Books: From the Land of Shadows : Voices from the Pit |
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Voices from the Pit

To Build a Castle — My Life as a Dissenter by Vladimir Bukovsky, translated by Michael Scammell
(Deutsch, London, and Viking, New York)

Alarm and Hope by Andrei D. Sakharov, edited by Efrem Yankelevich and Alfred Friendly, Jr.
(Collins, London, and Knopf, New York)

Before the Revolution, there was Russian literature. Since the Revolution, except for an early and brief period when the good writers were as optimistic as the bad, there has been, for the most part, the literature of Russian dissidence. Its qualities and categories are hard to define, but lately the sheer output has become difficult to keep up with even for the expert, while the layman must simply resign himself to leaving most of it unread — a harsh fact, when you consider that there is hardly any such thing as a dissident book which is not written at the risk of its author’s neck.

Vladimir Bukovsky is the bravest of the brave, but if his book told us nothing new there would be a good case for leaving it to one side. Luckily the fancy title is no guide to the book’s true worth, which is considerable. To Build a Castle takes an assured place alongside such volumes as Evgenia Ginzburg’s Journey Into the Whirlwind or Anatoly Marchenko’s My Testimony. It is one more, and this time a very recent, chapter in the terrifying story — by now several generations long — of what Soviet political repression actually feels like to the people it happens to.

In addition to the inside knowledge he provides, Bukovsky has a capacity for moral reflection that almost lifts his work to the level occupied, in their different ways, by Nadezhda Mandelstam and Solzhenitsyn. If, finally, we decide that he doesn’t quite reach that altitude, it might have something to do with the limitations of his virtues. There is something of the star soloist about Bukovsky. He can speak for himself and he can speak for a principle, but in speaking for ordinary people he sometimes seems to lack the capacity for self-forgetfulness.

Perhaps he is just young. Bukovsky was born in 1942, which makes him about three years younger than the present reviewer, to whom the worst thing that has ever happened has been a sinus operation. Bukovsky was first arrested for taking part in protests when he was still in high school and has spent most of his adult life in prisons and psychiatric hospitals, the latter being specifically designed to give their victims an even worse time than the former. He has dared the Soviet authorities to do their worst and they have done it. In some ways he is so grown up that the ordinary Western reader loses touch with him. In other ways he has had no life at all. It is not surprising that there is something overbearing about his ego. Nothing else but concentrated, unrelenting selfhood could have sustained him.

The literary result, however, is an intensified version of the same tone projected by Solzhenitsyn even at his most sympathetically generous — you feel that an extreme experience has lifted the man talking to you on to a higher plane and left you on a lower one. Only Nadezhda Mandelstam can take us all the way inside the nightmare, since as well as sharing her husband’s status of victim she shares ours of onlooker. Her Hope Against Hope is the great book of modern Russia and indeed, I think, of our time. But it would be foolish to expect that the Soviet Union could go on producing, even by reaction, such finely tuned contemplative minds as hers. Her roots are in the old intelligentsia. The more recent antibodies are typified by Bukovsky — unbreakably self-confident, suicidally courageous, and frighteningly strange. You could with some hubris just about convince yourself that in the same circumstances you might have behaved as well as the Mandelstams. But only a monster of conceit could identify with someone like Bukovsky. He is practically a different species of human being — a spiritual mutant.

The most easily recognisable parts of Bukovsky’s book are the long, detailed accounts of what happened to him in Vladimir Prison, the Leningrad Special Mental Hospital, and other punitive institutions. All of this took place after the Stalinist era was supposed to be over. In Vladimir Prison Bukovsky spent eighteen months of a two-year stretch on ‘strict regime’. He has something of Solzhenitsyn’s knack for the detail that jolts your imagination. It might not sound very impressive, he argues, when prisoners complain about having their old newspapers confiscated. But if they have nothing else to sleep on except a bed ofsteel rods, taking their padding away can turn ordinary bad nights into out-and-out torture. Tiny privileges, revokable at the jailer’s will, make the difference between ordinary regime and strict regime. Effectively, strict regime is as close to death as you can be brought without dying.

The mental hospitals offer all the dubious attractions of the prisons plus a variety of extra features which make it hard even for toughs like Bukovsky to fight back. In prison you get thrown into solitary confinement but your mind is your own to control if you can find the trick ofdoing so. In the mental hospitals there are sulfazine, haloperidol, and a murderous treatment which involves being wrapped up in a wet sheet that suffocates you as it dries. Prisoners who are driven crazy by these techniques automatically confirm the theory of the eminent Professor Timofeyev — i.e., that dissidence is caused by brain disease.

