Russians, of course, lost an intellectual giant and a moral compass on that day. But additionally, the democratic opposition, and the segment of society that sympathized with it, lost its undisputed leader.
That mantle, for better or worse, fell to Boris Yeltsin -- who proved adept at bringing down the tottering Soviet system but who was, to put it charitably, far less skilled at building a functional political system in its wake. Sakharov's death, and the change in the opposition's leadership, was highly consequential for Russia's subsequent post-Soviet political development.
Who leads the opposition, especially in a time of rapid political change, really matters.
And this is one of the main reasons why I consider the October 21-22 online primary elections to the current Russian opposition's new Coordinating Council to be potentially very important.
"We are watching a very interesting, intriguing, and optimistic procedure of a real democratic election," Kirill Kobrin of RFE/RL's Russian Service said on last week's edition of the Power Vertical podcast.
As I blogged last week in a post ahead of that podcast, an electoral commission is in place, candidates are being registered, and the online Dozhd TV station begins broadcasting debates among candidates for seats on the council this week.
In many ways, this whole process will be something of a coming-out party for what I have called "The Other Russia."
It will be the time when activists, hipsters, and members of the urban middle class will attempt to turn the slogans they have been chanting on the streets and the values they have been writing about on their blogs into real action -- by holding a truly democratic election among themselves.
Over the past nine months since protests began in earnest, commentators have noted that today's Russian opposition lacks a clear leader. There is certainly nobody with the moral cache of Sakharov out there. There isn't a clear Yeltsin waiting in the wings. There are, instead, several niche figures who appeal to specific constituencies.
But perhaps this isn't such a bad thing.
As virtually everybody commenting on Russian affairs has noted, the current opposition is a diverse lot spanning the spectrum from nationalists to liberals to leftists and everything in between. This, in turn, reflects the fact that Russian society as a whole has become increasingly diverse politically and increasingly differentiated socially.
A 45-member council with an ideologically diverse composition -- the Other Russia's shadow parliament, if you will -- is probably the most effective way to reflect that diversity.
Of course, media chatter about the elections has largely zeroed in on the infighting and intrigues surrounding the vote. The latest involved the latest salvo in an ongoing spat between socialite-turned-activist Ksenia Sobchak and opposition State Duma deputy Ilya Ponomaryov. (The lawmaker accused Sobchak of turning the campaign into a version of the racy Dom-2 reality show she once hosted.)
Given this cynicism, one of the most important numbers I will be watching on October 21-22 is the turnout figure. How many people care enough to cast a ballot will give at least some indication of how large this Other Russia really is? Turnout is also important, because the new council's legitimacy will be linked to how representative the election is.
And then, of course, comes the hard part.
The council's responsibilities will include things like deciding when, where, and why to hold protests and which causes to champion. But they will also involve things like picking candidates for future Russian elections and negotiating with the Kremlin authorities. In theory at least, when the fledgling Power Horizontal talks to the Power Vertical, it will be through the council.
And this will all inevitably get tricky for a body comprising nationalists, liberals, and leftists.
In a comment on my post last week about this issue, the always insightful Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies noted that reserving seats for the three ideological blocs (five each) "kicks the problem down the road" rather than solving it "democratically through the election."
I would argue, however, that the issue will be resolved -- to a degree -- with the result of the elections for the 30 at-large seats, which make up two-thirds of the council.
I do agree with Sean, however, that the true test of the movement's maturity will come after the election, when the council meets and begins to hammer out its positions.
Sure, it will be messy. But something tells me Andrei Sakharov would have been proud.
-- Brian Whitmore