Russian dissident Vladimir Bukovsky at a press conference after his release from prison and expulsion from the Soviet Union, Zurich, 1976

Keystone Press/Alamy

Russian dissident Vladimir Bukovsky at a press conference after his release from prison and expulsion from the Soviet Union, Zurich, December 1976

Vladimir Bukovsky, who gained world renown as a leader of the Soviet human rights movement, died of congestive heart failure in Britain on October 27, but his legacy lives on. His book Judgment in Moscow—published in Russian, French, and German more than twenty years ago and now appearing in English for the first time—is an eye-opening account of the ways in which the post-Stalin Communist Party leadership responded to the challenges it faced at home and abroad. Bukovsky expertly analyzes secret documents copied from the Soviet archives to show how the decaying Kremlin regime cynically used coercive psychiatry and incarceration in labor camps to suppress dissent, while pursuing highly effective “active measures” against the West to further its aggressive foreign agenda. The book also tells the story of Bukovsky’s personal struggle against the arbitrary lawlessness of the Soviet system, and later against the Communist bureaucrats and former KGB officials who remained in Boris Yeltsin’s government after the August 1991 coup.

Judgment in Moscow offers a forceful reminder of the destructive power of authoritarian rule, while shedding important light on the nature of Putin’s Russia. Although Bukovsky, in his impatience with those who disagree with his interpretations, sometimes ignores the other side of the story—such as the threat of nuclear war that hung over the West when its leaders so enthusiastically embraced Gorbachev—the documents he presents speak for themselves. This is not dispassionate historical analysis. Bukovsky’s uncompromising views should be seen as a cri de coeur from someone who devoted much of his life to fighting political tyranny.

Bukovsky, who was born in 1942 and grew up in Moscow, always had a strong belief in the power of an individual to be an effective instrument of political change.1 He became a rebel at a young age. In his 1978 memoir To Build a Castle, he recalls that, when he was ten years old, he resigned as class leader of the Young Pioneers (a mass Communist organization for children) after being forced to give a dressing-down to a classmate, whom he had reduced to tears. Four years later, he refused to join the Komsomol, the Communist youth league.2

In the spring of 1963, when Bukovsky was twenty, he was arrested for reproducing copies of anti-Soviet literature. (He had been studying biology at Moscow University, but was expelled in 1961 for writing critically about the Komsomol.) After being forced to undergo a psychiatric examination, he spent almost two years in various psikhushki, or psychiatric hospitals, which had become the KGB’s preferred alternative to traditional incarceration for political offenders. As further arrests followed, Bukovsky galvanized dissident writers and activists to protest against the Soviet government. Altogether he spent twelve years in prisons, labor camps, and psychiatric institutions before he was finally expelled from the Soviet Union in 1976, and exchanged, in handcuffs at the Zurich airport, for the imprisoned Chilean Communist leader Luis Corvalán. (Bukovsky would later quip, “Why, when you came to think of it, should we [dissidents] be the ones to leave? Let Brezhnev and company emigrate.”3)

Bukovsky was an early promoter of public demonstrations rather than unlawful underground activity, and he cautioned protesters against violations of public order. His strategy was straightforward: he confronted his accusers with the actual written law. In To Build a Castle, he describes how he prepared an hour-and-a-half speech for his 1967 trial on charges of organizing an illegal demonstration: “I…made a detailed study of the Procedural Code and thought out all the legal moves that would enable me to conduct the trial the way I wanted it.” At the trial, he recalled, “I shook my three-kopeck Constitution under the prosecution counsel’s nose, launched thunderbolt after thunderbolt, and just before the end, said that the first thing I would do after my release would be to stage another demonstration.” Bukovsky got three years in a labor camp.

