Viktor Kogan-Yasny on Andrei Sakharov: “I hope that young people today will respect Sakharov, and not just themselves.”

21 May 2021

Speech at a Yabloko event organised in honour of Andrei Sakharov, marking his centenary

by Viktor Kogan-Yasny

I apologise if this is a bit of an excursion into history, into details that are in a sense already being erased, but I will do so on purpose because details get overwritten, an image becomes mythologized and is broadcast from one era to another, an era into which it cannot in principle be transferred.

The abolition of the death penalty was of enormous importance to the country, to the Soviet Union, and it was the reason for my awareness of Andrei Dmitrievich. His position on the death penalty played a very important role for me and, so to speak, my subsequent civic activities. They in fact stemmed from my acquaintance with him and my acquaintance with him came about as a result of this issue so I have to speak about it. It’s so important because the only concrete achievement, strange as it may seem, that has survived in Russia from those times is the moratorium on the death penalty. This, of course, is of enormous significance, we can’t even imagine how enormously important it is for the moral climate in Russia, and thank God we haven’t lost it.

So what has been said here is that Andrei Dmitrievich was one person against everyone else. That’s not true, of course. He never wanted to be on his own, and this famous photo, where he was sitting and everyone else was applauding Chervonopysky – he was not sitting alone, 300-350 people were sitting with him. Andrei Dmitrievich was a man for equality.

If I may, I’d like to use a few “code words” with special meanings. The first of these is “equality”. Andrei Dmitrievich was a representative of the old Moscow culture; he lived all of his life under Soviet rule, but he was a product of the old Moscow culture, which was a culture of equality. There was no such thing as the privileged gentry – for Andrei Dmitrievich, such privilege was absolutely intolerable in any form and format whatsoever. He was well aware of his own worth, he knew very well who he was, but the outside world had exactly the opposite impression. Indeed, it felt rather strange and emotionally confusing sometimes, talking on equal terms with someone like that – someone who is cleverer than you, someone who is obviously a greater person than you, but who talks to you as an equal. It was much stranger than if it had been a conversation between an older person and a younger person, between a celebrated expert and a layman and so on. A meaty discussion with Sakharov was a momentous and heart-pounding occasion for the reason that it was a discussion among equals. 

The second “code word” I should like to use relates to a chance conversation I had with Andrei Dmitrievich, when I simply decided – off the cuff, as it were – to talk to him about what had happened at the Congress of People’s Deputies. He picked up the phone and I asked him: “Andrei Dmitrievich, why do you take the floor there so often?” Or something along those lines – those might not be my exact words, but it was more or less what I said. And he replied: “You know, I have no choice. I once asked someone to substitute for me” – a person whose name I won’t mention, but who is also no longer with us – “but he said to me, ‘I am going away to Italy.’ And so you see, many of us succeed in a lot of things, but we fall short when it comes to civic consciousness.” This failure of civic consciousness, the idea that when you can’t do something that is difficult and that requires exerting yourself and taking risks, you do something simple instead – that’s really caught on. Nowadays the term has practically been forgotten, but it has a fundamental significance. You do what comes easily to you and what is superficial…

The third keyword is “equilibrium”. Equilibrium in international relations, and in his relationship with the authorities, was incredibly important to Sakharov. It was difficult for him to build a relationship with the authorities. He was completely outside of the nomenklatura, completely – as a matter of principle, so to speak – outside of the nomenklatura, and Elena Georgievna was also instrumental in this. There were some people in the nomenklatura who were fairly decent people – there was Aleksandr Nikolaevich Yakovlev, who was almost an ally – but they were still the nomenklatura, and he found it difficult to appeal to them; it created obstacles. And these obstacles were of the essence when everything had to be changed. But he did everything he could to maintain equilibrium, and his relationship with Gorbachev was an attempt to establish equilibrium. His relationship with Gorbachev, and those around Gorbachev who were driving the reforms, was an attempt to establish equilibrium. Now, through the prism of time, it is clear that Sakharov and Gorbachev were much closer to each other than to the KGB, but this was not at all obvious back then; it was not remotely clear. But they actually sought each other out, of course; the way Gorbachev behaved at those congresses when he was imitating extreme repressiveness, and all the time he was making personal promises to Sakharov. This is what happened two days before Andrei Dmitrievich’s departure, when Sakharov went to the Congress and handed Gorbachev 50,000 signatures in favour of the ‘Decree on Power’ he had proposed earlier; the signatures had been collected by Memorial, my colleague Dima Shkapov put a lot of effort into it, and there were others – Yan Rachinsky, Oleg Orlov. Sakharov said he had 50,000 signatures in favour of the Decree on Power. Gorbachev replied: “Let’s not try to convince each other (he used some other word, too); I also have a lot of appeals.” It seemed like Gorbachev was saying he had different appeals, but he actually had exactly the same appeals for abolishing Article 6 of the Constitution, which he later did. There were such strange, coded relationships. If they had been more or less understandable from the outside, maybe a lot would have turned out differently.

