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Chapter 5. Human Rights Defender.
Sakharov during a human rights demonstration in Pushkin Square in 1975. Sakharov Archive.
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1970. Campaign to Free Zhores Medvedev. Joining the Circle of Human Rights Advocates.

In May 1970, Sakharov became acquainted with Valery Nikolayevich Chalidze (1938–2018).

“One of the first among the dissidents (...) [Valery] had mastered the criminal and procedural codes, and many people sought his advice. His quick, analytical intelligence was made for the juridical ‘games’ in which the dissident world was involved. (...) At our first meeting, Chalidze told me that his main concern was to keep people out of prison,” Sakharov wrote of him.

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Their first joint case was the drafting of a complaint addressed to the USSR Prosecutor General’s Office on the case of human rights advocate Petro Grigorenko, who had been placed by court order in a psychiatric hospital.

Since 1960, the authorities had begun to actively use psychiatry to combat dissenters. This was a brutal and, at the same time, convenient method of isolating undesirable citizens, which drew less attention. On such “patients,” psychiatric medications and procedures were used which had extremely painful side effects and were virtually torture. A person deprived of freedom in such a fashion must remain in detention for an undetermined time, until he is “cured,” (that is, until admission of his views and actions as the result of supposedly his psychiatric ailment).

On May 29, Roy Medvedev telephoned Sakharov, his co-author of the Memorandum, and reported that his twin brother Zhores, a radiobiologist and author of the samizdat book Biological Science and the Cult of Personality, with which Sakharov was also personally acquainted, had been forcibly interned in a psychiatric hospital. The diagnosis of “creeping schizophrenia,” Roy Medvedev explained, was based on his “work in two disparate fields – biology and political science – was regarded as evidence of a split personality (...) In fact, his detention was the Lysenkoites' revenge for his book attacking them.”

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The very next day, Sakharov composed an appeal in defense of Medvedev and went to the Institute of General Genetics, where at that time, an international scientific symposium was under way. During the break in the meeting, he wrote on the blackboard before all the participants:  “I am collecting signatures in defense of the biologist Zhores Medvedev, who has been forcibly and illegally placed in a psychiatric hospital for his writings. Contact me during the break or reach me at home. A.D. Sakharov. (I added my address and telephone number.)”

“Stopping Sakharov, when he believed something was necessary to do, was impossible; in that case, he didn’t seem gentle or shy to anyone,” Zhores’ brother, Roy Medvedev wrote with deep respect, recalling this story.

Sakharov described the further turn of events:

“Two or three scientists signed the appeal during the break, as did two who were working in a laboratory. But the  bulk of the signatures were made at home – at my house and the home of Valery Chalidze, who offered me his apartment, or to be more precise, his room in a communal apartment. (...) Later, much of the dissident world assembled at Chalidze's room. Thus, in one stroke I met the entire ‘circle’ of that time – Tanya Velikanova, Grigory Podyapolsky and his wife Masha, Sergei Kovalev, and many others. Everyone there signed the appeal I had drafted (...) All those I've named became my friends.”

The case of Zhores Medvedev was not covered in the press, but many influential figures in culture and science spoke out resolutely in his defense. This caused the consternation of the authorities. On June 12, five academicians, including Sakharov, who protested against the psychiatric repressions against Medvedev, were invited to a meeting at the USSR Ministry of Health. Bureaucrats from the Health Ministry tried in vain to persuade them, but they stood firmly on their statement and finally got the minister to promise to “resolve the issue at the working level.”

On June 17, Zhores Medvedev was released from the psychiatric clinic. This was to become the greatest success of a broad civic human rights campaign in a long time.  But with his involvement in this case, Sakharov once again confirmed in the eyes of the authorities his reputation as a dissenter.

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1970. Meeting Yelena Bonner.

One day in September 1970, when he dropped in at Chalidze’s home to speak about human rights matters, Andrei Sakharov found him talking with a person he did not know.

“A beautiful woman who seemed very businesslike, serious, and energetic was sitting in his room (…),” recalled Sakharov. “He did not introduce her to me, and she paid no attention to me. But when his visitor had left, Chalidze said with some pride, ‘That was Yelena Georgievna Bonner. She has dealt with zeks almost her whole life and helps others!’”

Yelena Bonner was two years younger than Sakharov. Her mother, Ruf Grigoryevna Bonner (1900-1987) and stepfather Gevork Sarkisovich Alikhanyan (1897–1938), an official of the Executive Committee of the Comintern, were arrested on political charges in 1937. Her stepfather was executed, and her mother as “a member of a family of a traitor to the motherland” spent eight years in labor camps. Lusya, as Yelena was called at home, was raised by her grandmother. The war found Yelena a student at the evening division of the Department of Philology of the Herzen Pedagogical Institute in Leningrad. She was mobilized to war service as a nurse, was severely wounded while evacuating  sick and wounded from blockaded Leningrad, nearly lost her vision, and after that, recovered well enough so that until the end of the war, she served on a hospital train. Later, Yelena obtained higher medical education and worked as a pediatrician. In 1959–1960, together with her first husband Ivan Semyonov, she worked in Iraq in a group of Soviet medics who conducted a massive smallpox vaccination of the population. From 1965, she lived and worked in Moscow.

At the moment she met Sakharov, Yelena Bonner had parted from Semyonov and lived with her mother and children – the 14-year-old Alexey and 20-year-old Tatyana (her married name was Yankelevich) and Tatyana’s husband Yefrem. She was an active participant in the human rights movement, involved in organizing help to political prisoners and their families. Her mother, children and son-in-law respected her civic activity and supported her.

Yelena Bonner and Andrei Sakharov visiting friends. Leningrad, September 1971. Photo: Radiy Tsimerinov, Sakharov Archive.
Yelena Bonner with children – Tatiana and Aleksei. 1964. Photo from the personal archive of Tatiana Yankelevich.
Yelena Bonner in the 1950s. This photo, taken long before they met, Andrei Sakharov viewed it fondly and kept it in his desk. Photo: Sakharov Archive.
Yelena Bonner, medical lieutenant. 1945.
House 48 on the street Chkalova in Moscow. 1970s.
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Yelena already knew the name of Andrei Sakharov from his article “Thoughts on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom,” but she met him personally somewhat later – on October 20, 1970, that same year in Kaluga, where a group of Moscow human rights defenders came to attend the trial of their colleagues Revolt Pimenov and Boris Vail.

Andrei Sakharov and Yelena Bonner fell in love with each other and quickly understood they wanted to be together. A year later, in September 1971, Sakharov came to live with Yelena in the apartment on Chkalova Street (now called Zemlyanoy val Street), which became his main address until the end of his life, with an interruption only during his exile.

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1970. Creation of the Committee of Human Rights in the USSR.

On November 4, 1970, at the initiative of Valery Chalidze, he himself, Academician Andrei Sakharov and physicist Andrei Tverdokhlebov founded in Moscow the Committee of Human Rights in the USSR – an independent association which set as its goal “the study of the problem of promotion and propaganda of human rights in the USSR.” Unlike the Initiative Group for the Defense of Human Rights in the USSR, created in 1969, the Committee on Human Rights was not a human rights organization in the classical sense of the world, but rather an analytical center. Such a theoretical orientation for the future organization bothered Sakharov, and he did not immediately make a decision to join it.

