Saturday, February 24, 2007

Bukovsky, a Real Russian Patriot

“Vladimir Bukovskiy:

‘I came back because people are once again afraid...’”

Aleksandr Podrobinek

Yezhednevniy Zhurnal

October 31, 2007

Vladimir Bukovskiy -- the famous Soviet dissident, who first exposed the political abuse of psychiatry then spent 12 years in prison and psychiatric hospitals for it, before being traded in 1976 for the Chilean communist Luis Corvalan – was back in Moscow in the middle of October.

As we rode through the foggy early morning streets from the “Domodedovo” airport, billboards gleamed, as if mockingly, with advertisements for a men’s journal: “Where have you been all these years?” Later, at a meeting with the pro-democracy community at the Sakharov Museum, a nervous young man asked Bukovskiy, “Where have you been all this time, Vladimir Konstantinovich, and why haven’t you moved to Russia to help defend democracy?” This question was repeated in various versions at press conferences, meetings with journalists, and presentations of his book “И возвращается ветер…” [translated into English as, “To Build a Castle, My Life as a Dissenter”]. Bukovskiy remained unperturbed throughout, noting that even the most unpleasant questions were engendered by ignorance, not personal enmity.

It is true that for the past 15 years Bukovskiy could not be found in Russia. At first he was not particularly longing to return, understanding as he did that the era of the dissident had passed, and the country no longer needed his experience at resisting the Chekists. But events of the past eight years gradually changed his views about returning, and he eventually accepted the invitation of a group of social activists and journalists to stand for the presidential election in 2008. In August, Bukovskiy received a new passport from the Russian embassy in London, and can now travel without interference to Russia.

His most recent arrival could hardly be called triumphant, but it also did not pass unnoticed. There was certainly no lack of interest from journalists. Bukovskiy did not refuse anyone an interview, even those working for publications from which nothing good could come. From some he evoked praise, from others - jeers, and from others still - irritation. One journalist from “Komsomolskaya Pravda”, Yuliya Yuzik, published a disgraceful and mendacious profile of Bukovskiy, then the following day, on her personal website, wrote that she regretted doing it, making a laughingstock of Bukovskiy, but she had to feed her children. The next day she had to leave her job. Bukovskiy, hearing about this story, remarked with sad irony: “The poor woman… how will she feed her children now? But she did the right thing.”

Despite all the unpleasantness of the current political system, Bukovskiy has not shown any personal enmity toward his political opponents. The harshest thing to be heard from him was in his answer to a question from the news anchor Tatyana Limanova of REN-TV. Paraphrasing the famous question, “With whom would you go to the intelligence services?” she asked Bukovskiy, “With whom would you share a jail cell?” Without hesitating Bokovskiy answered that he would be ready to share a cell with Nemtsov or Kasparov, then after thinking about it for a moment noted that it would better if Putin were not put in the same cell with him. “It would be bad”, he added, as if joking, but his face had become hard, like that of a prisoner who has been backed into a corner.

With everyone else he has been fairly gentle. One very high-ranking Russian official, well-known to the public, asked through a mutual friend for a signed copy of Bukovskiy’s book “И возвращается ветер…”. Bukovskiy made his usual inscription, then added the words, “Honor your own constitution!” - a slogan from the dissident era.

It is a slogan as fresh today as it was 40 years ago. There are two legal obstacles to Bukovskiy being registered as a presidential candidate. First, the Constitution requires that a candidate have lived in Russia at least 10 years - though it does not specify that it must have been the 10 years immediately prior to the election. Second, a law passed this year prohibits any person with dual citizenship from being elected to parliament or the presidency. Bukovskiy, who 30 years ago was sent directly from Vladimirskiy Prison to the West, has both Russian and British citizenship. Both obstacles are patently absurd. The residency requirement clearly contradicts the Constitutional principle of “general, equal and direct vote”. [Article 81: The President of the Russian Federation shall be elected for a term of four years by the citizens of the Russian Federation on the basis of general, equal and direct vote by secret ballot.”] Limiting voting rights on the basis of dual citizenship absolutely and unambiguously contradicts the Constitutional restriction that only the incapacitated or imprisoned do not have the right to vote or be elected. [Article 32: “Citizens who have been found by a court of law to be under special disability, and also citizens placed in detention under a court verdict, shall not have the right to elect or to be elected.”]

