THE ACADEMY ELECTION
In June 1964, elections for membership in the Academy of Sciences, of which Sakharov was a part, were held. During the elections, the nominees from each department must have the approval of 2/3 of the General Assembly, which was usually the case. That year, Nikolai Nuzhdin was the nominee of the biology department. Nuzhdin was a crony of Lysenko, a Soviet pseudo-scientist who denounced genetics and persecuted many scientists. Many members of the General Assembly were opposed to Nuzhdin becoming an Academician; nevertheless, Lysenko was so influential that few dared to voice their disapproval. Sakharov, however, would not keep silent.
During the General Assembly, he went up to the podium and said:
“The Academy’s Charter sets very high standards for its members with respect to both scientific merit and civic responsibility. …Nikolai Nuzhdin…does not satisfy the criteria. Together with Academician Lysenko, he is responsible for the shameful backwardness of Soviet biology and of genetics in particular, for the dissemiation of pseudoscientific views, for adventurism, for the degradation of learning, and for the defamation, firing, arrest, even death, of many genuine scientists. I urge you to vote against Nuzhdin.”
Lysenko was enraged, and launched a media attack on Sakharov; nonetheless, Nuzhdin failed to become an Academician.
The Nuzhdin affair was yet another milestone on Sakharov’s way to social activism.
THE TURNING POINT ~ 1965-1967
As Sakharov became more deeply involved in the social aspect of the nuclear weapons, he began to realize that the fundamental impediments to a better and safer world were not technical, economic, or military; they were rather political and ethnical. Thus, Sakharov got increasingly involved in speaking out against wrongdoings of the government, for hope that his status would grant him some attention, and that some progress could be made.
In 1966, the impending enactment of Article 190-1 of the RSFSR Criminal Code (Circulation of Fabrications Known to Be False Which Defame the Soviet State or Social System; max sentence: 3 years in labor camp) alarmed Sakharov. This Article enabled the courts to convict people exposing social and political problems, without any effort to show the falsehood of the statements of the defendant so long as they were anti-Soviet. If passed, this article would worsen the human rights condition in Russia, and lead to the persecution of many activists.
Sakharov, believing that the freedom of expression was crucial and beneficial to Russia, signed a petition, and subsequently sent a letter to the chairman of the RSFSR Supreme Soviet to express his dissent. Although the act was futile, it illustrated Sakharov’s courage in speaking out whatever his conscience dictated.
On the Constitutional Day, December 1966, Andrei Sakharov attended a silent demonstration at Pushkin Square, protesting the incarceration of political prisoners, including Viktor Kuznetsov, an artist who had helped to draft the Constitution, and who advocated the introduction of democracy into Russia.
In February 1967, Sakharov wrote a letter to top Soviet official, Leonid Brezhnev, in defense of four dissidents, Ginzburg, Galanskov, Lashkova, and Dobrovolsky. This brought catastrophe upon Sakharov, for he lost his department head position at the Installation, and his salary was halved.
In 1968, Sakharov wrote his first and most popular article on general public issues, Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom.
In his Memoirs, Sakharov wrote of the goals he sought to accomplish in this article.
“I wanted to alert my readers to the grave perils threatening the human race—thermonuclear extinction, ecological catastrophe, famine, an uncontrolled population, alienations, and the dogmatic distortion of our conception of reality. I argued for convergence, for a rapprochement of the socialist and capitalist systems that could eliminate or substantially reduce these dangers… Economic, social, and ideological convergence should bring about a scientifically governed, democratic, pluralistic society free of intolerance and dogmatism, a humanitarian society which would care for the Earth and its future, and would embody the positive features of both systems…My essay outlined a positive, global program for mankind’s future…It called for compromise and for progress moderated by enlightened conservatism and caution.”
This statement sums up the basic goals of Sakharov’s dissident activities later.
Soon, this article circulated in Moscow via samizdat, or Soviet underground press. Some colleagues of Sakharov tried to dissuade Sakharov from circulating Reflections and continue pursue his liberal views, for they feared that he would become the next victim of political persecution.
Before long, Reflections was published abroad. It attracted an enormous amount of attention from foreigners and Russians alike, for its appeal for global peace, freedom, and progress found an echo in the hearts of a myriad of readers. In 1968 and 1969 alone, more than 18 million copies were published, ranking third in the world at that time. The article also elicited enthusiastic responses from the readers, and generated a wave of public discussions on social issues.
