Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we review and discuss the firsthand testimony of those who lived through the horrors of Communism over the past century. This is Erik Seligman, your co-host, along with Manuel Castaneda, recording from the suburbs of Portland, Oregon.
Today we’re going to talk about a well-known Soviet dissident, Vladimir Bukovsky, who has made it his life’s mission not to let people forget the abuses of Communism. Many critiques of the Soviet Union and similar regimes tend to focus on the Stalin years, a natural tendency given the tens of millions of deaths. But Bukovsky began his dissident career during the Krushchev “thaw”, when the regime was still spreading violence and death throughout the world, suppressing political speech, and causing widespread economic misery for its population. He has repeatedly made efforts to point out that when Communist regimes seem to be promoting peace, slight economic reforms, or improved relations with the West, they are usually just engaging in intensive PR for what is still a fundamentally totalitarian system causing untold human misery. Naturally, his outspokenness on these issues resulted in over 12 years of imprisonment, at various times in prisons, mental hospitals, or in labor camps.
When the Soviet Union fell in the early 1990s, Bukovsky thought it especially important that the documentation of the government’s actions over the past few decades be preserved. He knew that there would be a tendency to gloss over the more recent abuses, since the officials involved were in most cases still alive and often in positions of power in the “new” Russian government. And that’s not accounting for their many collaborators in the West, who would have a similar interest in papering over such issues. Thus, he headed to Moscow as soon as he could, to gather any available information and preserve documents before they could be destroyed. The story of his attempts to preserve documents, and the shocking contents he found, is told in his memoir “Judgement in Moscow: Soviet Crimes and Western Complicity”.
Bukovsky returned to Moscow in 1991, hoping to initiate something equivalent to the Nuremberg Trials for Communism. As he summarizes it, this wasn’t about revenge, but about exposing the massive scale of Communist human rights abuses so they could never be denied or papered over. He considered it an important principle that he would not try to name and expose every “informer” who collaborated with the police— he knew that many had been pressured into cooperation by threats against themselves or their families. His worst fear is that a few bad leaders, like Stalin, would be blamed, and the fundamental horrors of the system would never be exposed:
The aim was not to winnow the more guilty from the less guilty and punish the latter, but to attain a moral cleansing of society. Not mass hysteria, reprisals, denunciations, and suicides … but repentance. And in order to achieve this, the entire system and the crimes it perpetrated should have been put on trial, while it would have been quite sufficient to pronounce judgment on its leaders, who were already in prison…
I considered it vital to show the millions of people who would see the program that we, former political prisoners and dissidents, had no desire to seek revenge, that the foundation for my proposals was not vengeance but interests much more far-reaching and not at all personal.
Bukovsky, Vladimir. Judgment in Moscow: Soviet Crimes and Western Complicity (Kindle Locations 1605-1612. Ninth of November. Kindle Edition.
After Bukovsky began his attempts to gather critical documents from the archives, various Russian media outlets and KGB officers began spreading rumors that there was nothing to be found, and the crimes of Communism had been exaggerated. Various mid-level employees started giving Bukovsky various excuses and delays when he asked for documents— and he even discovered that some critical ones had been burned. He was frustrated to realize the the so-called “reform” of the KGB after Yeltsin took over was largely an illusion:
Splitting up the KGB into separate directorates and services… was as pointless as chopping off a lizard’s tail or dividing an amoeba. The result was that every unit regenerated itself and even expanded, just as in the fairy tale in which every dragon tooth grows into a new dragon. Those archives were the essence of the KGB, the heart of the dragon, hidden behind seven seals. The only way to vanquish the beast was to pierce its heart, but the hero of the story, who was supposed to accomplish this magnificent feat, went on a drunken spree instead…
Meanwhile, mysterious “commercial structures” began to appear around the archives, and a brisk trade in documents ensued, but only those deals that profit the KGB, and only through the reliable hands of those who suit the KGB.
(Kindle Locations 1723-1735).
Walking into the buildings of the supposedly reformed KGB, Bukovsky’s description sounds like a mix of a Kafka novel and a Three Stooges movie:
The archive administration occupied only one floor of Number 12; the rest was like the labyrinth of the Minotaur, the entrance and exit of which could not be found without Ariadne’s thread. The superb parquet flooring of the corridors seemed to stretch into infinity past sealed office doors that still bore the nameplates of their former occupants… Here and there, mounds of files and papers marked “top secret” lay right on the floor. I picked up one at random and glanced at the contents: it was a report by some regional party committee about youth work…
The decree ordering the seizure of the party archives had been signed by Yeltsin on 24 August, and the commission with the new guards had entered the Central Committee buildings that same night. At first the electricity supply was cut off to prevent any use of shredding machines, but then it had to be turned on again, because it was impossible to find anything in the dark. The shredding machines were already jammed with hurriedly destroyed documents and not in working order….
