The usual narrative of the unraveling of the Soviet Union moves from the promising reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev to the dashed hopes of Boris Yeltsin to the authoritarian counterrevolution of Vladimir Putin. But within that narrative, the story of Andrei Sakharov -- the physicist, human rights advocate, and 1975 Nobel Peace Prize laureate who died on December 14, 1989 -- is one of the tantalizing "might-have-beens."
"If [Sakharov's] ideas had been realized even by half, we would be living in a different country, a completely different state," Russian political analyst Valery Khomyakov told RFE/RL in May.
Speaking to U.S. television in February 1990, Soviet-era dissident and then-Czechoslovak President Vaclav Havel said it was "a real tragedy for the Soviet Union that Sakharov died, because otherwise very soon he might have become president there."
"He was, as far as I can see, the only integrating personality in the present-day Soviet Union," Havel said.
It was months after Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution shed one-party rule and weeks before the first of the so-called restored states would declare independence as the U.S.S.R. collapsed in what current President Vladimir Putin has described as "a great geopolitical disaster of the [20th] century."
Celebrated Socialist Hero
Sakharov's path to such stature was an unlikely one.
He began his rise in the early days of the Cold War when he played a leading role on the Soviet Union's top-secret hydrogen-bomb project. Through the 1950s and early 1960s, he accumulated an unprecedented number of Soviet honors for his work -- three Hero of Socialist Labor awards, four Orders of Lenin, a Stalin Prize in 1953 and a Lenin Prize in 1956.
In 1953, at the age of 32, Sakharov became the youngest person ever elected to the Soviet Academy of Sciences. At the peak of his career, he had more money and more privileges than many Politburo members.
But Sakharov's career as a dissident also had its roots in the hydrogen-bomb program.
"My position enabled me to know and see a great deal," Sakharov wrote in the preface to his collected writings in English in 1974. "It compelled me to feel my own responsibility; and at the same time I could look upon this whole perverted system as something of an outsider."
Like many scientists in other countries, Sakharov worried about the environmental effects of the huge number of nuclear tests being conducted.
When he argued with Nikita Khrushchev's government that the tests weren't technically necessary, he realized the weapons were being used for political ends. Nonetheless, he persevered and became one of the most important lobbyists in the Soviet Union for what eventually became the 1963 Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which banned such tests in the atmosphere, in space, and underwater. He was also among the first Soviets to argue for a ban on antimissile systems, a vision that became reality with the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 1972.
Standing Up For Truth
After Khrushchev's fall in 1964 and the end of the relative liberalism of his regime, Sakharov became increasingly outspoken in his dissent. He resisted efforts under Leonid Brezhnev to rehabilitate the reputation of dictator Josef Stalin and came out in support of many prisoners of conscience.
"In 1966, I was one of the signers of a collective letter on the 'cult' of Stalin sent to the 23rd Congress [of the Soviet Communist Party]," Sakharov wrote. "Thus, for the first time, my own fate became intertwined with the fate of that group of people -- a group that was small but very weighty on the moral (and, I dare say, the historical) plane, who subsequently came to be called 'dissenters.'"
In 1968, Sakharov came to international and national prominence with the publication of his first manifesto: Thoughts On Progress, Peaceful Coexistence, And Intellectual Freedom.
"I read it while a university student in physics," former Soviet dissident Vyacheslav Bakhmin said. "For me, this feat of a man who had everything from the government, who was three times a Hero of Socialist Labor.... For such a person, who had everything, to undertake such a feat -- I can't think of anyone else like that in the Soviet Union. A person on such a level decided that for him, the truth was more important than all his personal benefits."
When Sakharov's book was published abroad, the state responded by removing him from all secret projects. From then on, he became primarily a dissident, pushing the Soviet government tirelessly for freedom of speech, for the release of political prisoners, for open trials, and for the rights of ethnic minorities. He donated nearly all his substantial savings from his state prizes to charity, an act he later said he regretted because he could have used the money to help the families of political prisoners and other dissidents.
During this period, Sakharov began focusing on the rights of individuals that had been destroyed by the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and, particularly, by Stalin's reign of terror beginning in the 1930s.
"The dissident movement represented the opposite of everything that totalitarianism stood for -- primarily what [political philosopher] Hannah Arendt called 'the destruction of the moral person' and the destruction of the legal person," said Vladimir Tismaneanu, professor of comparative politics at the University of Maryland and former chairman of the Presidential Commission for the Analysis of the Communist Dictatorship in Romania.
"Both the moral and the legal person were resurrected in the thinking and the activities of the dissident movement in the former U.S.S.R. And the paradigmatic symbol of this search for the rehabilitation of the citizen was, of course, Andrei Sakharov."
Resurrecting The Person
Russian political analyst Mark Urnov noted that "Sakharov had a fundamentally different starting point -- the humanization of the country, the humanization of society." In the Soviet context, this was "a different way of thinking."
For centuries of Russian history, the interests of the state always trumped the rights of the individual -- and Sakharov dared to say this was both immoral and a major obstacle to the successful development of the country.
"In the course of 56 years our country has undergone great shocks, sufferings, and humiliations, the physical annihilation of millions of the best people (both morally and intellectually), decades of official hypocrisy and demagoguery," Sakharov wrote in 1975. "We are still living in the spiritual atmosphere created by that era."
In 1970, while standing outside a courtroom in the city of Kaluga to protest a political trial, Sakharov met fellow dissident Yelena Bonner. They married in 1972 and formed a lifelong political and personal partnership.
