Sakharov Stands for the Individual

<i> Edward Kline, retired chairman of New York-based Kline Bros. Department Stores, was the stand-in for Liza Alexeyeva at her proxy 1981 wedding to Alexey Scmyonov, Yelena Bonner's son. </i>

Andrei Sakharov’s return to Moscow, with all the privileges of an honored member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, is a wonderful Christmas present for his admirers around the world. And it is the most important signal so far that Mikhail S. Gorbachev may truly be enacting serious reforms for the Soviet Union--not just a change of guard.

Why now? The timing may have been affected by the tragic death in Chistopol Prison of Anatoly T. Marchenko, by the imminent recess of the Vienna Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, or by the Soviet decision to resume nuclear testing once the United States conducts its next test. But it was not an ad hoc decision as the release of Yuri Orlov to exile abroad seems to have been.

The decision was almost certainly made by Gorbachev himself, probably overriding objections from the KGB. Yelena Bonner’s recently published book, “Alone Together,” describes the malice that the KGB displayed in its feud with the exiled Sakharovs.

Soviet spokesmen always remind us that dissidents have little effect inside their country, and they are not all together wrong. But Sakharov is not a dissident. He is a brilliant, world-class physicist. He has been given credit in the Soviet Union for being the father of its hydrogen bomb. He comes from a family of notable Russian intellectuals, and he has deep roots in his country and a great affection for it. He has continued to enjoy the profound, if covert, respect of many Soviet scientists, despite his fall from official grace in 1968 for circulating his essay “Progress, Co-Existence and Intellectual Freedom.”

Sakharov will no doubt devote most of his time to physics. But Gorbachev understands that Sakharov will continue to talk privately and, when he deems it necessary, publicly about the issues that concern him: the critical need for improved safety measures in nuclear-power plants; Soviet intervention in Afghanistan; the danger of thermonuclear war; the importance of fundamental human rights, including the free flow of people and ideas, and, above all, an amnesty for prisoners of conscience. And Sakharov’s example is bound to inspire others. Gorbachev can hardly be expected to agree with all of Sakharov’s ideas, but what is truly significant is his willingness to tolerate authoritative, independent voices speaking out from Moscow.


Although Sakharov’s unique personality and accomplishments deserved the principal credit for this breathtaking reversal of fortune, many in the Soviet Union and abroad helped to win his freedom. Norway awarded Sakharov the 1975 Nobel Peace Prize. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Great Britain, President Francois Mitterrand of France, Chancellor Helmut Kohl of West Germany and Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsson of Sweden have appealed on behalf of the Sakharovs. So have scientists, notably SOS--Scientists for Sakharov, Orlov and Shcharansky--and human-rights organizations such as Amnesty International, the International League for Human Rights and Helsinki Watch. Bonner’s children have been campaigning nonstop since their stepfather was exiled to Gorky in January, 1980.

I hope that the results achieved in the Sakharov case will encourage renewed efforts on behalf of prisoners whose lives remain at risk: Anatoly Koryagin, Sergei Khodorovich, Victor Mekipelov and others in the Soviet Union. Sakharov has been criticized for spending his precious time worrying about “insignificant” individuals--some dissidents even argue that such attention distracts from the systemic changes that are the only lasting solution to Soviet human-rights abuses.

Yet Sakharov teaches us that what is most needed in the Soviet Union, and everywhere in the world, is respect for the unique value of each human personality.

In “Alone Together,” Yelena Bonner describes how difficult it was last June after a heart operation in Boston to return to Gorky, “to learn once again how to breathe without air, swim without water, walk without ground . . . where do I get a happy ending? Maybe it’s in the fact that Andrei and I remain together. Andin the fact that we are still free to be ourselves.”

If the Sakharovs are free to be themselves not in Gorky but in Moscow, that is truly a happy ending for them and good news for the Soviet Union.