Boris Altshuler: The Death of Sakharov was a Supreme Misfortune for Russia

posted 5 Jan 2020, 02:45 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 6 Jan 2020, 04:10 ]
14 December 2019

On the thirtieth anniversary of Andrei Sakharov’s death

by Boris Altshuler (pictured left)

Boris Altshuler is chair of the board of the NGO Right of the Child, member of the Moscow Helsinki Group, and a senior researcher at the Department of Theoretical Physics of the Lebedev Physical Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences. For more information about the author, see here.

МиниатюраA. D. Sakharov died on the evening of 14 December 1989. Today, looking back, I find it impossible not to agree with Sergei Grigoryants’ assessment of this event in his article, ‘The Death of Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov’ (July 2012): ‘The main event and misfortune of Russia of that time, and indeed in all its history, was the death of Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov. I think this was the event of the greatest global significance of that time, one of the greatest tragedies in the history of Russia, comparable only with the death of Alexander II and the outcomes of great wars - the war against Napoleon and the First and Second World Wars. Andrei Sakharov, in my view, was Russia’s only hope, at least in terms of a relative affirmation of democracy in this country, and his death (and I am convinced that he was killed) not only wiped out all these hopes, but in the final analysis exercised an irreversible and fatal negative influence on the whole of European civilisation, with the consequences of which we are trying to cope in so far as we can.’

According to the autopsy, the cause of death was sudden cardiac arrest. I shall not consider whether this happened from natural causes or whether it was artificially brought about since there is no objective, scientific evidential base for such a discussion. But in the light of Sakharov’s achievements it is both possible and necessary to assess what has happened in the thirty years since his death.

‘Might have beens’ are of little interest in history. There is hardly any sense in guessing what might have been had Sakharov lived and been active in the 1990s. The horrors and mistakes of those years have largely determined what is happening in Russia today. Of course, Sakharov’s genius, his unique ‘ability to see both sides of a coin’ 
[literally 'ability to count to two' in the original Russian - trans.], his ability to identify those special moments of the present (‘points of bifurcation’) that determine the future, moments when a historic chance must be seized (and how many chances like that were let go!), in conjunction with his enormous authority among democrats, all these are strong arguments in favour of Sergei Grigoryants’ idea that the death of Sakharov was a misfortune of global scale.

But as someone who knew Andrei Dmitrievich for 20 years I can confirm that thinking about such ‘might have beens’ was uncharacteristic of Sakharov. He did not involve himself in guessing about the future. In response to such guesses, very ordinary and typical of their kind, he would say: ‘What is important is what has already happened.’ And, indeed, facts are important as the basis on which ‘the made by all of us, step by step in our infinitely complex interrelationship.’ (A.D. Sakharov).

So I leave it to readers, as I do myself, to fantasize in the form of ‘home entertainment’ on the theme of what would have happened if Sakharov had lived. But here I shall try to talk about the facts, about ‘what has already happened.’

I shall discuss two systemic problems, misfortunes of the New Russia that arose in the 1990s and have lasted until the present, determining our present, and possibly also our future.

In economics this is a virtually total growth of monopolies, turning all the reformers’ declarations about the need to build a competitive free market into empty words. Here lies the principal difference - tragically, of the worst kind - between our economic reforms of the 1990s (the so-called ‘Gaidar reforms’, although I don’t know how fair it is to give Egor Gaidar’s name to this insult to common sense and to the millions of people who live in Russia) and, for example, the economic miracle of post-war Japan. Underpinning the Japanese reforms were the very decisive steps taken by the government to defend the free market from monopolies that would inevitably take over the free market in the absence of government measures to protect it. Which is what happened in our case.

