Lev Ponomarev: Following Sakharov’s path

25 May 2021

by Lev Ponomarev, human rights advocate and member of the Moscow Helsinki Group

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


Speech at the plenary session of the International Conference ‘Anxiety and Hope. XXI Century’

Moscow, Sakharov Centre, 24th of May 2021

It so happens that at the centenary anniversary of the birth of Andrei Sakharov, celebrated in many countries, we meet in a period of turmoil in the political situation both in Russia and abroad.

The figure of Sakharov today is perceived primarily in the context of nuclear disarmament and the limitation of nuclear tests. However his Nobel Lecture ‘Peace, Progress, Human Rights’ came up with a clear formula: peace and progress are impossible without universal human rights.

Russia in the early 1990’s did really move along the path of progress, carrying out democratic reforms. But this movement at first slowed down, then there was a backlash.

Today, a political regime has formed in Russia, which in the end has turned out to be much more dangerous than the one under which Andrei Sakharov lived and worked.

I would never have thought that I would say these words, but for all the harshness of Soviet totalitarianism, in the USSR the country was led by politicians and this leadership was collective. The mechanisms for containing one person’s insanity more or less worked. The security services, which are always ready to neglect human lives, were still controlled by the Politburo.

In modern Russia however a historically unprecedented situation has developed. All power has passed into the hands of a powerful security services corporation headed by the Federal Security Service.

The backbone of the ruling elite, including the President, is made up of people who have emerged from the power structures and the criminal world of the 1990’s.

In economic, foreign and domestic policy, security services’ methods are used, intended not for peaceful development but for fighting the enemy. Nuclear weapons are becoming not a deterrent, but a means of blackmail and threat.

As of 2021, the democratic Constitution of 1993 has been virtually abolished in Russia.

The laws are passed in the interests of law enforcement and to protect the political and economic dominance of a small group of people.

The judicial system is controlled by a top-down command structure and does not protect the rights of citizens. Dissent and any form of political competition are firmly suppressed.

There are hundreds of political prisoners and many thousands of accidental victims of arbitrariness and law enforcement impunity, who have nothing to do with politics.

Almost all human rights organisations have been declared ‘foreign agents’ in Russia and are under intense pressure.

The second-in-command of the country’s political leadership, Secretary of the Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, has openly declared that Western, universal values are antithetical to those of present-day Russia, despite the fact that Russia’s commitment to them was enshrined in both the Constitution and international treaties, with Russia having voluntarily signed the European Convention on Human Rights and the UN Declaration of Human Rights. 

But is peaceful coexistence even possible in a scenario in which a huge nation with a wealth of resources, a nuclear arsenal, and geopolitical ambitions, establishes an anti-democratic regime once again to abuse its power en masse? A scenario in which it openly demonstrates its willingness to murder political opponents and shadily meddle in the affairs of neighbouring countries?

On this day, it does not do to merely remember Sakharov, to speak of his merits and of his personal qualities. The triad of ‘peace, progress, and human rights’ demands that real action be taken. It is on this, the centenary of Andrei Sakharov’s birth, that we speak of the importance of restoring words as the tools that we use to maintain peace. 

There needs to be a turning point in the West’s relationship with Russia. This could be achieved by basing our next actions on what Andrei Sakharov has said, on the understanding that without real protection of human rights within a nation, peaceful coexistence will always be under threat. A regime which resurrects the ideals of totalitarianism and fascism, is in itself a threat to peace and progress, and a harbinger of great suffering for humanity.   

This was the main lesson we took from the horrors of the Second World War, which led to the grounding of the UN Human Rights declaration and also the European Convention of Human Rights for the defence our basic freedoms and human rights. 

Dialogue with Russia needs to be upheld and maintained, but first and foremost should be a demand that Russia fulfil her obligations to protect the human rights of those within her borders, for example by freeing Aleksei Navalny and other political prisoners and by once again guaranteeing free and fair elections as a peaceful solution to the question of who should be in power.   

I am sure that the West today has the means to ensure that these demands are met. But so far, the West’s negotiations with Russia have been held solely out of pragmatism. On this, the centenary of Andrei Sakharov’s birth, it is important to remember his words: ‘At the end of the day, it is the moral choice which will be the most pragmatic.’

Today these words are directed towards Western politicians, but they are especially meaningful for Russians. They are above all intended for you, and for me. 

We have learned to praise the dead, to extol those whom we can’t get back. But we are not historians, observers, or researchers. We are participants in events. We influence how these events play out, and we bear historical responsibility for the fate of Russia.

What is happening in Russia today is happening ‘not to them, but to us,’ as poet and front-line soldier Yury Levitansky wrote.

There is only one moral choice today – to oppose the establishment of a totalitarian dictatorship in Russia by all peaceful means available. We must follow Sakharov’s lead and show the consistency and courage that he displayed — otherwise we should be ashamed to speak his name.

Strange as it may seem, we live now in far more favorable historical conditions than the dissidents of the Soviet Union.

For one thing, there truly are a great many of us.

Millions of people voted against the amendments to the Constitution — almost half the country’s population. Millions of people are prepared to vote against the government in power in any election, including the upcoming State Duma elections, and young people make up a large part of these.

And for another thing, we are able to enjoy (for now!) freedom that was inconceivable in Sakharov’s time. We are able to freely search for and distribute information on the Internet; we can meet; we can hold open discussions; we have access to all of the achievements of science and culture worldwide. This freedom is shrinking every year, and it comes at an ever-greater price, but it would be a crime to give it up altogether.

There will be elections to the State Duma as soon as September of this year.

We must make every effort to ensure that as many supporters of democracy in Russia as possible take part in these elections. We must strive to get opposition candidates registered to run, we must defend them from unlawful persecution, and we must ensure there are as many polling station observers as possible. We must urge our fellow citizens to participate in the elections and tell them the truth about what is happening in this country, about the danger that threatens all Russian citizens.

None of us has the right anymore to limit ourselves to the role of just activist, just scientist, or just writer; none of us has the right anymore to be ashamed of our political beliefs; none of us has the right anymore to remain a silent observer.

We must openly challenge this regime, as Andrei Sakharov did in his time, while remaining committed to the peaceful fight for human rights and civil liberties.

I would like to urge all Russians to take part in our Civic Congress, an open network of supporters of democracy and of opponents of totalitarianism.

* Recognized in the Russian Federation as an organization performing the functions of a foreign agent

Translated by Ecaterina Hughes, Friedrich Berg and Nina dePalma

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