On a winter’s night in 1986, two electricians and their KGB escort installed a “special telephone” in the apartment of Andrei Sakharov. For six years Sakharov and his wife Elena Bonner had been living in the industrial city of Gorky under government edict, and the sudden appearance of the new mystery phone seemed at first just another Orwellian moment in the day of exiles. Maybe the Soviet press would call for an interview, Sakharov thought. Two magazines had already put in requests. Turning the moral equations in his mind, Sakharov arrived at a finely calibrated stand of principle: he would refuse all interview requests until there was no longer a “noose around my neck.” The KGB agent merely turned to Sakharov and said, “You will get a call around ten tomorrow morning.”
The next day, the phone rang. A woman’s voice said, “Mikhail Sergeyevich will speak to you.” Now Gorbachev was on the line, calling to tell Sakharov that he and Bonner could return to Moscow.
“You have an apartment there,” Gorbachev said, without a word of apology or regret. “Go back to your patriotic work!”
Sakharov said a brief word of thanks, then wasted no time in going back to his patriotic work. He told Gorbachev that for the sake of “trust, for peace, and for you and your program,” the Kremlin was obliged to release the political prisoners included on a long list he had mailed to the leadership from Gorky. “Gorbachev made a noncommittal reply,” Sakharov remembered. The Soviet leader said he did not quite agree that all the prisoners Sakharov was speaking for had been tried illegally. Then the two men said their awkward goodbyes.
A week later, Sakharov arrived by overnight train at Moscow’s Yaroslavl station, an event of such moral and political importance that it felt as if it were the reversal of yet another homecoming seven decades before—that of Lenin at the Finland Station. But no one then could predict what was ahead for Sakharov in the three years left to him. Exile had worn him down. KGB threats, a painful hunger strike, forced feedings, random attacks, thefts of his diaries and manuscripts—all of it had taken a toll on his health. Now, as he answered questions into the swarm of tape recorders and television lights, his voice was mumbly, hesitant at times. He walked with a stoop and had to catch his breath every few steps on flights of stairs. Bonner said at the time that Sakharov would limit his activities. He would read up on developments in cosmology and work on specific human rights cases.
A few days after his return to Moscow, Sakharov was sitting at the kitchen table of his close friend, the human rights activist Larisa Bogaraz. Mikhail Gefter, one of the country’s few honest historians, turned to Sakharov and said, “How are you feeling, Andrei Dmitriyevich?” Sakharov said rather sadly, “It is difficult to live now. People write me, they visit, and they are all hoping that I will be able to help somehow. But I am powerless.” For months Sakharov mulled over his role, tried to find his political voice. Some younger dissidents were impatient with Sakharov’s hesitation and what they saw as his naive, uncritical support of Gorbachev.
But Sakharov soon sacrificed himself once more, this time completely. It is quite likely that his heart gave out last December because he had betrayed his first modest intentions when he returned to Moscow. As an elected legislator, as the leader of such groups as Memorial and Moscow Tribune, Sakharov provided the Soviet Union—and Gorbachev himself—with the singular model of an uncorrupted human spirit. Sakharov delivered speeches and issued statements that, time and again, stripped away the Newspeak and hesitations of perestroika. He was the voice of the Russian liberal intelligentsia, an heir to the pre-Bolshevik tradition of Alexander Herzen. With the authority of his life and the clarity of his judgments and language, Sakharov in those last years became a one-man loyal opposition, a moral genius who now was free to speak to millions on government-controlled television.
“Sakharov was the only one among us who made no compromises,” said Tatyana Zaslavskaya, the country’s leading sociologist and a member of the Congress of People’s Deputies. “For us, he was a figure of the inner spirit. Just the bare facts of his life, the way he suffered for all of us, gave him an authority that no one else had. Without him, we could not begin to rebuild our society, or our selves. Gorbachev may not have understood it quite that way when he let Sakharov come home, but he would understand it eventually.”
Sakharov’s father, Dmitri, a physicist and amateur painist, was the author of The Struggle for Light, a textbook on the history of lighting devices from ancient times to the present. Andrei Sakharov’s Memoirs—as well as the forthcoming second volume, Moscow, Gorky, and Beyond—are a search for another sort of light, an act of witness and conscience comparable to Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope.
