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ROBERT MacNEIL: Good evening. Tonight Jim Lehrer and I are both in Washington. The Soviet Union has begun to react irritably to President Carter`s outspoken support for Soviet dissidents. Carter was mildly criticized for his recent letter to Andre Sakharov, the dissident leader who holds the Nobel Prize. Now the Soviet press has jumped on the President for his meeting in the White House on Tuesday with the young dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, who was expelled from the Soviet Union last December. The question many observers are asking is whether Mr. Carter`s frank sympathy with the dissidents will help the cause of human rights in the more rigid communist nations or cause more repression. Tonight we have Vladimir Bukovsky with us.
JIM LEHRER: Robin, Mr. Bukovsky is in the United States now as the invited guest of AF of L-CIO president George Meany. He is thirty-four years old; he has spent eleven of those years, a third of his life, in Soviet prisons, work camps and psychiatric hospitals. He became the leader and one of the key international symbols of the dissident movement within the Soviet Union. On December 18 of last year he was released and exiled to the West in a swap for Luis Corvalan Lepe, chief of the Communist Party in Chile. The important thing to keep in mind is that two and a half months ago today he was in a cell in Vladimir Prison north of Moscow. Dr. Yuri Olkhovsky, chairman of the Slavic Languages Department of George Washington University here in Washington, will act as an interpreter. Mr. Bukovsky, what were your crimes that led to your many arrests and confinements?
VLADIMIR BUKOVSKY/Dr. YURI OLKHOVSKY: Usually the Soviet leaders and the Soviet authorities keep emphasizing that no one in the Soviet Union is ever persecuted for one`s political opinions, one`s views. In our country, they maintain, people are punished only for their political activities. What they mean by the activities, besides everything else, also means an expression of one`s views. And so by Soviet practices, by Soviet laws, a person could have political views, of course. But there is no way he can express them. And when you`re asked, "What are your political views," you`re faced with a challenge. You can do one of two things; namely, you can lie or you can act and therefore be persecuted. This, of course, totally contradicts Article 19 of the Human Rights Declaration of the United Nations, which maintains that one is entitled to have one`s opinions and one is entitled to express them. And these two concepts are not divisible.
LEHRER: Is that what the Soviet authorities say you did, was just express a view that was counter to the government position? Is that all you were charged with doing?
BUKOVSKY/OLKHOVSKY: Every time I was in trouble, every time I was incarcerated, and every time I was charged with Article 70, which is distorting propaganda, in the meantime what I was doing was expressing my opinions..
MacNEIL: The first time you were arrested, I believe, it was merely for possessing, when they searched your house, a copy of a book, The New Class, by Milovan Djilas. They merely found that book, which was circulating in other communist countries at the time, in your place, is that correct?
BUKOVSKY/OLKHOVSKY: This was exactly so, and this was officially viewed as keeping with the aim of distribution of anticommunist propaganda and literature.
MacNEIL: One of the methods of imprisoning you -- the novel method that Soviet authorities have introduced was to confine you in psychiatric wards in various hospitals for two periods. You spent a total of twenty-seven months, I believe, in such wards. Can you describe to us -- because that seems so extremely strange -- can you describe to us what that is like, what they do to you and how you were treated when you`re confined as a political prisoner in a psychiatric ward?
BUKOVSKY/OLKHOVSKY: It appears to me that to really get the point across exactly how a political prisoner is treated in a psychiatric ward is just a little bit too involved. I hope that one of these days I`ll be able to write a book where I`ll be able to spell out all the details concerning this. But I would just point out some of the most important things when one is in such an institution. The first is the torture by time. What I mean to say is this: that when a prisoner is incarcerated he sees the end -he sees the light somewhere at the end of the tunnel.
MacNEIL: If he`s been given a fixed sentence.
BUKOVSKY/OLKHOVSKY: Correct. Whereas in the psychiatric ward he does not see the end; there is no end. Presumably what happens is that when a political prisoner is put in a psychiatric hospital it is maintained that he must remain there until that time when he is completely and totally cured. The usual criterion for becoming well in a psychiatric hospital is that one must simply renounce one`s views; and having renounced one`s views, is usually proclaimed as well. And for that reason, to achieve this end, various means are used -- medical or otherwise. And if the prisoner continues to refuse to be corrected, to renounce his views, then every conceivable type of pressure is applied to him. As I said, medical, psychiatric -- you name it.
