Sergei Lukashevsky on Andrei Sakharov: The Unheeded Russian Havel

posted 25 Dec 2019, 11:02 by Translation Service   [ updated 25 Dec 2019, 12:06 ]

Реставратор Сахарницы14 December 2019

By Sergei Lukashevsky 

Sergei Lukashevsky is director of the Sakharov Centre. By decision of the Ministry of Justice, the Sakharov Centre has been entered in the register of ‘foreign agent’ organisations. The Sakharov Centre has lodged an application against the decision at the European Court of Human Rights. 

Source: The New Times [Photo: ASI]

14 December marked the 30th anniversary of the death of Andrei Sakharov. He concluded his Nobel prize acceptance speech [read on his behalf by his wife, Elena Bonner - ed.] with a list of names of Soviet political prisoners. Sakharov showed what public politics in Russia should be and might become.

Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov died thirty years ago, on 14 December 1989.

The historic distance separating us from that date allows us to say without reservation: that was another era. It was another zeitgeist – the perception of a historic watershed, of the inevitability of change, hovered in the air. The wind of change had captivated not just the USSR, but the whole world as well.

Alarm and Hope

Sakharov’s attitude can be described by two words from the title of one of his essays on current affairs: “alarm and hope.” In 1986 came the time for the fulfillment of his hopes. The Soviet Union and the United States agreed to arms reduction, the Berlin Wall – symbol of the division of the world and of the Iron Curtain – fell, and within three years nearly all political prisoners in the Soviet Union were freed. The first to be released, from internal exile in Gorky [now Nizhny Novgorod - ed.], was Sakharov himself.

Freedom, creative energy, and the absence of impenetrable boundaries were for Sakharov a natural state, fundamental properties of the Universe reflected in human civilization. Alienation, violence and oppression, on the contrary, were unnatural: they led humanity, with nuclear weapons at its disposal, to destruction.

Twentieth-century science, which Sakharov the scholar embodied, united the physics of an infinite universe and the physics of elementary particles. Sakharov the social thinker extrapolated that vision to the realm of world politics, linking international security (the survival of the entire human race) with the defence of human rights, with the fate of every individual prisoner of conscience.

Sakharov’s Nobel lecture begins with the words, “Peace, progress, human rights – these three goals are insolubly linked to one another: it is impossible to achieve one of these goals if the other two are ignored.” And it ends with the enumeration of the names of 112 Soviet political prisoners. The ability to unite a global vision and an intensive, practical attention to the fate of individuals was one of Sakharov’s amazing abilities, rare among human beings and even rarer among politicians, who make decisions possibly fateful for the entire world. Decisions, one might wish to say, concerning both the world and peace, homophones in Russian [mir] that had distinct spellings in pre-revolutionary orthography. In those years, it appeared, the unity of micro- and macro-politics was confirmed.

Alone on the Battlefield

However, Sakharov's life was cut off on a tragic note. In the last months, and particularly in the last days of Sakharov's life, he was not understood in his own country and his voice was not heard there. "There will be a battle tomorrow," Sakharov said to Elena Bonner literally before he died. And in that political battle he was practically alone.

1989 was not just the last year of Sakharov's life, but also the first year of real (albeit only partially free) political life in the USSR. And it is very important, remembering the day of his death, to remember Sakharov the politician.

The canonical image of Sakharov which began to take shape immediately after his death ("He was a true prophet. A prophet in the ancient, primordial sense of the word..." - D.S. Likhachev) sets Sakharov above politics (he appealed to conscience and propagated ideals), but in so doing makes him, as it were, not of this world, remote from the "dirty" political struggle.

But in the last six months of his life Sakharov showed more than anyone else how Russian politics should and could be.

The motivation for Sakharov's participation in politics was personal and public responsibility. Sakharov didn't simply set high moral standards, but sharply raised the status of political action. "The voters, the people, chose us and sent us to this Congress in order for us to take responsibility for the fate of the country," he told the deputies during the first hours the First Congress of People's Deputies was in session. For Gorbachev the Congress was an instrument for carrying out reforms, a means to further his own political ends. Sakharov endowed the assembly of deputies with a political significance of a higher order.

Sakharov defended the basic principles of democratic culture, without which political action loses its legitimacy. At the opening of the Congress Gorbachev, in accordance with his political logic, wanted at once to strengthen his political position and introduced a vote on the composition of the presidium of the Congress with himself at its head. Sakharov protested: "There is always an order of doing things: first discussion, first the candidates present their platforms, and then there's a vote. We disgrace ourselves before our whole people - that is my profound conviction, if we act differently."

He attempted to appeal to Congress to carry out fundamental political reform, putting forward a "Decree on Power" - to assert Congress's power to appoint candidates to higher government posts, to amend Article 6 of the Constitution on the leading role of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, to begin work on drafting a new constitution.

At the time when the majority of "democratic" deputies, even the ones who sharply criticized the government, acted within the framework set by Gorbachev (they limited themselves to speaking of abuses, openly discussing acute problems and plans for reform), Sakharov put forward political demands that seized the political initiative and the political agenda from the government. And more than that, he sincerely offered Gorbachev not confrontation but collaboration in the implementation of his political agenda.

It seemed there was no point in preaching to the deaf ears of an "aggressively obedient majority" that obstructed him and slammed his speeches. But Congress was broadcast live, and Sakharov appealed to society for support: "I turn to the citizens of the USSR with a plea to support the Decree both individually and collectively." In the summer, striking miners include the amendment of Article 6 in the list of their demands. 

The Lost Chance

The second and perhaps main motivation for these actions was that Sakharov could see the looming crisis. Here he spoke as a fundamental research scientist, a physicist who saw that the resultant force of social, economic and political aspirations and processes would lead to the destruction of the state.

He criticised Gorbachev for inaction and appealed directly to society. On 1 December he made a public appeal for a two-hour warning strike in support of his demands. Even among the members of the Interregional Group of deputies only five supported his appeal. However, the strikes took place in many Soviet cities. On 14 December at a meeting of the Group his appeal was subjected to sharp criticism. That evening Sakharov died from a heart attack.

It is impossible to answer the question whether Sakharov could have changed the course of history. And all the same in 1991 more than half of the inhabitants of the USSR declared they shared Sakharov's social and political views.

Sakharov definitively demonstrated the qualities of a major politician. He was able to see the political process as a whole, setting concrete decisions in the context of global objectives. He identified real threats that surpassed in importance ongoing political conflicts, understood the fundamental significance of political institutions, and was able to reach out beyond the boundaries of the social groups that normally supported him (the scientific and technical intelligentsia) to seize the political initiative.

Sakharov’s fate, his historically untimely death, is the answer to the longing for a ‘Russian Václav Havel’ that has continued down to the present time. Sakharov not only could have become, but indeed was a Russian Havel. However, he was unheeded and not recognised in this capacity. In the first place not even by society, but by the elite. And, moreover, not only by the conservative part of the elite, but by the ‘democratic’ part also. 

A window of opportunity, including on such a historical scale, comes only once. We shall not now ever have "another Havel." New turning points in the road of history will look very different. What is most important is to see them and make the correct choice.

The last speech that Sakharov drafted but did not make was on  legal reform: access to lawyers for their clients and lengths of detention. These are familiar problems to us, don’t you find?

Translated by Mark Nuckols, Alissa Valles and Simon Cosgrove