At his funeral a close friend remarked: “It’s been said a village cannot stand without its preacher. What now?”
Andrei Sakharov, physicist, so-called “father of the Soviet H-bomb,” three-time Hero of Socialist Labor, winner of the Order of Lenin, had in fact become a sort of father to the Soviet people when he died of a heart attack in Moscow at the end of 1989. A leading campaigner for human rights, Sakharov first came to the attention of many in the West during the early seventies as the slender, stooped figure with a tonsure of white hair who stood vigil outside Soviet courthouses while closed political trials were under way inside. In his last months, now a member of the Congress of People’s Deputies, Sakharov led the fight to repeal the article in the Soviet Constitution which granted a political monopoly to the Communist Party. When Russian voters went to the polls in early March 1990 to elect representatives to their parliament and local city councils, the New York Times reported that Sakharov’s memory was like “election-day magic, with many voters invoking his name to explain the qualities they wanted in their representatives, or to praise candidates who had been associated with him.”
Sakharov’s death could be viewed as a delayed result of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. For having condemned the invasion publicly and called for a boycott of the Moscow Olympics, the scientist was arrested in January 1980 and sent, without trial, into internal exile in the closed city of Gorky. Here he would spend the next seven years. In May 1984, despite poor health and his own history of cardiac problems, he started a hunger strike to obtain permission for his wife, Yelena Bonner, to go abroad for medical treatment. For two years thereafter the world heard nothing of Sakharov except from official sources. Subsequently, it was learned that Sakharov had suffered a stroke and nearly died from the effects of force-feedings administered at Gorky Regional Hospital. This episode probably did further damage to his heart and hastened his death last December 14 at age 68.
In late 1986 Mikhail Gorbachev made the famous telephone call to Gorky to notify Sakharov of the end of his exile, and over the next three years the relationship between the two men would be one of respect mixed with distrust. In December 1988 Sakharov gave Gorbachev a strong endorsement when he said: “I believe that he is an outstanding and sincere man who deserves trust and support.” Yet just days before his death, a more discouraged Sakharov—frustrated in his efforts to repeal Article 6—wondered whether the Soviet President was after all only “guided by tactical and unprincipled considerations.”
Gorbachev for his part made no public speech of tribute to Sakharov, but he did visit his coffin at the Academy of Sciences, where he was heard to say, referring to the 1975 Nobel Peace Prize conferred on the physicist, “It is now clear that he deserved it.”
Partinost, the Russian word for “party spirit,” was alien to Sakharov. He was a person of permanent principles, not permanent enemies. He sought to base his positions on evidence and reason, and believed in the dignity of all men and women, whether political prisoners in Siberia or Politburo members in Moscow. An example of Andrei Dmitriyevich’s intellectual courage and independence was his opinion of Gorbachev. Although his support was always guarded and conditional in nature, it nevertheless provoked dismay in some quarters when the very symbol of the Soviet struggle for human rights gave a positive evaluation of the Communist Party General Secretary.
Sakharov’s most important writings dealt with the threat of nuclear war and the conditions for real peace between East and West. He strongly favored arms control negotiations, but his concept of peace did not embrace unilateral disarmament, either by the Soviet or American governments. Sakharov believed there were conditions in which it could be as dangerous for nations not to have weapons as to have them. He said as recently as November 1988: “Lack of balance is very dangerous . . . . The work which we did [to develop a Soviet thermonuclear weapon] was justified.” Earlier he wrote: “Balanced disarmament is extremely important; but this result cannot be achieved from a position of weakness.”
In the early eighties Sakharov shocked Soviet leaders by advocating from exile in Gorky that the U.S. deploy the MX missile. He believed the nuclear balance had moved decisively in favor of the USSR in the previous decade and that the powerful MX was needed to restore equilibrium.
If Sakharov worried at times about the encouragement to Soviet aggression fostered by America’s neglect of its deterrent, he also warned Americans against trying to “use the arms race to exhaust the USSR.” Such a policy would not only fail to achieve the intended political and economic collapse of the USSR, but would also bring to a stop any progress the USSR might be making toward democratization and liberalization. When Sakharov visited the U.S. in 1988, he criticized our Strategic Defense Initiative on grounds that it would accelerate the comparable Soviet program, would not significantly reduce the threat of nuclear attack, and ultimately posed a threat to perestroika.