The most recent reports by the Federal Antimonopoly Agency describe the ‘universal cartelisation’ of the Russian economy, the prevalence of anti-competition agreements that ‘are carried out with the participation of government bodies,’ accompanied by ‘every evidence of organised criminal groups and criminal communities.’ These reports also state that the Ministry of Internal Affairs is failing in its responsibility to prosecute offences under Article 178 of the Russian Criminal Code on ‘restriction of competition,’ despite the fact that the evidence is plain for all to see. Just recall the activities of the Miratorg corporation that destroyed small-scale private farming in the Krasnodar region, and similar activities all over the country. Or think of the oligarchs in the construction business based in Moscow and Moscow region who have merged with the local political leadership and engage in inflating the prices of residential accommodation. Such a concentration of economic power is absolutely impermissible in any normal market-oriented country. But we have our own special path. A path in which corruption and wholesale theft of the general public by narrow elite groups flourish with impunity.

And what has Sakharov to do with this? The point is that Sakharov was not a reformer who based his views on a formalistic or narrowly logical approach. Behind the reforms he always saw the individual. And of course he would not have remained indifferent to the suffering endured by millions of Russians in the 1990s. And he also truly was able to ‘see both sides of the coin’ 
[literally to ‘count to two' in the original Russian - trans.]: on the one side, that it was not possible to create a competitive market economy ‘from above, using the authority of the President of Russia to overcome the resistance of the ‘Red Directors’, the KPRF [the Communist Party of the Russian Federation] and so on; on the other side, that it was necessary to ensure reformers won a majority in the State Duma by putting forward slogans and programmes that would save the average voter from the suffering they endured as a result of the painful reforms. But the thing is that none of the democrats and reformers of the 1990s were able to see this ‘second side’ of the coin. As a result we witnessed their shameful and systematic defeats at all elections to the State Duma.

And here we arrive at the second systemic misfortune of the New Russia. For almost 30 years the only electorally significant opposition party in our country has been the KPRF, the same KPRF that failed to reject the cannibalistic Soviet stereotypes and that continues to bow down before Stalin, the destroyer of Russia. We remember how collectivisation destroyed 15m of the hardest working peasants, the thousands of churches blown up on Stalin’s orders, and the monthly planned thousands of executions personally ordered by Stalin (and it is quite beside the point who was shot or for what), and Stalin’s orders on the eve of 22 June 1941 (no matter that they were also signed by Timoshenko and Zhukov) ‘not to respond to provocations,’ ‘not to fire on German planes’, and on the disarming of the army (the immediate withdrawal for servicing of tanks, artillery and aviation) as a result of which Hitler reached Moscow and the Volga, and the country lost more than 40m of its citizens.

True, the KPRF has not become a ‘vegetarian’ social-democratic party along the lines of such parties in Sweden, Denmark or Norway. But no other opposition, able to withstand the ‘party of bosses,’ has come into being. The LDPR and A Just Russia are not opposition parties, while the democratic parties and associations are unfortunately only visible under a ‘political microscope.’ Why have the democrats over many years remained invisible to millions of Russian voters? The question is extremely important since without real political competition it is impossible to build a stable state, a state with a predictable future. Just as in the absence of a visible, critical opposition and genuinely elected authorities at all levels, beginning most importantly at the local level, it is impossible to resolve a single one of the very serious problems facing the country. These problems include the need to overcome corruption and monopolisation, to ensure the independence of the courts, to bring order to the law enforcement agencies that have become an uncontrolled ‘state within a state’ (and today largely ensure not the protection of the law but the interests of oligarchs and of corrupt holders of high office), to protect the environment and small business so important for society, to stop the degradation of the villages, to overcome poverty and to resolve the huge housing problems facing families with children.

The reasons for the democrats’ electoral failure could be both the lack of political professionalism of its leaders and the deference, inherited from Soviet times, shown by millions of Russians towards the executive authorities, as expressed by Yuly Daniel in his verses from the 1960s: ‘Three hundred years the Tatars bent them under their yoke / Only to find out they won’t bend. / But in fifty years we bent them down so far, / That in three hundred years they won’t unbend.’ (Petr Starchik, in his version putting Daniel’s words to music in the 1970s, sang: ‘Oh, we did not hold them down long enough, we didn’t finish them off!’ You can find an original performance from that time online here).

