Heroic Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky’s harsh judgment of American philanthropy’s “camp godfathers”

Oct 28, 2019

And another option for grantmakers to at least consider.

Vladimir Bukovsky, who died yesterday, was an internationally prominent dissident in the Soviet Union from the late 1950s through the mid-’70s. The Communist authorities there put Bukovsky in labor camps, prisons, and psychiatric jails for a total of 12 years. He was “traded” for a high-ranking Communist prisoner in the West and left Russia in 1976, after which he remained a human-rights activist and writer. He was a hero.

Bukovsky courageously wrote a book in 1995 on the basis of stolen classified documents from Soviet archives. Its publication in Russia was paid for by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. It helped further expose what the Communists did to violate basic human rights and what too many in the West did to countenance it. While the book was published in nine languages, it was never published in English—until this year, as Judgment in Moscow: Soviet Crimes and Western Complicity.

In the book, Bukovsky tells of being asked upon his arrival in the West about détente, or “socialism with a human face,” and awkwardly expressing skepticism about both. “I was now referred to as a ‘right-winger’ and even an ‘extremist,’” he writes. “And why not? I reject ‘moderate’ improvements of the communist system; I do not even want socialism with a human face!

“Admittedly, attempts were made at first to adapt me, break me down,” he continues, “and the methods used—in the civilized West at that—differed little from those of an average camp godfather.” Those methods, according to Bukovsky’s Judgment in Moscow, were even used by some philanthropies in America. Shortly after he arrived on a visit to the United States,

I had dinner with the directors of the Ford Foundation. They listened attentively, and for a moment I thought that I could explain something to them, and they would do something sensible after hearing how things really stood in the Soviet Union. After all, they had hundreds of millions of dollars in their hands to be used for social projects. But at the end, the chairman asked one question only: What would you do if on one hand, you had information about the flagrant persecution of one individual, and on the other hand, publication of this information placed the reaching of an agreement on arms limitation under threat?

My God, if this was a camp godfather talking, it would be just the moment to tell him where to go. Hardly believing my ears—after all, this was the West!—I started to explain as politely as possible that the Soviet game of “arms limitation” was not worth a brass farthing, it was deceit from start to finish… and I saw the eyes of the formerly attentive foundation directors begin to glaze over. I did not receive any funds from them, or even a Christmas card.

How many such dinners and lunches I was to have. Even with Rockefeller. And they all openly measured me, adapted me—not to listen to what I had to say or learn something new, to understand the meaning of the system that was aiming rockets at them, but to readjust me to say what they wanted to hear. In any audience I addressed I waited, like a condemned man on the eve of his execution, for the inevitable question:

“Won’t a noise in the West harm those who remain in the USSR?”

And no matter how many hundreds of times I explained, poking myself in the chest, that I was the best example of the opposite, the same question would crop up again in the same audience. Finally, one of us would be found who cracked, unable to resist the temptation of “success,” who would confirm what everyone wanted to hear:

“Yes, it will….”

And this would be spread on the front pages of all newspapers. In case no sufficiently well-known Russian dissidents could be found to speak in favor of “socialism with a human face,” dissidents to suit the purpose were created on the spot. Some dubious Czechs, still hoping for a Prague Spring on a global scale, or some random émigrés from the Soviet Union, who were still paying their party dues a week ago—here they were, “real dissidents.” Good ones. Whole newspaper pages were devoted to them, they became professors….


Bukovsky’s hopelessly naïve encounter with the Ford Foundation speaks volumes about the state of mind of American philanthropy. It’s not just the willingness to sacrifice the welfare of one individual in the name of the greater good, evident in the chairman’s question. However morally reprehensible, that’s one plausible approach to an ethical question very much at the heart of Western civilization.

It’s rather the hopeless naiveté of Ford’s directors. Surrounded by international-relations experts, indeed themselves no doubt such experts, they honestly believed that they were somehow actively engaged, through their grantmaking, in promoting the cause of arms limitation, and hence world peace.  No doubt their files bulged with graphs and flow charts and white papers showing how grants to organizations committed to “global dialogue” would gradually build trust between the Soviet Union and the United States—two mutually suspicious and, in their view, equally immoral nations needing only to be reminded of their common humanity beneath their superficially different political systems. 

