The New York Review


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 gulf between what it claimed to be and what it really was.

The originality of these methods, and the consternation they created within th Soviet elite, is nowhere clearer than in the documents which the KGB obsessivel compiled about Sakharov’s life, his philosophy, and his then-unique forms of protest from the late 1960s up to his death in 1989. Most of those contained in the book unde review, the latest in Yale University Press’s excellent “Annals of Communism” series were given to Elena Bonner in 1994.[1] Others were collected by Vladimir Bukovsky, who had access to them during Boris Yeltsin’s inconclusive 1992 “trial” of the Communist Party. They have been selected, introduced, and ably annotated by Joshua Rubenstein, a director of Amnesty International with long experience of Soviet archives, and Alexander Gribanov, himself a former editor of the dissident journal Chronicle of Current Events, and until recently the archivist of Sakharov’s papers, which are now at Harvard.

Reading anyone’s KGB dossier is never what might be called a pleasurable experience, and Sakharov’s KGB dossier is no exception. No editing, however capable, can hide the fact that the writing is stilted, or that the documents are sprinkled with rude remarks about Bonner and obligatory denunciations of “anti-social elements.” Although much of this collection consists of reports signed by KGB bosses, delivered directly to the Central Committee, they are clearly based on information from KGB operations, some from telephone taps, some from informers, and some probably invented by energetic young agents. At a number of points, the editors note that the KGB’s recollection of events differs sharply from those of Bonner and Sakharov themselves. Not that accuracy was the KGB’s primary concern. As Bonner points out, the KGB by the end grew so accustomed to making the facts fit the official policy that “they didn’t know themselves what was true or what was not.”[2]

The documents are nevertheless filled with an eerie amount of detail, as KGB records often were when they concerned something the Party bosses really cared about. With great precision, the KGB not only tracked Sakharov’s physical movements and his friendships (“The circle of individuals around Academician Sakharov who are known for their hostile opinions”), but also the evolution of his ideas, albeit from a slanted perspective. In order to explain his behavior to their presumably incomprehending Party bosses, they quoted from his writings, his speeches, his press conferences, his conversations.

Because these reports were not meant for public consumption, they are not merely crude propaganda either. One of the more extraordinary documents in this collection is a memorandum written by Yuri Andropov, then the chief of the KGB, to Leonid Brezhnev, then the general secretary of the Communist Party. The document describes, as honestly as a KGB boss could, Sakharov’s character. “Sakharov,” writes Andropov, is an honest, compassionate and conscientious person. He respects intelligent and knowledgeable people; he is principled and courageous in defending his principles; he lives in ideas and in theories; he can think about problems even in the least suitable places.

Andropov then went on to explain, as far as he understood it–or felt he was allowed to understand it–the significance of Sakharov’s famous 1968 essay, “Progress, Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom.” That essay, inspired by the Prague Spring, now seems touchingly naive–it predicted capitalist and Communist “convergence”–but it was alarming to Andropov, who saw it, correctly, as evidence that one of the Soviet Union’s most celebrated scientists was heading toward a position of open dissidence. Believing that the Soviet leadership could still influence Sakharov, Andropov several times recommended that a high-level Party official, maybe even Brezhnev himself, meet with Sakharov in order to talk him out of his misguided views.

Although that meeting never took place, the KGB faithfully continued to deliver extraordinarily detailed reports on Sakharov to the Central Committee right up until his death. Bukovsky, who has read many similar files, has marveled at how much attention the Politburo itself lavished on his own case, as well as those of his fellow dissidents: “Not only our arrests, trials, banishments and searches, but even the smallest operational details required the attention of these fifteen very old and extremely busy people.”[3] As their nation’s economy crumbled, as their soldiers were dying in Afghanistan, the Soviet Union’s leaders still found time to ponder whether Sakharov’s wife should be allowed to travel to Italy for an eye operation, or whether Sakharov’s daughter-in-law should be allowed to rejoin her husband abroad, or whether Sakharov’s health had deteriorated following his latest hunger strike. But in a perverse sense, his captors’ paranoid attention to every detail of his life was also evidence of Sakharov’s extraordinary success per-haps more so than is usually recognized.

In the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has frequently been argue that the Soviet dissidents didn’t matter, that their numbers were too few and thei protests too little noticed to have had any real impact on the Soviet regime or it disintegration. And indeed it is true that by the time Andropov was promoted fro KGB boss to general secretary in 1982, the regime had managed to silence o intimidate thousands of potential opponents. The movement’s most prominen members –Sakharov, Solzhenitsyn, Bukovsky– were in jail, in exile, or abroad Everyone else knew that following their lead could mean, if not actual arrest, the los of a job, loss of an apartment, or rejection of a child’s application to study at university. In one of his earlier memos, Andropov wrote that between 1971 and 1974 these and other “prophylactic” measures were taken against 63,108 people. As result, Peter Reddaway, the leading Western academic specialist on Soviet dissent a the time, was probably right to observe in 1983 that the human rights movement ha “made little or no headway among the mass of ordinary people in the Russia heartland. [4] In their introduction to this collection, Rubenstein and Gribanov note that an unofficial opinion poll done in 1981 showed that some 56 percent of blue-collar workers in Moscow had never heard of Sakharov at all.

