Vyacheslav Bakhmin: “It turned out that there were only a few hundred of us ‘degenerates’ in the whole country”

18 January 2020

An interview with Vyacheslav Bakhmin: ‘The Fate of a Dissident’

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Siberia. Realities]

Forty years ago, on 12 February 1980, Vyacheslav Bakhmin, a human rights activist, dissident, and one of the organizers of  The Working Commission for the Investigation of the Use of Psychiatry for Political Purposes’, was arrested and sent to a Siberian prison camp.  While there his sentence was extended for ‘anti-Soviet conversations.’

At the time of his arrest Bakhmin had been in the sights of the KGB for more than ten years. For the previous three years he had published an Information Bulletin of  the Working Commission which included information on cases where penal psychiatric methods were used to investigate dissidents. In 1980, in the preparations for the holding of the Olympics in Moscow, the security services received instructions to clear the capital of dissidents who could ‘defame’ the Soviet way of life and the political system. Writing of the day of his arrest in his autobiographical Notes, Bakhmin says:

‘On that day I noticed that I was being followed from when I took my son to school (he was in the beginners’ class). At the time I did not know that the next time I would see him would be after four long years. I did not stay long at work, then I went to see Irina Grivnina ( a well-known dissident, who has lived since 1985 in Holland) to work on the next number of the Bulletin. Before long there was a ring at the door, and it was the police. They said that they were aware that some sort of a thief had come into the apartment. Irina did not open the door.  They continued to insist, ringing the bell, which she then disconntected. They started to hammer on the door, threatening to break it down. It was not possible to hold out any longer and I persuaded Irina to let them in. Having checked my documents, the policeman and his uniformed companion took me to police station No. 3 near the Paveletsky railway station and Novokuznetskaya Street. For a long time no one could find me, my wife received no answers to her queries, and only subsequently, when she started to visit various police stations, did she find me and was clever enough to give me a parcel before I was dispatched to prison.

The author of Notes spent the next six months under investigation in the Lefortovo prison. The trial was not held until the autumn of 1980. Vyacheslav Bakhmin received a sentence of three years in a prison camp for producing and distributing the Bulletin, and also for distributing ‘anti-Soviet literature’, including The Gulag Archipelago. Bakmin served his sentence in the town Asino  in Tomsk province, in a general regime prison camp.

In an interview with Sibir.Realii, Vyacheslav Bakhmin, now co-chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group, spoke about how he tried to fight against the rehabilitation of Stalin as a student at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, how he conducted ‘anti-Soviet conversations’ in a labour camp, and why he remains a traditional optimist despite the rising authoritarian trend in Russia.

Was your first experience with human-rights activism related to the backlash against the revival of Stalinism at the end of the 1960s?

It was more like the reason for my first arrest, which was linked to the distribution of leaflets against Stalin.

And what was the reason you had for creating these leaflets?

As a student, I was involved with a group of young people: I was from the Physics Institute, and there were several women and one man from other universities. At that time, articles started to appear in magazines about the 90th anniversary of Stalin’s birth, where he was described in a decidedly favourable manner. This was an attempt to restore a positive image of him – as a person who won the war, led the country to victory, and so on. Then, at the end of the 1960s, indications appeared of some level of rehabilitation.

And this caused your indignation?

Not just mine. This was concerning for all of the intelligentsia. Petro Grigorenko (a dissident and human-rights activist, and a founding member of the Moscow Helsinki Group) wrote a long article called ‘Concealment of the historical truth is a crime against the people!‘ In his article, Grigorenko blamed Stalin for the fact that we almost lost the war in 1941. And as a result, the war had to be won with a huge number of lives – at the expense of millions of casualties. Grigorenko wrote about how Stalin did not prepare the country for war, how he was cozying up to Hitler, and so on. This left a strong impression on us, and we decided to speak about it not only with the close circle of those involved in samizdat, but with the general public. And how we were going to do that? Simply by printing and distributing leaflets. We’ve known this method since the days of the revolution.