And yet these memoirs are the work of a very different kind of mind, that of a scientist whose metaphors of spirit and truth are rooted in an understanding of cosmology, the “magical spectacle” of a thermonuclear explosion, the calculus of the Big Bang. Sakharov’s sense of rightness, like that of scientist-moralists from Galileo to Oppenheimer, is rooted in his understanding of the scientific problems of light and time, his firsthand appreciation of both the laws of the universe and man’s tragic ability to turn progress into catastrophe. He held in mind, it seems, a picture, even a music, of eternity. Sakharov once turned to his wife and said, “Do you know what I love most of all in life?” Later Bonner would confide to a friend, “I expected he would say something about a poem or a sonata or even about me.” Instead, Sakharov said, “The thing I love most in life is radio background emanation”—the barely discernible reflection of unknown cosmic processes that ended billions of years ago.
As a writer, Sakharov can be rushed, unreflective at times. (The KGB’s habit of stealing his manuscripts in Gorky and, later, the endless burdens of public life, are likely culprits here. Again and again Sakharov was forced to reconstruct hundreds of lost pages from memory.) Neither volume of the memoirs has a novelistic sense of character or narrative. Sakharov will mention his falling out with an important friend—the Marxist historian Roy Medvedev, say—but then dismiss it summarily. Few figures here come to life the way they do in Hope Against Hope, or even in Solzhenitsyn’s strange, score-settling memoir, The Oak and the Calf. As a result, much of the second half of the memoirs, especially the accounts of individual human rights campaigns or publications, seems rather dutiful. As for the period of exile in Gorky, Bonner’s own Alone Together is the more dramatic account.
Instead, the great triumph of these memoirs is the first twenty chapters, the self-portrait of a man inclined toward the purities of theoretical physics who became the conscience of the Soviet Union. Sakharov says he was determined not to write a confession, and yet often enough this alleged attempt to hold the reader at a distance fails magnificently. The transformation of his own mind is by far the book’s most powerful “character.” Almost accidentally, Sakharov reveals how his understanding of even the most speculative notions of the universe helped form a moral understanding, a sense of accountability.
In his Nobel lecture—now available to Soviet readers in a collection of political essays, Alarm and Hope*—Sakharov wrote,
Other civilizations, perhaps more successful ones, may exist an infinite number of times on the preceding and following pages of the Book of the Universe. Yet we should not minimize our sacred endeavors in the world, where, like faint glimmers in the dark, we have emerged for a moment from the nothingness of unconsciousness into material experience. We must make good the demands of reason and create a life worthy of ourselves and of the goals we only dimly perceive.
In his memoirs, Sakharov says he stands apart from official religion, “And yet I am unable to imagine the universe and human life without some guiding principle, without a source of spiritual ‘warmth’ that is nonmaterial and not bound by physical laws.” That “warmth” is perhaps the best way to describe Sakharov’s own remarkable gift for human sympathy.
As the descendant of Orthodox priests, scientists, lawyers, and thinkers, Sakharov had a broad, privileged education. The early chapters of Memoirs are a moving evocation of the life of the Russian intelligentsia in the Stalin era. Tutored at home until the fifth grade, Sakharov began reading at the age of four and immersed himself in the rhythms of Pushkin, Lermontov, and Chukovsky. He spent hours with his grandmother “discussing every page of Tolstoy’s Childhood, Boyhood and Youth.” His father instructed him in the miracles of elementary physics—“miracles I could understand.”
His boyhood was also haunted by the inexplicable, the corruption of the language and the state’s slaughter of millions of innocents. Though the house was filled with recitations of The Bronze Horseman and the sounds of his father playing Bach on the piano, Sakharov also knew of the horror of his aunt Zhenya getting news of her husband’s death in the camps when one of her letters was returned stamped “Addressee relocated to the cemetery”; later one of Sakharov’s friends died in the gulag, the authorities announced, owing to a “chilling of the epidermal integument.”