“I was uncomfortable with his legalistic approach, despite its merit, and I worried still, more that such a grandiloquently named Committee would attract too much attention and arouse too many false hopes. How were we to respond to the letters, petitions, and complaints that would come flooding in? That we were a study circle and not a defense committee?”

However, Sakharov decides to support Chalidze’s idea.

“The very existence of the committee as an association independent of the authorities, as well as the existence of a somewhat earlier ‘Initiative Group,’ has a unique moral significance for our country,” – he later writes.

Sakharov was not mistaken; as soon as the Western radio stations reported the creation of the Committee on Human Rights in the USSR, people whose rights had been violated began to appeal to him as the most prominent of the members of the Committee. In the years of the Committee on Human Rights’s existence, it was to take part not only in analytical work but in defending the rights of specific people.

Gradually several other people joined the activity of the Committee. In 1971, it was the first human rights group from the Soviet Union to gain international status when it joined the International League for Human Rights as a collective member.

Andrei Sakharov with members of the Human Rights Committee in the USSR, Igor Shafarevich (left) and Grigory Podyapolsky. 1972. Photo: Sakharov Archive.
Principles of the Human Rights Committee. Hand marks from the head of the 2nd main directorate of the KGB of the USSR, Mikhail Milyutin (?). Copy. Sakharov Archive.
Minutes from the meeting of the Human Rights Committee. October 5, 1972. Sakharov Archive.
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The activity of the Committee on Human Rights waned in 1972, when Valery Chalidze left the country, but during the entire time of its existence, the KGB closely tracked its “politically harmful activity,” watching Sakharov particularly closely and reporting its observations to the highest Party leadership of the country.

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1971. Memorandum of the Committee on Human Rights in the USSR and Other Appeals to the Authorities.

In the spring of 1971, the Committee on Human Rights in the USSR prepared a Memorandum – an appeal to Leonid Brezhnev, General Secretary of the Central Committee of the CPSU. This was a kind of synopsis for an “imaginary dialogue with the leadership of the country.”

Leonid Brezhnev. Photo: Mondadori Portfolio /  Getty Images.

The main author of the Memorandum was Sakharov. Yet another document was attached to it – “Note on Persecution for Ideological Reasons,” prepared by Valery Chalidze, and general information about the Committee on Human Rights.  A principled position of the Committee was the absolute legality of its activity, and its members never hid their connection to this organization. Counting on his authority, Sakharov hoped that Brezhnev would agree to a personal meeting with him; he was prepared to take upon himself the responsibility for the program laid out in the Memorandum; therefore, the text was written by him in the first person.

“I did not expect the Soviet leaders to take my suggested changes (which touched on economic, cultural, legal, social, and foreign policy matters) seriously, let alone approve them, but it seemed worthwhile to formulate a comprehensive, internally consistent (although inevitably schematic and preliminary) alternative to the official Party program,” wrote Sakharov.

The Memorandum contain a wide selection of ideas developed in the Memorandum of Sakharov, Turchin and Medvedev of 1970: an end to the persecution for political reasons (including an amnesty of political prisoners) and persecution of believers; an end to psychiatric repression regarding dissenters; removal of barriers for disseminating information and passage of a democratic law on the press; guarantee of freedom of movement and choice of one’s place of residence, including abolition of the passport system and removal of barriers to trips abroad; full restitution of the rights of people repressed under Stalin; economic reforms, opening a certain space for private initiative, and on the international arena, a statement from the Soviet Union on first use of weapons of mass destruction and other measures to increase international security. In other words, this was a program of comprehensive democratization of the Soviet state and society.

Typewritten text of “the Memorandum.” Sakharov Archive.

Sakharov outlined the basic principles as well of a “society which must be made by immediate government reforms and the efforts of citizens to develop public awareness” as follows:

“a) The state sets as its fundamental goal the protection and the guarantee of the basic rights of its citizens.
b) All acts of governmental institutions are wholly based on laws which are stable and known to the citizenry.  Observance of the laws is obligatory for all citizens, institutions and organizations.
с) People’s happiness [is ensured], in particular the guarantee of their freedom in labor, in consumption, in personal life, in education, in cultural and social manifestations, freedom of belief and conscience, freedom of information exchange and movement, and others.”

The Memorandum was sent to Brezhnev on March 5, and on March 19, KGB officers came to search the home of Valery Chalidze, organizer of the Committee on Human Rights. Sakharov, together with his other friends stood at the doors of his apartment, fearing violence or provocations. On that day, Chalidze was not arrested, but he began to be summoned to the KGB for interrogations. He was forced to leave the USSR in 1972.

Meanwhile, for 15 months, Sakharov tried to get some sort of reaction to the Memorandum from Brezhnev’s staff; finally, convinced that he was being ignored, in June 1972, he made the decision to publish this document, and handed it to foreign correspondents and to samizdat.

“Now it seems to me to an even greater extent than previously, the only true guarantor of the preservation of human values in the chaos of unmanageable changes and tragic upheavals is freedom of the individual’s beliefs, his moral striving toward good,” he wrote in an afterword to the Memorandum.

Some of the ideas of the Memorandum were additionally developed in special documents of the Committee on Human Rights, appealing to the authorities and the international community; thus on July 4, 1971, the Committee members sent an appeal to the V World Congress of Psychiatrists, in which they raised the problem of “punitive psychiatry” in the USSR; and on April 21, 1972, they appealed to the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR in a letter “On the Restoration of Rights of Forcibly Resettled Peoples and Ethnic Groups.”

Andrei Sakharov. 1970. Photo: Yuri Rost. Sakharov Archive.

At the same time, Sakharov acted in his own name. On September 20, 1971, he sent an appeal to the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR on the need to allow freedom of choice of the country of one’s residence. At that time, promotion not only of the right of citizens of the USSR to emigration began to occupy an important place in his human rights activity but support for the lawful demands of the Crimean Tatar representatives of a people subject to deportation in Stalin’s time, formally released from exile, but still deprived of the right to return to their native land in Crimea.  

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1972. Marriage with Yelena Bonner.

On January 7, 1972, the marriage of Andrei Sakharov and Yelena Bonner took place in Moscow. The ceremony was modest, mundane, and without guests, although KGB agents were present.

“The KGB sent its own witnesses – half a dozen men in identical, well-tailored black suits,” Sakharov wrote dryly.

Yelena did not immediately agree to become Academician Sakharov’s wife; she feared that their common human rights activity would place her children in jeopardy. And she was not mistaken. In 1977-1978, the systematic persecution and threats from the KGB forced her children to emigrate. First, Tatiana left the USSR with her husband Efrem Yankelevich and her children Matvey and Anna; Alexey will follow them.

It was a happy marriage.

Andrei Sakharov and Yelena Bonner at home. 1972. Photo: Radiy Tsimerinov. Sakharov Archive.
Andrei Sakharov with Yelena Bonner and her son Aleksei Semyonov on the day of their marriage. January 7 or 13, 1973. Photo: Sakharov Archive.
Andrei Sakharov and Yelena Bonner on vacation in the mountains near Baku. April 1972. Photo: Sakharov Archive.
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“Lusia has brought me happiness and added new meaning to my life. Although these years have been difficult, even tragic for her, she too, I hope, has found in them new purpose,” Sakharov wrote with profound gratitude and love about her.

