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A Speech to the People’s Congress

In a rush to adjourn on June 9, the Congress of People’s Deputies grudgingly voted Andrei Sakharov five minutes to make a closing statement. He had written down his assessment of the Congress’s historic first session (May 26–June 9), but the pressure of time forced him to omit or condense several points. Gorbachev warned Sakharov that he was running over his time limit and then cut off the microphone after this memorable exchange:

GORBACHEV: Time’s up. Don’t you respect the Congress?

SAKHAROV: Yes, but I respect the country and the people more. My mandate extends beyond the bounds of this Congress.

The complete text of Sakharov’s statement follows.

I should first explain why I voted against the Congress’s concluding document. It contains many theses that are correct and important, many ideas that are original and progressive, but, in my opinion, the Congress failed to address the key political task facing it, the need to give substance to the slogan “All Power to the Soviets.” The Congress refused to consider a Decree on Power, although a host of urgent economic, social, ethnic, and ecological problems cannot be sucessfully solved until the question of power is decided. The Congress elected a chairman of the USSR Supreme Soviet [Mikhail Gorbachev] on its very first day, without a broad political discussion and without even a token alternative candidate. In my opinion, the Congress committed a serious blunder that will significantly reduce its ability to influence national policy and that will prove to be a disservice to our chairman-elect as well.

The constitution now in force assigns absolute and virtually unlimited power to the chairman of the USSR Supreme Soviet. The concentration of that much power in the hands of one man is extremely dangerous even if he is the author of perestroika. In particular, it opens the gate to behind-the-scenes influence. And what happens when someone else fills this post?

The construction of the state has started with the roof, which is clearly not the best way of going about things. The same approach was taken in the elections to the Supreme Soviet. Most delegations simply appointed a slate of candidates, who were then formally endorsed by the Congress, even though many of those selected are not prepared to serve as legislators. The members of the Supreme Soviet are supposed to quit their former jobs—but only “as a rule,” and this deliberately vague formula has allowed the introduction of “wedding generals” [people invited to swell the ranks at a social function] into the Supreme Soviet. I fear that such a Supreme Soviet will simply be a screen for the real power of its chairman and the Party-state apparatus.

We are in the throes of spreading economic catastrophe and a tragic worsening of interethnic relations; one aspect of the powerful and dangerous processes at work has been a general crisis of confidence in the nation’s leadership. If we simply float with the current, hoping that things will gradually get better in the distant future, then the accumulating tensions could explode, with dire consequences for our society.

Comrade deputies, at this moment in history, an enormous responsibility has fallen to you. Political decisions are needed in order to strengthen the local Soviet organs and resolve our economic, social, ecological, and ethnic problems. If the Congress of People’s Deputies cannot take power into its hands, then there is not the slightest hope that the soviets of Union Republics [the USSR is a federation of fifteen Union Republics], regions, districts, and villages will do so. But without strong local soviets, it won’t be possible to implement land reform or any agrarian policy other than nonsensical attempts to resuscitate uneconomic collective farms. Without a strong Congress and strong and independent soviets, it won’t be possible to overcome the dictates of the bureaucracy, to work out and implement new laws on commercial enterprises, to fight against ecological folly.

The Congress is called upon to defend the democratic principles of popular government and thereby the irreversibility of perestroika and the harmonious development of our country.

Once again I appeal to the Congress to adopt the following Decree on Power:

Proceeding from the principles of popular government, the Congress of People’s Deputies proclaims:

1) Article 6 of the USSR Constitution is repealed. [Article 6 states that the Communist party is “the leading and guiding force of Soviet society and the nucleus of its political system….”]

2) The adoption of all-Union laws is the exclusive right of the Congress of People’s Deputies. All-Union laws enter into force on the territory of a Union Republic after they have been confirmed by the Union Republic’s highest legislative body.

3) The Supreme Soviet is a working body of the Congress. [The Brezhnev Constitution defined the Supreme Soviet as “the highest body of state authority of the USSR,” but in practice it served an essentially ceremonial function.]

4) Commissions and committees charged with drafting fiscal and other legislation and with responsibility for permanent oversight of state agencies and of the country’s economic, social, and ecological situation will be formed by the Congress and the Supreme Soviet on the basis of equal representation and will be responsible to the Congress.

5) The Congress shall have the exclusive right to elect and recall the top officials of the USSR, i.e., the chairman of the USSR Supreme Soviet [the head of state], the deputy chairman, the chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers [the head of government], the chairman and members of the Committee for Oversight of the Constitution, the chairman of the USSR Supreme Court, the procuratorgeneral, the head of the State Arbitration Board, the chairman of the Central Bank, and also the chairman of the KGB, the chairman of the State Committee on Television and Radio, and the editor in chief of Izvestia. The officials named above are accountable to the Congress and not subject to decisions of the Communist party.

6) Candidates for deputy chairman of the USSR Supreme Soviet and for chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers will be nominated by the chairman of the Supreme Soviet, and additional candidates can be nominated by People’s Deputies. The right to nominate candidates for the remaining posts listed in paragraph 5 is a prerogative of People’s Deputies.

7) The functions of the KGB should be limited to those necessary for the protection of the USSR’s international security.

(Provision should be made in the future for direct popular election of the chairman of the USSR Supreme Soviet and his deputy with nomination of competing candidates.)