But you didn’t manage to do this in the time you had?

No, we didn’t have time. What’s more, on the day when I was arrested, I personally had come to the conclusion that in fact what we were doing was foolish, that we shouldn’t have been doing it. On the one hand, it was dangerous, and on the other hand it was completely pointless. I decided to talk to the remaining members of our group, to dissuade them from following through. But on that very day, I was arrested. The following day, they arrested another two of us.

Were you effectively just arrested for your intentions?

Well, and for preparation. We did print the leaflets.

Do you have any of those leaflets anymore?

No, of course not. There’s likely one in the KGB case file. We primarily took information from Grigorenko’s article. That was the cause for the arrest. Because if it was possible to read some things at that time, ‘anti-Soviet literature’ was simply seized during searches. And leaflets were too much. They were like a red flag to a bull for the KGB of that time.
Even so, it appears that Russia soiled its international reputation in 2014 by annexing Crimea. But the West continues to do economic business with Russia, lay gas pipelines…

That’s true. The annexation of Crimea reminds me of what happened in 1979 when troops were sent into Afghanistan. But at that time the Soviet Union’s reputation and its relations with the West were so bad that the authorities no longer paid any attention to them and they began to stick everybody in jail, practically destroying the human rights movement…

You also joined that company of ‘jail birds’ in 1980. What did they accuse you of?

The reason was the activity of the Working Commission on the use of Punitive Psychiatry. From 1977 on, we were active as a civic organization. Later, as I said, the authorities didn’t care anymore, and they started putting everybody in jail. They jailed us too, our whole team.

And so, in the autumn of 1980, you found yourself in Western Siberia where you met a kind of people you’d probably never seen before. I’m thinking of the prison colony prisoners. Was there a group of ‘politicals’ there, in Asia? Or were you on your own in prison?

Here I should clarify one detail. The Criminal Code of the RSFSR had Article 70, ‘Anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda.’ That was the first part of the Code dealing with important crimes against the state. Those convicted under that article were imprisoned in special camps, which we called ‘political’ in our circle. For example, the famous camp Perm-36, and another one in Mordovia. There the ‘politicals’ were all imprisoned together. It was an astonishing place, which many remember with nostalgia: how great it was when everybody was in jail together, how much people taught each other, what kind of people you met, and so on. Of course, the authorities didn’t like that, and so in 1966 they introduced three articles 190 into the Code, they ones used to try the demonstrators on Red Square, for example… That article carried a lesser sentence, up to three years, but on the other hand they started sending those people to the regular criminal prison camps – let them feel what that’s like.

To meet the ‘real’ people?

Right. I was the only ‘political’ in Asino. That prison colony was considered ‘hungry’. The mark of the ‘hungry’ camp is that there was no bread left on the table when people had eaten, everything was clean as a whistle, even the crumbs were swept up. They fed us badly. The work was pretty hard, and there wasn’t enough to eat. Added to that, it was an ‘ordinary regime’ camp, where there was a quick turnaround of prisoners. The average sentence there was two to three years. And because the turnaround of prisoners was so rapid, no one tried very hard to create normal conditions for life in the camp. The zeks themselves didn’t try to do anything. For them it was a temporary refuge. And so there was a lot of lawlessness, people had their parcels taken away, there were a lot of ‘opushchhennye’ [in prison jargon, the lowest status prisoners, among other things forced to provide sexual services to higher status prisoners – ed.]. On the other hand, it was easier to get a letter out.

What kind of attitude did the other prisoners have to your ‘anti-Soviet’ article?

Before meeting me none of them knew of such an article. They were all there for ordinary offences, mostly ‘hooliganism’, thieving, things like that. The ones with long sentences were there for manslaughter. But they were all fine with me, because they saw me as someone fighting the authorities who had put them in prison. They saw themselves as fighters against authority too, only they ‘fought’ their way – by thieving and breaking the law. But one ‘article’ alone wasn’t enough to earn their respect. In prison it’s very important to show everybody you’re not a pushover, that you have your own sense of honour and dignity. And they value that. If a person stands his ground, defends himself, then from their point of view he’s a fine guy.

