Sergei Lukashevsky on the 100th anniversary of Andrei Sakharov’s birth: How can Sakharov’s legacy be applied to our times?

21 May 2021

by Sergei Lukashevsky, Director of the Sakharov Centre, member of the Moscow Helsinki Group

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Новая газета]

The life of Andrei Sakharov was led on such a large-scale, and so multi-faceted, that its story can be told in the most varied ways.

For example.  A leading physicist who devised the construction of the Soviet hydrogen bomb. He recognized, as did his colleagues in the West, the full degree of responsibility that now lay with the inventors of the most deadly weapon in the history of mankind, and for more than 30 years he called on the world to change so that thermonuclear war would be an impossibility.  And in the end, the two major world nuclear powers undertook a radical reduction of strategic weapons.

Or.  A scientist coddled by the authorities, enjoying the benefits of the top Soviet elite that were unavailable to 99.9% of the Soviet population, who renounced his position in order to speak the truth and defend the innocently condemned. 

He himself, and his family, endured harassment, covert searches, were threatened with reprisals, were sent without a trial to live under the unsleeping watch of the KGB, and, during the hunger strikes that remained his only means of protest, underwent the torture of force-feeding.  And even after he was freed, when he became a member of the first relatively freely elected parliament, the aggressive conservative majority responded to his speeches with disgusting obstruction.  Even during perestroika Sakharov remained to a great degree alone and not understood.  And only his death, it seemed for a short while, revealed to his fellow citizens the true scale of his person. In the reforming 1990’s and the reactionary first two decades of this century, the ideas and ideals of Sakharov remained dear only to the free thinking minority. 

And yet another.  The academician-dissident changed the understanding of international politics.  To a great degree, thanks to his statements, human rights became one of the basic measures of international relations. Sakharov’s doctrine of the indivisibility of peace, progress, and human rights, while not the real modus operandi of international diplomacy, without a doubt defines the progressive ideal of the world order. The efforts of Sakharov received worldwide recognition, which was expressed by him being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  Sakharov today is one of the symbols of the fight for freedom and human rights. A prize bearing his name is given yearly to the bravest defenders of these ideals.

Wonderful, dramatic, and tragic versions of the life story of a most extraordinary person. What do they mean for us today?

Next to a figure on such a grand scale like Sakharov, you cannot help but feel your own smallness and weakness. Who of us has done anything thanks to which the world will listen to our words?  Who today in Russia, and in the world for that matter, possesses such “symbolic capital” and such a flawless reputation that the ethical maxims he pronounces are perceived as the unvarnished truth? 

Sakharov lived in unique times, when the role of science (you write formulas on a board and control energy of unseen power) bestowed upon scientists its unique, almost “magical” might.  Today the role of intellectuals is not so grand, and the word of one person gets easily drowned in the drone of social media.

How can Sakharov’s legacy be applied to our times?

The answer to this question is far from simple in today’s Russia. When you look around, it’s impossible not to see that the country is returning to the early 1980s. Recently, the courts closed down the Moscow office of Radio Liberty (added by the Ministry of Justice to the register of “foreign agents”Ed.). Just as in the Soviet years, they will broadcast from abroad. Attaching the label of “foreign agent” divides society again into loyalists — the majority of whom are likely trying to fit in or seeking personal gain rather than actually acting in support of the government — and dissidents — who are trying to remain free in a land that is not free. Activists keep lists of political prisoners. They lose their jobs at the mere thought of participating in a peaceful protest. The economy is stagnant. The country is threatening its neighbours with war and is involved in almost half a dozen armed conflicts. It doesn’t seem like there’s any hope left. But it was precisely in situations like this when Sakharov would call for action, first of all in thought and word: “It is a natural need to create ideals, even when there is no direct path to their implementation. Indeed, if we don’t have ideals, there’s nothing to hope for. Then the feeling of hopelessness sets in, the feeling that we’ve reached a dead end.”

As George Orwell wrote, the chief foundation of freedom is free speech. A lack of political freedom can limit one’s ability to speak out, but the pure truth eventually becomes universal. No political regime can exist if its message runs perpendicular to popular opinion. We cannot predict when the next “forever” will suddenly end. “… For the real question is whether the brighter future is really always so distant. What if, on the contrary, it has been here for a long time already, and only our own blindness and weakness has prevented us from seeing it around us and within us, and kept us from developing it? ” These are the words of Vaclav Havel, in his famous essay, The Power of the Powerless.

And here we find ourselves face to face, I think, with the most important of Sakharov’s credos, a deeply personal and existential one. “…My destiny was exceptional in some way… Not because of false modesty, but out of a desire to be clear, I’d like to note that my destiny turned out to be larger than my personality. I only tried to be on the same level with it.” These are Sakharov’s words from an interview shortly before his death.

No one can repeat Sakharov’s destiny. We are all unique; we all have our own talents and capabilities. But for each of us, to be truly at the level of our own destiny means to be loyal to ideals and to be able to openly oppose evil and injustice. That, I am sure, is the most important lesson from the life of Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov, one worth recalling on the one-hundredth anniversary of his birth.

Translated by John Tokolish and Nina dePalma

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