Translated by Alissa Ordabai.  

Original interview in Russian.


Boris Reitschuster:  At one time, not so long ago, you yourself wanted to run for president of the Russian Federation.  You were prevented from doing so.  Now we see Ksenia Sobchak running.  My opinion is that this is a “Potemkin village” candidate and that she participates in a political circus. ( A “Potemkin village” is any construction (literal or figurative) built solely to deceive others into thinking that a situation is better than it really is — translator). I am very interested to know how you view this candidate. 

Vladimir Bukovsky:  The aim of my participation was not to become elected.  We understood perfectly well that nobody was going to register me as a candidate.  There were more than enough technical legal hitches to prevent me from this, including my dual citizenship.  So none of us viewed this seriously.  I made use of this opportunity to conduct our campaigns, such as the campaign in support of political prisoners and against political abuse of psychiatry, and so on, as well as to help the democratic wing to unite.  These were my goals.  And I knew from the very start that they wouldn't let me register as a candidate.  I'll tell you more:  If there was one chance in a million that they would register me, I wouldn't have agreed to do this.  

Boris Reitschuster:  This is interesting!

Vladimir Bukovsky:  Now regarding Sobchak, today it doesn't matter one bit who is running and who is not running.  The mechanism of these so-called elections has been perfected to the degree where you -- like Caligula -- could let a horse run, and the horse would get elected.  So this is none of our concern.  This is their problem.  And Sobchak is doing this out of curiosity.  She -- evidently -- is very much interested in politics and wants to play a role in it.  So let her do it.  Nobody is preventing her from doing this.  

Boris Reitschuster:  Do you think her running for president is a right thing to do or is this a way to legitimatize these elections, something Alexei Navalny has accused her of. What do you think?

Vladimir Bukovsky:  I don't think any of her actions lead to legitimization.  It is impossible to legitimize these elections, believe you me.  Even if Lenin arose from the dead and ran for president, this wouldn't have legitimized these elections. This is a fact of her biography.  She wants to try herself in politics.  She finds this interesting.  From the outside it looks laughable because she is a daughter of a politician, but she herself is not a politician.  She used to be a TV presenter, and that's all she is professionally.  That's why no one is going to take this seriously.  But why deny her a chance to try?  Let her try.  Especially knowing that the result has been fixed and we all know that today's president will take 99.9 percent of votes.

Boris Reitschuster:  I think they will add a bit less.  After all, they try to look more presentable now than before.  

Vladimir Bukovsky:  Well, yes.

Boris Reitschuster:  Maybe they will say 70 percent.

Vladimir Bukovsky:  They will now obviously be more careful, but the result will be the same. 

Boris Reitschuster:  How do you explain this?  From 1990 to 1994 I lived in Moscow, and then again from 1999 to 2012.  So Putin and I overlapped from the start.  It was clear that there was a danger of an authoritarian regime.  But I couldn't imagine it going back so forcefully.  Did you expect it to go so far back?

Vladimir Bukovsky:  You know, in 2001 when I spoke in Washington, D.C. at a Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom award ceremony, I told them what to expect.  I detailed everything very precisely:  the politics of going back to the USSR.  It was all, actually, quite clear.  He started with reviving the old Soviet national anthem and reviving the red flag for the army.  Which was his signal to the entire country:  we are going back to the USSR.  And this was clear to me.  I described to them what lay ahead:  repressions, press bans, censorship, and so on.  You can even find it on the Internet.  The year is 2001.  December.  At the same time the then American president George W. Bush, having met Putin, uttered a funny phrase: "I looked into his eyes and saw his soul."

Boris Reitschuster:  Oh, yes!  It's his famous phrase.

Vladimir Bukovsky:  And during my speech at this ceremony in D.C. I said that it had surprised me.  How had he managed to do that?  I have met a lot of KGB officers in my lifetime, but a soul is something I could never detect in them.  So this was Mr. Bush's achievement:  He managed to detect the undetectable.  

Boris Reitschuster:  But I think Putin prepared well for that meeting.  I think he spent a lot of time studying his file and his psychological profile.  So it wasn't an accident, I think.  

Vladimir Bukovsky:  None of these things are ever accidental.  They are prepared beforehand.  I have enough experience around communications at such level.  I know that everything is planned ahead, everything is confirmed beforehand, and all communications are written in advance. [Laughs].  And you just follow the script.  It’s like having a prompter.  All of this is very formal.  So, of course, this phrase was not accidental.  But the fact is that an American president shouldn't have said such a phrase about a KGB lieutenant-colonel.  It is laughable. 

