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.
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