Andrei Sakharov and Elena Bonner
Andrei Sakharov and Elena Bonner; drawing by David Levine

Note: Natalya Viktorovna Hesse, an old and trusted friend of Nobel prize winner Andrei Sakharov and his family, arrived in Vienna from the Soviet Union on February 5, 1984. Hesse, who is now seventy, has known Elena Georgievna Bonner, Sakharov’s wife, for more than thirty years and Sakharov himself since 1970. This friendship, as well as her own views, was not approved of by the Soviet regime. Of her decision to emigrate to the United States to join her son and his family Hesse said:

The pressure against me was intensified. My apartment was searched, I was interrogated, I was called to the KGB many times for all kinds of talks…. But this was not the reason for my leaving the country. I was never afraid of them [the Soviet authorities], and I would have been able to resist them further…. But there was a change in my personal circumstances, and I decided to leave. And the KGB provided all kinds of “assistance.”

The purpose of this “assistance” is quite clear. According to Hesse, the KGB is determined to isolate the Sakharovs completely and to deprive them of any help from their friends.

Before her departure from the Soviet Union, Natalya Hesse met privately with Sakharov in Gorky and visited Elena Bonner in Moscow. She has brought alarming news of the deterioration of Sakharov’s health and of a new heart seizure suffered in January by Elena Bonner, who had still not completely recovered from the previous one. Upon her arrival in Vienna, Hesse was interviewed by Vladimir Tolz, a former dissident who is now a research analyst for Radio Liberty in Munich. The following is a translation of parts of the interview, which was recorded in Russian by Radio Liberty.

TOLZ: Please tell us about your meeting with Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov.

HESSE: This was our seventh meeting over the past few years since his forced exile to Gorky. In this case, as also in the case of the six other meetings (I will talk about the first one separately), the meeting took place on the street, at a prearranged place and a prearranged hour. We didn’t have much time. I already knew that I would be going away and I came to say goodbye to him. He has aged much, he is full of worries concerning the health of his wife, Elena Georgievna…. But he is not broken, he is not bending; he is full of worry and he is physically weak, but he is strong in spirit as always….

Between incoherent and hurried exchanges—because we had only a few hours at our disposal—between trivia and important topics—which we touched upon sometimes in more detail, sometimes with laughter or with sorrow—between questions about the life of our dear ones—who has been arrested, whose homes have been searched—we recalled Orwell, and I think this was not incidental. We have lived to see the year predicted by Orwell—1984. And it may seem strange to a Western person, it may seem that Orwell has nothing to do with real life, that his terrible utopia still remains a utopia or maybe an anti-utopia. However, the Soviet authorities—our dear KGB—have overtaken Orwell by four whole years. In 1980, Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov and Elena Georgievna Bonner were plunged into a world that surpassed Orwell’s nightmarish fantasies.

I will try to explain concretely what I mean. In 1980, I had some luck. I arrived in Gorky on January 25, immediately after the seizure and forced transportation of Andrei Dmitrievich to Gorky. His routine at that time had not yet been set; the authorities didn’t know how to organize it, and I was able to stay with them for a month. Their entire apartment is bugged, there isn’t a corner where each sigh, each cough, each footstep, not to speak of conversations, can’t be overheard. Only thoughts can remain secret, if they haven’t been put down on paper, because if the Sakharovs go to the bakery or to the post office to mail a letter, the KGB agents will search the place. They will either photograph or steal the written thought.

Andrei Dmitrievich, with his weak heart, his inability to walk up even five or seven steps without pausing for breath and trying to quiet his heartbeat, is forced to carry a bag that I, for example, can’t lift. When once we went into a shop, he asked me to watch over this bag, but I wanted to see what was on a shelf, and I had to drag the bag after me. I just could not lift it. In this bag Andrei Dmitrievich carries a radio receiver, because it would be damaged if left at home, all his manuscripts—both scientific and public ones—diaries, photos, personal notes. He has to carry all this around with him. I think all this must weigh no less than thirty pounds. And this man with a bad heart—suffering from acute hypertension—is forced to carry this bag every time he leaves home, even if it is only for ten minutes.


