Russian Federation by the then president of Russia. So I was kind of the expert there. Expert witness.

FRANK GAFFNEY:

Vladimir Bukovsky, we have to pause for just a moment. If we can continue, we will do so on the other side of this short break.

FRANK GAFFNEY:

Welcome back. We are having an extraordinary conversation with one of the great heroes of the 20th Century. His name is Vladimir Bukovsky. And we are talking with him about some of his first-hand experiences with the repressions of the Soviet Union and then with the effort to chronicle what was involved, not only in his own personal experience, of course, which he’s described in marvellous and chilling detail in To Build a Castle and in his new book, The Judgment in Moscow. He is sharing with us some of his insights as he went through the archives of the period from 1961 to 1991, that the communist party of the Soviet Union had compiled. And Vladimir, I did want to just segue, if I could, from these historical references to ultimately the frustration of your efforts to really put the system on trial. And the communists were involved in this lawsuit, but was that the same thing as what you were trying to get, the counterpart to the de-nazification?

VLADIMIR BUKOVSKY:

No, of course not. It was a pale copy of it. Because we were hearing the case in a constitutional court, not in the criminal court or international tribunal. It was constitutional court where the sides were arguing about the constitutionality of their actions. The judges would not allow us to say that the communist party is criminal. They would immediately stop us and say we are not entitled to look into the crimes. We are dealing only with constitutional issues. And you should keep yourself to that subject. So and the end of it was not – anyone wasn’t actually punished or proclaimed to be criminal. The result of the trial was the constitutional court actually took our side and accepted and agreed that the actions by Yeltsin prohibiting the communist party were constitutional. And the communist party itself was unconstitutional in its way of ruling the country. So that was a victory in legal terms. But the consequences, particularly political consequences, were totally different. You see, the Nuremberg tribunal was judging these people for crimes against humanity. And these people were forever forbidden to – to take any public office or whatever. Many of them actually imprisoned.

FRANK GAFFNEY:

Some of them executed, in fact.

VLADIMIR BUKOVSKY:

And some executed. Nothing of the sort has happened in our case. It was very soft, very mild way of putting things. And that was a compromise Yeltsin actually achieved with his enemies at that time. And we were not allowed to go beyond the boundaries of that agreement. We couldn’t. But I decided to collect all these documents, knowing very well that only in a few months, the archives would be completely closed again and no one would ever see these documents. So I was in a hurry. I was working like hell. Day and night. And scanning – and scanning is a very painful process. You see, the hands have scars on them. It could take only half a page. So I had collated to stitch together these halves and to make them into a proper page. And my computer has only forty megabytes of memory. So every night, after working in the day in the archives, I had to hit through the night and stitch these things together and copy them to floppy discs. You may remember at that time computers had floppy discs. Now, they don’t. [LAUGHS] Now, they have sticks. And these floppy discs were ridiculously small. They were 1.4 megabytes. So I had to clean the hard disc [UNCLEAR] and it was a hell of a work. I was just day and night working.

FRANK GAFFNEY:

Oh, and such a service. And were you able to get this material out of Russia in the end?

VLADIMIR BUKOVSKY:

Well, at that time, it was total turmoil. The new power didn’t resort to distinctions. At the border, I could go through with my notebook without anyone checking on it, what I actually have in it. It was, you know, very easy times for these kind of things. I was, of course, [UNCLEAR] because if anyone would decide to check on what I am actually bringing out, they would discover hundreds of thousands of documents marked top secret, special importance, and so on and so forth.

FRANK GAFFNEY:

And, needless to say, that they would not have treated you well if that had been the case. This is the kind of courage, of course, that you exhibited, you know, throughout your time dealing with the system, as you call it. And the upshot of all of this was to try to help bring to the West’s attention what you had experienced and, again, millions and millions of others in terms of the Soviet system and the – the danger that it represents not, of course, just to its own people, but to lots of others. How was this information received when you did make it to the West?

VLADIMIR BUKOVSKY:

Well, unfortunately, it was received with total indifference. I brought all these documents arguing that the regime is not finished. That we have to finish it off. Without a trial and the international tribunal, we would never finish it. It’s a huge system with millions of people. Can you believe it? Nomenklatura, the last stage of Soviet system consisted of about eighty million people.

FRANK GAFFNEY:

And when you say the nomenklatura that means basically the bureaucracy that made up the institutions?

VLADIMIR BUKOVSKY:

Yeah, the party and state apparatus. Yeah, it was huge. And it was obvious, they’re not going to die. And they were still in the same offices with moreover the same duties and moreover the same power.