All the philanthropic advisors had told Ford’s directors to “make no small plans,” and to aim at the “root causes” of the world’s distress, rather than trying futilely to cope with their manifestations. In the directors’ minds, what could possibly be a more-important philanthropic goal than nuclear disarmament and international understanding? How easy it was to see this scruffy Russian dissident as nothing more than a dispensable individual, nothing more than a distraction from that grand, compelling process.

But that was, of course, to ignore what Bukovsky had to say: these plans for peace with the Soviet Union were built on lies. The Soviet leadership had no intention of dropping the goal of world domination in the name of coexistence. The grand causal maps in the minds of the directors, with arrows flowing ineluctably from their grants to world understanding, were nothing more than illusions. Rejecting Bukovsky in the name of arms limitation might have been somewhat morally defensible, had that in fact been the bargain at hand. But it never was. 

And that’s the bargain that contemporary philanthropy always thinks it’s making, but really isn’t. It thinks it’s forgoing support for this small charity, toiling to meet the everyday needs of the people coming through its doorway, to get at the root cause of poverty, solving it once and for all. But its mental causal maps, too, are more often than not completely detached from reality, built on “scientific” assumptions that are in fact nothing more than wishful thinking. So American philanthropy foregoes the immediate, tangible good that it could do, in the name of some grand, distant, intangible good that it cannot do. To accomplish that larger good would require a dramatic change in human nature. And no foundation, or government, has enough money, power, or wisdom to bring that about.

Imagine if the major American foundations had diverted some of the millions of dollars spent in this period—how much, we have no idea, because an honest, objective accounting would be embarrassing to some very important parties today—to supporting dissidents like Bukovsky.

An added item

That kind of support should at least be another item on the menu of strategic grantmaking options, in our opinion. It’s harder to pursue, of course, and it takes longer, and it thus might be a “harder sell” to mostly business-minded foundation boards, but it’s worth considering. Foundations have the ability—in fact, some might say the responsibility—to do that which isn’t easily done in either the business or government sectors, and they have time.

The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, where we both used to work, modestly tried some of this. Consistent with those (non-abstract) principles applied in its domestic grantmaking, it sought to support giving people in the post-Soviet space the power to control their own lives—giving the Bolshevik-ravaged civil society there a new chance at surviving as a sector in the face of less- but still-severe challenges.

These initially included people like electrician Lech Wałęsa and the Solidarność trade union he led in Poland, for example, as well as playwright Václav Havel’s Charter 77 group in Czechoslovakia. Later, in Russia itself, they included people at work in religious institutions and churches as part of civil society—which might make it an even-harder sell at some foundations, we fully realize.

Informed by Bradley board member and former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Frank Shakespeare and Librarian of Congress James Billington, among others, specific examples of the project included, again among others: purchasing a bus for a scout troop run by a Russian Orthodox nun and helping a Muslim group care for single expectant mothers and battered women in Kazan; funding the Sisters of Mercy care for the elderly in Novosibirsk. No “camp godfathers” here.

The wider effort also included documenting and remembering victims of the totalitarian regime. It supported Andrei Sakharov’s Memorial group, financed a short film on Soviet persecution of Christians, and paid for a concert given in honor of victims of the Beslan massacre at the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow’s principal Cathedral, Christ the Savior.

It notably did not include the establishment of prestigiously addressed offices in Moscow or elsewhere to make for good pictures in an annual report—to be filled with imported and well-credentialed experts to bring Western wisdom to bear, top-down, on the running of society. The foundation wouldn’t have had enough money for all of that anyway, but the union workers, playwrights, and nuns were solving social problems from the bottom up, through their very day-to-day activities, already lived there.

They knew what they were doing, were doing fine at it, and were quite effectively making larger points about society, culture, economics, and politics in doing it.