Boris Altshuler: Andrei Sakharov’s lessons for the present and future

12 June 2023

Speech at the roundtable ‘Andrei Sakharov and the World Today’, Andrei Sakharov Institute, Paris, 12 June 2023 [Edited by Boris Alshuler for publication]

by Boris Altshuler, member of the Moscow Helsinki Group and chair of the NGO Right of the Child

Let me introduce myself. I’m a physicist and human rights defender. I’ve lived in Moscow all my life, and it’s from there that I’m speaking online now. I’ve known Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov for over 20 years. He and I talked a great deal, both about physics and on the matter of human rights. I’d like to say that I’ve never met anyone quite like Sakharov. Honouring a request by our host Lev Ponomarev to talk about Sakharov’s life, I shall describe some of his unique qualities towards the end of my speech. But turning now to the topics of our roundtable as announced by the organisers: how to stop the current bloody conflict and preventing the emergence of totalitarian regimes. 

Not long ago, I wrote the book Sakharov and Power: On the Other Side of the Window. Lessons for the Present and Future, published in Russia in May 2021 to mark [what would have been] Sakharov’s 100th birthday [published in English in November 2022 by World Scientific]. The main narrator in the book is Sakharov himself, using quotations from his books and articles. The declassified and published documents of the Politburo and the Soviet KGB confirm what Marina Sakharova-Liberman has already discussed in her presentation here: Sakharov’s key role in preventing mankind’s self-destruction in a thermonuclear war and in the miracle of democratic ‘perestroika’ coming to pass in the USSR under Gorbachev. Indeed, Sakharov’s ideas and the example he set are relevant today, both to preventing and ending bloody military confrontation, and to building stable democratic systems of government that are fundamentally different, in terms of stability, from perpetually unstable totalitarian autocratic systems. For the most part, I will be talking about Russia, which, I do believe, has the potential to become such a stable democratic country, one that lives in peace with its neighbours.

To the first topic of the roundtable: if it is possible, and if so how, to put a stop to this crazy bloody conflict, which has been running for almost a year and a half now and which claims thousands of lives every day. Let me repeat what I said six months ago, on 15 December 2022, here in Moscow, on the stage of the Great Hall of the Moscow House of Cinema. I was receiving three awards at once as part of the Stalker human rights film festival for our documentary film ‘Andrei Sakharov: On the Other Side of the Window’ (directed by Dmitry Zavilgelsky). Picture this: there are around 500 people in the hall, Russia’s state symbols are up on the big screen, and I have to say a few words about Sakharov against the background of the unthinkable, horrible reality we’re living through. I said:

One of Sakharov’s key messages is about the infinite value of each individual human life, which is of epic proportions and on a cosmic scale. You can well imagine, then, the utterly unbearable pain that Sakharov would have felt given the current tragic state of affairs. It’s impossible to talk about, and there’s really no need to do so. Everyone already understands it all… We all live with this pain today. Anyone experiencing acute pain can only think about one thing: how to make it stop. Spurred on by this sentiment, and following Sakharov’s constructive approach, back in April 2022, I sent a letter to the Russian leadership. My opening words were, “Please stop, I beg you! No more bloodshed!” The letter outlines the steps that I believe will allow the Russian leadership to end this fratricidal slaughter. I received a thank you from the Russian Presidential Administration and was told that my letter had been forwarded to the Russian foreign ministry. Those proposals remain relevant today. Russia can stop this armed conflict at any moment – tonight or tomorrow morning – and instead enter negotiations. 

There isn’t time to go into my proposals now – they’re in a statement I posted online, in Russian and in English.

At the end of the ceremony, when the president of the Stalker Festival, the wonderful Vadim Abdrashitov (who sadly passed away this past February) presented me with the main documentary prize of the festival, I was still calling things as they are in my response. The audience in the Great Hall at the Moscow Cinema House met my closing words with both applause and some cries of indignation.

