Viktor Bulgakov (former Gulag inmate), 1992

Mr. Viktor Bulgakov Interview at Moscow Soviet May 22, 1992
Interviewer — Metta Spencer
Interpreter — Alexander Kalinin

Sasha usually translates in his own voice, not that of the person he is translating.)

Bulgakov: (His) first sentence was passed in 1953 because he was involved in the activities of the youth anti-Stalinist organization. His sentence was 25 years of hard labor but he was freed in 1956 so he served only three years. But three years later Mr. Bulgakov was put on trial once again and got the second sentence because there had been some case that happened during his first term in the prison camp. This case was revealed, investigated, and he was put on trial for the second sentence. The court verdict was not passed because this case lost its criminal content because it had happened long ago. But nevertheless, Mr. Bulgakov spent six months in jail. The case was investigated by the KGB in the Lubyanka Prison and Mr. Bulgakov was sent to ____62 Institute because he pretended that he had forgotten absolutely everything connected with the case, so he was examined by the psychiatrist and then he was freed. That was in 1959. It was very difficult to invite some other ___ to him because he was absolutely isolated and he didn’t know what evidence was given by his comrades, who were in the case.

MS: Did they betray you?

Bulgakov: No. It was a provocation. One of the friends of Mr. Bulgakov made a revelation but all the rest rejected any accusations and were really firm in this position. The case was that they had created an organization within the prison camp and it continued, even after they were freed.

MS: What was that organization like?

Bulgakov: It was a prisoners’ resistance organization. The organization prepared the prisoners for rebellion or strike. They made a clandestine newspaper — samizdat — and also they put to the circulation among the prisoners poems and songs of special content. The most difficult thing was to overcome national animosities and to unite different ethnic groups among prisoners, and they achieved it. But this task took too much time and they couldn’t prepare the camp for the strike at the time when the famous Vorkuta prison camp uprisings took place.

MS: I don’t know about that.

Bulgakov: In 1955. It is well described by Solzhenitsyn. It was a period of high political tension and activity among the prisoners. Exactly at that time, the famous Kingir_ uprising took place — the uprising which is well described by Solzhenitsyn. A friend of Mr. Bulgakov, Mr. Feldman, was a participant in this uprising. Mr. Bulgakov says that this movement of prisoners was probably one of the main determinants of the development of the country from, say, 1952 to 1956 and one of the tasks of the organization was to count the number of the prisoners in the camps. It was very difficult to find out data, to collate them and to verify them. It took two years to complete this and they had to do this secretly, but they had access to many books of the prisoners and they collected a lot of data and found out the final figure. At the end of 1954 there were no less than 24 million prisoners in this country — more than one tenth of the population at that time. (221) Since a majority of the prisoners worked in the mining industry, in particular, iron ore mines, coal mines, uranium mines, copper mines, when the strikes began, the whole national economy experienced tension. The supply of necessary raw materials was in shortage. The systematic strikes in prisons began even before Stalin’s death, in 1952, and they went up, this strike movement, and Mr. Bulgakov says that this resistance of the prisoners was really the main reason for the liberation of majority of those who were in prison in 1953-1956. This liberation cannot be attributed just to the political struggle in the higher echelons of the Soviet leadership. It cannot be attributed to the death of Stalin and to the demise of Beria because the most impressive uprising happaned under Khrushchev in the spring of 1955 and it was the final push that made the Soviet leadership take the decision to liberate prisoners. Only when the leadership accepted its defeat in attempts to crush prisoners’ resistance, only then did the leaders decide to make massive liberations. And since 1959, Mr. Bulgakov was not arrested or put in jail.

MS: You have been involved in Memorial. Were the main people who created Memorial themselves involved in this organization of prisoners’ resistance you mentioned?

Bulgakov: No. The Memorial Society was created by rather young people, many of whom were not victims of the Stalinist purges. The repression and the initial episode was quite funny but typically Russian. A group of people in their thirties sat in their company and sang songs — songs by [Galich?] a famous dissident poet and singer who died in immigration. There was a phrase in one of his songs that nobody will remember all these horrors. And then one of the men who was in this company said, “Let’s do it, so that everybody will remember these horrors.” And immediately they went to the street and began to collect signatures in an appeal for the creation of this society — a society that had initially one purpose, just to make memory of the victims and of what it meant for the whole nation, this period. And later the society began charity work and so on but it has never been and is not purely a charity society. It is a mutual protection and mutual help, but not just a charity society. And though it is explicitly a non-political organization, it has great political effects.

MS: I am interested in whether the dissidents who worked quietly and privately may have had any any influence on the higher levels of government. You have mentioned the impact of the resistance in the fifties, but what about the eighties — the people who wanted to emigrate, the people who wanted to create freedom for everyone here. Tell me how that may have influenced policies.

Bulgakov: There is an uninterrupted process that started in the early fifties and went on until the present day. There were some isolated sparkles of spiritual and intellectual opposition to the Stalinist regime, but they were very isolated, suppressed by fear, and when the mass of the ex-prisoners came back, these sparkles acquired mass support. And the second important change or transformation was when this intellectual and spiritual opposition — dissidents par excellence — changed into a human rights movement. Since that moment

MS: Which was when ?

