26 June 2020
By Boris Altshuler, head of the NGO Right of the Child and member of the Moscow Helsinki Group
Source: Moscow Helsinki Group
One can only welcome the fact that, in connection with the upcoming May 2021 centennial of the birth of Academician Sakharov (1921-1989), the President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin has issued Order 81-rp, dated 18.03.2019, entitled ‘On the Preparation and Organization of Events dedicated to the Centennial of A. D. Sakharov’s Birth.’ According to the order, an organizational committee has been formed to be chaired by the President of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Academician A. M. Sergeyev. One of the many plans is to present the scientific and social legacy of Sakharov in today’s context. I was acquainted with Sakharov for twenty years and am also participating in this work.
In this note I write about the direct relationship of Sakharov’s activity in the USSR during the period of perestroika to the most vital problems of the Russian Federation today. The stormy epoch of the last seven years of the USSR’s existence, which was christened ‘Perestroika,’ were years of hope for creating in our country a predictable and stable form of administering the state, responsible to the people and bearing the name ‘democracy.’ And they were years of the collapse of that hope, which forеordained the history of Russia from 1992 to the present and, it looks like, into the future. Because those deep systemic causes that put a brake on democratic reforms back then are in full force today.
Sakharov lived and was active during the first five years of that seven-year period — from 1985 to 1989. His name is directly connected with the first two miracles of perestroika: the release of political prisoners in 1987-1988 and the USSR-USA treaty, signed by Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan in December 1987 for the liquidation of medium-range missiles with nuclear warheads. Thanks to this treaty, the human race took a step back from the edge of the abyss. Information recently declassified here and in the US about episodes during the Cold War shows that the world avoided incineration in the fires of a thermonuclear war only by sheer luck. Sakharov’s role in concluding this treaty in 1987 was key. The treaty is no longer in effect as of August 2019, which is very dangerous. But that is not part of our past history, but of our contemporary history, alas now without Sakharov.
Both of these historical miracles of perestroika were a blow to the omnipotence of the two main ruling elites of the USSR – the party nomenklatura and the nomenklatura of the military-industrial (military-political) complex. Sakharov wrote that it was these two that, in October 1964, easily threw off Khrushchev, who had tried to encroach slightly on the privileges of the party apparatus and military spending. And Sakharov understood how precarious the position of Gorbachev and his allies was, having embarked on perestroika. He well knew the history of Russia, which gives many examples of good reformist impulses of leaders that were drowned every time in the quagmire of state bureaucracy, which did not want reforms that would force officials to obey the law and fear voters. And again and again it turned out ‘as always’ (remember the words of the unforgettable Viktor Stepanovich Chernomyrdin: ‘We wanted the best, but it turned out as always’; ‘Things were never like that, and now they’re happening again …’).
But Sakharov also knew that ‘the future is unpredictable and uncertain,’ or in the language of the exact sciences: ‘Our country is at a bifurcation point’ (that is, mathematical unpredictability, from his speech at the Lebedev Physical Institute of the Academy of Sciences on 11 December 1989, three days before his unexpected death). And if so, it means ‘the future is being created by all of us – step by step in our infinitely complex interaction …’ and ‘the role of the personality that fate has set at some key points in history … is great.’ (The italics are direct quotations from Sakharov.)
Sakharov’s uniqueness lay in the fact that he guessed, sensed these key moments, and did not miss the historical opportunity, and acted, knowing that tomorrow might be too late, that the quagmire drags things out – ‘as always.’
One of these key moments was the First Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR, held in Moscow from 25 May to 9 June 1989.
In 1988-1989, the resistance of the conservative wing of the CPSU to perestroika reforms intensified; the brake on perestroika was obvious. Under these conditions, Gorbachev’s initiative to form a new supreme body of state power in the USSR Congress of People’s Deputies was appropriate and necessary.
Unfortunately, the established procedure for the election of People’s Deputies ensured the majority of the seats in the Congress went to the conservative wing of the CPSU, although a number of democratically-minded candidates, including A.D. Sakharov, were also elected. I will give extracts from his statements at the Congress (in italics):
– Sakharov, May 25:
‘We proceed from the fact that this Congress is a historical event in the biography of our country. Voters, the people, elected us and sent us to this Congress so that we would take responsibility for the fate of the country, for the problems that it is facing now, for its prospects of development…’
‘I propose to adopt, as one of the first items on the agenda of the Congress, the Decree of the Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR ‘On Power’, which establishes that the following things are the exclusive right of the Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR: the adoption of laws of the USSR, and the appointment of senior officials of the USSR, including the Chair of the Council of Ministers of the USSR, Chair of the Committee of National Control of the USSR, Chair of the Supreme Court of the USSR, Prosecutor General of the USSR, and Chief State Arbiter of the USSR.‘
- Sakharov, May 27th
‘Over the last year, a number of laws and decrees have been adopted in our country that cause great concern among the public. These are decrees on rallies and demonstrations, about the duties and rights of domestic troops involved in the protection of public order, which were adopted last October.
