In 1977, Tom Stoppard wrote a play dedicated to Soviet dissidents Vladimir Bukovsky and Viktor Fainberg. It is set in a Soviet mental hospital. Two men, both named Ivanov, share a cell. Alexander Ivanov is a dissident who cannot be released until he admits that he is mad and agrees that all of his statements against the government were the product of his mental illness. His cellmate is mad. He believes he is conducting a symphony orchestra, which he hears in his mind.
In 2009, the play was revived at the National Theatre, in London. It received lukewarm reviews. “Unpacking the setting,” wrote critic Mark Espiner, “leads you into the heart of the problem — that it is dated.” Ian Shuttleworth dismissed it on similar grounds. “To put it harshly, this bleak, fantastical indictment of the Soviet Union’s use of psychiatric hospitalisation against dissidents is a play for yesterday.”
Shortly after I wrote about Vladimir Bukovsky’s hunger strike, a few days ago, I received to my surprise a phone call from Viktor Fainberg. I had not known he lived in Paris. He asked me to visit him as soon as I could.
So I went to his home, in the Latin Quarter, and he embraced me at the front door, as if I was his granddaughter. He led me up the stairs to a small apartment with slanting light and wooden beams. His wife Françoise met us at the door. She had prepared a table, a meal with good red wine, but she declined to join us for lunch. She spoke to Viktor in in Russian, and then implored me, in French, to eat.
They had spoken to Vladimir, or Volodya, as they call him, the day before. He had sounded strong. He had said he was fine. His doctor had visited and his EKG was normal. I asked Françoise to stay with us, but she refused: “It is very important that you eat with Viktor,” she said. I suddenly gathered, from her face, that Viktor — out of anguish, or solidarity with his friend — had not been eating properly.
We sat down. “L’chaim,” I said. When he didn’t reply, I realized he was hard of hearing. I tried shouting. “L’chaim! L’chaim!”
“L’chaim!” His face broke into a smile. “To Volodya.”
He downed his glass of wine in one swallow. “This is the first wine I drink since Volodya made his declaration.” He apologized for forgetting his English. I tried speaking French, but he said he’d never studied French. “I never intended to stay here for so long,” he said.
He had trouble hearing me, or perhaps understanding my American accent. Françoise was napping in the room next door, so I didn’t want to shout. In the end, I just listened, even when I wasn’t sure what he meant.
I recorded a few fragments of our conversation and spliced them (badly) together:
This is what he told me, although in places I didn’t understand the words he used, and wasn’t quite sure if he was speaking of himself or of Bukovsky.
“In 1972, Volodya went on a hunger strike, for 81 days. In the end, all of the demands were met. He had demanded the guards stop beating the patients who were genuinely psychiatrically ill. Of the 700 people in the psychiatric hospital, a dozen were there only for political reasons.
“The political prisoners, like the mentally ill people, were given tablets, injections. It was causing them brain damage. This is what made [a name I could not understand] give up — she felt so ashamed, that she had betrayed us, but she had to choose between losing her mind and doing what they said.
He described to me the psychiatric prisons. He had been in solitary confinement for two years. He had kept his mind occupied by practicing the English he’d studied in school. He was frustrated that the words he’d practiced for so man hours were now deserting him. The phrase “I am a bad machine” flitted through my mind as he spoke, although I couldn’t remember where it was from. Only when I left his apartment did it come back to me. It is from Midnight Express:
Viktor is deeply worried for Vladimir. “I think he was so shocked, when he became ill, so shocked, so traumatized that people in Britain believed these ridiculous charges — he is Vladimir Bukovsky, known around the world for his moral stature — after he was diagnosed with this illness, then these charges were made against him, before, he hadn’t been religious. He was such a strong character that he couldn’t accept being bossed around even by God.
“But the shock of this made him very fatalistic. And when he realized that this time, unlike the other times, no one was coming to his support, no one was standing with him in solidarity against the Kremlin, the West had changed, he didn’t recognize England anymore — the shock was too great. So by reflex, almost, he did what he had always done, declared a hunger strike. It was all he knew how to do, to protest an injustice.”
I said that I thought it unnecessary. I had faith in the British legal system. The burden of proof was on the prosecutor. He would be acquitted if he was innocent, and would even win his libel case. But I was worried he would die from the hunger strike.
“So am I, and I am against this hunger strike. But now, he is — when he says he will do something, he has to.” The intimation was obvious: Now it was a point of pride. “All he wants is a word from the government, from the judge, acknowledging who he is. He is Vladimir Bukovsky. All his life they have been making one charge, another one — he is insane, he is this, that. But this time, for first time, West believes these charges. And at his age, all he had was his name, recognized everywhere as a great hero of human rights, and then suddenly, one day, people look at him like a filthy child molester. And even his friends, some of his friends, don’t call. So I know him. I agree with you, I disagree with this hunger strike. But I understand he will not stop.”
