Boris Altshuler: Andrei Sakharov and our complicated present day, 31 years on from his death

14 December 2020

By Boris Altshuler, director of Right of the Child, a regional civil society organisation advancing the protection of children’s rights, member of the Moscow Helsinki Group

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group

Pictured: Andrei Sakharov and Elena Bonner

Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov died on the evening of 14 December 1989. He was born on 21 May 1921 and it will soon be the 100th anniversary of his birth. In accordance with Order No. 81 issued by Russian President Vladimir Putin, dated 18 March 2019, ‘On the preparation and holding of events dedicated to the 100th anniversary of A. D. Sakharov’, an Organising Committee has been formed under the chairmanship of the President of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Aleksandr Sergeyev, there are plans to release television and documentary films, and on 10 December this year at a meeting with the Human Rights Council, Putin supported the idea of ​​erecting a monument to Sakharov in Moscow on the avenue that bears his name.

At the P. N. Lebedev Physical Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences we are preparing an international ‘Sakharov conference’ on physics (in May of this year). We have prepared for publication the collection Academician A.D. Sakharov: Scientific works. On the 100th anniversary of his birth, with commentaries by experts on the significance of Sakharov’s scientific ideas in the context of current scientific knowledge. Some things are amazing – few people are able to put forward ideas that remain significant half a century after their publication.

I knew A. D. Sakharov for 20 years and published a great deal about him after his death. Now, on the occasion of his centenary, I have written a book, Sakharov and Political Power: ‘On the Other Side of the Window’. Lessons for the Present and the Future. The main narrator in the book, with 60% of the text, is Sakharov himself. The book contains the most vivid and significant pieces from his memoirs, alternating with excerpts from the memoirs of contemporaries who knew him, with clarifications and reference and documentary material, including extracts from now declassified documents of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Communist party of the Soviet Union and the KGB of the USSR.

These documents testify that every public speech by Sakharov, including those from the difficult years of his exile, was carefully studied at the summit of the Soviet political Olympus and a number of his proposals were taken into account that determined the policy of the USSR on key issues of nuclear strategy and détente. Unfortunately, this was done inconsistently. But Sakharov’s fate was always decided exclusively at the highest level. ‘I’m not on the top floor. I’m at the same level as the top floor – but on the other side of the window,’ Sakharov once joked, referring to the top level of political power. And this joke accurately reflects the uniqueness of his status, which became his destiny. And the fate of Sakharov is, one might say, a gripping detective story, a chain of improbable events, which were, however, not accidental but were dictated by the genius and spiritual fortitude of the protagonist.

The mission of the book Sakharov and Political Power is to build a bridge between the time when A. D. Sakharov lived and worked, and the present day; to show how the things Sakharov said 30 and more years ago remain so contemporary. I write about this briefly and obviously incompletely below. 


The lack of checks and balances, the lack of healthy competition (1) in politics, (2) in law enforcement and (3) in the economy – this is the systemic reason that largely determines our present and makes our future uncertain and dangerously unpredictable.

1. Monopoly in politics

For 20 years now the Russian Federation has had a de facto one-party system and parliament ‘is not a place for discussion.’ The influence of the legislative, as well as the judicial, branches of government on the taking of the most important decisions for the country and the people has been reduced to zero. And what, perhaps, is most tangible for people is the strangulation by the executive branch of the very important democratic institution of local self-government.

A.D. Sakharov (from the keynote speech at the final session of the First Congress of Soviet People’s Deputies, 9 June 1989):

‘I believe that the Congress has not solved the key political task before it, embodied in the slogan: “All power to the Soviets!”’ And further: ‘Comrade deputies, now – right now! – a huge historical responsibility rests on your shoulders. Political decisions are needed, without which it is impossible to strengthen the power of Soviet bodies on the ground and to solve economic, social, environmental and inter-ethnic problems…”

How relevant all this sounds today, when laws are being adopted in the Russian Federation that transform local self-government into an appendage of regional executive authorities! Meanwhile, dependent entirely on local voters, local authorities, which are obliged to take into account the interests of the people, are the basis of the democratic system in all developed countries. And how can we forget the Zemstvo reform of local self-government under Emperor Aleksandr II, which was consistently implemented and is still working to this day in one province of the former Russian Empire – Finland, a country that in comparison with Russia has negligible natural resources and the highest standard of living in the world?

Again, more than 30 years ago addressing the First Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR, Sakharov said words whose relevance today requires no explanation:

‘Under the current Constitution, the chair of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR has absolute, practically unlimited personal power. Concentration of such power in the hands of one person is extremely dangerous, even if that person is the initiator of perestroika. In particular, behind-the-scenes pressure is possible. What if one day it is someone else?’