Bukovsky deserves much of the credit for drawing attention to the Soviet abuse of psychiatry, which Alexander Solzhenitsyn called “the Soviet version of gas chambers.” In 1971 he smuggled out a letter to Western psychiatrists, accompanied by supporting documents, revealing that several dissidents had been forcibly confined in psychiatric hospitals. The letter, published in the Times of London in March 1971, caused an outcry among the world psychiatric community. It also led to Bukovsky’s immediate arrest and subsequent conviction in January 1972 for slandering Soviet psychiatry.4

Contrary to what Soviet authorities may have hoped, Bukovsky continued his active resistance to the regime following his move to Cambridge, England, in 1976. After Mikhail Gorbachev was elected general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party (CPSU) in 1985, Bukovsky focused his energies on disabusing Western governments of their enthusiasm for the new leader. Gorbachev embarked on a plan—much praised in the West—to address his country’s severe and potentially destabilizing economic decline by introducing limited free-market policies, freedom of expression, and multicandidate elections at the local and regional levels. But Bukovsky was convinced that Gorbachev was using the reforms, referred to as perestroika and glasnost, only as safety valves to stave off the formation of truly independent political forces, rather than as a prelude to full-fledged democracy.


Bukovsky returned to his homeland after fifteen years of exile in April 1991, on the eve of the Soviet collapse. He was discouraged to find that, although the majority of the country was “ready to throw the regime out,” the new elite, those “new ‘democrats’ that grew up under perestroika,” were not. At a session of the parliament of the Russian Republic, which in 1990 had declared sovereignty within the Soviet Union, Bukovsky took the stand to urge a confrontation with the regime by means of a general strike. But his audience was only in the mood for compromise.

After Boris Yeltsin and his supporters successfully thwarted an attempt by hard-liners to impose martial law in August 1991, Bukovsky went back to Moscow, intending to do research in the newly opened archives of the CPSU Central Committee. He found, however, that “the administrators of the archive were in no hurry to lay bare its mysteries,” especially after Yeltsin signed a decree in early 1992 reinstating the secrecy regulations of the Soviet period. Bukovsky was denied access to all significant archival files, including even those involving his personal history.

Later that year, a brief window of opportunity opened up. Bukovsky was asked to be an expert witness at the upcoming trial of the Communist Party in the new Constitutional Court, and he demanded access to the archives in return for his participation. Using a hand-held scanner, he copied thousands of top-secret party and KGB files, selections of which are reproduced in his book. (Several years later, a Moscow researcher by the name of Pavel Stroilov copied over 50,000 pages from secret documents in the Gorbachev Foundation archive, which are drawn upon in the updated final chapter of the book’s English edition.) Although Bukovsky’s scanned documents were subsequently made available on the Bukovsky Archive website, only around a third of the files have been translated into English.5

Bukovsky’s first goal was to uncover information on the abuse of psychiatry. One document he found was particularly revealing: a December 1969 report from the KGB in the Krasnodar region, forwarded to the Politburo by then KGB chairman Yuri Andropov, stated that there were 55,800 mentally ill persons in Krasnodar. (It described the “criminal, politically harmful intentions” of these individuals, and detailed their unwelcome activities, from attempts to escape abroad to drafts of slanderous, anti-Soviet letters.) The report claimed that approximately 11,000–12,000 people from Krasnodar alone required psychiatric hospitalization. At the top of the document, Chairman Andropov noted that the situation was similar elsewhere.

Bukovsky did the math: the USSR was composed of around a hundred regions and districts, which indicated that the KGB might well consider over a million people in need of psychiatric hospitalization—and that, as Bukovsky put it, “there was good reason for the creation of a psychiatric gulag.” Owing to the subsequent global campaign against Soviet psychiatric abuse, Andropov eventually abandoned his plans for significantly expanding the numbers of political prisoners in psychiatric institutions. The abuse, however, continued into the 1980s.