There is in the apartment a special generator that creates additional interference over and above the interferences caused by conventional jammers in all cities of the Soviet Union. This produces a terrible growl that drowns even the jammer’s noise. In order to hear at least some free world voice, one has to go away from the house. It would be better to go out of town, but Andrei Dmitrievich cannot take even one step beyond the city limit, cannot go past the sign with the word “Gorky” on it. He is immediately turned back, he is denied such a possibility, although there is no published verdict condemning him to such isolation.

This is complete lawlessness on the part of the so-called competent bodies. It is very interesting that the recent law on citizenship uses this term, “competent bodies,” without any explanation. This is one example of the extent of illegality in our state. There cannot exist a judicial term that is not and cannot be explained. However, the law states that some cases must be reviewed by the MVD, while in some other instances, as prescribed by other articles, the same cases are supposed to be dealt with by “competent bodies.” It is not clear who these “competent bodies” are. When the term is used in the press, one can only guess who and what they are. But when this is not explained in the text of the law, one may only make a helpless gesture and just wonder.

TOLZ: Natalya Viktorovna, you were going to tell us about your first visit to Gorky in greater detail.

HESSE: Yes. At that time I managed to stay there for a month, together with Sakharov and Elena Georgievna, who, however, often traveled to Moscow in an effort to do something there to make Andrei Dmitrievich’s life easier. A lot of interesting things were going on. There was a stream of letters, vast numbers of them, ten and occasionally a hundred a day. After a few days I began to sort them out—having decided to take a look—because there were all kinds of letters: some greeting and supporting him, some bewildered, some neutral ones in which people asked him to explain his position—asking whether what the Soviet papers wrote about him was true.

But some of the letters were abusive—there were curses, there were threats. Some letters were, I would say, of an extreme nature. One letter was, in my view, very funny. We all laughed terribly hard when it arrived: “We, second-grade pupils, sternly condemn the position of Academician Sakharov, who wants to unleash an atomic war between the Soviet Union’s peaceful democracy and the rotten Western world. Shame on Academician Sakharov! Second-grade pupils.” Such a letter was obviously dictated by an illiterate teacher.

Another extreme letter was also very interesting and somehow simply touched one’s heartstrings. It began with some swear words, but not obscene, no. Then it said: “I am seventy-four years old. I am a construction engineer. I live well and have a separate room in a hostel. The water pump is about three hundred yards from where I live, and I have to carry firewood from the woods, but still I am a patriot. And your studies were paid for by Soviet money, but you have now betrayed your homeland.” This letter was from a woman who represents one of the most terrible types of Soviet patriot. When a person exists at the bottom level of human life and does not realize it—imagining that he lives well—this is very frightening.

After about a week I said: “Listen, these letters must be sorted out, so that we can see the result. There are already many hundreds of them. I’ll review them and make an assessment, and then we’ll see what they add up to.” When all this was done, I loudly announced: “Well, this is terribly interesting: 70 percent are messages of greeting, 17 percent are neutral or expressing bewilderment, and only 13 percent are abusive ones.” The result of this careless remark—made aloud—was very unexpected. Letters with greetings and voicing approval simply ceased to arrive. From the very next day we began to receive only abusive letters. This was evidence of very attentive and well-organized monitoring and careful analysis of all conversations within the apartment.

The second incident happened after I had left. I heard about it from Elena Georgievna. She had walked to the window and, looking at the joyless, empty lot covered with trash and at the highway beyond with roaring trucks passing by, said: “From the window in Moscow one can see Red Square, but from this window, only a bit of the street, trash, and all kinds of shit. It is better not to look out the window.” And then turning to Andrei Dmitrievich, who was standing beside her, she said: “You know, Andrei, I think I’ll photograph this, take a picture and send it to the West. Let them look at this wonderful landscape.” The next day three trucks arrived and soldiers collected all the trash on the empty lot in front of the windows. Commenting on this, Elena Georgievna used to say jokingly: “Thus I’ll bring order to Gorky.”


I have said that Sakharov was not allowed to leave Gorky’s city limits, to step beyond the sign that read “Gorky.” But the house itself, although within the city limits, is located near the borderline. Then there is a ravine—also still within the city limits; it is a sort of empty lot with a thick aspen grove. Andrei Dmitrievich and Elena Georgievna once decided to take a walk along a narrow path and—in accordance with the rules—two persons in civilian clothes tagged after them. The Sakharovs exchanged some glances and, having gone separately in different directions away from the path, hid in the thick bushes. Having lost sight of them, the agents began running to and fro. Within three minutes a helicopter arrived on the spot, descended to about five meters above the ground, and KGB agents with scared, fierce faces stared out of all the windows, trying to locate the Sakharovs. Thus it is impossible to hide from the KGB’s “almighty eye” anywhere—even in thick aspen bushes.

