15 July 2019

A Quarter Century Behind: Vladimir Bukovsky and English Language Publishing

The British Honours system is puzzling. A German might wonder why make Dahrendorf (a now forgotten Anglo-Hamburger left-liberal) a Baron, and Popper only a knight? But at least Karl Popper got something. And speaking of Dahrendorf, what of other distinguished Central European emigrants, like Sir Arthur Koestler, Sir Leszek Kołakowski, or the author of Judgment in Moscow, Vladimir Bukovsky, a veritable hero of our times.

From his teens in Moscow, Bukovsky rebelled, taking on the Communist system. The penalties that he paid got worse and worse, and he suffered in all 12 years imprisonment in camps or lunatic asylums where he was put into strait-jackets and drugged. But Bukovsky was indomitable, and became the best-known of the “dissidents”. Western journalists campaigned for him, and in 1976 he managed to get to the West, where he became a brilliant writer of English. He can be compared with Aleksandr Herzen, and belongs in English literature as much as Nabokov. Now a British subject in Cambridge approaching 80, he still awaits his honour.

Judgment in Moscow is a classic book, but it is quite significant that a work of this stature, successfully published in French and German almost a quarter-century ago, has only now had an English-language edition. Bukovsky had fallen victim to a sort of left-liberal censorship. But the absurd even attended Bukovsky’s arrival in the West. He was flown, in handcuffs, to Zurich, in December 1976, and exchanged for a Chilean Communist, Luis Corvalán, who proceeded to Moscow, had a face-change, and was flown back to Chile to make trouble. However, Chile quite soon had democracy restored; poor old Corvalán had to be flown back to Moscow, have his face restored to its former glory, and so could resume his place in democratic politics.

Sinister farce has a long history in Russia and accounts for the emergence of this book as well as its title. When, all of a sudden, the USSR collapsed in 1991, Bukovsky went back to Moscow full of excitement, expecting the archives of the KGB to be opened. He had the idea of launching a sort of Nuremberg Trial of Communism, which had caused millions and millions of deaths and ruined lives, and for a time this looked to be a possible outcome. But the Yeltsin government was swamped, said the right things and then did nothing. Very soon the old KGB re-formed, and found ways of frustrating Bukovsky, who is bitingly funny about the Soviet bureaucratic mind. Americans who, tail-waggingly, also turned up in search of documents found themselves fobbed off with obscure documents like the activities of the Komsomol organisation in remote districts. In some cases, they would even be separately sold the same documents. Bukovsky gave up, vowing not to go back. And then the old Russia played one of her tricks. The Communist Party and its property were the object of a court case, and documentation was on offer. Bukovsky counted as a star witness, and was allowed access to them, but this time he knew what to do, and equipped himself (courtesy of Margaret Thatcher)* with a then-state-of-the-art Japanese scanner. This time round the wretched time-serving bureaucrats had to obey government orders, and he had an almost complete run of KGB–Politburo reports in the Brezhnev and Gorbachev periods. He copied far, far more than he was supposed to, including KGB reports to the Politburo, and it was only late in the day that the officials realised “he’s copying everything”. The resulting book is the most remarkable inside record about the workings of the Communist Party and the KGB in the last thirty years of Communism. The book appeared in 1995–1996 in French, German and Russian (and six other languages). There was a problem with the English-language publication: we have had to wait for almost a quarter-century for this brilliantly-written and important book.

The record of Soviet doings goes on and on, well into the Gorbachev era. The background, well-explained in Bukovsky’s biting style, is economic decline. “Russia is a fabulously rich country […] the laziest ruler could rule over it without a care in the world and no crises. It required an idea (socialism) to bring about an economic collapse […] by the 1960s it was running out of man-power, by the 1970s of arable land, and by the 1980s of […] energy, although all existed in nature. The system could not even pillage itself.” (Note: I have somewhat re-translated the quotation from the French version, which has more bite.) There is a document of 1975 where Yuri Andropov, head of the KGB, informs Leonid Brezhnev, the Party leader, that the Americans have developed a “smart” weapon that can go round corners. By then the American lead in computer technology had also become obvious. The Soviet Union could not even arm adequately, which provided grounds for general alarm. “By 1978 one rouble of investment yielded a return of eighty-three kopecks.” Bankruptcy loomed, and Soviet adventures abroad also fell apart. Bukovsky is very good on the crisis in Afghanistan, which the Soviets invaded at the end of 1979, but failed to gain control of. They also lost control in the Middle East, although there his documents are thinner he does have an extraordinary sample, just the same, showing that despite “vehement denials”, the KGB were supplying weapons for sabotage and terrorism to Wadie Haddad and the “Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine”. The same was true for the PLO. In one case the arms were paid for by stolen classical statues, apparently still stored somewhere in the Kremlin (Bukovsky looked for them in vain).