Bukovsky’s documents also reveal the depth and scope of the Kremlin’s ambitious “active measures,” or political warfare, against the West, including vigorous support for the international Communist movement. From 1969 until the Soviet collapse, Bukovsky writes, Moscow gave what would today be billions of dollars to Communist parties abroad, through the “International Fund to Aid Left-Wing Workers’ Organizations.” And in the decade from 1979 to 1989, more than five hundred leading Communists from various countries received “special training” in the USSR. The Kremlin also supplied weapons and military equipment to Communists in places such as El Salvador and Nicaragua, at times working to stoke conflict. In Palestine, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Palestine Liberation Organization used “special equipment” provided by Moscow for terrorist operations. The Kremlin’s support for Communist movements worldwide is well known, but the numbers presented in Judgment in Moscow give a clear idea of the extent of the Soviet commitment, which was also a drain on the state budget.

Of course, the Soviets did not miss a chance to stir up trouble for their main adversary, the United States. In an April 1970 message to the CPSU Central Committee, Andropov noted:

Because the rise of negro protest in the USA will bring definite difficulties to the ruling classes of the USA and will distract the attention of the Nixon administration from pursuing an active foreign policy, we would consider it feasible to implement a number of measures to support this movement.

He went on to outline an extensive plan to spread propaganda claiming that the US government was committing genocide against African-Americans.6 Almost fifty years later, the Kremlin would be up to the same tricks, employing an army of trolls and hackers from the so-called Internet Research Agency to spread disinformation and incite racial ferment with the goal of influencing the 2016 US presidential election.


Vladimir Putin’s tendency to blame the West—for this past summer’s street protests in Moscow, for example, and for those that began in 2011—echoes the Soviet leadership’s view of dissidents decades ago. Bukovsky uncovered a letter sent in March 1977 by the Politburo to Communist parties worldwide in which it was noted that, when active opponents of the regime began to emerge in the mid-1960s,

their demands coincided with Western demands…. Numerous facts indicate that this is not by chance, that in most cases the so-called fighters for the perfecting of socialism receive materials with slanderous claims from abroad—from bourgeois special services.

(However, the Politburo was not just being paranoid. According to a declassified US National Security Council memorandum dated December 9, 1969, “CIA sponsors a covert action program which supports media and contact activities aimed at stimulating and sustaining pressures for liberalization and evolutionary change from within the Soviet Union.”7)

Though Soviet leaders viewed the dissident movement in their country as a phenomenon that had little to do with their own governance, they were obsessed with how their actions toward dissidents would be perceived internationally. With their ambitious goals of spreading communism throughout the world, they needed to protect their image. Bukovsky reproduces minutes of a prolonged, almost comical Politburo discussion in early 1974 on the fate of Solzhenitsyn, whose epic book The Gulag Archipelago was about to be published in the West. Leonid Brezhnev, the general secretary, said, “This hooligan Solzhenitsyn is still swaggering around. He does not care about anything, takes nothing into account. What should we do with him?” Andropov, after complaining that he had “been raising the matter of Solzhenitsyn since 1965,” proposed expelling him from the country. But others, including Prime Minister Aleksei Kosygin, leaned toward arrest: “We should try Solzhenitsyn and disclose everything about him, then he could be exiled to Verkhoyansk [a town near the Arctic Circle]. No foreign correspondents will go there: it’s very cold.” Nikolai Podgorny, chairman of the Supreme Soviet Presidium, expressed frustration:

In many countries such as China people are executed openly; the fascist regime in Chile shoots and tortures people; the English in Ireland carry out repressions of the working people, while we have to deal with an arrogant foe and simply walk by when one and all sling mud at us.

In the end, Andropov prevailed; Solzhenitsyn was expelled to West Germany later that year. He moved to the United States in 1976.

