Notes from the Oslo Freedom Forum

With Bukovsky, Medvedev, and the exile Chechens


There is a photo buried on the website of Aftenposten, Norway's largest circulation quality daily, of marching German troops stopping foot traffic on Karl Johans Gata, one of Oslo's main thoroughfares, directly in front of the Grand Hotel. Judging from the photographic record and conversations with hotel staff, who, with surprising cheer, repeat endlessly the story of Ibsen's corner stammtisch at the hotel café, the space in front of the Grand is reserved for protest, conquest, and periodic spasms of social unrest.

On a chilly and cloudless Monday in late April, traffic is again snarled in front of the hotel, surrounded by dozens of Slavic-looking men, miniature telephone cords stuffed into their ears, and lantern-jawed Norwegian policemen clutching MP5 submachine guns, apologetically informing pedestrians that they must cross to the other side of the street. "Even if I am staying at the hotel?" I asked. "Yes. Very sorry. No entry until President Medvedev arrives."

Retreating to the outdoor cafe attached to the Grand, a familiar face sat glowering at the media and security scrum, sipping tea and devouring a pack of Dunhill cigarettes. There is no one on earth that looks quite as exhausted as Vladimir Bukovsky, the former Soviet dissident who spent 13 grueling years in Soviet prisons and psychiatric hospitals, where he was diagnosed with an anti-communist personality disorder. Bukovsky and I are both in town attending the 2nd annual Oslo Freedom Forum, a gathering of human rights activists and political dissidents representing disparate ideologies, religions, and regions. As a fellow conference-goer, I ask if he would mind a little company. He shrugs his shoulders. I take this as a yes.

What does Bukovsky, a fierce critic of Vladimir Putin's regime, think of all this security, all this attention being paid in the local press to Medvedev's coincidental visit, while the unrelated Oslo Freedom Forum, which features a number of Venezuelan dissidents and former prisoners of Castro, is being attacked in the local media as a conclave of rightist Latin American golpistas?

He unloads, denouncing Putinism with unrestrained ferocity. When Bukovsky talks about the KGB, I remind him, with obvious sarcasm, that it is now called the FSB. "Yes, yes. Same thing." Strangely, Bukovsky doesn't merely recite the story of his incarceration by rote, having presumably told the gruesome tale thousands of times before. He chuckles at the memory of his 1972 trial, which contained a preordained verdict for the crime of "anti-Soviet activities" but, in the post-Stalin years, required a semblance of legality. His lawyer had "a tough time saying those two words—'he's innocent'—for fear of repercussions."

Bukovsky says he wasn't tortured ("They stopped that when I was in there, after Khrushchev's secret speech"), but was force-fed, given mysterious "psychiatric drugs," and forced into a tiny cell with a sink that doubled as a toilet. In other words, he was tortured. "I liked solitary confinement," he says with a grin, exposing a missing front tooth. "It gave me time to think."

As we wait for the lilliputian Russian president—the "puppet"—to clear out, allowing us back to our rooms, Bukovsky moves on to American politics, grumbling about Barack Obama's weakness, and casually mentioning that "some people say he wasn't born in the United States." It was unclear if this was a declaration of solidarity with Birtherism, or merely an observation that some people in America have odd ideas.

When Medvedev emerges from his limo, he smiles and waves to the assembled, who don't wave back, don't clap, and don't even take many cell phone pictures. He is no more than 10 feet away from one of the greatest Soviet dissidents, surrounded by FSB agents. What does Bukovsky think? "About this puppet?" he says. With a rare flash of emotion, of contempt, Bukovsky grumbles: "He's not worth a dime."

There is nothing like casually told tales of Soviet oppression and FSB omnipotence to induce paranoia. Later that evening, while I wander on the top floor of the Grand with my wife, desperately looking for the bar, I notice a small man leering at me. He looks like a figure from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: short, with a 1970s haircut, and dark, beady eyes. Around every corner, searching for a needed fix of overtaxed booze, he keeps appearing.

In the elevator down to the lobby, escaping what I am now feverishly imagining is some Georgi Markov plot against Reason magazine, a young English woman intones gravely that if one looks close, there are sharpshooters on the rooftops. It's a strange confluence of events which, I am repeatedly told by Oslo Freedom Forum staffers, was entirely coincidence. Outside, the long banners announcing the arrival of the Freedom Forum—again, it is worth mentioning that the conference features an impressive range of Russian dissidents—are being removed, replaced by the flag of the Russian Federation.

When I next see Bukovsky, he is again outside the hotel, sucking down a cigarette with two bearded men. Another journalist thinks he recognizes one of Bukovsky's two companions as Siegmar Faust, an East German dissident that spoke at the Oslo Freedom Forum earlier in the day, detailing the hideous crimes of the Stasi. When my journalist comrade outstretches a hand, informing the menacing looking man that he "enjoyed his talk," the man corrects him. "I spoke last year. I just arrived in Oslo this afternoon. I am the Prime Minister of Chechnya."

Technically, Akhmed Zakayev, the Chechen guerrilla leader now living in London, is head of a government in exile, though he hastens to correct me. "I am not the prime minister in exile. I am simply the prime minister." His foreign minister (I am starting to wonder if his cabinet was assembled in a smoking lounge at Heathrow, without the knowledge of his Chechen comrades), who currently lives in Copenhagen, makes the same point with equal ferocity. But he is quickly distracted by my nationality.

"I was at rodeo in Houston," he offers. He looks very Chechen; dark eyes, sunken cheeks that look like a deflated football, a cropped beard that stops just below his eyes. "I liked it. Because I grew up like this, with the horse." When he trails off, I ask about the recent subway bombings in Moscow, which they both agree were "probably" an inside job. "I can't be sure," says Zakayev. "But why would we want to do this? It is bad for our cause. What I can tell you is that the 1999 apartment bombings [that precipitated the second Chechan War] were 100 percent an FSB job."

Bukovsky nodded in agreement. And talk turned, at my behest, to their mutual friend Sasha Litvinenko, the ex-FSB agent murdered via a substantial dose of polonium. Zekayev had delayed his arrival at the hotel until Medvedev and his entourage had gone; considering that the Kremlin counts him as one of the country's most wanted terrorists, this was probably a sensible decision. The previous evening I ran into another Russian dissident complaining that her room had been ransacked and, earlier in the day, a USB drive full of sensitive information lifted from her bag.

Though the Oslo Freedom Forum was inaugurated 20 years after communism collapsed, I leave distressed, having spoken with victims of Chavista land grabs and media censorship and veterans of Castro's diminished but still functioning gulag; having seen the reformed KGB skulking around the Grand Hotel; hearing heart-rending stories of imprisonment, human trafficking, and torture. But as the conference closes, Thor Halvorssen, the indefatigable activist responsible for the Oslo Freedom Forum, announces his intention to start smaller, localized forums in Stockholm, Taiwan, San Francisco, and elsewhere. But for now, in the post-Cold War world, the capital of human rights has moved the short distance from Helsinki to Oslo.

Michael C. Moynihan is a senior editor of Reason magazine.