MOSCOW — One of the ways of punishing political dissenters under the Soviet regime—alongside prisons, labor camps, and “special psychiatric hospitals”—was forced exile accompanied by a loss of citizenship, to ensure that “offenders” would never return to their country (in practice, “never” was curtailed by the collapse of communism in 1991). This was done, among others, to Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, samizdat publisher Alexander Ginzburg, and Moscow Helsinki Group founder Yuri Orlov.
The writer Vladimir Bukovsky—one of the most prominent figures in the Russian dissident movement—was a rare exception. Forcefully exiled from the USSR and exchanged for Chilean communist leader Luis Corvalán in December 1976, Bukovsky was not stripped of his Soviet citizenship. The Politburo decision on his release and exile did not mention such a sanction, and the senior KGB official who accompanied Bukovsky on the flight to Zurich, Switzerland, handed him a new Soviet passport, with hair and civilian clothes drawn on his prison photograph.
In 1992, assuming that Bukovsky, like other exiled dissidents, had been deprived of his citizenship, President Boris Yeltsin decreed to return the writer his Russian passport, which was duly done by Moscow’s then-ambassador in London, Boris Pankin, in December of that year. In 2007, when Russia’s Central Election Commission barred Bukovsky from the presidential ballot (he had been nominated to run by the democratic opposition), a host of pretexts were found—including that he had failed to produce a certificate proving that he was a writer—but his Russian citizenship was never put into question. Indeed, a new Russian passport with a five-year validity was issued to Bukovsky in 2007, and he has traveled to Russia several times on it.
It seems that the Kremlin has now reinstated its old practice—despite an explicit constitutional ban on depriving anyone of his or her citizenship. In March of this year, Bukovsky applied to the Russian consulate in London to renew his Russian passport. Seven months passed without any action, until last week. In response to an official inquiry by opposition State Duma member Dmitri Gudkov, Foreign Ministry officials have announced that they “cannot confirm” Bukovsky’s Russian citizenship and, therefore, cannot issue him a new passport.
The news has been met with amusement by Bukovsky himself—for whom this must all seem like an unsurprising déjà vu—and with shock by many Russians, who have witnessed yet another sign of authoritarian restoration—and a very symbolic one at that. Even the head of the Kremlin’s Human Rights Council and the Russian Federation Human Rights ombudsman have expressed bewilderment, affirming that Vladimir Bukovsky is undoubtedly a citizen of Russia.
The Kremlin may yet retreat on this issue: an official response from Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Gudkov’s inquiry is expected by December 1st. In any case, there is little doubt that Bukovsky will one day return to Russia. As the Soviet regime has shown, the word “never” is not as absolute as the Kremlin would wish it to be.