"The main thing was her bright mutual love with Andrei Sakharov," physicist, dissident, and Sakharov protege Sergei Kovalyov said when Bonner died in 2011. "Sakharov was a person who was absolutely free from any kind of outside pressure. He was attentive and willing to listen to various points of view, including, first of all, Bonner's. You could convince him. You could change his mind. But you could never have a decisive influence over him. Bonner understood this and they lived together in harmony."
Also in 1970, Sakharov and two other dissidents founded the Committee on Human Rights, which monitored and reported on human rights issues throughout the country.
"Thus I was brought into contact with what is perhaps one of the most shameful aspects of present-day Soviet reality: illegality, and the cynical persecution of persons coming out in defense of basic human rights," Sakharov wrote.
Enemy Of The State
Sakharov won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975 for his steadfast opposition to "the abuse of state power and all forms of violation of human dignity," as well as his dedication to "the idea of government based on the rule of law," according to the Nobel Committee's citation. One year later, in a closed meeting of KGB officers, KGB head Yury Andropov called Sakharov "domestic enemy No. 1."
In 1980, after Sakharov spoke out against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the government had enough. It rescinded all of his Soviet honors and exiled him to the closed city of Gorky, now Nizhny Novgorod. Watched by the KGB around the clock, he had almost no direct contact with anyone except Bonner.
By the time Gorbachev solidified his power and began pushing to reform the Soviet Union, Sakharov had become an important domestic and international symbol of Soviet oppression. On December 19, 1986, Gorbachev personally called Sakharov and told him he was released from exile and could resume his "patriotic work" in Moscow. True to form, Sakharov used the opportunity to harangue Gorbachev about other political prisoners and to remind him that Anatoly Marchenko had died in a Soviet prison just 10 days before, following a 90-day hunger strike.
"Gorbachev had started to understand that he needed an alliance with the democratic intelligentsia," Tismaneanu said. "To convince the democratic intelligentsia of the trustworthiness of glasnost [openness], this opening to someone like Andrei Sakharov was critical."
'Voice For The Voiceless'
Sakharov's unconditional release was one of the first signs to Soviet society, especially following the mishandling of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster just months before, that Gorbachev's reform drive might be the real deal. That drive reached high gear in 1988, when Gorbachev pushed through a plan to create an entirely new legislative body called the Congress of People's Deputies. Although the elections held in March 1989 were far from democratic, they were the first Soviet elections in decades that featured competitive races with multiple candidates and that brought to power deputies with a wide range of political views, including anticommunists.
To the surprise of many of his colleagues and despite his rapidly deteriorating health, Sakharov sought and won a mandate, being elected as a representative of the Academy of Sciences.
"Sakharov went into the government knowing that a person of his stature might be able to influence and accelerate the processes that were then going on in the country," former dissident Bakhmin said. "He understood that the things that he could say from the podium -- and tens of millions of people in Russia and abroad were listening -- could be said by no one else."
Analyst Urnov noted that the congress "set the style...for relations with the government." By standing up directly to Gorbachev and the Communists, "Sakharov acted like an icebreaker."
Sakharov "became the voice of those who for decades had been voiceless,” Tismaneanu said.
Sakharov's main demand was the repeal of Article 6 of the Soviet Constitution, which gave the Communist Party a monopoly on political power. Speaking from the tribune of the congress, Sakharov outlined his political program.
"I am presenting a draft text of a declaration on power that I propose we adopt," Sakharov said. "'Declaration on Power. Proceeding from the principles of popular government, the Congress of People's Deputies declares (1) Article 6 of the Constitution of the U.S.S.R. is repealed. (2) The adoption of laws of the U.S.S.R. is the exclusive right of the Congress of People's Deputies of the U.S.S.R. On the territory of the union republics, laws of the U.S.S.R. gain legal status after they are approved by the highest [republican] legislative body.'"
It takes effort now to remember how radical it was in the post-Stalin and post-Brezhnev Soviet Union to be the first to stand up and make such demands. The demand to end the Communist Party's monopoly on political power was finally realized in March 1990 when the congress declared all political parties equal -- potentially paving the way for a multiparty democracy.
'What Might Have Been'
By then, however, Sakharov was already dead. He died of heart failure on December 14, 1989, at the age of 68, while resting before making yet another speech before the congress. (Two weeks later, on December 29, Vaclav Havel became the first freely elected president of Czechoslovakia.)
Hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens paid their last respects to Sakharov. Gorbachev and the entire Soviet Politburo saluted his casket.
Politically, Boris Yeltsin, the charismatic and populist fellow deputy in the congress who went on to become the head of the Russian soviet republic and later first president of Russia, increasingly set the tone for the anti-Soviet opposition.
"Yeltsin did not address the fundamental issues of democratization as an institutional project," Tismaneanu said, suggesting that Yeltsin was driven largely by his own ambition for power and his personal conflict with Gorbachev. "Andrei Sakharov and some of the people in his circle understood how important it was to have institutional guarantees for a nonreturn to the old order."
The Soviet Union, of course, was a large and complex entity with a tortured history. It is impossible to compare "what might have been" there with, for instance what happened in Czechoslovakia, Poland, and other Soviet-bloc countries.
"But I think if [Sakharov] had been alive, it is possible in 1991 that we might have had such a president," former dissident Valentin Gefter said. "But we were unlucky. That man died in 1989, and no one else with that kind of reputation and authority appeared in his place."
"There is something that I have learned over many years of studying the history of totalitarianism and the deradicalization of Marxist regimes -- the role of personalities," politics professor Tismaneanu said. "That is something that cannot be exaggerated. Simply put: No Gorbachev, no glasnost. No Sakharov, very difficult times for the human rights movement in the former Soviet Union."
"Both now and for always," Sakharov said in his 1975 Nobel address, "I intend to hold fast to my belief in the hidden strength of the human spirit."