Boris Reitschuster:  It is very funny.  I fully agree with you.  When I speak publicly in Germany, I often use the following metaphor to explain the current situation in Russia.  Let me know if you agree with it or no.  I say that during Soviet times the KGB used to have functions of a guard dog.  The kind of dog that was designed to be vicious, and to incessantly bark, and to search for enemies everywhere, and to be on guard.  But still, the communist party was the dog's master.  Now, however, this guard dog became the master.  It can't repair the roof or tend to the garden.  All it does is bark and search for enemies.  Do you see this picture as accurate or do you see the situation differently? 

Vladimir Bukovsky:  This symbolism is rather accurate.  This is approximately how it is.  There was another metaphor.  Vysotsky (a Soviet singer-songwriter — translator) had a song about a fighter aircraft. 

Boris Reitschuster:  Yes, I remember that one.  

Vladimir Bukovsky:  And that battle aircraft decided that it was in charge, not the pilot.  

Boris Reitschuster:  That's it!

Vladimir Bukovsky:  And as a result it went into a tail spin and crashed.  And so approximately the same thing is awaiting the KGB regime.  

Boris Reitschuster:  I am friends with Vladimir Voinovich (a Russian writer — translator).  You and him a in many ways similar.  You lived through it all and you heroically resisted it all.  At one time the system collapsed and Russia experienced freedom.  Nowadays, however, there is such a relapse into the past.  Psychologically it must be harder for you than to us, the younger generation, who do not have the experience of those old days.  How do you bear it all?

Vladimir Bukovsky:  You know, I understood right away that this is how things were going to develop.  Because no one in the West felt relieved or happy when the Soviet Union collapsed.  It was barely noticed over here.  There were a few brief reports in newspapers.  And I remember how out of frustration I planted a tree in my garden -- to commemorate the great event of the collapse of the USSR.  The tree is still growing.  And it was clear to me that the West would try to sweep everything under the carpet and to forget everything.  To say, "OK, we have moved on, everything is fine, let's forget the past."  I understood that this would happen.  And, of course, for me it was unpleasant.  But I was used to this attitude in the West.  This wasn't the first time.  They have always tried to sweep the bad things aside and to pretend that everything can be started from a blank page.  What they call “a reset.”  Every five years they do “a re-set".  

Boris Reitschuster: Every time it comes to the new elections, there is “a reset.”  I would like to go back to the attitudes in the West a bit later.  Meanwhile, I’d like to stay on the topic of Russia's domestic policy.  You encountered the KGB system firsthand.  And the Soviet Union has always had a criminal component.  But in my opinion, what we have today is a merger of the former KGB and mafia.  In my view, it is something new.  But I am not familiar with the historical background of all this.  How do you see this?  Does it stem from the Stalin times when they worked together with criminals in order to suppress political prisoners?  Or where does it come from? 

Vladimir Bukovsky:  It's a new development which began in the Nineties — this merging of mafia structures and power structures, such as law enforcement.  This didn't exist before, although they used to interact.  But there was no merging, there was no fusing of the two, as in how we have suddenly discovered that a crime lord had been one of the directors of Gazprom (a state-controlled gas giant - translator).  None of this ever existed before.  Such openness.  Before, code-bound criminals could not go there and the government could not go there. It was a taboo for both sides.  And that taboo was broken in the Nineties and it went on from there.  Such openness of this union is new.  They have always had some kind of interaction.  In Stalin's times criminal underworld figures in prisons were deployed against political prisoners, as criminals were considered "ideologically proximate,” viewed as disadvantaged people who suffered from social inequality and were forced to become criminals.  But here you have another interesting aspect.  The thing is, during the entire Soviet rule, the country had two ideologies:  one was official, communist, and the other one was unofficial — the code of criminals.  I know this because I observed it in labor camps and from talking to these people.  These two ideologies co-existed.  The official one did not command respect -- it was mocked, but the unofficial code of criminals existed always.  So as soon as the outer crust of this shell of the official ideology fell off, the code of criminals immediately replaced it.  And it took all positions in society.  As a result, even higher police ranks, and the KGB, and members of the government all speak using the criminal jargon.  

Boris Reitschuster:  The language of the thugs. 

