Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Review: To Build a Castle

To Build a Castle
From To Build a Castle: My Life as a Dissenter, by Vladimir Bukovsky:
Open quote 

Only greenhorns, when they come in for their first stretch, look forward to their release and count the days. Life outside appears to them as some bright, sunny, unattainable shore. But I was in for the fourth time, I knew that there is nothing more disillusioning in life than to be released from jail. I also knew that I had never managed to last longer than a single damned year outside — and never would. Because the reasons that had landed me in jail in the first place would land me there again and again. These reasons were immutable, just as Soviet life itself was immutable, just as you yourself could never change."

This 1979 book is a memoir of one man's run-ins with the KGB, prisons, work camps, and the mental hospitals used to suppress dissent in the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s. Given the state of affairs today, I thought it would be a good time to research this earlier time, suddenly relevant again, closer to home.

Grade: C+

This memoir of life in the maw of the repressive Soviet system is worthwhile on two levels. First is the description of day-to-day life in Soviet prisons, work camps and mental hospitals during the Brezhnev era. It was, in a word, hard. Crowded barracks, inadequate food, untreated diseases, dangerous cellmates, brutal working conditions, all are here.

But there are a few surprises. The Soviet system was bureaucratic and Bukovsky learned how to exploit the bureaucracy. He enlisted everyone in a barracks to file written complaints, each of which had to be individually responded to by someone in the system. Inquiries from higher up about the complaints drove camp officers mad. Surprisingly (to me), complaining sometimes led to relaxation of some offensive camp policies. There was also infighting between different schools of psychiatry in communist ideology that Bukovsky managed to exploit. Without agreement on an insanity diagnosis by the different doctors, Bukovsky would be sometimes be released.

What's more valuable than the account of life as a prisoner is Bukovsky's political philosophy. He came to believe that "you cannot achieve democracy by going underground. The underground produces only tyranny, only Bolsheviks of a different color." So he didn't join secret revolutionary societies; his dissent was public. He refused to cooperate with the Soviet system in any way. Offered the equivalent of plea bargains for his "crimes", he always refused. Even when offered the opportunity to emigrate to the West, he refused. Russia is my home, he'd answer. Let Brezhnev emigrate.

He advocated for the same response to Soviet tyranny by the West. He writes, "Thousands of books have been written in the West and hundreds of different doctrines created by the most prominent politicians to find a compromise with this kind of regime. They are all evading the only correct solution — moral opposition." Bukovsky's own moral opposition didn't depend on movements. It was personal.
'Why should I do it?' asks each man in the crowd. 'I can do nothing alone.' And they are all lost. 'If I don’t do it, who will?' asks the man with his back to the wall. And everyone is saved. That is how a man begins building his castle.
Bukovsky didn't bring down the Soviet Union. Eventually, he was forced to emigrate to the West where he wrote this memoir. The Soviet Union lasted a dozen years longer. But his life was an inspiration to others both inside and outside the Soviet Union. It ought to be an inspiration to us today. Don't compromise with evil. Don't normalize wrong-doing. Resist.

So why only a C+ grade? Bukovsky's first hand account of life inside the gulag is invaluable, but his understanding of the West is simplistic, understandable for a man who spent most of his adult life in and out of Soviet prisons. The book was written forty years ago. Over time, its grade necessarily depends more and more on its literary merit. It needed a heavy hand by an editor. The writing is clumsy. The narrative is disjointed. There are too many bad descriptions like, "I let him have a pile of obscenities about the size of a medium New York skyscraper." Less of that, please, and more music like...
The wheels clack, the carriage jolts over the points, the women sing sorrowfully, while the guards walk up and down the corridor, peering in at the cons. 'To the e-e-e-east,' wails the locomotive. Where are they shipping us? To Komi, Tyumen, Kirov, or Perm? What difference does it make? The trains going west are empty. There is no point in taking us west.

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