Friday, July 3, 2009

Review: To Build a Castle

When I picked up Vladimir Bukovsky’s To Build a Castle: My Life as a Dissenter, I didn’t know that he is currently an opposition party leader in Russia. It was better for me not to know this, because it would have been better for Bukovsky to die in GULAG. This gruesome statement is the darker side of the recognition that things are not always what they seem, especially when concerning the Soviet Union and today’s Russia.

This line of thinking, enforced by numerous experiences, leads Useless Dissident to suspect any so-called “dissident,” “opposition leader,” or “moderate voice” coming from Russia, a state obsessed with its image in the West. Thus Mikhail Gorbachev’s “perestroika” is kind of unbelievable, as are any reported divisions within the political leadership, or the Army, or the KGB. Furthermore, so-called dissidents like Andrei Sakharov who call for “peaceful coexistence” between the West and East are to be seen as serving the interests of their totalitarian state.

When we hear the cry of “dissent,” then, from within the Soviet Union (or modern Russia, or China, or other totalitarian states), we must ask, “How does this serve the regime?” That must always be our first question. “Why did they allow this to be published?” Knowing the circumstances of a text’s release is important, but not always necessary. From the book itself we can discern, if we have been paying attention, what its purpose is and whose it is.

But of course, there is real dissent, and word of it will inevitably reach Western shores in authentic expression. What, though, is authentic? Certain writers are so na├»ve and know so little that what is for them authentic and heartfelt opinion is considered so harmless and inconsequential by KGB and Party censors that it is allowed to pass to the West virtually unedited. Some of these may even work for Writers’ Unions, and are paid by the state to write their feckless criticisms, a fact sure to be included in their works. Thus their “dissent” turns into an endorsement of the regime and a backhanded criticism of those who identify more completely the evils of communism.

Bukovsky approaches this subject: “I have even heard the following argument: Your protests are misleading world public opinion: people in the West will think that we are allowed to speak openly here and change things. Therefore you are helping Soviet propaganda.”

Well? It’s true, right? But no excuse, nevertheless, for cowardice in the face of oppression. And that’s Bukovsky’s point, for this “argument” is given in a list—a catalogue—of excuses:
No man can flay a stone.

What can I do? (If everyone acted, so would I.)

If I didn’t, someone else would. (And better me because I’ll do less harm.)

You must make compromises, concessions, and sacrifices for the sake of the main cause. (Thus the Church holds that it must make concessions for the sake of self-preservation, yet there is no end to these concessions…)

We must live for Russia, and the Communists will one day disappear of themselves.
(This argument is a favorite with scientists and the military.)

We must live for posterity, create the eternal values of science and culture, a trivial reoccupation with protests merely distracts us from the main thing.

Never ever protest openly; that is a provocation which merely enrages the authorities and brings suffering on the innocent.

Open protests play into the hands of the hard-liners in the Politburo and prevent the doves from carrying out liberalization. [Russia is fond of using this argument to stifle Western criticism today. –UD]

Open protests hinder liberalization, which can only succeed by means of power politics and secret diplomacy.

To protest about details is merely to expose oneself. The thing to do is to lie down. Then, when the decisive moment comes, okay. But in the meantime we’ll disguise ourselves.

Yes, but not now, this is the worst possible time: my wife’s pregnant, my children are ill, I have to defend my thesis first, my son’s about to go to university… (and so on till the end of a lifetime).

The worse things get, the better. We must deliberately take all the system’s idiocies to their logical and ridiculous conclusion, until the people’s patience runs out and they understand what is happening.

Russia is a land of slaves. The Russians have never had democracy and never will. They don’t have the aptitudes for it, it’s no use trying. There’s no other way for our people.

The people are silent. What gives a handful of malcontents the right to speak out—whom do they represent, whose opinion are they expressing?

Your protests are misleading world public opinion: people in the West will think that we are allowed to speak openly here and change things. Therefore you are helping Soviet propaganda.

You have to get on quietly with your career, get to the top, and try to change thins from there; you won’t achieve anything from the bottom.

