In the autumn of 1965, the public was roused by the arrest of the writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuly Daniel. Their writing and transmission abroad for publication of literary works and social commentary containing political satire and criticism of the Soviet order were characterized as a political crime – “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda.”
After the dismissal of Krushchev, at a time when concern raised about the will of CPSU leaders to revert the party line to Restalinization, the public perceived the arrest of the writer as the first step towards the recommencement of mass repression. In “Moscow kitchens”, people discussed with emotion what they could do to avoid remaining weak-willed, intimidated observers, like in the most terrible years of the Stalin-era.
On December 5, 1965, at the initiative of the mathematician Alexander Yesenin-Volpin, a “Glasnost Rally” took place in Moscow on Pushkin Square in solidarity with Sinyavsky and Daniel, and to demand a fair and transparent trial for them. This was the first pre-announced protest action in the post-war USSR; and as it occured on a celebrated national holiday – Constitution Day – its slogan was “Respect the Soviet Constitution!” By 6 p.m., several hundred people had gathered in the square. And KGB officers in plainclothes were already waiting for them. As soon as the organizers unfolded the placards, they were almost instantly detained.
The “Glasnost Rally” was a manifestation of people’s civic position that was unexpected by the authorities. They no longer experienced a paralyzing fear before the state and tried to organize life in their country on the basis of human dignity. Later, a tradition emerged of holding human rights demonstrations every year on December 5.
Sinyavsky and Daniel were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment in labor camps, but the public fermentation, strengthened by the propagandistic publications in the official press and collective letters in defense of the authorities, which were distributed in samizdat, had a tremendous resonance, which did not die down for a long time.
The mid-1960s was the time of the emergence of a new phenomenon in the public life of the USSR – the human rights movement. These brave intellectuals, few in number, openly demanded civil and political liberties and the general democratization of the Soviet regime. They opposed Communist ideology with the idea of human rights defense. Their basic principles were non-violence and publicity.
This was a special time for Sakharov as well.
“By the end of the fifties, public issues had become a major preoccupation for me, and they became an even greater part of my world in the 1960s,” he later noted.
A most important role in the evolution of his views was his acquaintance with samizdat, especially with works that revealed the anti-human essence of Stalinism and the multifaceted consequences for Soviet society.
In 1965, once again, as in 1948, he received an offer to join the Party. This would have enabled the political leadership of the country to control the rebellious academician; Andrei Sakharov, however, saw his civic duty in preserving moral independence.
“I could be of greater use to the country if I remained outside Party ranks,” was his answer.
In 1966, Sakharov began to spend more time in Moscow. He combined military work at the Installation with research into fundamental problems of physics at FIAN. This enabled him to live in Moscow for a longer period and facilitated new acquaintances and talks. From that time, he began to take a more and more active part in the collective actions of the capital intelligentsia.
On January 14, 1966, on the eve of the 26th Congress of the CPSU, 25 prominent figures in culture and science, including physicists, sent a letter to Leonid Brezhnev, First Secretary of the Central Committee of the CPSU, protesting the possible attempts to review the decisions of the 20th Congress and to rehabilitate Stalin.
Among those who signed this letter was Sakharov as well. This was his first statement on an issue of general political significance, not directly connected to science.
The “Letter of the 25” was not published; however, its authors did not remain without support. On March 25, 30 prominent scientists and cultural figures sent an analogous letter addressed to Brezhnev. No official reaction of the authorities ensued, but the advocates of rehabilitation of Stalin and Stalinism did not dare to state their position openly at the Congress.
And in September 1966, Sakharov took part in yet another petition, this time directed against the repressive policy of the authorities – preparing for the introduction of a new political article (190-1) into the Criminal Code of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR). (“Dissemination of deliberately false fabrications defaming the Soviet state and social order.”) This was in addition to the already-existing Art. 70 (Anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda). The passage of these amendments obviously targeted dissidents who expressed their dissension with certain Soviet methods and authorities' actions.
The restriction of freedom of thought, beliefs, criticism, and information activity was unacceptable for Sakharov. Later he wrote:
“In all the cases known to me, honest, selfless people were convicted under Articles 70 and 190-1 for dissemination of news, the truth of which they were convinced and which in the majority of cases really did correspond to the truth (…) The purposes of their actions in the overwhelming majority of cases were high – striving for justice, glasnost, and lawfulness (no matter what unprincipled lampooners wrote about them.”