Sakharov did not react immediately against the Stalin of his childhood and youth. Even as a young man, he was under the spell of the personality cult. Already among the country’s leading physicists, Sakharov wrote home in 1953 to his first wife, Klavdia, about the death of Stalin: “I am under the influence of a great man’s death. I am thinking of his humanity.” As he wrote his memoirs in Gorky in the early 1980s, Sakharov was still bewildered by the pull of the Great Leader, the Genius of All Peoples, and by the way in which Sakharov himself had thrust aside all political doubts to help the Soviet Union build its first thermonuclear bomb:
I can’t fully explain it—after all, I knew quite enough about the horrible crimes that had been committed—the arrests of innocent people, the torture, the deliberate starvations, and all the violence—to pass judgment on those responsible. But I hadn’t put the whole picture together, and in any case, there was still a lot I didn’t know. Somewhere at the back of my mind the idea existed, instilled by propaganda, that suffering is inevitable during great historic upheavals: “When you chop wood, the chips fly.”…But above all, I felt myself committed to the goal which I assumed was Stalin’s as well: after a devastating war, to make the country strong enough to ensure peace. Precisely because I had invested so much of myself in that cause and accomplished so much, I needed, as anyone might in my circumstances, to create an illusory world, to justify myself.
This sense of patriotic urgency after the American attack on Hiroshima and also the very seductiveness of the scientific work involved gave Sakharov “no choice” but to move to a desolate weapons research center in Kazakhstan known only as The Installation, the Soviet Los Alamos. Even though he was submerged in the “superb physics” of nuclear weaponry—“the mysterious source of the energy of the sun and stars, the sustenance of life on Earth but also the potential instrument of its destruction…[were] taking shape at my very desk”—Sakharov saw the Gulag through the fence. The Installation, where Sakharov lived for eighteen years, was near a slave labor camp, and every morning the young scientist watched “long grey lines of men in quilted jackets, guard dogs at their heels.”
But while he could see the Gulag plain and experienced the Stalinist purges through various members of the family, there was something determinedly innocent about Sakharov in the early days of The Installation. The prisoners and the guard dogs were a background that could be overlooked. Sometimes even the most powerful evidence of evil did not register right away. Sakharov was once taken to see Lavrenti Beria, Stalin’s secret police chief, who was known for his sadism, for the way he would drag young girls off the street, rape and shoot them, and then throw their corpses in the gutter. “Beria offered me his hand,” Sakharov remembered. “It was plump, slightly moist and deathly cold.” But it was only after telling his parents about the meeting later that evening and hearing their frightened reaction that Sakharov realized just how close he had come to the embodiment of evil.
The height of Sakharov’s career as a physicist came on August 12, 1953, the day of the first Soviet thermonuclear test. Twenty miles from ground zero, Sakharov watched the explosion, his eyes protected by dark goggles. The test was a success, and Sakharov describes the vision only in its incandescence, without a trace of regret: “We saw a flash, and then a swiftly expanding white ball lit up the whole horizon. I tore off my goggles and though I was partially blinded by the glare, I could see a stupendous cloud trailing streamers of purple dust.” For their triumph, the government awarded Sakharov and his partner Igor Tamm Stalin Prizes worth 500,000 rubles each, dachas in the countryside outside Moscow, and the title of Hero of Socialist Labor. Marshal Kliment Voroshilov spoke for the state at the awards ceremony in the Kremlin: “I have been told that Sakharov’s work was especially outstanding,” he said. “Let me kiss you.”
In retrospect, Sakharov says that his initial position was not Oppenheimer’s, but rather that of Oppenheimer’s hawkish nemesis, Edward Teller—“practically a mirror image (one had only to substitute ‘USSR’ for ‘USA,’ ‘peace and national security’ for ‘defense against the communist menace,’ etc.).” Sakharov’s doubts about his own work did not descend on him as quickly as they had with Oppenheimer, but by the mid-1950s, following Stalin’s death, he began to fear that this “newly released force” could lead to “unimaginable disasters.” He grew more and more concerned about the effects of nuclear fallout. Roald Sagdeyev, the former head of the Soviet space program, remembers visiting Sakharov at The Installation—“We all worshiped this young, distant God of physics”—and noticing that as he talked, Sakharov drew little offhand doodles of airplanes dropping bombs. “These were the first real doubts,” Sagdeyev told me after Sakharov’s death last year.
