Everyone is familiar with the Nuremberg Trials that were convened in 1945 to prosecute the crimes of Nazi Germany. The trials served as a final day of reckoning for the violent and destructive Nazi ideology that had wreaked havoc on Europe for more than a decade. Considering how deadly the ideology of communism proved to be in Eastern Europe, Russia, and elsewhere, why has there never been a similar trial for the crimes committed by the communist regime in the Soviet Union? This was the question raised by Vladimir Bukovsky.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Bukovsky, a former dissident from Russia, decided to attempt the impossible: to convene a trial that would sue not the individuals as was the case in Nuremberg but rather the system of the communist regime. “For me, it seems like we have a moral responsibility to humanity,” he remarks in the documentary Le Nuremberg du communisme.
When Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of Perestroika and Glasnost were introduced in the mid-1980s, people started to believe that the crimes of the communist regime would be punished someday and that justice would prevail. With communism on its way out, anything seemed possible. But sooner or later, that hope vanished from their minds. Historians have noted that while the Soviet regime had failed, the KGB were still active and the former nomenklatura, the communist-era elite, still retained power and influence, making it impossible to achieve justice for the victims of Soviet communism. Vladimir Bukovsky wanted to force the country to deal with its communist past and prevent the regime from gaining power again.
Born 1942, Bukovsky was a prominent activist whose fight against the Soviet regime earned him a total of twelve years in Soviet prisons, labor camps and psychiatric prison hospitals. In 1976 he was released in a swap for the imprisoned General Secretary of the Communist Party of Chile at the Zürich airport. Once free, Bukovsky felt like he had experienced a second birth. He settled in Cambridge and finished his studies in biology, but he never stopped fighting to free the Soviet Union from the grip of communism.
When Vladimir Bukovsky returned to Russia in 1991, he found a system that he described as “a wounded animal.” At this point the Soviet Union had dissolved and he had already become a legend in his homeland of Russia. Many hoped that Bukovsky would gather together a commission that would be able to judge the communist regime for its crimes. Upon his return, he was put into contact with Vadim Bakatin, the chief of the communist party at that time. For the first time, a prominent Soviet dissident and a leading communist official were engaged in a dialogue that was broadcast on national television.
Even though Bakatin had doubts that Bukovsky’s idea for a “Nuremberg of Communism” could be realized, he agreed to his offer. However, the next step towards a trial failed before it could even get started. Bukovsky was denied access to the more than 60 million secret documents held by the Russian government. Without these files, it was impossible to organize a trial. He left the country once again, this time sad and disillusioned.
Surprisingly, another opportunity arose in 1992, after Boris Yeltsin was elected President of the newly formed Russian Federation and granted Bukovsky special permission to access the secret files. He was aware of the fact that the archive would not be open for long and that he was strictly forbidden to copy anything. Nevertheless, he scanned over seven thousand pages in order to preserve them.
When the “trial” really came, it focused on the question of whether or not Yeltsin’s ban on the Communist Party was legal. Called before the Russian Supreme Court, Bukovsky expounded upon the incriminating documents for several hours in a symbolically divided room. Despite all his efforts, the court decided to relegalize local branches of the Communist Party. The decommunization of Russia had failed.
Bukovsky, who always had intended to publish the scanned documents in a book, returned to Cambridge and started writing. In 1995, his book, a testimony of the crimes committed by the communist regime of the Soviet Union, was published in France. At this point, he still strongly believed that there would be a future trial along with a commission that would finally uncover the Soviet Union’s crimes against humanity and hold the communist regime responsible.
But no further trial was arranged. Historians have analyzed a variety of reasons for this hesitation. A major contributing factor may have been that, in the eyes of Europe and the West, the crimes of the Nazi regime overshadowed the atrocities committed by the communists. Additionally, unlike the Nazis, the communist regime had never really been defeated in battle but had collapsed on its own. Moreover, the Nazis were held accountable for their actions after the war had ended and the allies had occupied Germany. At the end of the Cold War, Russia was not occupied by an opposing force and there was no “hot war” responsible for the dissolution of the Soviet Union. While the Nazi regime suffered total destruction, the outer structures of the Russian regime remained essentially intact. Unlike the German case, where the defeated regime was tried by other countries, Russia would have to try itself.
Vladimir Bukovsky currently faces a trial of his own. Last year, he was accused of possessing child pornography by British authorities. Bukovsky, who has always been a thorn in the side of the Russian authorities, claims that the pictures were placed on his computer by Kremlin agents. This is not an altogether unreasonable accusation, since as recently as July of 2017, a similar tactic was used against Ukrainian historian Yuri Dmitriev, an outspoken critic of the Soviet Union and its crimes. A constant critic of the Putin regime, Bukovsky has made several attempts to influence Russian politics from abroad. He even tried to stand in the 2008 Russian election, but to no avail.
Since the accusations against Bukovsky began, he has lost many of his supporters. The more details about the case have been revealed, the less clear it has become. Like his attempt to try the crimes of the communist regime in Russia, Bukovsky’s own trial has been abandoned time and time again, due to his own ailing health. If and when he recovers, he may face a conviction of his own. Until that time, like the regime he tried to hold accountable, he remains innocent in the eyes of the law.