In contrast to the Kremlin’s largely futile efforts to avoid Western condemnation for human rights abuses, the Soviet peace campaign, centered on nuclear disarmament, was highly effective in manipulating international opinion. The campaign was motivated by Moscow’s concerns about US plans to deploy Pershing II ballistic missiles and ground-launched cruise missiles in Europe, an escalation of the arms race that would put a huge strain on the Soviet budget. In May 1976 the Central Committee adopted a resolution outlining plans for “the creation of a broad social foundation of support for Soviet initiatives in the field of halting the arms race.” As Bukovsky’s documents show, the campaign, which began in earnest in the late 1970s and continued through the early 1980s, was directed by the party’s International Department, operating through the World Peace Council, headquartered in Finland, and the Soviet Peace Fund, which bankrolled the operation. (Every Soviet citizen was required to contribute to the fund.) In Bukovsky’s words, “This was a gigantic machine that worked without stopping, simply mutating depending on the requirements of the moment.” Not surprisingly, as the US State Department complained in 1983, the peace organizations and their publications tended to emphasize aggression by the US and its NATO allies while ignoring the USSR’s bellicosity.8

The campaign culminated in December 1983, with millions of protesters throughout Europe, most of whom were unaware of the Soviet sponsorship, demonstrating against US arms. Bukovsky is stupefied by the numbers, and emphasizes the hypocrisy of the protesters: “Protest—against what? Against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan? Against the already-deployed Soviet SS-20 medium-range missiles? No, against NATO’s intention to deploy its Pershing cruise missiles in Europe.” However nefarious Soviet motives were, the peace movement did lead the USSR and the US to sign the pathbreaking 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which eliminated thousands of medium-range missiles in Europe. (The Trump administration recently withdrew from the treaty, on the grounds that Russia was violating it when it began secretly developing a new cruise missile a few years ago.)

In the meantime, the Polish crisis of 1980 was posing a huge challenge for the peace movement and indeed for the very survival of the Soviet bloc. In late October of that year, the Politburo discussed the developments in Poland, where discontent over the country’s severe economic decline led to a wave of strikes, with workers occupying the Gdańsk shipyards. “There is really a counterrevolution in full swing in Poland,” Brezhnev lamented. “How can this be?” Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko chimed in: “We cannot lose Poland. In the fight against Hitler the Soviet Union lost 600 thousand of its soldiers and officers to liberate Poland, and we cannot allow a counterrevolution.”

The crisis deepened as the Solidarity trade union movement grew and made political demands. Soviet Politburo members became increasingly alarmed over the inability of Polish Communist leaders Wojciech Jaruzelski and Stanisław Kania to deal with the unrest. Andropov gloomily reported to the Politburo in early April 1981 that “Jaruzelski has crumbled completely under pressure from Solidarity, and Kania has started drinking more and more lately. It’s a sad situation.” A few days later Andropov and Minister of Defense Dmitri Ustinov had a secret meeting with the two Polish leaders, and urged them to declare a state of emergency, to no avail.

The documents reveal a complex interplay of pressure on the Polish Communist leadership and anxious waiting in Moscow. Although forty-four Soviet military divisions were brought to the border, Brezhnev and his colleagues, it turns out, never intended to send Soviet troops into Poland. The threat was a bluff, and it worked: in December 1981 Jaruzelski finally declared martial law. Bukovsky observes that “the Soviet leaders were first-class chess players…. The ability to make a situation they created seem like the lesser evil was something the Soviet regime had developed into a fine art.” But although the Soviets understood that Poland’s faltering economy had sparked the labor unrest, they seemed incapable of drawing the larger conclusion from the emergence of Solidarity—that Soviet-style socialism was not compatible with economic prosperity. It should not surprise us that the Politburo was caught off guard when its empire began to crumble from within.

Bukovsky makes the important point that, contrary to most Western assumptions, the Soviet Politburo was not divided between hard-liners and liberals but generally united in its approach to both domestic and international problems. (So much, he writes, for the “hordes of charlatan-Sovietologists and so-called Kremlinologists” who “made their careers on contrived reasoning as to who was a ‘hawk’ and who was a ‘dove’ in the Kremlin.”) He ridicules the widely held view that Andropov and his protégé Gorbachev were liberals who advocated for a fundamental reform of the Soviet system.