I’ll conclude the first part of my message today with the words of Sakharov from his famous Reflections from 1968: “Every rational creature, finding itself on the brink of a disaster, first tries to get away from the brink and only then does it think about  the satisfaction of its other needs. If mankind is to get away from the brink, it must overcome its divisions.” (End quote).

The world is divided again today. Cultivated in Russia, the idea of the ‘collective West’ as an enemy is again threatening the country and the world, as it was when Sakharov lived and worked.

Now for the second topic of this meeting: a brief ‘Sakharov-style’ discussion, so to speak, of sustainable democracy and preventative measures against a backslide into unsustainable totalitarianism. Sakharov made many statements on these issues that remain relevant today, in particular as a politician in 1989, the final year of his life. Here are some of them.

On the dangers of absolute power. Sakharov on Gorbachev (From a speech at the First Congress of People’s Deputies, June 9, 1989): ‘The Constitution now in force provides absolute and virtually unlimited power to the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. The concentration of that much power in the hands of one man is extremely dangerous, even if he is the driving force behind perestroika. In particular, it opens the door to behind-the-scenes influence. And what about when someone else comes along?‘ (End quote).

This is the instability inherent in totalitarian systems, where the haphazard whim of the person in charge can turn into a national catastrophe. In addition, an overlord on paper is always dependent on their inner circle – ‘the retinue plays the king,’ as the popular saying goes; or, as Sakharov put it, the door is open to ‘behind-the-scenes influence.’ And I note here that in totalitarian states there is no systematic mechanism for the transition of this absolute power; that is, the leader’s departure is always unpredictable and brings with it a threat of chaos. Physicists and mathematicians would call it a bifurcation point.

Sakharov the politician spoke about bringing order into law enforcement bodies, which would involve strengthening prosecutorial supervision over the legality of investigations and judicial control over the investigation. He also spoke about the independence of the judicial branch, about the principles of a legal state such as ‘freedom of speech and information, and the ability for citizens and civil society organizations to challenge in court the actions and decisions of all authorities and officials‘ (Speech at the First Congress of People’s Deputies on 9 June 1989). He spoke about the freedom to protest and demonstrate and other forms of public criticism of government actions as necessary to thwart so-called ‘bureaucratic lawlessness.’ This is all extremely relevant in today’s Russia, where persecution for criticism has grown to Soviet proportions. And, as in the USSR, such persecution flies in the face of the current Constitution. Human rights activist Oleg Orlov spoke authoritatively about this, with concrete examples and statistics on repression, on 8 June of this year in a Moscow court, where he is on trial for his critical stance.

Of course, as a politician, Sakharov also spoke about the importance of strong local government, without which ‘we cannot solve economic, social, ecological, or national problems…‘ Think back to the zemstvo system of emperor and reformer Alexander II, which has its modern-day embodiment in the effective local government of Finland, a former province of the Russian Empire that is now a democratic country with the highest standard of living in the world, despite having practically no natural resources.

Why in Russia, a country with boundless natural resources, are millions of children of poor families chronically undernourished, including children in the families of WORKING state employees? Sakharov provided an answer to this question: ‘Without the development of market relations and elements of competition, dangerous disproportions, inflation and other negative phenomena will inevitably arise… Large enterprises should be broken up in order to stimulate competition and prevent monopolistic pricing.’ (From Sakharov’s election program, January 1989). The cost of the ‘survival basket’ has been inflated by monopolies and has been a disaster for the New Russia for all the 30 years of its existence. The current government cannot and does not want to deal with these monopolies, cartels and oligarchs. I think the programme of the democratic opposition should include the introduction of a package of strong and concrete government measures to break up the monopolies.

