Vladimir Lukin on Andrei Sakharov: how freedom began in Russia

13 April 2021

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Эхо Москвы]

Yury Kobaladze: Good evening. Welcome to all our radio listeners. […]  I welcome my guest Vladmir Lukin, deputy chair of the Federation Council’s Committee on International Affairs. But he is here today primarily as co-chair of the commission to commemorate the centenary of the birth of Andrei Sakharov. In the first part of the programme we will indeed talk about Sakharov and the work of the commission. But Vladmir Petrovich has also offered to discuss U.S.-Russian affairs. This will be in the second part of the programme. Vladmir Petrovich was Russian ambassador to the United States in the years immediately after the creation of Russia. 

Vladimir Lukin: Yes, I was post-Soviet Russia’s first Ambassador to the US.

Yury Kobaladze: And in general, all your life you have been engaged in US affairs and you are well versed on that subject and we will definitely discuss current events there. Please tell us, did you know Sakharov personally? 

Vladimir Lukin: Yes, I did.  But I don’t pretend that we had any kind of special relationship. I did meet Sakharov once. 

 It happened like this:  One of the most outstanding poets of the second half of the 20th century our own David Samoilov, gave a concert every year at the House of Writers. In Moscow. And so he invited me. We were very close friends. And he invited me to the reading at the House of Writers where the seats were in two wings, a longitudinal aisle, and then continuous rows of seats. And here in the first row of the continuous rows of seats just opposite the aisle in the very middle was the place where guests were seated. They put me there. And suddenly Andrei Dmitrievich (Sakharov) was in the next seat. This was in the most difficult years. I think it must have been in the mid-seventies.

Yury Kobaladze:  Still in Soviet times.

Vladmir Lukin: Of course. And he was sitting with his wife Elena Georgievna. And Samoilov began to read.

And even now I can see how Andrei Dmitrievich entered into the spirit of the whole performance, he was totally disconnected from everything else and he looked and he listened absolutely transfixed.120 percent. Then suddenly, he picked up a chair and began to skip in slow motion along this long aisle to the wall, jumped up to the second or third row and there he listened, not paying attention to anybody.

Unlike some other poets, Samoilov read his poems wonderfully. And then the thought occurred to me what distinguishes a genius from other people is that that person becomes engaged in a problem that interests them so much they forget everything else and are only engaged in that problem.

And then I worked as head of the group of that Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union. The unforgettable Supreme Soviet which was democratically elected. Sakharov was elected to it. By the way, I was a close friend of Yury Fedorovich Koryakin. He was such a talented man. Andrei Sakharov was also his close supporter and associate. We used to meet for a while but once again I must emphasise that I had no special personal relationship with him except a  huge respect and admiration for this unique person.

 Yury Kobaladze:  As for how you became co-chair, I read your speech at the Luxembourg Forum.

Vladmir Lukin:  Yes, that’s how it was.  You looked at me as if to say one only got there by using some kind of informal influence…

Yury Kobaladze:  You probably did use your influence.

Vladmir Lukin:  No.

Yury Kobaladze:  You were invited.

Vladmir Lukin:  It was all very simple.  Early in the previous year, I met with a group of my old comrades from civil society  organisations – various Russians from real civil society organisations – and they pointed out that it would soon be the academician’s jubilee.  They said it must be celebrated in some way.  He was such an important person that a great many details about him get forgotten, but the greatness of the person remains.  So, what should we do?  Well, I threw myself in to it and started talking to a lot of people including people close of government and the presidential administration. But mostly with members of the public.  And we decided that the event should be chaired by the President of the Academy of Sciences, of course.  That made sense, because Andrei Dmitrievich had spent most of his life in the Academy of Sciences.  Even when he was sent off to live in a closed city…  This culminated in the establishment of an organising committee.  You said “commission,” but to be precise it was called the organising committee.  And so, with the agreement of many people, an organising committee was created.  Some twenty people became members, including Sergeev, Mikhail Fedotov and your humble servant, who were respectively elected chair and co-chair.  Therefore, I am as legitimate as Yanukovich

Yury Kobaladze:  Even more legitimate.  But was this an international committee?

Vladmir Lukin:  No, it was Russian, of course.

Yury Kobaladze:  So why call it the Luxembourg Forum?

Vladmir Lukin:  That’s something else entirely.  That organization was created in Luxembourg and that is where its first meeting was held.  It is a truly international organisation.  Its first session was held in Luxembourg.  And many people attended it, including from the USA – very prominent and authoritative people such as former Defence Secretary Bill Perry, former Senator Sam Nunn, former Deputy Secretary General of NATO Rose Gottemoeller, and Ambassador Alexander Vershbow.

Yury Kobaladze:  I remember, yes.

Vladmir Lukin:  This group discusses disarmament issues.  And as you know, Andrei Dmitrievich saw disarmament as a matter of absolutely essential importance.  He therefore took part and they decided to hold a conference within the framework of our organising committee, in which a whole number of people took part, me included.

Yury Kobaladze:  Understood.  And is there some kind of programme that will be realised at the time of the jubilee?