The accidental deaths of a young girl and a soldier at the test site had also startled Sakharov. Then, after another successful test in 1955, Sakharov’s sense of “complicity” in these few accidents deepened during a Gogolian banquet at The Installation:
When we were all in place, the brandy was poured. The bodyguards stood along the wall. [Marshal Mitrofan] Nedelin nodded to me, inviting me to propose the first toast. Glass in hand, I rose, and said something like: “May all our devices explode as successfully as today’s, but always over test sites and never over cities.”
The table fell silent, as if I had said something indecent. Nedelin grinned a bit crookedly. Then he rose, glass in hand, and said: “Let me tell a parable. An old man wearing only a shirt was praying before an icon. ‘Guide me, harden me. Guide me, harden me.’ His wife, who was lying on the stove, said: ‘Just pray to be hard, old man, I can guide it in myself.’ Let’s drink to getting hard.”
My whole body tensed, and I think I turned pale—normally I blush. For a few seconds no one spoke, and then everyone began talking loudly. I drank my brandy in silence and didn’t open my mouth again for the rest of the evening. Many years have passed, but I still feel as if I had been lashed by a whip. Not that my feelings were hurt; I am not easily offended, especially by a joke. But Nedelin’s parable was not a joke. He wanted to squelch my pacifist sentiment, and to put me and anyone who might share these ideas in our place…. The ideas and emotions kindled at that moment have not diminished to this day, and they completely altered my thinking.
Nedelin’s message to the table was clear: the Party, and not the scientists, would control these weapons. And for the next ten years, as he continued to read technical studies on radioactive substances, visited secret military installations, and sat in on conferences on nuclear strategy, Sakharov reached what he calls “the turning point.” The monstrous, the unthinkable, had become “a fact of life—still hypothetical, but already seen as something possible. I could not stop thinking about this, and I came to realize that the technical, military, and economic problems are secondary; the fundamental issues are political and ethical.”
What followed was a life of protest. Sakharov fought Khrushchev for a ban on nuclear tests in the atmosphere and Brezhnev on an attempt to rehabilitate the Stalinist past. He fought the Academy of Sciences to put an end to Trofim Lysenko’s corruption of Soviet biology and genetics. He lent his name and prestige to the defense of countless prisoners and dissidents, and stood nearly alone at first protesting the invasion of Afghanistan and the Communist party’s monopoly on power. Such ethnic groups as the Crimean Tartars were little known until Sakharov took up their cause.
But Sakharov was a reluctant warrior. From the moment of those first thermonuclear tests in the mid-1950s, Sakharov had lost the paradise of his own science. He would have to trade a life in miracles he could understand for one fighting injustices he could not bear. Science was what he had wanted to do; but politics was what he could not avoid. The transition filled him not only with a sense of new purpose, but also with a sense of enormous loss. In 1961, still caught between a life in official Soviet science and one in protest, Sakharov visited his dying father in the hospital. Dmitri Sakharov told his son, “When you were at the university, you said that discovering the secrets of nature could make you happy. We don’t choose our fate, but I’m sorry that yours took a different turn; I imagine you could have been happier.”
What sustained Sakharov for the last twenty years of his life was his marriage to Elena Bonner. Solzhenitsyn, Medvedev, and many others criticized Bonner for her “hold” over her husband, her influential support for a politics of human rights rather than a broader ideology—be it Solzhenitsyn’s Russian nationalism or Medvedev’s anti-Stalinist Marxism. Moreover, they didn’t like Bonner much, finding her too bossy, too severe. They saw her manipulating somehow Sakharov the Innocent. Some even scoffed at his protests and hunger strikes staged in order to win permission for Bonner to get medical treatment abroad and for her children to emigrate. Sakharov’s most passionate moments in the memoirs are his many defenses of Bonner. In Lusia, his pet name for Bonner, Sakharov found not only a partner in politics, but also a lion-at-the-gate, a woman who could protect his time, who would treat him as a man and not an icon.
