Vladimir Konstantinovich Bukovsky: 1942 – 2019

Vladimir Konstantinovich Bukovsky: 1942 – 2019
Photo courtesy of Cato Institute


The Cato Institute mourns the passing of a colleague, Vladimir Bukovsky, a senior fellow of the institute and a giant among champions of freedom.

A single name was enough to enrage powerful dictators: Bukovsky. Vladimir Bukovsky was a tower of strength, with the integrity never to buckle and the courage to endure. The word dissident barely suffices to describe him. He was interrogated and then expelled from university at 19 for attending illegal poetry readings and for criticizing Komsomol, the Young Communist League. In 1963 he was arrested for making two copies of Milovan Djilas’s work The New Class, which argued that communist states, far from eliminating class oppression, merely cemented the rule of a new class of party bureaucrats.

He was sentenced to two years of torture in a psychiatric prison-hospital in Leningrad, on the grounds that being critical of communism was a symptom of a mental illness. That was only the first of his multiple imprisonments. Bukovsky spent a total of twelve years in psychiatric prison-hospitals, forced labor camps, and prisons in the USSR. In 1976 the top leaders of the USSR, in exasperation, decided to expel him in exchange for a Chilean Communist. Mainly they wanted to be rid of him. Bukovsky was too prominent merely to murder, as he had in 1971 arranged for documents to be smuggled to the outside world that showed the monstrous tortures inflicted on free-thinking people, who were imprisoned and subjected to experimentation and administration of psychotropic drugs to “cure” their independent – and thus diseased – thoughts.

During the 1992 legal proceedings against the Communist Party of the USSR, Bukovsky was asked to assist the prosecution, during which he had access to party archives. Using a hand-held scanner and a portable computer, he copied thousands of pages of documents, a treasure trove of insight into the internal workings of the ruling class of a totalitarian state.

I had the honor of hearing him teach at various Cato Institute summer schools on liberty that were held in the Russian language in Crimea before the Kremlin’s military occupation and annexation of that part of Ukraine. The students from Russia and other post-Soviet countries listened in awe and were inspired by the courage of a man who never gave up. He was pugnacious, opinionated, reasonable, and resolute to oppose tyranny everywhere and always.

Bukovsky’s readings to the students of Soviet politburo documents showed the utter inability of the Soviet state to support its client dictatorship in Poland. As the head of the Soviet central planning authority Gosplan explained in the secret politburo minutes Bukovsky had copied,

“As you know, in accordance with a decision of the Politburo and at the request of the Polish comrades, we are providing them as aid 30,000 tons of meat. Of the 30,000 tons, 15,000 have already left the country. I should add that the produce, in this case meat, is being delivered [at the Polish end] in dirty, unsanitary rail wagons used to transport iron ore, and has a very unattractive appearance. When the produce is unloaded at Polish rail stations, blatant sabotage has been taking place. The Poles have been saying the rudest things about the Soviet Union and the Soviet people, and they are refusing to clean out the rail wagons, etc. One could not begin to list all the insults that have been directed against us.”

The mighty Soviet union could not deliver 30,000 tons of meat to Poland, and what arrived, according to the Polish Communists, wasn’t fit to be served to their dogs. We know that because Vladimir Bukovsky had the audacity to walk into the Soviet archives with a hand-held scanner and copy thousands of pages of the most sensitive documents of the USSR under the eyes of their guardians.

Vladimir Bukovsky never gave up his struggle for freedom and against dictatorship. He risked everything and he paid a very high price for his courage.

The great writer Vladimir Nabokov summed up the legacy of Bukovsky in 1974: “Bukovsky’s heroic speech to the court in defense of freedom, and his five years of martyrdom in a despicable psychiatric jail will be remembered long after the torturers he defied have rotted away.”

Thank you, Vladimir Bukovsky, for what you have done for the freedom of hundreds of millions of people and for the example of courage you continue to provide to us.

Used with the permission of the Cato Institute CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Tom G. Palmer is Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and Director of Cato University. He is also the George M. Yeager Chair for Advancing Liberty and Executive Vice President for International Programs at the Atlas Network and is responsible for establishing operating programs in 14 languages and managing programs for a worldwide network of think tanks. Before joining Cato he was an H. B. Earhart Fellow at Hertford College, Oxford University, and a vice president of the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University. He is the author of Realizing Freedom: Libertarian Theory, History, and Practice (expanded edition 2014), and the editor of The Morality of Capitalism (2011), After the Welfare State (2012), Why Liberty (2013), and Peace, Love, & Liberty (2014). Palmer received his BA in liberal arts from St. Johns College in Annapolis, Maryland; his MA in philosophy from The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.; and his doctorate in politics from Oxford University.