It says in your biography that after you finished your sentence they added on extra time for anti-Soviet conversations. What was that about?

Indeed, that was Article 190 again, which talks about spreading ‘consciously false fabrications, slandering the Soviet state system’. And how did I slander the system? By saying what I was in prison for, which human rights are violated in the USSR, what went on in Eastern Europe after the war, and so on. Those were my ‘slanderous fabrications’.

It turns out that the Soviet campaign ‘For Stalin’ was fairly modest – articles in the party press. It’s quite different now when monuments to Stalin are being put up, he is praised to the skies in new books, and films are being made that show him as the wise leader.

Of course, now things are on a much bigger scale. But the generations have also changed. In my youth people could still had fresh memories of what happened at the 22 Party Congress, and how Stalin was removed from the Mausoleum. At that time many anti-Stalin films were made. And the attitude in society towards Stalin was quite negative. Against this background even a number of articles in the party press caused serious concerns and fear that the country had begun to slip back to the justification of Stalin, and that would mean justification of the repressions. Nowadays the people’s attitude towards Stalin has become much more positive. And not at all because they don’t know what happened during the Great Terror. Everyone knows perfectly well. But since the notion of ‘fake news’ has arisen, information no longer has such a strong influence on people. Quite recently we were full of joy that at last trustworthy information about the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, fatal for the Soviet Union because it was kept absolutely secret, had been made public. But now the original document has been published and no one is bothered as if that is how things should be. And after all this is not just the position of the authorities. A majority of the population see Stalin not as the murdered of his own people, but as a person who could bring order and keep the bureaucrats in line (bureaucrats who in our time have become over bold and deeply corrupt). But under Stalin they would have been sent to the Gulag. People understand this very well, and the outcome of opinion surveys ‘in favour of Stalin’ are, above all, a reaction of society to the impunity and corruption in contemporary Russia.

Returning once more to the 1970s, when you actively were engaged in human rights work, how do you assess it now? Was it the dissidents who ‘shook’ the Soviet system?

We certainly did not set ourselves the goal of ‘shaking’ the system. At that time people thought that it was absolutely unshakeable. We engaged in human rights work not to change the nature of the regime or to shake the system, but only because we couldn’t live in any other way. This was the personal position taken by each of us. At the same time, we thought that there were only a few hundred of us, ‘outcasts’ and ‘degenerates,’ in the whole country. Later it became clear that in the Soviet Union there were not hundreds, but tens of thousands of people who disagreed with the system, and each in their own way expressed this disagreement. Some merely read banned books, some people retyped them and passed them on, some distributed the “Chronicle of Current Events“, some wrote slogans on walls or placards, and so on. A large part of the intelligentsia was permeated by dissident attitudes at that time. No one intended to change the system, but each person did something. For example, we had a Working Commission on Investigating the Use of Psychiatry for Political Purposes, and sometimes we succeeded in getting people out of the psychiatric hospitals where they had been forcibly incarcerated. True, instead of psychiatric hospitals they sent them to the camps, but for most people that was much better than being in the hands of Soviet psychiatry. There were very few cases of this kind, and they were all connected with the influence of the West, whose views were influential on the Soviet leadership. At Politburo meetings they discussed what was more in their interests: to send someone into exile abroad or to jail them…For example, they decided not to jail Sakharov, but to make do with internal exile. For the same reason they sent Solzhenitsyn into exile abroad, although at first they wanted to imprison him. The members of the Politburo were pragmatists who took into account what action would be less damaging to their reputation. After all, reputation was always linked with the economy. Of course, it was on the whole not the done thing to have big joint economic plans with a country that had a very bad reputation. That is why the economy also played a role here, just as now it does. For our authorities, reputation in the West is important not just in itself, but because we are linked economically.

Who betrayed you to the authorities?

