In the Soviet Union there were rare individuals who fought for human rights, at great personal expense. One was psychiatrist Semyon Gluzman, who condemned the incarceration of dissidents in mental hospitals. The BBC’s Owen Bennett Jones met him once in the 1980s and again this year – and this time he was full of hope for the future of his country.
It all began when I told my tutor at the London School of Economics that I and a fellow student were planning to travel around the Soviet Union by train.
“Maybe,” he said, “you could visit someone in Kiev.”
A strong opponent of Soviet communism, my tutor used to help dissidents – especially those falsely declared mentally ill – a practice that had been highlighted by the writings of a Ukrainian psychiatrist called Semyon Gluzman. It was Gluzman he wanted me to meet. “He’s just back from exile in Siberia,” my tutor said, “you could let him know he’s not been forgotten.”
He gave me a thick pile of papers detailing the pro-Gluzman campaign. “Don’t take this behind the iron curtain. Best to memorise it.”
I studied the documents on the train from London and then, when I got to Vienna, took advantage of a 30-minute break to dump them in a platform dustbin. I went for a wander and then as I returned to the train glanced at the bin. The documents had vanished.
Anxious, we pressed on. In Kiev, each apartment block looked the exactly same – we had to ask for help repeatedly, each time fearing someone would call the police, but eventually we reached Gluzman.
He was a sorry sight, with sunken cheeks after a hunger strike, and the still-shaven head of a prisoner. We delivered the message of encouragement and left.
From time to time I have wondered what happened to Semyon Gluzman. And now I know. After I recorded a radio programme in Kiev recently, one of the panellists – an MP – asked if I had ever been in the country before.
“Thirty-five years ago ago,” I said.
“How come?” she asked.
“I was a student. I visited a dissident.”
“I see. What name?”
“Ah! A wonderful man.”
“You know him?”
“Yes, of course. He is very well known,” she said, scrolling through the contacts on her phone.
“You don’t know me,” I said, “but we met 35 years ago and I have just got your phone number – I am in Kiev.”
“And you would like to meet me,” he said. “And I would like to meet you.”
The next morning a much fuller-faced Semyon Gluzman was in my hotel lobby. We sat by a window – outside there was ice on the ground and flurries of snow in the air. He told me about his time in prison and exile and about the time the famous dissident, Andrei Sakharov, had come to meet him in Kiev in 1971.
“We spoke at the railway station surrounded by 10 KGB men all pretending to read newspapers.” He laughed at the memory but added: “I was afraid then.”
“Do you remember our meeting in your apartment?” I asked.
“No,” he said. And then, sensing my disappointment, added: “There were many meetings. Maybe 90% were people sent from American synagogues. They thought I was a refusenik.” The term referred to Soviet Jews who wanted to go to Israel but were refused permission.
“But it was a misunderstanding”, he went on. “I was not a refusenik. One man came from New Orleans. ‘Yes, I am Jewish,’ I said, ‘but I was in a camp for political prisoners. I’m staying here in Ukraine.’ After about 15 minutes he understood my position.”
“I could have left,” he said. “Once a Soviet official told me even Prince Charles in Great Britain is raising your case. You are a difficulty for us.”
“No, you are a difficulty for me,” Gluzman replied.
“Fill in these papers and maybe you can go to Israel,” the official said. “Please go!”
“No,” Gluzman replied. “YOU go.”
Irritated by well-meaning foreign visitors misunderstanding his stance, Gluzman eventually wrote a letter asking that no more be sent to see him.
He went on: “Some activists in the West were confused when Gorbachev released the political prisoners. The dissidents were not what they expected. Not everyone can be a Mandela. One woman in Holland who used to write letters to a dissident invited him to stay with her. But within hours of his arriving, she discovered he was a fascist.”
And what about today?
“I can criticise the president without punishment,” he said.
“And I have hope. When I was in prison I noticed that around 30% of the prisoners from the Soviet Union were Ukrainians. Why, I don’t know.
“Many were nationalists with no interest in human rights. But still, the Ukrainians were not all slaves. And that’s something.”