The title is shamelessly stolen from Richard Aldington’s novel about the horrors of war, one of which was the death of the eponymous hero.
However, at the risk of upsetting veterans, there exists a higher grade of heroism than following one’s comrades over the top: the lonely courage of a man standing up against a satanic regime, alone against the ogre of secret police, pliant courts and browbeaten populace.
It takes much heroism to take on the enemy and fight for one’s country. It takes even more to take on the SYSTEM and fight for one’s soul.
Vladimir Bukovsky was one of the few genuine heroes of my generation, a fighter for the noble cause of human freedom and dignity – everywhere, not just in Russia. His whole life was one continuous scream, echoing St Matthew: “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul”.
They did their best to kill his body, but his soul soared so high above their puny reach that they couldn’t even dream of killing it. Bukovsky was a martyr, in the old, real sense.
I use the word ‘martyr’ advisedly, in the knowledge that he did manage to get out of Russia alive. But the bastards did get him by delayed action: his health was ruined by 12 years spent in prisons, labour camps, punitive psychiatric hospitals, endless hunger strikes. That he survived until age 76 is a miracle, but then men like him are known for them.
Bukovsky hated the Soviets, and the feeling was reciprocated. He was 16 when a KGB interrogator asked him: “Why do you hate us so much?” “I don’t hate you,” replied Bukovsky. “I don’t believe you.”
As all his aphorisms, this one rings true. Russian children couldn’t think through the nature of totalitarianism; they were too young to amass enough factual knowledge or indeed to hone the requisite rational faculties. But some of them had an in-built polygraph: they knew the regime was lying to them and shuddered in revulsion. I was one such child, so I know.
Bukovsky was a purer dissident than the Nobel laureates Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov in that his distaste for communism didn’t evolve in his mature years – it was visceral, innate and impervious to doubt. Also, unlike them, he didn’t enjoy the protective cocoon of worldwide fame and could easily have been killed.
And killing him was never far from the Soviets’ mind, for Bukovsky was the first to expose their most sinister crime: committing dissidents to punitive psychiatric care and trying to destroy their minds with massive doses of Thorazine and other psychotropic drugs.
In that diabolical intent they would have succeeded, but for the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. In 1976 he agreed to exchange the imprisoned leader of the Chilean communist party Luis Corvalán for Bukovsky, who was serving a seven-year term of ‘strict regime’.
Incidentally, Pinochet’s Spanish counterpart, Gen. Franco, also saved the lives of Soviet dissidents, Dymshitz and Kuznetsov, who in 1970 tried to hijack a plane as the only way of getting out of the Soviet paradise. Their death sentences were commuted after Franco agreed to do the same for the similarly sentenced ETA terrorists. Characteristically, the liberal West couldn’t (wouldn’t?) do what those widely reviled men did.
Bukovsky’s fight against the KGB is well-documented, and that was the fight he won by outliving the Soviet Union. But Bukovsky knew he hadn’t outlived the Soviet evil.
Looking at the entourage of Gorbachev and then Yeltsyn, all communist party members, Bukovsky correctly observed that no man could have more than two out of three qualities: intelligence, honesty and party membership.
Intelligent party members were knaves; honest ones, fools. His accurate assumption was that an intelligent and honest man couldn’t belong to that criminal organisation.
Bukovsky wasn’t religious, but, like all cultured and moral people, he thought as if he was. He knew that only repentance could stop the wounds inflicted by Soviet crimes from festering.
That’s why, when the Soviet Union ‘collapsed’, he called for a Russian version of the Nuremberg Trials, with all accomplices in Soviet crimes named, shamed and punished. He also insisted that no member of the communist party and especially the KGB should be allowed to hold any government post.
That insistence was as idealistic as it was unrealistic. In the original post-collapse euphoria, Bukovsky failed to realise that all those glasnosts and perestroikas were designed as a gradual transfer of power from the party to the KGB.
When the transfer was complete, he recoiled with horror, seeing that over 80 per cent of the new ruling elite, including Col. Putin himself, had enjoyed KGB careers. Unlike Western useful idiots, the Hitchenses of this world, Bukovsky never described Putin as anything but evil.
If Lenin’s useful idiots came mostly from the left, Putin’s come from the right. The two extremes may be different ideologically, but they are united in their moral decrepitude: by supporting an evil regime they increase and perpetuate evil in this world. Bukovsky saw that with the clarity of a prophet.
Having settled in Cambridge, he remained the moral and intellectual focus of Russian dissent. But Bukovsky’s sensors of incipient totalitarianism everywhere remained finely attuned and calibrated.
In one of his books, he coined the portmanteau term ‘EUSSR’, correctly perceiving the EU as the USSR-Lite. The ‘Lite’ part is most welcome: so far the EU hasn’t murdered or imprisoned its opponents.
But Bukovsky’s X-ray vision could penetrate beneath the surface: he saw in the EU the same combination of left-wing ideology and unaccountable bureaucratic structure he had abhorred so much back in Russia. One of his well-aimed epigrams was that the Bolsheviks triumphed in Russia, and the Mensheviks (more moderate socialists) in Europe.
Similarly, Bukovsky loathed the fascisoid dictatorship of political correctness, correctly identifying its Soviet-like totalitarian cravings. The Soviet Union remained his frame of reference, which isn’t the worst measuring stick of tyranny, either mature or inchoate.
Freedom hasn’t had a better defender than Vladimir Bukovsky; tyranny, a more implacable enemy. They don’t make men like him any more, which makes one pessimistic about our future. Without martyrs, heroes and seers to confront evil, it’ll triumph – with Bukovsky raving and ranting about it in heaven as much as he did on earth.
Vladimir Bukovsky, RIP.