I request the People’s Deputies to study carefully the text of this Decree on Power and to put it to a vote at a special session of the Congress. I appeal to Soviet citizens to support the Decree on Power individually and collectively, just as they supported me when an attempt was made to discredit me and deflect attention from the question of responsibility for the war in Afghanistan.

I would like to respond to those who are trying to intimidate you by citing the impracticality of having two thousand people involved in the legislative process. Commissions and committees will prepare drafts for consideration by the Supreme Soviet, these will then be discussed during their first and second readings, and a complete transcript of the proceedings will be available to the Congress. If necessary, debate can be continued in the Congress itself. It will really be unacceptable if we—deputies who have received a mandate from the people—delegate our rights and responsibilities to one fifth of our number [542 of the 2,250 members of the Congress were elected members of the Supreme Soviet], and in actual practice to the Party-state apparatus and the chairman of the Supreme Soviet.

Let me continue. Any danger of armed attack on the Soviet Union vanished long ago. We have the largest army in the world, larger than the US and China combined. I suggest the setting up of a commission to prepare a draft resolution on reducing the term of military service: the term for privates and noncommissioned officers should be cut roughly in half [draftees now ordinarily serve two years], all types of weapons should be reduced accordingly, but anticipating a transition to a professional army over the longer term, I propose a significantly less drastic cut in the officer corps. A decision of this sort would have enormous impact internationally, building confidence and promoting disarmament (including a complete ban on nuclear weapons), as well as great economic and social significance. A particular point: all students drafted a year ago should be discharged in time for the academic term which begins this fall.

Now to ethnic problems. We have inherited from Stalinism a constitutional structure that bears the stamp of imperial thinking and the imperial policy of “divide and rule.” The smaller Union Republics and the autonomous national subdivisions, which are administratively subordinated to the Union Republics, are victims of this legacy. For decades they have been subjected to national oppression. Now these problems have come to the surface in dramatic fashion. But to an equal extent the more numerous ethnic groups have also suffered, and that includes the Russian people who have had to bear the main burden of imperial ambitions and the consequences of adventurism and dogmatism in foreign and domestic policy.

Urgent measures are required to deal with the current situation of acute interethnic tensions. I propose the creation of a new constitutional system based on horizontal federalism. This system would grant equal political, juridical, and economic rights to all existing national sub-divisions regardless of their size or current status, and preserve their established borders. In time, some rectification of these borders and of the composition of the federation will probably become necessary, and this should become the main business of the Soviet of Nationalities. The Republics will enjoy equal rights, forming a union on the basis of a treaty providing for the voluntary restriction of each Republic’s sovereignty only to the minimum extent necessary for the conduct of defense, foreign affairs, and a few other matters. Differences in the size of the Republics’ territories and populations or a Republic’s lack of an international frontier should not confuse the issue. Persons of different nationalities living in a single Republic should enjoy equal political, cultural, and social rights by law and in practice. The Soviet of Nationalities should be assigned the responsibility of monitoring this.

The fate of the forcibly resettled nationalities is a matter of cardinal concern. Crimean Tatars, Volga Germans, Meskhi Turks, Ingush, and others in this situation should have the opportunity to return to their homelands. The work of the commission organized by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet to deal with the question of the Crimean Tatars was clearly unsatisfactory.

Religious problems are closely associated with national problems. Any infringement of freedom of conscience is impermissible. It is intolerable that the Ukrainian Catholic Church has still not been officially recognized.

The most urgent political question is the confirmation of the role of the soviets and their independence. The elections of soviets at all levels must be conducted by genuinely democratic methods. The electoral law should be amended based on the experience of elections for the Congress. Regional meetings [to screen nominations] should be eliminated, and all candidates should have equal access to the mass media.

The Congress should, in my opinion, adopt a resolution embodying the principles of the Rule of Law. These principles include: freedom of speech and conscience; an opportunity for private citizens and public organizations to contest, before an independent tribunal, the acts and decisions of all organs of power and officials; the democratization of trial and investigatory procedure, including access to defense counsel from the very beginning of a criminal investigation; trial by jury; transfer of jurisdiction over criminal investigations from the procurator’s office, which should be solely concerned with faithful execution of the laws.

I urge that the laws on meetings and demonstrations and on the use of internal troops be reviewed, and that the Decree of April 8 [on subversion and the defamation of state organs] not be confirmed.

The Congress does not have the power immediately to feed the country, immediately to solve our nationality problems, immediately to eliminate the budget deficit, immediately to make the air and the water and the woods clean again, but what we are obliged to do is to establish political guarantees that these problems will be solved. That is what the country expects from us.

All Power to the Soviets!

Today, the attention of the whole world is riveted on China. We should take a political and moral stand on this issue, a stand faithful to the principles of internationalism and democracy. The resolution adopted by this Congress is not sufficient. The participants in the nonviolent democratic movement, and those who initiated bloody reprisals against them, are treated equally.

A group of deputies have drafted and signed an appeal, calling on the government of China to end the bloodshed. The Soviet ambassador’s presence in Peking at this moment may be seen as tacit support on the part of the Soviet government and people for the Chinese government’s actions. In these circumstances, the recall of our ambassador is necessary. I urge that he be ordered home.

translated by Edward Kline

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