On October 28, 2014, Cambridgeshire police raided the home of Vladimir Bukovsky, a leading Russian dissident who had lived in Cambridge since 1976. They took his personal computer and another broken one away.
Bukovsky, then 72 years old, had been seriously ill, yet was scheduled to testify in the large-scale inquiry into the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian FSB officer who had defected, and was providing the West with top secret information on FSB operations and the Russian regime. Litvinenko was fatally poisoned in London, when he drank radioactive polonium slipped into a cup of tea. Polonium does not set off regular radiation detectors. He would have died of mysterious causes, had doctors not run special tests to detect its presence.
On March 17, 2015, Bukovsky, still ill, testified at the Royal Courts of Justice in London that he had been with Litvinenko when his friend received death threats from former FSB colleagues. Remember what happened to Trotsky, one said. Bukovsky also testified that, as he had written for The Times, President Putin had passed two new laws that, when put together, made it legal within Russia for Putin to order Russian agents to kill opponents living in other countries.
There’s a word in Russian that means a lot but doesn’t translate well: provokatsia. “Provocation,” its literal translation, doesn’t mean here what it does there: A stealthy, fraudulent act designed to harm a person, organization, or entire country, while concealing the identity of the perpetrator.
Provokatsia takes many forms: Planting evidence on a troublesome adversary. Polonium in a cup of tea. Bombing apartment buildings to make it look like the Chechens did it. In Russia, provokatsia is standard operating procedure. It’s not considered crazy there to believe that politician Boris Nemtsov was gunned down by agents of the United States last year, to cast suspicion on Putin. After all, the thinking goes, it’s what we would do.
On April 27, 2015, a month after Bukovsky’s testimony, Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service — CPS — issued a press release that CPS had “authorized the prosecution of Vladimir Bukovsky, 72, for five charges of making indecent images of children, five charges of possession of indecent image of children and one charge of possession of a prohibited image.”
Major Russian news services including NTV and RIA mistranslated the announcement, saying not that Bukovsky had been charged for having files on his computer, but that CPS had evidence he had personally photographed children in immoral ways on multiple events. The blow to the state’s longtime nemesis was crushing.
Supporters of Bukovsky immediately assumed: provokatsia. Why kill a man and make him a martyr, when you can make him an outcast whose words no one will ever read again? It’s a modern, Internet-savvy version of the old practice of declaring dissidents mentally ill, as was done to Bukovsky in the 1960s.
Bukovsky promptly sued CPS for libel over its easily-misunderstood press release, and went on a hunger strike when the court system refused to schedule the libel hearing ahead of the pornography trial. The court stuck to its schedule.
But in May 2016, the criminal trial on its first day was adjourned until December, to allow more time for examination of evidence.
In July, the libel hearing ended with a judgment that CPS’ press release was not damaging and was not easily misunderstood. Bukovsky may appeal, but Russian media actually ran news items in his favor this time: The judge wrote that CPS had testified they had neither charged Bukovsky with indecent behavior with children, nor had they ever suspected him of it. This was news to many Russians.
Again, Russian translations were often inaccurate — “Bukovsky acquitted of child porn charges” — but it helped undo the damage of their previous mistakes.
At the trial itself in December, prosecutors read a police report that claimed Bukovsky admitted to downloading the images as part of a research project. Yet many believe Bukovsky was framed by Russian operatives who planted the offending files on his computer. The defence presentation was postponed until July 24, 2017 following Bukovsky’s admission to a hospital for pneumonia. He has been in poor health for several years, which affected scheduling of his testimony at the Litvinenko Inquiry.