Aleksandr Cherkasov: On what made Sakharov become a human rights defender

22 May 2022

by Aleksandr Cherkasov, former chair of the board of Memorial Human Rights Centre, which was closed down by the authorities. The author expresses his thanks to Ilya Kramnik for his advice.

Source: Facebook [a shorter version of this article was published by Новая газета. Европа and republished by Moscow Helsinki Group]

It is a strange time in which we mark the first year of Andrei Sakharov’s second century.

The great scientist has been canonised, and an avenue in the centre of Moscow bears his name. The Wall of Sorrow, a memorial to the victims of Soviet terror, was opened there by Putin. But if Andrei Dmitrievich were to go out there now and begin to say the things he never tired of saying in his lifetime about human rights and nuclear disarmament, he would be immediately arrested and charged. The Memorial Society, of which Sakharov was one of the first co-chairs, was recently designated a ‘foreign agent’ organisation and close down by the authorities.

And there is no cognitive or other dissonance here: ‘He did well, forging the thermonuclear shield for the Motherland, but he was too carried away by liberal ideas’ – this is roughly the attitude of the current government. Sakharov’s death, and then the thirty and almost three years that have passed since then, make things much simpler.

However, this simplification began while he was still alive: ‘Sakharov will not forgive you for this!’ – shouted Dovlatov’s caricatures of liberals. It was easier to understand the apparently simple (so it may seem!) texts – beginning with Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom, published in Samizdat and Tamizdat in 1968 – than to accept the motives that moved the author.


Sakharov was like someone with iconic status. He was a man whose opinion was listened to by the Politburo. A secret scientist who was not weighed down by all the ‘pleasures’ of everyday Soviet life. Villagers on the outskirts of the closed city of Arzamas-16 whispered that a ‘test case of communism’ had been built there, behind three rows of barbed wire fences – and they were right to some extent.

Suddenly, he decided to give up all his privileges and comforts and break all the rules. He wrote and disseminated things not of this world. That is, they were for peace and all that, but from the taste and feel of them it was plain they were not made from Soviet papier-mâché.

Sakharov’s Reflections, that appeared in the West in the summer of 1968 via Andrei Amalrik and Karel van het Reve, surprised the whole world. It turned out there was intelligent life behind the Iron Curtain! And this gave rise to new hope. It’s hard to imagine that time now. The Prague Spring was in full swing. In Paris the slogans were ‘Beneath the pavement, the beach’ and ‘It is forbidden to forbid.’ In Moscow, they had started to publish A Chronicle of Current Events – in Samizdat, of course. That was also where Anatoly Marchenko’s My Testimony, the first book on the post-Stalin political camps, had been recently published. And what kind of camps could there be since Khrushchev had freed everyone? Reflection on, and rethinking of, the Soviet present was beginning, and Sakharov’s Reflections gave weight and dimension to this process, placing it in a global context and putting it on the agenda of the time.

But in August of that very year 1968 everything changed.

Tanks appeared in Prague: ‘If it weren’t for the “fraternal assistance” there would have been NATO troops there!’ Doesn’t that sound familiar? The protesters were arrested and convicted. Marchenko was sent back to a prison camp.

‘There is a tide in the affairs of men’ and it was time to ‘calm down.’ But Sakharov did not calm down. He wrote fresh texts, global in terms of both the issues he dealt with and the solutions he proposed.

At the same time there began moves to defuse international tensions. The USSR and the United States concluded treaties on the limitation of strategic offensive weapons and of missile defence systems. In these treaties one can hear echoes of Sakharov’s speeches: he repeatedly tried to show that nuclear war was unthinkable and murderous, that more weapons did not mean greater security, and that supposedly defensive weapons could destabilise the global situation by pushing things towards nuclear war.

In 1975, Sakharov was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. At the award ceremony, his wife Elena Georgievna Bonner read out his Nobel lecture ‘Peace, Progress, Human Rights.’ Andrei Dmitrievich at this time was in Vilnius, in the court where Sergei Kovalev, his friend, editor of the Chronicle  and scientist, was sentenced to ten years in camps and exile.

