A few days ago, I met with a colleague and we took the train up to Cambridge, to visit Vladimir Bukovsky. One can read a great deal about the atrocities perpetrated in communist Russia, but nothing quite prepares one to an encounter with a real life hero that has defeated physical and psychological torture, incarceration, prosecution and years of harassment from, perhaps the world’s most effective repressive apparatus (KGB), armed with nothing more than strength of character and dignity. I wanted to pick his brain and try and get some answers, so after the initial formalities we moved to more meaningful conversation.
One of the first things I remember him saying was “it’s been 30 years since we defeated Ortega and he’s back in power. These guys are indestructible!” We were discussing, of course, Venezuela, Hugo Chavez and its petrodiplomacy. Naturally the topics of Ortega, Morales, Correa, FARC and other unsavory useful idiots popped early. Bukovsky has a keen interest in learning about the advance of socialism/communism anywhere around the world, so we explained to him that the postmodern dictator, embodied by Chavez, does not need to kill or disappear his opponents, as they did in Bukovsky’s time, for killing their political and public personae is a much more effective way of getting rid of foes. In this respect I picked up on a comment he had made about one of the methods used by the KGB: that of placing its enemies in INTERPOL’s wanted list in order to curtail their activities. For days I had been thinking about Venezuela’s novel approach of requesting INTERPOL to include student leader Nixon Moreno in its wanted list —genocide al-Bashir though gets invited to Caracas by Chavez. Mind you this was a first from Chavez’s regime, as far as I could tell, and it certainly seemed odd. Bukovsky said “the KGB have been doing this for about 15 years. So if you’re lucky enough to get out of the country, your international movements are heavily compromised for you could be arrested anywhere. Probably some Russians are sharing knowledge with Chavez…” In an ideal world, such request from undemocratic and authoritarian regimes should be ignored, especially taking into consideration that not only charges brought against political foes are complete fabrications but the principle of innocence until proved guilty in a court of law is completely trumped. As Bukovsky would explain, fabricating charges is something communist regimes excel at, and Chavez’s is not different. He asked about how many political prisoners were there in Venezuela: not a week after Chavez’s justice system just confirmed what we said, sentencing a group of innocent men to 30 years imprisonment on trumped charges that could never be demonstrated in court.
Walking around King’s College he explained how, after having spent about 12 years in different prisons and psychiatric wards in Russia, he, almost suddenly, found himself in King’s peaceful and perfectly mowed lawns in what was the beginning of his academic career. In later years, Bukovsky was invited back to Russia by Yeltsin’s government to put his expertise to the service of a Constitutional Court. He told me that, before accepting, he made one request: to be allowed access to classified documents of COMINTERN and other bodies of the Communist party. KGB archives were kept out of reach. Nonetheless he took a laptop and a hand-scanner straight from its inventor, which was a new technology at the time and profitting from the ignorance of Russian politburo apparatchiks, that didn’t really understand what was going on, managed to copy thousands of documents, which he used afterwards to write a book entitled Jugement a Moscou. But, as he would relay, the interesting part were not only his findings, but his inability to have the book published in English, owing to legal claims that those Westerners who appear in the documents would bring against him. He says that influential English and American politicians were merrily passing information to KGB and the Politburo and getting kickbacks in return. I asked whether he came across any notorious names in Latin America and Venezuela and he replied by saying that the communist influence, in the form of intelligence sharing, training, weapons provision, advice, etc. was old and widespread. Unfortunately I don’t read Russian, but it would surely be fascinating to go through the files to see what’s in them.
We shared a few thoughts about life in socialist Europe, Gramsci, and the victory of the Frankfurt School in imposing as norm in our societies its wretched invention: political correctness. We laughed at the naiveté of Western politicians, when it comes to dealing with thugs such as Putin, or Chavez, or Castro, or Mugabe, or Ahmadinejad. Traveling around Latin America, except for Cuba, one gets the impression that us Venezuelans are a few pages ahead in the postmodern dictatorship script. Meeting with Bukovsky however brings us back to an era that most thought ended in 1989: XX century communism. The tactics may be more refined but neo-communists and their ‘XXI century socialism’ are as effective at crushing the human spirit as their previous counterparts. Bukovsky lamented the fact that, after the Reagan administration, the US government stopped relying on information provided by sources like himself. He said that, for instance, there were many thousands of Russian and Iranian expats living in the USA, yet this huge pool of knowledge is not tapped into by the Department of State or the intelligence agencies, which leads to many blunders and foreign policy failures. In the meantime, words from fundamentalists elected to office, despite their ideological and religious predispostion against Western norms, principles and laws are taken at face value. That shortcoming, or lack of engagement with those in the know, is repeated in other countries. Bukovsky mentioned that for the USA to expect Russia to give a helping hand in nuclear dealings with Iran is beyond naive. Rather, it is stupid.
Curious about his courage and motivation to stand against oppression, Bukovsky gave me a remarkable answer, one that takes the issue to epistemological levels and, in a certain way, coincides with the motto of this blog: “when you’re not allowed to think for yourself, when you’re not allowed to have, and voice, an opinion, insofar as such opinion is contrary to the diktats of the ruling party, you lose the only thing that makes us human. You become like an object in a meaningless life, and such life is not worth living. So I decided to rebel against that system and I had no fear of dying, for living in such condition was akin to being dead.”
Unfortunately, this world of ours is lacking in towering figures, like this Marlon Brando of dignity. For Bukovsky, opposing communism, and its associated ideologies, is not a choice but a moral imperative that reasserts the human spirit.