Sakharov recalls an incident when Bonner was able, in a single outraged moment, to rebuke the Solzhenitsyns for their Russian nationalism and their disdain of the human rights and free emigration movement. Solzhenitsyn’s wife, Alya, “disparaged our worries about Lusia’s children, saying that millions of Russian parents had no chance to give their children any sort of proper education.”
Outraged by Alya’s lecturing tone, Lusia burst out: “Don’t give me that ‘Russian people’ shit! You make breakfast for your own children, not for the whole Russian people.”
Where Sakharov was concerned, Bonner was ferocious. I remember going with a colleague to see Sakharov a couple of years ago at the apartment in 48 Chkalova Street in the center of Moscow. The appointment was for six. In the last few years, access to Sakharov at home was not nearly so regular as it had been in the 1970s, and so we took special care to be on time. Bonner opened the door just a bit and said we were most certainly mistaken, didn’t we realize the interview was at eight. I protested feebly and she began to shout just a bit, saying that Andrei Dmitryevich needed his sleep and that we had agreed on eight and he was downstairs napping and so on. At that moment, I think I would rather have been on Jupiter. But as Bonner opened the door a little wider, there was Sakharov listening in the distance, a delighted, gentle smile on his face. Dressed in his favorite baseball jacket and an ancient pair of baggy pants, he shuffled toward his wife and guests, his tattered bedroom slippers sliding along the wooden floor.
“Oh, Lusia,” he said. “It’s OK. We must have said six.” And Bonner smiled, too, but just a bit.
Later that year, when he was visiting the United States, Sakharov tells us, he called Solzhenitsyn on the phone. After wishing Solzhenitsyn well in his literary projects, Sakharov said,
“Alexander Isayevich, there should be nothing left unsaid between us. In The Oak and the Calf, you hurt me deeply, insulted me…. My wife is absolutely not the person you depict and her role in my life is completely different. She is an infinitely loyal, self-sacrificing, and heroic person, who never betrayed anyone, far from all salons, be they dissident or not, and who never imposed any ‘tendencies’ on me.”
Alexander Isayevich was silent for several seconds. Apparently he was not accustomed to such direct accusations. Then he said, “I would like to believe that is so.” By ordinary standards, that was no apology, but for Solzhenitsyn, apparently, that was a big concession.
In their human rights work, Sakharov and Bonner were a team, and they suffered, physically and psychologically, as equals. There were threats against their children and grandchildren. The KGB harassed the Sakharovs in every way they could, even mailing them “Christmas cards” with grotesque images of mutilated bodies and monkeys with electrodes stuck in their skulls. Tass and Pravda issued reams of slander and insult. Scores of academicians, including the current Academy of Sciences president Guri Marchuk, signed letters decrying his libels of the Motherland, his disgraceful behavior, etc. A “historian” named Nikolai Yakovlev wrote a book insulting Bonner as a “sexual brigand…who foisted herself on the widower Sakharov”; Sakharov, in a memorable moment in the history of Russian chivalry, slapped him in the face. In Gorky, thugs broke into the apartment waving pistols. After threatening to turn the “apartment into an Afghanistan,” one of the men turned to Sakharov and said, “You won’t be here long. They’ll take you to a sanatorium where they have medicine that turns people into idiots.” Sakharov recounts it all with a lack of bitterness, in a dry and distant tone that amounts to forgiveness.
Sakharov’s account of the privations in Gorky add little to Bonner’s Alone Together, and yet he provides certain private moments that are especially revealing of the naturalness, almost casualness, of his superior nature. Here, after all, was a man who could begin a hunger strike—in order to force the regime to allow his wife to have medical treatment abroad—by toasting her with a glass of laxative, or pass the hours in exile by searching out the latest Jean-Paul Belmondo movie. When the local KGB tried to break his hunger strike in 1985 by dragging him off to the hospital for forced feedings, Sakharov returned, as always, to the consolation of science, easing the pain and boredom with games of pure abstract thought:
I spent long hours gazing at the clock hanging on the wall of my room. At night, the dim hospital illumination made it at times difficult for me to distinguish the hour hand from the minute hand, and I thought up this brainteaser:
An absent-minded watchmaker accidentally fastens two hands of equal lengths on a clock with the usual twelve-hour dial. Because of this, there are moments when the time can be read in either of two ways. Find all the ambiguous moments.