Yelena Bonner was not only an independent civic activist, human rights defender, colleague, and helper of her famous husband; she surrounded Sakharov with care, shared his interest in history and classical music, and thanks to her, many cultural figures joined the circle of his acquaintances, including the prominent poets and writers David Samoylov, Bulat Okudzhava, Alexander Galich and Vladimir Maximov. Sakharov repeatedly noted that thanks to her caring, active sympathy for suffering people, he himself in his human rights activity began to devote more attention to concrete human stories and to how major social problems influence people’s destinies.

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1972. Statements for the Abolition of the Death Penalty and Amnesty of Political Prisoners.

Collection of articles from “Against the Death Penalty,” one of the editors / compilers was Ivan Sakharov, grandfather of Andrei Sakharov. Acquaintance with this book made Sakharov a staunch opponent of the death penalty.

In December 1972, the 60th anniversary of the formation of the Soviet Union was supposed to be solemnly celebrated, and Sakharov decided to appeal to the highest legislative body of the country, the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, with a proposal in honor of the significant occasion to pass two very important decisions aimed at the humanization and democratization of the public atmosphere in the country – to abolish the death penalty and carry out an amnesty of political prisoners.

Even in childhood, Andrei had read the collection Against the Death Penalty, social commentary published in 1905, one of whose editors was his grandfather, Ivan Nikolayevich Sakharov, and this book had made a deep impression on him. All his life he had remained a convinced opponent of the death penalty, considering its abolition a most important stage in the development of human society as a whole.

At that time in the USSR, more than 1,000 people were executed by court sentences every year.

As for the amnesty, according to Sakharov’s thinking, it must affect not only political dissenters but those sentenced for religious beliefs and for an attempt to leave the country illegally. In recent years, he himself had witnessed several political trials of human rights defenders and head repeatedly protested against the use of political and psychiatric repressions against dissenters. Moreover, he had called to release all those who were previously convicted to long terms and had already served 15 years – the maximum period of imprisonment under law at that time.

In April and May, Sakharov wrote two brief appeals to the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR and began to collect signatures.

“I wanted to collect the signatures of prominent scientists, writers, artists, physicians, and other figures whose voices carried weight and who shared the humanitarian goals of the two petitions without being over dissidents or opponents of the regime. I soon lost any illusions I'd harbored. The days of the 1967 campaign, when more than a thousand persons might sign a petition, were over.”
Appeal to the Supreme Soviet of the USSR with an appeal to declare amnesty. May 4–6, 1972. Copy. Sakharov Archive.
Appeal to the Supreme Soviet of the USSR with an appeal to adopt a decision on the abolition of the death penalty. May 4 – June 19 1972. Copy. Sakharov Archive
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Among those who signed the appeals aside from the human rights defenders were cultural figures and scientists: Mstislav Rostropovich, musician; Alexander Galich, poet, and bard; Yevgeny Gnedin, journalist, prisoner of Stalin’s labor camps; Mikhail Leontovich, physicist, and academician; Alexander Lerner, cyberneticist; Veniamin Kaverin, Lidiya Chukovskaya and Viktor Nekrasov, writers; and others.

On September 13, Sakharov took the appeals with the signatures to the reception area of the Supreme Soviet, and then handed out the texts and lists of signatories to foreign journalists.

No reaction to these appeals followed from the Supreme Soviet. The government continued to ignore Sakharov and his like-minded associates.

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1972. First Interview to a Western Journalist.

Late on the evening of October 30, 1972, Sakharov gave an interview to a foreign journalist for the first time – to a correspondent of the American weekly Newsweek, Jay Axelblank.

On that day, Sakharov and Bonner had travelled to the town of Noginsk, outside Moscow, where the trial was under way of Kronid Lubarsky, an astrophysicist, participant in the human rights movement, and distributor of samizdat. This was the site of dramatic events. KGB agents forcibly pushed Lubarsky’s colleagues out of the courthouse on to the street. Many of them, including Sakharov, had their arms twisted. Yelena Bonner, outraged at what was happening, slapped the director of this “special operation.” Finally, the building was simply locked from the outside, and in these circumstances, Lubarsky was pronounced guilty and sentenced.

Axelbank came to Sakharov himself, in order to ask for an interview. For Sakharov, who had been involved for many years with military designs, and had lived under a regime of strict secrecy, personal communication with a foreign journalist was an extremely unusual affair. Nevertheless, he made up his mind. Above all, he was tried to give publicity to the case of Lubarsky and the abuse of the KGB which had accompanied this political trial. In fact, the journalist was more interested in the personality and views of Sakharov himself as one of the leaders of the Soviet human rights movement.

“It was the first interview with me published in the Western press, and at the time I was very upset by its failure to give the proper emphasis to the Lubarsky case, and by certain inaccuracies (or rather "intonation" issues); I couldn't get to sleep for a long time,” recalled Sakharov. “Now, however, having become more accustomed to the workings of the Western press, I realized that Axelbank didn't do all that bad a job. At any rate, we remained on friendly terms with him while he was in Moscow.”

Jay Axelbank continued to cover a number of times the human rights situation in the USSR and the activity of human rights defenders. In 1974, when he left Moscow, the Soviet authorities settled their scores with Newsweek, and refused to accredit a new correspondent.

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1973. Interview with Olle Stenholm and First Press Conference for Foreign Journalists.

In late May 1973, Sakharov gave an interview to the Swedish journalist Olle Stenholm in which he described the formation of his beliefs and made harsh assessments of the Soviet system and the political, social, and economic situation in the USSR.

“It seemed to me that I understood what socialism is, and that I believed socialism is good,” he said. “But gradually (...) I began to have doubts of the correctness of our economic foundations, and was puzzled whether there was anything in our system besides empty words, besides propaganda for domestic and international consumptions. (...) It seemed to me (...) on the whole, the path of our state contained more destructive than constructive, generally humane elements. The most brutal political warfare was under way in our country, the destruction and brutality had gone so far that now we are  reaping the sad fruits of this in the form of fatigue, apathy and cynicism, from which we will find it very difficult to recover, if at all.”

He spoke about the inequality in Soviet society, about the privileges of the Party elite, about the nationalities problems and once again briefly repeated a program for democratic reforms which could gradually lead the country out of a dead end – elimination of the monopoly of a single ideology, opening of the country, freedom of thought and belief, freedom of speech, emancipation of private initiative, and also free elections.

At the end of the interview, the Swedish journalist asked him if he was not afraid for himself and his freedom.

Sakharov replied: “I have never feared personally for myself, but that is partly from the peculiarities of my character, and partly because I began, after all, from a very high social position (…) Now, however, I mainly fear such forms of pressure which do not concern me personally, but members of my family, members of my wife’s family.”

Note by the chairman of the KGB, Yury Andropov, and the Prosecutor General of the USSR, Roman Rudenko, in the Central Committee of the CPSU about an interview with Andrei Sakharov to Olle Stenholm. Copy. Sakharov Archive.

Yet in three months, on August 21, Sakharov himself invited foreign correspondents accredited in Moscow to his home. His first “apartment” press conference took place, at which about 30 journalists gathered.