In the early 1960s, the human rights organization Amnesty International introduced a special designation for those people who were persecuted for their beliefs; they began to be called “prisoners of conscience.” In 1966, Sakharov did not yet know that term, but subsequently he would use it actively, and put a great deal of effort into defending prisoners of conscience in the Soviet Union. Later, he himself would be declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International.
But at that moment, after signing a collective letter, additionally, he sent, under his own name, a telegram to the presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet, asking it to refrain from taking an odious decision.
“Thus, for the first time, my fate was interwoven with the fate of a group of people, small in number but very weighty in the moral sense, and dare I say, in the historical sense, who subsequently were called ‘dissidents,’” wrote Sakharov.
There was no reaction to either the letter or the telegram, but a clear response from the authorities came in the publication on September 16 of a Decree from the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet on the inclusion of Art. 190-1 in the Criminal Code of the RSFSR.
On December 5, 1966, Academician Sakharov, for the first time, took part in a silent human rights demonstration in the center of Moscow at the Pushkin monument.
He recalled that that on the day before this action, he found in his mailbox an envelope without an address, in which there were two flyers – one with the story of the fate of artist Viktor Kuznetsov, put in a psychiatric hospital for speaking of the need for democratization of the Soviet Constitution, and another with a call to come out on Pushkin Square on December 5, precisely at 6:00 p.m., to take off your hat, and stand for one minute as a sign of support of Kuznetsov and other political prisoners.
Sakharov headed off to Pushkin Square.
“I (...) found a few dozen people standing around the statue. Some were talking quietly; I didn't recognize anyone,” he recalled. “At six o'clock, half of those present, myself included, removed our hats and stood in silence. (The other half, I later realized, were KGB.) After a minute or so we put our hats back on, but we did not disperse immediately. I walked over to the monument and read the inscription aloud:
I shall be loved, and the people will long remember
that my lyre was tuned to goodness,
that in this cruel age I celebrated freedom
and asked mercy for the fallen.
After that, I left the square with the others.”
Subsequently, Sakharov took part every year in such “minutes of silence” on Pushkin Square in support of political prisoners.
In early 1967, Sakharov learned of the arrest in Moscow of four young people – Alexander Ginzburg, Yury Galanskov, Vera Lashkova and Alexei Dobrovolsky. They were accused of compiling and distributing political samizdat, including the White Book about the case of Sinyavsky and Daniel, which had been published in the West. They were threatened with long terms of imprisonment in labor camps under the article concerning “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda.”
The repression of Ginzburg, Galanskov, Lashkova and Dobrovolsky outraged the Moscow community. On the evening of January 22, a protest action took place on Pushkin Square, in which several dozen people took part. The protesters were dispersed, several were arrested, and five were subsequently sentenced for “organization of group actions disrupting the social order.”
On February 11, Sakharov wrote and sent an appeal in his own name to the Politburo addressed to Leonid Brezhnev, General Secretary of the Central Committee of the CPSU, urging the release of Ginzburg, Galanskov, Lashkova and Dobrovolsky and the need for democratic reforms in the country.
“Although I neither circulated my letter in samizdat nor publicized it in any way, especially not to foreign correspondents – that was all ahead,” he recalled later, “it was a milestone for me in that it was my first intervention on behalf of specific dissidents."
There was no reply this time either, but soon Yefim Slavsky, USSR minister of machine-building, director of the Soviet nuclear program, speaking before physicists, stated: “Sakharov is a good scientist. He's accomplished a great deal and we've rewarded him well. But as a politician he's muddleheaded, and we'll be taking measures.”
The measures taken to “admonish” Sakharov consisted of removing him from one of his positions, which he had held at the Installation, and cutting his salary in half. Nevertheless, he remained deputy science director at the Installation. His enormous services to the state; his high position in the military technical elite of the country; and his involvement in state secrets served as a protection against the government’s abuse, but he perceived his exceptional status as an effective instrument of direct dialogue with the leadership of the country and considered it his duty to express himself on socially significant problems.
