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  • The Legacy of Andrei Sakharov
  • Natan Sharansky (bio)

Andrei Sakharov was the father of that most dangerous weapon, the hydrogen bomb, which he gave to the Soviet regime in the naive hope that it would help to preserve the world balance of power. In fact, it merely enabled the Soviet totalitarian regime to preserve its policy of expansionism and blackmail.

Later, Sakharov himself activated a still more powerful weapon, which ultimately destroyed the empire—he began openly expressing his beliefs, exercising the moral power of a free man. He demonstrated that no matter how totalitarian a regime, an individual can declare support for those who are suffering, and gradually challenge the norms of an entire society. Sakharov, almost alone, created the moral climate that has undermined the Soviet regime. [End Page 35]

One of the prime features of a democracy is stability: hundreds of thousands may stage antiwar demonstrations, the president may be found guilty of violating the law, but democratic institutions can still channel popular expression, elections can be held, and the system can continue to function smoothly. Totalitarian regimes, by contrast, are unstable in their very rigidity—there is no room for freedom of expression. Freedom of expression creates a threat in that it alters the relationship between the government and the people.

This was especially so in the Soviet totalitarian regime, where a unique experiment was attempted over the decades: an effort to create a new type of human being, the personification of the communist future. For the sake of this abstract ideal, the citizen had to be stripped of his national and religious identity. He had to be forced to cease displaying any political or ideological views not in accord with the regime's guiding ideology.

For the sole purpose of creating this new man, tens of millions of Soviet citizens were killed. Virtually all religious and cultural institutions were destroyed. Individual freedoms disappeared. The law, far from protecting the individual, was used as an instrument of control, to be adjusted at the leaders' convenience. Under threat of the Gulag, the people were intimidated; via the multimillion-strong army of informers, simple human relations were destroyed. "Double-think"—thinking one thing but saying another—became an everyday norm; self-censorship took root.

The authorities expended all their considerable resources to create this state of mind, in the hope that with time it would become instinctive, that it would become second nature. But the people were resilient. Freedom was preserved deep in the hearts and minds of the Soviet population. It flourished in the Gulags, small islands of free thought and expression where "double-think" did not reign.

The standard KGB line on dissidents was that we were being tried not for our views, but for daring to express them. Those who could not help but give voice to their thoughts were imprisoned repeatedly. In the first decades of the Soviet regime, mass killings were necessary for control to be maintained. By the 1960s and 1970s, however, loyalty could apparently be ensured simply by holding a few thousand dissidents behind bars.

Sakharov was no repressed dissident. He was "one of them"—an eminent scientist who had risen to the highest echelons of the regime, received the most cherished awards, enjoyed the greatest privileges. Yet Sakharov followed his words with actions, becoming chairman of the Soviet Committee on Human Rights and embracing the cause of every oppressed nationality, religion, and individual.

To the outside world, he may have seemed an absurd figure in his 20 years of struggle, a Don Quixote battling thermonuclear windmills. But [End Page 36] we, his friends, knew him as a meticulous and profound thinker. He was warm, respectful, and dignified in all his dealings; above all, he seemed utterly innocent in his naïvety and purity of vision. Simply by pointing openly to what was good and by naming evil for what it was, Sakharov began to transform the Soviet moral climate, serving as a constant source of inspiration to thousands of dissidents among the various nationalities and religions. The "virus" of freedom, at first stirring weakly in the souls of the repressed, became an "epidemic."

The authorities, recovering after a brief pause...


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