Sakharov Exiled

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

On January 22, 1980 Andrei Sakharov, academician of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, Hero of Socialist Labor, laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975, physicist and father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, was approached in the streets of Moscow by plain-clothes police and taken by force to the USSR Procurator’s office. There he was informed that a decree of the presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet had deprived him of his titles, ranks and privileges, including his right of residence in Moscow, and that his future residence would be in the Volga city of Gorky (now Nizhnii Novgorod), 250 miles east of Moscow. A special flight that day took him and his wife Elena Bonner to his place of exile, where he would remain for the next six years. In Gorky his life was subject to a strict regime, including surveillance, prohibitions against leaving the city or meeting or communicating with foreigners, a strict control over his associations, even with his family.

The rumored cause of the official furor was Sakharov’s “Open Letter on Afghanistan,” released to the foreign press, which criticized the Soviet leadership for the invasion of its southern neighbor. Sakharov had been a thorn in the Soviet paw for at least a decade, although the trip from honored son to reviled dissident was gradual. His first protest took place in 1961 protest, when he lobbied Khrushchev to cancel atmospheric testing of the hydrogen bomb. In 1968 he wrote an essay calling for drastic reductions in nuclear arms. Finally, in 1970 he founded the Committee for Human Rights. Sakharov’s slow decision to become an active dissenter coincided with the rise to KGB leadership of Iurii Andropov, a Politbiuro member whose leadership saw political and police interests merge in the KGB. “Other-thinkers” (инакомыслящие), as official parlance dubbed the dissidents, became a threat to state security prosecutable no less than any other traitors.

Oddly, the Sakharov affair reflected official concern with the maintenance of “socialist legality,” the need to conform with the letter of Soviet law. Police did not simply arrest and imprison Sakharov, as they would have in Stalin’s day. Such an action would have required a trial, and the need to find and document a violation of law in Sakharov’s actions. A decree from the Supreme Soviet, the ultimate legislative body of the state, could make this action legal. As the successful campaign against dissidents culminated in 1980, authorities tested the limits of socialist legality. Perhaps most ticklish was the question of the Helsinki Watch Group, organized by Soviet citizens to monitor Soviet compliance with the human rights provisions of the 1975 Helsinki Accords. The Soviet state could not very well suppress a group dedicated to upholding a document signed by the state. Therefore, officials attacked individual members of the group over a variety of charges. Dr. Iurii F. Orlov, founder of the group, was arrested in February 1977. Orlov was sentenced to seven years hard labor and five of exile for “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda,” a relatively new offense under Soviet law, following which twelve other members were arrested or forced into exile. Anatolii Shcharanskii, a computer specialist deprived of work after he applied to emigrate to Israel in 1973, was a founding member of Helsinki Watch, arrested and convicted for espionage and treason in 1978. He was eventually released as part of a 1986 spy trade. At its most extreme, the KGB also used psychiatric diagnoses as a reason to place dissidents under guard and incarceration.

The dissident movement was in ruins after 1980, with leading members in prison, in exile, or abroad in emigration. Evidence suggests that most Soviet citizens were not displeased with this development. Yet former dissidents returned to lead reforms after Gorbachev’s rise to power and the fall of the Soviet Union. Many have assumed political prominence in Russia and their adopted countries, including Sakharov, who became a member of parliament and a leading spokesman for change mourned by millions at his death in 1989.

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