It would be a tragic mistake to ignore those around Sakharov who suffered even worse for the human rights movement: Anatoly Marchenko, Larisa Bogaraz, Sergei Kovalev, Tatyana Velikhanova, Pyotr Yakir, and Pavel Litvinov are just the start of a long list of brave people who refused to live the lie while Gorbachev was still a Party functionary extolling the political and literary “penetration” of Leonid Brezhnev. They are responsible for the survival of political morality in the Soviet Union. But it was Sakharov’s uncanny sense of judgment as well as his moral distinction that made him just that much better than everyone else. In the murk of a police society, Sakharov’s politics always had a sense of clarity, a heroic simplicity. For years, Sakharov would go anywhere to attend a trial, to petition for a political prisoner. In weak health, he went to Tashkent to visit Vladimir Shelkov, a Christian activist who died in the camps in 1980; he went to Omsk for the trial of the Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev.
Until his return from exile, however, it was nearly impossible for most Soviet people to know much more about Sakharov than the slander printed in the official press. Even intellectuals with some connection to the human rights movement knew little about him. “We knew he was out there, but for years Sakharov was almost like a myth, a rumor,” said Lev Timofeyev, one of the political prisoners freed after Sakharov’s return from Gorky. But when Sakharov finally did return to Moscow in 1986, his gift for judgment became on open secret, a public trust. Less than two years ago, at a roundtable sponsored by Ogonyok magazine, a group of Soviet and American intellectuals went around the table discussing the issues of perestroika. Sakharov seemed half asleep, but when it came his turn, he found all the inherent faults in the newly published political reforms: the “unhealthy” way Gorbachev continued to concentrate control of both the government and the Communist party in his own hands. No one had said it before, and yet, by the time we all left the room, Sakharov’s brief exposition seemed like sense itself.
For anyone living in Moscow between December 1986 and December 1989, Saturday mornings were a time to listen to this voice. Sakharov inevitably became either the chairman, or at least the spiritual head, of all the key groups to the left of Gorbachev: the Inter-Regional Group of radical deputies in the legislature, Moscow Tribune’s gathering of intellectuals, the Memorial Society, dedicated to building a memorial center for the victims of the Stalin era modeled on Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. And nearly every Saturday morning, Sakharov would sit in some dim auditorium, usually the House of Scholars on Kropotkinskaya Street, or the Cinematographer’s Union near the Peking Hotel, and for half an eternity he would doze a bit, his great dome of a head nodding off as the speeches went on. When it was his turn at last, Sakharov would take the lectern, and in a few minutes of very formal, incisive Russian he would make the point that most needed making, invariably pushing public thinking ever closer to the creation of a civil society. Sakharov began calling for an end to the Communist party’s constitutional grip on power long before the rest of the left caught on; about a year later, after Sakharov’s argument became a rallying cry, the Central Committee reluctantly endorsed a multiparty system.
This talent was raised to the level of high drama—televised to hundreds of millions—after Sakharov won election to the Congress of People’s Deputies. At first, Gorbachev seemed eager to establish Sakharov’s authority in the Congress, calling him to the podium in the opening minutes of the first session. What a scene that was: Sakharov slowly walking up the stairs to the lectern, then facing an elected (or, at least, semi-elected) parliament, the general secretary of the Communist party in the background. Sakharov said he supported Gorbachev, but that political support was always “conditional.” At that moment, millions of people who had believed their press and thought Sakharov had been sent to Gorky for crimes against the state now realized he was an honest, heroic man. Gorbachev, for his part, took this small measure of criticism in stride. But as the session wore on, and the criticism grew more specific, Sakharov began to grate on Gorbachev and hundreds of the deputies.
During one break in the session, Sakharov writes, he asked for a private session with Gorbachev. A secretary asked him to wait.