There were enough people who had been specially assigned to provoke me and also monitor what I was doing. As a result of their efforts, a second case under Article 190 was brought against me. I was subsequently transferred to Tomsk where I was held under a so-called ‘strict regime.’ During the investigation I was treated like the Man in the Iron Mask. I was locked up in solitary confinement and I was taken to the yard for exercise alone. Contact with other inmates was forbidden. Even my feeding dish on the cell door was padlocked – they did that specifically for me. My ‘corrupting’ influence seemed of such concern to them that they kept me completely isolated from the rest of the world. This, of course, was ridiculous, totally odd.

You were known to have had run ins with the KGB on more than one occasion, and you even recalled that during your first encounter the investigator behaved in an almost fatherly way toward you. But you say they were afraid of you? On the whole, did you get the feeling that these people were afraid of something? They seemed omnipotent at the time.

Of course I don’t think they were afraid of me personally. Their aim was to see to it that I didn’t ‘corrupt’ anyone with my ideas. They were simply trying to curb my influence, nothing more. Of course at the time they saw themselves as the masters of life. That being said, in Soviet times the KGB had less power than the FSB. Back then, everything was decided by the Politburo, which included only one KGB representative. Whereas now everything is decided by one man, who came from that very same structure and, naturally, he listens to them to a great extent. Currently there is no collective leadership in the way that there was then. Understandably, Brezhnev or Andropov played a significant role in the final decision. But nevertheless, everyone was heard and the Politburo in general bore collective responsibility. There would be disputes and even full-blown disagreements. The decision on Afghanistan wasn’t taken immediately. Nor when it came to Czechoslovakia in 1968. Yet now it’s reduced to a very brief conversation: the boss ordered it – and that’s that.

Does your intuition and political experience tell you anything about the future of a country where there is such a unity of command?

I don’t possess any form of political intuition. I’m not a political analyst. I therefore wouldn’t want to be so bold as to give a short-term prognosis. However, insofar as I am a historical optimist, I’m sure that, in spite of everything, a normal, human future awaits the country, not in the next 10 to 15 years perhaps but more likely in 50 – 100. And of course that’s an easy prediction to make because no one will check.

In the 1970s, everyone read the Strugatsky brothers, disagreed with the regime, and associated themselves with the degenerates from Prisoners of Power, feeling the atmosphere’s hopeless oppressiveness. Don’t you think that those times are returning?

I actually feel positive on the whole, and that’s because there is growing irritation and dissatisfaction, which spills over in different ways into a variety of protests. The authorities have distanced themselves from the people so much that the latter can’t help but feel it. It is difficult to see what alternative is possible here, so there is no clear political movement. But the general irritation is growing. The authorities are trying to do something about it, but the only tools that the current authorities have are tools of repression. They don’t understand how else they might deal with challenges. All they have are tougher punishments, restrictions, fines, imprisonments and so on. But no one has repealed Newton’s third law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. It was the same in Soviet times. The dissident movement only emerged because of the authorities’ repressions. If they hadn’t sent Sinyavsky and Daniel to prison, or Ginzburg, who wrote a White Book about their trial, then there wouldn’t have been such a reaction, there wouldn’t have been such a movement. Because as soon as those close to you are imprisoned, a movement springs up around you to support them. And these circles spread further and further. The same is happening now, as we have seen with the ‘Moscow trials’: people uninterested in politics went to all the Moscow demonstrations to hang out and see what would happen. Now they have all become politicised. They saw how the authorities behave and it turned them into politicians. In my view, it shows that such authorities will not be able to hold out for long. Not to mention that the development of technology, the development of modern civilisation is moving in completely the opposite direction. With such a level of information technology, it is simply impossible to maintain the regime as it is now. It’s a utopia. Although there are attempts to make a ‘sovereign Internet’ and so on, it won’t work. Even the ‘jammers’ in Soviet times found it impossible to drown out a few Western ‘radio voices.’ So backing the country into a corner and drawing a new iron curtain around it will not work now. I’m sure it can’t go on for long. That’s why I call myself a historical optimist.


