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Chapter 7. The Return.
A.D. Sakharov with French Prime Minister M. Rocard (center) and the leader of the Polish trade union “Solidarity,” human rights activist L. Walesa. Paris, December 10, 1988. Photo: Sakharov Archive.
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1987. Perestroika in the USSR.

The release of Academician Sakharov from exile became a harbinger of a radical change of course by the leadership of the USSR.  In January 1987, Mikhail Gorbachev announced a broad program of political and economic reforms which was called “perestroika.” Its purpose was to give a new impulse of development to the country, to overcome, above all, its long-standing economic problems while preserving the socialist system as before under the control of the Communist Party.

M.S. Gorbachev. 1986.

The release of Academician Sakharov from exile became a harbinger of a radical change of course by the leadership of the USSR.  In January 1987, Mikhail Gorbachev announced a broad program of political and economic reforms which was called “perestroika.” Its purpose was to give a new impulse of development to the country, to overcome, above all, its long-standing economic problems while preserving the socialist system as before under the control of the Communist Party.

A key component of perestroika inside the country was the comprehensive democratization of public and economic life, and its most vivid manifestation, glasnost; a softening, and then finally a full abolition of censorship; and a removal of the ban on criticism, including that which concerned human rights compliance. The policy of perestroika developed rather uncertainty and inconsistently, but the people of the Soviet Union supported it with great enthusiasm.

Procession in support of democratic reforms in the country. Zelenograd, Moscow region, 1988. Photo: V. Kiselev.

Much in the program of perestroika and new thinking impressed Sakharov. He viewed the change in political course with optimism; however, he was alarmed by the stubborn resistance by the Party and state bureaucracy to the processes of democratization.

“Gorbachev and his close associates themselves may still not have completely thrown off the prejudices and dogmas of the system they inherited," he wrote in his last book, Moscow and Beyond. “The restructuring of our country's command-type economic system is an extremely complex manner. Without the introduction of market relations and elements of competition, we are bound to see serious shortages, inflation and other negative phenomena (...) Only a nationwide surge of initiative can give substance to democracy, and our chiefs are not ready for this.”
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1987. European Parliament Institutes the Sakharov Prize for Free of Thought.

Soon after the release of Sakharov from exile, Lord Nicholas Bethell, a deputy of the European Parliament from Great Britain, advocated an initiative to establish a  European Parliament “Prize for Freedom of Thought.” In March 1987, he asked Sakharov to allow his name to be used for this prize and Sakharov gave his consent.

The first laureates of this prize in 1988 was Nelson Mandela, leader of the movement against apartheid in South Africa, who at that time was in prison, and Anatoly Marchenko, who died in prison in 1986.

A.T. Marchenko. 1981. Photo: Sakharov Center
N. Mandela. 1990. ILO PHOTO

The European Parliament’s prestigious Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought is given each year to people and organizations who have made an exceptional contribution to the campaign for human rights throughout the world.

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1987. Return to Public Life. Speech on Behalf of Reducing Soviet and American Nuclear Missiles.

Sakharov’s first public speech after returning to Moscow took place on February 14, 1987, after an international forum titled “For a Nuclear-Free World, for the Survival of Humankind.”

A.D. Sakharov at the opening of the international forum “For a nuclear-free world, for the survival of mankind.” February 14, 1987. Photo: S. Smirnov, Sakharov Archive.
“I understood that participation in the forum would inevitably be used for purely propagandistic purposes,” he wrote later. “But I proceeded from the fact that the positive meaning of a public speech after so many years when my mouth was totally closed was far more significant.”

“A nuclear-free world is a desirable goal,” said Sakharov. “It is possible only in the future, as a result of many radical changes in the world. Conditions for peaceful development now and in the future are a settlement of regional conflicts, a balance of conventional armaments, liberalization and democratization, greater openness of Soviet society, observance of civil and political rights, and a compromise solution of the problem of anti-missile defense without linking it to the ‘package’ of other issues of strategic arms.”

