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The Sakharovs in Gorky

Note: Natalya Viktorovna Hesse, an old and trusted friend of Nobel prize winner Andrei Sakharov and his family, arrived in Vienna from the Soviet Union on February 5, 1984. Hesse, who is now seventy, has known Elena Georgievna Bonner, Sakharov’s wife, for more than thirty years and Sakharov himself since 1970. This friendship, as well as her own views, was not approved of by the Soviet regime. Of her decision to emigrate to the United States to join her son and his family Hesse said:

The pressure against me was intensified. My apartment was searched, I was interrogated, I was called to the KGB many times for all kinds of talks…. But this was not the reason for my leaving the country. I was never afraid of them [the Soviet authorities], and I would have been able to resist them further…. But there was a change in my personal circumstances, and I decided to leave. And the KGB provided all kinds of “assistance.”

The purpose of this “assistance” is quite clear. According to Hesse, the KGB is determined to isolate the Sakharovs completely and to deprive them of any help from their friends.

Before her departure from the Soviet Union, Natalya Hesse met privately with Sakharov in Gorky and visited Elena Bonner in Moscow. She has brought alarming news of the deterioration of Sakharov’s health and of a new heart seizure suffered in January by Elena Bonner, who had still not completely recovered from the previous one. Upon her arrival in Vienna, Hesse was interviewed by Vladimir Tolz, a former dissident who is now a research analyst for Radio Liberty in Munich. The following is a translation of parts of the interview, which was recorded in Russian by Radio Liberty.

TOLZ: Please tell us about your meeting with Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov.

HESSE: This was our seventh meeting over the past few years since his forced exile to Gorky. In this case, as also in the case of the six other meetings (I will talk about the first one separately), the meeting took place on the street, at a prearranged place and a prearranged hour. We didn’t have much time. I already knew that I would be going away and I came to say goodbye to him. He has aged much, he is full of worries concerning the health of his wife, Elena Georgievna…. But he is not broken, he is not bending; he is full of worry and he is physically weak, but he is strong in spirit as always….

Between incoherent and hurried exchanges—because we had only a few hours at our disposal—between trivia and important topics—which we touched upon sometimes in more detail, sometimes with laughter or with sorrow—between questions about the life of our dear ones—who has been arrested, whose homes have been searched—we recalled Orwell, and I think this was not incidental. We have lived to see the year predicted by Orwell—1984. And it may seem strange to a Western person, it may seem that Orwell has nothing to do with real life, that his terrible utopia still remains a utopia or maybe an anti-utopia. However, the Soviet authorities—our dear KGB—have overtaken Orwell by four whole years. In 1980, Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov and Elena Georgievna Bonner were plunged into a world that surpassed Orwell’s nightmarish fantasies.

I will try to explain concretely what I mean. In 1980, I had some luck. I arrived in Gorky on January 25, immediately after the seizure and forced transportation of Andrei Dmitrievich to Gorky. His routine at that time had not yet been set; the authorities didn’t know how to organize it, and I was able to stay with them for a month. Their entire apartment is bugged, there isn’t a corner where each sigh, each cough, each footstep, not to speak of conversations, can’t be overheard. Only thoughts can remain secret, if they haven’t been put down on paper, because if the Sakharovs go to the bakery or to the post office to mail a letter, the KGB agents will search the place. They will either photograph or steal the written thought.

Andrei Dmitrievich, with his weak heart, his inability to walk up even five or seven steps without pausing for breath and trying to quiet his heartbeat, is forced to carry a bag that I, for example, can’t lift. When once we went into a shop, he asked me to watch over this bag, but I wanted to see what was on a shelf, and I had to drag the bag after me. I just could not lift it. In this bag Andrei Dmitrievich carries a radio receiver, because it would be damaged if left at home, all his manuscripts—both scientific and public ones—diaries, photos, personal notes. He has to carry all this around with him. I think all this must weigh no less than thirty pounds. And this man with a bad heart—suffering from acute hypertension—is forced to carry this bag every time he leaves home, even if it is only for ten minutes.

There is in the apartment a special generator that creates additional interference over and above the interferences caused by conventional jammers in all cities of the Soviet Union. This produces a terrible growl that drowns even the jammer’s noise. In order to hear at least some free world voice, one has to go away from the house. It would be better to go out of town, but Andrei Dmitrievich cannot take even one step beyond the city limit, cannot go past the sign with the word “Gorky” on it. He is immediately turned back, he is denied such a possibility, although there is no published verdict condemning him to such isolation.