According to Bukovsky — and there is every reason to think that his analysis is right — the Soviet system after Stalin is just Stalinism refined. The common people can’t be aroused from their lethargy because they know too well what would happen to them. ‘They keep quiet because they know, not because they don’t know.’ Anyone with any brains sees through the propaganda sooner or later. Everyone understands the joke about how to enjoy the material benefits of socialism: plug the refrigerator into the radio. But to dissent is to flay a stone.

Nevertheless Bukovsky dissents, in the peculiar way of his generation. The most interesting, because least familiar, parts of his book are about what it was like to grow up during what the rest of the world regarded as the Thaw. It is clear from his account that the system didn’t change: it merely opened up just far enough for an alert youth to see it for what it was. Bukovsky and his friends started a secret organisation. It survived by dint of doing nothing except stay secret. An individualist from the cradle, temperamentally averse to mere survival, Bukovsky branched out on his own and got himself into trouble, where he belonged. When he organised readings of unpublished poets in Mayakovsky Square, he was expelled from Moscow University where he was studying biology. (Like Solzhenitsyn, he was educated as a scientist, not as a literary specialist.)

Thus he embarked on a career of moral opposition, which he is convinced is the only answer. If he is right, then it is an answer only heroes can give. That marvellous organ Literaturnaya Gazeta at one point accused Bukovsky of organising an armed insurrection. Actually Bukovsky was armed with nothing except his will. The will and the ego being variations of each other, there is nothing reticent about this book, but even when you suspect its author of bombast you have to concede that he is a tower of strength.

One’s real doubts spring from the fact that his analysis and his recommendations do not quite square up. He is obviously right about the Soviet state being a sclerotic anachronism run by time-serving hacks with brains the size and flexibility of golf balls. He wants them all to come clean about the past. But if they are the men he says they are, how can they appreciate the significance of a moral stand?

None of this is to say that a moral stand makes no sense as an act of witness, sub specie aeternitatis. It can also make immediate practical sense as a means of bringing Western influence into play. But as a course of action for the general run of Soviet citizens, even if they were all heroes, it looks doomed from the outset. The state, as Bukovsky himself characterises it, simply can’t absorb that much opposition. It can’t change in that way: all it can do is close up again and propel the dissenters into the pit. Even the tactic of appealing to the Soviet constitution can be effective only so long as the state forbears. Strictly interpreted, the Soviet constitution is like one of those joke documents invented by Alexander Zinoviev — a measure put into effect in order to find out who agrees with it, so that they can be dealt with.

Equipped with sensuous good looks and the remarkably accurate English he taught himself in prison, Bukovsky made a vivid impression when he stepped off the plane into the West. Much of that vividness is in this book, which has been translated by Michael Scammell with a nice sense of rhythm: his writing here augurs well for his soon-to-be-forthcoming life of Solzhenitsyn. (Mr Scammell might care, however, to look up the verb ‘to brutalise’ in some dictionary less permissive than Webster’s. In the context of Bukovsky’s book its real meaning is too valuable to lose.) Since his arrival in England Bukovsky has been taken up by the sort of conservative ideologists whose idea of an advanced economist is Adam Smith. He is not as silly when he sounds like them as they are when they sound like him, but he is fond of inveighing against socialism without bothering to define it. Actually a modern Western society without socialism is as hard to imagine as a modern Western society without capitalism — the two things have grown inextricably mixed up. What Bukovsky is really against is the one-party state. Everything he has to say about that is pertinent and convincing, backed up as it is by detailed personal knowledge of how it feels to have the whole monolith landing on top of you.

The latest collection of Sakharov documents has no pretensions to literature but on the scale of effectiveness it is likely to be at least as important as Bukovsky’s book, simply because Sakharov is who he is. Alarm and Hope should be seen in continuity with Sakharov Speaks, which came out in 1974. A comparison of the two volumes shows a hardening of his attitude during the past five years. By now he has had ample opportunity to assess the full measure of the state’s vindictive pettiness. His income is down to almost nothing, he is barred from work befitting his gifts, he is overwhelmed with demands for advice and comfort, anyone close to him is subject to cruel harassment, and the telephone rings in the middle of the night so that some pin-headed KGB factotum can give him the benefit of a sick imagination. No wonder, then, that Sakharov’s views have come to resemble Bukovsky’s, with the emphasis on moral regeneration. What Bukovsky was born to, Sakharov has been forced to.

