Vladimir Bukovsky, born in 1942 in Belebey, a local administrative hub 500 miles east of Moscow, has always said he never set out to topple the government or change the world. But "with his back to the wall a man understands," he wrote. "There is nowhere for him to retreat to."
In 1961 the 19-year-old Bukovsky, studying biology at Moscow University, began attending and organizing poetry readings in Mayakovsky Square, ground zero for the dissident movement. He wrote and published a thesis on the failings of the Communist Youth League, which drew the attention of authorities. He was expelled from school in 1961, and in 1963 arrested for making and possessing copies of anti-Soviet literature.
Soviet officials did with him as they did with thousands of other dissidents: They had him examined by state psychiatrists who declared him mentally ill. Soviet psychiatrists had established a policy that schizophrenia was genetic, by which they meant the patient would never be cured and could be locked up for life. They had fabricated the existence of "sluggish" schizophrenia, said to be detectable only by a qualified doctor, under which a patient appeared totally normal except for subtle signs the doctor could diagnose: A compulsive urge to find the truth, or a stubborn drive for political reform. It was, of course, a stealthy way to neutralize political troublemakers.
Bukovsky was locked up in a psychiatric institution, a psikhushka, alongside other dissidents and the truly ill. He was bounced around several of these psikhushka before being released two years later. Almost immediately, he was arrested again for organizing a protest over the arrest of more dissidents. While other defendants expressed remorse to escape prison, Bukovsky did not. He used his closing argument to explain the prosecution's failure to follow Soviet law. He was sent to labor camps for three years.
Released, he put his incarceration experience to use by smuggling 150 pages of official psychiatric files on six incarcerated dissidents to collaborators outside the Iron Curtain. The response was intense: Psychiatrists and human rights activists worldwide saw that it was the official policy of the USSR to declare its critics insane and lock them up in state care -- taking them out of action, discrediting their words as the delusions of a lunatic, and avoiding the repercussions of putting critics on trial.
Forty-four psychiatrists signed a letter declaring that four of the six patients in Bukovsky's documents "did not appear to have any symptoms at all," two had had childhood bouts with mental illness that had not resurfaced in years, and all six seemed to be incarcerated for "exercising fundamental freedoms ... guaranteed by the Soviet Constitution."
As a worldwide furor raged, Bukovsky was sent to prison again.
In 1976, the Soviets agreed to trade Bukovsky for a top Chilean communist held in prison by the dictator Pinochet. By then, Vladimir Bukovsky was an even trade -- his reputation and stature in the West had made him "the most widely-known prisoner of conscience in the Soviet Union," said The New York Times. Choosing England, a country he admired, from the dozen nations that offered to host him, Bukovsky settled into Cambridge and began completing his education there.
But release wasn't retirement. Bukovsky went to America to meet with President Carter. He was a guest on top daytime show Good Morning America and acclaimed political forum Firing Line.
His memoir, To Build a Castle, translated masterfully from Russian to English from Michael Scammell. became an influential bestseller that still inspires new readers today -- Maria "Masha" Alyokhina of the political activist band Pussy Riot read it while in a Russian prison for political activism herself.
In the 80's, he was sought for advice by both Ronald Reagan there and Margaret Thatcher at home. His message was simple and consistent: The Soviets are not your friends. If you sit at the table with them, you have already compromised. Genial Mikhail Gorbachev, he said, is a sock puppet on the cruel, cold hand of the KGB.
Besides obtaining a Masters Degree in Biology at Cambridge, he wrote prolifically about the Soviet regime, the West's gullibility to it, and what he saw as the West's complicity in Soviet abuses. He co-founded and led Resistance International, an anti-Communist organization of dissidents and others who had escaped the USSR.
In 1987, he was one of a group of dissidents whose collaborative New York Times editorial, "Is 'Glasnost' a Game of Mirrors?" caused another uproar in both East and West, charging that Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms were a sham designed to get Westerners to "applaud the Soviet Union for promising conditions that they themselves would not tolerate for one moment."
In the 90s, Boris Yeltsin's team considered Bukovsky as a vice-presidential candidate. It didn't happen, but Yeltsin restored Bukovsky's citizenship. After the Soviet Union disbanded, President Yeltsin invited him to Moscow to testify in the trial in which former members of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union sued Yeltsin for banning the Party and confiscating their property. Bukovsky used the opportunity to sneak in a scanner and smuggle out top secret documents from the Party's Central Committee archives. Meeting notes detailed shocking private exchanges with American and European officials. American delegates confided to the communists that their demands to release political prisoners were only for public image back home. European heads of state proposed alliances with Russia to dominate Europe together.
Bukovsky disingratiated himself with Yetsin and Russian leadership in general by continuing to criticize the new government as the same old Soviet regime with a happy face. He published a book, Judgement at Moscow, which called for a trial similar to the Nazis' "Judgement at Nuremberg," to condemn and purge Communist apparatchiks and KGB overlords for life. (The book was not translated into English because, he says, his American publisher wanted him to rewrite it to make it "politically correct.")
In the 20th century, Bukovsky undertook a flurry of activities. Some seemed quixotic, such as lobbying Britons to stop paying their cable TV tax due to alleged pro-EU spin of the BBC, or trying to run for president of Russia against Putin in 2008 (his application was denied.)
Some were sublime: He penned an essay for the Washington Post, "Torture's Long Shadow," warning Americans that the torture of Iraqi prisoners would traumatize their guards as well, as happened to his in the psikhushka, and numb the rest of the nation, as happened to his.
He warned in The Times ("License to Kill") that President Putin had pushed through two new reasonable-sounding laws that, when combined, allowed the legal assassination of critics outside the country. Soon after, foes of Putin who had left Russia began to be poisoned.
Bukovsky is as quick to criticize the West as he was Moscow when he sees an unspoken agenda behind the spoken one. He derides the European Union as the structural and behavioral heir to the USSR. He says political correctness is "an intellectual gulag." He defended an American author's claims that U.S. leadership had been corrupted since World War II by Soviet sympathizers with White House access. He filed a supporting brief to court as part of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange's attempt to avoid arrest. He has been a constant critic of Vladimir Putin, claiming that the behavior of the old USSR and today's Russian "democracy" are not much different.
In 2006, Bukovsky's close friend Alexander Litvinenko was murdered with a rare form of radioactive poisoning meant to go undetected. Bukovsky testified at the massive Litvinenko Inquiry that he had overheard familar-sounding death-threat calls to Litvinenko -- the kind made by Russian secret service -- and that Russia's new laws allowed Litvinenko to legally be assassinated outside Russia if approved from high up -- possibly President Putin, as the inquiry concluded.
Today, Bukovksy's frail health limits his activity, and he is currently fighting charges in UK Crown Court that he downloaded child pornography to his home computer in 2014.
The trial began in December 2016, but the defence testimony has been been postponed to July 24, 2017 following Bukovsky's admission to a hospital in December 2016 for pneumonia.
Still, the lifelong fighter against Communist cruelty and falsehood isn't done yet. To Build a Castle, out of print for nearly 40 years, will be released early this year for Kindle and other e-book formats as a free, or nearly free download.
Playwright Tom Stoppard, who dedicated his Every Good Boy Deserves Favour to Bukovsky, commented on the new edition: "This is a landmark book and a document that remains vital."
A detailed entry on Bukovsky with links can be found on Wikipedia.