Judgment in Moscow: Soviet Crimes and Western Complicity
By Vladimir Bukovsky. Ninth of November Press. First published in Russian in 1995. English translation in 2019 by Alyona Kojevnikov. Introduction by Edward Lucas
Vladimir Bukovsky’s book, Judgment In Moscow: Soviet Crimes and Western Complicity (Ninth of November Press), appeared in English only six months before his death in late October at the age of 76. It is a work of inestimable historical significance and is indispensable for anyone with the faintest interest in comprehending the Cold War and the nature of the Soviet Union. It is also essential for understanding what sort of country Russia is today.
Before addressing what this 700-page book contains, I need to describe the extraordinary character of the man who wrote it.
I first became aware of Bukovsky around 1970 when I sat transfixed before a small black and white television screen. It showed a video taken at night in a secluded area of a Moscow park. Recently released from prison, Bukovsky had taken a Western journalist there and told him to begin filming. In his statement, he said that knew he would be rearrested and that, after his next sojourn in the Gulag Archipelago, he might no longer have the use of his reason.
I was staggered by the man’s courage. In the West, 1970 was deep in the era of the anti-hero. We were no longer supposed to have heroes. I practically shouted out loud, “well, there’s one!” From that time onward, I avidly followed the news about Bukovsky, who was, as he had predicted, soon detained again. Denounced in Pravda as a “malicious hooligan, engaged in anti-Soviet activities,” he was sentenced to 12 years for slandering Soviet psychiatry. However, in 1976 he was released and sent into exile by Soviet authorities who exchanged him for the jailed Chilean Communist party leader. The KGB could not break this indomitable man, so it expectorated him. He was 34; he had spent a total of 12 years in prison, more than a third of his life. During that time he had gone on hunger strikes 20 times, sometimes joined by all the other prisoners in solidarity with him. He was brutally force-fed with a tube down his nose. Bukovsky’s experiences were chronicled in one of the greatest dissident prison memoirs ever written, To Build a Castle: My Life as a Dissenter, published in 1978.
In the West, Bukovsky founded and led Resistance International to continue the fight against Communist totalitarianism from outside the Soviet Empire. It was through this organization that I had the privilege of meeting and, on occasion, working with him.
Judgment In Moscow contains autobiographical elements but is principally concerned with providing and analyzing documentary evidence for what should have been the USSR equivalent of what the Nuremberg Trials had been for Nazi Germany. In 1991, Bukovsky returned to the Soviet Union to take part in the “trial of the communist party” that was held in 1992. In an audacious move the Communist Party had sued then-President Boris Yeltsin to get its property back. To prepare a defense, Yeltsin ordered that the secret Central Committee archives be opened to Bukovsky. The order was obeyed, but only partially and for a short time. The trial fizzled, but Bukovsky, with the aid of a hand-held scanner, was able to gather many thousands of pages of top-secret Central Committee and Politburo documents and get them out of Russia. Some of these key documents are what we have in this priceless book. They are eye-opening.
During the Cold War, we had to speculate as to why, for instance, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and how the decision was made. Now we know for certain. Bukovsky provides the minutes of the Politburo meetings in which the invasion was decided. The Reagan administration was highly skeptical of détente and was therefore criticized for war-mongering. The skepticism was well-placed because, as the documents reveal, détente was simply a façade for advancing Soviet power and manipulating Western publics and governments against the Reagan plan to place Pershing IIs and cruise missiles in Europe to defend it against burgeoning Soviet power, including the SS-20s.
The revelations of the extent to which the Soviet Union manipulated the “peace” movement in the West should be an embarrassment to its participants, who may have been too naïve at the time to know how they were being used. Others, of course, acceded to being used, or even cravenly sought to be used. The names of some of these useful idiots are in the documents.