Yet there is still a residue of his earlier determination to reform the USSR by practical advice. Even if the young Sakharov had not valued himself as a creative nuclear physicist, the state’s esteem for him would have been enough to make him self-confident. He was the Soviet Union’s scientific darling. He was elected to the Academy of Sciences at the age of thirty-two, the youngest man ever to be so honoured. He gave his country the H-bomb and in return his country gave him all the privileges it could bestow — money, car, chauffeur, country house, imported consumer goods, and a twenty-four hour bodyguard who even went skiing with him.

Sakharov had every reason to think that if he gave the state advice it would listen. And for a while it did listen. It was Sakharov’s prestige in the physical sciences that halted Lysenko’s comeback under Khrushchev. Before the Twenty-third Party Congress in 1966, Sakharov, with twenty-four others, called on the Party not to rehabilitate Stalin. Whatever reasons the Politburo had for not putting Stalin back on his plinth (Roy Medvedev thinks it was the foreign communist parties who worked the trick) the important point here is that it didn’t happen, and that Sakharov was justified, by events at any rate, in feeling that his voice counted.

Sakharov told the Soviet authorities that unless the state liberalised itself the country would fall behind and become a second-rate power. This line of thought would probably have been enough by itself to get him into trouble eventually, even if he had not begun spicing it with indications that he had begun to distrust socialism altogether. The culminating moment was his 1968 manifesto Thoughts on Progress, Peaceful Co-existence and Intellectual Freedom, which is reprinted in Sakharov Speaks. It was published only in the West. In the Soviet Union it was swallowed up, although the ineffable Literaturnaya Gazeta gave it a review five years later — a spatter of abuse emanating from the editor in chief’s own fair hand.

The year of the Prague Spring was a bad time for appeals to reason. Sakharov was promptly on the road to becoming the un-person that he is now, when Soviet propagandists, with typical brilliance, are putting it about that he is really a Jew called Sugarman. The best thing in Alarm and Hope is the title essay, in which he talks about ‘the full tragedy of creative life in the socialist countries’. He is one of the embodiments of that tragedy — a genius at the mercy of vengeful dimwits. That a man of Sakharov’s calibre should have to spend his most creative years taking an elementary moral stand is a measure of what the Soviet Union has done to itself.

Sakharov, like Bukovsky, is on strong ground when he emphasises the importance of standing up to be counted. Nobody could denigrate such a viewpoint even if it could be proved that it were ineffective. As it happens, there is good reason to think that moral resistance within the Soviet Union has a measurable outcome in the form of Western pressure, especially now that President Carter, in his innocent way, has restored a semblance of ethical initiative to the West. In the long term the right thing is always worth doing, but in this case there is evidence that it is worth doing in the short term too.

Yet finally it is the lingering echo of Sakharov’s original message that catches one’s attention. Even today he has not lost sight of the practicalities. He insists, persuasively, that the Soviet Union, no matter how offended by Western criticism, simply can’t afford to break off trade. There are just too many things it doesn’t know how to make. Sakharov would not still be taking this line if he did not go on believing, at some level, that the Soviet leadership might be tempted toward liberalisation by the prospect of practical advantage. In a recent statement, he insisted that Western sympathy for dissidents should not interfere with arms agreements, or issue in boycotts accompanied by ultimatums, or prevent quiet deals for the exchange of political prisoners.

This is the strain in Sakharov’s thought which Solzhenitsyn has always objected to. Solzhenitsyn wants the regime discredited, not reformed. But there is at least a chance that Sakharov is being tactically sound when he goes on suggesting, in the teeth of his own latterday intransigence, that the material disparities between the Soviet Union and the West could be decisive in resolving the moral ones. If Pravda has to go on importing Western computerised printing machines in order to tell the population how far the West is lagging behind, the time might come when not even the Soviet leaders can live with the anomaly, and if they can’t bow to circumstances will at least stop lying about them. The Soviet government was able to isolate the space programme so that the genuine cooperative effort it entailed could not become too infectious. But a full-scale computer technology just might be harder to contain.

Bukovsky started off believing what Sakharov has come to believe — that the Soviet Union is a tragic farce. Most of us agree with that. The trouble is that after we have finished agreeing with each other the Soviet Union is still there. If anything could bring it crashing down, it would probably be laughter. In the annals of dissident Russian literature, Zinoviev’s The Yawning Heights might well prove to be not only the funniest book but the most historically influential, simply because of the hilarious neatness with which it encapsulates ideological absurdity. Yet really there is no point in wondering about how dissidence can cause a change. Dissidence is the change. Just by the range it has come to encompass, dissident Russian literature has begun pointing towards a time when it might be succeeded by what it was earlier obliged to replace — Russian literature. We will probably never notice the day of transition, just as we will probably never notice the day when the Soviet Union rejoins the world.

(New York Review of Books, 1979)