The Magazine

Sakharov Watch

Fearful police state meets brave dissident.

Sep 5, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 47 • By HARVEY KLEHR
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During the Stalin years, domestic enemies did not long survive. Numerous dissidents were arrested or confined to psychiatric hospitals throughout the 1960s and '70s, but Sakharov presented special problems for the regime. Andropov frequently discussed arresting him, but in the 1970s, the Soviet desire to extend détente and gain economic assistance from the West limited the leadership's options. American pressure, from both the government and public opinion, was one constraint. Even some European Communist parties, long supinely supportive of every twist and turn in Soviet policy, expressed dismay about repression and warned that their own reputations were at risk. While the KGB threatened Sakharov with arrest, defamed him, and tried occasional acts of intimidation--after he urged a peaceful settlement of the Middle East conflict and criticized Soviet support for the Arab world during the Yom Kippur war, two men claiming to be from Black September showed up at his apartment and threatened his children and grandchildren--the government grew increasingly frustrated at its inability to stifle this one man. In July 1975, after Sakharov warned that he would appeal to Western governments preparing to finish negotiations on the Helsinki Final Act, the Soviet Union finally allowed Elena Bonner, Sakharov's Jewish wife, to go to Italy for medical treatment. That October, Sakharov received the Nobel Peace Prize, triggering a spate of nasty "operational measures" designed to discredit him, but indicating just how obsessed the Soviet leadership was with one individual.

The Helsinki Act proved another thorn in the Soviet side. In return for Western recognition of the post-World War II borders in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union had agreed to a series of humanitarian guarantees, including respect for "freedom of thought, conscience, religion," promotion of civil and political rights, and equality before the law for ethnic minorities. Because the Act also invoked the principle of nonintervention in any country's internal affairs, the Soviets were confident they could ignore the guarantees. The regime's crackdown on dissidents accelerated in 1974, just as the final negotiations were taking place, with arrests and expulsions, including Solzhenitsyn's. But one provision required publication of the accords in Pravda and Izvestia. It inspired the dissidents to set up a Watch Committee to monitor Soviet compliance with Helsinki. As the committee reported on violations and abuses, Western pressure, in turn, increased.

By 1980, Andropov and his aging cohort had had enough. Sakharov had forcefully condemned the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the year before, and called for a boycott of the Moscow Olympics in an interview with the New York Times. No longer worried about offending Western public opinion, the government shut off Jewish emigration and exiled Sakharov to Gorky. Until her conviction in 1984 of anti-Soviet slander, his wife was still able to travel to Moscow and pass along his writings and views to correspondents, including his opposition to a nuclear freeze and support for Ronald Reagan's decision to build MX missiles.

The Soviet leadership never understood what motivated Sakharov or how ineffectual their methods were. In 1971, Andropov told Leonid Brezhnev that the scientist was consumed by guilt because of his role in building the hydrogen bomb--although there is far more evidence that it was his commitment to intellectual freedom and democracy that drove him. At a Politburo meeting in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev blamed Bonner for manipulating him, and linked her to a more sinister enemy: "That's what Zionism really is." But in one important sense the Communists understood just how much of a threat he posed: In 1975, after Sakharov received the Nobel Prize, Andropov wrote to the Central Committee to explain that tolerating dissidents was "fraught with the most negative consequences."

In Gorky, Sakharov faced psychological intimidation, dirty tricks, vandalism, radio jamming of his apartment, and theft of his manuscripts. KGB harassment drove Bonner's son's fiancée to attempt suicide. In one particularly egregious attack, in 1982, a thug smashed Sakharov's car window, stunned him with a drug, and stole his memoirs from the back seat. He undertook periodic hunger strikes in protest and was force-fed. His health deteriorated.