21 May 2021 is the centenary of the birth of Andrei Sakharov, the father of the Soviet thermonuclear bomb, but also the most significant figure in the Soviet Union’s human rights movement. In the late 1960s, Sakharov came to realise that the Soviet system of which he had long been an advocate was, by its very nature, an inhumane regime. However, the path that led him to this insight was far from smooth. In his Memoirs, Sakharov describes in detail how he was finally freed from his illusions:
‘I already knew a great deal about the horrible crimes – the arrests of innocent people, the torture, starvation and violence. I couldn’t help but think of the guilty with indignation and disgust. Of course, there was a lot I didn’t know and I didn’t put it all together in one picture. Somewhere at the back of my mind was the idea … that brutalities are inevitable during major historic upheavals. […] But what was primary to me was my feeling of commitment to the same goal I assumed was Stalin’s – building up the nation’s strength to ensure peace after a devastating war. Precisely because I had already given so much to this cause and accomplished so much, I was unwittingly creating an illusory world to justify myself. … I soon banished Stalin from that world. … But state, country, and Communist ideals remained. It took years for me to understand and feel how much speculation, deceit, and lack of correspondence with reality there was in those concepts.’
From physicist to human rights activist
Sakharov became active in the human rights movement in 1970, when he and a group of fellow dissidents founded the Moscow Human Rights Committee, whose purpose was to collect and publish information about human rights abuses in the USSR. He voiced open criticism of leaders, wrote letters in support of political prisoners and attended political trials. He demanded that the Soviet leaders allow the Crimean Tatars, deported in 1944, to return home and ethnic Germans expelled from the Volga region to emigrate to Germany. He also called for the USSR to admit responsibility for the Katyn massacre, the mass execution of thousands of Poles in 1940. After that, Sakharov was monitored by the state’s security agency. In January 1980, following his open condemnation of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Sakharov was exiled to the closed city of Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod), where he was housed in a KGB apartment block and subjected to round-the-clock surveillance.
When Mikhail Gorbachev took over as leader in 1985, the situation across the country began to change. The decision to allow Sakharov to return from exile in Gorky was a milestone, a clear indicator of an impending political watershed. Soon after his return in 1987, Sakharov began to campaign for democratic reforms in the Soviet Union, including the abolition of the one-party system, free elections and a new constitution.
Organising from below: the founding of Memorial
The same year, a new group was established at the Perestroika Club in Moscow, the scene of heated public debates about the country’s future. At first, this new group mainly consisted of young activists and former dissidents, but it gradually began to attract more members from different age groups and occupations, who defined their mission as ‘the creation of a memorial site to commemorate the victims of the Soviet terror’. Later dubbed ‘Memorial’, the initiative spread to other regions across the Soviet Union.
In June 1988, Memorial staged a first mass gathering in Moscow to commemorate the victims of the political repressions. Among the speakers was Sakharov, whose support for Memorial did much to broaden its appeal. A year later, Sakharov was elected Chairman of the organisation’s Public Council, which also consisted of other well-known figures who had made a name for themselves during perestroika.
The formation of Memorial and the increase in the number of activists involved with the organisation around the country coincided with the turbulent months in 1988-1989. There was no guarantee of a successful outcome to the intensive political struggle for reforms and democracy, but undaunted, Sakharov became their most important champion. Later, Sakharov was nominated by Memorial as a candidate for the first free elections to the Congress of People’s Deputies in 1989. His manifesto – radical for its time – was published in the first issue of the newly founded newspaper Vedomosti Memoriala. He called for market economic reforms, the protection of privacy, freedom of opinion and transparency in all spheres of society. On this last point, he called for the legacy of Stalinism to be eradicated and for the establishment of the rule of law. At Memorial’s constituent meeting in January 1989, Sakharov said: ‘The fate of the victims – those who are known, and those who are still unknown – should be at the heart of our work.’
Sakharov’s demise and the start of a new era
The dramatic year of 1989 ended with the second session of the Congress of People’s Deputies. A tireless campaigner for reforms, Sakharov felt that the reform process was going down a blind alley. He appealed to deputies to expedite the process. His speech opened with the words: ‘Perestroika in our country is facing organised resistance.’ That evening, on 14 December, Sakharov died of sudden heart failure at the age of 67. His demise showed just how important he had been for the reform process in the Soviet Union. Not even his death slowed down the restructuring, despite the Soviet nomenklatura’s hopes: on the contrary, it accelerated the process as pressure on leaders grew. Tens of thousands of people attended his funeral, turning it into a mass gathering.
A few days after Sakharov’s death, two highly significant resolutions were adopted by the Congress of People’s Deputies, both of which had been the subject of a long and unsuccessful campaign by Sakharov himself. In one, the invasion of Afghanistan by Soviet troops in 1979 was condemned as unconstitutional; in the other, it was acknowledged that there had been a secret additional protocol to the 1939 Soviet-German Non-Aggression Treaty in which the two parties agreed to divide up Poland between them. In March 1990, Article 6 was finally removed from the Constitution, marking the end of the Soviet Union’s one-party system.
Sakharov had become the most important symbol of perestroika. The lack of figures of his stature was increasingly felt during the 1990s. No politician or party had his strength of conviction. In Russia’s current political climate, the ideals of freedom and democracy for which he was such a tireless and fervent campaigner are especially relevant today, on the centenary of his birth.
Irina Scherbakova is a historian, writer and founding member of Memorial.