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On Gorbachev

Elena Bonner, translated by Conor Daly

The following was given as an address at the University of California, Berkeley, on March 22, 1990, where Dr. Bonner was introduced by Czeslaw Milosz.


In this cruel century our common experience has been the individual’s helplessness when confronted by society, by the state, by financial powers, or by police regulations. In spite of the lip service paid to individualism in the West, the individual seems everywhere to be shrinking; and only by being fully aware of our predicament are we able to rejoice when we discover that miracles are possible, and that the determination of one man struggling against virtually insuperable odds can change the thinking of millions of his contemporaries.

Andrei Sakharov had against him all the institutions of his country, including the Academy of Sciences, of which he was a member. He had against him the most powerful police apparatus in the world, and—let us not ignore the truth—he had against him what his resigned compatriots called realism or common sense. His allies were only a handful of so-called dissidents, mostly kept in forced labor camps or psychiatric clinics. We should visualize the years of his exile in a provincial town under police surveillance. He accepted his fate, for he had faith in the final victory of basic human values—but I do not know whether his refusal to compromise would have been possible without the love of Elena Bonner, who gave him her full support in danger. I feel we greet here in her person not only his faithful companion, but the most authentic voice of his deepest convictions.

I am glad I have the opportunity of addressing you as a professor of the University of California, but also as a writer of the Polish language, born in Lithuania. What is going on in the Soviet Union and in the countries of Central Europe concerns me directly, and I realize what the meaning of Andrei Sakharov’s message is at this moment. He was for the friendly and humane coexistence of nations. and publicly condemned the policy of conquest. And certainly he belonged to those Russians who do not visualize the Soviet Union as an empire ruling over nations that would be kept under its control against their will.

The whole part of Europe from which I come is indebted to Andrei Sakharov, for its newly reinvented freedom is to a large degree the result of his courage. At the same time, however, we should be aware of a danger already looming on the horizon, and that danger—noticeable in Russia but also in other countries—is the rise of chauvinism and racism, often concealed in terms of conservative, autocratic, if not outright neo-totalitarian philosophy. And in this respect the heritage of Andrei Sakharov’s thought should be our guide, whether we are Poles, Lithuanians, Hungarians. Czechs, Germans, or Russians, or Americans. The future of my Europe will depend on our ability to overcome national animosities, and to keep alive the spirit of brotherhood, so that the odious past doesn’t poison us again.

All those who pursue this goal will have Andrei Sakharov as their leader.


The full text of Dr. Bonner’s speech follows.

I think that today it is particularly important to speak about the situation in our country, and in the countries of the so-called (and thank God now former) Communist bloc, because the future of all of us depends upon how events in that part of the world unfold; because it is more important now than ever before for people in the West—and particularly Western social and political leaders—to have a concrete understanding of what exactly has changed and what should now be done. What I am about to say I do not consider to be the authoritative “last word” on the subject, but I will say what I think and how I view events.

Five years ago there began in our country a process which is usually called by the now world-famous term perestroika. This word is usually associated with the name of Mikhail Gorbachev, but I would like to remind you that in his 1972 work Memorandum to Soviet Leaders1 Sakharov used all the words that have now become part of fashionable usage: “perestroika,” “glasnost,” “stagnation.” In that work, along with an assessment of the situation in the Soviet Union, he sketched out a clear, systematic plan—indicating what needed to be changed for our country to stop being a monster, terrifying the rest of the world, and for it to join the ranks of other democratic countries.

It seems to me that, having set perestroika in motion, Gorbachev passed through two phases: the first part of this five-year period (two to three years) really did constitute a progressive move forward. During this time “glasnost” really did appear—not full “freedom of the press,” but at least it now became permissible to talk about what had happened in the past—the tragic past of the country—and about those negative elements which persisted from the “stagnation” period. “Glasnost” gave the Soviet reader things that had only been published in the West, and in all of this it performed a great service.

A second point. The early “perestroika years” were notable for the release of a large number of prisoners of conscience. That does not mean that there are no more prisoners of conscience left in our country—there still are, and the struggle on that front must not stop. There is even one new prisoner, whose arrest (for a whole year—a year and two months even—he has been held in jail) is due to nothing other than the fact that he is an Armenian leader of Nagorni Karabakh.2 His name is Arkali Manucharov—he’s an elderly man, he fought in World War II, and I would like to draw your attention to his fate.