Sakharov told them how on August 16, he was summoned to the USSR Prosecutor’s Office, where Deputy Prosecutor General Mikhail Malyarov, during a “warning talk,” threatened him with trouble unless he ceased talking to foreign journalists.

Andrei Sakharov during a press conference on August 21, 1973. Photo: Sakharov Archive.

Then he replied to numerous questions, including a statement that international détente was possible only under the condition that the Soviet Union ceased to be a closed, totalitarian society. He considered it particularly necessary to relay this thought to a Western audience.

Subsequently, Sakharov was to hold press conferences a number of times in his apartment and provide the same opportunity to speak with the foreign press to other human rights defenders. He knew very well that his apartment was under total surveillance by the KGB and everything taking place in it was recorded, but even taking this into account, the home of the academician, thrice Hero of Socialist Labor, one of the most merited scientists of the country, was the only safe place for such an activity.

Andrei Sakharov at home during an interview with Jörg Andrees Elten for the Spanish magazine “La Actualidad Española.” September 1973. Photo: E. Seelinger, Sakharov Archive.

“Usually, Sakharov himself called and invited me,” Nicolas Miletich, a former correspondent for Agence France Presse (AFP) in Moscow recalled. “I was always amazed at how modestly he behaved. He always gave others the floor, and would say to us, “I know you journalists. You are ready to question only me, but I want for other, less famous people to become known in the West.”

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1973. First Campaign of Persecution of Sakharov in the Soviet Press.

In the summer of 1973, Sakharov was particularly active in meeting with foreign correspondents. The picture of Soviet society which was formed from his statements sharply contrasted with the official optimism which Soviet propaganda broadcast, and this provoked a harsh reaction on the part of the KGB and Party leadership of the country.  They decided to “punish” Sakharov. By decision of the Politburo, a campaign of public persecution was launched.

On August 29, the Soviet central newspapers, television, and radio came out simultaneously with the “Letter of Members of the USSR Academy of Sciences.” The letter, signed by 40 major scientists, many of whom knew Sakharov personally, made the accusation that “he had left active scientific activity and made a number of statements defaming the state system, the foreign and domestic policy of the Soviet Union” and even “reached the point that he spoke against the policy of the Soviet Union for international détente.”

“Later I was to hear all sorts of stories about the way the signatures had been collected. Some scientists claimed to have been told that their signing such a letter was the only way of saving me from being arrested. (...) Some who signed later regretted their act, and even were raked over the coals by their own children.”
Publications of Soviet newspapers, directed against Andrei Sakharov. 1973. Sakharov Archive.

Following the letter of the academicians were several “expose” articles and a whole flurry of collective statements on behalf of scientific research institutes, creative unions of writers, artists, and composters, and from institutions and factories. Newspapers even published letters signed by individuals – engineers, doctors, war veterans, workers, miners, milkmaids, and others. They all expressed indignation at the “anti-Soviet statements” of Academician Sakharov which had appeared in the foreign press (to publications which they, of course, did not have access).

Such letters even came to Sakharov’s home address, but along with them, he received letters of support as well. A wonderful pamphlet by the writer Lidiya Chukovskaya, titled “The People’s Anger” circulated in samizdat. “Of course, it goes without saying that none of these angry and outraged people had the slightest understanding of Academician Sakharov, about his acts, his proposals, and thoughts,” she emphasized.

The newspaper campaign really did draw the attention of many people to Sakharov, who prior to that had not known his name. “We don’t know what exactly Academician Sakharov wrote, and what he talked about with foreign correspondents,” a reader wrote to the editorial board of the newspaper Izvestia. “Publish them. Are we Soviet readers so illiterate and stupid that it is not worth presenting us with the written statements of people who are accused?”

Andrei Sakharov during a press conference on August 21, 1973. Photo: Sakharov Archive.

The public harassment in the USSR of a prominent scientist and human rights advocate provoked a negative reaction in the West. The chancellors of Austria and Germany, the US Congress, the Swedish minister of foreign affairs, the famous German writer Günter Grass, the political émigré and writer Andrei Sinyavsky and many politicians, scientists and public figures spoke out in Sakharov’s defense.

On September 8, the harassment ceased in just as organized a manner as it had begun.

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1973. Ratification by the Soviet Union of the International Covenants on Rights.

On September 18, 1973, by Decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights were ratified. They had been passed by the UN in 1966 on the basis of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in development of its provisions.

Even two and a half years before this, the Committee on Human Rights in the USSR, in a memorandum addressed to Leonid Brezhnev on March 5, 1971, one of whose authors was Sakharov, indicated the need to ratify both Covenants as one of the steps toward democratization of the Soviet social system. No reaction on the part of Brezhnev followed back then.

The Soviet Union was not in a hurry to ratify these covenants since unlike the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed in 1948, they imposed on states that ratified them legal obligations to comply with the proclaimed rights.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights went into effect in the USSR only in 1976; this did not lead to substantive changes in the nature of the Soviet regime, however. Their provisions turned out to be in clear contradiction with the law and practice of restricting many political and civil rights in the Soviet Union, including the right to freedom of emigration, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of speech and freedom of opinions, freedom to seek obtain and distribute information, and the right to peaceful assemblies and associations.

Soviet human rights advocates would repeatedly refer to these covenants and point to the facts of their violations in the USSR.

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1973. A Visit from Terrorists.

On the morning of October 18, 1973, two men who were Arabic in appearance came to the apartment of Sakharov and Bonner. One of them spoke Russian. The guests introduced themselves as members of the Palestinian terrorist organization “Black September", which attacked Israeli athletes during the Munich Olympic Games in September 1972, captured and killed Western diplomats in Khartoum in March 1973, and perpetrated other terrorist attacks. They announced that they were unhappy with the position which Sakharov took regarding the Arab-Israel conflict.

Terrorist in the Olympic Village in Munich. August 5, 1972.

In fact, not long before this, Sakharov had made several statements in connection with the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, in which he called for a peaceful resolution of the conflict and condemned the position of the USSR, which supported the Arab side.

In response to the demand to immediately disavow his statement which had “caused harm to the cause of Arabs,” Sakharov replied, “I am not about to write or sign anything under duress.”

“What can you do to us – kill us?” asked Yelena Bonner. “We could kill you, of course,” one of them replied. “But we could do worse: you've got children; a grandchild...”

After that, the visitors left, not forgetting to cut the telephone wire.

“It was quite unpleasant enough to sit and listen to armed terrorists threatening us,” recalled Sakharov. “But it was even worse to have to hear an open threat against our children and our grandchild. The intruders may really have been Palestinians – perhaps they were even from Black September; but we never doubted for a moment that they were under strict KGB control. The KGB probably was behind the whole incident (...)”

Sakharov, Bonner, and the youngest members of their family repeatedly encountered threats which supposedly came from people who were outraged by their “anti-Soviet” activity. The appearance in such a role of foreigners, international terrorists who were so well informed about the circumstances of Sakharov’s private life (Yelena Bonner’s grandson, Matvei, had been born not long before this) became the unexpected continuation of the organized campaign of psychological pressure on him.

Not a single case of threats to Sakharov and his family was investigated by the authorities.

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1973. International Awards.

Sakharov’s public activity enabled him to become known abroad, and not only as a human rights defender but as a scientist. In April 1973, the leading scientific organization of the US – the National Academy of Sciences – elected him as a foreign member.