The documents Bukovsky includes in his book reinforce his claim that Gorbachev intended his reforms—which even the KGB considered necessary—only as expedient measures to maintain the leadership’s grip on power. Contrary to what most Western experts have assumed, when perestroika and glasnost got out of hand, and harsh measures were called for, Gorbachev was always at the helm. Bukovsky shows that Gorbachev was kept informed of all that transpired, down to minute details: “Virtually everything landed on his desk: from economic problems in the regions, the state of affairs in individual party organizations to international events.”

While Gorbachev, to his credit, introduced perestroika to address his country’s faltering economy, his response to the simmering unrest in the non-Russian republics was to clamp down. On April 9, 1989, Soviet troops opened fire on protesters in Tbilisi, Georgia, killing twenty-one and wounding many others. Two days later, Gorbachev said to the leader of Germany’s Social Democratic Party, Hans-Jochen Vogel:

You have heard about the events in Georgia. There was an organized outing of committed anti-Soviets…. They speculate on democratic processes, inflame passions, and flaunt provocative slogans up to demanding the entry of NATO forces on the republic’s territory. You have to put people in their place, actively counter these political adventurers, protect perestroika—our revolution.

Gorbachev’s part in the Tbilisi affair has been debated for years, but this statement seems to refute his subsequent claims that he knew nothing about plans to employ troops against civilians there, or that he at least disapproved of the assault.9 On October 4 of the same year, after having been told that three thousand people had been killed in June in the protests on Tiananmen Square, Gorbachev responded to the Politburo, “You have to be realists. They [the Chinese leadership] also have to hang on, just as we do. Three thousand…. So what?”

The next year brought a crackdown in Baku, Azerbaijan. On January 19, 1990, Soviet troops entered the city, on Gorbachev’s orders, to quell the growing public unrest and suppress demands for independence from Moscow. More than two hundred people were killed and thousands arrested. Bukovsky cites an entry in the diary of Politburo member Vadim Medvedev, describing the leadership’s preparations for declaring a state of emergency and sending in troops.10

When the Soviet Union further unraveled, Gorbachev again appears to have seen the use of military force as his only option. On January 13, 1991, Soviet troops clashed with Lithuanian protesters outside the television tower in Vilnius, killing thirteen civilians. Gorbachev’s foreign policy adviser Anatoly Chernayev noted in his diary that two days earlier Gorbachev had spoken with President George Bush: “On the topic of Lithuania, Gorbachev lied like a trooper and promised to avoid the use of force.” Chernayev went on:

In the press, on the radio at home and in the West, there are guesses: was the Vilnius action undertaken with Gorbachev’s knowledge, or has he lost total control over everything in the country?… I am also riven by doubts. But I suspect that Gorbachev, maybe even subconsciously, wanted something like this to happen.11

As for the August 1991 coup attempt, Bukovsky discovered that the most important documents on this episode have been destroyed, but he insists that

all the legends about a ‘conspiracy’ against [Gorbachev] by ‘conservatives’ and ‘reactionaries’ are nothing more than a continuation of disinformation about the ‘struggle between reformers and conservatives’ in the leadership which, as we see, never existed.

Bukovsky argues that the records of the deliberations of the party leadership make clear that no agency, including the KGB and the military, would have dared take any such action without Gorbachev’s approval. Preparations for the implementation of martial law had been going on for months under Gorbachev’s direct leadership; Bukovsky suggests that although he backed out at the last moment, he had fully intended to return to Moscow and take up the reins of power if the plan succeeded. It is worth adding that, as I mentioned in a 2012 article about the coup, Yeltsin himself said publicly, in 2006, “He [Gorbachev] knew about the coup from the very beginning. There is documentary proof…. He was informed and waited the whole time [to see] who would win.”12