But the real issue is not with the laws.. Bukovskiy knows perfectly well that he will never be allowed to register as a candidate for president, no matter what the law is or who is interpreting it. He took up this patently lost cause in order show our society that it is not doomed to submit to the choice presented by the Kremlin; that one need not agree with “Operation Successor” as long as one still has the strength to resist. In Soviet times, this position found expression in the ironic toast, “To the success of our hopeless project”. History has shown, however, that the dissident project was not so hopeless after all.

“I have never had any political ambitions,” says Bukovskiy. “I gave 12 years of my life to help pull my country away from this abyss, and I cannot sit idly by while it careens back toward it. I will, of course, not become the President, but I will present the voters with a point of view with which they may or may not be acquainted; I will try to sharpen and consolidate the democratic opposition.”

Bukovsky suggested that all the presidential candidates join him in a pre-election pledge containing five points: free all political prisoners; cease all political repressions and reconsider the laws that were adopted for this purpose; cease the misuse of psychiatry for repressive purposes; cease all torture and violent means of dealing with the population being used by the law enforcement agencies; provide for an objective and independent judiciary in Russia. So far the only person to respond to this proposal has been Grigoriy Yavlinskiy, who during a meeting with Bukovskiy said he was ready to sign every word in it. Bukovskiy sincerely hopes that the other presidential candidates will join Yavlinskiy in this.

For the six days he was in Moscow, Bukovskiy was most often asked about his relationships with the “Other Russia” movement and the leaders of the opposition parties. Bukovskiy has had warm relations with Garry Kasparov for 20 years, and he welcomes in every way efforts by “Other Russia” to defend Russia’s democratic institutions. But he considers it a mistake to try and put forward a single candidate for all the opposition parties, inasmuch as it is impossible to find a candidate acceptable to, in his words, both the Communists and the anti-communists.

Regarding other opposition leaders, Bukovskiy is ready to meet with everyone, and he might make a good conciliator, since he is not beholden to any one political movement. In fact, it would be hard to doubt the conciliatory capabilities of a man who in his own lifetime has had occasion both to break bread with hardened criminals in prison, and to dine with the Queen of England.

On the other hand, the role of conciliator will hardly be the main one for Vladimir Bukovskiy. He is entirely capable of becoming a political figure in his own right. His supporters are already thinking about creating a political movement based on Bukovskiy’s campaign platform and manifesto “Russia on the Chekist Hook”.

At a rally on Mayakovskiy Square with Bukovskiy in attendance, his supporters announced a plan to create “Bukovskiy Clubs” in cities throughout Russia, which could eventually form the basis for a new political movement, created from below rather than at the will of political leaders or on orders from bureaucrats at Staraya Ploschad [TN: refers to the Presidential Administration headquarters, located at No. 4 Staraya Ploschad].

This small rally, totaling perhaps 300-400 people, had a very symbolic feel to it. It was here, almost 50 years ago, that the democratic movement essentially began, with public readings of prohibited poetry written by the youth of Moscow, among them Vladimir Bukovskiy.

Appearing at this meeting on the eve of his departure, Vladimir Bukovskiy explained why he had come back to Russia. “I came back because people are once again afraid. And I know that when they start to be afraid, they need to stand up and say: Here I am, and I’m not afraid! I came back because the feeling of defeat had returned: we are too few, and the adversary is too strong. I came back to remind everyone that we once were even fewer, and our adversary was even stronger… But we nonetheless survived and prevailed. We prevailed because the adversary could not kill us, break us, force us to submit. Because in the end the entire pathos of our actions, their whole meaning, came down to just one thing: If you want to build your own prison, go ahead - I can’t stop you. But I am not going to do it myself. And you can’t force me.”

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