A Speech to the People’s Congress

In a rush to adjourn on June 9, the Congress of People’s Deputies grudgingly voted Andrei Sakharov five minutes to make a closing statement. He had written down his assessment of the Congress’s historic first session (May 26–June 9), but the pressure of time forced him to omit or condense several points. Gorbachev warned Sakharov that he was running over his time limit and then cut off the microphone after this memorable exchange:

GORBACHEV: Time’s up. Don’t you respect the Congress?

SAKHAROV: Yes, but I respect the country and the people more. My mandate extends beyond the bounds of this Congress.

The complete text of Sakharov’s statement follows.

I should first explain why I voted against the Congress’s concluding document. It contains many theses that are correct and important, many ideas that are original and progressive, but, in my opinion, the Congress failed to address the key political task facing it, the need to give substance to the slogan “All Power to the Soviets.” The Congress refused to consider a Decree on Power, although a host of urgent economic, social, ethnic, and ecological problems cannot be sucessfully solved until the question of power is decided. The Congress elected a chairman of the USSR Supreme Soviet [Mikhail Gorbachev] on its very first day, without a broad political discussion and without even a token alternative candidate. In my opinion, the Congress committed a serious blunder that will significantly reduce its ability to influence national policy and that will prove to be a disservice to our chairman-elect as well.

The constitution now in force assigns absolute and virtually unlimited power to the chairman of the USSR Supreme Soviet. The concentration of that much power in the hands of one man is extremely dangerous even if he is the author of perestroika. In particular, it opens the gate to behind-the-scenes influence. And what happens when someone else fills this post?

The construction of the state has started with the roof, which is clearly not the best way of going about things. The same approach was taken in the elections to the Supreme Soviet. Most delegations simply appointed a slate of candidates, who were then formally endorsed by the Congress, even though many of those selected are not prepared to serve as legislators. The members of the Supreme Soviet are supposed to quit their former jobs—but only “as a rule,” and this deliberately vague formula has allowed the introduction of “wedding generals” [people invited to swell the ranks at a social function] into the Supreme Soviet. I fear that such a Supreme Soviet will simply be a screen for the real power of its chairman and the Party-state apparatus.

We are in the throes of spreading economic catastrophe and a tragic worsening of interethnic relations; one aspect of the powerful and dangerous processes at work has been a general crisis of confidence in the nation’s leadership. If we simply float with the current, hoping that things will gradually get better in the distant future,…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.