Book review of To Build a Castle by Vladimir Bukovsky
There’s an unofficial trilogy about Russia’s prison camps.
The first, The House of the Dead, is Dostoevsky’s fictionalized memoir of his years in a Siberian labour camp during the days of the Tsar.
The second, Gulag Archipelago by Solzhenitsyn, documents through secretly collected personal accounts the massive expansion of this system for supposed political prisoners during the dark years of the early Soviet state. I’m partway through and it’s clear that at this stage the camps are far worse, and far less logical, than in Dostoevsky’s time.
Today I’ll review the third: Bukovsky’s testimony about the Soviet imprisonment of dissidents during the post-Stalin era.
He writes to convince Westerners that the USSR is not so reformed as it claims; that there is still no freedom of expression and many who speak out continue to languish behind bars.
I have no argument on that point but the most striking feature for me was: the situation described in this book, while awful, is way better than it used to be.
It’s not quite back to the days of the Tsar when just about everyone in jail was an actual criminal. Rather, the number of political prisoners fell from millions under Mo Joe to just 10-20K. Further, at the time of Bukovsky’s account, it seems that those arrested are actual dissidents, they are given chances to recant and their conditions are less hideous.
Later Soviet rulers seem far more concerned about Western opinion. Harsher prison rules might lead to a hunger strike, which might in turn lead to angry calls from the West to Moscow as this news leaks, and then angry calls from Moscow to the jailers. Who wants that?
Commissioners investigating the furor might go over the records of the bureaucrats in charge of the prison, find stuff-ups, reprimand or sack them and take their place. These jobs were among the best available so sacrificing a fellow oligarch was a good way of getting ahead. This had the effect of somewhat balancing the power between jailed and jailer; making the latter cross their i’s and dot their t’s to avoid criticism.
Conditions still weren’t great – cold and hunger remained – but the situation was survivable for most.
There are some interesting reflections here, as in Archipelago, about the effect of communism on a person’s soul. For example, he says of his young, curious guards:
Why should I hate them? If anyone was to be hated it was the people at the top, scrapping over the plum jobs and forgetting about everything else in the world . . .
But even these I could not hate. I could despise them, and the entire society they had created, just as I despised their ideology and their self-justification – the psychology of slave and tyrant at the same time.
I despised Soviet man – not the one depicted on the posters in Soviet literature, but the one who existed in reality, who had neither honor nor pride, nor a sense of personal responsibility, who was capable of tackling a bear alone with a pitchfork but who shrank away and broke into a cold sweat at the sight of a policeman, who would betray and sell his own father to avoid the boss thumping his fist on the desk at him.
The tragedy was that he existed inside every one of us, and until we could overcome this Soviet man within, nothing in our life would change.
This is no doubt true, but how useful is it? Rebellions that rely on the bulk of the population suddenly becoming braver, more virtuous people than they are, will probably not eventuate. Your present host’s whining about our craven reaction to recent restrictions is just as futile – my countrymen are not going to suddenly become other than they are.
Bukovsky seems to have been born a dissident. He first gets into trouble as a teenager and rebels against a Soviet education system that tries to brainwash him. I’m not sure what to make of this – no doubt there was brainwashing, but the system also produced some bright graduates. I’m concerned this is not the whole story.
After getting into some early mischief, he’s hauled in front of party bigwigs:
I was expecting to see cruelty, imperiousness, confidence, and willpower, but saw only stupidity. Stupidity and cowardice.
Hmm, quite unlike our elites then.
Here a pattern emerges that is repeated throughout: Bukovsky is given a chance to recant and does not. He seems determined to resist and to consistently increase the cost of enforcement. It’s admirable, but also makes me suspect that had he been born in the West, he’d have been just as rebellious. Part of me wonders if a Bukovsky growing up in France would have joined the Action Directe.
At one point he runs away from trouble in the city and tags along with friends on a geological survey in Siberia. Reading his description of this carefree life, I wonder: why not just take his stripes, study geology or something similar and live out his life in the wilderness, far from communist bullshit?