Sakharov’s position, which proposed to the Soviet Union and United States to reduce the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles and small- and medium-range missiles without any additional conditions (rejection of the “package” principle), articulated at the forum, was soon supported by Gorbachev. That enabled the talks between the USSR and USA to move forward significantly and already by the end of 1987, to conclude an agreement to destroy small- and medium-range missiles – the first agreement in world history about a real reduction in existing nuclear armaments.

M.S. Gorbachev and R. Reagan signed the Treaty on the Elimination of Intermediate-Range and Short-Range Missiles. December 8, 1987.

This agreement would slow down the nuclear arms race between East and West on the long run and would significantly reduce the level of tension in the world.

At the same time, the first dozens of Soviet political prisoners were being released from prisons, exile, and labor camps. Sakharov had worked for this for many years.

Meanwhile, his own position after release from exile was ambiguous for a long time. All the previous restrictions were removed from him, he met with foreign journalists without hindrance and even met the heads of foreign states visiting Moscow, but only a few of his remarks and interviews appeared in the Soviet press (mainly on the problems of disarmament). Nevertheless, he received enormous public recognition in the form of moral authority. Hundreds of appeals with requests for help and support were sent to him.

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1988. First Open Press Conference.

On June 3, 1988, Sakharov was given the opportunity to give a press conference in Moscow for all media – both foreign and Soviet. The USSR Ministry of Foreign Affairs provided the room for the press conference.

The open press conference by Academician Sakharov – who until recently was a political exile subjected to public defamation by the Soviet press – was a major event for the country.

For three hours, he answer questions and touched upon all the themes that concerned him at the time – on continuation of the talks between the USSR and US on reducing nuclear armaments; on the creation of a demilitarized corridor in Europe which would separate the opposing forces of NATO and the Warsaw Pact; on reduction of the period of service in the Soviet army; on the need to develop safe nuclear energy; about prisoners of conscience; on the need to secure in legislation the freedom to choose the country of one’s residence; and on unsolved nationalities problems – the unlawful ban on the return of the Crimean Tatars, deported under Stalin, to Crimea, and the problem of Nagorno-Karabakh, which led to ethnical-based disorders and a violent pogrom in the city of Sumgait in February 1988.

A.D. Sakharov during a press conference at the press center of the Foreign Ministry. June 3, 1988. Photo: B. Yurchenko, Sakharov Archive.

Sakharov welcomed the start of the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan and the policy of perestroika and glasnost in the USSR.  

“I (…) am concerned about many things: the difficulties that have arisen in supplying the population, the threat of price hikes, the threats and actions of the Black Hundreds’ forces. But even so, it seems to me, a return to Stalinism is not possible. (…) I think that in the final analysis, the processes of perestroika will prevail. But I do not know what this path will be like and what can be done on this path, and that very much concerns me,” said Sakharov at the press conference.

(The “Black Hundreds” were an ultra-nationalist monarchist movement in Russia in the early 20th century, and the term has come to be used for any ultra-right movement.)

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1988. “The Inevitability of Perestroika.”

In March 1988, Sakharov wrote an article titled “The Inevitability of Perestroika” for an anthology of social commentary titled There is No Other Way. In it, he outlined a broad program of reforms, linked by unified democratic logic, and needed urgently by the Soviet state and society so as to stop the growing ineffectiveness and degradation.

“I would like to emphasize that I am convinced of the absolute historical inevitability of perestroika. It’s like wartime. Victory is necessary,” wrote Sakharov. And then he immediately warned: “Great difficulties and obstacles of an economic, psychological and organizational type are inevitable. (…) The main obstacles of perestroika are in the general rigidity of the administrative bureaucratic system, which was formed over the course of decades, and in the real interests of the millions of its actors at all levels.”

He ascribed particular significance to glasnost as a necessary condition for a successful transformation of society, liberating it from the violence of totalitarianism.

"Corrupting lies, silence and hypocrisy need to go away permanently and irrevocably out of our lives. Only an internally free person can be proactive, as is necessary for society,” he emphasized.

Sakharov could not neglect the topic of persecution for beliefs. He called not only to release the last, remaining prisoners of conscience from prisons, but to radically change the law, and remove from it those statutes punishing people for dissent. He also considered easing the situation of prisoners and abolishing the death penalty as necessary steps toward humanization of society.