I could see the enormous hall of the Palace of Congresses, semi-dark and empty. There were guards at the distant doors. Finally, around a half hour later, Gorbachev came out with [Supreme Soviet Chairman Anatoly] Lukyanov. Lukyanov had not been part of my plans but there was nothing that could be done about it. Gorbachev looked tired, as did I. We moved three chairs to the corner of the stage at the table of the Presidium. Gorbachev was very serious throughout the conversation. His usual smile for me—half kindly, half condescending—never appeared on his face.
I said, “Mikhail Sergeyevich! It is not for me to tell you how serious things are in the country, how dissatisfied people are and how everyone expects things to get worse. There is a crisis of trust in the country toward the leadership and the Party. Your personal authority and popularity are down to zero. People cannot wait any longer with nothing but promises. A middle course in situations like these is almost impossible. The country and you personally are at a crossroads—either increase the process of change maximally or try to retain the administrative-command system with all its qualities. In the first case you must use the support of the ‘left,’ you can be sure that there will be many brave and energetic people you can count on. In the second case, you know for yourself, whose support you will have, but you will never be forgiven the attempt at perestroika.”
During the Congress sessions, Gorbachev never fully understood Sakharov’s conditional support, never understood Sakharov’s instinctive strategy always to expand the range of the public debate, to introduce new necessities and insert greater moral dimensions into the language of Soviet reform. Gorbachev knew well that in order to gain the confidence of the West and his own intelligentsia that he could not leave Sakharov in Gorky. But he seemed stunned and even irritated at times by Sakharov’s moral prestige, an authority that Gorbachev could never match as head of so degraded an institution as the Communist party. A public opinion poll published in the mass circulation weekly Argumenti i Fakti that showed Sakharov by far the most trusted and admired deputy in the Congress incensed Gorbachev, who did not even make the top ten. At a closed meeting with journalists and writers, Gorbachev “recommended” that the paper’s editor resign.
Instead of joining Gorbachev’s “team,” Sakharov became Gorbachev’s most incisive critic, constantly challenging the Kremlin’s line. He warned Gorbachev against “unnecessary delays” in transferring to a market economy and against the hazards of trying to placate the huge, conservative apparatus of the Communist party. Unfortunately, Gorbachev often failed to see the good in that and dispatched his more liberal aides, Alexander Yakovlev and Anatoly Lukyanov, to persuade Sakharov that such criticism only helped the conservatives. Gorbachev would have preferred a compliant symbol; instead he was faced with a superior man who refused to let the powerful remain complacent.
Gorbachev’s ambivalent relationship with Sakharov came into clear and tragic focus late one afternoon at the congress. Despite jeering in the hall, Sakharov began to deliver the most startling public address of his career in politics, demanding an end to the Party’s guaranteed monopoly on power and to government control of the KGB, and a parliamentary denunciation of the Chinese crackdown in Tiananmen Square. But before he could finish, Gorbachev turned petty, siding with the rubes in the hall who were demanding that Sakharov step down.
“Time’s up,” Gorbachev said. “Don’t you respect the Congress?”
“Yes,” Sakharov replied, “but I respect the country and the people more. My mandate extends beyond the bounds of this Congress.”
During and after that Congress, Sakharov became the leader of the parliamentary, and public, opposition. With his critical support, such figures as Gavriil Popov, now the mayor of Moscow, and Anatoly Sobchak, now the mayor of Leningrad, matured as voices.
At the same time, Sakharov was the prod for the opposition, continually staking out new political territory without concern for the wrath of the military, the Communist party, or the neo-Stalinists. And their resentment ran deep. In the more hurried second volume, to be published in English next year, Sakharov never really gives a sense of the hatred he aroused among the old guard in the Party. But anyone who kept an open ear in the Kremlin foyer during the Congress or had casual conversations with apparatchiks grew used to hearing vicious tirades against Sakharov. Those who would not dare attack Gorbachev, for fear of breaking the code of Party discipline, focused on their old nemesis.