Along with the public campaigns of a human rights nature, Sakharov took part in the environmental movement which emerged in the USSR at that time. The first public association of this type was the Committee to Defend Baikal, founded in 1967. At the center of discussions was the advisability of constructing an enormous Baikal cellophane and paper plant, whose toxic wastes threatened the lake’s environmental safety.
The initiative for the public discussion of this problem belongs to young people, but major scientists were involved in the work of the Committee as well; many cultural figures supported it, and sympathetic publications appeared in the press. After conducting a great deal of analytical and expert work, the Committee came to the conclusion that the proposed industrial construction would inevitably have an extremely negative effect on Baikal’s fragile ecosystem and as a result, on the life of the population of enormous territories. They proposed declaring the Baikal a zone of preservation. This required a radical review of the plans for industrial development and state investments formed back in the 1950s.
The Committee for the Defense of the Baikal was not oppositional in nature; it acted under the aegis of the Central Committee of the Komsomol (Young Communist League) and that meant it was under Party control. The insular, rigid system of the country’s Party leadership, however, turned out to be incapable of appropriately accepting independent perspectives and alternative ideas, even if they came from totally loyal members of the public and professionals – Sakharov became convinced of this from his own experience.
When the Committee’s proposals to protect Baikal were introduced for review by the Central Committee of the CPSU, Sakharov once again made use of his unique position as “the father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb” – he called Leonid Brezhnev directly, hoping that he could convince the top leader of the government to pay particular attention to the problem of Baikal. This was their last personal conversation. Brezhnev avoided discussing the topic of Baikal, and soon it became clear that the opinion of the Committee to Protect Baikal was being completely ignored by the authorities.
For Sakharov, this was a big disappointment. Later, recalling this episode in his biography, he wrote:
“Though our efforts to protect Baikal were unsuccessful, I did gain valuable insight into environmental problems, both in general and in the particular context of Soviet society.”
Despite the failure of this first, earliest stage in the public fight to protect Baikal, however, Andrei Sakharov maintained a permanent and lively interest in the Soviet Union’s environmental problems, and a confidence that their resolution was possible only through join efforts of the authorities and society, and by relying on conscientious and independent scientific expertise.
The year 1968 was a turning point in Sakharov’s destiny. Later, recalling this time, he wrote:
“Beginning in the late fifties, one got an increasingly clearer picture of the collective might of the military industrial complex and of its vigorous, unprincipled leaders, blind to everything except their ‘job.’ I was in a rather special position. As a theoretical scientist and inventor, relatively young and (moreover) not a Party member, I was not involved in administrative responsibility and was exempt from Party ideological discipline. My position enabled me to know and see a great deal. It compelled me to feel my own responsibility; and at the same time, I could look upon this whole perverted system as something of an outsider.”
"By the beginning of 1968, I felt a growing compulsion to speak out on the fundamental issues of our age. (...) My reading and my discussions with Tamm (and others) had acquainted me with the notions of an open society, convergence, and world government (...) I shared the hopes of Einstein, Bohr, Russell, Szilard, and other Western intellectuals that these notions, which had gained currency after World War II, might ease the tragic crisis of our age," he recalled.
Sakharov was particularly inspired by the events of the Prague Spring which seemed to open the way toward democratization of the political system not only in Czechoslovakia but in other East Bloc countries.
In February, he undertook writing not letters appealing to high political offices, but social commentary calculated for wide circulation. It was titled “Thoughts on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom.”
Sakharov later valued this work of his highly, although he noted its imperfection.
“I wanted to alert my readers to the grave perils threatening the human race – thermonuclear extinction, ecological catastrophe, famine, an uncontrolled population explosion, alienation, and 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.
I wrote about the crimes of Stalinism and the need to expose them fully (unlike the Soviet press, I pulled no punches), and about the vital importance of freedom of opinion and democracy. I stressed the value of progress, but warned that it must be scientifically managed and not left to chance. I discussed the need for substantive changes in foreign policy. (...) ‘Thoughts’ rejected all extremes, the intransigence shared by revolutionaries and reactionaries alike. It called for compromise and for progress moderated by enlightened conservatism and caution...evolution is a better 'locomotive of history' than revolution....”
Essentially, Sakharov was proposing, by his own definition, “a positive, global program for mankind's future; I freely acknowledged that my vision was somewhat utopian, but I remain convinced that the exercise was worthwhile.”