Vladimir Bukovsky:  Exactly.  And the language reflects the shape the society is in.  And the fact that gangster language surfaced and became the official language of the Kremlin is absolutely remarkable.  It confirms the observation that out of two ideologies one survived and took over.  When the country's president tells us that he will "throw terrorists in a boghole," without actually understanding what this expression exactly means in the criminal jargon...  Because, in fact, he doesn't know it -- he never spent any time inside.  He was advised to use this phrase by his image makers in order to appear a tough guy who can "throw" all the enemies.  But what he doesn't know is that "throwing in a boghole" was punishment for snitches.  Snitches!  People like him.  He has no clue.  It all started in Norilsk, in Kolyma and Vorkuta, during labor camp uprisings.  The first thing to do before an uprising was to kill the snitches and to throw their bodies in a toilet.  There were huge toilets with holes where they drowned.  And nobody would be able to find them until spring, because before spring no one drained those toilets.  You couldn't drain them in sub-zero temperatures.  This is how they got rid of clues.  This is what "throwing in a boghole" is.  He doesn't even know what it means.  But he announced it to the entire country.  So he was told that today the working language of the entire country is the criminal jargon.  And so this phrase was conceived for him.  And he is always using this tactic -- he is always playing a role of a criminal boss.  Although from the point of view of the criminal world he is a cop. He is a gumshoe.  [Laughs].  A KGB man.  And it looks extremely funny.  

Boris Reitschuster:  It looks funny to you.  But why doesn't it look funny to the majority of the Russians?  Why does the majority -- if not supports him -- but tolerates him?

Vladimir Bukovsky:  Who supports him and who doesn't is impossible to establish.  A country which carries out repressions, and especially repressions which restrict freedom of speech, will never have honest answers in public opinion polls.  It would be ridiculous to take seriously this country’s public opinion polls. 

Boris Reitschuster:  But the West believes those polls.

Vladimir Bukovsky: People respond with what is expected of them, and not with what they think.  So it's nonsensical to discuss who has how many percent of approval.  This is self-deceit.  We don't know who supports him and whether anyone supports him at all.  But we know that he has enough repressive power to keep the country in fear and in obedience.  

Boris Reitschuster:  So this gangster jargon does help, doesn't it?  As a criminal boss he whips everyone into shape and this becomes one of the foundations of his rule.  As I always say, it is founded on fear and lies.  The kind of fear that was instilled in people by Stalin.  My thesis is that this fear still lives in people.  What do you think?

Vladimir Bukovsky:  Of course.  Stalin, in fact, was a jailbird.  He was a professional criminal.  And his methods for establishing of his rule and for maintaining it are rather typical of criminal gangs.  He was a criminal boss.  And this model has now resurfaced.  But sans the communist ideology, mind you, which is very funny.

Boris Reitschuster:  Yes!

Vladimir Bukovsky:  Because before it was justified by the so-called “struggle for equality” and “social justice.”  Nowadays no one is mentioning it.  This part fell off.  And what we have left is a pure criminal boss, pure criminality, nothing else. 

Boris Reitschuster:  Just like in Leningrad under siege, where people were forced to eat corpses, and those other people feasted at banquets.  This used to be justified along the lines of "struggle for a better tomorrow."  But now, when over 10 million of Russians live below the poverty line (according to official data), the ideological component has completely disappeared.  Are they trying to replace it with a pseudo-patriotism and with talk about Motherland?  Is this a way to replace communism? 

Vladimir Bukovsky:  There is an attempt to replace communist ideology with Orthodox Christianity. 

Boris Reitschuster: Oh, yes.  

Vladimir Bukovsky:  This is what I observe.  They are trying to give exposure to their holy fathers everywhere.  And holy fathers, just like the regional communist party secretaries before them, make the necessary speeches everywhere.  This is very funny because Orthodox Christianity is not fit to become state ideology.  No way.  It is too permissive, too liberal, too slobby, I would say.  

Boris Reitschuster:  In a good way?

Vladimir Bukovsky:  Well, yes.  It is not strict.  Catholicism, for example, is much stricter.  And Orthodox Christianity is not a strict religion, rather jaunty, shall we say.  So it can't be a state ideology in any way.  Nothing will come out of it.  But they prefer to “have a small fish than an empty dish,” to have at least some kind of ideology.  And so they decided to promote their priests everywhere, and this god-awful Kirill Gundayev (the head of the Russian Orthodox Church -- translator).  He is now their main pontiff.  

Boris Reitschuster:  Who is a KGB colonel, to my knowledge.  Nemtsov used to tell me...

Vladimir Bukovsky:  Of course.  Of course.  Even in my time they have all been KGB men.  And nobody was making a secret of this fact. 

Boris Reitschuster:  Nemtsov used to tell me interesting things about this.  He told me that Alexy II (the previous head of Russian Orthodox Church -- translator) was a KGB man, and that the present-day Kirill was a KGB man.  But he used to say that Alexy II used to believe in god, but the current one doesn't believe in god, and that is the difference between the two.  This is what Nemtsov used to say.  I can't verify this.  I am just conveying what he said.  But it is plausible, isn't it?

