The Magazine

Sakharov Watch

Fearful police state meets brave dissident.

Sep 5, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 47 • By HARVEY KLEHR
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Only after the deaths of Brezhnev, Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko; the Chernobyl disaster, exposing the ossification of the regime; and Gorbachev's realization that the tried and true ways of the past were dead ends, did Sakharov's situation improve. Throughout 1986 there were signs of relaxation--a few political prisoners released, Anatoly Sharansky exchanged for a Soviet spy--and in December that year Gorbachev telephoned Sakharov and informed him he was free to return to Moscow. Typically, the scientist used the occasion to press for the release of all political prisoners.

As perestroika and glasnost gained steam, Sakharov became their most visible symbol. While he incurred the anger of some dissidents for his qualified support of Gorbachev, he remained an implacable opponent of the Communist monopoly on power. Elected to the Congress of People's Deputies in 1989, he spoke more than anyone else at the televised proceedings, standing up to the party leader in defense of democracy. The Soviet public got its first glimpse of the man so reviled for decades by the state-controlled media. One poll showed that he was more respected than Gorbachev, a result that led Gorbachev to threaten to fire the pollsters. Gorbachev cut off Sakharov's microphone at one session, angered by his criticisms and irritated by his work to create a formal opposition to the Communist party. Sakharov died of a heart attack two days later, on December 14, two years before the entire rotten edifice collapsed.

Andrei Sakharov's legacy is by no means assured. This year, for the first time since his death, the annual memorial concert in his memory was not held in Moscow. Governed by KGB veterans like Vladimir Putin, Russia is teetering on the edge of authoritarianism. This book is a welcome reminder of a very different part of the Russian tradition.

Harvey Klehr is author of In Denial: Historians, Communism, and Espionage.