Even with all the universality of the ideas advanced in the article, among them were some which had special significance for the Soviet Union in particular, which still bore the imprint of Stalinist totalitarianism.
“Intellectual freedom is essential to human society – freedom to obtain and distribute information, freedom for open-minded and unafraid debate, and freedom from pressure by officialdom and prejudices,” Sakharov wrote in his ‘Thoughts.’ “Such a trinity of freedom of thought is the only guarantee against an infection of people by mass myths, which, in the hands of treacherous hypocrites and demagogues, can be transformed into a bloody dictatorship.”
In mid-April, the article was finished, and Sakharov sent it to be distributed in samizdat. Thus, he wanted to test his thoughts by others’ reaction and expected comments and criticism. The first readers of “Thoughts” were his colleagues at the Installation, and then completely unknown people, and already by the end of May, the text of the article had fallen into the hands of the KGB.
Soon KGB Chairman Yury Andropov sent Sakharov’s work around to the members of the Central Committee for briefing and reported: “According to the information from official sources and from our agents, Sakharov is characterized as an outstanding scientist, not only as a person possessing a wide range of knowledge in theoretical physics, but also as someone deeply interested in biology, medicine, literature, and politics. (...) Currently, Sakharov continues to work on a document of a political nature (…).”
Most of all, the KGB chief was worried about the possibility of Sakharov’s articles winding up in the West. On his assignment, Academician Yuly Khariton, the scientific director of the Installation, a person whom Sakharov very much respected, tried to persuade him that it was still not too late to “withdraw” from circulation his appeal; however, he received a firm answer:
“The contents reflect my beliefs. I accept full responsibility for circulating my essay. It's too late to ‘withdraw’ it.”
Next, Sakharov sent his article directly to Leonid Brezhnev. He did not think to conceal his activity and his views.
“With this article the author addresses the leadership of our country and all its citizens as well as all people of goodwill throughout the world. The author is aware of the controversial character of many of his statements,” he wrote.
At that moment, he still did not know that the dissident Andrei Amalrik, understanding the global significance of this work, had already sent it to foreign journalists.
“Thoughts on Progress, Peaceful Co-Existence and Intellectual Freedom” was published in an abridged form in Dutch translation on July 6 and 13 in two issues of Het Parool, the evening newspaper published in Amsterdam. On July 22 followed the full publication in English translation in the American newspaper The New York Times.
Sakharov learned that his work had become accessible to a wide international public on July 10, hearing the news in the Russian language which was broadcast by a foreign radio station.
“The dye was cast. That evening I had the most profound feeling of satisfaction,” he wrote later.
Minister Yefim Slavsky made the last time to pacify Sakharov. He proposed that the author of “Thoughts” make a statement that the foreign publication was made without his permission and did not reflect his views. Sakharov replied with an abrupt refusal, and such obstinance could not be left without consequences.
“The publication of this volume abroad immediately resulted in my being taken off secrets (in August of 1968), and in the restructuring of my entire way of life,” he concluded.
Essentially, the life of Academician Sakharov was divided in two – before “Thoughts” and after them.
Once and for all, he lost access to the Installation and never worked again on military subjects, and his civic activity began to be dominated by human rights problems.
Meanwhile, “Thoughts on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom” became a sensation on an international scale. Before the end of 1968, it had been published in more than 30 periodicals in various languages and had come out as separate publications in the Netherlands, the US, German, France, Denmark, Canada, Italy, and other countries. The total print run of this work from 1968–1969 was 18 million copies.
Only a small part of the foreign responses reached Sakharov; however, he understood how important and timely his observations were.
“Reflections was well received by liberal intellectuals abroad,” he wrote. “The views I had expressed – the threat of thermonuclear war, the value of democracy and intellectual freedom, the need to provide economic assistance to developing countries, the recognition of merit in socialism and capitalism, etc. – coincided in large part with theirs. More importantly, I represented a vindication of their hopes: a kindred voice had reached them from behind the Iron Curtain and moreover, from a member of a profession which in America was dominated by ‘hawks.’ (...) My criticism of Soviet society appealed to conservative circles, and everyone seemed pleased by my comments on the environment, my humanitarian concerns, and my scenarios for the future. For all the essay's shortcomings, the publications of Reflections was an event, and it had a considerable impact on public opinion in the West.”
