Gorki, Moskva, Dalye Vezde (Gorky, Moscow, and Beyond)
Trevoga i Nadezhda (Alarm and Hope)
On a winter’s night in 1986, two electricians and their KGB escort installed a “special telephone” in the apartment of Andrei Sakharov. For six years Sakharov and his wife Elena Bonner had been living in the industrial city of Gorky under government edict, and the sudden appearance of the new mystery phone seemed at first just another Orwellian moment in the day of exiles. Maybe the Soviet press would call for an interview, Sakharov thought. Two magazines had already put in requests. Turning the moral equations in his mind, Sakharov arrived at a finely calibrated stand of principle: he would refuse all interview requests until there was no longer a “noose around my neck.” The KGB agent merely turned to Sakharov and said, “You will get a call around ten tomorrow morning.”
The next day, the phone rang. A woman’s voice said, “Mikhail Sergeyevich will speak to you.” Now Gorbachev was on the line, calling to tell Sakharov that he and Bonner could return to Moscow.
“You have an apartment there,” Gorbachev said, without a word of apology or regret. “Go back to your patriotic work!”
Sakharov said a brief word of thanks, then wasted no time in going back to his patriotic work. He told Gorbachev that for the sake of “trust, for peace, and for you and your program,” the Kremlin was obliged to release the political prisoners included on a long list he had mailed to the leadership from Gorky. “Gorbachev made a noncommittal reply,” Sakharov remembered. The Soviet leader said he did not quite agree that all the prisoners Sakharov was speaking for had been tried illegally. Then the two men said their awkward goodbyes.
A week later, Sakharov arrived by overnight train at Moscow’s Yaroslavl station, an event of such moral and political importance that it felt as if it were the reversal of yet another homecoming seven decades before—that of Lenin at the Finland Station. But no one then could predict what was ahead for Sakharov in the three years left to him. Exile had worn him down. KGB threats, a painful hunger strike, forced feedings, random attacks, thefts of his diaries and manuscripts—all of it had taken a toll on his health. Now, as he answered questions into the swarm of tape recorders and television lights, his voice was mumbly, hesitant at times. He walked with a stoop and had to catch his breath every few steps on flights of stairs. Bonner said at the time that Sakharov would limit his activities. He would read up on developments in cosmology and work on specific human rights cases.
A few days after his return to Moscow, Sakharov was sitting at the kitchen table of his close friend, the human rights activist Larisa Bogaraz. Mikhail Gefter, one of the country’s few honest historians, turned to Sakharov and said, “How are you feeling, Andrei Dmitriyevich?” Sakharov said rather sadly, “It is difficult to live now. People write me, they visit …