Vladimir Bukovsky:  Of course.  I think none of them believe in god.  This is similar to how at the end of the Soviet rule they used to decline communist party membership applications from people who believed in communism.  Because they were afraid that such a person would become disillusioned and do something.  So the main criterion for recruitment was cynicism.  

Boris Reitschuster:  Yes!

Vladimir Bukovsky:  If an applicant was cynical, then he was fit.  And a believer was expected to become disillusioned and to instigate a revolution.  So these kind of people were rejected.  The same thing is happening with the Russian Orthodox Church, I think.  They are now trying to find the most cynical people to become bishops.  

Boris Reitschuster:  Is this similar to how people are recruited under Putin?  As I was able to observe, those who were not corrupt, or those who had any notion of honesty, got fired, because it was more difficult to manage them, they could not be blackmailed. So in my view, there was a strong negative selection in politics. 

Vladimir Bukovsky: Yes. The same thing was going on in the KGB.  Already in the Seventies they would not recruit people who sincerely believed in communist ideology.  They were simply rejected and feared.  What if such person becomes disillusioned, runs off, and betrays all the secrets?  For this reason such people were excluded.  I had an acquaintance, whose name was Lenya Plushch, a very good man.  He was rather naive at 18 and applied for a job with the KGB.  He was rejected and told, "We do not need people like you.  We are the ones who decide who we need." [Laughs].  It's a well-known story.  Later he became a dissident, spent a lot of time in confinement in a psychiatric prison, went through other things, immigrated, and died in France, in Paris.  His name was Lenya Plushch, a very decent person. But he sincerely believed that he wanted to do good for his country and was going to join a dangerous type of service, where one needs to show courage.  He was ready to do those things, but KGB wasn’t ready to allow people like him in.  

Boris Reitschuster:  What are your predictions, Vladimir Konstantinovich?  Your namesake Voinovich very optimistically says that we are going to witness another perestroika.  That this system will collapse and there will be a thaw. I do not share his optimism.  I think that the system is rotten and that it can collapse at any moment, but equally it can endure, in my view.  What is your prognosis regarding future developments?

Vladimir Bukovsky:  You know, this is not a crisis of a system.  This is a crisis of a state.  What people have a difficult time understanding is that we are witnessing a crisis of a state.  The system will, obviously, give out and collapse.  But the state will collapse as well.  What will happen now is the decomposition of the state.  Russia itself will break up, and not necessarily along ethnic lines, but perhaps into separate economic regions.  And this process of decomposition will be unstoppable.  The reason for this is that different parts of the county do not share common interests. The Russian Far East doesn't need Moscow.  Japan and Korea are their neighbors, and they can live really well trading with these two wealthy and industrially developed countries.  All they get from Moscow are orders and tax bills, that's all.  And it would be a sane move for them to become either independent or quasi-independent, a sane course to take.  As soon as the political center begins to weaken -- and it will start to weaken very soon as the economic crisis is nearing -- various regions will start to look further afield.  And this acceleration will be great.  

Boris Reitschuster:  And China will add fuel to this fire, as they will be benefiting from this.  I always used to say that disintegration of Russia is not the question of if, but a question of when, how peacefully this is going to happen, and whether the nuclear weapons will remain under control.  Would you agree?

Vladimir Bukovsky:  In general, I agree with you.  The disintegration is inevitable.  I wrote about it 30 years ago in my book Judgement in Moscow.  This is where I go into great detail to show that this is an inevitable scenario for Russia.  I cannot tell when it will happen, as it is impossible to predict timeframes for such situations.  But I can confirm with confidence the vector of developments:  that a disintegration process of Russia itself will begin.  You talk about the safety of the nuclear weapons.  The problem is bigger than this.  There are nuclear power stations, there are chemical factories, and many parts of the pan-Russian infrastructure which are impossible for one single region to maintain.  This disintegration is inevitable, but the danger of it is that these parts of the infrastructure will start to crumble.  So potentially we could have about 30 Chernobyls on our hands.   

Boris Reitschuster:  What a nightmare.  So, unfortunately, the prognosis is far from rosy.  Sadly, our time today is up. But this conversation was so interesting — plus we didn't manage to talk about the way the West perceives the situation — that I would like to continue our conversation next week.  Would you agree, Vladimir Konstantinovich?

Vladimir Bukovsky:  Yes, by all means. 

Boris Reitschuster:  Thank you very much, Vladimir Konstantinovich.