Another thing these documents disclose, much to the embarrassment of many American Sovietologists, is that there were no “hawks” and “doves” in the Kremlin – a premise on which they had banked their academic careers. The unanimity of the Politburo decisions reveals that the senior Soviet leaders were all of one stripe. It was to their advantage to create the impression that there were hawks and doves so that they could game the policies of Western governments and the opinions of its publics. For instance, providing Western credits to the USSR — it was thought by many so-called Russian experts in the West – would strengthen the doves in the Kremlin, whereas denying credits would empower the hawks. By buying this line of thought, the West was induced to keep the Soviet Union on life-support for more than a decade past what would have been its earlier collapse, according to. Bukovsky.
No one was a greater master of this deception than Mikael Gorbachev. The minutes from many Politburo meetings chaired by Gorbachev show that glasnost and perestroika were façades constructed to ensure the continued existence of the Soviet Union through even more Western subsidies. And it worked to the extent that credits and subsidies ballooned under the Western illusion that Gorbachev had to be supported to ensure his success – ignorant of the fact that Gorbachev conceived of success in ways inimical to Western freedom.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously said that Gorbachev was a man she could work with, and President George H.W. Bush remarked, “I think I can trust Gorbachev.” Later, Bukovsky was able to show Thatcher a document from 1984, signed by Gorbachev among others, transferring the equivalent of one million dollars to the striking miners in Great Britain to support them against Thatcher. She responded, “I asked him about this at that very time, and he said he knew nothing about it.” Gorbachev lied and the West listened.
There is a good deal of justified bitterness in this book because the judgment in Moscow for Soviet crimes at which Bukovsky aimed with his whole life never took place – to some extent due to Western complicity. What Russia needed, Bukovsky said, was not Western credits but “moral cleansing,” which required that “the entire system and the crimes it perpetrated needed to be put on trial.” He did not call for punishment, but for the truth.
He wrote: “The healing of West Germany after the war became possible thanks to the Nuremberg Tribunal. Only by uncovering and condemning all the crimes of the Nazi regime could the country move forward.” This did not happen in Russia and, as a consequence, it has not moved forward. As Bukovsky at first predicted and then later showed, without the truth, the changes in Russia would amount to a giant shell game played by the high-rolling nomenklatura, viz.: President Vladimir Putin, former KGB agent.
In my travels in the Soviet Union during its last days, the remark I heard most frequently from people is that they just wanted to be “normal.” As I looked around, however, I could see that all the reference points to normality had been obliterated by the spiritual Chernobyl of 70 years of Soviet rule. People no longer knew what “normal” meant. How, then, could they get back to it? The answer is that, without the moral restoration for which Bukovsky called, they couldn’t, and haven’t.
Russia is still not a normal place. It is still saddled with its past, which is why it is currently suffering from large waves of Stalin nostalgia. A poll earlier this year by the Moscow-based Levada Center reveals, according to a Moscow Times report, that “51 percent of Russians view Stalin with admiration — up from 40 percent last year and the highest mark since the survey began in 2001. Even more strikingly, 70 percent said Stalin’s 31-year rule was good for the country.” This will be no wonder to those who have read Bukovsky’s book
I close with another reflection on this extraordinary man. In a statement that was not at all meant autobiographically, Bukovsky wrote that, “Heroism is an extremely cruel phenomenon in itself, for it is rooted in self-sacrifice…” This applied to him, as well. He sacrificed himself.
One night, after multiple libations, I was pressing him to find out what had sustained him through all his sufferings and most particularly from where he had gotten the strength to do what he did that night in the Moscow park. Bukovsky was not a religious man, so I was probing to find the underlying source of his power. Frustrated with me, he finally shouted, “Bob, what do you think I was doing in that park?” Then he threw his arms out in cruciform shape. It was a stunning moment.
Equally stunning was the news from Bukovsky’s Italian friend, Alessandra Nucci, written in The Catholic Thing, that when Vladimir’s mother was being pressured to join the Communist Party in order to keep her job, he, then still a teenager, told her that if she went ahead with it, his countervailing measure would be to be baptized in the Catholic Church. He found a priest and did it. I had never heard this story before. In any case, his funeral service was held in the Russian Orthodox faith. May the soul of this hero rest in peace!
Robert R. Reilly was a Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan and served as a volunteer with Resistance International.