On mining the records Bukovsky is gratified to see that the activities of the “dissidents” were in fact taken very seriously at the highest level. The KGB knew of course that discontent was swelling, and in the end just let go the outstanding actors, especially Solzhenitsyn.

But the high point of the book comes with the Soviet effort to cosy up to the European Left, the Germans in particular, in 1980 and later. NATO, responding to the invasion of Afghanistan, meant to place “smart” missiles at bases in Europe; the Soviets were placing SS20s at their Central European bases, and encouraged a campaign in the West to prevent the placing of the NATO missiles. The whole episode awoke fears of nuclear annihilation and it ushered in a period known as the Second Cold War. Readers aged over sixty will remember the huge demonstrations that took place in many Western capitals: parades of tiny tots in fluorescent clothing, shrieking “nie wieder Krieg” at their teachers’ command. “Concerned doctors” emerged; in England there was a filthy, bedraggled women’s camp outside an American base, and the Soviets used all their leverage within international Socialism, managing to split the German SPD. Bukovsky despised the whole business, and finds his suspicions of Soviet manipulation well and truly confirmed. He names names as well. Perhaps fear of libel suits prevented English-language publishers from taking on Bukovky’s book. One name however can be named, being dead. Sir Raymond Hoffenberg was a distinguished medic, and Master of Wolfson College, Oxford who kept company with the Soviet scientific establishment. He operated independently; they did not, reporting everything to the KGB.

The Soviet campaign did not succeed, and President Reagan, hysterically denounced, went on to propose “Star Wars”, in other words an anti-missile laser defence system in space. To this the Soviets had no answer. But they had come quite close to gaining the German Socialists as allies, and Helmut Schmidt’s government collapsed partly because of this. After 1982, the Soviets tried another tack, this time appealing to the Right, and this is where Margaret Thatcher came in. A new Soviet leader emerged, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, with an offer of Socialism with a human face. Bukovsky had a friend who scratched his head, wondering as to whom Gorbachev reminded him of. Finally he said “Chichikov”, the large-scale operator anti-hero of Gogol’s Dead Souls.

Bukovsky was a lonely voice in the West, offering such cynicism, and again he finds that these documents bear him out: Gorbachev aimed to get money from the West in order to re-launch the Soviet economy, but this time round much of the money went straight to mysterious Swiss bank accounts, as the people in the know could see that the entire Soviet enterprise would soon collapse.

But that was not what people in the West wanted – far from it. Like Solzhenitsyn, Bukovsky responded very badly to America, though in a mocking rather than magisterial way. University audiences were absurd – eyes burning with naive enthusiasm through forests of hair, silly questions the order of the day. He despised the American obsession with health and positively shouts for glee when the founder of jogging drops dead aged fifty-four. He has no time for Hollywood, and says that you could look through its entire output and have no idea what the 20th century was about. McCarthyism, which obsessed over it, cost no lives and anyway concerned a real conspiracy. Again, Soviet-collaborating names are mentioned. He is not much impressed by the European Union either, and regards Human Rights as a racket: a means for the Soviet Union, bristling with missiles pointed at the West, to undergo a process of bureaucratisation in which the rights of women in Polynesia were treated on the same level as the labour camps and psychiatric hell-holes that Bukovsky knew.

All of this caused trouble with the Random House publisher, which had paid a good deal of money for the book. Bukovsky’s editor was Jason Epstein (who is still with us) and the correspondence revealed in this book shows Epstein (one of the founders of The New York Review of Books) carping at this, that or the other part of the book, with the result that it was never published. But we can also safely conclude that lawyers warned against publication, for fear of libel actions. All in all, it is rather a shameful episode in the history of English-language publishing. But still, at last, we have the book.


* After the printed version of our July 2019 issue came out, the editorial office of the
Hungarian Review was informed by Elizabeth Childs, a close collaborator of Vladimir Bukovsky, that in actuality the scanner had been given to Mr. Bukovsky by Stephen Bryen. We are grateful to Ms Childs for this precious piece of information of historical value.

 

Norman Stone passed away at his Budapest apartment on 19 June 2019. This was probably his last article for the press. His life and achievement is remembered in our next article by Nicholas T. Parsons. (The Editors)






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