‘In my opinion, these decrees represent a backwards step in the democratisation of our country and a backwards step in comparison with those international obligations that our state has accepted. They reflect fear of the will of the people, fear of free democratic activity of the people.’
- Sakharov, June 9th 1989 (the final day of the First Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR)
The chair, Mikhail Gorbachev, gave Sakharov 5 minutes, but he talked for 15, despite the audience discontentendly clapping he kept talking, shouting above the noise and the chairman’s bell. Because he knew that this was being broadcast live, that the whole country was watching and listening to him and, taking this unique opportunity, he said: ‘I appeal to the people of the Soviet Union.’ What did he mean?
Sakharov began his speech with the words: ‘I believe that the Congress has not solved the key political task facing it, embodied in the slogan: “All power to the Soviets!” ’
In the political climate of 1989, this meant a demand for the freedom of democratic bodies from party dictatorship. Sakharov called for the abolition of Article 6 of the Constitution of the USSR, which proclaimed the leading role of one party – the CPSU – and called on Congress to adopt the ‘Decree on Power’, the first paragraph of which reads: ‘Article 6 of the Constitution of the USSR is abolished.’
We have already had 20 years of a one-party system in the Russian Federation and the latest changes in electoral law ‘nullify’ the very idea of free competitive elections, thus guaranteeing a United Russia majority in the State Duma for an indefinite length of time. This means that Russia is ensured a new period of ‘stagnation.’ Because without real, competitive political struggle, it is impossible to overcome the phenomena of stagnation and, of course, moving forwards is impossible.
Sakharov said: ‘Comrade deputies, upon you now, right now, lies a huge historical responsibility. Political decisions are needed without which it is impossible to strengthen the power of Soviet bodies and solve economic, social, ecological and national problems.’
How relevant it is today, when laws are being adopted that turn local government into appendages of regional executive bodies. Meanwhile, it is local government – dependent on local voters – that forms the very foundation of a democratic system in all developed nations. How can one not recall the Zemstvo reform of local self government under Emperor Alexander II, which has been consistently implemented and still works effectively in the only province of the former Russian Empire – Finland.
And also, speaking 31 years ago from the podium of the First Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR, Sakharov said words, the relevance of which is obvious today: ‘According to the current Constitution, the Chair of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR has absolute, almost unlimited personal power. The concentration of such power in the hands of one person is extremely dangerous, even if this person is the initiator of perestroika. In particular, behind-the-scenes pressure is possible. And if someday it will be someone else?’
The behind-the-scenes pressure of the party and military nomenklatura on Mikhail Gorbachev was colossal, he could not or did not dare to seek the widest support from below. The result was the slowdown of reforms, the putsch of August 1991 and the collapse of the USSR in December 1991. On 9 June 1989 Sakharov, speaking at the Congress, spoke about the possibility of such an outcome: ‘If we go with the flow, lulling ourselves with the hope of gradual change for the better in the distant future, the growing tension may blow up our society with the most tragic consequences.’
The 1993 Constitution of the Russian Federation gave the President of the Russian Federation absolute, almost unlimited personal power. And since nobody cancelled the centuries-old wisdom of the ‘King is played by the entourage,’ the real power powers in our country are exercised by the apparatus – the Administration of the President of the Russian Federation, a body that has no basis in the Constitution of the Russian Federation.
The current President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin, and other authors of those amendments to the Constitution of the Russian Federation which are planned to be approved by the nationwide vote on 1 July this year, repeatedly stated that they are aware of the problem of the excessive personalization of power. Unfortunately, from a simple reading of the text of the proposed amendments it is clear that they do not bring the solution of this really very serious problem any closer. Including the fact that instability related to a change in the first person of the state, alas, is guaranteed, that is, this centuries-old tradition of the Russian Empire, and then the USSR, is sacredly observed.
But the proposed text of the Constitution of the Russian Federation contains something new – in Article 83, defining the powers of the President of the Russian Federation, it is proposed to introduce an additional item ‘e’, which states that ‘heads of federal executive bodies (including federal ministers) in charge of issues of defence, state security, internal affairs, justice, foreign affairs, emergency situations and the liquidation of the consequences of natural disasters, and public security’ are appointed by the President of the Russian Federation ‘AFTER CONSULTATION’ with the Council of the Federation.
I have singled out in capital letters words which are bewildering, to put it mildly. What procedural and legal meaning do the authors of the amendments to the Russian Constitution give to the phrase ‘after consultations’? After all, this is not a story written for young children but the Basic Law of the country.
It only remains to repeat after Yury Dud one word: ‘Shame!’
The speech by Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov on 9 June 1989 (on unlimited personal power) can be heard here (from the sixth minute): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LGnqZ8HPv0g&t=368s
Translated by John Tokolish, Anna Bowles, Nathalie Corbett and Simon Cosgrove