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The Conscience of Humanity
By Sidney D. Drell, George P. Shultz
Hoover Institution PressCopyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
The Evolution of Andrei Sakharov's Thinking
December 14, 2014, was the twenty-fifth anniversary of Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov's death. He holds an honored place in the pantheon of the world's greatest scientists, reformers, and champions of human rights.
I never personally met Sakharov — he was whisked off to internal exile in Gorky soon after I arrived, and returned to Moscow soon after I left. But I did get to know his wife, Elena Bonner, well, and through her, through their hunger strikes, through the dissident trials during my time in Moscow, and through the moral power that Sakharov continued to exert from his isolation in Gorky, he played a central role in my reporting.
Still, I find today that defining Sakharov's exact place in Soviet history is no easy task. As Sakharov himself said so often, "the truth is never simple." Neither is legacy.
Certainly there was no one like him in the dissident movement, no one who rose to such exalted heights and was so prepared to lose everything in support of human rights; nobody who had his combination of activism and modesty, boldness and shyness.
His very existence was something of a miracle. A descendant of priests and military officers, he was born to that genteel class of Russian intellectuals and professionals known as the intelligentsia, which through Russian history produced revolutionaries, poets, and scientists convinced that the most important thing was to do something useful.
Much of the old intelligentsia fled after the Russian Revolution. Many of those who survived were caught up in the purges; and if they survived that, there was the war.
Sakharov survived, and his genius found him a place in the machinery created by Joseph Stalin and Lavrenty Beria to assure Soviet military might. The state needed scientists, and the masters understood that science required not only coercion and threat, but also independence and intellectual freedom.
The solution was to seal the scientists in a gilded cage, isolate them in installations closed not only to foreigners but to most Soviet citizens, give them the highest level of privilege and equipment, and make clear that all this was conditional on producing what the state required.
Sakharov was a willing member of that system, convinced like so many scientists of the era that they were soldiers on the front lines of a global struggle which required sacrifice and suffering. He never repudiated or regretted creating a weapon of unimaginable power, believing that only a balance of power would prevent its use.
His embrace of human rights did not come through a sudden conversion. Scrupulously honest, and almost naïve in his understanding of politics and power, he came to it in stages. Let me give you a brief chronology of the metamorphosis.
First came his concern about the radioactive fallout from atmospheric testing. But in those years, in the 1950s, the concerns were still new, and raising them was possible within the scientific and political elite. These were issues Sakharov could take up directly with Nikita Khrushchev, even though he was at times rebuffed and put in his place for meddling in politics.
Then came the Academy of Science elections in 1964 at which Sakharov openly spoke out against accepting an ally of the pseudo -scientist Trofim Lysenko. The Academy of Science, in fact, was probably the closest to a democratic institution in the Soviet state, where full members could still vote to reject a candidate pushed by the Kremlin.
So far, Sakharov's activities were still within the bounds of permissible debate for someone of his standing in the elite. Yet as Sakharov noted in his Memoirs, the academy vote, like the struggle against atmospheric testing, marked another step on the way to becoming active in civic affairs.
The turning point for Sakharov, as for the entire dissident movement, came in the mid-1960s. These were years in which Sakharov signed a petition against the rehabilitation of Stalin, followed by a letter against the enactment of the law against defaming the Soviet state, which became the basis for the prosecution of many dissidents, followed by a decision to join in a demonstration on Pushkin Square on Constitution Day.
Then came his first letter, this one to Leonid Brezhnev, in support of a dissident, and then his involvement in the movement to save Lake Baikal.
What is amazing to realize now is that in those years, Sakharov had such high rank that he could pick up a special phone and directly call the KGB chief, Yuri Andropov, as he did in 1967 to seek the release of the writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel.
These phones, known as vertushka, connected members of the top nomenklatura [chief officials] — I managed to steal one from the Kremlin during the chaos of 1991, and I learned then that the name, vertushka, which means "dial," comes from the fact that the elite network was the first to use dial phones.
On that call, Sakharov was told that Sinyavsky and Daniel would be released in a general amnesty, but they never were.
Step by step, Sakharov developed what he described as a growing compulsion to speak out on the fundamental issues of the age.
Finally, in 1968 — that remarkable year of social rebellion the world 'round — Sakharov took the decisive step of putting his thoughts on paper in the milestone essay, "Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom."
The work coincided with a turning point in the development of the dissident movement, the Prague Spring of 1968, the rise and spectacular fall of "socialism with a human face."
"Reflections" defined the direction Sakharov's activism would take from that point on. For the epigraph, Sakharov chose a line from Goethe: "He alone is worthy of life and freedom/Who each day does battle for them anew."
It was not a call to arms; Sakharov did not declare that struggle and heroic exploits are ends in themselves. They are worthwhile, he wrote, "only insofar as they enable other people to lead normal, peaceful lives."
"The meaning of life is life itself," he continued, "that daily routine which demands its own form of unobtrusive heroism."
