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Letter to My Foreign Colleagues

The following letter was sent by Andrei Sakharov to the French Committee of Mathematicians and Physicists just before he began, on November 22, the hunger strike that resulted in Yelizaveta Alekseyeva’s being given permission to emigrate. It was published in the Nouvel Observateur.

I have frequently expressed myself about my son Alyosha and his wife Liza Alekseyeva. After Alyosha was forced to emigrate three and a half years ago, Liza became a hostage to my public activities. Violating their international obligations, the Soviet authorities have forbidden her to emigrate: she is persecuted, threatened with arrest, and, with no reasons for hope, reduced to despair. Alyosha and Liza affirmed their mutual fidelity in a proxy marriage which took place in June 1981, under the laws of the state of Montana. Notwithstanding the challenge to its validity by the Soviet authorities,1 such a marriage is clearly one more affirmation of the deep desire of Alyosha and Liza to live together. According to the Helsinki accords and other international agreements signed by the Soviet Union, such a desire is in itself a sufficient reason to permit Liza to obtain an emigration visa.

I feel myself directly responsible for the difficult situation of Liza and Alyosha. It is impossible for me not to react in view of their years of suffering caused by the fact that they are so close to me and by their confidence in me when I insisted that Alyosha emigrate, persuaded as I was that Liza would be able to join him later. I am ready to take responsibility for my own activities, including those that have become public issues, according to the law of the state, and I ask for public judgment on them. But that my son and his wife should be used as an instrument of vengeance in an attempt to bring pressure on me is unworthy, illegal, and intolerable. There can be no question of my having contact of any sort with my Soviet colleagues or of any scientific work so long as this tragedy being lived out by people I love continues. And it is precisely here that I need help from all who can give it and from places where such help will have the best chance of success.

I have twice addressed an appeal for intervention to the president of the Supreme Soviet, Leonid Brezhnev. I sent him a telegram in July 1980 and a letter in May 1981. I have received a reply to neither one. I assume that my requests never reached him, or even his offices, but were blocked by the KGB, which thought that the president of the Supreme Soviet, having deprived me of all my honors as a “hero of socialist labor,” had thus sanctioned all the other illegal actions that have been taken against me. It is precisely for this reason that I ask my friends abroad to request that the authorities of their own countries, through their contacts with Brezhnev and highly placed Soviet officials, try to focus attention on this problem and encourage steps toward its solution. This is the only way to pierce the wall of the KGB. Unfortunately it is not yet clear whether efforts in this direction have been made.

A year ago I sent a request to the president of the Academy of Soviet Science, A. Alexandrov, and to the vice-president of the Academy, E. Velikhov, asking them to defend me as a man being held hostage. I received no reply from them, or to repeated letters and telegrams to Velikhov.

In 1981 I wrote to the academician Ya. Zeldovich, with whom I was linked by long years of work together and, as I thought, by friendship, as well as to the academician Yu. Kharlton, the director of the institute where I worked for eighteen years. In June 1981 I presented the same request for assistance in the matter of Liza to the academician P. Kapitsa and to the academician B. Kadomtsev, who works on “controlled fusion.”

Zeldovich wrote me that he categorically refused to help me, justifying himself (without foundation, I am convinced) by the fragility of his own position, which he deemed to have been revealed by the fact that he “could not travel farther than Hungary.”2 Zeldovich, an academician who like myself was three times awarded the title “hero of socialist labor,” had (like me) access to secret documents but was not implicated in activities that were public and concerned with human rights. I never asked him or any other academician to take noisy actions, only for a few calm and genuinely felt words. The academicians Yu. Kharlton, P. Kapitsa, and B. Kadomtsev have never replied to my letters.

The response of Zeldovich and the position of the other Soviet scientists have bitterly disappointed me: both personally and as the manifestation of a pernicious abdication of responsibility, and therefore of the possibility to influence the course of events. (I speak not only of my own situation.) Moreover, I have the impression that this silence derives not from considerations of principle but conceals shamefully petty motives.

I feel around me a wall of incomprehension, indifference, passivity. The tragedy of Liza and Alyosha continues, and, if nothing changes it, will continue for a long time. In this extreme situation, and after long and painful reflection, my wife Elena Bonner—a veteran, wounded during World War II—and I have made the decision to begin a hunger strike on November 22, in order to obtain permission for Liza to emigrate from the Soviet Union. In making public this decision I hope you will understand our reasons for undertaking this action, and its necessity for us as a matter of conscience, in the face of this tragic situation.

I undertook a previous hunger strike to support “prisoners of conscience” in the Soviet Union.3 I consider that the defense of our children is as legitimate as that of other victims of injustices; but in this case, it appears that it was precisely myself and my activities that were the cause of human suffering. I believe as well that this step follows logically from the many years during which I have publicly defended the right to choose one’s country of residence, an option that we lack in our country, leading to many tragedies.

I count on your help.

  1. 1

    In fact, nothing in Soviet law restricts the authorities from recognizing a marriage by proxy. Moreover, according to the Soviet matrimonial code (Article 32), “marriages between Soviet citizens and foreigners, when they take place outside the Soviet Union, and when the legal procedures prevailing in the place where the [marriage] contract is made have been respected, are recognized as authentic [legal] in the Soviet Union.” (French translator’s note.)

  2. 2

    The position that a person occupies in the Soviet hierarchy is frequently described according to the places to which he is allowed to travel: within the Soviet Union; to Eastern Europe (to Hungary, for example); or to “the capitalist countries.” (French translator’s note.)

  3. 3

    Dr. Sakharov went on a hunger strike in 1974, during Nixon’s visit to Moscow, demanding the liberation of Vladimir Bukovsky and other “prisoners of conscience.” (French translator’s note.)

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