Lev Ponomarev: Thirty years without Andrei Sakharov

posted 24 Dec 2019, 02:34 by Translation Service   [ updated 24 Dec 2019, 04:34 ]
14 December 2019

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: RFI]

Exactly 30 years ago, on 14 December 1989, the world said goodbye to Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov – member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, creator of the hydrogen bomb, dissident, human rights activist and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. In this interview with RFI’s Russian-language service, Lev Ponomarev (leader of the For Human Rights movement and member of the Moscow Helsinki Group) discusses why Sakharov become a moral authority for all of Soviet society in the late 1980s, whether he could have become a “Russian Václav Havel”, and who can be called the “conscience of the nation” in modern-day Russia.

Lev Ponomarev: I spent the last two years of Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov’s life working closely together with him in the field of social activism – as fellow physicists we had previously seen each other from afar at conferences, but our professional paths had never crossed, and we would not have considered each other friends. When Memorial was set up, I asked him to become a member of its Public Council, which served as an add-on of sorts to the organisation proper. Andrei Dmitrievich himself did not set up Memorial, and he was not its leader in practical terms, but he was a member of this Public Council that we decided to set up so that Russians and people from the rest of the USSR would feel more confident about donating their money to us. Sakharov become a member of it, as did many other leaders from the Perestroika era, including Yeltsin – generally speaking, its members were individuals who had gained popularity by 1988 on the wave of Perestroika. That was when I started to work more closely with Sakharov. Then came the 1989 elections to the Congress of People’s Deputies of the Soviet Union, and I served as his aide and then worked for him until the last days of his life.

In your memoirs about Sakharov, you write that at the time – in the late 1980s and early 1990s – he shaped the nation’s opinions. Why do you say that, and how do you think he personally influenced attitudes among the Russian population?

He managed to become a leader not only of liberals, of people with the same views as him – anti-Communists, you might say – but also of the general population, because he had made a mark for himself in the Soviet era as the individual who created the fission bomb, and people loved him for it. He received the “Hero of Socialist Labour” medal three times, and he was famous for having “created the Soviet Union’s nuclear shield”, as we used to say in Soviet times. This was why his opinions – even if they did not coincide with the opinions of the average Soviet citizen – gradually percolated through to the national conscience, in a way that has never been seen before or since.

If Sakharov had been younger and a little healthier (we know that his death was completely unexpected), he could very easily have become the leader of the new Russia, as a kind of Havel Mark 2 [Václav Havel was a Czech writer, dissident and human rights activist; he served as the last President of Czechoslovakia (1989-1992) and the first President of Czechia (1993-2003). Editor’s note]. I even suggested that a new political party should be set up, with him at the helm. But he replied; “Just look at me, Lev – am I really capable of that?” No one would have said that he looked ill, but he did not have the necessary energy or political charisma, and perhaps he just wasn’t made for the job. We were unlucky in this regard – if he had been 20 years younger, he could have become a political leader, and perhaps he would have led the whole country, even if that sounds like pure pie in the sky if you think about what we have endured and the leaders we have actually had.

And if you were to fantasize and imagine him heading up a party and maybe even becoming president, how might that have changed Russian history? What mistakes would he not have made that Yeltsin did?

Well, in general, if we’re speaking more objectively, our country wasn’t prepared for such radical transformations. They happened unexpectedly because the Communists just … I’m sorry, I don’t want to speak on your French radio the way we do in Russian, but basically they lost everything. They buried the economy and therefore the transformations were forced to happen quickly. The population’s disappointment was so great that some major figure was needed who could explain somehow. Naturally, even under Sakharov we might not have succeeded at anything.

On the other hand, though, the world democratic revolution had triumphed, and who was at its head? Former Politburo member Yeltsin, with all the minuses only he could have. Although he truly was a bold person. He rose up against the diktat of the CPSU [Communist Party of the Soviet Union] and agreed to a multi-party system. But he still had many of the characteristic features of a party boss. He was not a man free of those views. Therefore he moved away from the democrats very quickly. In the early 1990s, I met with him many times, and he was open to interaction. Later, though, he was surrounded by various syсophants who intoxicated him, not that he himself was opposed to that. Naturally, if Sakharov had not had these minuses, there would not have been that corruption. Although Yeltsin was not inclined toward corruption, I can say that definitely. But too many people around him were bent on corruption and corrupted Yeltsin’s inner circle and his family.

What personal qualities did Sakharov have that might have safeguarded him from this?

You have to understand, the Communists, especially those who made a political career, these were people with a distorted notion of the populace, justice, and the party hierarchy. Whereas Sakharov was a very free man, he was a very democratic man. Obviously a man who thought strategically—even in science he had been a strategist, he hadn’t worked on small problems in science, he discovered new paths in new spheres of science, astrophysics, for example. He came to astrophysics in his later years, toward the end of his life. Nevertheless, he said things that defined a certain direction there. And therefore in his public activities he was free of stereotypes, and in his political activities he was free of stereotypes. He spoke honestly and candidly with people of any level, he did not resort to cunning. Whereas Yeltsin was a professional politician, and how does the saying go? - “We say one thing and think another.” Sakharov was a much more open person, and politics would have been far more open, which would have been the right way to do things.

In one interview you said that Sakharov was one of those people who can be called “the nation’s conscience.” If we were to speak about the present day, are there individuals in Russia comparable in scale and influence? Who today might be called “the nation’s conscience”?

All those myths arise after the person’s death. And rightly so. Then his contribution can be assessed more objectively. Sakharov truly could be called “the nation’s conscience.” But I would not presume to call anyone that during his lifetime. Later, people will probably speak that way about someone in the present era.

But I would say that we have a “collective Sakharov.” There is a group of people who are not afraid to speak the truth. There is a networked community, a “congress of the intelligentsia.” They do not make statements regularly, but when any especially acute events [occur], they do make statements. I believe that the “Congress of the Intelligentsia” can be called “the nation’s conscience.” When Crimea was annexed, it was the Congress of the Intelligentsia that spoke out very decisively and fairly swiftly. The most prominent individuals there are the writer Liudmila Ulitskaya, the actress Liya Akhedzhakova, the directors Andrei Smirnov and Vladimir Mirzoev, and [musician] Andrei Makarevich. Each of them, perhaps, could be reproached for something, but when they speak out together concerning these major events, then it can be said that this is “the nation’s conscience.”

Translated by Joanne Reynolds and Marian Schwartz