FRANK GAFFNEY:

And absolutely the same loyalties, presumably.

VLADIMIR BUKOVSKY:

Yeah. So I was pretty sure that there will be a period of restoration once we didn’t finish them off when we could. ’91, ’92. They would revive and go back. As a wounded animal will [UNCLEAR]

FRANK GAFFNEY:

Yeah. Maybe undergo sort of a chapter eleven reorganization as we call it in this country. But basically just simply putting new names on the old institutions, new wine in old bottles.

VLADIMIR BUKOVSKY:

That’s exactly what happened, Frank. I mean, the KGB was renamed FSB. I mean, not great difference. The same people in the same buildings in the same offices.

FRANK GAFFNEY:

Including people like Putin, who of course we’re perpetuating.

VLADIMIR BUKOVSKY:

Yes, they were working like hell to return to power and to rescue as much as they could from Soviet empire. And by the year 2000, they achieved it. They managed to get one of them – one of their people to be elected as the president.

FRANK GAFFNEY:

Yeah. And Vladimir, could you just tease that out a little bit for us? Because it’s my understanding that basically that was an arrangement between Putin and Yeltsin whereby Yeltsin would effectively be pardoned for any corrupt activities that he or his family engaged in if he would go along with essentially the restoration of the old system under Putin, is that right?

VLADIMIR BUKOVSKY:

Well, the thing which was required from Yeltsin to get this immunity from prosecution was simply to have the power over – to KGB’s inside people. And he did. You see up to 1993, a year in which there was standoff between the supreme Soviet and the presidency, and the president had to put down this rebellion, his arms, his arms, his army, his helpful army. They had to storm the white house and things like that. So after that, they – he became kind of a hostage to this KGB, the defence ministry and things like that, military. He was practically a hostage because they actually rescued his power.

FRANK GAFFNEY:

And in the person of Putin as increasingly the leader of that faction, right?

VLADIMIR BUKOVSKY:

Well, at that time, Putin was nothing. He was just assistant to the mayor of Saint Petersburg and his deputy. And but he had a good career in front of him. He was a new man, not known to be involved in any particular crimes during Soviet time. It was easy for him to pretend to be kind of a democrat. So he did. And after being in Saint Petersburg, he was transferred to Moscow to the presidential administration. They quickly made him to head of FSB, the new KGB, and after that became a prime minister very quickly. And then, by Yeltsin decree, he became his successor. It was done in the duration of one year. It was meteoric.

FRANK GAFFNEY:

Indeed. Meteoric is exactly the word for it.

VLADIMIR BUKOVSKY:

Yeah, but in order to convince the population to vote for this new candidate, the KGB organized first the terrorist activities in Russia, blowing up some living buildings, the housing apartments, you know, killing in the process about six hundred people, and they blamed the Chechens for that. And Chechens had nothing to do with this at all.

FRANK GAFFNEY:

In fact, as I understand it, from our mutual friend David Satter, that the KGB was actually caught red-handed at one point, putting explosives into one of these apartment buildings. Vladimir, we have to pause one more moment. If we can, we’ll be right back with much more. 

FRANK GAFFNEY:

Welcome back. I’m so honored to be able to present for one further final segment with Vladimir Bukovsky, a man I’ve admired tremendously over a very long time, to discuss further with us both some of his own experiences and his insights into the nature of the totalitarian left, the communists, the socialists, the democratic-socialists, the progressives, the Alinskyites, call them what you will, he has had first-hand very hard experience with them and it’s an important insight not just for us thinking about it historically, but thinking about it as it rears its ugly head once again in our own time and in our own country. Vladimir Bukovsky, again, thank you so much for joining us and for your efforts to communicate some very important insights. I did want to ask you about one point, when you were pressing in the West for help in finishing off the system and getting a trial for that purpose, you, of course, have described the resistance that you found increasingly in Russia, but talk a little bit about your insights into what was the view of Western, not only leftists, but for that matter the establishment as well.