We spoke a bit of Viktor’s childhood, growing up with serene faith in the benevolence of Comrade Stalin, unable to understand, as a boy, why his parents seemed strangely overjoyed and not at all saddened by the news of the death of Comrade Yezhov.
“Putin and his mafia understand the West,” he said. “They understand that the West is now in a political, economic and moral crisis. Putin said it was time to strike, and he was proven right — in Ukraine, in Syria. In the UN, with the UN resolutions. He knew well-organized authoritarianism like his, run by a good KGB officer like him, would win. He saw that the West was weak, and used this period to get away with as much as he could.
“The Russian people are accustomed to a very strong power. For them, it’s a guarantee against the horror of anarchy. The main fault is with Obama, who has returned to isolationism, leaving the world to this new Soviet Union. Hollande and Merkel feel they have no choice but to cooperate, even in matters as basic as human rights. Only a small part of Russian intelligentsia is fighting for freedom.
“Frankly, I think that what happened now — it is very, it is very naive to speak about bureaucratic differences. About the traditions of the British jurisprudence. It is the situation, it is so complicated now with the West, with the crisis, this weakness, that this is, this is an event of very great betrayal, it is a knife in the door, which, especially, if this would be the tragic end, it would stay in history, not only in this period of jurisprudence, but for history in general. And it is especially painful for me and I’m sure for Bukovsky. Because we love this country.
“And if he said, ‘It is hunger strike,’ it is not to argue with the British judicial or political authorities — because he couldn’t trust them, after all that. It was for the British people, who he likes, and because he is a British citizen. He had chosen this country. A number of countries proposed him this. He had chosen this country. And he’s suffering from this: that these people doesn’t understand the danger. The danger is daily, when Russian military planes just intruded … “
He lapsed into Russian, unable to find the right word. “He told this, in his latest statement, that he’s doing this for British people. He’s ready to die even for that. And therefore I can tell you that I am against this hunger strike. I think it is a great mistake. But I understand him. and I’ll do, personally, all that I can, that in this battle, he would win. His victory, it is our victory. And his defeat, it is our defeat. I mean, the movement for human rights. It is a universal movement. For freedom, ours and yours. I’ll do everything for this. I joined him on hunger strike, when he was in labor camp, Number 35. I was put, myself, in a psychiatric hospital, but I was released after the BBC interfered into this because they knew my biography and because so many times there was a scandal about our hunger strike. So the last time, I was very soon released.
“The first time, when I was in psychiatric prison in Leningrad, with Vladimir Borisov. And when they were expecting the congress of World Psychiatric Organizations in Mexico City, Bukovsky, on the eve of this congress, he had sent the dossier of ten people, including Vladimir Borisov and myself. And he asked, “Is it right, is it just, to send these people to psychiatric prison, even if there are suspicions that they are not completely sane?”
“And therefore our hunger strike with Vladimir Borisov was victorious, and the authorities met almost all our conditions, but it lasted only a very short period of time. After that, Vladimir Borisov, they began to torture him. He resumed his hunger strike, I also. This time it was about two months, and this was such a hunger strike that it was … the conditions were very much worse.
“I survived because one psychiatrist, he was an officer, like all the psychiatrists at psychiatric prison. The captain, Petrov, of my life and my freedom. He had the reputation of a torturer and the most cruel psychiatrist in the prison. And when we were betrayed, with Volodya Borisov, by a member in our cell, and we transferred to his department — the most cruel one — he told me he was waiting for a man like me for three and a half years. He observed me, in the other department, and he would do everything that they want because he understood what was going on there. And he was my volunteer spy. And he saved us, because during every hunger strike, the BBC, The Voice of America, Deutsche Welle, and the other stations, they each, the same day, they spoke about it. Because a week before this, he delivered our declaration of Moscow dissidents to the foreign correspondents.
“And so therefore I was released. I was released without any conditions. Otherwise, I don’t know that I would have survived this, because otherwise I would never have agreed to their conditions to be released.”
The role of the Western media, of outrage in the West, had been key to his release and to Vladimir’s. “Bukovsky received twelve years, twelve years! Seven years of prison in the camps of the Soviet regime, including two years of prison and five years of exile. Fortunately, he was released after the greatest campaign in the West.”
I asked him why, in his opinion, there was no media campaign for Vladimir now, no attention to his hunger strike. I was, I said, surprised by this.
“I was also amazed. Probably there are two reasons. One, the major one, is that the mentality of people in the West has changed. They … officially, the Cold War is finished. And officially the Soviet Union now it is a, it is even viewed as democratic. So, ‘It’s a very young democracy, not perfect, but still, it’s like this.’ And also that Putin is a great, well, he is a great partner in their worldwide war against jihadis, against this fanaticism — extremely dangerous — while also that it’s penetrated in Europe, in the West, and so it is the main danger. So Putin used this and appeared very resolute in this struggle. While he’s chosen not so much fight against the real jihadis as the others, the moderates, or even the democrats who are fighting against the extremely cruel regime of Bashar al Assad. Because Putin has the old dream of Russia, and then the Soviet Union. It just confirmed their presence in the Middle East, in the Mediterranean.”
