Fading Legacy

Yelena Bonner and Andrei Sakharov were giants. Why do so few Russians remember them?

DANIEL JANIN/AFP/Getty Images
DANIEL JANIN/AFP/Getty Images
DANIEL JANIN/AFP/Getty Images

In 1989, Mikhail Gorbachev permitted elections for the first popularly elected legislature in Soviet history. The Communist Party still dominated, but about a third of the seats in the 2,250-member chamber were open, and in many of them, establishment party members were booted out. When the first session of the new Congress of People's Deputies opened on May 25, the nation was mesmerized by the televised proceedings. Work stopped on factory floors as millions of people witnessed an astonishing new phase in Gorbachev's revolution from above -- open criticism of the powers that be.

One of the most memorable speakers in those weeks was Andrei Sakharov, the dissident physicist and Nobel Prize winner who was the father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb. Two years earlier, Sakharov and his wife, Yelena Bonner, had been released from exile in Gorky and allowed to return to Moscow, where they were beacons of hope for those who believed in human rights and democracy. Sakharov's appearance in the legislature seemed to be a singularly radiant moment.

On Bonner's death Saturday, June 18, in Boston at age 88, it is worth recalling once again their legacy, one that seems to be fading in today's Russia.

In 1989, Mikhail Gorbachev permitted elections for the first popularly elected legislature in Soviet history. The Communist Party still dominated, but about a third of the seats in the 2,250-member chamber were open, and in many of them, establishment party members were booted out. When the first session of the new Congress of People’s Deputies opened on May 25, the nation was mesmerized by the televised proceedings. Work stopped on factory floors as millions of people witnessed an astonishing new phase in Gorbachev’s revolution from above — open criticism of the powers that be.

One of the most memorable speakers in those weeks was Andrei Sakharov, the dissident physicist and Nobel Prize winner who was the father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb. Two years earlier, Sakharov and his wife, Yelena Bonner, had been released from exile in Gorky and allowed to return to Moscow, where they were beacons of hope for those who believed in human rights and democracy. Sakharov’s appearance in the legislature seemed to be a singularly radiant moment.

On Bonner’s death Saturday, June 18, in Boston at age 88, it is worth recalling once again their legacy, one that seems to be fading in today’s Russia.

It was on display, in part, during those hectic two weeks of 1989, when Sakharov made the opening speech at the parliament, and a longer, more detailed one in closing. In between, the Congress became an explosion of public debate and unprecedented criticism leveled at the KGB, the military, and the country’s leaders.

Sakharov, in the closing remarks, called for repeal of Article 6 of the Soviet Constitution, which gave the Communist Party a monopoly on power. He wanted a political system that would be built by "genuinely democratic methods," based on principles of the rule of law, including freedom of speech and conscience, and the possibility for citizens to contest the actions of their government at all levels. He wanted pluralism and competition.

When Sakharov called for the repeal of the party’s hold on power, even Gorbachev lost his cool. He unplugged Sakharov’s microphone.

Sakharov died later that year, and the Soviet collapse in 1991 led to the rise of a democratic Russia under President Boris Yeltsin. But Sakharov’s vision has only been partly realized. After a raucous period of openness in the 1990s, Russia today is once again without political competition and largely dominated by a single power structure, that of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev.

Russia today is not the same as the Soviet Union. Putin exercises a kind of soft authoritarianism. But if Sakharov could see the political system today, he would surely detect some of the same elements he and Bonner so bravely fought, including the suffocating lack of competition and the use of police-state methods to squash dissent.

Bonner, who founded one of the most active human rights groups in the Soviet dissident movement of the 1970s, kept the flame alive in the two decades after Sakharov’s death. She backed President Boris Yeltsin in his violent confrontation with hard-liners in 1993, but also harshly condemned Russia’s brutal crackdown on Chechen separatists in two wars. Bonner was among the prominent figures who signed petitions protesting Putin’s rollback of democracy in his eight years as president. She also established the Andrei Sakharov Museum in Moscow, which features exhibitions and seminars on Soviet repression, the Gulag, and Sakharov’s life.

In the second of his memoirs, Sakharov wrote of Bonner, whom he called Lusia, "Truly, she is the only person who shares my inner thoughts and feelings. Lusia prompts me to understand much that I would otherwise miss because of my restrained personality, and to act accordingly. She is a great organizer, and serves as my brain center. We are together. This gives life meaning."

Sadly, a generation of young people in Russia who have grown up since Sakharov’s death only dimly grasps his importance. Michael Schwirtz of the New York Times reported in Sunday’s paper that when a group of college students at the Russian Law Academy in Moscow were asked recently for their views of his legacy, they fumbled. Most seemed never to have heard of him. Schwirtz reported that a survey conducted last year by the Levada Center, a respected polling organization in Moscow, found that 44 percent of Russians ages 18 to 24 knew nothing about Sakharov. Of those who did, only 9 percent knew that he was a champion of human rights and a dissident.

Unfortunately, the apathy about politics today in Russia is not only among young people. Absent genuine competition, people aren’t interested. This leaves Putin and his men relatively free to carry on as they please. Putin and Medvedev talk openly about making the decision among themselves about who will be the next president — and rarely mention that the choice should be with the voters.

Sakharov would not have understood nor approved of this. So much was sacrificed for freedom, he might say, that it is not something you can allow to fall into disuse.

David E. Hoffman covered foreign affairs, national politics, economics, and served as an editor at the Washington Post for 27 years.

He was a White House correspondent during the Reagan years and the presidency of George H. W. Bush, and covered the State Department when James A. Baker III was secretary. He was bureau chief in Jerusalem at the time of the 1993 Oslo peace accords, and served six years as Moscow bureau chief, covering the tumultuous Yeltsin era. On returning to Washington in 2001, he became foreign editor and then, in 2005, assistant managing editor for foreign news. Twitter: @thedeadhandbook

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