As for the USSR, where “Thoughts” could only be distributed in samizdat, it was received with enormous interest by the dissident community.
The first half of 1968 in Czechoslovakia was marked by events which were called the “Prague Spring.” Alexander Dubček, the new head of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, dared to break with the Stalinist traditions of the Party leadership of the country and launched democratic reforms. The purpose of the Prague Spring was proclaimed to be the building of “socialism with a human face.” The activity of reformers received enthusiastic approval and support from the population of Czechoslovakia, especially the intelligentsia.
Sakharov followed events in Czechoslovakia mainly from the broadcasts of foreign radio stations; some details were reported by acquaintances connected to the human rights movement.
“What so many of us in the socialist countries had been dreaming of seemed to be finally coming to pass in Czechoslovakia: democracy, including freedom of expression and abolition of censorship; reform of the economic and social systems; curbs on the power of the security forces, limiting them to defense against external threats; and full disclosure of the crimes of the Stalin era (...) Even from afar, we were caught up in all the excitement and hopes and enthusiasm of the catchwords: ‘Prague Spring’ and ‘socialism with a human face.’”
The slipping of the situation in Czechoslovakia out of Moscow’s control provoked the fury of the Soviet leadership, and on the night of August 20–21, the invasion of Czechoslovakia began with forces from five Warsaw Pact countries (the USSR, Bulgaria, Hungary, the GDR, and Poland). In total, about 300,000 foreign soldiers and 7,000 tanks entered this small country. Pockets of civic resistance were crushed by force, and there were human casualties.
Sakharov learned of the invasion on August 21 from Soviet newspapers.
“The hopes inspired by the Prague Spring collapsed. And 'real socialism' displayed its true colors, its stagnation, its inability to tolerate pluralistic or democratic tendencies (...) Two natural and rational reforms – the abolition of censorship and free elections to a Party Congress – were regarded as too risky and contagious.”
The invasion of Czechoslovakia was a shock for those people in the USSR who nurtured hope for the possibility of the democratization of political and civic life in their own country as well and still believed in the possibility of a constructive dialogue with the government. The dreamed died that, after the victory over Nazism and the ridding of Stalinism, it would be possible to build a just, humane society. Thousands of people experienced a burning shame for their country.
On August 23, the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko wrote the poem “Russian Tanks in Prague” with a penetrating finale:
Before I bite the dust,
no matter what they call me,
I turn to my descendants
with only one request:
above me without sobbing
let them write, in truth,
"A Russian writer crushed
by Russian tanks in Prague."
On August 25, 1968, the “Demonstration of the Seven” took place on Red Square in Moscow – an action of a group of Soviet dissidents, held as a sign of protest against the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Soviet forces, begun August 21, and the crushing of the Prague Spring by force.
Eight people took part in the demonstration: Konstantin Babitsky, Tatyana Bayeva, Larisa Bogoraz, Natalya Gorbanevskaya, Vadim Delone, Vladimir Dremlyuga, Pavel Litvinov, and Viktor Fainberg. At noon, they sat down on the pavement near the Lobnoye Mesto, a raised dais used as a speaking platform in ancient times and unfurled placards with the slogans: “We are Losing Our Friends,” “At’ žije svobodné a nezávislé Československo!” (Long Live a Free and Independent Czechoslovakia!,” “Shame on Occupiers!” “Hands off the CSSR!” “For Your Freedom and Ours!,” and “Free Dubček!”
Within a few minutes, all the demonstrators were detained, and Viktor Fainberg was also beaten so hard that he lost his front teeth. Authorities released Tatyana Baeva early on, believing other participants' testimonies that she ended up with them accidentally, but seven people faced severe sentences.
Sakharov learned about these events on the next day from Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
The ring of isolation was already tightening around him as well, but several days later, he still found the opportunity to call KGB Chairman Yury Andropov. He said he was very concerned by the fate of the arrested demonstrators and warned that a harsh sentence would draw the attention of the entire world and create a negative image. All of this made no impression on Andropov; he shrugged off his concerns with commonplaces, and in particular, to calm Sakharov, he said he thought the sentence would not be harsh.