He cited the “openness” of Soviet society and a renunciation of the Soviet tradition to concentrate power in the hands of a narrow circle of Party elite as some of the main conditions for “the moral and economic health of the country,” and also for international trust and security.

“The concept of openness,” Sakharov explained, “includes monitoring by society of key decisions made (a repeat of the mistake of invading Afghanistan must become impossible); freedom of belief; freedom to receive and distribute information; and freedom of choice of the country of one’s residence and place of residence inside the country.”

Aware that the economic reforms would inevitably affect people’s welfare, he called for paying particular attention to guaranteeing social justice and not allowing the population to become impoverished. At that same time, he hoped that raising the workers’ material interest and freeing private initiative, which had been shackled by ideological restrictions for more than 50 years, could rescue the economy from final decline.

The manuscript of the article “The inevitability of Perestroika” (Sakharov Archive) and the collection “There is no other way” where the article was published.
“Economic and legal conditions must be created in which initiative is profitable, there is a flexible response to economic competition, technical progress is profitable, and good personal work is profitable – without any brakes and restrictions of a dogmatic nature,” he wrote.

Finally, yet another important topic of the article were concrete proposals to resolve nationalities problems, inherited from the Stalinist era, which had become aggravated by the softening of the political regime in the country. The Crimean Tatars, deported from Crimea in 1944, demanded to be allowed to return to their homeland; the brutal inter-ethnic conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanis caused by the dispute over the territorial affiliation of Nagorno-Karabakh, had already led to mass pogroms and bloodshed.

“A just and inevitable resolution of these issues must not be put off again for more decades, leaving constant zones of tension in the country,” Sakharov emphasized.

In concluding his article, Sakharov noted that perestroika in the USSR had world-wide historical significance. In the Soviet Union’s rejection of totalitarianism, he saw a very important step in the direction of convergence – the peaceful rapprochement of the capitalist and socialist systems – and called on all humankind to follow suit.

A.D. Sakharov in the square of the Peter and Paul Fortress in Leningrad. June 1987. Photo: R. Tsimerinov, Sakharov Archive.

The anthology There is No Other Way, which contained articles from 34 leading scientists and commentators of democratic convictions, including Sakharov, came out in June 1988, in a print run of 50,000 copies. The authors of the articles did not agree with each other on everything; they were united, however, by a common striving for moral cleansing and a radical renewal of the country, and that made the book one of the most important collective statements on the fate of the country of the perestroika era.

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1988. Creation of the Memorial Civic Movement and Moscow Tribunal Discussion Club.

Sakharov took an active part in the creation of the first independent civic associations of the perestroika era.

On June 25, 1988, for the first time in his life, he spoke at a rally. This was the first rally of the Memorial Society permitted by the authorities, devoted to the need to commemorate the memory of the victims of political repressions, and to publicize all the crimes of the Stalin regime, along with a demand to democratize Soviet society.

Speech by A.D. Sakharov at the “Memorial” rally. Moscow, June 25, 1988. Photo: A. Turusov, Sakharov Archive.
Membership card of the All-Russian Voluntary Historical and Educational Society “Memorial.” 1988. From the collection of the Sakharov Archive.

“Memorial” emerged on the wave of a spontaneous mass movement for a moral cleansing of society and a restoration of historical justice. As one of the most authoritative public figures in the country, Sakharov was elected chairman of the Memorial Civic Committee and went on to persistently attempt to get official registration for the organization, despite the resistance of the authorities.

L.V. Karpinsky, Y.F. Karjakin, A.D. Sakharov, Y.N. Afanasyev, L.M.Batkin, G.N. Zhavoronkov during a discussion on the creation of the MoscowTribune discussion club. August 9, 1988. Photo: D. Chizhkov, Sakharov Archive

In July and August of the same year, he joined the initiative group to create a political and cultural public discussion club called “Moscow Tribunal,” whose purpose was to discuss the main problems of perestroika – economic, social, judicial, legal, environmental, and international, and to draft a program of action for a democratic movement.

