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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