Autocratic states, unlike democracies, are in principle incapable of dealing systematically with the problem of the transfer of power, the replacement of the first person. Hence there are palace coups, suffocation of the tsar with cushions, disastrous revolutions and disintegration of states.

In the Soviet hierarchy of power, the autocratic ruler was formally the General Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee. Once, back in 1973, I naively asked Sakharov why Brezhnev did not do some seemingly obvious things. Andrei Dmitrievich answered me in the language of physics: ‘The higher the position, the less the degree of freedom. Brezhnev can do very little.’ The same thought can be found in the well-known paradigm, ‘the entourage plays the king.’ Sakharov understood how complicated everything was there – in the Kremlin, ‘under the carpet.’ Therefore, even in his most critical speeches he never made ad hominem remarks about leaders, never pointed an accusing finger at them. He was a wise man.

2. Monopoly in Law Enforcement

The lack of effective judicial and prosecutorial oversight of investigations carried out by the FSB, the Investigative Committee and the Ministry of Internal Affairs is a disaster. Violations of the law during preliminary pre-trial investigations, the obtaining of confessions through use of torture, the stifling of business by security forces and the fabrication of criminal cases for the sake of ‘performance indicators’ or at the behest of ‘those above’ all go unpunished, and courts are nothing more than rubber stamps. Genry Reznik spoke about this a year ago at a meeting of the President with the Human Rights Council. Putin supported Reznik’s extremely professional proposals, which became official presidential orders in January 2020. Just recently at a similar meeting on 10th December 2020 these issues were discussed again, but over the past year the situation has only worsened.

The regional civil society organisation Right of the Child primarily concerns itself with cases where minors become the victims of unlawful criminal investigations where police and investigators ‘squeeze out’ the necessary testimony from them. A monstrous example of this kind of case is the fate of Yury Dmitriev, a researcher of Stalin’s repressions, including the alleged mass execution of thousands of prisoners from the Solovki prison camp at Sandarmokh. In September 2020, the Supreme Court of Karelia sentenced Dmitriev to 13 years’ imprisonment based on the testimony of a teenage girl, testimony she had been forced to give by investigators and psychologists from the Investigative Committee, who subjected her to psychological abuse. 

All this begs the question: who in our country can oversee the legality of the actions of these officials in relation to a minor? For now, there is no answer to this question! In the same way there is no answer to the question why the orders of the President of Russia, intended to resolve this unacceptable situation, remain on paper. On 7 December 2020 members of the Moscow Helsinki Group published a statement which argues that law enforcement officers have become a ‘state within a state’ in our country. Among other things the statement says:

‘A tragic manifestation of the seizure of power in Russia by the security forces is the unacceptable silence of Russia’s political leadership over the suppression of mass protests in Belarus, unthinkable in their cruelty. Thousands have been detained, hundreds hospitalised and many disappeared without trace. At the Nuremberg trials, such acts were called ‘crimes against humanity.’ Silence equals consent! This is shameful and frightening.’

A. D. Sakharov (from a draft of his speech to the Second Congress of People’s Deputies; the draft was written on the morning of 14 December 1989; that same evening Andrei Dmitrievich died): 

In the reality of our life a suspect or an accused person is placed in extremely difficult conditions under pressure by the investigators. Everyone remembers numerous cases of self-incrimination, cases where individuals took the blame on themselves because of purposefully bad treatment in custody, beatings, blackmail and threats. Everyone remembers the death sentences handed down to innocent people, carried out not only in the republics but also in Moscow.’

And six months before that, at the First Congress of People’s Deputies:

‘The Congress should, in my opinion, adopt a resolution containing the principles of the rule of law. These principles include: freedom of speech and information, the possibility for citizens and civil society organisations to challenge in court the actions and decisions of all public authorities and officials in independent proceedings, democratisation of judicial and investigative procedures (access to a lawyer from the beginning of the investigation, trial by jury, powers of investigation removed from the Prosecutor’s Office whose sole task should be to monitor compliance with the law). I call for the revision of the legislation governing rallies and demonstrations and the use of the troops of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.’

‘Powers of investigation removed from the Prosecutor’s Office’ – this was done in 2006 with the creation of the Investigative Committee! This separation of the investigation and the prosecutor’s supervision of an investigation could only be welcomed. It was hoped that the Prosecutor’s Office would finally concern itself with its direct responsibilities of supervising the observance of the rule of law during investigations. But the trouble was that the legislator deprived the Prosecutor’s Office of this right. Someone very powerful lobbied for this legislative absurdity. The result we see in the lawlessness of law enforcement agencies that has become part of our everyday life.