Sakharov never spoke again to the head of the KGB.
On October 11, a court sentenced the participants in the “Demonstration of the Seven”. Their placards were pronounced “libelous,” and they themselves would receive various terms of imprisonment and exile under Article 190-1 (“dissemination of slanderous fabrications defaming the Soviet social and government system”) and Article 190-3 (“group actions seriously disturbing the social order”) of the RSFSR Criminal Code. Fainberg would be declared insane and sent for compulsory treatment to a special psychiatric hospital, essentially, a psychiatric prison. Gorbanevskaya, as a mother of an infant, would be free from a sentence but in December 1969, when her documentary book “Noon”, about the demonstrators’ fate began to be distributed in Samizdat, she would be arrested and, in turn, placed in a special psychiatric hospital.
The “Demonstration of the Seven” on Red Square was not the only action of civic protest against the anti-democratic policy of the Soviet Union, but the most significant.
“For the citizens of Czechoslovakia, these people became the conscience of the Soviet Union, whose leadership without hesitation undertook a despicable military attack on a sovereign state and ally,” said Vaclav Havel, the first president of the Czech Republic, and Sakharov called their action “a wonder, an act which restores the honor of an entire country.”
On March 8, 1969, Sakharov’s wife Klavdiya Alexeyevna died in a Moscow clinic. She was 50 years old, and the cause of death was stomach cancer.
The death of his wife was a severe shock for Sakharov.
“For months afterward I remained in a daze, doing nothing in science or in public life, or even around the house, except for routine chores.”
Sakharov dedicated his article “A Multi-Sheet Cosmological Model,” which was published in 1970, to the memory of his wife.
After Klavdiya Alexeyevna’s death, Sakharov remained a widower with a 20-year-old daughter, Lyubov (subsequently her married name was Verna) and a 12-year-old son, Dmitry. His 24-year-old daughter, Tatyana (whose married name was Liberman) already lived separately by that time. In 1968, she gave birth to a daughter, Marina, the granddaughter of Andrei and Klavdiya Sakharov.
After publication in the West of “Thoughts on Progress, Peaceful Co-existence and Intellectual Freedom,” Sakharov was prohibited from coming to the Installation, and in May 1969, he received an offer to officially transfer to work in the Physics Institution of the USSR Academy of Sciences (FIAN), where in the second half of the 1940s, his scientific career had begun.
“No one expected me to do any work; they just wanted to separate me from the Installation with as little fuss as possible,” wrote Sakharov.
Sakharov became a senior scientific researcher at FIAN’s Theoretical Department, headed by his former science director Igor Tamm. Thus, thanks to his removal from secret military work, he could finally concentrate himself completely on fundamental scientific research.
In the following years, his life and work would be connected to Moscow. To the end of his life, Sakharov remained an employee of FIAN. Even when his conflict with the authorities escalated to the limit, and he was sent into exile, they did not dare fire him.
On May 20, 1969 in Moscow, the first openly active independent civic association in the country was created – the Initiative Group for the Defense of Human Rights in the USSR. It began its activity by sending a letter to the UN Committee on Human Rights with a request to review violations of basic civil rights and political persecution in the USSR.
“We appeal to the UN because we have not received a single answer to our protests and complaints sent over a number of years to the highest government and judicial offices in the Soviet Union. Hope for (…) the authorities to cease the lawlessness to which we have constantly pointed (…) has been exhausted,” said the letter.
Fifteen Soviet human rights activists joined the Initiative Group: mathematician Tatyana Velikanova, poetess Natalya Gorbanevskaya, biologist Sergei Kovalev, economist Viktor Krasin, church writer Anatoly Krasnov-Levitin, mathematician Alexander Lavut, translator Yury Maltsev, geophysicist Grigory Podyapolsky, linguist Tatyana Khodorovich, poet and translator Pyotr Yakir, teacher Anatoly Yakobson (all Muscovites) and also army engineer Genrikh Altunyan (Kharkiv), worker Vladimir Borisov (Leningrad), worker and activist of the Crimean Tatar national movement Mustafa Dzhemilev (Tashkent), and mathematician Leonid Plyushch (Kyiv). Later, engineer Yury Shtein (Moscow) joined them.
