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The Week In Russia: Dreams Of A Patriot: 100 Years Of Sakharov


Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov (1921-1989)

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Born a century ago, atomic bomb designer and dissident Andrei Sakharov died two years before the Soviet Union’s collapse, cutting short his struggle for "pluralism, freedom, and respect for the individual." What would he think of Russia today?

'Sources Of Strength'

On December 14, 1989, Andrei Sakharov was preparing for "battle" in the Soviet Congress of People’s Deputies the following day, readying a speech in which he would press for the Communist Party to be stripped of its monopoly on political power.

He never delivered it: Sakharov died that evening, at the age of 68, after leading a remarkable life that affected the world and altered the fate of the Soviet Union -- but ended two years before the country he was trying hard to change for the better ceased to exist.

Sakharov’s demand was fulfilled three months after his death, at least in principle, when the congress declared all political parties equal. Coming a year after he was elected in the first balloting in decades that featured competitive races with multiple candidates, it was another step in the direction of democracy.

Sakharov, a brilliant physicist and Soviet hydrogen-bomb program pioneer who became what a colleague called a "fearless, selfless, and unprejudiced" fighter for human rights and freedoms, was born in Moscow on May 21, 1921. If he were still alive, he would be 100 years old now.
What would he think about Russia today?

The way things were going at the time of his death, it seems safe to assume that despite the concerns he aired prominently, Sakharov held high hopes for fundamental changes in the areas he found most important -- "pluralism, freedom, and respect for the individual," to name three he listed in his memoirs as "all-important sources of strength and flexibility in a society."

More than three decades later, however, there are plenty of signs suggesting he might feel frustrated and dismayed, lamenting an apparent reversal of progress made in the last few years of his life and in the turbulent times that followed.

An obvious example is electoral politics.

Just two days before his sudden death, Andrei Sakharov addresses the Soviet legislature on December 12, 1989. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev can be seen in the background.
Just two days before his sudden death, Andrei Sakharov addresses the Soviet legislature on December 12, 1989. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev can be seen in the background.

In the months before Sakharov’s death, the Congress of People’s Deputies that had been elected in March was the setting for vital, sometimes raucous debates about the troubled past and the uncertain future. Its televised sessions – a daytime drama that played out against the backdrop of momentous change in Eastern Europe, which was slipping fast from Moscow’s grasp, mesmerized the nation.

Hours before he died, in remarks to opposition members of the congress, Sakharov had said Mikhail Gorbachev’s government was "leading the country to catastrophe" by foot-dragging on reforms.

Two years later Gorbachev resigned, signing the death notice of a country that had effectively ceased to exist and paving the way -- in principle -- for democracy in the 15 independent countries that emerged.

'No Place'

But elections in Russia today are marred by evidence of fraud and the heavy-handed use of political levers gripped tightly by the Kremlin, and parliament is seen widely as a rubber stamp for President Vladimir Putin's policies.

The lower house, the State Duma, dominated by the Kremlin-controlled United Russia party for years, was once described by its own speaker as "no place for discussions."

The presence of liberal opposition lawmakers in the Duma is a fading memory, and while three parties that are nominally in the opposition hold seats -- including the Communists, who claim the mantle of the Soviet-era party Sakharov struggled to defang -- critics say they are little more than foils for United Russia, window dressing put up to in a faux show of pluralism.

The upper house is an unelected body seen widely as a resting place for members of the ruling apparatus who have outlived their usefulness as officials but need to be kept in the Kremlin’s orbit.

Andrei Sakharov with his wife, fellow rights activist Yelena Bonner, in 1987.
Andrei Sakharov with his wife, fellow rights activist Yelena Bonner, in 1987.

There’s also the justice system. Like many in the human rights movement that took shape in the 1960s, such as the late Lyudmila Alekseyeva, some of Sakharov’s earliest dissident activity revolved around the courts. He met his wife, fellow activist Yelena Bonner, outside a political trial they both were trying to monitor in 1970.

Such a meeting would be easy to imagine happening today: Politically charged trials occur on what sometimes seems like a daily basis, and opponents of the Kremlin often risk police action to gather outside courthouses and support defendants.