MacNEIL: We should explain to the audience that Dr. Bukovsky understands English very well and speaks it but prefers to speak Russian because it`s a great strain to him to speak English; but he understands the questions and everything perfectly well. Are you confined with people who are really mentally ill, and is that part of the process?
BUKOVSKY/OLKHOVSKY: The normal practice in psychiatric hospitals is to keep both the political prisoners and the really insane people together. When in the sixties I was in one of the Leningrad`s psychiatric hospitals, in this particular hospital there were over one thousand people. Approximately twenty percent of these were what you call normal people -- political prisoners. And the remainder of the people were criminals, murderers, rapists and what have you.
MacNEIL: Do you begin to doubt your own sanity in a situation like that?
BUKOVSKY/OLKHOVSKY: Yes, I`ve come across people like that. For instance, in 1964 there was one of the inmates who was a psychiatrist himself. And he was arrested for political activity; and that was a political prisoner who began to doubt that he was remaining normal.
LEHRER: You also spent an awful lot of time in various work camps. How did the life there compare with the life in the psychiatric hospitals?
BUKOVSKY/OLKHOVSKY: This topic, too, is an extremely involved one which doesn`t lend itself to an easy explanation, and I hope, again, to describe this also in my book some day to make the picture clear. I take it for granted that you`ve read Solzhenitsyn`s Gulag Archipelago.
MacNEIL: Yes.
LEHRER: Um-hum.
BUKOVSKY/OLKHOVSKY: What I can tell you is the differences which have taken place between the system which existed in the days when Solzhenitsyn was in camps as opposed to the system which exists today. In the days of Solzhenitsyn in the camps at the time, thousands upon thousands of people were simply destroyed, annihilated regardless of what their political persuasions were. The penitentiary system in the Soviet Union these days has become much more sophisticated, much more subtle. Nowadays the punishment which one is meted out -- the degree of this punishment depends on the depth of one`s political convictions. The stronger the political prisoner`s opinions are, the harsher the punishment he receives.
LEHRER: Can you give us an example of what you would consider harsh punishment for a person with deep views -- deep bad views, in the Soviet version?
BUKOVSKY/OLKHOVSKY: Perhaps the most widely practiced way of punishing one is punishing one through hunger. There is an instruction issued by the Ministry of Internal Affairs which describes in great detail; there is stages of punishing one by hunger. And depending on one`s convictions, again, depending on one`s stubbornness, let`s say, one is punished by this instruction, applying various degrees of punishment, various degrees of hunger to this political prisoner.
MacNEIL: To the point where one could starve to death or die from malnutrition?
BUKOVSKY/OLKHOVSKY: The harshest of these various ways of punishing one through hunger is putting one in a solitary cell and keeping one hungry at the same time. The prisoner who is in such a confinement is fed only every other day.
LEHRER: Was this ever done to you, Sir?
BUKOVSKY: Of course. And many times.
MacNEIL: Who is still in the camps that you were in and in these psychiatric wards -- how many people who could be roughly called dissidents? Do you have any idea of how many and what their conditions are?
BUKOVSKY/OLKHOVSKY: This is an extremely difficult question to answer because not only are there camps for so-called "especially politically dangerous" prisoners, but many political prisoners are simply put in the camps together with the common criminals. This especially applies to those who are persecuted for their religious convictions.
LEHRER: What is the overall aim of the dissident movement in Soviet Russia? Is it to overthrow the government, to change the government, do away with communism, or what?
BUKOVSKY: Oh, no. You know, we are not politicians, and we have not any aim, any goal to force on Soviet people, any cut and-dried political model, political system. All we have to do, all we should like to do is to help our people to express their views because they have been deprived of such possibility during sixty years.
LEHRER: Are you a communist? Do you still consider yourself a communist?
BUKOVSKY: Oh, never. I`ve never been a communist, never been a member of any communistic organization in the Soviet Union.