You have to gain the trust of the leaders’ advisers and teach and educate them on the quiet, there’s no other way of influencing the government’s course.

You protest; I’ll stay out of it. Someone has to survive to bear witness. (I heard this in the labor camp just before a hunger strike.)

If only there were a new theory to replace Marxism and carry people away; you can’t build anything on sheer negation.

Communism has been visited upon Russia in retribution for her sins; to resist God’s retribution is equally sinful.

And so everyone, from members of the Politburo, academicians, and writers down to collective-farm laborers and factory workers, manages to find a justification. Moreover, most people sincerely believe that these are their true feelings. Very few realize that they are pretexts and excuses. And hardly anybody will admit openly and honestly that he is simply afraid of reprisals.
Though To Build a Castle contains many fine passages, I believe that none is more representative than this one. Bukovsky and his fellows are principled dissidents, who will not compromise. In this passage we see that he can see through the justifications that everyone uses to get ahead and get along in the evil communist state. And surely that is why he cannot but be a dissident.

But his group also has its pitiful side. Many of the “dissidents” still are ideologically-believing socialists/Marxists/Leninists who just want to return Russia to its glorious, righteous pre-Stalin roots. One man is obsessively focused on the Constitution and the law (in the USSR), and goes about teaching other dissidents their “rights” so that they will know them when they are arrested, even though they won’t be respected. The title thus becomes apt in a presumably unexpected way: the dissidents are no more realists than those who delude themselves with excuses for not resisting, and the author’s “life as a dissenter” as he describes it is compared to life “for hundreds of years in [a] castle... I built it between interrogations in Lefortovo, in the camp lockup, and in the Vladimir punishment cells. It saved me from apathy, from indifference to living. It saved my life.” But, of course, it’s imaginary.

These dissidents are often students who have been kicked out of universities and/or their positions because of their disagreements with the regime. They had to exhibit courage to get to even this point. And then they do whatever small things they can do, like distributing samizdat, organizing underground art shows, and meeting for silent protests (sometimes holding banners) in public places.

These are small things, but they did have an impact on the West. To some extent one has to suspect that the Communist Party and KGB laughed at these protestors, because they were showing the West that protest could happen in the USSR and thus reinforced their wishful thinking about how the Communist giant couldn’t really be that bad. But on the other hand—if one denies the Golitsyn thesis about the complicity of the Eurocommunists with the Russians in fabricating their own dissent—even Western leftists sympathized with the Soviet dissident movement.

Revelations from this time period like Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago—about the labor camps—and Bukovsky’s To Build a Castle—about the dissident movement and the use of psychiatric hospitals to incarcerate and debilitate those dissidents, did much to awake the West from its partially self-induced and partially propaganda-induced stupefied thinking about how the Cold War was a waste of time and money, how the world needed a convergence of the two systems (a “peaceful coexistence”), how the West should work with “liberal reformers” in Moscow instead of approaching the country aggressively.

Of course, the West soon forgot all about this. It has deluded itself again into thinking it “defeated Communism” and that labor camps, propaganda, brutal civic repression, and heinous things like state manipulation of churches and psychiatric hospitals are things of the past. They’re not.

To Build a Castle is very much worth reading, but it is hardly a timeless book in the way that Gulag Archipelago is. It strikes me that the author has insufficient sense of the dissident movement’s place in Russian history, its scope of influence in the West, and its meaning in relation to the Russian state. Gulag is not only solid on all of these points but is also a story of the spiritual value of suffering and the way of forgiveness and redemption. These lofty heights To Build a Castle aspires to but does not attain, but it is nevertheless a beautiful and important memoir.

Today Vladimir Bukovsky lives in exile in Britain from his native Russia. He is a strong ally of conservatism and national sovereignty. He is a critic of internationalist schemes and extremely skeptical of all new “glasnosts” and progressive reforms. He was not and is still not taken in by the Mikhail Gorbachev’s “perestroika.” He has, however, been taken in by some of the ridiculous exaggerations and accusations of “torture” surrounding the United States’ military detention facilities. This is unfortunate, but somewhat understandable.