In a final speech at his 1980 trial, Vyacheslav Bakhmin ended with what he himself regarded as the ‘naive’ assertion that the children and grandchildren of the judges before him would feel shame over their involvement in the trial. Three years later, in Asino, his sentence was increased for ‘anti-Soviet talk’ in the prison camp. At that time, the system seemed unshakeable and shameless, and any talk of repentance was completely out of the question. Yet just ten years later, when all that remained of the Soviet Union were memories and rusty rockets, Bakhmin received a letter from Siberia that he later published in his Notes:

Almost 10 years later, I received the following letter that surprised me greatly, written by Mr Mironov, the judge who had sentenced me in Asino:

‘Dear Mr Bakhmin,

By way of a mea culpa, I would like to apologise to you for the proceedings that took place in 1983 in the town of Asino. Circumstances at the time meant that I was forced to lead these proceedings.

On our initiative, the Presidium of the Supreme Court of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic adopted a decision…overturning the sentence handed down in your case by the Tomsk Regional Court, and closing the case on the grounds that your actions did not meet the definition of a crime…’

A copy of the decision by the Presidium of the Supreme Court of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic was enclosed with the letter.

It was certainly an odd turn of events.”

Viktor Andreyevich Mironov formerly presided over the Tomsk Regional Court, and still lives in Tomsk even though he is now retired. He worked as a judge for 27 years, from 1976 when he was appointed Deputy Chair of the Regional Court, until 2004 when he retired from a position as its Chair. When asked whether he remembered Vyacheslav Bakhmin, his response was immediate:

‘Of course I remember Vyacheslav, and I’ve thought about him often over the years. He made an extremely favourable impression on me at the time, as someone with a lot of integrity and a very vibrant personality. I was responsible for sentencing him, and I made sure that he was given the most lenient sentence possible. He was looking at up to three years in prison according to the relevant article of the Criminal Code, but I handed down the shortest term that I could – 10 months – in view of the fact that he had obviously been provoked by the camp management. By the time the sentence was handed down he had already served his time, and so he was released and left for Moscow almost immediately after the court hearing.’

Did you come under pressure to sentence Bakhmin to a longer stay in prison?

‘The “competent authorities”, as we used to call the KGB, attempted to appeal against the sentence I had handed down. My decision was reviewed by the Supreme Court, but the “authorities” got nowhere, since the Supreme Court confirmed that I had handed down a sentence that was fair – by the standards of the time – and sound.’

A few years later, you wrote a letter to Bakhmin, apologising to him for the entire Soviet system.

I felt an obligation to do so. The whole case against him was built on obvious provocation. And so I wrote Vyacheslav a letter apologising, and told him that he was entitled by law to demand compensation for the months he had spent behind bars while the second case against him was before the court. He sent a very kind letter back in response, refusing compensation of any kind, and his wife even added a note at the end expressing her gratitude. Vyacheslav wrote that he wasn’t interested in the money; receiving an apology from a Soviet judge was the real compensation for him.’ 

It’s certainly an unusual development in the course of relations between a judge and the man he convicted.

‘That wasn’t all I did; around the time that I retired in 2004, we were working on a volume that would be published to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Tomsk Court. I edited this anthology and included in it an account of the Bakhmin case, with the heading “Nostalgia for the Gulag “.’

What meaning did you intend to convey with this heading?

‘A very simple one – that there are lots of people in our country, particularly among the authorities, who feel nostalgia for the Stalin-era concentration camps. Bakhmin stood in direct opposition to these people. Have you heard from him recently? Is he well? I’d like to meet him some day. When I used to visit Moscow on work trips, I would sometimes remember him as I was walking along the street. I would think to myself how nice it would be to meet him now, to chat for a while and to shake his hand.’

Translated by Mary McAuley, Nathalie Wilson, Alissa Valles, Simon Cosgrove, Nina dePalma and Joanne Reynolds

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