Vladmir Lukin:  Definitely.  A programme has been drawn up.  I have it here.  It includes a whole number of activities, some of which have already been realised.  For this, we have to recognise and thank the Institute of the World Economy and International Relations [IMEMO, Moscow].  Here is the Luxembourg Forum.  To my knowledge, they have already held three conferences devoted to various issues concerning disarmament and the nuclear balance.  How disarmament was, how it is today, what are the prospects in today’s difficult circumstances.  And all this is in honour and in recognition of Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov who, as we all know, was the pioneer of the hydrogen bomb.

Yu. Kobaladze: It is paradoxical that he created it, and then he opposed it.

 V. Lukin: That is just his way and it is further proof that being a genius doesn’t mean that you don’t develop. He did develop and followed his own way in life…

Yu. Kobaladze: But what highly significant events were to take place in Russia…

V. Lukin: Since Andrei Dmitrievich was a very multidimensional person, as I wrote somewhere, he did not receive two Nobel Prizes for nothing. But because he made a unique discovery. In the dazzling field of nuclear physics and its applications, he is an outstanding, famous nuclear scientist. And he was a physicist. And he was a physicist in the broadest sense because he dealt logically with issues with far-reaching consequences. Secondly, he was a political thinker. Apart from his legacy as an exceptional physicist, he was a man who was a matchless political thinker and social analyst because of his work in this area, his reflections on progress, human rights and peaceful co-existence.

Yu. Kobaladze: Convergence. 

V. Lukin: Yes, his theory of convergence. A pluralistic convergence, as he himself stressed. This played a huge role both in shaping the public attitude to the coming world, and in the events that took place both in Russia and around Russia and across a much wider area too. And finally, thirdly, he was an outstanding human rights defender. Everybody knows that. A  human rights defender who, I would say, created such a persistent response of heroic non-violence, that it endured throughout all our turbulent years of the late 1980s, early 1990s. And it was a revolution actually. The Third Russian Revolution. And he played a very great role in ensuring that it was not a bloodbath like other revolutions, including the Russian revolutions. I think there are two Nobel Peace Prize laureates in Russia.

 Yu. Kobaladze: And they are both legendary.

V. Lukin: They are both legendary. Sometimes there even existed certain divergences and disparities between them.  But I think that they both played a unique role in those times and they certainly made history. The paradox is that this year is the 90th anniversary of one of them and the centenary of…

Yu. Kobaladze: We’ve got to be talking about Mikhail Gorbachev here. 

V. Lukin: Of course. He recently celebrated his 90th birthday.

Yu. Kobaladze: We wish him good health. Please remind me: what will take place in Russia, what events? There’s going to be some kind of conference.

V. Lukin: I have already said that the process has begun.  Our problem was “What should we do?” Although his date of birth is 21st May,1921, it would be a mistake to try to squeeze all the events to commemorate Andrei Dmitrievich into one day. This would cause the events to clash and spoil the occasion. So we decided that there would be a given period for the events, which are dedicated specifically to Andrei Dmitrievich. They’ve already started. But there are plans for more to come.  There are a lot of them. A few of these exhibitions will be very significant. 

Yu. Kobaladze: Some are already in place.

V. Lukin: Some of them are already in place and others are being prepared. The Polytechnic Institute is preparing an exhibition on Ilyinsky Boulevard, I think. There are others. An important feature is they are to be taken around Russia. This makes them a very effective of means of, let’s say, opening up this discussion so that young people know at least something about him.

Y. Kobaladze: I need to ask this one question… Do they know him? My students have heard of him, by the way. 

V. Lukin: So they have heard of him. But these students do have you for their professor….

Y. Kobaladze: No, I didn’t tell them myself, I didn’t talk about Sakharov.

V. Lukin: It’s just that your facial expression reveals that they know this name. 

Y. Kobaladze: Actually, I was delighted that some of them could even name him.

V. Lukin:  I think the name of this person is certainly known.  Like Gagarin, like the Queen.  The first cosmonaut, the father of astronautics.  The father of the hydrogen bomb.  And of course, this is all to the good.  There will be films: we have agreed there will be at least one film on Channel One.  It will be called “More than love” and it will be made by Todorovsky.

Yu. Kobaladze:  Will it be a feature film or a documentary?

V. Lukin:  I think it will be more of a documentary.  That’s a good thing.  To be honest, I remember there was a film about Academician [Lev] Landau that left me a bit shaken.

Yu, Kobaladze:  But that was made up.  It was about his relationship with his wife and other women…

V. Lukin:  Yes, making a feature film about celebrities who are well known to a lot of living people is a serious matter.  But, overall, things are moving forward.  However, there are three key matters that I am beginning to worry about.

Yu, Kobaladze:  And for which you are responsible?

V. Lukin:  I’m not directly responsible for everything.  We have people who are responsible for specific matters.  But, given that three of us are acting as coordinators, we do to some extent personify the organizing committee, and so of course we bear ultimate responsibility.  But, given that we have this responsibility, we also control the resources.

Yu. Kobaladze:  But they are limited.