VLADIMIR BUKOVSKY:

Well, my main interest when I was reading through all this mountains of secret documents was how much it affected the whole world. I wasn’t that much concentrating on internal doings of the regime because I knew about them first-hand. And documenting their crimes was already done by my colleagues in the court. So my main interest to find how far they reached in the corrupting of the West and getting kind of political forces in the West and business forces to work for them, objectively speaking. And I don’t mean just agents and KGB agents and some other things. That was only a small part of it. I knew a big part of the establishment was somehow helping them all along and finding the confirmation of it every time in the documents was exactly what I was looking for. Apparently the left, the European left and the American left, left liberal, were very much in cahoots with Moscow throughout the whole period of the Cold War. The European social democrats, particularly German social democrats, were practically working for Moscow at the time in the 70s and 80s. It was difficult to say where KGB ends and German social democrats begin. They were so tight. It was less tight with others, but nevertheless, a cooperation between the Western left and Moscow was obvious and massive. I don’t mean only communists or communist parties of mostly every country. The largest being in Italy and France.

FRANK GAFFNEY:

The so-called Euro-communists.

VLADIMIR BUKOVSKY:

Yeah. But in most of the countries of the West, there were small communist parties, mostly financed from Moscow. And that part we established very quickly in the documents. They were not hidden in the documents. So we knew that. But it wasn’t what I was looking for. Because I knew the small communist parties couldn’t be that influential. Thereafter, living in the West, after being expelled, I could feel how much forces are on the side of the Soviet Union. In a very subtle, very clever way. Not just supporting them openly, oh, no. But making possible for them to get out of a tight corner every time they found themselves in trouble and helping them with huge credits and financing, you know, this kind of thing.

FRANK GAFFNEY:

Yeah. Technology transfers.

VLADIMIR BUKOVSKY:

Technology transfers. And I very quickly discovered that the Western left – and I mean those who were not on payroll of Soviet Union, were independent forces. But ideologically, they were close to the communists. They were socialists. They differed with Moscow only in the methods of achieving the ends. The ends being the building of socialism in the world. So the Moscow part, the Bolsheviks believed this could be done by revolution, violently, quickly, and the quicker the better. Whereas the Western part of it, what we call Mensheviks, the social democrats and people like this, socialists, they were in favor of reformist development. A slow, reformist development toward socialism.

FRANK GAFFNEY:

Right. Same end, just slightly different means. And this brings us to our own time, Vladimir Bukovsky, and I’m so privileged to be able to, you know, discuss how this related to what we’re seeing now. We have, as I’m sure you’re aware, in the United States, not only the people who in the past wanted no part of a trial of the Soviet Union, who have been in some cases teaching in our academic institutions or involved in our popular culture or even in our political life, but you now have a new generation of generally younger people who have been influenced by the work of that previous generation in academia and the pop culture and politics who are now very susceptible to the seduction of socialism in our time and in our country. What would you say to the rest of us about the danger that such naïve people, if that’s what they are, or such determined ideologues represent to a free, democratic society like ours?

VLADIMIR BUKOVSKY:

Well, you see, my late friend here in Britain, Norris McWhirter, once defined it – when I explained to him the difference between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, he said, quite aptly, it’s like cooking a lobster. You can place it in hot water and it will turn red. Or you can put it in cold water and slowly warm it up. The result will be the same in both cases. The lobster will be turned red and cooked up. So that’s the difference. And of course, the massive sympathy for socialist ideas is nothing new. The whole thing started with French Revolution, with the idea of egalite, fraternite, liberte, and then so on. Which of course, totally utopian idea. People are not equal. They’re all different. Any biologist can tell you that there are no two objects in nature which will be absolutely similar. They’re all different. Even the drops of water are different. And the idea that you can make all the people equal, equal physically in the – not at the beginning of their life, but equal in the results, is against nature. It couldn’t happen. So you have to redistribute wealth, redistribute power, [UNCLEAR] legislation is in favor of those who are apparently orthodox in their view. And doing that, you screw up the whole system. You impoverish the state, the people, the middle classes, you destroy them slowly. And as a result, the country turns into some kind of a slum. Something we have seen in the third world where socialism triumphs like in Latin America. Look at Venezuela right now. They are the latest, so to speak, victim of the whole idea. But people still believe in this idiotic idea of equality.

FRANK GAFFNEY:

Vladimir, we are at the end of our time, I’m sorry to say. There is so much more to talk with you about. Your insights particularly into the seduction of our own people in this era with some of the manifestly bankrupt and odious practices of the past which you have lived through and experienced first-hand and taught the rest of us about is something that we must do a better job of translating to the rest of our countrymen and women. Thank you so much, my friend, for joining us and for the privilege of having a chance to talk with you for this full hour. Come back to us again soon. I hope the rest of you will come back to us again tomorrow. Same time, same station. Until then, this is Frank Gaffney. Thanks for listening.