Boris Altshuler: Speeches dedicated to Andrei Sakharov in the context of the current tragic situation

21 December 2022

by Boris Altshuler, physicist, human rights defender and member Moscow Helsinki Group. Poems by Larisa Miller

On December 16, 2022, an event entitled, ‘Sakharov. Courage of Thought,’ was held at the Sakharov Center in Moscow, dedicated to the memory of Andrei Sakharov, who died 33 years ago – on December 14, 1989. The evening event was organized jointly by the Sakharov Center and the PEN-Moscow association of writers.

On December 15, 2022, the Grand Hall of the Central House of Cinema in Moscow hosted the presentation of three awards at the Stalker Human Rights Film Festival for the documentary film ‘Andrei Sakharov. On the other side of the window’.

Below is a summary of my speeches at these events.

On December 16 at the Sakharov Center

Nuclear safety and human rights were two of Sakharov’s main priorities, which, about 40 years ago, really changed the face of the world, making the world both safer and more humane. Today, unfortunately, all this is falling apart.

On the situation in Russia:

The right to free speech, to criticize the authorities, guaranteed by the Constitution of the Russian Federation, has proved, tragically, subject to punishment today. Moscow municipal deputy Aleksei Gorinov was sentenced in July this year to seven years in prison for a few sympathetic words about the children of Ukraine who perished during the special operation.

Democratic politician Ilya Yashin was sentenced in December to eight and a half years’ imprisonment and artist and musician Aleksandra Skochilenko has been in pre-trial detention center in St. Petersburg since April of this year. Both solely for publicly expressing their opinion. A great many more names can be added to this list today.

Cruelty breeds cruelty, and any bad example is contagious. The suppression of free speech in Russia today is mirrored by the terror of censorship in Latvia against the TV Rain (Dozhd) channel, whose independent programs are watched by millions of Russians. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently rightly remarked that ‘the world is trapped in antagonistic thinking‘. I urge European Union leaders Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen not to fall into this trap and grant TV Rain a license for its much-needed Russian-language broadcasting today.

It is characteristic that the aforementioned suppression of freedom of expression in our country goes hand in hand with the absolute power of law enforcement agencies, when the courts obediently rubber stamp any arbitrary charges brought by the investigative bodies. The latest example is 22 years in prison for Ivan Safronov for ‘transferring’ abroad information that is publicly available on the Internet. Once launched, the flywheel of lawless repression will inevitably develop into a situation where those who fabricate these cases today will themselves fall under the knife tomorrow. The Stalinist machine of repressions is like a hyena devouring its own insides, and it’s scary to think that Russia is again slipping into this bloody pit.

Now as to the difficult current foreign policy situation in the context of Sakharov’s legacy:

Here I repeated what I had said the day before, on December 15, in the Grand Hall of the Central House of Cinema when receiving three awards for the film ‘Andrei Sakharov. On the other side of the window.’ I named Sakharov’s main testament about the infinite value of every human life and spoke about the unbearable pain that he would have experienced in today’s tragic situation. I talked about the obvious ways to end the fratricidal slaughter, and at the end I quoted Sakharov’s words about the Afghan war, so relevant today. [See below ‘From the speeches given on December 15 …’]

At the end of my speech at the Sakharov Center, I read three poems by my wife Larisa Miller, who was also invited to speak at the event, but could not come. These poems have been posted on Larisa Miller’s blog on four social networks, where they have been read by thousands of users. [The poems are given here in Larisa Miller’s translation]

And in the bombed-out house there is a calendar,
Exactly like mine. I bought the same one.
The calendar turned black as the house was bombed
Turning someone’s joys into ashes and fumes.
And the calendar hangs on something unknown –
On some rope, thread, fishing line,
And the rest of the colored curtain plays
With a misguided, sad ray.

I don’t want to know about the terrible things.
Strength is gone, – you’ll excuse me –
For details from the scene.
I’m on that flight too
In a plane that must fall
In an abyss somewhere in the dark depths.
I’m also afraid that in loved ones
Some crazy person might get in.
I also run at night
From some carpet bombing
And a baby in bloody clothes
For some reason I can’t help.

Somewhere nearby – a mortal battle,
Shootout, battle, skirmish,
Here is a blue canopy
And a fluttering bird.
Somewhere nearby – slaughter, abuse,
Blood and death, massacre, fight,
Here in the early morning
They sleep, sniffing sweetly.

Oh Creator, give me an answer
In the world that you founded
Today’s delirium
Was it agreed with you?

From the speeches given on December 15 when receiving three Stalker Film Festival awards for the film about Sakharov

On December 15, 2022 the ‘2022 Awards Ceremony of the XXVIII STALKER International Human Rights Film Festival’ took place in the Grand Hall of the Central House of Cinema in Moscow. The documentary film ‘Andrei Sakharov. On the Other Side of the Window’ (directed by Dmitry Zavilgelsky, scriptwriters Boris Altshuler and Dmitry Zavilgelsky, director-animator Dmitry Geller) was awarded three prizes at once:

         1. Special Prize of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

         2. Special Prize of the Film Press (jury: Eva Merkacheva, Nina Romodanovskaya and Elena Ulyanova).

         3. The main prize ‘Stalker’ for the best documentary (jury: Vadim Abdrashitov, Andrey Osipov, Valery Akhadov, Aleksei Muradov, Aleksei Simonov, Evgeny Tsymbal).