V. Lukin:  It doesn’t only apply to women, the saying that they cannot give more than they have. It also relates to the organisational and financial side.  Regarding the first key event, we decided that, taking everything into account, it would be best to avoid lots of talking – though that will happen, in fact it has already begun…  Rather, we decided to kick off with a first-class concert in honour of the academician.  Vladimir Teodorovich Spivakov readily and enthusiastically volunteered to organise such a concert.  His orchestra will make a special journey to take part, even though they are off somewhere on tour.  And this concert, in my opinion, is now at such a stage of preparation that it will indeed take place.

Yu. Kobaladze:  Will that be on the 21st [May]?

V. Lukin:  Yes indeed.  It will be on the 21st.  It will be the climax …

Yu. Kobaladze:  Where will it be held?

V. Lukin:  It will probably be in the House of Music, where Spivakov’s company is based.  But there are some problems with that, and they are hard to resolve.  Primarily, these relate to finance, which is a serious matter.  And, when it comes to finance, the organizations that are involved generally assure us that all the problems will be solved.  But they are not resolved without pain.  I understand why: a lot has changed now and we are living in difficult times.  But even so, this should not be how things are.  So I want to draw this to the attention of everyone who is hearing this – and who is ready to listen.  The second and third problems are even more difficult.  As you know, Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov was the laureate of numerous prizes – not only the Nobel Peace Prize, but also of Leninist state prizes.

Yu. Kobaladze: Stalinist…

V. Lukin:  State.  And he was thrice declared Hero of Socialist Labour.  As a three-times Hero of Socialist Labour, he is entitled to a bust where he was born.  And he was a Muscovite.  The question was raised about installing a monument to him.  But what happened in that respect I find quite hard to understand.  When the question was raised, everyone said Yes.  Everyone took note of this.  The Moscow mayor’s office announced that it would take charge of the matter and invited us to put forward our suggestions as to the location of the monument.  We considered all the possibilities, and put forward three proposed locations for the monument.

Yu. Kobaladze:  Are you referring to the monument itself, or where it should be located?

V. Lukin:  Where it should be located.  At present, the monument is unlikely to be erected in a month.  There is a whole procedure to be completed and lots of formalities to be observed.  Finding a location, erecting the stone with an inscription – this all involves a lot of bureaucracy….

Yu. Kobaladze:  Has the procedure ground to a halt?

V. Lukin:  Yes, it has run into the sand, though we have submitted our proposal, and suggested several sites.  Moreover, at a recent meeting of the Presidential Human Rights Council chaired by the president, President Putin was asked about the monument, and whether it was needed.  The President clearly and precisely said Yes, of course, this memorial is needed, and it should be erected somewhere near Sakharov Avenue [in central Moscow].  One of our suggestions fits with this option.  I won’t call it an order, but an option.  Even so, all our attempts to learn what the Moscow Mayor’s office has done have so far failed.  Total silence.  I do not know why.

Yu. Kobaladze:  What’s your best guess?

V. Lukin:  My guesses are always worse than reality.

Yu. Kobaladze:  You’re a pessimist.

V. Lukin:  I may be stupid, but I’m not so stupid as not to be a pessimist.  That’s why I’m discussing this with you now, and I should like to believe…  There is not only this question to discuss with you.  And I’m speaking not on my own account, but on behalf of the organising committee.

Yu. Kobaladze:  I think we should be listened to.

V. Lukin:  That is a matter for the respected Mayor of Moscow.

Yurii Kobaladze:  We will exert our influence to convey your concerns…

Yu. Kobaladze:  In that case, as Mao Zedong would say, I will be calm.  And third and last, but a very important point.  I think it is just and absolutely essential that all those awards that were unfairly and unjustly taken away from Sakharov should be returned to him no later than his birthday on 21 May.

[short break for news]

Yu. Kobaladze:  Welcome back to our radio listeners.  We are talking today about Sakharov, whose birthday is on 21 May.   [This year] Sakharov would have turned 100 years old.  And we are discussing what events are being prepared to immortalise the memory of the outstanding scientist and public figure.  You did not mention your third point…

V. Lukin:  My third point concerns the return of Sakharov’s awards.  In January 1980…

Yu. Kobaladze:  Before he was sent into internal exile…

V. Lukin: At the same time as he was exiled, he was stripped of his awards, including the award of Hero of Socialist Labour, which he had been awarded three times.

Yu. Kobaladze:  I had no idea that his rewards had not yet been returned to him.

V. Lukin:  His rewards have not been physically returned to several of his relations, who are members of our organising committee.  But it is important that our post-Soviet governmental institutions and the regime itself should correct this monstrous stupidity of the authorities.  When Marshal Pétain was imprisoned after the war, someone commented that, while Pétain had behaved improperly with the Germans, even so Verdun remains Verdun.  You can judge Sakharov as a human rights defender however you like.  In my view, he was an absolutely outstanding human rights defender.  You can hold whatever opinion you wish.  But a person won his awards and should have them.

[Read more in Russian]

Translated by Graham Jones and Elizabeth Teague

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