This is complete lawlessness on the part of the so-called competent bodies. It is very interesting that the recent law on citizenship uses this term, “competent bodies,” without any explanation. This is one example of the extent of illegality in our state. There cannot exist a judicial term that is not and cannot be explained. However, the law states that some cases must be reviewed by the MVD, while in some other instances, as prescribed by other articles, the same cases are supposed to be dealt with by “competent bodies.” It is not clear who these “competent bodies” are. When the term is used in the press, one can only guess who and what they are. But when this is not explained in the text of the law, one may only make a helpless gesture and just wonder.

TOLZ: Natalya Viktorovna, you were going to tell us about your first visit to Gorky in greater detail.

HESSE: Yes. At that time I managed to stay there for a month, together with Sakharov and Elena Georgievna, who, however, often traveled to Moscow in an effort to do something there to make Andrei Dmitrievich’s life easier. A lot of interesting things were going on. There was a stream of letters, vast numbers of them, ten and occasionally a hundred a day. After a few days I began to sort them out—having decided to take a look—because there were all kinds of letters: some greeting and supporting him, some bewildered, some neutral ones in which people asked him to explain his position—asking whether what the Soviet papers wrote about him was true.

But some of the letters were abusive—there were curses, there were threats. Some letters were, I would say, of an extreme nature. One letter was, in my view, very funny. We all laughed terribly hard when it arrived: “We, second-grade pupils, sternly condemn the position of Academician Sakharov, who wants to unleash an atomic war between the Soviet Union’s peaceful democracy and the rotten Western world. Shame on Academician Sakharov! Second-grade pupils.” Such a letter was obviously dictated by an illiterate teacher.

Another extreme letter was also very interesting and somehow simply touched one’s heartstrings. It began with some swear words, but not obscene, no. Then it said: “I am seventy-four years old. I am a construction engineer. I live well and have a separate room in a hostel. The water pump is about three hundred yards from where I live, and I have to carry firewood from the woods, but still I am a patriot. And your studies were paid for by Soviet money, but you have now betrayed your homeland.” This letter was from a woman who represents one of the most terrible types of Soviet patriot. When a person exists at the bottom level of human life and does not realize it—imagining that he lives well—this is very frightening.

After about a week I said: “Listen, these letters must be sorted out, so that we can see the result. There are already many hundreds of them. I’ll review them and make an assessment, and then we’ll see what they add up to.” When all this was done, I loudly announced: “Well, this is terribly interesting: 70 percent are messages of greeting, 17 percent are neutral or expressing bewilderment, and only 13 percent are abusive ones.” The result of this careless remark—made aloud—was very unexpected. Letters with greetings and voicing approval simply ceased to arrive. From the very next day we began to receive only abusive letters. This was evidence of very attentive and well-organized monitoring and careful analysis of all conversations within the apartment.

The second incident happened after I had left. I heard about it from Elena Georgievna. She had walked to the window and, looking at the joyless, empty lot covered with trash and at the highway beyond with roaring trucks passing by, said: “From the window in Moscow one can see Red Square, but from this window, only a bit of the street, trash, and all kinds of shit. It is better not to look out the window.” And then turning to Andrei Dmitrievich, who was standing beside her, she said: “You know, Andrei, I think I’ll photograph this, take a picture and send it to the West. Let them look at this wonderful landscape.” The next day three trucks arrived and soldiers collected all the trash on the empty lot in front of the windows. Commenting on this, Elena Georgievna used to say jokingly: “Thus I’ll bring order to Gorky.”

I have said that Sakharov was not allowed to leave Gorky’s city limits, to step beyond the sign that read “Gorky.” But the house itself, although within the city limits, is located near the borderline. Then there is a ravine—also still within the city limits; it is a sort of empty lot with a thick aspen grove. Andrei Dmitrievich and Elena Georgievna once decided to take a walk along a narrow path and—in accordance with the rules—two persons in civilian clothes tagged after them. The Sakharovs exchanged some glances and, having gone separately in different directions away from the path, hid in the thick bushes. Having lost sight of them, the agents began running to and fro. Within three minutes a helicopter arrived on the spot, descended to about five meters above the ground, and KGB agents with scared, fierce faces stared out of all the windows, trying to locate the Sakharovs. Thus it is impossible to hide from the KGB’s “almighty eye” anywhere—even in thick aspen bushes.

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