TOLZ: Natalya Viktorovna, a defamation campaign against Sakharov has become especially intense recently in the Soviet press, as well as in some books—one by Nikolai Yakovlev in particular. Please, tell us in greater detail about this stage of Sakharov’s persecution, which began, I think, about a year ago.

HESSE: First of all, I will tell you about the Yakovlev episode. Yakovlev has expressed himself in the most shocking manner. His writing cannot be called anything but slop. His book CIA Against the USSR [which included attacks on both Sakharov and his wife] was published, I think, in a first edition of 200,000 copies and was later reprinted several times with some changes (one should remember that with changes amounting to 20 percent of the original text, one can collect new royalties).1 He published this in the magazine Smena, which has a circulation of more than a million copies, and, finally, having reworked it and having added a good dose of anti-Semitism, he published it in Chelovek i Zakon [“Man and the Law”]. This sounds even more paradoxical, since this periodical has a circulation of more than eight million. So, altogether his ideas have a circulation of about ten million.

Well, during our last meeting, Andrei Dmitrievich told me in detail about his encounter with Yakovlev, who, strangely enough, was allowed to come to Gorky. Sakharov was very elaborate in his narration, laughing and at the same time expressing horror at the extent to which a man can debase himself.

His doorbell rang. Elena Georgievna was in Moscow at the time. Sakharov was alone and was very much surprised. He decided that it must be a telegram. He opened the door. There was an unfamiliar man standing there with a woman—a man advanced in years (“Of my own age,” Andrei Dmitrievich said). Andrei Dmitrievich let them in, and the woman immediately asked whether she could smoke in the apartment. Being an extremely well-brought-up person, Andrei Dmitrievich showed them to the largest room, right across from the entrance, said, “Please go in,” and hurried into the kitchen to get an ashtray, since he himself does not smoke.

When he returned, his guests were already seated. He only had time to think: “Maybe some physicians have finally come from the Academy of Sciences in order to have me hospitalized.” He thought so because a few months earlier some physicians had come and had concluded that he was urgently in need of hospitalization. But these two were no medical doctors. The visitor by this time had already managed to display a pile of books, and said: “I am Nikolai Nikolaievich Yakovlev. As you know, I am a writer. Or maybe you don’t know this. But I brought you my books as a present and, if you agree, I will autograph them for you.”

Andrei Dmitrievich was somewhat taken aback by this extreme impudence and said: “I don’t need your presents.” He waved his hand, and one of the books fell to the floor. Nobody picked it up—neither Yakovlev nor Andrei Dmitrievich. But Yakovlev continued: “Well, I have published, you know, some articles. And so we have received many inquiries, and I am unable to answer them all. Therefore, I came here to ask you some questions and to get answers that we could relate to our readers.”

Andrei Dmitrievich replied that he refused to talk to Yakovlev until the latter apologized in writing for slandering Sakharov’s wife—Elena Georgievna Bonner—and her and his own—Andrei Dmitrievich’s—family, as well as Andrei Dmitrievich himself. After this he grabbed the book, CIA Against the USSR, which was lying nearby and feverishly began turning the pages. “How could you write such slander, such horrible slander? How could you have called our children ‘dropouts’ when they all have a university education…?” To which Yakovlev replied, unperturbed, “Yes, I know.”

To most of Andrei Dmitrievich’s angry questions, Yakovlev replied that he was aware of this or that. And only when asked, “How did you dare to write that my wife beats me?” Yakovlev said, “Well, so I was told in the prosecutor’s office.”2 This man [Yakovlev] is so cynical and so morally degraded that he has no idea of either conscience or shame.

They talked for a few more minutes. Yakovlev said: “I am not going to write an apology. If you think this is slander, you can refer the matter to court. And, generally speaking, try to understand that we are defending you.” Andrei Dmitrievich said: “I don’t need your defense, and I am not going to go to court—I will just slap your face now.” (It was at this point in the narration that I shuddered. I told Andrei Dmitrievich that this was terrible—that it was a frightful moment. And he said he felt the same way.)