But we must look to the future. Twenty years of the third millennium have already passed. This means new generations, free from Soviet stereotypes, have entered adult life, generations for whom the ‘wild nineties’ are distant history. They include wonderful young people like Yury Dud, Egor Zhukov, Konstantin Kotov and others. Young people who could not watch calmly as National Guard officers beat up someone who had fallen down, and young people who, for their human sympathy, have now been sentenced to terms in prison colonies.

I shall end with Sakharov’s optimistic words about young people from a 1989 interview with the newspaper Knizhnoe obozrenie [‘Review of Books’]: ‘I believe that, taken as a whole, people always maintain their moral strengths. In particular, I believe that young people, who in each generation begin to live life as it were anew, are able to uphold high moral standards. I am not talking so much about a renaissance as about the fact that the moral strength that exists in every generation is able time and again to develop and to flourish, and will inevitably come into its own.’


Of course, in connection with the thirtieth anniversary of A. D. Sakharov’s death I could have talked in more detail about the following:

- Sakharov’s exceptional role in preventing the suicide of humanity in a thermonuclear exchange (possibly accidental - everything at that time hung by a thread) between the USSR and the USA and the affirmation of the global significance of the observance of human rights as a practical instrument to remove the threat of such suicide;

- the 
notorious ‘atom mine’ (the idea of a hydrogen bomb of extraordinary power blown up in the depths of the ocean) and ‘cannibal’ Sakharov. No, he was no ‘cannibal’ and he never wished for the deaths of millions of Americans from a manmade gigantic tsunami; people who say that about him simply do not understand the depth of the faith and conviction of Soviet people, including Sakharov when he was working on the creation of the terrible weapon, that the USSR did not intend to attack anybody, our socialist country was the most progressive in the world and a truly peace-loving power, and the task of scientists was to make the USSR so strong that no country in the world would think of attacking it);

- the slander and propaganda directed against Elena Bonner, worthy of Goebbels;

- the ‘Sakharov oscillations’ of the background cosmic radiation predicted by Sakharov in 1965 and experimentally discovered at the beginning of the 2000s (since when the internet has been full of the phrase ‘Sakharov oscillations’), and so on.

However, it will be much better to talk about all this to mark the hundredth anniversary of Sakharov’s birth on 21 May 2021. For now I shall just note one significant event: very soon the publisher AST, as part of its project ‘Anhedonia,’ will publish a 700-page volume about Elena Georgievna Bonner: ‘Andrei Sakharov, Elena Bonner and friends: a life typical, tragic and wonderful.’ Inevitably, this book will not be only about Elena Georgievna. I quote from the editors’ notes to the book: ‘... Most of our fellow citizens know Elena Georgievna as the wife of the scientist A. D. Sakharov, as his colleague and assistant. That is plain enough: they lived through so many hardships in the 20 years they were together. But Elena Georgievna’s life is more than that of simply the wife and colleague of a great person, and this is the subject of the current book which consists of three sections: 1) a biography, told by means of a collection of her own autobiographical texts and extracts from A. D. Sakharov’s Memoirs, 2) the recollections of E. G. Bonner, 3) a series of key documents and a number of articles by Elena Georgievna herself. Finally, this section includes ‘My Mother’s Favourite Poems,’ a selection of verse by Tatyana Yankelevich: literature, and especially poetry, played a major role in the life of Elena Georgievna.

See also:

1. 'Ability to Count to Two. Opening Talk at the Third International Sakharov Conference on Physics,' P. N. Lebedev Physical Institute, Moscow, 2002

2. 'Andrei Sakharov as a physicist in all facets of his life' (2009)

3. ‘The Paradox of Sakharov...On the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Publication of Thoughts on Progress, Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom’ (2018) [in Russian]

In brief:
Novaya gazeta, 30.07.2018

At greater length:
Novye izvestiya, 28.07.2018

- ‘The attack on the Lebedev Physical Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences is like an alarm signal from the Emergencies Ministry: Russia urgently needs protection from law enforcement agencies’ (12 November 2019) Ekho Moskvy; Moscow Helsinki Group; Novye izvestiya

Photo of Andrei Sakharov: Website of the Sakharov Centre, © Yousef Karsh

Translated by Simon Cosgrove