Bukovsky is highly critical—in my view unfairly—of Margaret Thatcher (whom he on occasion advised), Ronald Reagan, and Bush, who admired and supported Gorbachev. He recalls scornfully of Thatcher that “at the mention of Gorbachev’s name she would only say with a proud toss of her head, as a mother would about her child: ‘Isn’t he marvelous?’” The West’s support of Gorbachev and his reforms contributed, in Bukovsky’s view, to the failure of a real democratic revolution in the USSR. But were there really, as Bukovsky claims, “dozens and hundreds of millions behind the iron curtain” who would have allied with the West in defeating communism if it had chosen to support Soviet dissidents instead of Gorbachev? Was it so misguided to see Gorbachev’s reforms, however flawed, as heading in the right direction?

As one critic of Judgment in Moscow observed, Bukovsky all but ignores the threat of nuclear conflict that Gorbachev’s perestroika did so much to diminish.13 If Bukovsky is looking for someone to blame, perhaps it should be Yeltsin, whom he lets off lightly in comparison to Gorbachev. Having outmaneuvered Gorbachev in the events leading up to the dissolution of the USSR, Yeltsin presided over a resurgence of the security services after the KGB was disbanded in the fall of 1991, and allowed a new class of gangster capitalists to become vastly wealthy at the expense of ordinary Russians.

Judgment in Moscow was bought by Random House in 1995, but was not published because Bukovsky objected to changes that were recommended by the editor, Jason Epstein. Epstein was concerned, among other things, about Bukovsky’s strident rhetoric and his suggestions that several prominent Americans were unpatriotic. Although editorial suggestions are part of the publishing process, Bukovsky considered these to be “political censorship.” It is regrettable that the English publication was therefore delayed until a small California publishing house, Ninth of November Press, courageously stepped in. But Bukovsky’s intransigence should be understood in light of his experiences with the Soviet legal system, the aim of which was to destroy individual autonomy by forcing its prisoners to compromise with the authorities.14

Another of the editor’s objections was Bukovsky’s assertion that the West did not win the cold war, which did seem far-fetched at the time. Today, however, Bukovsky’s insistence that the perpetrators of the crimes of communism were not defeated in Russia hardly seems unreasonable. As Russian economist Andrei Illarionov observed last summer:

Among the victors in August 1991, those who then achieved power at the highest state level, and hold it in their hands to this day (the president, prime minister, heads of both houses of parliament, heads of courts), there is not a single person who has not been a member of the Soviet Communist Party or a special services [KGB] officer.15

If the West really was victorious in the cold war, then why are we again facing a belligerent Kremlin that is interfering in our democratic elections and rebuilding its nuclear arsenal? Why did we witness last summer’s shocking police brutality against peaceful Moscow street protesters, along with widespread arrests and subsequent prosecutions, which suggest an intolerance for dissent that rivals, or even surpasses, that of the Soviet era?

Bukovsky, who had urged Yeltsin to confront the crimes of communism head-on, with Nuremberg-style trials and some form of reparations, expresses in the book his bitter disappointment with the outcome of the 1991 Soviet collapse:

For Russia, the result was a shoddy tragicomedy in which former second-rate party bosses and KGB generals played the part of leading democrats and saviors of the country from communism…. It is incredibly hard to come to terms with the thought that your whole life was lived in vain, and that all the efforts and sacrifices were meaningless.

Not surprisingly, Bukovsky later was harshly critical of Putin, and was even encouraged by democratic oppositionists to run in the Russian presidential elections in 2008. But he was denied a place on the ballot on the grounds that he had not been living in Russia for the previous ten years. After Russian authorities refused to renew his passport in 2014, he never returned to his homeland.

Perhaps Bukovsky—a pioneer of peaceful protests—took heart from the fact that his countrymen were following his courageous example in their defiant response to the Putin regime. As Ukrainian journalist Matvey Ganapolsky noted upon Bukovsky’s death, “He didn’t wait for Putin’s departure. But others will witness it, and will remember Bukovsky.”16