Freedom lost one of its greatest partisans last week with the Oct. 27 passing of Vladimir Bukovsky, the heroic Russian human rights activist and writer. We should consider him “heroic” because Bukovsky spent 12 years in Soviet prisons, labor camps and “special psychiatric hospitals,” rather than cease his dissident activities or recant his condemnation of the Soviet suppression of basic human rights. His best-selling memoir, “To Build a Castle,” evoked comparisons to the works of Feodor Dostoyevsky, and stands as a testament to Bukovsky’s unfailing courage and moral clarity about the evil of the Soviet regime.
First arrested at the age of 21 for possessing “forbidden literature” (such as “The New Class” by Milovan Djilas), Bukovsky was declared mentally ill and locked away. Following “treatment,” he was released — only to be arrested when he helped organize poetry and “samizdat” readings at Moscow’s Mayakovsky Square, the birthplace of the Soviet dissident movement. He continued to challenge the regime and was again arrested and sent to a labor camp.
Upon his release, Bukovsky smuggled medical records to the West that revealed the Soviet government was using false psychiatric diagnoses to put away political prisoners. An international scandal ensued, infuriating the Kremlin. “We were a handful of unarmed people,” Bukovsky later wrote, “in the face of a mighty state with the world’s most monstrous machine of repression. And we won.” In 1976, a handcuffed Vladimir Bukovsky, accompanied by KGB agents, was flown to Zurich’s international airport and freed. As the late Russian dissident writer Vladimir Kara-Murza wrote, “The regime was unable to defeat its enemy inside the country.”
For the next 40 years, Bukovsky continued to speak out against Soviet and then Russian oppression, calling for a “Nuremberg Trial” of Soviet crimes and victims. Only by making the Kremlin archives public, he said, “by handing them over to an objective international commission, will we be able to cleanse ourselves from this filth.” The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation long has studied the possibility of putting communism on trial before the world court of public opinion. Perhaps, as an homage to Vladimir Bukovsky, it is time to begin planning such a historic event.
On Bukovsky’s death at the age of 76, encomiums poured in from around the world. Shortly before his own death in 2018, Harvard historian Richard Pipes said that Bukovsky “courageously identified and criticized the totalitarian policies of Moscow.” Edward Lucas, editor of the U.K. magazine Standpoint, called Bukovsky “a moral and political titan in the existential struggle of the Cold War.” The New York Times described him as “a hero of almost legendary proportion among the Soviet dissident movement.”
Bukovsky was beloved by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. It was an easy decision to present him with our Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom in 2001. He stands within a pantheon of heroes including Vaclav Havel, Elena Bonner, the widow of Andrei Sakharov, and Pope John Paul II, all recipients of this award. He is every bit their equal, reminding us that communism can be defeated. All it takes is courage — the kind of courage that animated Vladimir Bukovsky’s life.
The leaders of our time would do well to emulate him. Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, many people now want to co-exist with the communist regimes of today. Instead of criticizing such deadly and murderous countries, they argue that we should befriend them, or at least tolerate them, without making moral judgments about the inherent evil of the communist ideology. Bukovsky knew better. He knew that communism deserved to die, and that only the clear and courageous condemnation of the free world would kill it.
Vladimir Bukovsky is gone, but his example endures. May it inspire a new generation of dissidents and activists to hold communism to account and to advance the cause of freedom to which Bukovsky dedicated his life.
Lee Edwards, Ph.D., is co-founder and chairman of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. He is a Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought at the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at The Heritage Foundation, and an adjunct professor of politics at the Catholic University of America.