Perhaps more than by anything else, Putin's 22 years as president or prime minister have been defined by prominent prosecutions and trials -- and in some cases by multiple trials of a single defendant, such as former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Aleksei Navalny, the Kremlin opponent and anti-corruption crusader who is now serving 2 ½ years in prison after returning to Russia following treatment abroad for a near-fatal poisoning he blames on Putin.

Like in the Soviet Union, acquittals are rare -- so rare that, for government opponents, a suspended sentence is often seen as a victory of sorts -- the best possible outcome.

And there is also dissent itself, and the government's attitude toward those who challenge the state or champion the rights of the people.

When Sakharov was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975, the committee cited his steadfast opposition to "the abuse of state power and all forms of violation of human dignity" and his dedication to "the idea of government based on the rule of law."

One Man’s Patriot…

Those pursuits did not sit well with the Kremlin. A year after he won the prize, KGB chief Yury Andropov, who would later become Soviet leader for a 15-month period before his death, told a closed meeting of the security service that Sakharov was "domestic enemy No. 1." And in 1980, he was banished to Nizhny Novgorod, the Volga River city called Gorky at the time.

In December 1986, three years before Sakharov’s death, Gorbachev telephoned the physicist and activist to tell him he was being released from internal exile. He was free, the Soviet leader said, to return to his "patriotic work" in Moscow.

That characterization may have been a piece of political calculation by Gorbachev, who needed liberal allies to fend off pressure from hard-line opponents of reform. But it is the polar opposite of the way Putin and his government frequently refer to many of those who challenge the state and its narratives.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin

A "foreign agent" law that Putin signed in 2012 resurrected Soviet-era terminology of the kind that Sakharov and his allies in human rights advocacy abhorred. The legislation has since been expanded to enable the authorities to target media outlets as well, and to allow for the criminal prosecution of journalists.

Meanwhile, Russian officials and state media have stepped up efforts to portray Navalny as a treasonous tool of the United States and the West, and the imprisoned opposition leader's organizations in Moscow and his offices nationwide may soon be outlawed as “extremist.”

Many supporters of Navalny, as well as some merely perceived as such, have been expelled from university, sacked from their jobs, or subjected to prosecution. Dozens of Moscow subway workers have been fired or forced to quit in the past few weeks in a campaign of dismissal linked to alleged support for Navalny.

Sakharov was one of the most prominent in a line of dissidents, stretching back before the failed experiment with communism and continuing after the Soviet Union’s demise, who have suggested that the country will never really thrive until a situation in which the perceived interests of the state trump the rights of each of its citizens is reversed.

Putin has never been seen as an advocate of the individual, and analysts say that a raft of constitutional amendments he secured last year, including one allowing him to run for two more six-year terms when his current stint in the Kremlin ends in 2024, have moved Russia further away from that goal.

'Walking Upright'

The amendments have "indirectly undermined the first principle articulated in Article 2 of the Russian constitution, namely, that the individual rights and freedoms shall be of supreme value,” William Pomeranz, deputy director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center, a U.S.-based think tank, wrote last year.

The changes in the constitution also weaken the judiciary and strengthen prosecutors, Pomeranz wrote ahead of their adoption in a nationwide vote denounced by Kremlin opponents as a farce.

With the constitutional changes, he added, Putin has quashed speculation about "the possibility of a more vibrant legislature" and "reforged a unified, autocratic, centralized, and highly personalized state."

"Russia will require yet another constitution if it ever wants to reclaim its status as an emerging democracy," Pomeranz wrote.

Political analysts predicted that the amendments, and the prospect of Putin remaining president until 2036, would embolden Russian law enforcement structures and leave government opponents and other ordinary citizens even more vulnerable to abuse at the hands of the state.

Those forecasts have been borne out by the crackdown that gathered force late last year and intensified following Navalny’s return to Russia in January.

And by one very direct measure, Putin’s Russia seems to have fallen short of Sakharov’s vision of openness: Ahead of the centenary of his birth, Moscow authorities prevented an exhibition meant to mark the occasion from taking place.

The show was to have consisted of a series of street displays featuring photographs of Sakharov and quotes from his writings and speeches, as well as remarks others made about him.

One of those remarks, from the literary scholar Sergei Averintsev, was this: "It will never be forgotten that Sakharov stood tall without waiting for permission to do so, and thus helped immensely to bring about the moment when walking upright became possible for the weaker ones -- that is, for the rest of us."

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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