On December 4, the American non-governmental organization Freedom House awarded 15 Soviet dissidents, including Andrei Sakharov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn the “Freedom Award,” “for resisting the shackles of mind and body and glorifying freedom for all mankind.”

And on December 5, when according to tradition, he took part in a human rights demonstration in the center of Moscow on Pushkin Square, in New York, a ceremony took place to grant him the Human Rights Award of the International League for Human Rights. Sakharov sent a statement which was read out to the attendees. He thanked them for giving him this honorary award, once again enumerating the unsolved problems in human rights in the USSR and concluded:

“I would like to believe that the bestowing of an international award for human rights on a Soviet citizen serves as evidence that international attention to the guarantee of human rights in our country will grow and have profound influence.”
Wall sign of their Peace Prize. Eleanor Roosevelt. From the collection of the Sakharov Archive.

In the next year, 1974, Sakharov was awarded two more prestigious international prizes: the Eleanor Roosevelt Peace Award by the American Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE) and the Prix mondial Cino Del Duca, an international literary prize given to authors whose works in literary or scientific form foster humanism in the modern world.

Sakharov allocated the monetary part of the Cino Del Duca prize to his wife, Yelena Bonner, and under her direction these funds were used to help the children of political prisoners in the USSR and Czechoslovakia.

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1974. Debate with Solzhenitsyn.

In the broad movement of Soviet “dissenters” – dissidents – Andrei Sakharov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn represented two equally great figures. Their appraisals of the current state of society and the government in their homeland largely coincided, but their ideals substantially differed.

They knew each other remotely – by publications in samizdat – but they personally became acquainted in 1968, soon after the entry of Soviet troops to Czechoslovakia. At their very first meeting, a polemic emerged over Sakharov’s article “Thoughts on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom.” Solzhenitsyn at that time had gone further than Sakharov in renouncing the ideological foundations of the Soviet regime, and at the same time, he was certain that the West as well was irreligious, and wallowing in individualism and consumerism, unable to overcome its problems. His ideal was, and remained, a society founded not on the principles of modern democracy and human rights but on community self-governance and Christian love.

In 1970, Solzhenitsyn replied to Sakharov’s article in his essay “As Breathing and Consciousness Return,” which was distributed in samizdat, and in the summer of 1973, they both were simultaneously subjected to public political persecution in the press. That same year, Solzhenitsyn first articulated the idea of awarding Sakharov the Nobel Peace Prize.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Photo: Sakharov Archive.

When in February 1974, Solzhenitsyn was suddenly detained by the Soviet authorities, publicly declared a “traitor,” stripped of his citizenship and forcibly exiled from the country, Sakharov was one of the authors of the “Moscow Appeal” in his defense, demanding that The Gulag Archipelago be published in the Soviet Union and that an international public tribunal be created to investigates the crimes of the Stalin regime, to which the book was devoted. “The truth about what happened in the USSR is needed by all people on earth,” the appeal emphasized*. This documentary formed the basis for a campaign of solidarity with Solzhenitsyn which spread throughout the world.

After Solzhenitsyn’s exile, the discussion continued between him and Sakharov about ways of emancipating Russia, its future and the future of the world. In the spring of 1974, Sakharov wrote an article, “On Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s ‘Letter to the Leaders of the Soviet Union.’”

In it, he characterized Solzhenitsyn’s views as “religious-patriarchal romanticism.” Sakharov wrote,

“The very division of ideas into Western and Russian is incomprehensible to me. In a scientific, rational approach to social and natural phenomena, ideas and concepts are divided into true ones and fallacious ones. (...) Solzhenitsyn’s exposition of the problem of progress seems to me especially inaccurate. (...) Progress must continuously and expediently change its concrete forms, meeting the demands of human society without failing to preserve nature and the land for our descendents.”
Article by Andrei Sakharov, “On the Letter of Alexander Solzhenitsyn ‘to the Leaders of the Soviet Union.’” Typewritten on tissue paper. Sakharov Archive.

Seeing his polemics with Solzhenitsyn as a scholarly discussion, Sakharov believed it was necessary to reveal the principled differences between his own position and that of his opponent. For him, the “nationalist and isolationist trend of Solzhenitsyn’s thinking” was unacceptable.

“The servile, slavish spirit which existed in Russia for centuries, combined with a scorn for people of other countries, other races, and other beliefs, was in my view the greatest of misfortunes,” he wrote. “Only under democratic conditions can one develop a national character capable of intelligent existence in a world becoming increasingly complex.”

As a scientist accustomed to handling large-scale tasks, he was particularly emphatic in objecting to Solzhenitsyn’s isolationism.

“First of all I object to the endeavor to protect our country against the allegedly pernicious influence of the West – against trade, against what is called 'the exchange of people and ideas.',” he maintained. The only form of isolationism that makes sense is not to intrude upon other countries with our messianic socialist notions; to discontinue our covert and overt support of subversion on other continents; to discontinue our export of deadly weapons. (...) I am convinced, unlike Solzhenitsyn, that no important problem can be solved only on a national scale. (...) Only on a global scale is it possible to solve the scientific-technical problems of our time (...) These tasks require outlays of many billions of dollars, which are beyond the scope of any individual state.”

But regardless of the differences in their views and convictions, Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn regarded each other with deep respect.

“In spite of the fact that some aspects of his world view strike me as fallacious, Solzhenitsyn is a giant in the struggle for human dignity in the tragic modern world,” Sakharov concluded his article devoted to the “Letter to Leaders.”

Later, Solzhenitsyn continued their remote dialogue in his book The Oak and the Calf. About Sakharov himself, he wrote: “When Lenin conceived and initiated, and Stalin developed and made safe, their inspired scheme for a totalitarian state, they thought of everything, did everything to ensure that the system would stand firm to all eternity, changing only when the leader waved his wand; to ensure that the voice of freedom would never ring out, or any movement against the current ever set in. They foresaw all eventualities but one – a miracle, an irrational phenomenon, the causes of which could not be divined, detected and cut short beforehand. Just such a miracle occurred when Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov emerged in the Soviet state (...).”

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1974. First Hunger Strike.

On June 28, 1974, Sakharov for the first time used such a means as a hunger strike to attract attention to the fate of political prisoners and victims of punitive psychiatry in the USSR.

“My first hunger strike (...) [was] timed to coincide with President Nixon's arrival in Moscow (...). The aim was to call attention to the plight of political prisoners,” he recalled. “Newspaper correspondents and television crews traveling with Nixon interviewed me at our apartment. (…)  When a TV journalist tried to transmit an interview with me from the Ostankino relay station, the broadcast was interrupted by the Soviet censor. For several minutes, half the world stared at blank screens instead of the Sakharov interview – leaving a lasting impression, I was told.”

Sakharov maintained his hunger strike for six days – the entire time that Nixon was in the Soviet capital.

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1974. Futurological Article “The World in 50 Years”.

In mid-May 1974, in reply to a proposal by the editors of the American weekly Saturday Review to reflect on the prospects for the development of humankind in the period up to 2024, Sakharov wrote a futurological article titled “The World in 50 Years.”