Yet the same poll also showed that Sakharov had strong support among intellectuals and even Party members, of whom one out of four said they admired him–and this, of course, was at a time when Sakharov’s name would never have appeared in the official press, except in a bitter attack. The KGB files back up that unofficial poll: clearly, the Soviet leadership did know, and did fear, that the human rights movement’s ideas were very much in circulation. Despite the official media blackout, Western press and especially radio could echo Sakharov’s ideas, even when he was deep in exile in Gorky. The underground publishing industry could keep spreading Solzhenitsyn’s works even when he was abroad. Even foreign Communist movements, which by the 1970s had begun to establish some distance between themselves and the USSR, could provide information in their publications, some of which were legally permitted in the Soviet Union. In December 1975, for example, Andropov wrote to the Central Committee describing the impact the human rights movement was having on the Communist parties of France and Italy. “[Our] friends,” wrote Andropov, euphemistically referring to the foreign Communists, “have long since been retreating in the face of the enemy’s propaganda pressure”:
The intelligence services and ideological centers of imperialism seek to discredit Soviet laws and to depict them as archaic, dogmatic, and contrary to the spirit of international documents (in particular, the [UN] “Declaration of Human Rights”). Unfortunately, these have something in common with certain statements about democratic freedoms under socialism that have appeared in the Communist press of Italy and France.

What Andropov really feared, of course, was the effect that these statements from foreign Communists might have–or were already having–in the USSR itself, if not among the wider population, then among the elites who were likely to interest themselves in the writings of foreign Communists. Already, he wrote, they “evoke perplexity among the Soviet people,” and he argued for more propaganda, which could demonstrate “the true popular character of Soviet democracy.”

But perhaps the damage had already been done. One of the most remarkable aspects of the Soviet collapse, after all, was the speed with which so many people, an particularly so many intellectuals, turned away from the Marxist ideology in whic they had been educated. Despite the propaganda, despite the schools and universities despite the decades of press restrictions, in the early 1990s most educated Russian abandoned Marxism virtually over-night. Hundreds of thousands of people quit th Communist Party, whose institutions–youth groups, cultural centers, revolutionar museums–dried up or shut down with stunning speed. When writing about thi development, historians and journalists have often resorted to metaphors: it was “flash flood” or a “sea change.” But despite appearances, the transformation did no take place overnight. The ground had been laid decades earlier, by Khrushchev’ denunciation of Stalin, by the stupidity of Soviet propaganda, by the omnipresen terror–and also by the actions of the human rights leaders who had for thirty year pointed out, over and over again, the contrasts between their country’s lofty aspiration and its brutal reality

In the KGB’s files there is also some more concrete proof that at least one of Sakharov’s specific objections to Soviet rule–the incarceration of prisoners of conscience–had an impact on at least one specific Soviet leader. In February 1986, Gorbachev, who was then just launching his “glasnost” campaign, gave an interview to the French Communist newspaper, L’Humanité. “Now, about political prisoners,” he told the journalist, “we don’t have any. Likewise, our citizens are not prosecuted for their beliefs. We don’t try people for their opinions.”[5]

In response, Sakharov wrote Gorbachev a letter, the original of which is still in the KGB’s possession. The letter contained a long, detailed account of people who had been prosecuted for their religious or political beliefs in the USSR. He included names of prisoners, the facts of their cases, their place of incarceration. He did not receive a direct response. But on June 17, 1986, the then head of the KGB, Viktor Chebrikov, submitted a report to Gorbachev–“in accordance with your instruction”–answering Sakharov’s charges. Although there is nothing extraordinary about the content of Chebrikov’s report–he accused various human rights activists of “committing concrete criminal acts as stipulated in current law” and he called Sakharov’s accusations “familiar fabrications”–its defensive tone is extraordinary. Perhaps for the first time, the KGB was having to explain itself to a Soviet general secretary who was actually questioning the premise of its very existence. There is evidence that Gorbachev wasn’t convinced by Chebrikov: in January 1987, he began to release the Soviet Union’s political prisoners. By January 1992, a mere five years later, the Soviet Union itself had ceased to exist.


For all of the effort they spent trying to understand him, there is, in the end, one central part of Sakharov’s life and career which is missing from the KGB’s careful account: the man’s motivations, and therefore the moral philosophy that inspired him. Andropov came closest to guessing at a small part of the truth in his weirdly sympathetic 1971 memo: Having made a great contribution to the creation of thermonuclear weapons, Sakharov felt his “guilt” before mankind, and, because of that, he has set himself the task of fighting for peace and preventing thermonuclear war.