Sakharov had to pay a heavy price for his civil courage—he lost his job at the Installation.
In 1969, the year of the death of Sakharov’s wife, which traumatized Sakharov for several months, Andrei was transferred back to FIAN.
Early in 1970, Sakharov cooperated with two other liberals, Roy Medvedev and Valentin Turchin, in writing an appeal to the Soviet leader calling for democracy and intellectual freedom, which they argued would promote scientific advances and economic development. The trio then asked influential liberals to sign the letter. However, no one was willing to sign it, some fearing political persecution, others deeming the effort futile. Nevertheless, the trio published the article.
This letter made clear Sakharov’s position in governmental affairs. This was his induction to the world of the dissidents.
HUMAN RIGHTS COMMITTEE & OTHER DISSIDENT ACTIVITIES
In late 1970, Valery Chalidze proposed to Sakharov the establishment of a Human Rights Committee, aimed at studying and publisizing human rights problems in Russia. Despite Sakharov’s worry about arousing too many false hopes, he recognized the significance of such a nongovernemental watchdog organization in safeguarding human rights. Sakharov, Chalidze, and their friend, a young scientist Andrei Tverdokhlebov, formally founded the Committee in November 1970, which the western press heralded as a significant step in the cause of human rights.
The Committee’s most important report came in 1971, about the rights of mental patients, especially the psychiatry used on political prisoners, in the case of Red Square demonstrator Viktor Fainberg. It was also during this case that Andrei became acquainted with Elena Bonner, an ardent activist.
Two other important issues drew the attention of the Committee during that time—freedom of religion and of movement (especially in emigration). In October 1971, Sakharov even sent a paper to the Supreme Soviet calling for the freedom to choose one’s country of residence.
In late March, 1971, the KGB searched Chalidze’s apartment for anti-Soviet material, during which many Human Rights Committee documents were confiscated. Chalidze resigned from the Committee and left the country one and half year later due to the pressure put on him by the Soviet government.
Sakharov’s personal life took an upward turn in 1971, when he married Elena Bonner in October. After this event, the lives Sakharov and Lusia (nickname of Bonner) became tightly intertwined. Sakharov also became more socially active than ever due to the social and outspoken nature of Lusia.
During the time that ensued, Sakharov also focused his attention on many human rights cases, in which people were convicted due to their dissident activities, and, more often, resistance to the Soviet control, even in the most trivial way.
In 1972, Sakharov decided to send a collective letter to the Supreme Soviet, calling for an amnesty of political prisoners and the abolition of death penalty. Many prominent personalities in Russia, fearing persecution, were unwilling to sign. Although the appeal was unable to elicit any reaction from the Soviet government, it was published by foreign press and gave people much to contemplate.
In 1973, Sakharov openly critiqued the Soviet government, which led to a press campaign dismissing his views as naïve and conceited.
Later that year, Sakharov had his first press conference with foreign reporters concerning his views on the social and political problems, dissident activities, and world peace. Another major anti-Sakharov campaign occurred, portraying him as betraying his country and against peace. In response, defenders of human rights published articles in defense of Sakharov. In one of those articles, Solzhenitsyn, a prominent dissident, proposed that Sakharov be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
All the activities of Sakharov brought some serious consequences upon the children of Elena Bonner. Bonner’s daughter, Tanya, was expelled from Moscow University for not having an official job (being idle was a crime at that time). Bonner’s son, Alexei, was rejected from Moscow University due to his association with Sakharov. Many threats were also received by the Sakharovs: horrifying pictures of murder, automobile accident, and the periodical occurrence of a letter carrying threats, which substantiated in some occasions, and hurt the members of Sakharov’s family. Also, press campaigns that focused on Elena Bonner were launched, in order to put more pressure on Sakahrov. Those were all tactics of the KGB to intimidate Sakharov and prevent him from speaking out. Finally, in 1977, the Sakharovs gained the permission to send the children abroad to prevent bringing more calamities upon them.
In 1974, the Human Rights Committee faded into the background as Sakharov, the only founder remaining in the Committee, found the Committee ineffective.
In 1975, Sakharov received the Nobel Peace Prize. He was the first Russian to receive this honor. Due to the difficulties of obtaining the permission to travel abroad, Bonner accepted the prize on Sakharov’s behalf.