Also in 1975, in Helsinki, 35 countries signed the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. On the one hand, this was a victory for the USSR: at last, the post-war borders in Europe were recognised and a Soviet zone of influence was established in law. Many saw this as a capitulation by the West. But, on the other hand, it secured the interconnection of the three ‘baskets’: security, cooperation, and human rights. And this could be considered a victory for the human rights movement, a victory for Sakharov.

At first in Moscow, on the initiative of the physicist Yury Orlov, and then in the Soviet republics, and after that in the other socialist countries, Helsinki groups appeared, monitoring the implementation of the requirements of the ‘third basket’ of the Helsinki Final Act.

But once again, everything ended with war, the USSR providing ‘international assistance,’ this time to the people of Afghanistan.

Of course, “if the troops had not been sent in, there would have been American missiles there the next day…”

Sakharov protested against Soviet aggression. And he lost his liberty. He went on hunger strike and was subjected to the torture of forced feeding.

This was a bleak period: Sakharov was in exile in Gorky, Kovalev was in Kolyma, Orlov was in political prisons near Perm, Marchenko was in Chistopol prison.

And then as in a fairy tale: the truth wins out. Havel’s The Power of the Powerless crushes bars and walls. After Anatoly Marchenko’s hunger strike and death in December 1986, General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev telephoned Sakharov.

There followed the triumph. The First Congress of People’s Deputies. Speeches delivered over the hullabaloo set off by the ‘aggressively obedient majority.’ And then, the death of the hero.

Andrei Sakharov’s speech at the First Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR, 2nd June, 1989:

You can read about this in the detailed memoirs drawn up by Andrei Dmitrievich. Their ‘political,’ ‘public’ and ‘human rights’ components are readily comprehensible to the reader, unlike the scientific material.

Sakharov wasn’t just a scientist. His work, like that of many of the ‘bomb generation,’ ranged widely, from particle physics to cosmology. The Soviet government, and his confrontation with the Soviet government, deprived him of the chance for a normal in-depth dialogue with his colleagues, including, for example, the Nobel laureate Stephen Hawking, with whom he met only twice, in the early ’70s and late ’80s.

People like Sakharov are distinguished not only by their encyclopaedic knowledge, not only by their intense focus on the topic of their own primary work, but also by the  boldness of their thinking.

The ability to go beyond the ordinary, to the brink of the abyss. The ability to take issue with recognized truths and with figures in authority.

One time there was a knock on the door of another such person, Richard Feynman, a future Nobel laureate, also a physicist, who worked at Los Alamos in the Manhattan Project team (also making a bomb): “Father would like to talk to you.” The ‘father,’ when they met, explained: “At the meetings everyone listens to me with open mouth and whispers ‘Genius!’, and only you, Dick, shout ‘Bullshit!’.” The genius was Niels Bohr, Nobel Prize winner in physics (for the shell model of the atom, if I am not mistaken) who understood that one should not shackle one’s mind by deference to authorities. By the way, the messenger sent by him in the story is his son, Auger Bohr, also a future Nobel laureate (also for a shell model, but by that time of the atomic nucleus).

Science is not done otherwise. And in science two times two is always four (or nearly always!). And not in accordance with the decisions of the latest Party congress. At least in the natural sciences (though the Party tried). In the social sciences, it was another matter, alas. That is why the natural scientists Sakharov, Kovalev, Lavut and Orlov were able to do what they had to do. Until the punishing sword of the Party caught up with them …

But here Sakharov, one of the ‘fathers’ of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, also stood out in terms of the scale of his achievements and capabilities.

Sakharov calculated the possible consequences for humanity of the continuation of testing thermonuclear weapons.  He drew his own conclusions. He tried to convey them to Khrushchev to prevent the tests of the ‘superbomb.’ He did not succeed. But he succeeded in souring his relationship with Khrushchev. And yet the treaty banning nuclear tests in three dimensions — the atmosphere, the oceans and outer space — was signed in 1963.

