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01
Author:
Автор:
A. Sakharov. 1973
Interview with Olle Stenholm
Автор:
A. Sakharov. 1973
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... The most natural thing for any person in this situation is to regard his own system as the best. So that any deviation from the line is already something in the nature of a psychological process.

When I wrote my essay in 1968 the process was still in its early stages, even my approach was more abstract. My life has been such that I have grappled in the first instance with global problems and only later come to the more concrete, personal, human ones. You have to understand this when you evaluate my 1968 treatise, you have to bear in mind anyway the path I have come to take – from my work on thermonuclear weapons, from my alarm at nuclear tests, at the destruction of people, at the genetic consequences, at all these things.

And I was very remote, so to speak, from the basic problems of the people as a whole, the country as a whole. I was in a very privileged position materially, isolated from people.

But then later on?

Later on my life somehow altered on a purely personal level, psychologically, it was simply a further stage in the development of the process.

But what is socialism? I started out, as it were, by thinking that I understood what it was and that I saw it as a good thing. Then I gradually ceased to understand a great deal. I found that I failed to understand the very (bases) of the economy, failed to understand if there were anything more to it than mere words or propaganda for domestic and foreign consumption. The (Soviet) state represents an extreme concentration of economic, political and ideological power, that is, extreme monopolisation. It stares you in the face. You could say, as Lenin did at the start of our revolution, that it is simply state capitalism, that is, the state acting as sole proprietor of the entire economy. But in that case there's nothing new at all about this socialism. It's simply capitalism developed to its extremes, the sort of capitalism you have in the United States, for example, and other western countries, but with extreme monopolisation. We ought not to be surprised, then, that we have the same problems, qualitatively speaking, the same criminality, the same alienation of the individual, as the capitalist world. With the difference that our society is an extreme instance, as it were, extremely unfree, extremely constrained ideologically and with a kind of . . . And – what is probably the most characteristic feature – it's the most pretentious society; it's not the best society but it claims to be far better than all the others.

What do you see, in concrete terms, as the greatest defects in Soviet society today?

The absence of freedom, almost certainly. The absence of freedom, the bureaucratisation of the administration, the utter irrationality and the dreadful egoism of it, a class egoism, if you like, concerned in essence only with preserving the existing system and maintaining a facade of decency to cover up what is a very unpropitious internal state of affairs. A society very much on the decline. I've said all that in my writings. And that it must be widely known, common knowledge to all careful observers that all our social services are more for show than matters of fact. That applies to education, to the way it's organised, and to the health service. People in the West often say this: "Yes, you do have many shortcomings, but on the other hand you have free medical assistance!" Well, it's no freer here than in most western countries, in fact it's frequently less free, as they say, and the general standard is very low.

Do you regard Soviet society today as a class society?

Well, that's another theoretical question, a question that has to be treated theoretically. A society with a tremendous lack of internal equality, at any rate . . . But can it be said to be a class structure? In a sense it is a peculiar kind of society. Whether one can call it a class society is hard to say. To a certain extent it's a question of definition. It's a little like the argument we had last time about what society can be called a fascist society. That's a question of definition too, a question of terminology.

But the inequality, then?

There is inequality at many, many levels. Inequality between the rural and urban populations, where you have the collective farm worker with no passport, to all intents and purposes chained to his place of residence, his collective farm. He can only leave the farm if they agree to release him (which they usually do, I grant them that). There's inequality between different areas: Moscow and the large cities, which are privileged in terms of supply, life-style, cultural facilities, and all the other places. And the passport system reinforces, as it were, these divisions, this territorial heterogeneity.

You said earlier that you yourself were a privileged person?

I am privileged, of course, and these days I'm privileged from force of inertia too. I was privileged, supra-privileged because I worked at the very top of the arms industry. It meant – by Soviet standards – a colossal salary and bonuses.

What privileges do you think party workers enjoy in the Soviet Union?

They have enormous extra-financial privileges. All sorts of things – a network of sanatoria, a medical service... enormous privileges. There are very real privileges arising from [personal] connexions, various personal factors. Privileges in one's work, one's career. All managerial posts of any standing are either . . . well, a factory manager or a chief engineer, for example, only a party member can get the job. Exceptions are very rare. So your career depends very much indeed on your party
membership, your position in the party structure, and your official...

But as well as this, there's the traditional attitude to party cadres implied in the concept of ' nomenklatura'. According to this, even if a person is a failure in his job, so long as he has been a leading party worker, he is transferred to some other job with very similar material advantages. The whole business of nomination and promotion in one's job is very closely linked with certain interrelationships within this system. Every big administrator has, of course, people who are his personal associates and who transfer with him from one place to another when he moves. There is absolutely no way of overcoming this; it's obviously become a sort of law in the state structure.

But talking of material perks, the main ones form an isolated and more or less clearly defined group which applies especially to the administration. They are assigned on the basis of party membership, but there are very big internal distinctions within the party itself also. It looks as though something rather like Orwell's inner party does exist in our country in a certain sense.

