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25 Years After His Death, Sakharov Still Speaks To The Present

Nobel Prize-winning dissident and scientist Andrei Sakharov is mobbed at a Moscow railway station as he arrives home from exile on December 23, 1986.
Nobel Prize-winning dissident and scientist Andrei Sakharov is mobbed at a Moscow railway station as he arrives home from exile on December 23, 1986.

Here are four reasons why the legacy of Andrei Sakharov remains important for Russia (and the world) today, more than a quarter-century after his death.


Sakharov recognized the huge psychological and social consequences of the decades of Josef Stalin's totalitarian regime and its war on the Soviet people. In his 1968 manifesto, he wrote: "We are often told lately not to 'rub salt into wounds.' This is usually being said by people who suffered no wounds. Actually only the most meticulous analysis of the past and its consequences will now enable us to wash off the blood and dirt that befouled our banner."

Sakharov recognized that the politically controlled Soviet courts and law enforcement structures and the country's notoriously abusive prisons were continuing legacies of Stalin's regime. He added, as well, that "it is imperative that we restrict in every possible way the influence of neo-Stalinists in our political life." He called for the complete opening of Soviet archives of that period, many of which remain closed to this day.

Crimean Tatars

Sakharov was one of the first vocal supporters of the Crimean Tatar people and other ethnic groups that had been forcibly resettled under Stalin. Sakharov was prominent in his defense of Pyotr Grigorenko and other dissidents who were prosecuted for their support of the Crimean Tatars.

In December 1975, he and other activists sent a letter to the United Nations demanding an international investigation into the case of Crimean Tatar activist Mustafa Dzhemilev, who was at that time in the midst of the longest hunger strike (303 days) in the history of the Soviet human rights movement. Dzhemilev survived because of force feeding and is now a deputy in the Ukrainian parliament, where he continues to advocate for Crimean Tatars living in the Ukrainian region of Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014.

Foreign Agents

Sakharov and other dissidents were among the first in the post-Stalinist era to be handed the "foreign agents" label by the Soviet government. The Soviet government file on Sakharov and Yelena Bonner originally ran to 583 volumes of raw reports, but they were ordered destroyed in 1989. Under Yeltsin, an abridged 146 volumes were handed over to Bonner and subsequently published.

Unable or unwilling to believe that Sakharov's positions were sincere, the KGB and government supporters insisted privately and publicly that he was a tool of "reactionary imperialist and especially Zionist circles." The infamous book The CIA Against The U.S.S.R. by publicist Nikolai Yakovlev contained numerous such accusations about Sakharov and Bonner and went through three editions in the early 1980s. Excerpts from the book were published in millions of copies of Soviet magazines and newspapers.

Now, many leading Russian nongovernmental organizations have been listed as "foreign agents" by the Russian government, including the Memorial human rights group that Sakharov founded and the Moscow Sakharov Center, which is dedicated to preserving the Nobel laureate's legacy.

Environment And The Internet

Sakharov firmly believed that the United States and the Soviet Union should overcome their animosity and pool their resources to combat environmental degradation and poverty in the poorest countries. In his 1968 manifesto, he warned that "carbon dioxide from the burning of coal is altering the heat-reflecting qualities of the atmosphere." "Sooner or later, this will reach a dangerous level," he said, calling for an international program of "geohygiene."

In 1974, Sakharov described a "universal information system (UIS), which will give everyone access at any given moment to the contents of any book that has ever been published or any magazine or any fact. The UIS will have individual miniature-computer terminals, central control points for the flood of information, and communication channels incorporating thousands of artificial communications from satellites, cables, and laser lines. Even the partial realization of the UIS will profoundly affect every person, his leisure activities, and his intellectual and artistic development. But the true historic role of the UIS will be to break down the barriers to the exchange of information among countries and people."