The first half of the article he devoted to the global problems which humankind would have to face: overpopulation, exhaustion of natural resources, disruption of nature’s equilibrium, and asked the question of whether scientific and technological progress alone were enough to cope with them: “Scientific and technical progress does not bring happiness, if it is not complemented by extremely profound changes in the social, moral and cultural life of humankind,” Sakharov emphasized, and explained that many threats in fact were the consequence of a lack of humaneness in the modern world.

“Personal morality and individual responsibility are displaced and suppressed by an abstract authority, inhumane in its essence, alienated from the individual (whether state, class, or party, or the authority of a leader, it is all nothing more than versions of the same trouble),” he maintained. “(…) I feel that it is particularly important to halt the disintegration of the world into antagonistic groups of states. The convergence of the Socialist and capitalist systems would be accompanied by demilitarization, the strengthening of international trust, and the defense of human rights, law, and freedom.  Profound social progress and democratization would follow, and man's moral, spiritual, and personal resources would be strengthened.”
Andrei Sakharov. 1974. Photo: Sakharov Archive.

In the second half of the article, Sakharov sketched a general picture of humankind’s scientific and technological progress in the next half century. He wrote about urbanization; about the creation of “flying cities” – industrial satellites orbiting the earth – about the economic development of the Moon; about the creation of environmentally safe non-polluting technologies; about the wide applications of electronic computer technology for the solving of manufacturing and scientific tasks.

Among his forecasts of particular interest was the prediction of the creation of a “universal information system” (UIS) in which the Internet is easily recognized. In it, Sakharov saw an effective means of guaranteeing the freedom of access to information, which he considered one of the cornerstones of a democratic society.

“Unlike television, the major source of information for many of our contemporaries, the UIS will give each person maximum freedom of choice and will require individual activity,” he wrote. “But the truly historic role of the UIS will be to break down the barriers to the exchange of information among countries and people.”

In the conclusion of the article, he wrote:

“I am not prone to insist on the technological and material side of progress. I am certain that the ‘super-goal’ of human institutions, and that includes progress, is not only to protect all those born on earth from excessive suffering and early death but also to preserve in mankind all that is human: the joy of spontaneous work with knowing hands and a knowing mind, the joy of mutual help and of good relations with people and nature, and the joy of learning and art.”

Sakharov spent the honorarium he received for the article on aid to political prisoners, purchasing entire crates of tinned meat and other products which were allowed to be sent to prisons and labor camps.

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1974. Political Prisoners’ Day.

In October 1974, the political prisoners of the Mordovian and Perm Labor Camps, and also Vladimir Prison simultaneously declared a one-day hunger strike as a sign of protest against political repression.

The human rights defenders who were free supported their colleagues. On that same day, a press conference took place in Sakharov’s apartment for foreign journalists, at which Sergei Kovalev, Tatyana Khodorovich, Tatyana Velikanova, Malva Landa and Alexander Lavut, members of the Initiative Group for the Defense of Human Rights in the USSR, described the situation of political prisoners in the Soviet Union, who “have been convicted for actions, opinions and intentions which would not be regarded as grounds for prosecution in a democratic country” and announced the establishment of October 30 as Political Prisoners’ Day.

Sakharov read his appeal to Brezhnev with a demand to release political prisoners.

“We must not allow the senseless and cruel suppression of human rights and dignity to continue on our land, even on the part of it that is separated from you by barbed wire and prison walls. We must not allow the death of brave and honest people,” it said.
Camp for political prisoners Perm-36. High security zone. Photo: Sakharov Center.

At that moment, there were several hundred people in places of imprisonment in the USSR who had been sentenced for political reasons – human rights advocates, samizdat distributors, believers, refuseniks, who had unsuccessfully tried to obtain permission for emigration, activists of the national movements and other dissenters.

Subsequently, Soviet human rights advocates marked the Day of the Political Prisoner every year with protest actions in labor camps and at liberty.

Starting in 1991, October 30 became an official commemorative date in Russia called “Day of Memory of Victims of Political Repression.”

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1975. Helsinki Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

On July 30 to August 1, 1975, in Helsinki, the Helsinki Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe was signed by 35 heads of state. The third section of the Act (the so-called “humanitarian basket”) contains the minimal standards of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Thus, all the participating states, including the USSR, officially undertook the obligations to observe human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of information, thought, conscience, and belief.

Signing of the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Helsinki, August 1, 1975. Photo: ADN-Bildarchiv / Getty Images.

Completely in the spirit of Sakharov, the Helsinki Final Act emphasized that universal respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms is a factor in global security, noting “the universal significance of human rights and fundamental freedoms, respect for which is an essential factor for the peace, justice and well-being necessary to ensure the development of friendly relations and co-operation among themselves as among all States.”

Despite the signing by the Soviet Union of the Helsinki Final Act, human rights violations in the USSR continued. In the eyes of the world community, this made the activity of human rights defenders particularly important.

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1975. “On My Country and the World”.

In July 1975, Sakharov completed work on an extensive essay, “On My Country and the World,” which was soon published in New York as a separate booklet. This text was addressed to Western readers, above all leftist intellectuals who, in taking an interest in the Soviet Union, under the influence of Soviet propaganda, harbored certain illusions regarding the successes of the socialist system. Meanwhile, in Sakharov’s opinion, whether both sides – East and West – would understand each other properly would depend on whether they were capable of uniting forces to solve global problems.

Sakharov began his essay with a detailed characterization of Soviet society, explaining that behind the prosperous façade were severe problems and contradictions, totalitarian instincts of power, poverty, and suppression of personal freedom.

Developing his ideas expressed in 1968 in the article, “Thoughts on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom” and in the Memorandum of 1971, he listed 12 of the most important reforms in the political, economic, and social system of the Soviet Union which would enable the country to come out of the all-encompassing crisis into which it had fallen.

“My country and the world.” Typescript, Soviet samizdat from the collection of the Sakharov Archive.

Separately, Sakharov focused on the issue of the Jackson-Vanik amendment to the American Trade Law, which at that time was a central problem in relations between the USSR and US. The amendment, which substantially restricted trade and the opportunity to offer US government loans to countries that violate the rights of their citizens to emigration and other rights, went into force in January 1975. Its chief target was the USSR, where thousands of Jews and Germans had been attempting in vain to obtain permission to leave for their historic homelands.

Sakharov publicly supported the passage of the Jackson-Vanik amendment back in 1973. And, in 1975, he continued to believe that this measure was not interference in the internal affairs of the Soviet Union, but the opposite – it prompted the USSR to fulfill the international human rights obligations it had assumed. As Sakharov maintained, “the right to leave must extend to all persons, including those (constituting the great majority) who have no intention of leaving. Only having all his rights is a person free.”

Andrei Sakharov. 1974 Photo: Christian HIROU/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images.

Sakharov could not overlook the problem of disarmament, which at that time was widely debated in political circles. In this essay, he proposed a program of action for all countries interested in real disarmament and a reduction of international tension. Moreover, appealing to a foreign audience, Sakharov urged the West to maintain a unified position in relations with the USSR and the countries of the socialist camp, and not dilute the significance of the values it defended for the sake of immediate interests.

Finally, he touched on the topic of the countries of the Third World. Seeing the need for assistance from the West, at the same time he noted that the time had come for them to integrate into the universal development agenda more fully and deliberately.