Bulgakov: This middle of the seventies. And since that time, it was a period that started with the demonstration against the invasion of Czechoslovakia, when six or seven people went to a silent demonstration in Red Square, they were arrested, put on trial, and sentenced, but it was the beginning of this transformation. This is a very conditional date of the beginning because some peole who have such ideas — people who went to prison in the end of the sixties, while being in prison, elaborated the ideology or attitude toward human rights and they understood that human rights are problematic, can be the common denominator for very different movements. It was not simply opposition, but it was important that opposition was on a legal basis. The Human rights activists demanded, first of all, compliance with the law, as it existed. Surely, they criticized it, but nevertheless, even the bad laws gave them some basis for demands and a possibility to struggle for their demands and sometimes even to win.

MS: Perhaps you can explain ways in which Memorial has had an impact.

Bulgakov: Let’s put it in this way. The Memorial Society is not a political party, but it is a human rights organization and since any necessity for human rights action emerges from specific political events, it cannot but have political repercussions. The necessity for human rights actions emerges in the situations of political. For example, Nagorno-Karabakh, or let’s take any other political hot spots on the territory of the ex-Union. When a crisis erupts, it inevitably leads to massive violations of human rights. That is why the Memorial Society sends missions to these spots and representatives of the society. They do two jobs there. They collect information for better understanding of the circumstances that probably will bring violations of human rights and at the same time they are acting as peacemakers. They establish contacts with the politicians who are responsible for the development of the events, and so they are involved in political activity, though their main focus is human rights.

MS: I understand you say you observed the laws carefully and appealed to law as a way of protecting yourselves, but you must also have wanted to change the laws and have made efforts to strengthen the protection of human rights.

Bulgakov: The most significant position achievement is the elaboration and the introduction to the Congress of People’s Deputies a series of amendments to the constitution— amendments when taken together constitute something like a Bill of Rights. This document was elaborated by the Commission on Human Rights of the Supreme Soviet of Russia, chaired by the well-known human rights activist Sergei Kavalov, and these amendments were approved and passed by the Congress. It is the greatest achievement, but Mr. Bulgakov would like to see a new law on sanctuaries — specific territories with very specific legal regime where any person could have protection, at least for some time. And these sanctuaries

MS: The size of a city or a block or —?

Bulgakov: Well, it is difficult to specify now but the main idea is that these localities will give example of a better future world — of more human relations.

MS: How many members of Memorial are there, and are you satisfied with the amount of consciousness that you have been able to create in Russia, the amount of understanding that the public has about the terrible period, and the determination on the part of the public to prevent its ever happening again?

Bulgakov: There are 220 local branches of the Memorial Society through the ex-Union territory. The extent of the society’s influence on public opinion can be measured by the quantity of letters that are sent to it. The central department of the society gets 10-12,000 letters per year. Though the political and intellectual influence of the Memorial Society is quite strong and quite visible, nevertheless, Mr. Bulkakov is very suspicious about the net result of this activity on the public mentality and he cannot say for sure that the public is ready to make the necessary effort to resist possible restoration of the totalitarian regime or some totalitarian structures, with the inevitable loss of lives and the violation of human rights. The main task of the memorial society is to construct a bridge between the culture that existed in the past, before the Stalinist purges; the culture of the prisoners; and the culture of the people now. To create continuity of cultural development. To create the best tendencies in this culture and probably to elaborate a new culture, a new national culture, that will reject the principles that allow violations of human rights, even for a single person.

There are many other human rights societies that protect the rights of victims of repression but the difference between them and the Memorial Society is that the Memorial Society tries to preserve, to make it known to the people, the tradition of active resistance — resistance not just in terms of opposition to the execution of prison guards or officials, but resistance for the creation of better human relationships. A more humane society. One of the main errors of journalists or many other people who try to depict activities of the ex-prisoners is that they emphasize the suffering, while the suffering was not the most important thing in their experience. The most important thing was resistance and a longing for a more humane society.

MS: I was pleased to hear you say that you think the resistance made some changes over the long term— that the changes that were made in response to the resistance. I often hear people say that the changes that have taken place in the last ten years were made from the top, that dissidents were crushed. How can you show that the changes that have taken place were responses to the activities that you organized?

Bulgakov: Practically all important changes were initiated by the pressure from below. They were not just the results of some bright ideas that came into the heads of the leadres. The best examples is the fate of the famous Article 6 of the Soviet Constitution that proclaimed a special position for the Communist Party. Initially, the leadership rejected any idea of changing or modifying, to say nothing of deleting, this article from the constitution. But finally, because there was very strong pressure from below, it was the leadership that modified its position and finally they abolished this article. At first glance it can be said that it was a bright and wise decision of the top leaders, but really it was a result of irresistable pressure from below.

The Russian Quest for Peace and Democracy, by Metta Spencer, published by Lexington Books