From this moment on, Sakharov's life moved inexorably toward the recognition of the central importance of openness, justice, and human rights in shaping a normal life.
The essay also introduced Sakharov to the West. As his activism gathered pace, he was often perceived by the outside world as a Russian Don Quixote, a tousled, retiring intellectual who had built a doomsday weapon and was now tilting at the windmills of an all -powerful state.
But his friends saw a different Sakharov — a brilliant, profound, and courageous thinker who, in his purity of vision, posed a fundamental challenge to the state simply by calling evil by its name and demanding that the state abide by its own laws.
After he met and married Elena Bonner, who so effectively complemented his stature and intellect with her experience in resistance and activism, the Sakharovs became a beacon of hope for thousands of people caught up in the arbitrary injustice of totalitarianism.
They also became a clearinghouse of information to the outside world. It was enough for Sakharov to appear at the trial of a dissident and to speak to Western reporters to undermine the elaborately concocted accusations. And it was through Sakharov and Bonner that much of the information about the plight of Jews, Tatars, Germans, Russians, believers, and others came to the attention of the world.
It was inevitable that the state would finally act; and, in the end, the great scientist who once had the power to call Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and Andropov on their direct lines was sent into internal exile in an apartment in Gorky, isolated and monitored day and night.
In exile he became an even more powerful force, a symbol of nonviolent opposition in the tradition of Nelson Mandela or Mahatma Gandhi. But it is important to note that his power was never in some ideology or teachings, not in something that disciples would call Sakharovism, like the moral teachings of Tolstoyism or the Holy Russia of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. His power was in his example, his moral purity, his openness.
Sakharov didn't even like the word "dissident," probably because the thrust of the human-rights movement was to compel the Soviet Union to live by its own rules, not to challenge the system or change it.
When the human-rights movement first gained momentum, the term Russians used was pravozashchitniki, defenders of the law, or inakomyslyashchie, which literally means "those who think differently." The West began referring to them as "dissidents" and, in the Russian pronunciation, dissident came into general Russian usage.
What kind of man was he personally? I have found him variously described as naïve, saintly, shy, diffident; to some, he was akin to that Russian character known as yurodivyi, the holy fool who speaks truth to power; to others he was the consummate scientist, applying the rigorous discipline of scientific inquiry to politics and human rights.
By all accounts, Sakharov was not easy to work with — people who dealt with him found him stubborn and uncompromising.
He could spend weeks on an essay, as he did with "Reflections," but he could also react on the spur of the moment.
Sakharov was indeed shy and uncomfortable in social settings, but he certainly did not avoid confrontations, making his thoughts clear to the entire Academy of Science when he decided to oppose the nomination of a Lysenko ally, or pushing his way into a courtroom packed with KGB plants where a dissident was about to be tried.
I remember those trials well, though the ones I covered occurred after Sakharov was already in exile in Gorky — no matter how early we arrived, the courtroom was "full," with room only for immediate relatives. We'd stand around outside, waiting for the inevitable conviction.
For those who see him as a meek, retiring, and compassionate genius in the mold of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Prince Myshkin, I'd like to recall one incredible incident he describes in his Memoirs.
Without any advance warning, Sakharov is paid a surprise visit in Gorky by Nikolai Yakovlev, one of the sleazy, corrupted writers used by the KGB to slander its targets. Yakovlev had written an especially foul book attacking Sakharov and making vile anti-Semitic insinuations about his wife, Elena Bonner, yet here he comes and offers to interview Sakharov.
Here's how Sakharov describes what happens next: "I'd realized right away that I was going to end up hitting him."
And sure enough, Sakharov abruptly interrupts the conversation and says, "I'd rather take care of this matter by slapping you.
"I dodged around the table. He flinched and avoided the blow, but I surprised him with an unexpected left-handed slap on his flabby cheek. 'Now get out of here,' I yelled, pushing the door open."
I love to imagine that scene: so much for the passive holy fool.
There's another passage near the end of the Memoirs that has long intrigued me. It is about that extraordinary phone call from Mikhail Gorbachev on December 16, 1986. You have to understand that Sakharov has been in exile in Gorky for almost seven years, without a telephone and largely isolated from any contacts, and suddenly a pair of technicians come in at night and hook up a phone and tell him to expect a call in the morning.
"Hello, this is Gorbachev speaking."
"Hello, I'm listening."
Gorbachev then tells Sakharov that his trials are over, that he and Lyusia — the name he and most everyone used for Elena Bonner — can come home to Moscow. So what does Sakharov do? He starts talking to Gorbachev about the recent death of the dissident Anatoly Marchenko in prison, he starts demanding that Gorbachev release all prisoners of conscience.
It really is a remarkable exchange, and a remarkable image of Sakharov, instinctively putting the interests of others ahead of his own at a moment of supreme triumph.
But was it a triumph? The sad truth is that the collapse of the Soviet state, which seemed to vindicate everything the dissidents fought for, did not lead to the democratic state they presumed would follow.