Sakharov concluded the essays as follows:

“The reality of the contemporary world is complex, with many planes. (...) The future may even be more tragic. Or it may be more worthy of human beings – better and more intelligent. Or, again, it may not be at all. It depends on all of us (...) on our wisdom, our freedom from illusion and prejudices, our readiness to work, to practice intelligent austerity, and on our kindness and our breadth as human beings. That wisdom must be manifested in a genuine rapprochement among the countries of the First, Second, and the Third worlds; in overcoming disunity in the name of man and his rights. The future of intelligence, of scientific prediction and progress – the future of the common weal – must be realized.”
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1975. Award of the Nobel Peace Prize.

In October 1975, Andrei Sakharov was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “fearless personal commitment in upholding the fundamental principles of peace between peoples” and uncompromising struggle “against the abuse of power and all forms of violation of human dignity.”

In the opinion of the Nobel Committee, “Uncompromisingly and forcefully, Sakharov has fought not only against the abuse of power and violations of human dignity in all its forms, but he has with equal vigor fought for the ideal of a state founded on the principle of justice for all. In a convincing fashion Sakharov has emphasized that the inviolable rights of man can serve as the only sure foundation for a genuine and long-lasting system of international cooperation.”

This was the first Nobel Peace Prize awarded to a citizen of the USSR.

Andrei Sakharov on the day he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. October 9, 1975. Photo: Getty Images.

The KGB and Party leadership of the country perceived this as a hostile attack on the part of the West.

On October 15, the Politburo approved an entire program of measures “to discredit the decision of the Nobel Committee.” It included preparation and publication in the Soviet press of yet another letter signed by prominent scientists, condemning Sakharov’s position, and a “feuilleton,” which was supposed to “show that the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Sakharov (…) serves as a handout to reactionary circles of the West for their constant slander of the Soviet social and state system.” Furthermore, the Politburo demanded that a series of publications be “promoted in the West,” exposing Sakharov as a person who supposedly spoke out against détente, to “show the absurdity of the decision of the Nobel Committee, awarding the Peace Prize to the inventor of a weapon of mass destruction.”

Extract from the minutes of the meeting of the Central Committee of the CPSU on October 15, 1975. “On measures to compromise the decision of the Nobel committee in awarding the Peace prize to Andrei Sakharov.” Copy. Sakharov Archive.

The authorities did not allow Sakharov, as “a person who possesses knowledge of state secrets” to travel to Norway for the awarding of the prize. But a Nobel laureate has the right to invite guests to the ceremony. In particular, Sakharov sent symbolic invitations to the human rights advocates Sergei Kovalev and Andrei Tverdokhlebov, who were imprisoned.

On December 10, the awards ceremony took place in Oslo. Yelena Bonner, Sakharov’s wife, accepted the prize on his behalf. On December 11 she read out the text of Sakharov’s Nobel Lecture, in which he formulated his creed as a thinker and human rights defender:

“Peace, progress, human rights – these three goals are insolubly linked to one another: it is impossible to achieve one of these goals if the other two are ignored. (...) I am convinced that international confidence, mutual understanding, disarmament, and international security are inconceivable without an open society with freedom  of information, freedom of conscience, the right to publish, and the right to travel and choose the country in which one wishes to live. I am likewise convinced that freedom of conscience, together with the other civic rights, provides the basis for scientific progress and constitutes a guarantee that scientific advances will not be used to despoil mankind, providing the basis for economic and social progress, which in turn is a political guarantee for the possibility of an effective defense of social rights. At the same time I should like to defend the thesis of the original and decisive significance of civic and political rights in moulding the destiny of mankind.”
Yelena Bonner reads the text of Sakharov’s Nobel lecture. Oslo, December 1, 1975. Screenshot from the television and radio company NRK.

Sakharov would not be Sakharov, however, if he spoke only about global problems and the tasks for humankind’s development. Later in his Memoirs, he wrote:

“The defense of individuals is for me a matter of principle and lies at the very heart of my public activity.”

And in that case, he used the high platform of the Nobel Prize awards to attract the attention of the world community to the fate of victims of political persecution in the USSR. “I would ask you to remember that all prisoners of conscience and all political prisoners in my country share with me the honor of the Nobel Prize,” he said. Yelena Bonner read his speech and listed more than a hundred names.

Sakharov himself on that day was in Vilnius – then the capital of Soviet Lithuania – where the trial of his close friend, Sergei Kovalev, was under way. He was not allowed into the courtroom, and the day of his highest celebration he spent in the foyer of the building of the Supreme Court of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic.

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1975. Sakharov Hearings.

After the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize, the name of Andrei Sakharov became a symbol for the world community of the struggle for human rights, against totalitarianism, for a common peaceful future for humankind. In October 1975, in Copenhagen, the Danish Sakharov Committee for Human Rights was formed, which began organizing a “Sakharov Hearing” – an international conference where the situation of human rights in the Soviet Union and in the countries of Eastern Europe was discussed.

Address by Andrei Sakharov to the participants of the First Sakharov hearings. The newspaper, “Russian Thought” (Paris). October 23, 1975. From the collection of the Sakharov Archive.

Already in 1976, the human rights defenders had achieved a substantial success: according to a proposal made at the Sakharov Hearings and actively supported by Sakharov himself, an exchange of political prisoners was made between the USSR and the West. One of the leaders of the Soviet dissident movement, Vladimir Bukovsky, who had been imprisoned since 1971, was exchanged for Louis Corvalan, general secretary of the Chilean Communist Party, who was arrested after a military coup in his homeland in 1973. Bukovsky and his family went to Great Britain, and Corvalan to the USSR.

Collection of materials from the first Sakharov hearings. Copenhagen, 1975. From the collection of the Sakharov Archive.

In 1976, Sakharov was elected as honorary vice president of the International League for Human Rights, a non-governmental organization with consultative status at the UN.

The high international recognition of Sakharov’s merits as a humanitarian thinker, campaigner for peace and human rights defender provoked the anger of the leadership of the USSR; however, the Soviet authorities, fearing a reaction that would be unpleasant for them, did not dare to apply direct repression to him for several years.

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1976. Creation of the Moscow Helsinki Group.

On May 12, 1976, at a press conference for foreign journalists held at the Moscow apartment of Academician Sakharov, human rights defenders announced the creation of the Moscow Group to Promote the Observance of the Helsinki Accords (the Moscow Helsinki Group). The physicist Yury Orlov became the head of this organization.

The Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG) declared as their goal the promotion of the practical implementation of the humanitarian articles of the Helsinki Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe of 1975, and all other international legal obligations of the Soviet Union in the area of human rights. The group gathered information about the violation of human rights in the USSR, publicized them in samizdat and sent them to the West to inform other participating states of the Helsinki Accords.

Andrei Sakharov and Yelena Bonner in the kitchen of their Moscow apartment. December 10, 1976. Photo: V. Rastelli / Corbis via Getty Images.

Among the members of the Moscow Helsinki Group were many friends of Sakharov, and his wife Yelena Bonner joined the group as well. He himself had profound respect for the MHG’s activity, but refused to formally become its member. Independence gave him freedom to act and enabled him to use to the maximum effectiveness his unique status as a major scientist, an internationally famous public figure and laureate of the Nobel Prize.