Again, in 1967, Sakharov became concerned about the destabilising role of missile defence systems. He wrote a memorandum and sent it to Kosygin, the chair of the Council of Ministers. On the covering letter, there is a note: ‘Seen by Comrade L. I. Brezhnev.’ There was no irony here: Brezhnev, who had been the Politburo lead on this subject since the 1950s, was himself an expert in rocket and space matters. The treaty between the USSR and the United States on the Limitation of Missile Defence Systems was signed in 1972.

Sakharov recalled this story in writing Reflections. Initially, in 1967, something similar had been written addressed to the authorities, an article intended for a small circle of official readers. But it was clear the authorities did not get the message. And then he started writing an article addressed to the world.

When the issue of political prisoners came to occupy Andrei Dmitrievich, he took it up with the same attention to detail and thoroughness. On 30 October 1974, the 33rd issue of the Chronicle of Current Events, devoted entirely to political prisoners, was presented at a press conference held in Sakharov’s flat. And when in December 1986 Sakharov received a telephone call from the General Secretary, the conversation turned immediately to political prisoners, with their names. Gorbachev’s ‘amnesty’ followed shortly afterwards.

Going back to the beginning, we can say the same about Sakharov’s anti-war position: it dealt in details and it was consistent, from the creation of the bomb to the consequences of its testing, to the consequences of nuclear war, the consequences of destabilization – but also the consequences of ‘ordinary,’ ‘local’ wars. Wars that the authorities stubbornly refused to call wars, but ‘fraternal assistance’ and ‘international assistance’ instead. A tale very familiar since.


And one last thing. Speaking of Sakharov’s ‘scientific courage’ as his legacy, it is worth turning that courage to the legacy itself.

‘Peace, progress, human rights’ was a trinity forty-five years ago. Is it so today?

How many times in the last thirty years has one contradicted another?

‘Peace and human rights’? But if there is a real, non-fictional genocide? In Rwanda, the world community chose ‘peace’, UN peacekeepers did not intervene. Between 500,000 and 1,100,000 Tutsis were massacred. And there was no reaction! It took Srebrenica, where more than 7,000 Muslims were murdered, before there was a reassessment. 7,000 killed – but not in Africa, in Europe. It was only then that the world community intervened militarily – to stop and prevent genocide. And in 1999, explaining their position on Kosovo, German Green MPs said: ‘For us, for Germany, the main thing for more than half a century has been, ‘Never again war! Never again fascism!” And now we are in a situation where, by refusing to use force, we support fascism…’

‘Progress and human rights’? Take out your mobile phone. Look at it: here is a universal spy through which everything, or almost everything, can be found out about you. Look around – where’s the nearest security camera? On a lamppost, and you can be prosecuted for taking part in a rally or a march, without being arrested, without any police involvement. Or maybe the camera is on your computer – the one on which you are reading this article?…

What was right a generation ago has to be tested and, if necessary, reassessed. Even if it was written by the great Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov. His son-in-law, interlocutor, and colleague Efrem Yankelevich remarked in the foreword to a volume of Sakharov’s journalistic writings about another idea of Sakharov’s – the ‘convergence of the two systems.’ Yes, that has come to pass, but not as predicted. Sakharov thought that it would be possible to take the best of both West and East into the future. But it turned out that, most likely, it is the other way around …


A physicist of the last century observed that every idea passes through three stages in its development: from ‘It can’t be!’ to ‘There’s something about it…’ to finally ‘Who doesn’t know that?’

In the 1960s, when Sakharov turned his attention to human rights issues, many Moscow intellectuals were perplexed: ‘Where will they send the arrested writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel – after all, Khrushchev has closed all the political camps?’ It took Marchenko’s My Testimony and the Chronicle of Current Events, it took a decade and a half for every person in the Soviet Union who had even the slightest ability to think for themselves to understand that the country was being held together by imprisonments and camps. Marchenko’s life and death and Sakharov’s tenacity as a witness marked the beginning of the end of this inhumane system.

What remains? Exactly the same things: daring thought on the edge of the abyss and obstinacy in the ‘dull season when leaves fall.’

Translated by Simon Cosgrove and Graham Jones

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