It was a fact that all the entrances and exits were manned by sturdy young men with submachine guns. We literally stumbled into one of them, a strapping young fellow with a childish, bewildered face, as we turned a corner: “Can you tell me where the canteen is?” he asked pleadingly. “I’ve been wandering around for half an hour, and still can’t find it….”
Experience showed that it was well-nigh impossible to destroy any archive material selectively, or, for that matter, to forge it. In the first place because it had been established that there were at least 162 archives, totally unconnected to each other by cross-referencing in card indexes or by computer; the communist regime trusted nobody, even its own apparatus. It would take months of searching just to establish whether there were any copies of a document from one archive in another…
(Kindle Locations 1747-1770).
Fortunately, the ultimate disorganization and lack of internal trust ensured that despite attempts to cover the tracks of past Soviet officials, plenty of papers would remain available somewhere in the archives. But Bukovsky gradually came to realize he was facing another critical obstacle, the lifetime of conditioning of petty bureaucrats under the Soviet system:
In reality, the administrators of the archive were in no hurry… They were no fighters, just typical Soviet bureaucrats who had built their careers under the old regime, cowardly and cunning, like all slaves. Their attitude toward the authorities, their overlords, was a slave’s mixture of fear and hatred, and the more they hated, the more they wanted to cheat their masters in some way. So they regarded the unexpected bounty that fell into their hands as their personal windfall, to be guarded jealously from all outsiders….
It stands to reason that from their point of view, I was an outsider, a thief eyeing their riches from whom they tacitly agreed to protect their “personal property.” Moreover, they simply could not understand my motives—what was it I was after, anyway? Was I trying to get a cut for myself?…
they agreed with me in everything just in case, but managed to invent new excuses for delay every day.
(Kindle Locations 1783-1798)
As the holders of the archives created endless delays, Bukovsky was dismayed to see the continued increase in former Soviet officials attaining positions of power under Yeltsin’s supposedly reformed government. They even pressured Yeltsin to pass a 1992 law on “preserving state secrets”, yet another obstacle to any attempts to gather more data from the archives.
Fortunately, later in 1992 the former officials got a bit too brazen for their own good, filing an appeal with the new Constitutional Court of Russia to try to force Yeltsin to re-recognize the Communist Party. If they succeeded, Yeltsin might even be forced to return buildings and property that his new government had taken from the Communist Party— so it was a very serious threat. Now, the reputation Bukovsky had for trying to independently document past abuses became an advantage.
Alarm, even panic seized all the president’s men. And this led to what I had spent almost a year trying to achieve: the CPSU archives were opened, at least in part, and I, who had been hurriedly summoned to Moscow as an expert witness to the proceedings, received access to them. That was the categorical condition I made—payment, if you like, for my participation in the pending farce.
(Kindle Locations 1941-1943)
But even this new power didn’t solve the issue of the stubborn bureaucrats, who were still the ones controlling the archives day-to-day, and could still create endless delays. Nobody refused him directly, but there was always a reason some document couldn’t be found. Or they would come back with a request for an exact “date and reference number”, details which could not be known without directly searching the archives for the document. He suspected that some of them just wanted bribes, but this was a line he refused to cross:
From the arsenal of our prison stratagems, there was only one I consciously never employed: bribery. Maybe I was wrong, but it seemed to me that it would be too demeaning to descend to this level, as it would have been offensive to, say, a former inmate of a Nazi concentration camp to try to buy documents indicting the Nazis from the SS. The thought that the scum who had built their former well-being on our bones would derive profit now… was too repugnant to contemplate.
(Kindle Locations 1989-1992)
Bukovsky managed to slowly gather some documents, but knew his access would soon end as the relevant court case came to a close. Even worse, while he had gathered a large number of relevant documents, they were still stored in another part of the archive building, where he could permanently lose all the documents he had put so much effort into gathering. Luckily, he had one more trick up his sleeve.
I took the precaution of acquiring a miracle of Japanese technology: a portable computer with a handheld scanner. At that time this piece of technology had only just appeared in the West, and it was completely unknown to our Russian savages. Because of this I was able to sit right under their noses and scan piles of documents, page after page, with no worries about the curious, who kept coming up to admire my machine. “Look at that!” would exclaim the leaders of democratic Russia, peering admiringly over my shoulder. “Now that must have cost a few bucks!”
