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An Interview with Andrei Sakharov

The following interview is extracted from a six-hour conversation tape-recorded with Andrei Sakharov at his apartment in Moscow this January. The interviewer, the French writer Jean-Pierre Barou, was accompanied by his interpreter, Phillipe Frison. Sakharov’s wife, Elena Bonner, joined in the conversation from time to time. A somewhat different version was published in Le Figaro and other European papers.

JEAN-PIERRE BAROU: The new Soviet electoral law provides for the creation next March of a People’s Assembly with 2,250 members. Two thirds of them will be chosen by universal suffrage. The final third will be nominated by political organizations or by social and professional organizations—

ANDREI SAKHAROV: Let me interrupt you immediately. What you are describing is only the most minute part of a very complex mechanism, which includes a great many snares and hidden aspects that make it much less than democratic.

In my view the new electoral system has two major faults. The candidates who run for office undergo a process of selection that is not democratic and isn’t based on any formal criteria. On what grounds candidates were eliminated I have no idea. I simply note that the same thing happened last June when it came to sending delegates to the Party conference. We saw then that the opponents of progressive ideas, of glasnost, were preferred and were prominent at the conference. But, above all, the elections take place at several levels.

JPB: Are you thinking of the Supreme Soviet?

AS: Indeed I am. Its four hundred delegates, who are drawn from the People’s Assembly, will elect the president, but we also don’t know by what criteria they will be chosen. We are told that one fifth of the delegates will come up for reappointment every year, but according to what principles? We have no way of knowing.

JPB: Are the people, and I don’t mean just the intellectuals, interested in this debate?

AS: Yes, but they are cautious. We aren’t seeing any material benefits from perestroika. And yet the people aren’t interested only in material goods. They want to see an end to the lying. But it is still going on. We’re in a period of transition, looking for the path toward higher ground. But we have to wait.

JPB: Do you think military or diplomatic secrecy can become less oppressive? Could glasnost provide an opening?

AS: I believe that very few secrets are really important. As I see it, the less there are of them, the better it is for world stability. This is why I consider the presence of spy satellites a factor promoting peace and confidence. The better we know other countries, our potential enemies, the safer the world will be. The notion of the military and diplomatic secret should be abolished.

JPB: Are you considered a leader of the democratic opposition in the USSR today?

AS: I don’t think I’ve ever had the soul of a leader. I try hard to represent only myself. My position changes, too, depending on circumstances.

JPB: At this stage, then, what do you think about perestroika?

AS: I believe it is absolutely necessary. That we have no other solution. But this doesn’t imply that we must unquestioningly support Gorbachev, even if things were started at his initiative. Besides, it wouldn’t be right to associate perestroika one hundred percent with his name. Gorbachev can come under pressure, he can change his mind. We have to support the ideal of restructuring in general without being afraid of annoying one group or another.

It is important that everyone understand that Soviet cooperation with the West is possible only because of the progressive development of perestroika. It is proclaimed as official policy, but the question of perestroika is more and more complex and full of contradictions. I don’t like the electoral law, as I told you, or the law permitting the police to break up meetings and demonstrations, or the arrest [and transfer to Moscow in December] of the members of the Karabakh Committee [a group of Armenian activists who demanded that the Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan be attached to Armenia], or the arrest of Poulatov, an Azerbaijani militant, even if I’m not personally sympathetic to him because he calls for violence.

JPB: You recently went to Armenia with your wife and the vice-president of the Academy of Sciences.

AS: When I returned from the United States, I was very anxious about what was happening to the Armenians. I went to see Alexander Yakovlev [secretary of the Party Central Committee] who must have spoken to Gorbachev about my visit. It was they who proposed that I go to Armenia to see for myself. No doubt they thought I would, as a result, make a more balanced assessment of the situation. Once we were there, we traveled by helicopter. And what I saw and learned was beyond anything I had imagined. As soon as emergency supplies such as warm clothes and blankets were unloaded, the crowds charged at them. Those who could do so carried off a pile of blankets or a case of canned goods, and the rest got nothing. It was a terrifying, brutish scene out of a story by Jack London.

JPB: What of the violence against the Armenians of Azerbaijan?

AS: It was terrifying. People were raped, burned alive. A pregnant woman was disemboweled and her fetus thrown into the road; an Armenian family was besieged for three days before being killed—one member was burned alive. The massacres of [Armenians in the Azerbaijani town of] Soumgait in November were provoked by the local mafia who do millions of rubles of business each year in the underground economy. They undoubtedly have connections with the police and the KGB. Soumgait, to cite just one example, is only twenty minutes from Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. It’s an area that could easily be controlled if there were a will to do so.

At Baku, the crowds chanted, “Aliyev, thank you for the weapons.” [G.A. Aliyev was a member of the Politburo and had been the KGB chief in Azerbaijan. He was dismissed from his duties on October, 21, 1987.] Whatever the cause, the events for a while escaped the control of the mafia.

In Baku, I saw a girl who had sewn a portrait of Khomeini on her scarf. Religious fanaticism had a part in what was happening there. But in Armenia, this was very much less the case. If there is a mafia in the Armenian republic, it is certainly less important. There, what we are seeing is a truly democratic movement.

JPB: The demand for greater autonomy for the republics, as in the Baltic states, for example—is this not a broadly based demand by people who want to run their own affairs?

AS: Yes, there is a broad popular base for that. I think other aspects of perestroika have popular support as well.

