This statement was made at a conference in Moscow in December 2009 in honor of the twentieth anniversary of Andrei Sakharov’s death.
Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov—there was the man and there is what he accomplished. I saw the man only once in my life—on October 16, 1989, almost two months before he died in December of that year. That is why I will speak about what he did. Sakharov was a key figure for the democratic movements in the Soviet bloc. He was a scientist, working in a field, nuclear physics, of supreme importance for the state. Sakharov was highly successful. He was esteemed and rewarded by the government. He could feel secure.
But after observing what was going on in the world, Sakharov chose another path, the path of some other great Western physicists, like Einstein. He warned the world against nuclear war. In the West such a position could require courage and imaginative effort. In the Soviet Union it required heroism.
Members of the democratic movement in the Soviet Union have often been called “losers,” with unhealthy ambitions and a lust for power. Such thoughts are patently false if applied to Sakharov. He is proof of the rationality of democratic protest.
He began with a belief in reforms and persuasion, in peaceful coexistence and convergence. In the end he advocated comprehensive opposition and unvarnished truth. But he never called for revolution or violence. He remained uncompromising when that was necessary, but he was ready to compromise when that seemed desirable.
His position with respect to violence and revolution was similar to those of Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr., the Dalai Lama, John Paul II, and Václav Havel. His point of view was not that of a politician but rather that of a witness to history who had been drawn into political life and brought to it his own strong values.
The most important values for him were freedom and the dignity of the individual. He didn’t believe in the wisdom of the crowd, of the masses who can be easily manipulated. He didn’t believe in ethnic nationalism or in imperialism. He was a Russian patriot in the style of Chekhov and Herzen. That’s why he condemned Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and in Afghanistan in 1979.
Protest against the wrongful policies of his government was his form of patriotism. When the Soviet Union was at war with Hitler he believed that “our cause is just” but he no longer believed this to be true in the case of the Soviet suppression of the Prague Spring.
He paid a very high price: he became the victim of a furious slander campaign, of discrimination against him and his family, and of isolation in Gorky, enforced by constant and oppressive police surveillance. All this took a toll on his health and led to his early…
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all articles published within the last five years.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.