The Life and Thought of Andrei Sakharov

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FP: How did Sakharov’s prescriptions for the Soviet Union and his notion of what makes people act ethically differ from those of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, with whom Sakharov had a difficult relationship before the latter’s exile in 1974?

Bergman: Sakharov believed that, for governments no less than for individuals, adherence to laws that were just was a prerequisite of acting ethnically.  By contrast, Solzhenitsyn maintained that moral virtue was the result of religious faith, and that the Soviet people would recover the moral goodness they possessed before the Bolsheviks took power in 1917 (or more precisely before the monarchy collapsed a few months earlier in the same year) through a process of spiritual purification informed by the moral principles of Russian Orthodoxy.  The debate the two men engaged in prior to Solzhenitsyn’s forcible exile from the Soviet Union in February 1974 was one Russians had engaged in for several centuries, and are engaging in today in post-Soviet Russia.

FP: How did the Soviet leadership respond to Sakharov’s dissidence?  What effect did the government’s attempt to silence have on the content of Sakharov’s ideas and his belief on how best to implement them?

Bergman: The Soviet leadership responded initially with a sense of bewilderment born out of a belief in Sakharov’s ingratitude for all the emoluments and privileges it bestowed on him — such the Lenin and Stalin Prizes and a dacha, or country estate, outside of Moscow — as compensation for his prior services to the state.  Sakharov, after all, was among the very best scientists the Soviet Union had produced, and his subsequent rejection of the Soviet system called into question its political and moral legitimacy.  This caused the Soviet leaders in the 1970s to harass him in ways that were sometimes sinister, as in denying his second wife, Elena Bonner, the exit visa she needed to be treated abroad for a serious heart condition, and sometimes sophomoric, as in applying glue to the handles of Sakharov’s car.  At times, the government tried to denigrate Sakharov by describing him in the Soviet press as the equivalent of a child, so naïve and uninformed as to be a tool of  his scheming and duplicitous “Zionist” spouse.

FP: How did Sakharov enjoy a measure of protection as a dissident that other dissidents lacked? Why did the end of détente make it easier for the Soviets to deal harshly with him?

Bergman: The government limited itself to the kind of harassment I described earlier because Sakharov’s fame in the West precluded harsher treatment.  I have no doubt that Stalin would have had Sakharov killed or sent to a labor camp, where he almost surely would have died.  But the requirements of détente in the 1970s – specifically Soviets’ need for Western technological assistance as compensation for the failings of the Soviet system as a whole – gave Sakharov a degree of immunity that dissidents unknown in the West did not possess.  The end of détente in December 1979, when President Carter professed himself “surprised” by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, gave the Soviet leadership more latitude in dealing with Sakharov.  It should be borne in mind that, because of the threat Sakharov posed to the legitimacy of the Soviet Union, its rulers were genuinely afraid of him.

FP: In 1980, Sakharov was exiled to Gorky for protesting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In 1986, Gorbachev allowed him to return to Moscow. Why did Gorbachev do this? How did Sakharov participate in the politics of the state after his return? What did he think of Gorbachev and Perestroika?

Bergman: Gorbachev allowed Sakharov to return to Moscow in order to demonstrate his own commitment to perestroika not only to the Soviet people but to the rest of the world, especially the United States.  Back in Moscow Sakharov participated in a number of organizations, such as Memorial, that sought to prevent any reversion to Stalinism; he also won election in 1989 to the Congress of Peoples’ Deputies, a semi-democratic parliament Gorbachev established after realizing that the Communist Party could not serve as an instrument of reform because it needed reforming itself.  Sakharov supported perestroika in principle, but he was always fearful that Gorbachev would turn against it.  In fact, in his statements on Gorbachev’s specific reforms, Sakharov seemed to maintain some political distance between himself and the general secretary, advocating reforms slightly more radical than those the latter put in place so that perestroika would be constantly evolving, and eventually transform the Soviet Union into a system more protective of human rights than the one that existed prior to perestroika..

FP: What was Sakharov’s view of the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union? Did it change over the years?

