Since becoming president of Russia, Vladimir Putin has worked hard to mold Russian memories of the Soviet Union into something more positive, or anyway more nostalgic, than they had been under his predecessor. His goal, it seems, is to make Russians proud of their country again, to find heroes they can once again worship. Toward this end, he and the bureaucrats who work for him have altered textbooks, closed archives, and brought back Soviet symbols, including the old national anthem. In May 2005, on the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War, Putin even presided over an open celebration of Soviet imperialism, complete with Soviet flags, tanks, and presidential justifications of the postwar occupation of the Baltic states.

Over time, this change in tone, a radical shift from that of the late 1980s, could have serious consequences for Russian civil society. With no memory of the arbitrariness of the Soviet legal system, for example, Russians may feel less committed to the rule of law. Without reminders of the behavior of Soviet police in the past, they may find it easier to accept a heavier-handed police state in the present. Without knowing any history of the terror and hardship imposed by the Soviet empire, they may support new attempts to dominate their neighbors. Worst of all, though, by robbing Russians of a clear understanding of their history, President Putin has deprived his countrymen of their rightful heroes, refusing to teach them about the men and women of whom they could legitimately be proud.

Certainly this conclusion is hard to escape when reading accounts of the Soviet dissident movement of the 1970s and 1980s, and above all when contemplating the life of one of that movement’s most unusual leaders, Andrei Sakharov. Although he began his career as a nuclear physicist, not a politician, and although he became a powerful member of the Soviet nomenklatura, enjoying the special privileges granted to him as one of the fathers of the hydrogen bomb, Sakharov not only thought his way out of the totalitarian system he’d grown up in, he learned to exploit its weaknesses.

To put it differently, Sakharov was not merely a beneficiary of the international human rights movement, but one of its founding fathers. Together with a group of equally brave men and women—among them Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Natan Sharansky, Andrei Amalrik, Pavel Litvinov, Vladimir Bukovsky, Yuri Orlov, Ludmilla Alexeyeva, Sergei Kovalev, and of course his own wife, Elena Bonner—Sakharov helped to create methods of protest designed to undermine the Soviet system in the most effective way possible. Using the foreign press and the international scientific community, they spread the truth about life in the Soviet Union around the world. By means of samizdat—the illegal press—they told the truth about Soviet history to the Soviet people. Above all, they used the language of international treaties—the UN Declaration on Human Rights, the Helsinki Final Act—to repeatedly shame the Soviet government, both at home and abroad, by constantly pointing out the huge…

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