Upon hearing this, Yakovlev, who was sitting at the table, covered his cheek with his hand. This is the utmost level of degradation, when a person cannot even face up to a slap honorably, openly, like a man. He covered part of his face with one hand, but Andrei Dmitrievich, who is ambidextrous and so has equal command of both hands, slapped him on the unprotected cheek. At that point Yakovlev and his companion ran away from the apartment—in the exact sense of the term: they jumped up, overturning their chairs, and escaped.

Having finished the story about slapping Yakovlev’s face, Andrei Dmitrievich said to me: “You know, I have seen many different people in my life, including many bad ones. But this is something out of Dostoevsky, this is Smerdyakov. One cannot sink any further.”

Yakovlev is an expert on America, and they say that his books on historical topics are not bad at all. But those who know him also say that he is cynical in the extreme, that his motto is that the Soviet regime is so abominable that one can and must be a scoundrel, that everybody must become a scoundrel. Such is Yakovlev’s position, and he practices it in real life perfectly well.

TOLZ: Natalya Viktorovna, could you say something concerning the reaction of Soviet citizens—in Gorky, in particular—to the defamation campaign against Sakharov and his wife, which has now been intensified?

HESSE: Yes. The letter written by four Academy members against Andrei Dmitrievich has played a certain role, although not a very big one, within the context of the campaign of defamation and slander that has been unleashed against him and particularly against Elena Georgievna. I think that the West is of the opinion that it was the letter from these four academicians that played the principal part. (However, even among Academy members one can find people who would burden their conscience with heavy sins for the sake of their careers. And these four academicians, in particular, are known for being go-getters ready to do anything.)

But in Gorky itself the campaign—it was unleashed mainly in Gorky—was provoked not by the letter, which was published somewhere in the corner of a newspaper, but by the fact that the Gorky papers reprinted all of Yakovlev’s insinuations concerning Elena Georgievna and, furthermore, added their own commentaries. Since then, at somebody’s command, an extremely vicious campaign has been organized. The Sakharovs were even afraid to go to the bakery because they would be insulted. People would holler at them: “Your Yid- wife must be killed.”

A neighbor in the Sakharovs’ house had been helped by Elena Georgievna, who is a pediatrician (a very good pediatrician, an excellent physician), when the neighbor’s child was suffering from an allergy which physicians in Gorky were unable to cure. Elena Georgievna did help the child with her advice, and the child was cured. And this same neighbor used to cry: “It would have been better for my child to rot than to be touched by your dirty hands.”

The Sakharovs’ car would be covered with graffiti: “Warmonger, get away from here, away from our town!” This seemed to them (and I have discussed this at length with both of them) to be a spontaneous wave of wrath on the part of the people. But whenever I asked Elena Georgievna to describe each incident in detail, her story would always expose some “stage director” who was behind each particular horrible act.

It is very easy to arouse indignation in our country. Indignation is fostered by the hardships of everyday life, by the lines in front of the stores, by the whole drabness and oppressiveness of Soviet reality, which is very hard. Therefore it is sufficient to make just a little hole, to open up the valve just a bit, and one can direct the stream of hate and bitterness any way one wants to. When people are standing in a line, it is enough for someone to shout: “It’s not his turn!” or “Don’t give him two kilos instead of one!” and the crowd will release its anger upon the unfortunate victim. Thus it is a very simple task to orchestrate something like that.

TOLZ: Natalya Viktorovna, it is known that Elena Georgievna Bonner does not stay in Gorky with her husband all the time and that she is obliged to come regularly to Moscow. What is her situation there? What is her general situation now?

HESSE: The conditions at their apartment in Moscow became quite terrible after Andropov took over all the positions and jobs that he assumed. Now, in addition to two policemen posted at the entrance to the apartment itself (and it must be noted that whereas in Gorky they are ordinary policemen, in Moscow either senior lieutenants or captains are on duty at the entrance to the apartment upstairs), there is also a police car with flashing lights guarding the downstairs entrance, and the man in charge has the rank of major at least.

It is amusing that these policemen in turn are watched over by KGB agents in civilian clothes who make sure that the policemen dutifully carry out their mission. They all have portable radio sets on their shoulders, and they communicate with each other. All visitors are checked against a special list. If a stranger tries to pass through and his name is not on the list, he must show his documents, and if he does not have any, he is simply not allowed in. No foreigners and no journalists are allowed to visit the apartment.

