When Vladimir Bukovsky was released from a Soviet prison in 1976 in an event that drew front-page headlines around the world, he was 33 years old and had already spent about a third of his life in captivity.
A dissident since his student days, he had attracted the ire of Soviet authorities — and the admiration of political leaders, human rights advocates, journalists and other supporters in the West — with his unstinting campaign to reveal abuses of communism.
Bukovsky, who died Oct. 27 in Cambridge, England, at 76, was what The New York Times once described as a “hero of almost legendary proportion among the Soviet dissident movement.”
He was most known for publicizing the Soviet practice of branding dissidents, himself among them, as mentally ill and incarcerating them in psychiatric hospitals that functioned effectively as prisons where detainees lacked even an illusion of legal recourse.
Even after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, while living in exile in Cambridge, he protested the suppression of basic freedoms in his homeland. Russian President Vladimir Putin, he said, was a “vengeful man, unpredictable and petty-minded.”
“Our society is still sick,” Bukovsky had declared at the height of his dissident activities in the 1970s. “It is sick with the fear that we inherited from the time of Stalin’s terror. But the process of society’s spiritual regeneration has already begun and there is no stopping it.”
An inveterate dissident, Bukovsky had displayed his independence since age 12, his mother once recalled to a correspondent for The Times, when he goaded a school principal into threatening, “We’re going to gather evidence against you, Bukovsky, and you’ll be expelled.”
He was expelled from his high school and then, in 1961, from Moscow University for publishing writings critical of the Soviet regime and its trappings. His other early offenses included organizing public readings of the works of writers such as Boris Pasternak, the Nobel Prize-winning author whose book “Doctor Zhivago” had been banned in the Soviet Union, and Osip Mandelstam, regarded as one of the greatest Russian poets of the 20th century, who died in the gulag.
Bukovsky was first arrested in 1963, the beginning of nearly 12 years that he would spend in and out of prisons, performing forced labor and in the psychiatric hospitals whose existence he helped expose. In an effort to stifle protest, Soviet psychiatrists diagnosed dissidents with supposed disorders such as “sluggish schizophrenia” and placed them in asylums.
If the detainee did not accept the diagnosis, “it is considered a sign of a more advanced state of his illness, and he is treated accordingly,” Bukovsky reported, according to a 1977 dispatch in The Times. “If he does not yield, he may remain there forever. I know of cases where people have spent more than 10 years in psychiatric hospitals.”
During his imprisonment, Bukovsky’s captors attempted to thwart his hunger strikes by force-feeding him through the nostril, an excruciating procedure that led him to denounce torture in all forms.
“They straitjacketed me, tied me to a bed, and sat on my legs so that I would not jerk. The others held my shoulders and my head while a doctor was pushing the feeding tube into my nostril,” he wrote in an account published in The Washington Post in 2005.
“The feeding pipe was thick, thicker than my nostril, and would not go in. Blood came gushing out of my nose and tears down my cheeks, but they kept pushing until the cartilages cracked. I guess I would have screamed if I could, but I could not with the pipe in my throat. I could breathe neither in nor out at first; I wheezed like a drowning man — my lungs felt ready to burst. The doctor also seemed ready to burst into tears.”
Bukovsky’s plight attracted the attention and condemnation of intellectual figures including Arthur Miller, Edward Albee and Vladimir Nabokov, as well as Amnesty International and members of the U.S. Congress. In 1976, in a dramatic episode of the Cold War facilitated by the United States, he was freed in exchange for the release in Chile of Luis Corvalán, the leader of the Communist Party in that country.