Would he be disappointed? Probably yes, but I don't think that's the sort of category he worked in. His approach was to act on what needed to be changed and reformed, and not to succumb to dismay, disappointment, or despair.
Sakharov would be ninety-three now, and I presume he would be enormously active, writing letters and statements about Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and on behalf of Sergei Guriev, Vladimir Yevtushenkov, gay people, or the late Sergei Magnitsky.
He certainly did not pause to celebrate or to gloat when the Soviet state collapsed. He died on December 14, 1989, while working on a speech about the rights of suspects in criminal cases. Those were years of a huge upsurge in violent crime in Russia and, typically, Sakharov was thinking to the end about the rights of individuals.
He told Lyusia he was going to take a nap, but when she went into his room later he had passed away.
* * *
As I said at the outset, I never met the man, to my great regret.
I arrived in the Soviet Union as a correspondent on January 1, 1980, and of course one of my priorities was to meet Sakharov. My background is Russian, and we spoke Russian at home and closely followed developments in the Soviet Union.
My father, a Russian Orthodox theologian, had a weekly broadcast to the Soviet Union over Radio Liberty, and already as a boy I remember the thrill of the intellectual and creative "thaw" introduced by Nikita Khrushchev, and the Russian movies and records that began to reach America in those years, and the enormous excitement of reading Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
The human-rights movement had unfolded while I was an undergraduate in the 1960s — my campus was on the other side of the continent, and we had no palms — and I followed it with a passion.
The year 1980, when I arrived in Moscow as a correspondant, was a low time in US-Soviet relations — not that there had ever been really good times. A few days before our arrival, the Soviets had invaded Afghanistan. Relations with the West plummeted. And with the Moscow Summer Olympics scheduled for that summer, the KGB was hyperactive.
Sakharov, of course, was already known in the West as a dissident. His "Reflections" had come out in the West in 1968; in 1970 he and other dissidents had founded the Committee on Human Rights, he had married Elena Bonner in 1972, and by the time we arrived the dissident movement was Sakharov's primary occupation, and he was a major thorn in the side of the regime.
When I arrived I thought I was ready for the worst. I was friends with George Krimsky, the AP reporter expelled for his close contacts to Sakharov. I thought I knew how the KGB functioned, that every second person was an informer, that we would be listened to and followed. But knowing all this in theory is not the same as seeing it in reality. Nothing really prepared me for what happened January 22.
That was the day on which the authorities finally moved against Sakharov. We first heard about it from Liza Alexeyeva. She was the fiancée of Bonner's son Alexei Semyonov, who had left the Soviet Union, and she managed to get a call to Western reporters as soon as she heard that Sakharov had been seized.
I rushed to the apartment building on Chkalov Street where Sakharov lived — it was a stretch of the ring road now again called Zemlyanoi Val. There was already an army of uniformed and plainclothes officers keeping everyone at bay. But it was more than that — it was an extraordinary display of power and paranoia, of a superpower going to extreme lengths to silence just one man.
Every telephone, private and public, within a radius of at least a kilometer was cut off, as were the phones of all of Sakharov's close colleagues. Traffic was stopped in both directions. As the facts came out, we learned that a special Aeroflot flight was assigned to fly Sakharov and Bonner to Gorky, with only a dozen KGB agents on board.
Sakharov's description of the flight is another one of those passages that I find revealing of the man. Someone else in his place might have focused on the drama and horror of the event, but Sakharov noted that so long as he and Lyusia were together, "we were actually happy." And he also notes, "Normally there's no meal service on short flights, but on this one we were served a first-class dinner."
The extraordinary measures taken by the state to exile Sakharov, including the constant surveillance, the personal jamming station, the innumerable summons and harassments, were a testament to the moral power that Sakharov had come to wield by then.
It was also a testament to the fragility of the totalitarian state, which knew instinctively that someone who spoke the truth posed an existential threat to the system. There are not many figures in modern history who wielded such power — Nelson Mandela did, and perhaps Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma, but who else?
Excerpted from Andrei Sakharov by Sidney D. Drell, George P. Shultz. Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPreface Sidney D. Drell, Jim Hoagland, and George P. Shultz,
1. The Evolution of Andrei Sakharov's Thinking Serge Schmemann,
2. The Scientist as Prophet: Sakharov's World and Ours J. Bryan Hehir,
3. The Soul and Sakharov William Swing,
4. Environmental Effects of Nuclear War Raymond Jeanloz,
5. Decoding the Biosphere and the Infectious Disease Threat Lucy Shapiro,
6. Diagnosis, Reinvented for the Individual Elizabeth Holmes,
7. The Sakharov Conditions, Disruptive Technologies, and Human Rights Christopher Stubbs,
8. New Dilemmas in Ethics, Technology, and War: Sakharov's Principles in Today's World James O. Ellis Jr.,
9. A Military Perspective Jim Mattis,
10. Moral Reasoning and Practical Purpose David Holloway,
11. A Global Commons: A Vision Whose Time Has Come James E. Goodby,
About the Participants,