MacNEIL: So it is freedom of expression that you are striving for.
BUKOVSKY: Freedom of expression, freedom to help people to express their view, their opinion, their plan, their wishes. It is forbidden completely in the Soviet Union if your views or opinions are different from official communistic doctrine of the Soviet Union.
MacNEIL: What is the importance of your meeting with President Carter the other day?
BUKOVSKY: You know, after this meeting I made a special statement for press what was my impression was the significance of such a meeting. And I suppose we can read it, because all the same I distributed it to press, to newspapers.
MacNEIL: All right, why don`t you read it?
OLKHOVSKY: Shall I read it out loud?
MacNEIL: Sure.
OLKHOVSKY: This is a statement by Vladimir Bukovsky which was issued yesterday.
"As you know, yesterday I was received at the White House by the President and Vice President of the United States. My friends, both in the U.S.S.R. and in exile, as well as I personally, consider this meeting to be an event of considerable historical significance. In this way the American people in the person of its President has expressed its moral support for the movement for human rights in the U.S.S.R., which defends the same principles and values that are dear to the hearts of the American people. My meeting with the President and Vice President was extremely cordial. It left me with the impression that our problems are understood and that both the President and Vice President are well-informed on the subject.
I am deeply satisfied by the President`s statement that his administration`s commitment to human rights is permanent, and that he does not intend to be timid in his public statements and positions.
I really believe that President Carter will go down in history as one of the greatest American presidents if the people of the United States give him their full support in his defense of human rights in the Soviet Union, the Eastern European countries and in the whole world."
LEHRER: Do you feel that your visit with the President and the Vice President is going to immediately or eventually change the lives of those people who are still back in Soviet Russia in various camps and psychiatric wards?
BUKOVSKY/OLKHOVSKY: In my opinion, the initial reaction of the Soviet authorities to the position taken now by the new administration of course will be very severe, very harsh. Soviet authorities will make every effort to make one believe that they`re totally insensitive to the statements which have been made by the State Department, by the White House and by the public opinion in the United States. And to demonstrate this very fact of course they can resort to all kinds of harsh measures. But if this new policy of the United States will remain consistent and persistent -- and only after the Soviets are convinced that this indeed will remain so -- only then will they be faced with new realities, and believe me, they`ll face these new realities.
MacNEIL: You said that the initial reaction could be harsh, and certainly the rhetoric sounds that way coming from, for instance, the Soviet News Agency Tass today. Could it make life worse -- harsher -- for your friends whom you`ve left behind in those prisons?
BUKOVSKY/OLKHOVSKY: As I`ve explained a minute ago, yes, of course the harsh treatment would be most likely apparent on all levels. But only as long as the Soviet leaders believe that this policy on the part of the United States is just a modish policy, just temporary, it`s not going to stay here.
MaCNEIL: Could I just ask one more question on that? You were singular, to an extent, in your willingness to sacrifice your youth and your liberty by in a sense almost inviting this sort of treatment of yourself -- I mean, you deliberately went and took part in demonstrations and handing out leaflets and so on. Are the other political prisoners as willing as you are to make that sacrifice, or if they could get out would they be happy to?
BUKOVSKY/OLKHOVSKY: -I wouldn`t call it necessarily a sacrifice. What I would aim to do is fulfill the rights and obligations, perhaps -- certainly the rights that were given to us by the same Soviet authorities who have through their legislation made it possible for us to fulfill these rights.
LEHRER: Is it also a danger, Mr. Bukovsky, that the statements by President Carter, his seeing you at the White House and all of this, could engender false hopes on the part of many of the people, not only in the Soviet Union but in other Eastern European countries and actually cause them to do something that might get them even in worse trouble than they`re in now, a la Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and so on?
BUKOVSKY/OLKHOVOSKY: I firmly believe that a consistent policy in this regard will bring fruitful results in the long run, as was indicated in the letter of Garbus from Sakharov.
MaCNEIL: The Soviet authorities, when they comment on you in private to journalists in Moscow or in public statements, say "Why do you pay attention to these people? They`re so few; they`re not significant." Tell me, what do the ordinary Russian people, the millions and tens of millions of Russian people, know of you dissidents?