Genri Reznik’s proposals included expanding the jurisdiction of jury trials and the need to establish the institution of investigative judges to oversee the legality of pre-trial investigations. But someone very powerful managed to get the corresponding orders of the President of the Russian Federation shelved. 

3. Monopoly in the economy

Every day we read in the newspapers about the rise in prices of basic necessities – food, housing, medicines, utilities – including in the statements of the President of Russia and other top political leaders. Production suffers and the economy stagnates because of the excessively high cost of electricity, petrol and other fuels and oils.

For the underlying cause of this ‘price terror,’ see, for example, the latest October 2020 study by Russia’s Federal Antimonopoly Service (FAS) in the article ‘Virtually All Cartels in the Country Remain Undisclosed’ (Nezavisimaya gazeta, 30 October 2020). Previous reports by FAS speak of a ‘ubiquitous cartelisation of the Russian economy,’ and further: ‘a specific feature of anticompetitive agreements in Russia is the participation of state bodies in them … with all the features inherent in organised criminal groups and criminal associations.’ The report again emphasises the inaction of law-enforcement agencies: ‘Article 178 of the Russian Criminal Code on “Restriction of Competition,” which falls under the purview of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Russian Federation…practically does not work.’

Moreover, the ‘List of orders of the President of the Russian Federation on the implementation of priority measures to identify and suppress cartel activity’ of 5 August 2017 states:

‘FAS together with the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Federal Security Service, the Investigative Committee and with the participation of the Prosecutor General’s Office, are instructed to develop an interagency programme of measures to identify and suppress cartel activity and, if necessary, create an appropriate interagency coordination body.’

To be done by – 1 October 2017 

Responsible officials: I. Yu. Artemyev, V. A. Kolokoltsev, A. B. Bortnikov, A. I. Bastrykin, Yu. Ya. Chaika.’

No one lifted a finger – neither by 1 October 2017 nor later. Hence the question arises: ‘To whom are the Russian law enforcement and security agencies accountable?’ It was the issue of the lawfulness of the actions of these agencies that the Moscow Helsinki Group members highlighted in their above-mentioned statement.

A.D. Sakharov on economic competition:

‘The restructuring [perestroika – trans.] of the current administrative-command structure of the economy that has developed in our country is extremely difficult. Without the development of market relations and elements of competition, the development of dangerous imbalances, inflation, and other negative phenomena is inevitable.’ (1988).

From Sakharov’s election programme (January-February, 1989):

‘Break up large enterprises in order to stimulate competition and prevent monopoly pricing.’

He understood everything and tried to convince the authorities that they should show resolve in the fight against monopolies in the economy. Unfortunately, the authorities did not show such determination to combat cartels either then or in the process of the economic reforms of the 1990s, nor do they show such determination now. And many thousands of families in Russia, including those with several children, literally have nothing to feed their children and have nowhere to live. For many years 200,000 orphaned citizens, who are legally entitled to housing, have had nowhere to live. Even the chair of the Investigative Committee and the Prosecutor General speak openly about this problem. Yet, at the same time, for some reason they keep quiet about criminal activities designed to restrict competition in the construction industry, as a result of which people have nowhere to live in the largest country in the world.

Conclusion: ‘a moral force capable, time and gain, of growing anew’

 Sakharov died 31 years ago. Since then, the Internet has made its appearance in the world and new generations have arrived, along with young people who are not saddled with conventional Soviet stereotypes of servility to the authorities. In order to end this article on an optimistic note, I shall talk about something that shows Sakharov’s foresight, so relevant today, and I shall quote his words about young people.

In the article ‘The World Half a Century from today,’ written in 1974 and addressed directly to our own time, A. D. Sakharov wrote:

One of the first stages of such progress would seem to be the creation of … a worldwide information system (WIS) … The WIS should include individual miniature interrogative receiver-transmitters, control rooms regulating information flows, communication channels, including thousands of manmade communication satellites, cable and laser links …’  In addition, Sakharov presciently writes about the influence of the WIS on the life of every individual, about the overcoming of the disunity between countries and people, and he also expresses the hope that the development of the WIS will not lead to the devaluation of works of art.

Sakharov (from an interview with Knizhnoe obozreniye [The Book Review], April 1989):

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 is capable, time and again, of growing anew.

Translated by Anna Bowles, Matthew Quigley, Simon Cosgrove and Graham Jones

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