Bergman: When Sakharov, in his 1968 essay, Reflections on Progress, Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom, first compared the two superpowers, he deemed them morally equivalent.  For example, just as the United States was degraded morally by its war in Vietnam, so, too, in Sakharov’s opinion, was the Soviet Union discredited by its support for the Arab states whose repeated attempts to destroy Israel justified that latter’s wars of self-defense.  By the mid 1970’s, however, Sakharov’s position had evolved.  In his 1975 reassessment of Reflections, an essay entitled My Country and the World, he makes clear that no such equivalence exists.  The Soviet Union, in fact, was “totalitarian,” which implies that it could not be changed absent invasion and defeat by a foreign power, and in ethical terms no better than Nazi Germany, the defeat of which in World War II was the foremost achievement of the Soviet Union in the seventy-four years of its existence.

FP: What role did Sakharov, and Soviet dissidents in general, play in the collapse of the Soviet Union two years after his death in December 1989?

Bergman: Sakharov in particular, and the dissidents in general, provided some of the ideas implicit in perestroika.  And since perestroika, paradoxically, had the effect of accelerating rather than retarding the collapse of the Soviet Union, mostly by generating expectations of changes more radical than Gorbachev could permit, Sakharov and the dissidents contributed to this collapse.  Much of perestroika was “Sakharovian” in content: efficient and honest government; the rule of law; truth telling about the present and past; freedom of assembly, the press, and information; popular participation in government; economic decentralization; and a measure of federalism in interrepublic relations.  And in foreign policy Gorbachev eventually accepted Sakharov’s view that human rights were universal, and that therefore their advocacy should be an integral part of every nation’s foreign policy.  This last idea of Sakharov so impressed the one-time Jewish refusenik, Natan Sharansky, that he included it in his book, The Case for Democracy, which President Bush read in page proofs shortly before his second inaugural address, in which the president said more or less the same thing.

FP: What were some of Sakharov’s most outstanding qualities? What is his legacy? What do you personally think of Sakharov? What did you mean when you wrote in your conclusion: “Russia today is not ready for Sakharov. Perhaps one day it will be.”

Bergman: Sakharov had so many laudable qualities it would take a long time to enumerate them all.  Among the most striking to me was his complete lack of snobbery and condescension towards people who were intellectually inferior to him.  I also found especially admirable his ability to evolve and develop intellectually so that his original distrust of democracy was eventually replaced by a realization that the human rights he extolled are best protected in a democracy.  But to my mind the most impressive thing about Sakharov was his ability as a Russian, who lived almost his entire life under a regime that denied people human rights, to comprehend the concept of human rights, to grasp their centrality in a just society, and to champion them tirelessly and eloquently under circumstances that cowed lesser men into silence.

The sentences from my book that you quote reflect my belief that an authoritarian political culture such as Russia’s can evolve into something more humane, if it does so at all, only slowly and incrementally.  Vladimir Putin’s assaults on what little remains of the semi-democracy that succeeded the Soviet Union in 1991 seem to me ample evidence, however regrettable, of the persistence of this culture into the 21st century.

FP: Jay Bergman, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.

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  • jbtrevor

    I enjoyed reading that, thanks.

  • kblink45

    As a graduate student and teacher, I had many opportunities to interact with Russians. Two things strike me about these encounters: first, almost all of the Russians I dealt with were significantly different personally from Americans. They were austere and cold. Second, there seemed to run beneath the surface a nationalistic condescension toward America and Americans. This was particularly apparent in one encounter when a fellow mathematics grad student from Russia refused to discuss gulags with me, essentially telling me that they were fabrications of the West. She then demanded that I take my political discussions to the PoliSci department, where they would be more welcome. The interesting thing was that this student was normally very polite, even soft-spoken.

    Can anyone more intimate with Russia and its history explain the origins of this nationalism and/or explain the perception that Russians are haughty?

  • Chezwick_Mac

    Sakharov had a significant impact on my life.

    I was 15 in the mid 70s when I discovered Marx. I was enthralled, not just with the concepts he espoused, but by the language he used: "bourgeoisie" vs "proletarians", "progressive forces" vs "the forces of reaction", "revolutionary violence" in the "service of mankind", etc.

    I gobbled up the 'Manifesto', tried as hard as I could to comprehend 'Das Kapital', went on to read Engels, Lenin, Bukharin, Trotsky, I even bought Mao's little red book. I was on my way to becoming a committed Marxist, but something happened along the way…

    I became fascinated with Russia as a country and started reading Dostoevsky and Chekov…and almost anything else I could find written by a Russian. I felt the language, even though translated, lent itself to expressiveness.

    That's when I stumbled upon Sakharov's 'Reflections'. It helped me to reconcile my adolescent infatuation with socialism and my adult comprehension that there was no freedom in the socialist world.