Nobody realized what I was doing until the court hearing was almost over, until December 1992, when one of them suddenly saw the light and yelled loudly enough to be heard a block away: “He’s copying everything!!!” There was a deathly hush. I kept scanning, as though I had not heard. “He’ll publish everything over there!!!” I finished working, packed up my computer, and headed calmly for the door, looking neither left nor right. From the corner of my eye I could see the horrified faces of Yeltsin’s elite… Nobody said a word as I made my way to the door. They were probably busy calculating what untold millions I would make in the West.
(Kindle Locations 2071-2082)
Thus, Bukovsky was able to escape with copies of thousands of pages of authentic Communist Party documents. While most of the abuses were already well known, there were plenty of explosive revelations. He solidly documents how many Western political and media figures were collaborating directly with the Soviet government, even though similar collaboration with Reagan or Thatcher would have resulted in their ostracism from fashionable society. He discusses in detail how Gorbachev, the supposedly reformist Soviet leader, was at all times in firm control and in solid agreement with the so-called Kremlin “conservatives”— he never wanted to overturn the totalitarian Soviet system, but merely to make it more robust in the face of Western challenges. But perhaps worst of all, as had long been suspected, the Soviets directly had a hand in most of the “national liberation movements” that caused chaos in South America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East throughout the 1970s and 1980s. As Bukovsky writes,
Even I was amazed by the scope of this murderous activity across five continents. Even Hitler could not have dreamed up something like this. The tempest they unleashed swept away millions of lives in Ethiopia, Vietnam, and Central America; it will rage on in Angola, Sudan, Somalia, and Afghanistan long after the last communist regime vanishes from the face of the earth.
(Kindle Locations 1040-1042)
We won’t elaborate more on these topics here, since this podcast is about telling personal stories, but you can find all this information in detail in Bukovsky’s book. One item uncovered in the items did hit Bukovsky personally though, due to his having spent several years confined to Soviet insane asylums: he uncovered plans for a new “Psychiatric Gulag”. In the key document, we can see:
The KGB under the Council of Ministers of the USSR in the Krasnodar region possesses materials that indicate that there is a significant number of mentally ill persons who exhibit socially dangerous and hostile signs, harbor criminal, politically harmful intentions, and have a demoralizing effect on the lives of Soviet people…
Many of those suffering mental illness attempt to create new “parties,” various organizations and councils, prepare and disseminate draft charters, program documents and laws…
At present, according to data supplied by regional health authorities, eleven to twelve thousand persons stand in need of hospitalization…
(Kindle Locations 4087-4126)
This document was written with respect to only one of around 100 administrative regions— so if the plan had actually been implemented, over a million Soviet citizens would likely have ended up in Brezhnev’s new psychiatry-based gulag. Luckily, a few dissidents including Bukovsky had managed to report their abuse to foreign psychiatric associations at just the right time to embarrass the KGB into giving up this plan.
…it turned out that our campaign had hit the bull’s-eye. Half a year had not yet passed, and the Politburo had not reached a final decision, when my first interviews appeared in the Western press, and by summer they were on television, where the question of psychiatric repression became a top story. It was as though we had caught them red-handed at the scene of the crime, and quite by chance at that. It is probably like this in wartime, when a rogue shell hits the arsenal… The regime had to defend itself with all it had, and the decision to create a psychiatric gulag was shelved…
(Kindle Locations 4169-4173)
Anyway, as you can probably guess, many of Bukovsky’s revelations were very embarrassing for Western liberals who had continually collaborated with Brezhnev and his successors in the name of “peace”, “disarmament”, and similar causes, or supported the many Soviet-sponsored “national liberation” movements. As a result, even though Bukovsky first published his book in 1996, it took over 20 years for the first English language edition to come out. At first he was connected with the wrong publishers, who turned out to be more concerned with protecting their liberal friends than letting the truth be revealed. They kept demanding that he cut passages that would be embarrassing to various public figures, and he completely refused. Then he found a smaller publisher, who was planning to print the book but got intimidated into silence by continual threats of lawsuits. These threats successfully suppressed the edition from being published by anyone for years, until an independent group of supporters in the U.S. decided to publish it on their own last year.
Overall, thanks in part to Bukovsky’s work, nobody can now deny the human rights abuses of the later period of Soviet history, the past actions of many officials who are even now active in the Russian government, or the corrosive effect that Soviet Communism had as they exported violence throughout the world. Or, for that matter, the guilt of Western liberals who continually supported the Soviet Communist party line throughout the 1970s and 1980s. The next time someone accuses you of paranoia or “McCarthyism” for worrying about the dangers of Communism, be sure to refer them to Bukovsky’s “Judgement In Moscow.”
<closing conversation with Manuel>
By the way, we’d like to thank listener Dusty from Sunup Creative for sending us a nice new logo for the podcast. Remember, if you want to help but aren’t as artistic, we could always use a few more nice reviews at Apple Podcasts or similar sites.
And this has been your story of Communism for today.