I remember last summer traveling around Sakhalin Island with a Party apparatchik named Anatoly Kapustin. An ostrich trying to imitate an eagle, Kapustin tried to impress his foreign guests with the depth of his reformist ideas. He represented a good part of the island; never mind that no one elected him. One afternoon, we ate lunch on a huge fishing boat on the Sea of Okhotsk. Lunch was served in the captain’s mahogany paneled quarters, a room that had the faint smell of fish guts. Vodka, at least for Kapustin, was the feature of the meal. By dessert, all his admiration of reform had faded into barroom jokes. Asked about Sakharov, Kapustin just smirked:
“Who does that man think he is up there? He has nothing to say, and we won’t let him!”
Sakharov died last year on December 14 during a session of the Congress of People’s Deputies. He had come home from the Kremlin to write a speech designed to define and gain support for the parliamentary opposition. He had never been more active and engaged. A few days earlier, he circulated a draft of his own new constitution, a document consistent with his political thoughts since the mid-1960s. The constitution, with its call for a completely voluntary confederation of republics, would eventually make its way into Gorbachev’s own thinking. As usual, Sakharov, and not the Party, was the vanguard of perestroika. Before going downstairs to work on his speech, he told Elena Bonner, “Tomorrow there will be a battle.” He collapsed in the hall.
The next morning, Gorbachev showed his prickly regard for Sakharov once more. Instead of announcing the news himself, he let one of the dimmer lights of the Politburo, Vitaly Vorotnikov, tell the deputies. Another member of the Party leadership, Yevgeny Primakov, was dispatched to Chkalova Street to work out the funeral arrangements with Bonner. Even after Sakharov’s death, the hardliners could not restrain their scorn. Tatyana Zaslavskaya remembers “with shame and disgust” the “mocking, filthy remarks made by the apparat” as they complained in the cloakrooms about the suspension of the session so that deputies could attend the funeral speeches at Luzhniki Park.
Prodded in the Congress hallway by a crowd of reporters, Gorbachev finally responded to Sakharov’s death, saying, “You didn’t have to agree with everything he said, but everything Andrei Dmitriyevich did was dictated by his conscience, by deep-rooted humanitarian convictions.” Which, as Gorbachev knew, was more than any Party leader could say for himself.
The morning of the funeral, in front of Sakharov’s coffin at the Academy of Sciences building in Leninski Prospekt, Gorbachev and a Politburo delegation drove up in their black limousines and spent a few silent minutes in a cold, light rain honoring a man their party had abused for decades. Bonner was there, too and, according to another member of the family, she thanked Gorbachev briefly for his help with the funeral, and then, like her husband in Gorky, took up her own patriotic work. She told Gorbachev he must permit the official registration of Memorial and should realize that with Sakharov’s death he had lost his most valuable opponent and ally. A few days later, Memorial was registered.
For Gorbachev, the lesson of Sakharov’s return from exile had to be that democracy does not end with a gesture of good will and a bid for legitimacy. Sakharov had the soul of a free man. He could not be contained, he was no one’s instrument. Sakharov’s independence and fearlessness were a signal to the entire country. In the months since his death, millions of people, exercising their right to vote and to protest, have been electing progressive politicians and made demands that have gone well beyond the designs of the self-proclaimed “architects and initiators of perestroika,” the Communist party. Which is why the Party’s congress a few weeks ago, so filled with voices of neo-Stalinist nostalgia, had the look of a convention of the doomed.
Gorbachev’s struggle with the legacy of Sakharov continues even now. Speaking at a dinner at the Soviet Embassy in Washington in May, Gorbachev said, “In taking a radically different approach to security, we should not forget people who were ahead of their time. Andrei Sakharov was one of them. One of the fathers of nuclear superweapons, Sakharov had the courage of his convictions to uphold to the end that force could no longer play a role in the relations among states. Sakharov taught us another lesson, too: one should not be afraid of dogmas or of appearing naive.” It is a shame that Gorbachev could only invoke the name of Sakharov when it was politically convenient. But though he could never bear to admit it until his loyal opposition was dead, the statesman may have come to recognize that without the moralist, there would have been no perestroika. Mikhail Gorbachev lives in the Age of Sakharov.
August 16, 1990