    Sakharov naively predicted a global "convergence", that the West would socialize, the East would liberalize…and the two would meet in the middle. His writing style was that of a scientist, non-polemical, eminently reasonable. The tract gave me hope for the future of mankind.

    But after 'Reflections', I began pursuing other dissident literature…and found Solzhenitsyn, Roy Medvedev, and Milovan Djilas (the great Montenegrin author of 'Conversations with Stalin') . In the process, the edifice of respectability for the socialist ideal began to crumble in my eyes.

    In '74, Sakharov released 'My Country and My World', where he repudiated his earlier belief in convergence…and laid out a convincing case against Soviet totalitarianism. From then on, I became a foreign policy hawk vis-a-vis the Soviet Union (it would take me two more decades to shed my liberal illusions over domestic policy).

    I think what Bergman postulated above struck to the heart of the man: Whatever genius Sakharov possessed, this was not why he took the road less traveled…instead, it was his code of ethics and his morality that precluded him from living the life of other privileged members of the Soviet 'nomenklatura'.

    Idealists and moralists come in every hue, but when the ideal one commits to – no matter how noble in theory – is predicated on falsehoods, eventually, one is compelled to betray either the ideal or the morality that was deigned to accompany it. Sakharov's belief in the dignity of the individual was the basis of his morality and this was why he chose a life filled with persecutions and indignities. He was – in short – a man of conscience. I'll admire him until the day I die.

  • USMCSniper

    President Barack Obama is meeting with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to talk about a pending arms treaty with Russia and other issues . The New START treaty, signed in April, would slash existing warhead limits by roughly a third. It has been approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but the timing of a ratification vote by the full Senate is uncertain. Hmmm… something must be wrong with the present Secretary of State, whatshername?

    • ObamaYoMoma

      With all due respect, Condi "appeaser" Rice is just as leftwing and incompetent as the present occupier of that office. She may have been a Republican, but she was a far leftists when it came to foreign policy. In fact, she was one of the worse Secretary of States in history.,

  • Jesse W. Collins II

    I've been away from Frontpage Magazine for several years, working in my own projects. In returning, and then recommending the site to a friend, I emphasized several writers, particularly Dr. Glazov. Here, then, in the interview of Professor Bergman's study of Sakharov's work is another example of why I visit this page.

    Through his questioning, Jamie Glazov inquires through Dr. Bergman into the most important issues of the human consciousness in order to make sense of all in humankind that appears not to. No matter that the subject is the collective heart of darkness that attends management of social hierarchies or an exegesis of the core of Islam's behavioral construct for management of its Ulum, and then its interface with its antitheses, this writer / editor / facilitator makes me proud to be a genetic curmudgeon, of course as I'm sure most would agree referencing it in the good sense.

    Now, then, comes the comments from the readership. Chezwick_Mac and kblink45 demonstrate real thought. No cliches or diatribe. Just immutable individualism not afraid of ontologically engineered expression.

    I bought Jamie's most recent book because, although I don't have serious time to venture back into this world of clarity as these writers and their proteges exude it, I did want to stop for a journey's moment to acquire a deeper understanding of how these people think; how they rise to the occasion to defend concepts of logic as it then relates to being; how they expand themselves without being hegemonous; how they face unpopular truths; how they demand of themselves to be in the incarnates of a John Adams or a Natan Sharansky; how they speak with eloquence in their attempts to determine the constitution of the soul; how they aspire to be free; how they in doing all of that still care never just for themselves, but for others.

    I enjoy the depth Dr. Glazov brings to the Internet. Thank you all for your continuing efforts.

    Jesse W. Collins II

    • sebyandrew

      Now if we just had Barbara Billingsley to interpret. But I take it as a thumbs up on the article/interview. I enjoyed it too. Men like these (Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn) were and are great men. Years ago I read Cancer Ward, One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and then Gulag Arch. ! and 2. In regards to the "novels" I, as a Christian was interested in what suffering did to the characters (transformation, both for good or ill) and/or the author himself. His observations about people encountered in the Gulag were also fascinating. Not really having any ed., much in the Gulag series passed over me. There seemed to have been discussion and rebuttal of the idea that communism had degenerated Into "stalinism" as if to vindicate "true" communism which AS, if I remember correctly, deemed propagandish and w/o merit. I thought that was important. Still do. It was painful to read what that system did and was capable of doing to its own people.