A Life of Integrity: Vladimir Bukovsky at 70
Vladimir Bukovsky does not like to be called a politician, preferring to be known as a neurophysiologist, writer or, at the very least, civic activist. In truth, he never engaged in politics: he merely realized, at an early age, that he could not reconcile himself to live quietly with a criminal and mendacious regime that sought to make millions of people its silent accomplices. Bukovsky’s protest was a moral one. “We did not play politics, we did not draft programs for the ‘people’s liberation,’” he recalls in his memoirs, To Build a Castle (a must-read for anyone interested in Russian history). “Our only weapon was glasnost (openness). Not propaganda, but glasnost, so that no one could say ‘I did not know.’ The rest is a matter for each person’s conscience.”
“I did not know” was a popular answer among members of the older generation when asked by the youngsters of the 1950s about Stalin’s times. The public condemnation of Stalinist crimes at the 1956 Communist Party congress and (almost immediately) the brutal suppression of the Hungarian revolution, which showed that the nature of the regime has not changed, were formative events for Bukovsky. His protest activity began literally during his school days: he joined a clandestine anti-Soviet group and published an underground satirical journal. In response, he was expelled from school, summoned to a dressing-down by the Moscow City Communist Party Committee, and barred from studying at university (he nevertheless won admission to Moscow State University, only to be discovered and expelled a year later.)
Vladimir Bukovsky is one of the founders of the Soviet dissident movement, which was born in the fall of 1960 on Moscow’s Mayakovsky Square. There, a group of yet-unknown young activists, poets, and actors (including Yuri Galanskov, Eduard Kuznetsov, Vladimir Osipov, Ilya Bokshtein, and Vsevolod Abdulov) held public readings of banned poetry – Akhmatova, Pasternak, Mandelshtam, Tsvetaeva. They also read from their own works and the works of their contemporaries, which would soon be disseminated as samizdat (literally “self-publications,” the clandestine reproduction and distribution of banned literature). Samizdat, too, was born on Mayakovsky Square. The authorities responded in their usual manner: with dispersals of the meetings by bulldozers and snow ploughs; provocations by Komsomol (Young Communist League) operatives; beatings and arrests. Yet the “seditious” meetings continued in the heart of the Soviet capital for almost two years. “That amazing community, which would later be called a ‘movement’, was being born. It had no leaders or followers…. Each of us, like a nerve cell, participated in this amazing orchestra without a conductor, compelled only by his or her sense of self-respect and personal responsibility for what was happening.” (Vladimir Bukovsky, To Build a Castle).