It so happened that at the ceremony I was the only representative of the film team – as a co-author of the script. And I was invited on to the stage three times, and so three times I made a short acceptance speech before an audience of about 500 people. Below is an abridged version of these speeches.

1) The first prize was awarded by Rashid Aluash who heads the joint program of the Russian Federation and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). In his congratulatory, rather strongly worded speech he spoke about the humanity of Sakharov, about the humanistic orientation of his activities. In response, I thanked him and the UN OHCHR, saying that I was here to represent the creators of the film: the director Dmitry Zavilgelsky and director-animator Dmitry Geller, a student of Yuri Norshtein. I repeated the words of Dmitry Geller, that this work of his is the first in many years that deserved the praise of his famous teacher. I then said:

The script of the film we are talking about today was created on the basis of my book Sakharov and Power. Lessons for the Present and Future, published in Moscow to mark the 100th anniversary of Andrei Dmitrievich – a year and a half ago. [The book was published in English by World Scientific in November 2022]. The lessons of Sakharov the politician, his activities aimed at establishing a stable democratic form of government in our country – all this is relevant today. But this is not the place to develop this topic. Now I want to name Sakharov’s testament about the infinite value of each individual human life, a value in scale with the infinite universe. And one can imagine what absolutely unbearable pain Sakharov would have experienced in today’s tragic situation. It is impossible to talk about it, and it is not necessary. Everyone understands everything without it being said. Thank you for the remembrance of Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov.’

2) Responding to the greetings of the jury of the Special Film Press Prize, I tried to dispel the myth of the ‘two Sakharovs’ – one until 1968, when he faithfully created thermonuclear weapons for the Soviet authorities, and another after 1968, when he became an active in the opposition – a dissident. None of this is exact, there was no abrupt internal transition. Sakharov throughout his life served, with total dedication, the good and security of his country. And if over time he gradually realized that the highest authorities themselves could pose a threat to the country and the world, then he began to criticize these authorities, but always constructively – with proposals for the necessary reforms. 

Then I read Sakharov’s words about morality and youth, spoken in 1989, shortly before his death: ‘I agree that the development of society is possible only on a moral basis. I believe that moral strength is always preserved among the people. In particular, I believe that young people, who begin to live as it were anew in each generation, are capable of taking a high moral position. I am not talking so much about revival as about the need to develop the moral force that is to be found in each generation and that is capable of growing anew time and again.’

3) Vadim Abdrashitov, President of the Stalker Film Festival, a famous film director and film actor, said the Festival jury was unanimous in awarding the Festival’s main documentary prize to this film. In my response, I emphasized that Sakharov is an extremely contemporary figure and explained about the relevance of Sakharov to the most awful events of our days:

I have already said about the unbearable pain that Andrei Dmitrievich would experience today. Today we all live with this pain. Every person experiencing acute pain is able to think only about one thing: how to stop this pain. Driven by this feeling, in April of this year I sent a letter to the leaders of the Russian Federation, the first words of which were: ‘I beg you, to stop, enough blood has been shed!’ The title of the letter was: ‘The right to life and the territorial status quo. We are exchanging the Far East and Siberia for the DNR-LNR-KhNR. Let’s remember Sakharov‘.

Following Sakharov’s constructive approach, this letter lists a number of proposals that would allow the leaders of the Russian Federation to stop this fratricidal massacre without prejudice to Russia’s interests. I was thanked by the administration of the President of the Russian Federation and informed that my letter had been sent to the Russian Foreign Ministry. These suggestions are still relevant today. Russia can at any moment, tonight, tomorrow morning, stop this military conflict, replacing it with a negotiation process. To do this, you need to do only two things at the same time:

     – declare a unilateral ceasefire;

     – declare a readiness to voluntarily leave some territories that are today under the control of the Russian armed forces.

All this is obvious, as two by two is four, but for some reason it is not being done. 

At the end of my April letter addressed to the leaders of the Russian Federation, I recalled Sakharov’s words pronounced from the rostrum of the Congress of People’s Deputies in June 1989 about the Afghan war, a war which cost the lives of almost a million Afghans: ‘our country’s enormous crime.‘ And I pointed to a certain similarity between that past tragedy and the tragedy of today, since the scale of the human suffering that has been a result of the special operation is appalling.

The audience in the Grand Hall of the Central House of Cinema greeted these final words of mine with applause, as well as with a number of shouts of indignation. I wanted to answer, but the master of ceremonies cut off any further discussion that was obviously inappropriate at the award ceremony.


See also 

– The official information about the Stalker Human Rights Film Festival award ceremony with a number of photographs.

– Report on the Stalker Human Rights Film Festival award ceremony in the daily newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets on 16 December 2022.

The texts can be read in the original Russian here:

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