The third change that perestroika brought is a change in the policies for leaving the country, both for emigration and in the documentation process for visits to and from the Soviet Union, which has become much simpler. This is a very important, concrete step, because it has eased the plight of many separated families, friends, and loved ones. And—this is a key point to note—all these three steps are achievements toward which people were struggling in the West as well, not just dissidents within the Soviet Union. Sakharov always used to insist on the need for freedom of information, on freedom for prisoners of conscience and the freedom to travel and emigrate.

The fourth important step taken in the perestroika period by Mikhail Gorbachev and his government was the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. The war there brought incalculable misery to the people of Afghanistan, and who knows what its psychological consequences will be for the younger generation in our own country. Our government recently took one more step that was very difficult for it to make. It declared the war to have been an unjust war, a war that should never have even been begun, much less waged—that is, the government admitted its own guilt for the war. I should point out that Sakharov played an important role in this decision. You have probably all seen the television clips [from the first Congress of Peoples’ Deputies in June 1989] in which a young Afghan vet, who lived through the war in Afghanistan and lost both his legs, started to attack Sakharov (the young man was told to do so—he had been specially prepared). Those clips were broadcast all over the country and all around the world. Finally though, under great pressure from Sakharov and the huge mass of public opinion which gathered behind him, our government reluctantly took this decision, a decision which amounted to self-condemnation.

So now I have enumerated the four most important achievements of the first period of Gorbachev’s rule. At the same time as this was going on, several steps were taken on the economic front—steps which turned out to be errors, and which seriously destabilized the financial and economic system of a state that has always had serious difficulties in coping with its economy.

And that is probably all one can say on the subject of “positive steps,” at least with respect to internal policy, because there were also some important changes in foreign policy. Particularly important is the real change in the policy on disarmament.

In Rekjavik, at his meeting with Reagan, Gorbachev refused categorically to examine the problem of rockets in Europe, saying that their removal couldn’t be discussed without parallel examination of the Star Wars issue. Sakharov, immediately after his return from Gorky, made a speech at the Moscow Forum, in which he proposed that it was time to “unite the package” so to speak, i.e., to stop linking these two issues and examine them separately. Two months later Gorbachev made that decision—a decision made easier by the fact that as far back as 1983 Sakharov had been emphasizing that the Western alliance should be allowed to station its rockets in Europe and proceed with the MX missile program, so that it would have a bargaining chip.

These were the first steps that really set an authentic disarmament process in motion, and brought Gorbachev great adulation in the West. And I would fully share the feelings of the West, were it not for other actions of Gorbachev which overshadowed his positive moves, In the country’s internal political life Gorbachev has unfortunately accomplished very little, practically nothing at all. As for the word perestroika (which means “reconstruction”)—when people are renovating their apartment or building a new house, they usually know what it is they’re about to “construct.” Whereas we still do not know. That is, we have not yet had political change and we still have no conception of what will be “constructed” to replace the state which used to call itself “the State of Developed Socialism.”

All the constitutional changes effected by Gorbachev over the last two years concerned only the potential for increasing the personal power of, first, the chairman of the Supreme Soviet and, now, the president. Whereas in actual fact our country needs a new constitutional mechanism that does not proclaim the missionary purpose of communism or of any ideology. Up to now we have been living by a constitution drawn up by Stalin and altered slightly by Brezhnev (for the Party’s benefit). In connection with this Brezhnev constitution, when Sakharov first read a draft of that document in Pravda, he came into the kitchen with the newspaper in his hand—I was cooking at the time—and he said, “I don’t understand what it is we’re being offered—a constitution? Or a new set of Party regulations?”

And with this same constitution, somewhat “corrected” by Gorbachev—but only in the direction of strengthening his own personal power—our state has continued to exist to the present day. Only political, constitutional, change, and only a new treaty between the republics, could help tell us, the inhabitants of the Soviet Union as well as the rest of the world, what will be “constructed.” Our country needs a constitution which defends its citizens and their rights, which defends its constituent peoples. What we need is something like a “Bill of Rights,” but for the moment all we have is a “Bill of the Rights of the State over Citizens, Peoples, Republics.” We need a new constitutional mechanism to regulate national issues, in which no one people would have less weight than any other.

  1. 1

    Published by Knopf in 1974 as Letter to Soviet Leaders.

  2. 2

    In Russian, Narodnyi Kavabakh; a predominately Armenian region that became a part of Azerbaijan in the early Twenties.

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