He recounts the story of a remote village of Old Believers discovered deep in the taiga by cartographers. Their traditional society is reformed by authorities and they are made to live like everyone else. I found this the most depressing account of all. One always imagines that, far from the madding crowd, we can find refuge. Perhaps this was impossible.
One could not describe Bukovsky as a rebel without a cause. He’s clear about why he hates the Soviet system:
This dream of absolute, universal equality is amazing, terrifying, and inhuman. And the moment it captures people’s minds, the result is mountains of corpses and rivers of blood, accompanied by attempts to straighten the stooped and shorten the tall.
He reports on a factory:
It turned out that if one man exceeded the target, the target would be raised for all of them the following month, and they would have to work twice as hard for exactly the same money. We quickly fell into the style of their work.
And a farm, where he saw women planting rotten potatoes that would never grow and loudly cursing Khrushchev at every step:
The peasants explained to us that they were paid for every ton of potatoes planted, so what was harvested didn’t interest them.
Why not just quit and find something more constructive to do?
We were amazed to discover that the state farm workers were unable to resign or leave the farm, since they weren’t allowed to hold their own internal passports . . .
For this reason, boys dreamed of joining the military and girls of marrying a townie. It was the only way out. Echoes of Eritrea there – while every communist system follows its own vernacular style, there are obviously parallels wherever it is tried.
[Edit: also echoes of our own, nascent internal passport system which will begin but not end with vaccine certification.]
In the seventies, the Soviets had a brainwave: as crime was caused by capitalism, and new Soviet men raised under socialism must be less prone to criminality, they could start closing some of the prisons. This they did – and began locking up dissidents in mental institutions instead.
Don’t like the workers’ paradise? You must be mad!
I wonder how many steps the modern West is away from this.
After long stints in prisons and mental institutions, ‘treated’ by ‘psychologists’ who try to make him recant, he finally gets out and realizes that if he’s put away one more time, he’ll likely never see his mother again:
Enough. What difference was there, in fact, between here an there? The same life, the same laws. I’d get by somehow. This was my last chance to live.
The reader forgives him at this point. His whole adult life has been behind bars.
However, he can’t resist informing Western media of how dissidents are being put in mental institutions, so he gets put back in one.
Again, same pattern: they offer to let him out if he makes a public statement renouncing what he’s said. The Soviets cared a lot about their image abroad.
Again, he refuses.
Finally he’s declared sane when one oligarchic faction takes over from another and the psychological treatment of dissidents falls out of favour. So, back to jail.
In the end, he and his family are banished to the West.
Why did he not expatriate to begin with? He was not allowed, plus he chose to reform his fatherland rather than make a dash.
Why was expulsion not the first, rather than last, resort of the regime? Because if it got around that distributing anti-communist fliers would score you a ticket out, everyone would be doing it. Only the most deserving were expelled.
Bukovsky spent the rest of his life writing and campaigning against communism. After 1991, he graduated to complaining about Putin. Our born dissident seems unable to do otherwise.
There are obviously degrees of tyranny. Putin does what he needs to do but he’s no Brezhnev. Brezhnev was no Stalin. There’s a scale.
The Russian gulag trilogy is relevant to us because the post-2020 West is not dramatically freer than 1970s ‘Soviet Lite’. First we had the post-9/11 emergency laws that are still on the books today. Then came the Woke Inc. cancellations. Dissidents are harassed but unlike in the USSR, they are given no chance to recant and get on with their lives.
Economic freedoms officially exist but have effectively been curtailed by lockdowns. In the UK and Australia, we are not allowed to leave our country whenever we want. People have been arrested for anti-lockdown rallies in various countries. Our rulers permit approved riots while railroading enemies of the regime or those whose persecution reinforces regime narratives.
If, in 2000, the West was a dozen steps removed from 70s-style Soviet tyranny, in 2021 it is three or four steps removed.
Giant companies and elites will continue to do as they please but for ordinary people, freedom is likely to continue slipping away for the same reason the Russians never had it: the majority are unwilling to resist.
In fact, unlike the potty-mouthed peasant women who cursed Khrushchev with all their might, we seem largely pleased with our house arrest. I guess those peasants didn’t have stimmy cheques, computer games and Netflix.