Remembering Vladimir Bukovsky (1942-2019): a long-ago lunch with a man who loved freedom and roses

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Elena Danielson: archivist, correspondent

A guest post from one of our favorite guests: Elena Danielson, former director of the Hoover Library & Archives at Stanford, who has written for us here and here and here. Today she shares her memories of a man who is already missed.

While he probably wouldn’t have remembered us, we remember him. My husband Ron pointed out the obituary in the New York Times: Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky died October 27, 2019 in Cambridge at age 76. I hope at the end he was quietly able to declare victory for surviving as long as he did, considering the foes he had fought and the demons he had battled.

Ron and I had a memorable lunch with him in Cambridge in April 1998. More than memorable. On business for the Hoover Institution Archives at Stanford, I was on an archival collecting tour in Europe and visited various families of Russian dissidents in Paris, Fontenay-aux-Roses, London, Oxford, Cambridge. Keeping in touch with historically significant people was part of my job, a dream job: after establishing connections, their documents and papers would generally arrive at the Hoover Archives in due time. On this trip I met with members of the Pasternak family, the Siniavsky family, even a Romanov, Rostislav Romanoff (“you can call me Rosti”). My travel reports are full of all the practical details regarding scope of collection, contracts, shipping issues, etc., yet what comes through when I review my personal notes is the warm and generous reception I received from mostly strangers. It is still overwhelming to me. The Russian dissidents and emigres are a remarkable lot of human beings with amazing stories and a generosity of spirit totally at odds with their experiences. And even in this extraordinary group, Bukovsky stood out for both Ron and me.

With Bukovsky on the Bridge over the River Cam, April 1998

I had met him over a decade earlier when the was at Stanford to study psychology, and also to work with anti-Soviet activists. He had survived over a decade as a Soviet political prisoner in various jails and psychiatric treatment centers until he was sent into exile in a prisoner exchange program in 1976. The Hoover Institution published one of his books in 1987. My supervisor there asked me to drive Bukovsky to a human rights conference in Berkeley. As his chauffeur on this long drive, I remember vividly his wild and engaging conversation. It was clear that this man would challenge abuse of authority where ever he encountered it. It was built into his personality. This mindset enabled him to take on one of the most powerful and ruthless political structures in the world. “You have to do it,” he told me, “despite the fact we knew we would lose.”

A decade later, since I was going to be in London anyway, I wrote Bukovsky a formal letter in 1998 and asked to meet him in Cambridge. His response was coy. He said he’d be in Colorado the whole time of my trip – available on April 24 only. Closer to the time, I faxed back that I could take him to lunch on April 24, and decided to leave a voice mail to that effect on his answering machine, since he could access that while traveling. Bukovsky answered his Cambridge home phone immediately, he was most certainly not in Colorado.

Ron and I showed up exactly on time, noon on April 24, at 145 Gilbert Road in Cambridge. He lived alone in a charming classic English cottage with an entry path lined with lushly blooming tree roses … for all his disruptive behavior this was a man who loved roses. And a man who did not always answer the doorbell. It was the era before cellphones, so Ron and I left the house to walk to a public telephone down the street. Halfway down the block we hear someone yelling, “Hey, you!” We turned and saw a very rumpled Bukovsky leaning out his doorway and inviting us to come back. “I just woke up,” he said, smelling of alcohol. And he offered us each a lovely cup of smoky tea, the very best lapsong suchong. This was a man who would never drink Lipton’s tea.

On his table were heaps of photocopies of once top secret Soviet documents, archival heaven for me. And he knew it. Rumpled as he was, he had prepared assiduously for our meeting. He did his homework.
Ron and I offered to take him out to lunch. A congenial tour guide, he took us for a walk through Cambridge, showing us the sights along the way, smiling gargoyles on churches, Christopher Wren’s library, college courtyards. Then we came to the historic café/bar “The Eagle,” where he showed us the graffiti left by World War II pilots, some of whom never returned. As he ordered us a lunch of savory moules marinière accompanied by generous pourings of red wine, he began to reminisce about his life as a dissident: “We knew we were playing a game; we didn’t know the stakes were so high.” He had enormous respect for Reagan for paying attention to the human rights movement, which he felt many intellectuals tried to ignore.

Bukovsky, Ron Danielson at Cambridge

Since the fall of Soviet communism in 1991, Bukovsky had advocated vigorously for a Nuremberg style trial of communist leaders to finally discredit the Soviet system. He did not see any point in putting old villains in jail, he said he wanted to use the documentary evidence to totally ruin their credibility and to prevent any return of the repressive system. Such an effort at a judicial process began in 1992 with Bukovsky serving as an expert, determined to open up the archives.

Bukovsky was himself a scientist who tried to approach the factual data in a systematic way. He used new technology including a hand held Logitech scanner, that was 4-5 inches wide, with which he would swipe the documents several times across each page and then use a computer program to join the pieces together. It was uncharted territory both in terms of legal access and in terms of technical access. He successfully captured an enormous amount of data including heavily guarded secrets from the Politburo and even copies of KGB documents held in Central Committee files. He said he worked with an official named Poltoranin to declassify the materials he wanted to read. Apparently, they worked and drank together simultaneously. Bukovsky would tell Poltoranin what he needed and Poltoranin would order his staff to bring materials out on that topic, which Bukovsky would then scan on the spot. The Russians were unfamiliar with scanning technology at the time and apparently unaware that the documents were being copied. “I paid for every document with my blood,” he explained in an almost matter-of-fact way. “I paid for every document with my liver.” Already in 1998 he had plans to put the scanned data set on the internet. He said it would be ready to go online by October 1998. Today the documentation he secured in 1992 can be found online here. Now it all looks so obvious, but at the time it was exceedingly experimental and daring.

But the process was not completed. He complained: “Reagan and Thatcher ruined the USSR, but they didn’t finish them off.” He covers all of this in his books, but hearing it from him in person, in the presence of his remarkable personality, made it clear how he managed to maintain the good fight against all odds.

The Hoover Institution has kept up its active archival acquisitions program under the direction of Eric T. Wakin. Eventually about 57 boxes of Vladimir Bukovsky’s papers were secured for the Hoover Archives by Lora Soroka under the guidance of the Russian and Eurasian curator Anatol Shmelev.


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