But as Sakharov himself tells the story, his transformation from the regime’s top scientist into the regime’s most prominent critic was a lot more complicated than that. In his Memoirs, he describes his long, early battles to ban nuclear testing and to halt the pollution of Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest body of fresh water. In a recent biography of Sakharov, Gennady Gorelik, a Russian physicist, provides additional new documentary evidence of Sakharov’s struggle to promote arms control. As late as 1967–the year before his first dissident publications–Gorelik points out that Sakharov was still lobbying the Central Committee, from the inside, for an anti-ballistic missile treaty.[6] Frustration with his failures eventually led him to conclude that the source of the nuclear arms race lay within the nature of the Soviet system itself. It wasn’t exactly “guilt before mankind” that inspired him, in other words, but rather a growing awareness of the terrible damage that the Soviet system’s pathological secrecy and its leadership’s complete absence of concern for human life had inflicted on its citizens and their environment.

But as Sakharov was drawn more deeply into activism, and as he thought more profoundly about the principles he was defending, the KGB’s analysis of his motivations grew shriller and more formulaic. Unable, or more likely unwilling, to believe that Sakharov might feel morally compelled to behave as he did, and at a loss to explain how the dissidents managed to work so well with one another, they suspected the existence of a vast international conspiracy. Sometimes they fingered Western intelligence services. In 1973, Andropov attributed the “hysteria stirred up lately in the West around the names of Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn” to a “prearranged and coordinated program”: Although not uniting formally, they both act essentially in unison, playing up to Western reactionary circles and, in a number of instances, carrying out direct orders.

At one point, as rumors swept Moscow that Sakharov had died during one of his lengthy hunger strikes, his KGB watchers even complained that “the West prepared obituaries for Sakharov for purposes of provocation.” Clearly, their sources hadn’t informed them of the dastardly black art of pre-paring obituaries in advance, so prevalent in the Western bourgeois press.

More often, Andropov and his KGB successors described Sakharov as a pawn of his wife. And because his wife was half-Jewish, that made him part of an international Zionist conspiracy. At a Politburo meeting in 1985, even Gorbachev responded to a complaint about Bonner’s influence with the comment, “That’s what Zionism really is.” Another Politburo member called her “a beast in a skirt, a henchman of imperialism.”

But in their insistence on seeing conspiracies and insidious “influences” all aroun Sakharov, the KGB missed out on his extraordinarily passionate sincerity. They als failed to understand that this derived from long observation–and rejection–of th society around him. By the 1970s, Sakharov had come to believe that Soviet elites ha become profoundly nihilistic, and he wanted no part of their cynical culture. In a 197 letter to Brezhnev (which of course received no reply) Sakharov laid this out quit clearly Our society is infected by apathy, hypocrisy, petit bourgeois egotism, and hidden cruelty. The majority of representatives of its upper stratum–the Party apparatus of the government and the highest, most successful layers of the intelligentsia–cling tenaciously to their open and secret privileges and are profoundly indifferent to violations of human rights, the interests of progress, to the security and future of mankind.

Reading those words, it is impossible not to feel a chill of recognition, since they could so easily apply to the corrupt and venal Russian political and financial elites of today. Which brings me back to where I began: Why are Andrei Sakharov and his colleagues in the human rights movement not celebrated as heroes in Russia today? Here again is Sakharov’s 1971 letter: The country’s spiritual regeneration demands the elimination of those conditions that drive people into hypocrisy and time-serving, and that lead to feelings of impotence, discontent, and disillusionment. Everybody must be assured, in deed and not just in word, of equal opportunities for advancement in his work, in education, and cultural growth; and the system of privileges in all spheres of consumption must be abolished. Full intellectual freedom must be assured and all forms of persecution for beliefs must cease.

Even some of Sakharov’s specific criticisms–the poverty of Russian teachers and doctors, the sorry state of public health and education, the persistence of religious persecution, the pollution, the ubiquitous alcoholism–are still relevant. The only difference, now, is that it is possible to say so.

Here, in other words, is someone of whom Russians can be justifiably proud, a thinker whose memoirs every young Russian should read, a man who believed profoundly in the democracy to which so many others merely pay lip service and in the importance of dedicating one’s life to the public good. How tragic that his name is one that the current Russian leadership, descendants of the KGB bosses who wrote the docu-ments in this book, would like to bury and forget.


[1] In fact they were handed to her at a public symposium by Sergei Stepashin, then the boss of the FSB, the KGB’s successor organization, later the prime minister, with the comment that “this will make sad and bitter reading.” (Conversation with Tatiana Yankelevich, Sakharov’s stepdaughter, July 2005.)

[2] Conversation with Elena Bonner, September 2005.

[3] During Boris Yeltsin’s abortive trial of the Communist Party, Vladimir Bukovsky scanned many documents on the human rights movement into a laptop. Bukovsky’s book on the documents, and on the trial, Moskovskii Protsess (Moscow: Russkaya Mysl, 1996), was never published in English.

[4] Peter Reddaway, “Dissent in the Soviet Union,” Problems of Communism, Vol. 32, No. 6 (November–December 1983), pp. 1–15.

[5] Quoted in Sakharov, Memoirs (Knopf, 1990), p. 607.

[6] The World of Andrei Sakharov (Oxford University Press, 2005).

Scroll to Top