But supporting or opposing particular weapons systems in order to maintain the balance of power and advocating arms control measures were not the central thrusts of Sakharov’s thinking on peace. To him, achieving a more open and democratic Soviet Union was the sine qua non for substantial East-West progress toward arms control and disarmament. “The most serious defect of a ‘closed’ society,” he wrote in 1977 in Alarm and Hope,
is the total lack of democratic control over the upper echelons of the party and government in their conduct of domestic affairs and foreign policy. The latter is especially dangerous, for here we are talking about the finger poised on the nuclear button . . . . As long as a country has no civil liberty, no freedom of information, and no independent press, then there exists no effective body of public opinion to control the conduct of the government and its functionaries. Such a situation is not just a misfortune for citizens unprotected against tyranny and lawlessness; it is a menace to international security.
Sakharov repeated these themes many times. In 1987 he stated: “The main and constant ingredient of my position [is] the idea that the preservation of peace is indissolubly linked to the openness of society and the observance of human rights.”
What followed from these views for Americans? Sakharov was clear: vigorous support of the struggle for human rights and civil liberties within the USSR. This not only expressed the deepest values of our nation; it was also a practical imperative. A democratizing Soviet Union was a safer world power and more trustworthy partner in arms control agreements than a Marxist-Leninist superpower whose leaders ruled absolutely and without challenge.
Although most public leaders in the U.S. today would associate themselves unequivocally with Andrei Sakharov, the fact is that many of them ignored or rejected “the main and constant ingredient” of his thought by creating a false dichotomy between work for peace and arms control on the one hand, and work for Soviet democratization and human rights on the other. George Kennan, among many others, expressed such a dichotomy when he wrote, at the height of the nuclear freeze movement, that “a choice must be made between the interests of democratization in Russia and the interests of world peace. In the face of this choice there can be only one answer . . . . Democratization not only can but must wait: world peace cannot.”
Sakharov rejected the view that democratic values had no roots in his native land, or that those living in free societies could not help those struggling under dictatorships to enlarge the realm of freedom. Nobody appreciated better than he that democracy would come to the USSR only if its own citizens demanded it, but Sakharov also believed that the attitude of the West toward the Soviet human rights movement was of critical importance to its survival and success. It was for this reason that he wrote an essay, published in the U.S. in 1975, titled “The Liberal Intelligentsia of the West: Its Illusions and Responsibilities.”
In his essay Sakharov acknowledged a “respect bordering almost on envy” for his counterparts in the West and praised their “inner freedom . . . absence of national prejudices . . . and readiness to undertake good works.” But he then focused on what he termed the “left-liberal faddishness” of Western intellectuals. This faddishness was responsible, in Sakharov’s eyes, for the refusal of the West to take “a clear-cut position” against international aggression by the USSR and its allies, or to defend vigorously the cause of human rights in left-wing dictatorships.
What accounted for the faddishness of the West’s “best and brightest”? The factors that seemed the most powerful were the simplest: a deep fear of seeming to be old-fashioned or out of step with youth, and a love of the novel, the radical, and ultimately, the ephemeral. Taken together with other factors, including what he called an “inadequate notion of the tragic complexity of real life” (and the effects of many years of Soviet propaganda), Sakharov feared that the shallowness of the West’s intelligentsia when facing problems of East-West relations posed nothing less than “a tremendous danger to mankind.”
Whether Sakharov’s body of writings on East-West peace and associated issues will ever be fully appreciated in the West is uncertain. There is no doubt, however, of his contribution to the changes now sweeping the Soviet Union. “To be a real Russian,” Dostoevsky said about Pushkin over a hundred years ago, “is to be universally human.” Like Pushkin, Andrei Sakharov was a universal man who will be remembered abroad as much as at home. His insistence that peace is the parent, sister, and child of human rights and democracy has proven true in East-West relations. Now, as the USSR faces both nonviolent and violent challenges to its authority from within the “internal empire,” one hopes that the ideas and spirit of this great son of Russia will also guide Moscow in its search for solutions to its nationalities problem.
Holt Ruffin is Director of the Northwest Regional Office of the World Without War Council.