And Sakharov’s thesis is also extremely relevant today for millions of Russians: ‘People with low income per family member should be compensated. The most fair approach, in my opinion, is to give 30-40% of the population coupons for free purchase of some food.’ (From the article, ‘The Inevitability of Perestroika,’ 1988). Such food stamps exist in many countries, solving the dual problem of providing nutritious food to the poor and budgetary support to the farmer. It is important to note that back in 2015 the Ministry of Industry and Trade of Russia developed such a ‘System of targeted food aid to needy citizens of Russia – SAPP’, which has remained on paper for eight years, despite the acute need for it. The reason for the delay is quite obvious and universal for today’s Russia: the real owners of the country – monopolist food and trade oligarchs – want the entire population of Russia, without exception, to be forced to buy food only from their chain stores at their monopolistically inflated prices. Of course, the independent parliament could easily put an end to this inhumane mayhem. But the overwhelming majority of deputies of the State Duma are busy serving the above-mentioned monopolistic interests and will never do anything to the detriment of those interests.

The development of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) is a powerful tool to overcome mass poverty, as implemented in many countries, according to the formula ‘Don’t give fish, give a fishing rod!’ In Western countries, as well as in Turkey, the share of the working-age population employed in SMEs is up to 60%, while in Russia this share is only 19%. The reasons for this misfortune are known, and Sakharov also spoke about them – they are the strangulation of SMEs by monopolies that do not tolerate competition as well as the system of ‘protection’ (in fact, terror) by law enforcement agencies.

And in conclusion, let me mention two of Sakharov’s main political lessons.

1) No Violence. Sakharov (from Reflections, 1968): ‘The main meaning of my article is the rejection of extremes, of intransigence and intolerance (that are too often inherent in revolutionary movements and extreme conservatism), the desire for compromise, the combination of progress with reasonable conservatism and caution. Evolution, not revolution, as the best “locomotive of history”,’

2) To have no fear of initiatives coming from the general public. Sakharov: ‘Without a democratic movement from below, perestroika is impossible, and one should not be afraid of it.’ (From the book Gorky, Moscow, Then Everywhere Else – on the political struggle of 1989). Another misfortune of the New Russia, in all the 30-odd years of its existence, is the absence of a politically significant democratic opposition, the absence of a democratic message that can be understood by millions of voters. Meanwhile, Sakharov the politician gave examples of effective stimulation of the ‘democratic movement from below’ and showed how to do it.

And we should remember the following:

  • On 2 June 1989, the dramatic attack on Sakharov by the indignant, rampaging ‘managed majority’ of the Congress of People’s Deputies, which, thanks to live TV broadcasts, the whole country witnessed. And the country believed in Sakharov, felt sympathy for Sakharov. Although the question was about the Afghan war, which Sakharov with mathematical accuracy called ‘the great crime of our Motherland’ – a winning topic, it would seem, for the pseudo-patriots. But Sakharov won – with his logic, his passion, and most importantly his sincerity and empathy. It was a moment of truth for millions of our fellow citizens.
  • On 9 June 1989, Sakharov read out his ‘Decree on Power’ to the entire country from the rostrum of the Congress. The provisions of Sakharov’s ‘Decree’ became the demands of the famous miners’ strikes of July 1989.
  • On 11 December 1989, Sakharov initiated, three days before his death, a two-hour political strike with the main demand to repeal Article 6 of the USSR Constitution, the article which proclaimed that all political power belonged to just one party – the Communist Party. This demand by Sakharov gained wide support, but most important was its aftermath. In mid-January 1990, after Sakharov’s death, unprecedented demonstrations were held in Moscow and throughout the country demanding the abolition of Article 6. It was this that helped Gorbachev at the Plenum of the CPSU Central Committee on 5-7 February 1990 push through the decision to revise Article 6 of the Constitution. This became law in March, and from that time the word ‘multi-party’ ceased to be criminal in our country. Sakharov won again, though unfortunately for the last time.

And lastly, as promised, a few words about the living Sakharov, as I remember him. No ordinariness, even in the most prosaic settings, is perhaps the main impression that arose when you conversed with Sakharov. At any moment, in the middle of a generally noisy conversation, he could start talking about physics – string theory, the arrow of time, news about astrophysics. He could offer to solve a problem or read a funny poem he had recently written. He did not like long, serious conversations (this did not apply to science), spoke briefly, could make a well-placed joke or respond with lines from a poem. Soon after Sakharov’s return from exile in December 1986, journalists asked him when his government awards would be returned to him. He responded with a quote from the poet Mikhail Kulchytsky, who died at the front: ‘Who cares for awards, so long as there’s the Motherland / With every day a Borodino.’

