To Choose Freedom, by Vladimir Bukovsky, Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution, 188 pages, $19.95
Vladimir Bukovsky is among the world's most prescient, articulate observers of the contemporary Soviet Union. He has paid an enormous price for his education, beginning his life as a dissenter in the Soviet Union when still in his teens. Between the ages of 21 and 34, 13 years, Bukovsky was incarcerated virtually full time in Soviet prisons, labor camps, and psychiatric hospitals. Bukovsky's ordeal ended when in late 1976 he was exchanged for Luis Corvalan, a Chilean communist jailed by the Pinochet regime.
Self-taught in English, economics, politics, international relations, history, and the like, soon after he reached the West Bukovsky's knowledgeable voice concerning the contemporary Soviet Union began to be heard in speeches, lectures, essays, interviews, and radio and television appearances, especially in Europe. A 1979 memoir of his dissident days, To Build a Castle, was a bestseller in Europe, and published in about a dozen languages. Bukovsky's monograph, "The Peace Movement and the Soviet Union," tore away the fig leaf hiding the Communists' cynical use of worldwide nuclear fear to further disarm the Western democracies. In 1981 his "new" book, To Choose Freedom, appeared in Europe, initially in both Russian and French. The German edition became a prizewinning bestseller.
Yet, until Dr. Robert Hessen of the Hoover Institution rescued To Choose Freedom from English-language oblivion by arranging for its publication by the Hoover Institution Press, Bukovsky's book could not find an American publisher. Ironically, but not surprisingly, the reason is entirely consistent with Bukovsky's principal theme in the book itself: in short, though this is my characterization, not Bukovksy's, America and the West have been morally disarmed.
Connected by that theme is a veritable cornucopia of fascinating, informative material. There are Bukovsky's incisive anecdotes. For example, speaking of Corvalan's release to the Soviets, Bukovsky notes that the Chilean "merely changed prisons, with his party comrades now serving as his new jailers." Indeed, Bukovsky "told the journalists that I feared we would soon have to start another campaign to liberate Corvalan by exchanging him for someone else."
Speaking of his own expulsion from the Soviet Union, he recounts Brezhnev's disquiet about learning of a meeting between Bukovsky and President Carter. Bukovsky learned that Brezhnev, studying the results of this meeting, had exclaimed to his aides: "Comrades, what in the world have you done? You assured me he was 'touched'—he pointed significantly to his temple—'but this makes clear that he is not cracked at all; he keeps making public appearances and speaks well.…How can you let activists like that out of the country?'" Bukovsky adds, "Talk about embarrassment! It seems that the Kremlin had actually been convinced that I was a paranoiac. That explains why they had let me leave with all that fanfare. It's easy to imagine the effect it would have had on supporters of our movement had it been true."
The author drops tantalizing, intriguing throw-away lines, pithy enough to warrant entirely separate essays: for example, "Give a worker a couple of months in the Soviet Union and as a rule he will understand more than an intellectual will in a whole lifetime"; "…slowly but relentlessly, socialism is changing developed countries into underdeveloped ones"; "…the average Soviet person lives from day to day and makes no plans for the future.…we are like people living in a waiting room."
Bukovsky offers one perceptive analysis after another: Switzerland's attitude toward its physical security; the British character; slums and welfare in the West; the mind-set of Soviet leaders, bureaucrats, and workers; military and geopolitical strategy; the publishing business in America; socialism's flaws; the prospects for Gorbachev's "reforms," and for his own survival.
The former dissident perceptively explains the significance of his exchange for Corvalan as an example of the Soviet Union's sensitivity to world opinion. Bukovsky convincingly demonstrates that despite the prisoner swap being "a substantial setback for them, politically speaking," the comrades were forced to make the "concession to the force of world opinion." The implications of the Soviets' sensitivity to world opinion are tremendously important to informed strategic policy, and Bukovsky's analysis (though perhaps it will be unpopular with isolationist libertarians and other proponents of laissez-faire foreign relations) simply cannot be ignored.
Bukovsky's chapter entitled "On Liberty" (which I would have subtitled "Reflections on Freedom and Slavery by a Newly Freed Slave") poignantly, humorously, acerbically, and even tongue-in-cheek, reports his early reactions to the West. For example: "I once spent an exhausting hour at a counter stocked with twenty-four different varieties of olives, without being able to reach a decision."
On the West's penchant for exaggeration, especially of problems, he remarks, "If it is months since the Soviet city you happen to live in has had any meat for sale, it will not occur to anyone to speak of a 'problem,' to say nothing of a 'crisis'.…In the West, however, crisis follows crisis.…Newspapers proclaim an energy crisis, for example. Not a difficulty, mind you, a crisis.…But the very first thing that strikes you when you approach New York by plane is the glow of light in the sky.…Lights have been added in every possible place, everything that can be turned on has been turned on, just so people wouldn't have to write about the crisis in the dark."
Regarding freedom in the West, he recounts his astonishment at finding a Jehovah's Witness church—"that most clandestine, most secret of all the sects in the USSR"—along a London street. "The regime regards them with a dread bordering on superstitious horror, and for this reason any Witness who is arrested can count on a long sentence. And here I was standing in front of a building and a signboard. So anyone can drop in and have a cup of tea with them?"
Seeing the West, and much that we take for granted, through so perceptive an observer's eyes is a rare treat. Also, if taken in the proper spirit, a rare opportunity.
The author's comparison of modern socialism and contemporary capitalism contains some unsettling similarities. He lays bare the nature and consequences of past and future detente and demonstrates the connection between the ethics of altruism and today's Soviet state.
All this, and more, makes To Choose Freedom an important contribution to the literature of the current East-West conflict and indispensable reading for everyone who would understand that conflict.
But the overarching value of Bukovsky's book is his theme, sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit, which integrates everything he writes and makes intelligible all of his many (and often seemingly disparate) observations about the West's inadequate response to Soviet communism. Going the logical next step beyond Jean-François Revel's brilliant explication of how democracies perish, Bukovsky weaves through his wide-ranging, informative narrative a multifaceted identification of why the West has consistently lost ground: its own increasingly socialist political-economic systems; its acceptance of the false "war or accommodation," "peace at any price" alternatives; its fear and evasion of the very real mortal danger posed by Soviet imperialism, its failure to understand communist ideology, means, and ends; its naive concern that in adopting the necessary policies and in taking the requisite steps to oppose communism, we "become like them"; its ethical relativism, subjectivism, and pragmatism; its desire to make money, whatever the cost, however many the corpses.
And the consequences? Bukovsky writes: "When the crowds of hysterical people in the streets of your cities demand unilateral disarmament of the West, when they demand peace at any price and surrender to Soviet blackmail, not only is your future betrayed but the future of Poles and Czechs, Vietnamese and Russians. For what hopes are left for them, where can they find the strength to resist against all odds, if the people of free countries choose to be red rather than dead."
Some day, perhaps centuries from now, the survivors of countless years of totalitarian darkness may encounter a time capsule left by us of the late 20th century. If they discover in it a yellowed copy of To Choose Freedom, they will ask, with pained regret, why in the 1980s no one heeded the wisdom of Vladimir Bukovsky.
Henry Mark Holzer is professor of law at the Brooklyn Law School.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Beyond the Looking Glass".