Sakharov made the acquaintance of many of them and became their friends, and he was to speak out in their defense a number of times against persecution by the authorities.
In August 1969, Sakharov transferred all his savings, kept in a state savings account, to charitable purposes.
“During my nineteen years at the Installation, we'd rarely socialized or gone anywhere, so I spent only a small portion of my income. (...) I decided to donate 139,000 rubles to the building fund of a cancer hospital, the children's fund at the Installation, and the Soviet Red Cross to aid victims of natural disasters and famine,” he recalled.
As he learned later, in fact, despite his directions, the cash was only sent to the building fund of the Oncological Center in Moscow and to the Society of the Red Cross and Red Crescent.
The total sum donated was 139,000 rubles. This was an enormous amount of money for those times – the salary of an ordinary person for more than 100 years.
In the USSR, however, with its total state economy and the government’s absolute domination over all spheres of life, real private charity could not exist; soon Sakharov realized this and began to think his act, noble at first glance, was a mistake.
“This fit of generosity in which I transferred control over my money to a faceless state now seems to me a mistake. A few months later I learned of a fund to assist the families of political prisoners but could make only modest contributions. I also lost the means of helping certain of our relatives and friends, who could have really used it, other than my brother and my children (...) And I weakened my position in my approaching struggle with the state,” he admitted bitterly.
In early 1970, Sakharov met a young physicist, a cyberneticist, and a member of the human rights movement, Valentin Turchin.
“Turchin had an idea; to write an appeal to the leaders concentrating on a single key issue – the introduction of democracy and intellectual freedom as essential for the advance of science, and thus for improved economic performance. (…) I liked his idea (...) The most difficult part proved to be finding influential liberals brave enough to sign our letter,” Sakharov recalled.
The appeal, addressed to Party leader Leonid Brezhnev, Alexei Kosygin, head of the government, and Nikolai Podgorny, head of the Supreme Soviet, depicted the depressing panorama of the growing “discontent and stagnation” in the economy, science, education, and the country’s civic life. The authors devoted special attention to problems in the science and technological sphere, especially the lagging behind the West in high technologies, and the computerization of industrial and management processes. They saw the reason for this in the anti-democratic traditions and norms of civic life which had their origin even before the Stalin era – extra-economic coercion, restriction on the exchange of information, and suppression of intellectual freedom.
“There is no doubt that with the beginning of the second industrial revolution these phenomena have become the decisive economic factor and the basic obstacle to the development of the country's productive forces,” they state.
The letter maintained a tone of loyalty to the Soviet political system and Communist ideology; in this way, the authors counted on drawing their addressees into a constructive dialogue.
“Respected Comrades!” they wrote. “There is no way out of the difficulties facing the country except a course toward democratization carried out by the Party in accordance with a carefully worked out program. A move to the right, that is, the victory of the tendency toward harsh administrative measures and ‘tightening of the screws,’ will not solve any problems; on the contrary, it will aggravate those problems to the extreme and lead the country into a tragic blind alley. The tactics of waiting passively to see what happens will lead in the final analysis to the same result. Presently we have a chance to take the right road and carry out the necessary reforms. In a few years, perhaps, it will be too late.”
On the whole, the program outlined in this appeal was close to Gorbachev’s “perestroika” (restructuring) which was implemented 17 years later, and by then could no longer prevent the collapse of the Soviet Union.
But in 1970, despite the expectations of Sakharov and Turchin, none of the major scientists who before then had eagerly taken part in signing collective letters agreed to support their appeal. The destruction of the Prague Spring and the political persecution of dissenters in the USSR itself had a demoralizing effect on the intelligentsia; it became clear that civic activism was becoming dangerous. Only the historian Roy Medvedev, author of a samizdat book on Stalinism, Let History Judge, put his signature to the text. As a result, the letter of the three got the unofficial title of the “Memorandum of Sakharov, Turchin, and Medvedev.”
The final version of the appeal was dated March 19. It was sent to the addressees with a note that the authors expected an answer within a month. There was no answer, so they then put their Memorandum into samizdat for broad distribution.
Sakharov did not know then that the reaction to his appeal on the part of the leaders of the government nevertheless did ensue – already by April, the KGB had placed equipment into his apartment for secret recording of conversations.