“The main argument for organizing such a club, in effect an embryonic legal opposition, was the threatening political situation. There were dangerous symptoms of a shift to the right,” Sakharov recalled.
A.D. Sakharov (right), L.M Batkin (center) and Y.G. Burtin at the first meeting of the Moscow Tribune discussion club at the Moscow historical and archival institute. October 12, 1988. Photo: Y. Rost, Sakharov Archive

Andrei Sakharov’s active involvement in public discussions on the whole spectrum of society’s most severe problems, and his authority, growing with each passing day, inevitably led to his turning into a real public politician; the political regime existing at that time in the USSR, however, did not yet permit the formation of political forces independent of the Communist Party.

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1988. “You Can Only Fight a Thought with a Thought.”

In November 1988, Sakharov wrote an article titled “You Can Only Fight a Thought with a Thought,” which soon came out as an appendix to the popular journal Novoye vremya [New Time]. In it, he sketched out in brief a plan of priority legal reforms, including amendments to the USSR Constitution then in effect. The country’s entire justice system, built on anti-democratic principles, needed review, and Sakharov saw this as one of the most important tasks of perestroika.

Above all, he explained the concept of a state based on the rule of law, new for the Soviet reader, who had grown accustomed to Party dictatorship and “socialist legality.” He wrote about the unconditional subordination of all authorities to the law; on supreme constitutional review; on the importance of complying with the country’s international obligations; about citizens’ participation in making the most important state decisions; about abolition of the death penalty; and about guaranteeing civil rights during investigation and legal proceedings.

Publication of the article by A.D. Sakharov, “Thought can only be fought with thought” in the appendix “Perestroika and Human Rights” to the magazine “New Time” (December 1988). From the collection of the Sakharov Archive.

Sakharov devoted particular attention to the liberties which were emasculated or absent altogether in Soviet law: freedom of belief, freedom of choice of residence inside the country and freedom of emigration, and freedom of peaceful rallies and demonstrations.

The escalation of nationalities problems even to the point of inter-ethnic clashes was extremely dangerous for such a multinational country as the USSR and forced him to ponder changes in the state system of nationalities in the Soviet Union. In order to avoid the outbreak of such problems in the future, he proposed incorporating in the new Constitution the principle of equality before the law of all national-territorial formations and to give their population broad rights to take part in the passing of the most important administrative decisions.

Soon the principles of this article would form the basis of Sakharov’s campaign program in the elections of people’s deputies of the USSR.

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1988. Trip to US and France.

In late October 1983, the Politburo withdrew the prohibition on Academician Sakharov’s travel abroad. On November 6, for the first time in his life, he went abroad – first to the US, where he took part in a meeting of the Board of Directors of the International Foundation for the Survival and Development of Humanity, and then to France.

He spoke at special events; gave press conferences; met with then US President Ronald Reagan, President-Elect George Bush, Sr., and French President François Mitterrand; and was honored by scientific societies and human rights organizations. These were the days of his triumph. For a Western audience, Andrei Sakharov was not only a legendary human rights defender and prisoner of conscience but the living personification of the changes in the USSR, which the international community was following with hope.

Meeting of US President and A.D. Sakharov at the White House on November 14, 1988. Gift inscription: “To Doctor Sakharov with great admiration and respect. Very best wishes & regards. Ronald Reagan.” Sakharov Archive.
A.D. Sakharov and the father of the American hydrogen bomb E. Teller. Washington, November 16, 1988. Photo: Getty Images
A.D. Sakharov visiting the Yankelevichs in Boston. Behind his chair T.I. Yankelevich. November 2 – December 7, 1988. Photo: Sakharov Archive.
A.D. Sakharov and Ye.G. Bonner with the president of France F. Mitterrand. Paris, December 10, 1988. Photo: Sakharov Archive.
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In America, he saw his granddaughter for the first time – the little daughter of Alexey Semyonov and Elizaveta Alexeyeva, the very same woman for whom he and Yelena Bonner had staged a hunger strike in 1981, to obtain permission for her travel to her fiancé.

On December 13, Andrei Sakharov returned to the Soviet Union.

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