Gorbachev and Sakharov: Little Has Changed Yet

<i> Dimitri K. Simes is a senior research associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. </i>

By the standards of the Brezhnev era, Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s telephone call to Andrei D. Sakharov in Gorky borders on the incredible.

Many Soviet dissidents are impressed with the spectacle of the Kremlin’s boss personally initiating a contact with an outspoken critic of the regime. Following the release of several other prominent opposition members from jails and labor camps, significantly expanded artistic freedom and the general secretary’s much-advertised glasnost-- openness--campaign, the Sakharov return from exile has greatly encouraged quite a few sober-minded people to believe that something profound is changing in the Soviet Union. And it is widely assumed that this change is good news for the United States.

The cheerleading is premature. For every freed celebrity dissident like Sakharov there is another, and probably more than just one, who is being persecuted. Arrests of dissenters continue unabated. It has been during Gorbachev’s rule that Anatoly Marchenko, one of the most determined critics of Soviet oppression, was badly beaten by prison guards and later died in the prison hospital. And it was just days before Gorbachev’s chat with Sakharov that Marchenko’s widow was not allowed to take her husband’s body for burial in Moscow. Nor was she permitted to bring in outside doctors to examine the body to determine the cause of death.

Similarly, while it has become customary under Gorbachev to use sick Jewish refuseniks as farewell gifts to Moscow’s favorite American visitors, the overall emigration numbers are the second lowest since 1969. What is more meaningful, the general secretary’s goodby gestures to an Armand Hammer or a Sen. Gary W. Hart, or the overall Soviet emigration policy?

And now about Sakharov’s case. There is less to Gorbachev’s performance than meets the eye. The Nobel Peace Prize-winning physicist was kidnaped from a Moscow street seven years ago after he had denounced the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He was never sentenced to exile. He was kept in Gorky contrary to the Soviet Union’s own law.


Should the West applaud that he was not confined in Gorky indefinitely? Should we be impressed that this great and famous man, in poor health, was not left to die in captivity like Marchenko, creating a public-relations disaster for Gorbachev in the process? And was it a mere coincidence that Sakharov’s release was announced on precisely the same day as the resumptionof Soviet nuclear testing?

Bear in mind that Gorbachev’s version of glasnost is the right to support the leaders’ initiatives rather than to question them. In his drive for economic efficiency the Soviet leader has unleashed a campaign against many official abuses that the dissidents used to complain about. No wonder Sakharov is impressed.

Yet it is still strictly up to the Kremlin to determine what can be said in public. The general secretary charges that many bureaucrats do not like his innovations. If so, why is this anti-Gorbachev opposition not reflected more explicitly in the Soviet media? The real test will come once Gorbachev has been in power for several more years, once public criticism can no longer be viewed as a politically expedient denunciation of the days of Leonid I. Brezhnev.

Our historical memory is far too short. Josef Stalin, while massacring millions of his subjects, also would on occasion, with great pomp, call on an unorthodox poet like Boris Pasternak or release an occasional inmate in an attempt to present a humane side. Nikita S. Khrushchev liberated millions of concentration-camp inmates. And they were declared completely innocent--not just pardoned like Sakharov’s wife, Yelena Bonner. Quite a few of them were invited to meet with Khrushchev personally. Except that Khrushchev also had publicly attacked abuses of the security services. No criticism of the KGB whatsoever is allowed under Gorbachev.

Yet it was Khrushchev who suppressed the Hungarian rebellion, built the Berlin Wall and triggered the Cuban missile crisis. Internal relaxation, Soviet-style, does not preclude a ruthless foreign policy. Gorbachev seems to be in the same mold. His commitment to Soviet imperial greatness appears to be second to none. And his charm offensive is coupled with a global diplomacy of force. Scaling down Soviet geopolitical ambitions does not appear to be a part of Gorbachev’s design.

It is wonderful that Sakharov was given a chance to go back to what passes for a normal situation in Moscow. But much more would have to happen for the United States to conclude that we are dealing with a more benign Soviet Union.