I already said that I have never met anyone like Sakharov since then. Compared to him, most of us are conformists. His brain was an open system, always ready to creatively analyse new information and search for fundamentally new approaches. And this was felt every moment you were conversing with him. Sakharov always listened attentively to his interlocutor. So the familiar ‘top-down’ relationship resulting from a difference in age or position (in Sakharov’s case, colossal) did not apply when you were talking with Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov.

I never saw Sakharov irritated, let alone swearing at anyone at all. And he never argued or interrupted his interlocutor, though he did listen attentively, and it was clear that he had long understood everything and had a well-thought-out answer prepared. But he was in no hurry to speak. Whoever came up with the saying, ‘The word is not a sparrow. Once it has flown away you won’t catch it,’ could not have had someone like Sakharov in mind.

And the famous phrase coined by Nikolai Vasilevich Gogol, who once exclaimed in despair: ‘Why do we always, instead of talking about the matter in hand, argue with another?’ – this, of course, also does not apply to Sakharov. And in this, too, there is something of Sakharov’s uniqueness. Gogol said this almost 200 years ago, and yet look what is happening right now at the regular meetings of our democratic opposition members in Berlin, in the Baltic States!

And I’m not joking. Let’s recall that in the 1990s, in every election to the State Duma, the democrats received negligible percentages of the votes, while the communists had a stable Duma majority. And they effectively blocked market reforms, which is why the transition from the planned state economy to the market, so catastrophically difficult for the general public, did not take two or three years in our country, as in the countries of Eastern Europe, but has continued to drag on to the present day with its monopolies instead of a free market with competitive pricing. It was internal conflicts and the inability to ‘talk about the matter in hand’ (and the ‘matter in hand’ for a politician running for (re)election is an understanding attitude to the grave problems facing the mass of voters) that caused the failure of the ‘Russian democratic project’ of the 1990s – with all the tragic consequences for our country.


I think that one of the main missions of the Andrei Sakharov Institute should be the formulation of a ‘Sakharov-like’ democratic message to millions of Russians, based on Sakharov’s precepts and his example. This message, as it appears, may include (here I briefly summarize the above):

  • A call to stop the madness that began on 24 February 2022. Enough blood! Human life is the greatest value. It cannot be squandered.
  • The release of political prisoners, the repeal of anti-constitutional articles of the Russian Criminal Code and of the Russian Code on Administrative Offences under which individuals are being prosecuted for criticizing the authorities, such as the article on ‘fake news’ about the Russian army. 
  • Yes to a stable tripod of the three independent branches of state power! No to the ever unstable dictatorship of executive power, the single ‘leg’ of which rests on one sharp end, on one person. This should include free, competitive elections and the introduction of well-known tools to ensure the independence of the judiciary.
  • Strong, financially secure local self-governments, elected by the local population and responsible to the population.
  • Observance of the ‘Sakharov-like’ principles (they are also guaranteed by the Russian Constitution) of the rule of law, including freedom of speech and information, rallies and demonstrations, and the right to criticize the authorities.
  • Establishment of order in the law enforcement agencies. No to arbitrary investigations, to ‘werewolves in epaulettes’ and police protection rackets preying on business; the introduction of well-known tools for the rigorous detection of any violations of the law by law enforcement officials and punishment for these violations.
  • A strict anti-monopoly policy, the introduction of state protection for free competition as practised in many countries, first and foremost in the areas of production and trade of food, medicines and essential commodities, which are vitally important for the public.
  • No to mass poverty: government measures to support and develop small and medium-sized businesses, food stamps for the poor, backed by targeted taxes on excessive incomes.

Translated by Lindsay Munford, Nina dePalma, Simon Cosgrove and Tyler Langendorfer

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