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…

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