Last weekend, I visited a part of Cambridge usually reserved for my bi-annual attempts at getting fit. Usually I like to run for about 15 minutes before stopping because my knee has burst into flames. This time, however, the exercise was shifted upstairs as some friends arranged (and kindly invited me to) a meeting with the rights activist, political prisoner and writer Vladimir Bukovsky. My friend and colleague Tanya Zakharchenko suggested that we record our impressions of the evening, and you can read Tanya’s account here. And looking at them now, I think the posts complement one another nicely.
I’d also like to add that Tanya has written a touching post on the recent passing of the philosopher and scholar Grigorii Pomerants, Pomerants is a writer I’ve become increasingly taken with lately. This is particularly down to his book Otkrytost’ bezdne (Sovetskii pisatel’, 1990), which is a collection of lectures Pomerants made at the Dostoevsky Museum in the late 70s (and which later circulated in samizdat) tied together as a dialogue with Dostoevsky. This obviously makes it fertile ground for my interest in dissidents’ reading of Dostoevsky. I was also struck by Pomerants’ ability to abstract himself from difficult moral problems and offer a point of view which accepts its own bias but nevertheless strives for the impartial and ethical. And in a last brief point on the notion of dissidents’ relevance for today, Tanya remarked that Pomerants’ interpretation of dealing with traumatic modernisation and Stalin in one of his first samizdat texts reads as if it was written for today.
But back to the main event, and first, a little biographical information. Vladimir Bukovsky has lived and worked in Cambridge since 1978, after he was exchanged in 1976 for the Chilean communist leader Luis Corlávan, who had been imprisoned after Pinochet’s coup. Bukovsky continued the struggle against state repression of dissent, particularly in the field of psychiatric abuses. In the early 1990s, he was involved in the now infamous ‘Trial of the KPSS’, and managed to spirit away masses of archive documents detailing the activities of the Central Committee and KGB. In 2008, with the help of Vladimir Kara-Murza, Bukovsky ran in the Presidential Election in order to draw attention to the plight of political prisoners in Russia. Last year, during Gorbachev’s birthday celebrations in London, Bukovsky requested that the British government detain and try him for civilian deaths in Tbilisi (April 1989), Baku (January 1990), Vilnius (January 1991) and Riga (January 1991).
For me, meeting Bukovsky was like coming face to face with a world which I have read and thought so much about, but never experienced directly. His memoir I vozvrashchaetsia veter (often given the alternative title To Build a Castle in English) is fascinating both for its philosophical asides on the future of Russia and its stoicism. Bukovsky is a great story-teller, both on paper and in the flesh. The details of life behind bars have a grotesque pull to them; the behaviour of the security services is straight out of Kafka. But on a personal note, it was inspiring to see Bukovsky’s passion for justice and change in action.
He talked eloquently about what was happening behind the scenes during perestroika and why the plans of that time have not turned out the way he hoped. Peppered with anecdotes that made us laugh and grimace, Bukovsky’s responses to our questions took us all through twentieth century European history and touched on many different topics. Among others, this included the system of mutual respect (rather than authority) that existed among the rights activists of the 1970s and 1980s; the agreements between Western progressive political parties and the Soviet Union; and the connection between Anatoly Marchenko’s death in a labour camp outside Perm’ in 1986 and the amnesty of political prisoners in February 1987.
Photo via Corbis/Fotosa.ru
Besides this (and more), it was the connection between this man and the decisions and events that have shaped the past 50 years which hit home most of all: the real need for people to stand up and make their voices heard in the face of injustice. For some, this requirement was internalised and became the baseline of their decision-making. This sense of duty was partly responsible for the growth of dissident culture in the 1950s and 1960s: those born in the thirties, i.e. people who lived through the war as youths and saw/heard about the horrors of socialism and fascism, felt that their generation had been given a “moral originality” in the words of Leningrad author Rid Grachev.
The interests and worldviews of this generation reflected, in part, the revolutionary impact of the Second World War on society in the search for roots, sincerity, and rebirth in the 1950s and 1960s. In retying the threads with the 1920s (but still believing in the possibility of a positive turnout for the future), they were the generation that would not allow for a repeat of past mistakes. Although many would experience a disappointment in the discrepancy between socialist ideals and reality (often, but far from exclusively, stemming from threshold events such as the invasions of 1956 and 1968), Bukovsky told us how he had been an anti-communist from an early age. Regardless, it was his combination of energy, sincerity and fervent belief in one’s own abilities which echoed this commitment. Sometimes it is worth remembering that although the lines between groups and generations can be stark, they also merge and meld with one another