Let’s move on. There is, of course, a great emotional urge in modern Russia to talk about Sakharov in terms of his relevance to today’s context and ‘bring him up to date’ so to speak. But this must not be done. It is impossible. Sakharov was a man of the Soviet Union, and he was very keen for the Soviet Union to survive. It was his conviction, it wasn’t a tactic. He realised that there was an ongoing process of destruction. 

When we last happened to meet not long before his death, I asked him: “How are things, Andrei Dmitrievich?”

 He replied, “How are things, how are things, the country is falling apart!”

 It wasn’t so obvious to me then, but he could clearly see that the country was falling apart and for him this was a tragedy and a matter of great concern.

Generally speaking, Sakharov was a person who felt alarm, he was a public figure who sounded the alarm, spreading this sense of alarm to others around him: what will happen? And what if it doesn’t work? …  This was very important, critically important. So perhaps nobody else did so much in terms of ideas, in terms of imagination, for the preservation of the Soviet Union. And his conclusion was very simple: that since there were uncontrollable processes of nationalism and political ignorance, Gorbachev needed to introduce serious, radical reforms. It was a simple practical conclusion. But Gorbachev followed a very vague, very vague model of reforms in which nothing was clear or evident. And in general this meant that Gorbachev’s contribution to our development, to world development, well actually, this very vagueness, so to speak, was to cost us a very great deal, it came at a very high price. 

Sakharov was an absolute realist while also being a true romantic. Odd as it may seem to say such a thing about the Soviet Union, he believed in the moral potential of that very country and the moral potential of that very system. There was one important episode that occurred around the time of the events on Tiananmen Square, when Gorbachev was about to travel to China, and Sakharov gave a very famous speech calling for the withdrawal of the Soviet Union’s ambassador from China. Decent people with common sense said that those who live in glass houses should not throw stones and that we should remember our history and our lived reality, and condemned Sakharov for suddenly spouting rubbish that was beyond the bounds of what was possible and conceivable. Yet given that he believed in principle that the Soviet Union could be reformed and that the country as a whole needed reform, and given that he was categorically opposed to the authoritarian “Chinese way” that was emerging at the time and that involved applying Dèng Xiăopíng’s ideas to the Soviet Union, he voiced an idea that was ahead of its time – that the Soviet Union was introducing reforms while oppression was happening over there, so we should do something about it … He very much wanted to see the good in things and in people, no matter how hidden from sight they might be. 

And he was very careful… He was asked, in 1989, whether he condemned Bolshevism in general. He said yes, something was wrong from the beginning. However, there were no emotional words or condemnations, as they were beyond the realms of relevance for the great majority of people, although it would have seemed, everything was completely clear. Well, what can I say? 1989 was a year of some sort of “white miracles” (as Pomerantz said). Then came some terrible “black miracles”, so to speak, of which there were many, so many that we lost count of them… And so, to continue such a strange theme, the early departure of some of the leading comrades of the Soviet Union in the 1980s and the dynamism of that time, would “catch up with us” later: it will soon be the 25th anniversary of the rule of you-know-who… But after all the death of Sakharov coincided with the departure of a whole number of people who were important for that time, and precisely those who had something particular to say about how to avoid fatal mistakes.

The historical process, in one way or another, is going ahead. We can’t understand it, but it’s a different matter when it comes to maintaining historical continuity… And what does it mean to maintain continuity? It means not just trying to simply take all that we know about a person and transfer it from one era, when they lived, to another, when they are no longer with us. It means trying to carry with you, so to speak, what is possible…

In this sense, I liked what Maksim Kruglov said, that what you can carry with you, in one way or another, in a small way, you should try to carry with you without simplification, without mythology, and, of course, without trying to use a person who can no longer speak for themselves for some utilitarian purpose. I hope that young people today, of whom Aleksandr Arkhangelsky spoke, will at least be conscientious in this sense, and not simply engaged in activism, by which I mean I hope that they will respect Sakharov, and not just themselves.

Translated by Matthew Quigley, Joanne Reynolds, Nicky Brown, Graham Jones and Ruairidh Irwin

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