The Sakharov Campaign

Andrei Sakharov is no enemy of détente. On the contrary, complete and genuine détente, ideological as well as political coexistence, has been one of the two objectives of the extraordinary campaign he has been waging since 1968.

The other is the democratization of the Soviet Union. Sakharov envisaged democratization as the foundation for a firm and lasting détente, and détente, as solidifying democratization. What he never imagined is that a limited form of détente might be achieved without democratization and turned into a positive obstacle to it. This is the unpleasant turn of events which lies behind the anguish he is now expressing. This is what the Nixon-Brezhnev understanding did to his hopes and to the cause of freedom within the Soviet Union.

The Sakharov campaign relied on two optimistic assumptions. The first was that the social systems of the two superpowers would converge, the Soviet Union growing more democratic and the United States more socialistic. The other was that the Soviet Union would be forced in this direction by the power of its technological elite and the need to give that elite—and the population at large—more freedom if the Soviet Union were to improve its low labor productivity and solve the ever more complex problems of managing the modern economy.

In three major memorandums of extraordinary breadth and humanity addressed to Kremlin leaders in 1968, in 1970, and again in 1971, Sakharov produced a blueprint for gradually liberalizing the Soviet regime. This blueprint derived from a larger vision which qualifies Sakharov pre-eminently for the Nobel peace prize. His ultimate premise is that “if mankind is to get away from the brink, it must overcome its divisions.” Not only the thermonuclear weapons he helped fabricate but the other urgent planetary problem of uneven development between poor and rich nations requires mankind to look upon itself as “a single family.”1 For Sakharov democracy and true détente are both endangered if men are sealed off into separate air-tight chambers by suspicious police states.

Sakharov’s memorandums were first circulated in samizdat among Soviet scientists and scholars for discussion and revision. But they were addressed to the top Kremlin leaders and their argument was designed on pragmatic lines to appeal to that audience. The crucial message was that the Soviet economy was falling behind that of the United States quantitatively and qualitatively. This was most bluntly stated in the Sakharov Memorandum No. 2 of March, 1970, addressed to Brezhnev, Kosygin, and Podgorny. This one was also signed by the historian Roy A. Medvedev and the mathematician and computer expert V.F. Turchin.2 They warned the Kremlin leaders:

The more novel and revolutionary the aspect of the economy, the wider becomes the rift between the USA and ourselves. We are ahead of the USA in the production of coal but behind them in the production of oil, gas, and electric power, ten times behind in chemistry and immeasurably behind in computer technology. The latter is especially essential, for the introduction of electronic…

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