A new biography brings one of Russia's greatest human rights crusaders to life.
Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Jay Bergman, a Professor of History at Central Connecticut State University, where he teaches Russian and modern European history. He received his bachelor's degree from Brandeis University and his M.A., M. Phil., and Ph.D from Yale University. He is the author of Vera Zasulich: A Biography, published by Stanford University Press; and articles in Russian intellectual history. He is also on the Board of Directors of the National Association of Scholars, a nationwide organization of professors committed to reasoned scholarship, intellectual diversity, and nondiscrimination in faculty hiring and student admissions. His newest book is Meeting the Demands of Reason: The Life and Thought of Andrei Sakharov, published by Cornell University Press.
FP: Jay Bergman, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Let’s begin with what inspired you to write Meeting the Demands of Reason.
Bergman: As a historian of Russia, I have been intrigued by the degree to which certain critics of the Soviet Union, referred to as “dissidents,” resembled the so-called intelligentsia of prerevolutionary Russia, the members of which condemned the tsarist regime for failings similar to those the dissidents found in the Soviet one. This resemblance seemed to me particularly striking in the case of Andrei Sakharov, who, along with Alexander Solzhenitsyn, was the most prominent dissident and among the best known in the West. And since none of the existing biographies of Sakharov analyzed his ideas in any serious and systematic way, I thought I should write a biography that did.
FP: Tell us about Soviet dissidence, what spawned it and what its character and objectives were.
Bergman: By the term one means a particular kind of opposition to the Soviet system that emerged in the late 1960s, continued through the 1970s, and ended in the mid-1980s when Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika (reconstruction) and glasnost’ (openness) incorporated aspects of this opposition and in the process rendered it largely moot. Substantively, Soviet dissidence was marked by its rejection of the political status quo in the name of human rights, by which the dissidents meant moral and philosophical principles that were timeless, universal, and absolute. In this respect the dissidents resembled not only the intelligentsia of nineteenth century Russia but also the Enlightenment of eighteenth century Europe, to which many characteristics of the intelligentsia can be traced.
What caused the dissident movement to emerge was the desire of the Soviet leadership, for ideological as well as political reasons, to modernize the Soviet economy and society while at the same time maintaining its monopoly of political power. The first objective requires that those who were pursuing it – such as the nuclear physicists who, like Sakharov, were conscripted to develop thermonuclear weapons for the state – be granted vocational autonomy; the weapons the physicists designed would not work if the government intervened in their construction.
But because vocational autonomy or freedom can cause those who enjoy it to demand political freedom – something the Soviet leadership could not grant – these physicists were in fact secluded from the general population in an installation surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by security personnel carrying guns. It is true that similar precautions attended the American nuclear project at Los Alamos. But there the reason for these precautions was to prevent scientific information from leaking; in the Soviet Union there was the additional reason that freedom is contagious. If nuclear physicists can enjoy vocational freedom, why can’t everyone enjoy it? And if everyone is granted vocational freedom, why can’t everyone have political freedom as well? It was because the leaders of the Soviet Union had no real answers to these questions that some Soviet citizens like Sakharov became dissidents.
At first the dissidents mostly demanded that the Soviet system be reformed, rather than transformed or destroyed, and that they participate, along with the government, in this endeavor. But because the Soviet leadership was so intent on preserving the existing system, which by the 1960’s provided it with privileges as well as political power, it could not agree to either of these demands. Like the tsars who preceded them, the Soviet leaders viewed the Soviet people, even the most gifted intellectually and artistically, as children, too immature and irrational to share in governance. And because the dissidents were demanding, in effect, that they be treated as adults, their demands had to be rejected, their movement stopped, and their leaders jailed, exiled, or consigned to psychiatric hospitals for mental illnesses that were entirely nonexistent. In this effort, after more than a decade in which the number of dissidents actually increased, the government was finally, in the early 1980s, successful. But to the extent that Gorbachev’s reforms, beginning in 1985-86, were influenced by the dissidents, as I think they were, the dissident movement can be said to have enjoyed a posthumous vindication.
FP: What led Sakharov to become a dissident?
Bergman: Sakharov’s parents were insufficiently alienated from the existing political order to be intelligenty (the Russian word for members of the intelligentsia). Nevertheless, they cultivated several of the qualities the intelligentsia possessed, and passed them on to their son: an aversion to self-promotion and personal vanity; a respect for individual excellence; a firm belief in the primacy of ideas; and an ethos of “moral wholeness” requiring the application of moral principle to every aspect of life.
What caused this ethos of self-perfection that Sakharov inherited to crystallize in a rejection of the political status quo was the treatment he received at the installation in the early 1950s. On the one hand, he and the physicists he worked with were allowed to discuss political issues freely, and could even read George Orwell’s novel 1984, as direct a condemnation of Soviet communism as has ever been written. On the other hand, Sakharov’s request that his input be considered in deciding how exactly the weapons he designed should be used was rejected by his superiors in the political leadership.
Their rejection was driven home to Sakharov most forcefully in July 1961, at a meeting in the Kremlin at which Sakharov and the other scientists present were expected to inform the Soviet leadership of their progress in developing the weapons it demanded. During the meeting, Sakharov passed to the Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, a note objecting to the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, which the latter at the time considered necessary. A few hours later, at a formal dinner, Khrushchev exploded. Very angrily he told Sakharov, in so many words, to mind his own business: he and the other scientists, Khrushchev insisted, should limit themselves to making weapons; their political superiors in the Kremlin would decide how to use them. In his memoirs Sakharov describes this occasion as one of “the principal turning points” of his life.
FP: What were the human rights Sakharov championed as a dissident? How were they like the values and principles espoused by the so-called intelligentsia in Russia of the 19th and early 20th centuries? How did Sakharov avoid the zealotry and fanaticism that characterized many members of the intelligentsia, especially after the emergence of a revolutionary movement in Russia in the late 19th century?
Bergman: The human rights Sakharov championed most passionately and consistently included the right to choose one’s place of residence, which caused him to support the Soviet Jews who wished to leave the Soviet Union for Israel or the United States. Another was the right to a presumption of sanity, which precluded the government’s policy of incarcerating dissidents in psychiatric hospitals, where KGB agents disguised as doctors dispensed highly toxic drugs that reduced some of those they treated to a vegetative state. Yet another was the right of everyone to due process in the administration of justice. Also worth mentioning among the human rights Sakharov demanded was the provision of education, housing, and adequate medical care to go along with the intangible civil liberties, such as freedom of speech, that Western conceptions of human rights tend to emphasize. And because Sakharov, like the intelligenty who preceded him, considered the human rights he favored to be universal, in the sense of transcending national borders, he believed he had the right, and indeed the obligation, to protest their violation wherever they occurred. As a result, Sakharov condemned – to cite just a few examples -- South African apartheid, Iraqi persecution of the Kurds under Saddam Hussein, and the Khmer Rouge for its genocide against the people of Cambodia.
Sakharov avoided the zealotry and fanaticism you mention in your question by never subordinating his respect for the individual – which was implicit in his belief that every individual possessed a dignity and self-worth that were inviolable -- to his desire to serve all of humanity. As a result, unlike the Bolsheviks and the other revolutionaries who emerged out of the intelligentsia in the late nineteenth century, Sakharov never apotheosized any collective entity such as the proletariat or believed that the perfection of humanity as a whole justified using force and coercion to achieve it.
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.