Andrei Sakharov died on 15 December 1989. The abundance of tributes accorded to him tended to concentrate on his more recent role is an opponent of the gradualist policies of the Gorbachev regime. Yet perhaps more than anyone else, he was responsible for the historic changes that have taken place in the Soviet Union and, by extension, throughout the world. Twenty years ago, he was the original heretic: the unassuming, seemingly naïve intellectual who flew in the face of Communist orthodoxy; a man who did not take account of reality, who always spoke out and who always lost. And yet, he survived two decades of hard struggle and seven lost years in exile in Gorky to receive the public acclaim of tens of thousands of supporters and admirers. Perhaps he too was amazed at the widespread influence of his views—views which officially evolved into contemporary glasnost and perestroika.
Sakharov’s refusal to give up during the Brezhnev years endeared him to the small band of dissidents who fought on a wide-ranging agenda of grievances. As Anatoly Shcharansky has pointed out: “There were other celebrated dissidents, but he was the undisputed leader—the symbol of the struggle, the magnet for fighters against injustice, the people’s hero.” Sakharov would have been very embarrassed by such an accolade. He epitomized the Midrashic example of office seeking out “those who wish to run away from it”.
His recent Memoirs show his close affiliation with Jews and his understanding of their often untenable position in Soviet society. From early childhood, through his illustrious academic career, to his elevation as the moral conscience of the Russian intelligentsia, Sakharov had many Jewish friends and acquaintances. Yet the raison d’être for his human rights work was framed within a universalism which espoused many causes.
Indeed, while he defended Israel and the right of Soviet Jews to emigrate there, he was acutely aware of the Palestinian national problem and the need for direct negotiations. Ironically, even though he brought about profound political changes, he was in reality a fundamentally apolitical person. For Sakharov, idealism could be defined only in terms of reality and a sense of striving to repair the world. In his Nobel Peace Prize lecture, he pointed out that “we should minimize our sacred endeavours in this world, where, like faint glimmers in the dark, we have emerged for a moment from the nothingness of unconsciousness into material existence. We must make good the demands of reason and create a life worthy of ourselves and of the goals we only dimly perceive.”
His life-long abhorrence of anti-Semitism was accentuated through his second marriage, to Yelena Bonner, who was half-Jewish. She too was unable to compromise over issues of human rights and thus complemented and fortified her husband in his work. The KGB portrayed her as a scheming Jewess, an outsider who had polluted Sakharov with alien ideas. Even Solzhenitsyn, whose Russian nationalism was opposed by Sakharov, was not averse to such attitudes — “in deference to those dose to him, to ideas not his own” (The Oak and the Calf). Solzhenitsyn attacked Sakharov for concentrating on the issue of Jewish emigration and not on “Russian” problems. The implication was that Yelena Bonner’s influence was at won k here. In Memoirs, Sakharov comments: “There is something demonic in this, something reminiscent of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”
Conversely, in the early days of the struggle for emigration, official bodies in Israel and in the Diaspora felt constrained to downplay Sakharov’s close ties with many of the refuseniks. Official policy did not wish to project the Jewish movement as seeking to change the social system in the USSR, only as promoting the less dangerous position of opting out through emigration. Activists such as Shcharansky, Slepak and Ida Nudel did not accept this approach, refusing to abandon Sakharov and others who had shown their goodwill for the Jewish cause. Indeed, many were involved in the general realm of human rights activities, as Jews, within the Helsinki Agreement Monitoring Committee.
In September 1973 there was a considerable danger that Sakharov would be charged and tried by the Soviet authorities. Thirty-five of the leading Jewish activists sent a letter of solidarity to Sakharov at this crucial juncture. It was eventually published in London by those who felt that even though such a letter would not help the signatories in realizing their emigration prospects, it was a Jewish duty both to sign such a letter and to publish it. The letter stated:
Thank you for your great heart, for your clear understanding of reality, for your honesty Can one be grateful for honesty? Yes, for in the world we live in, honesty requires in many courage which is not granted to all. Your courage is so immense in its radiance that it chases away some of the darkness around us and gives hope that reason will score its victory over folly, justice will triumph over lawlessness, good will overcome evil.
Andrei Dmitrievich is no more. Zichrono livracha, may his memory be for a blessing.
Jewish Quarterly Winter 1990