14 December 2020
By Lev Ponomarev, chair of the NGO For Human Rights, member of the Moscow Helsinki Group
Thirty-one years ago, on 14 December 1989, Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov passed away. His farewell event became truly massive, fully corresponding to the scale of Sakharov’s own personality.
The leadership of the USSR took the matter extremely seriously, and formed a government commission for the farewell, with Yevgeny Primakov appointed to head it. On the morning of 15 December, he informed Sakharov’s widow, Elena Bonner, of the decision to hold a farewell ceremony, in, no less, the Hall of Columnsof the House of Unions, where memorial services for the leaders of the USSR from Lenin and Stalin to Andropov and Chernenko, were once held. Elena Bonner, after consulting with close friends and family, categorically refused to agree to this, because a farewell to Sakharov in such a place seemed an insult to his memory.
People close to Andrei Sakharov created a public as opposed to a government commission in order to devise a farewell ceremony that would correspond to Sakharov’s life and personality. Surprisingly, at that time a dialogue between government and society was genuinely possible. Just imagine it: President Gorbachev of the USSR came to meet us, and in the end, our plan for a two-day farewell to Andrei Dmitrievich was adopted. It started at the Palace of Youth. Despite the December chill, from early morning people stood in line for five hours, and still many did not have time to make it inside: at 11 pm the flow of people was stopped. After that, Sakharov’s coffin was moved to the Presidium of the Academy of Sciences. It is remarkable to note that Elena Bonner met with Gorbachev there and agreed with him on the official registration of the Memorial Movement. The farewell event continued at the Lebedev Physics Institute on Leninsky Prospekt, and after that thousands of people marched with the coffin in a cortege-demonstration to Luzhniki, where Andrei Dmitrievich used to speak at rallies focusing on the Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR and the most urgent political events. A farewell rally took place in Luzhniki, after which the coffin was taken to the Vostryakovskoye cemetery.
The farewell to Andrei Sakharov showed that he was a real leader of civil society, recognised not only by the people, but also by the authorities.
The ideas and predictions of Sakharov, a winner of the Nobel Peace prize, retain their acuity and relevance and are being implemented and proven sound today. Decades after the Nobel lecture Peace, Progress and Human Rights, the most important tasks remain: the prevention of full-scale nuclear war, disarmament, the protection of human rights around the world and the synthesis of a fair and balanced model of a social structure based on the convergence of the best developments of socialist and capitalist doctrines. Paradoxically, both the growing totalitarianism in Russia, which we literally feel with our skin, and pressing societal developments in the United States, which we watch from afar, once again return us to the points made by Andrei Sakharov decades ago.
2020 is on its way out. May 21 will mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Andrei Sakharov. This is a more than convincing reason for the Russian authorities to call 2021 the year of Sakharov. In this way Russia could declare that it respects human rights and strives to become part of the civilised world.
P.S. Take a look at these photographs from the farewell to Andrei Sakharov below. It seems to me they convey a little of that December cold, and that human warmth.
Translated by Anna Bowles