A Life of Sakharov, a Champion of ‘All Free Thinkers’

26-04-2002 , by William Korey

Spring Books

By William Korey

April 26, 2002

In early September 1973, 35 prominent Jewish activists drafted and distributed throughout Moscow an extraordinary « open letter » in which they publicly identified themselves with physicist Andrei D. Sakharov, the Soviet Union’s leading dissident, as he faced ferocious hate-propaganda campaigns organized by the Kremlin. The letter sought to assure him of « our moral support and deep respect. » Additionally, a few days later, the leading Jewish scientist-refuseniks, including the distinguished Veniamin Levich (who would later teach at the University of Tel Aviv and at the City University of New York), joined in a statement denouncing the propaganda campaigns as « intimidation of all free thinkers and preparation of public opinion for future repression. »

What makes these interventions unique is that they ran counter to the fundamental strategy of the Soviet Jewish national movement of adherence strictly to its own objective of free emigration and eschewing all other objectives lest they create the impression that Jews were anti-Soviet. But in the minds of the Jewish activists, Sakharov was special; he had personally stood at their side in the struggle against antisemitism and for the right to leave for Israel. Everyone knew that, since the mid-1960s, the brilliant young physicist who was responsible for the creation of the hydrogen bomb had redeemed himself by becoming a towering moral figure involved in every human-rights issue, valiantly fighting against the oppressed everywhere. No one was his equal in standing up to brutal state power — and prevailing.

In « Sakharov: A Biography, » Richard Lourie catalogues all too briefly the numerous human-rights engagements of the moral giant who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975. That Lourie would be familiar with Sakharov’s thinking and achievement was not accidental: He was the translator of the Nobel laureate’s nearly 800-page « Memoirs » (1990). Yet for readers of « Memoirs, » there is too little here that is new; a striking feature of the Lourie footnotes is how frequently the « Memoirs » are identified as the source. At the same time, his characterization of Sakharov’s relations with colleagues, friends and family, especially with his second wife, the dynamic and indefatigable Elena Bonner, is fascinating and instructive.

Oddly, the Lourie work does not mention the intervention of the prominent Jewish activists or its significance. As early as 1968, before any member of the Soviet intelligentsia had publicly dared to denounce the deepening antisemitism in the Soviet Union, Sakharov had done so in his penetrating book « Progress, Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom » (Norton), in which he chastised as « disgraceful » Soviet officialdom for allowing « another backsliding into anti-Semitism in its appointments policy. » In his view, the antisemitism of Stalin’s bureaucratic state never was « dispelled » and was nothing short of « zoological. » While Lourie summarizes at some length the 1968 Sakharov work, he fails to mention the breakthrough assault on state antisemitism.

Analytic commentary was not enough for Sakharov. He joined two other dissident scientists, Valery Chalidze and Andrei Tverdokhlebov, in forming in late 1970 the Committee on Human Rights, which proceeded to confront the Kremlin on every human-rights issue. At the end of that year, the committee was seized with an issue that threw into sharp relief the traumatic reality of Jews desperate to leave the country. A handful was caught in an effort to steal a plane and flee the country. Harsh verdicts were handed down, including death sentences for two of the group’s leaders. Sakharov did not hesitate to appeal directly to the Soviet president.

In late December 1970, following huge public demonstrations throughout the state and appeals from numerous government and religious leaders, Sakharov was admitted into the Moscow Supreme Court to hear its favorable decision, which he then promptly related to the Western correspondents on the outside. Lourie inadequately explains the reason for the court’s reversal, which was no doubt decisive in affecting the Kremlin’s perspective.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was at the heart of Sakharov’s concern, even as he pursued his profound interests in science. But among the Declaration’s rights, several stand out. Freedom of expression was a core issue, and he was a tireless advocate for those persecuted for dissenting or anti-communist views. He insisted upon the granting of full rights to ethnic minorities.

But of all human rights, none was more important to Sakharov than the right to leave a country. « Freedom to emigrate, » he wrote, is an « essential condition of spiritual freedom. » It was this central thesis that led him to argue that « a free country cannot resemble a cage, even if it is gilded. » This strongly held belief linked him to the refuseniks and, more specifically, to the historic Jackson-Vanik amendment that suspended favorable trade conditions with the United States until the Kremlin lifted burdensome emigration restrictions. In September 14, 1973, he sent an « Open Letter » to the U.S. Congress urging passage of the amendment as an essential precondition for détente. Without the statute, he argued, there could be no « mutual trust » and the basis of international law would be undermined. For Sakharov, it would constitute « a betrayal of the thousands of Jews and non-Jews who want to emigrate » if Congress were to fail to enact the statute.

Not surprisingly, the Kremlin reacted with fury to what seemed like a subversive act. From that moment on, despite his enormous prestige, Sakharov would be endlessly confronted with serious personal threats, police harassment and, ultimately, isolation in the closed city of Gorky. Again, Lourie fails to capture fully the significance of Sakharov’s dangerous heroics.

Aside from Sakharov’s personal linkage with a hot domestic Jewish issue, he was also keenly concerned about Israel and challenged the Kremlin’s pro-Arab Middle East policy. When the Yom Kippur War broke out in October 1973, he gave unqualified support to Israel, whose « right to life and very existence, » he said, were « at stake. » In a 1973 interview with a Lebanese news correspondent, he sharply castigated the USSR for its « one-sided » interference in the Arab-Israel conflict. Asked whether he intended to criticize Israel’s policy, he responded with an unqualified « No. » In a moving conclusion, he told the interviewer: « All of mankind has on its conscience the Jewish victims of Nazi genocide during World War II, » and « we cannot permit repetition of that tragedy today. »

Lourie does not include this episode. Nor does he record Sakharov’s angry reaction to the notorious United Nations resolution of November 9, 1973, redefining Zionism as « a form of racism and racial discrimination. » That General Assembly action, inspired in large part by Moscow, was denounced by Sakharov as « an abomination. »

As is evident, there are serious gaps in this biography. Even Sakharov’s concern on behalf of Raoul Wallenberg’s fate — briefly but poignantly raised in his « Memoirs » — is not discussed. Still, the Lourie biography should be welcomed as a significant tribute to a remarkable personage who succeeded in helping move Moscow away from totalitarianism in the direction of democracy and freedom. It should not go unnoticed that the publisher is Brandeis University, which houses the invaluable Sakharov Archive.

William Korey, the former director of international policy research for B’nai B’rith, is the author, most recently, of « NGOs and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights » (St. Martin’s, 1998).



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