What, I asked him, did he think the West should do about Putin?
“It is not only the question, it is the central question, to fight against Putin. All of the success of Putin, it is not as a result of his intelligence. It is the result of the weakness, the criminal weakness of the West. Criminal weakness. That is the story, the modern story of the West’s behavior. It is ridiculous and very sad.
“They — Obama said that he would never allow that transfer — a red line. About chemical weapon in Syria. He did it, and then Putin sent there his aviation, his troops, his [Russian], his weapon, well, he really acted. Obama put him, he allowed him the area. And then he couldn’t return there, it was too late. And then Western Europe, very weakened by the crisis, had no force to do something — they were accustomed to be defended by the United States, for the First War, for the Second World War, during the Cold War, also.
“And now they are in despair. Because they can’t do it, it is too late. So that they left him the space in Ukraine, in the Middle East, and so on.” …
We talked a bit about American politics, which he said were saddening.
“Reagan, you know, he understood the danger much better than all the other presidents of the United States. And he contributed to this, to the chute [fall] of the Soviet Union, and he supported the new power hoping that that democracy would do well. So for me, he was a great president for Russia and I think unfortunately, the others, his successors didn’t show the same shrewdness as him.
“And now the situation is very dangerous. It’s as dangerous, even if not more, than before the Second World War. That’s so.
“And therefore, I think that the people who are ready to defend their freedom, their independence, to defend the peace at least in the world, they should unite themselves. They should unite themselves, and that the case of Bukovsky, it is typical. When we defended such personalities as Bukovsky and the others, in gulag, we knew that we defended not only them, we defended the future of these people, where they live, we defended the freedom, we defended the peace, because without freedom, the peace is not possible. And I think that now it is a fight for Bukovsky. He is between death and life. And then, it is a fight for the life. Not only for Bukovsky, but for us, also.”
I had been there for several hours. I wished that I spoke Russian. I asked, in the end, what he made of our presidential campaign, and whether he saw in it any reason for hope.
“Of Donald Trump and Hillary, I think that Trump is more dangerous, certainly. Much more dangerous. It is demagogue, who, you know, is not capable to be president. I think that he knows that. He’s not dupe, he knows this. About Hillary, well, between two evils, I would choose less dangerous.
“I am very sad that the people are so, now … they are lost. In despair, the world situation for them is so complicated, they can’t see the issue in this. It is so great crisis, not only economical and political, but moral crisis, and they can’t see the issue in this. And for Putin, it is everything clear, it is a continuation of the history of his country. It’s a constant. And he’s using it, and he’s using the tradition of the people, of the people who couldn’t, in the so-short period of time, couldn’t liberate itself. And this is dangerous for all the world. Extremely dangerous. So that I think that only it would be the very strong minority, intellectually and spiritually strong, that would just begin the movement to liberate itself, from this intellectual weakness and slavery. It’s only this could save the world.
“And now I think, concretely, we should fight for the right and freedom of Bukovsky — freedom, yes, because he’s in such a situation as in prison. Nobody hears him. If somebody hears him, he doesn’t listen to him. It is a most tragical situation. Tragical. Well, and painful.”
After leaving his apartment, I exchanged e-mails with another one of Bukovsky’s close friends, the journalist and translator Alyona Kojevnikov. “We shall see what we shall see come next Monday,” she wrote.
On Monday, Bukovsky will be tried on five charges of making indecent images of children, five charges of possession of indecent images of children and one charge of possession of a prohibited image. That is according to the press release that in Bukovsky’s view irreparably destroyed his most treasured possession: the world’s esteem. He says that he will remain on a hunger strike until the court restores it.
“Volodya thinks the lawyers handling his case are doing a good job,” she wrote. “For example, they are trying to get a testimony from some guy in Lithuania, who faced the same situation as Volodya. Luckily for him the Lithuanians, with 40 years’ experience of being under the Soviet boot, saw through the intrigue and threw the case out of court. This man is still in Lithuania and can’t come to Volodya’s hearing, but his lawyers are hoping to get a statement from him about what happened to him. Whether that will make any difference, I don’t know.
“Of course, a lot depends on the jury: We can only hope and pray that the jurors are your average middle-class Britons, who still have plenty of common sense and are largely unaffected by left-wing liberal notions and political correctness. You know what I mean, the butcher, the baker, and candlestick-maker type of people.
“On the down side, it may be hard for them to grasp the entire complexity of the matter. It is a lot to expect for them to grasp the idea that the KGB (whatever it calls itself at any point in history) never forgets and never forgives anything. Their patience is extremely long – look at how they finally got to Trotsky when he thought he was safe and sound and beyond their reach.”
Postscript: The new Cold War will be one of the themes of Brave Old World. Thank you for your generous contributions. They are making it possible for me to work on this story. I could not do it without your support I’m also grateful to Michael Yaroshevsky for allowing me to use the trailer for his Portrait of Vladimir Bukovsky.