JPB: As a member of the Memorial Association organized to rehabilitate the victims of Stalinism, have you had any problems with the authorities?

AS: Yes. The memorial’s purpose is to build an archive, research center, and public library, dedicated to the victims of Stalin. We had an account at the Gosbank where we deposited the contributions we received from the public. One day, when the leaders of the memorial movement showed up at the bank, they learned that on the authority of Youdine—the chief of cultural affairs at the Central Committee—the bank was denying them access to the account; and that it had been decided that the money in the account would be used to erect a monument to the victims of Stalinism. “Isn’t this what you yourselves wanted?” the Central Committee asked us. I was myself called up before the committee, and during my interview I noticed a member of the nationalist organization Pamyat was there. But of course, we are going to press on with our efforts. [At the end of January, the Central Committee authorized the Memorial Association to hold a constitutive assembly, but the association’s account remained blocked.]

JPB: By Pamyat, you mean the nationalistic and anti-Semitic movement.

AS: That’s right.

JPB: What about the question of Jews in the USSR today?

AS: [turns to his wife, Elena Bonner, who is Jewish] Elena, are they still arresting refuseniks? Are they being fired?

ELENA BONNER: In my view, no.

JPB: But are there still many refuseniks who can’t leave the USSR?

AS: I think there are considerably fewer than there used to be. But there are still some, and the laws controlling them have not been changed. It’s important that our laws be brought into line with those of the West…. Some of the refuseniks try to avoid anything to do with state secrets in their work. Many live on their savings, and on whatever help they are sent.

EB: In general, anyone in the USSR could leave today. Psychologically, the atmosphere has changed. The authorities don’t have the same bad attitude toward refuseniks, or in fact anyone wanting to emigrate. The problem, for once, comes from the West: the United States is the only Western country with an open door policy. So the Americans, alone, have to extend a welcome to all comers; but because they can’t give refugee status to everyone, a large number of Soviet émigrés are stuck in Italy. But you can’t accuse the US of having imposed a quota system.

When this issue was taken up at the recent Vienna conference, only the Soviet restrictions on emigration were discussed. But the rest of the West should do its part. Even such a well-known dissident as Yuri Orlov, who lives now in France, can’t obtain French citizenship.

JPB: You’ve always said—and written—that freedom of movement for the individual and the freedom to settle where one likes are the cornerstones of human rights.

AS: The situation has evolved, and the priorities are no longer the same. I feel that freedom of association now has a higher priority. All the informal groups that are multiplying throughout the USSR must be able to find their rightful places in our society. For the individual today, the question of collective rights is more pressing than that of personal ones.

JPB: Do you support the notion that has become one of the key terms of the new Soviet thought, that of an “état de droit” [a state based on law]?

AS: An “état de droit” is required by our historical situation, in which man is the victim of the diktats of the state. The law has to encourage a pluralistic society. If a society is really pluralistic, which is to say nontotalitarian, it will keep intact the criteria by which it makes moral judgments. The menace to such criteria is uniformity, a uniformity sustained by a totalitarian regime or by the diktat of the state, of the masses, or of the media.

JPB: The media?

AS: Absolutely, the media can destroy morality. This is why I am in favor of debates about mass culture, about the culture of distraction, about the degrading influence of television. I much prefer a culture based on books and on the encounter between people and books. And both the books and the music that are currently fashionable make me fearful; but obviously they don’t pose any mortal danger. The mortal danger is totalitarianism. With Hitler and Stalin we saw humane culture disappear.

JPB: Lately, people in the USSR talk a lot about Lenin. As if perestroika were a part of Lenin’s legacy, only after his death the “founding father’s” intentions were betrayed.

AS: Gorbachev speaks about this a lot. He claims we’re in the process of restoring the ideals of Lenin’s time. But in fact, from the bottom up, we’re building something entirely different. Because we can’t return to Lenin’s time, it’s not possible. If what we’re witnessing today is an interesting evolution of society, we can also guess that there is a process of fermentation going on inside people’s minds. I can’t help thinking of Stanislaw Lem’s science fiction story Solaris, where images spring out of men’s brains bathed in a terrifying shade of orange. Which is by way of saying that I don’t take much joy in the current situation. But we have no alternative to perestroika, and no one knows where exactly we are going.

EB: With all the talk about Lenin, people here hardly ever mention Khrushchev, to whom we owe the very quality of our lives today: the improved remuneration of the people who work on the kholkozes [collective farms], the housing policy, the system of retirement. And the first real reductions of the number of soldiers on active duty in the history of the Soviet Union.

AS: Khrushchev took some big risks when he cut down the size of the army. That’s why he was overthrown. But thanks to him, we took a big step forward from 1953.

JPB: In the West, we don’t always understand too clearly what is happening to political prisoners here.

AS: To my knowledge, there are no more prisoners of conscience under Articles 70 and 190 of the penal code that prohibits activities considered antisocial. On the other hand, we took a step backward when they arrested members of the Karabakh Committee. A problem that is not entirely resolved is that of psychiatric internments. And we know of some cases where they used the penal code to jail politically active people under charges of breaking the common law.

JPB: Are you against holding an international conference on human rights in Moscow in 1991?

AS: The West has to keep up the pressure on the USSR, right up until the International Conference on Human Rights in Moscow. It must be clearly understood that if conditions here are not truly satisfactory, the conference will not be held in the Soviet Union.

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