The telephone at the Moscow apartment has been disconnected ever since Andrei Dmitrievich’s illegal exile to Gorky, and whenever Elena Georgievna comes to Moscow they disconnect even the public telephone in the booth downstairs so that in order to call someone she has to walk almost a kilometer up a very steep hill, which is practically impossible because of her heart condition. All in all, Elena Georgievna’s health is in a terrible state. She has not yet recovered from her first heart seizure; she takes up to forty nitroglycerine pills; her lips and fingernails are of a dark blue color. It is upsetting to look at her.

When she came to Moscow the last time, she wanted to come to Leningrad to see me off, but I went to Moscow myself instead because I learned from friends about the state of her health, and it was clear that no farewell parties were possible. It was at this time that she suffered her second heart seizure, not having been completely cured after the first one.

In general, both of them are denied medical help. Andrei Dmitrievich himself also has been in need of a medical checkup and treatment for a long time, and this was admitted by the physicians from the Academy of Sciences who visited Sakharov in Gorky that one and only time. We had some hope then that things would improve; but, like all our hopes, this one was also destroyed. Neither she nor he has been admitted to a hospital, although both are seriously ill and in desperate need of medical treatment.

And they cannot allow themselves to be treated by physicians in Gorky. These physicians displayed their true nature sufficiently during the Sakharovs’ hunger strike. Other physicians at the Arsenal Hospital in Leningrad—it’s a prison hospital—once proudly said that they are first and foremost “Chekists”3 and physicians only afterward. Well, those Gorky doctors, not being professional Chekists, nevertheless behaved as if they were, and it is therefore impossible to trust them and to be treated by them.

Once Andrei Dmitrievich was forced to go to a dentist because he had a toothache (and in such a case a person is willing to go anywhere), and the head of the dental clinic deceived him. She ordered him to leave his briefcase with his precious documents and manuscripts, and then personally turned the briefcase over to KGB agents. I think this incident is known in the West, but it may not be known that she then denied him medical treatment, claiming that he had insulted her—both as a woman and as a citizen. It was naturally very strange to hear such words coming from this particular physician.

As I have already mentioned, Elena Georgievna is being denied proper medical assistance in Moscow. A young woman who recently graduated from a medical institute visits her at home. I’ve been present during many of her visits. She respectfully and, I would even say, piously listens to advice from Elena Georgievna, who is a physician herself. Elena Georgievna writes her own prescriptions and decides her own treatment. Nevertheless, she urgently needs hospitalization because her condition is becoming ever more serious and her strength is leaving her—the strength that seemed to be inexhaustible. “Constant dripping of water wears away the stone,” as we say in Russia. But in this case there were not drops but heavy blows on the stone and it has begun to break. During our last meeting Andrei Dmitrievich said: “The first thing to be done, the most important thing, is to force the authorities to allow Elena Georgievna to travel abroad for medical treatment. Tell the people you’ll meet in the West that her death would be the end of me also. And being an eyewitness to all that has been happening, I can state that she is on the verge of dying, this is the truth.”

We must do everything possible. I don’t know, maybe the general public in the West must appeal to their elected deputies so that they, in turn, would raise the question in their respective parliaments. This is very important, especially now that we have a new ruler. He might show his good will and prove to the world that the Soviet Union is really ready to do good and not evil.

TOLZ: Natalya Georgievna, the campaign against Sakharov has been continuing for a long time, but it was especially intensified during the period that has now come to an end—the “Andropov era.” Tell me, in your opinion, in the opinion of a person who left the Soviet Union only days ago—did the situation in the country change during the Andropov period?

HESSE: The regime became extremely harsh. It began with mass roundups of people in the streets, and in every city indignant people were told by agitators at meetings that these were only excesses on the local level. But the same thing was going on all over the Soviet Union, just as it was during collectivization. And, in general, the whole moral and spiritual climate in the country became much harsher. It seems that it is difficult to breathe—just as it was in Stalin’s time. This is a frightening feeling and it affects a person’s whole being. The food situation in large cities has improved but the provinces remain hungry. In the large cities—in Leningrad, in particular—one can get meat, not always the kind one wants, of course, but we became accustomed to this long ago. Sometimes one can get butter without standing in line…. So, it is somewhat better in this sense. But, on the other hand, there is complete suppression of everything, and not a gleam of democracy.

This Issue

April 12, 1984