“I preferred the freedom of speaking out as an individual, and in the means of expression which was the most appropriate for me in my highly visible position. (...) But I had no objection to endorsing group documents when I approved their content, and did so on many occasions,” he thus explained his position.
The arrest of the member of a Moscow Helsinki Group Alexander Podrabinek. May 14, 1978. Photo: Sakharov Center.
Andrei Sakharov outside the building of the Moscow city council during the trial over Yury Orlov. May 15–18, 1978. Photo: Oleg Kaplin. Sakharov Archive.

In 1976–1977, Helsinki Groups were also formed in a number of republics of the Soviet Union, and later the Helsinki movement spread to other countries of the world. The MHG suffered repression – searches, arrests, administrative exiles; several of them were convicted on political charges or emigrated from the country. Finally, in 1982, when only two of its members remained at liberty, the MHG was forced to suspend its activity, but renewed it in 1989.

Today, the Moscow Helsinki Group is one of the oldest existing human rights organizations in Russia.

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1976. Attack on Sakharov During a Demonstration on Pushkin Square.

Sakharov, who had annually, since 1966, taken part in the silent demonstrations in support of political prisoners which took place on Pushkin Square on Soviet Constitution Day, soon became their most visible participant.

Photograph of Andrei Sakharov on the cover of Time magazine. February 21, 1977.

On December 5, 1976, he became the target of a provocation. He had barely removed his hat at the appointed time, together with other participants in the action, in order to demonstrate their respect to the prisoners of conscience with this symbolic gesture, when someone from among the supposedly accidental passersby threw a dirty snowball at him. Immediately several “hooligans” surrounded the academician and knocked him off his feet. His colleagues hurried to Sakharov’s aid, and guarded him with their bodies. They all understood that it was impossible to show active resistance to provocateurs – if a fight broke out, the KGB officers, of which there were plenty on the square, would exploit this to detain the protesters.

They managed to fend off the attack, and the brief action proceeded as it had been planned.

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1977. Alarm and Hope. Correspondence with US President Jimmy Carter.

In early 1977, at the request of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Sakharov wrote an article of social commentary, “Alarm and Hope,” intended for a collection of articles by laureates of the Nobel Prize titled Peace in Our Time, which was published only in the following year, in 1978.

This article, however, addressed to the world community, immediately gained wide circulation. In particular, it was included in an anthology of articles, statements, and interviews by Sakharov under the same title, Alarm and Hope, which came out in 1977 in various countries, in various languages, including Russian.

Andrei Sakharov. Moscow, May 17, 1978. Photo: Sakharov Archive.

Sakharov prefaced his article with the words of the great fighter for civil rights, Martin Luther King, Jr. as an epigraph: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

“Alarm and Hope.” Transcript edited by A.D. Sakharov. Sakharov Archive.

Once again, as in his article “My Country and the World,” he wrote about the internal problems of the USSR, where behind the outwardly relative prosperity was hidden “a deeply cynical caste society has come into being, one which I consider dangerous (to itself as well as all mankind) – a sick society” with “cruelty on a mass scale, lawlessness, the absence of civil rights protecting the average man against the authorities, and the latter's total unaccountability toward their own people or the whole world.”

"As long as this situation continues, no one in our country, nor anywhere in the world, can allow himself to lapse into complacency,” he warned.

Concluding that capitalist society, despite Marxist dogma, had remained capable of development and humanization, Sakharov placed great hope for the continuation of this process. And immediately admitted that convergence, that is the drawing close of opposing types of social systems, would encounter the closed nature and rigidity of the “totalitarian socialist society.” In Sakharov’s opinion, this threatened the process of international détente, which was inconceivable without international trust. For true détente, that is, for an increase in international society, disarmament alone was insufficient; therefore, the democratic countries of the West must not close their eyes to human rights violations in socialist countries, he emphasized.

Selected editions of the article “Alarm and Hope.” From the collection of Sakharov Archive.

Sakharov’s extremely intensive public activity during this time was inspired by the idea of active international defense of human rights. In his article “Alarm and Hope,” he wrote:

“The defense of human rights is not political in nature. It arises from moral principles and their link to peace. Therefore, all people of good will, whether their political opinions are ‘rightist’ or ‘leftist,’ can and should participate in the defense of human rights.”

Nevertheless, the Soviet authorities, twisting his position inside out, accused him of politicizing the topic of détente and entering into a conspiracy with the enemies of the USSR with the purpose of disrupting the peace process, on which the future of humankind depended. They were particularly alarmed by the entirely unprecedented fact of the human rights defender’s correspondence with the head of a foreign power.

In early 1977, Sakharov was able to transmit a private letter to US President Jimmy Carter, who had recently taken office. Not long before this, in his Inauguration speech, he had proclaimed that the moral basis of politics in the US would be the defense of human rights, and Sakharov, hoping to find a like-minded person in the American president, asked him to make efforts to free the Soviet political prisoners, particularly those who were seriously ill, and women.

Jimmy Carter. Photo: Getty Images.

In his return letter, Carter emphasized his respect for Sakharov and assured him that the American people and government intended to promote respect for human rights throughout the world. In particular, he wrote that “we will use our opportunities to achieve the release of prisoners of conscience.”

The fact that this letter was transmitted to Sakharov by American diplomats directly at the US Embassy in Moscow was regarded by the Soviet government as “outright attempts by official American agencies to interfere in the internal affairs of the Soviet Union.”

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1978. Clandestine Search.

The second half of the 1970s was an extremely active time for Sakharov. He drafted and signed dozens of human rights documents, sent the authorities and law-enforcement bodies appeals on general problems and on individual cases of people whose rights were violated, conducted press conferences for foreign journalists in his apartment, and several times gave them interviews.

Andrei Sakharov during a press conference for foreign journalists at his home on July 15, 1978. Photo: Sakharov Archive.

Still fearing direct political repression of their most authoritative opponent, the Soviet authorities increased the pressure on him with each passing year. Mail addressed in his name was intercepted, and many letters and telegrams were lost. All of his telephone calls were monitored, and international conversations were cut off. Threats were made against him and his family.

On November 29, 1978, the KGB made a secret search of his apartment in Moscow.

Sakharov and Bonner had long feared this, and if they had to leave the apartment empty, they would take the most important documents with them. On that day, they were gone only about an hour and a half, but when they returned, they discovered that although the door to the apartment was closed, several items of clothing, Sakharov’s eyeglasses and other things were missing. This was evidently a mocking “greeting” from the KGB. Several human rights documents were discovered to have disappeared as well from his files. And the manuscript of Sakharov’s Memoirs also disappeared, on which he had worked for five months. Subsequently, he was to repeatedly restore this text, and the KGB would confiscate it. He was able to finish work on the Memoirs only in 1983.

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Among the signatories of the appeal, besides human rights activists, were cultural figures and scientists: musician Mstislav Rostropovich, poet Alexander Galich, journalist and prisoner of Stalin’s camps Evgeny Gnedin, physicist and academician Mikhail Leontovich, cyberneticist Alexander Lerner, and writers Veniamin Kaverin, Lydia Chukovskaya, and Victor Nekrasov, etc.

On September 13, Sakharov took the appeals with the signatures to the reception of the Supreme Soviet and then handed over the texts and lists of signatories to foreign journalists.

There was no reaction to these appeals from the Supreme Soviet. The authors continued to ignore Sakharov and his associates.

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