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Thursday, October 1, 1987

A Reviewers Notebook: To Choose Freedom

Vladimir Bukovsky was one of those pesky Russians who, when Leonid Brezhnev was running things in Moscow, took the question of human rights as guaranteed by the Soviet constitution seriously. He deliberately defied the KGB, and he would have been permanently lost in the Gulag or in a succession of psychiatric hospitals if friends in the West hadn’t taken up his cause. The clamor got on Brezhnev’s nerves. So, to get rid of a man whom he regarded as a bothersome kook or flake, Brezhnev, in 1976, released Bukovsky in exchange for Luis Corvalan, a Chilean Communist.

Robert Hessen, in a foreword to Bukovsky’s new book, To Choose Freedom (Hoover Institution, Stanford University, 188 pp., $19.95), says that Bukovsky has flourished in a climate of freedom. His first book, To Build a Castle, has been a best-seller around the world. A reprint of a Bukovsky essay protesting against advocates of unilateral disarmament sold more than fifty thousand copies. But in spite of his welcome in the West, Bukovsky is highly dissatisfied with much that he has found.

The main theme of To Choose Freedom is that we, in the West, take our rights and liberties entirely too much for granted. We have what Bukovsky calls “an astonishing incapacity for thinking.” All around him he sees “socialism arousing the greatest sympathy; people see it as a genuine solution. And yet no one really knows what socialism is. . . . I am irritated by the number of people all over the world who are persuaded that the way to solve human problems is by a simple redesigning of social structures.”

Bukovsky says he has been looking for capitalism in the West but has been unable to find it. “As for capitalism,” he writes, “I have never seen it and don’t even know if it is possible.” But then, after chastising us for “parasitism,” Bukovsky reverses his field. “It is possible,” he says, “to abolish money, to destroy articles of luxury, to institute stringent rationing of food and basic necessities . . . to reduce human life to any kind of bestial level in the attempt to establish equality. . . . But it would be a venture doomed from the start. The individual will always find a way of standing out, and people will unfailingly assign value to something of which there is not enough to go around equally.”

In all its history, says Bukovsky, the Soviet Union has failed to extinguish the instinct for private property. Nor have the Soviets been able to eliminate social classes. But “the State, that monster with a thousand heads,” continues to pursue the property owner “as if he were a criminal.”

In the West, Bukovsky tells us, the role of the KGB is, in part, taken over by the agencies in charge of taxation. “The issue,” he writes, “is not money so much as keeping one’s independence, an idea profoundly offensive to socialism.”

Bukovsky doubts that Gorbachev’s “glasnost,” or openness, will make any great difference. Nobody in Russia believes in communist dogma anymore, “but at the end of the day the Communist Party is still in firm control of every aspect of Soviet life, and communist ideology is never challenged within the party.” We cannot expect even a “pragmatic” and a “young and energetic” Gorbachev to change a system that is dominated by a bureaucracy so thoroughly entrenched. It does not matter, so Bukovsky says, how young and energetic a Communist General Secretary may be “because he is not a human being—he is a function . . . Big Brother Andropov, Chernenko, or Brezhnev could be practically dead at the end of their reign, yet their letters, decrees, and interviews continued to appear. Their function continued to exist as if nothing had happened, like communist ideology continues to exist and control Soviet life, although nobody believes in it.” In Bukovsky’s opinion the difference between being an old “function” like Brezhnev or a young “function” like Gorbachev is nil.

So why should we struggle to get to the negotiating table to deal with a “function”? Why bother to procure another piece of paper which the Soviets will not respect? Addressing himself to the western authorities, Bukovsky asks: “Aren’t you tired of this endless paper game?”

Bukovsky has no trust in our Congress, which he accuses of “cowardice.” “When the American Congress,” so he wrote in disgust, “. . . refuses to support the popular resistance to the communist regime in Nicaragua, or when we hear about the intention to recognize the communist government in Angola we must consider it a defeat for us all.”

Although on most of his pages Bukovsky comes through as a profound pessimist, he is still capable of kicking like a steer. At the very least he has some hopes that we will reform our language, and when we are done with that we will be able to tell ourselves the truth that de-tente is a snare and a delusion. Clinging to paper is nonsense, he says, at a time after our human rights have been “so blatantly violated, after ‘Solidarity’ was crushed in Poland and Afghanistan was invaded, after an attempt on the Pope’s life had been masterminded by the KGB, after Andrei Sakharov nearly died in exile and practically all members of the Helsinki Monitoring Groups were persecuted.”

Bukovsky’s final advice is simply to keep the pressure on. The Soviets cannot successfully continue their military competition with the West, and they cannot continue to support their evergrowing empire.

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.