BUKOVSKY/OLKHOVSKY: I am sure that a lot of millions are aware of the movement and hundreds of thousands participate in the movement for human rights in the Soviet Union. The basic source of information which the people in the Soviet Union -dissidents -- use is the Russian broadcast beamed to the Soviet Union from western countries. I`m speaking of such radio stations as the Voice of America, Radio Liberty, British Broadcasting Corporation as well as Deutsche Welle.
LEHRER: But I noticed in the Soviet dispatches, like from Tass and so on, they said that you did see President Carter, and yet they very clearly labeled you a criminal. How do the Russian people who would read that know, in fact, whether you`re a criminal or not?
BUKOVSKY/OLKHOVSKY: I don`t think anyone will be perturbed by this label in the Soviet Union because take again the Stalinist days when millions upon millions of people were labeled precisely as criminals; not only were they incarcerated but many of them simply were shot as common criminals.
LEHRER: So the word has no meaning.
BUKOVSKY/OLKHOVSKY: If it is, they were completely rehabilitated -- officially. Everyone in the Soviet Union is perfectly aware of this fact.
MacNEIL: When the writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn became too much of an irritant he was expelled from the Soviet Union. You have now been expelled. Your Soviet citizenship has been revoked, has it?
BUKOVSKY/OLKHOVSKY: No, I`m still a member of the Soviet Union.
MacNEIL: In the case of Solzhenitsyn it was. Anyway, could not expulsion of the most active dissidents become the ultimate solution for the Soviet authorities? They could get rid of you all in the West, where we could talk to you, but the Soviet people could not.
BUKOVSKY/OLKHOVSKY: If they pursue this policy they`ll be exiling the several leading dissidents; what will ultimately happen, they`ll end up shipping out of the Soviet Union over half of the country. Because our movement to a certain extent reminds one of an iceberg, and what people are aware of in the West is just the tip of this iceberg.
MacNEIL: But if the iceberg is so big, why do we see only the very tip of it? Why, for instance, when you were arrested in Mayakovsky Square for handing out leaflets in defense of Daniel and Sinyavsky, why weren`t there a hundred people there; why were there just a few of you -- or a thousand people?
BUKOVSKY/OLKHOVSKY: I think that the impression which we have here in the West that only a small part of the people actually participates actively in the movement is an impression that has been created by the western press, western correspondence.
MacNEIL: And it`s wrong?
BUKOVSKY/OLKHOVSKY: What the western press is aware of are the people whose names appear, so they say -- people who`ve been arrested, who`ve been put in psychiatric wards, or something happens to certain people and their names have become prominent therefore.
LEHRER: Solzhenitsyn says that he eventually wants to go back to the Soviet Union -- very much wants to, that that`s his home. Do you feel the same way? Do you want to go back eventually?
BUKOVSKY/OLKHOVSKY: I don`t feel that I`m an outsider here in the West, but I certainly don`t wish to exclude the possibility of returning home, either. I`m well aware that I can be of great benefit here in the West. But should I feel at some time that I could be of greater benefit within the Soviet Union, then I would immediately return.
MacNEIL: Thank you very much, Dr. Bukovsky, and Dr. Olkhovsky, for your translation. Jim Lehrer and I will be back tomorrow night. I`m Robert MacNeil. Good night.
The MacNeil/Lehrer Report
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Vladimir Bukovsky
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This episode of The MacNeil/Lehrer Report looks at a meeting between United States President Jimmy Carter and Vladimir Bukovsky, a Soviet Union dissident. Bukovsky sits down for an interview with Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer, talking about the meeting and his experience in the Soviet dissident movement.
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Chicago: “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; 2129; Vladimir Bukovsky,” 1977-03-03, NewsHour Productions, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed May 27, 2020,
MLA: “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; 2129; Vladimir Bukovsky.” 1977-03-03. NewsHour Productions, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. May 27, 2020. <>.
APA: The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; 2129; Vladimir Bukovsky. Boston, MA: NewsHour Productions, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from