The people who belong to this inner party, then, enjoy tremendous material privileges. There's a system whereby they are paid extra wages in [special] envelopes. It's a practice that comes and goes. I don't know what the situation is at the moment, but it looks as if the custom has been revived in some places. Then there's the system of closed retail distribution shops where the goods are not only more varied and of higher quality, but even the prices are different, which means that the same currency buys these people goods at a different price in a different shop. In other words, the real amount of their wages is not particularly indicative either.

We have talked a great deal about the defects [in society]. Now, of course, there is the problem of what can be done to rectify them.

What we can do and what we should aspire to are different matters. I feel there is hardly anything that can be done, but.. .

Why not?

Because the system is intrinsically a very stable one. The more unfree a system, the more intrinsically it is preserved, as a rule.

But can external forces not do anything?

We don't understand sufficiently well what the outside world is doing. It looks perhaps more as if the outside world is accepting our rules of the game. Which is a very bad thing. But there is another side to the matter. The fact that we are now breaking out of our fifty years of isolation may in time even have a beneficial influence. But it's very difficult to forecast how all this will come about. As far as the West is concerned, we can never make out whether it is a desire to help us or, on the contrary, a sort of capitulation, a game based on western domestic interests, where we are merely the small change.

But those are forces acting abroad. What about inside the Soviet Union?

There are certainly some processes at work inside the Soviet Union, but for the moment they are so indistinct and so deeply hidden that it's almost impossible to forecast anything positive, any changes at all, any positive ones . . . We realise that a state as huge as ours can never be internally homogeneous, but in the absence of information, in the absence of contact between different groups of people, it is almost impossible to understand what is going on inside it. We know that nationalist tendencies in the peripheral areas of the state are very strong. But whether they are positive or not in each individual case is rather difficult to say. In some cases, the Ukraine for instance, they have become very closely interwoven with democratic trends. It's the same in the Baltic states: religious and nationalist matters merge easily and naturally with democratic ideas. But perhaps in other areas this is not so. We don't know the details.

So you are in fact extremely sceptical although you yourself...

On the whole I'm sceptical about socialism in general. I do not see that socialism offers us anything new on the theoretical level, so to speak, for a better way of organising society. It simply seems to be that although there may even be a few positive variants – life is diverse enough – the development of our state as a whole has
exhibited more destructive than constructive features. Or rather, the constructive features have been due to general human factors: there may have been quite a number of them, but they were general human factors which could have arisen in any other environment; while in our society there has been such an accumulation of fierce political struggle, destruction, and bitterness, that we are now reaping the sad fruits of exhaustion, apathy, cynicism, a kind of . . . which we are having the greatest difficulty in shaking off, in shaking off at all. In what ways our society will develop is very hard to forecast from inside. Perhaps it's easier from outside, but one must do so with the minimum of preconceptions.

But Andrei Dmitrievich, you say you doubt whether anything at all can be achieved in the way of reforming the Soviet system, and yet you yourself go on doing what you do, writing statements, protesting. Why?

One always needs to create ideals for oneself even when one can see no direct way of realising them, because if one had no ideals one would no longer have any hopes, and then one would really feel one was groping in the dark, in an impasse.

Moreover, we are not sure if there are any possible ways in which our country can interact with the outside world. If we don't get any indication that this situation in our country is unfavourable . . . then we shall not even be able to take advantage of the chances we may have, because we shall not know what it is that needs rectifying, or if there is any need at all to rectify anything.

Then there is another factor, the history of our country, which ought to serve as a warning. It ought to restrain the West and the developing countries from making mistakes on the scale of those our country has made during its historical development. A man may not keep silent, but that doesn't mean he hopes to achieve anything. The two propositions are not synonymous. He may not hope to achieve anything at all, but he speaks out all the same because he simply cannot, cannot remain silent.

In almost every concrete instance of repression we never expect to achieve anything, and almost always we have been sadly lacking in any results whatsoever.

But what are you yourself aiming to achieve? In what sense? Socially?

Yes.

Well, as an ideal, I tried in my Memorandum, and particularly in the Postscript to it, to delineate an ideal of a kind, but there were a lot of things I ought to have emended myself in the Memorandum because I wrote it a long time ago, in 1971, and it was published [almost] a year and a half later with no changes. For instance, I wrote about the Chinese problem in a tone which I would perhaps have refrained from adopting now. In fact I would have refrained in the sense that I wouldn't have written anything, because I am no nearer than I ever was to understanding our relations with China, and when you don't understand something it's best not to write about it. I wouldn't have the slightest desire now, for instance, to accuse China of aggression. But I didn't say it there clearly either; perhaps, though, there was an element of exaggeration in my view of the Chinese threat. China in fact represents simply an earlier stage in our own social development; she is more concerned with revolutionary self-assertion both at home and throughout the world than with, for instance, securing prosperity for her people or expanding her territory. They probably don't yet regard this problem as a problem. China is very like Russia in the twenties or the early thirties.

But if you think that socialism in the Soviet Union has not displayed its advantages, does that mean you think that in order to remedy the situation here the whole state must be reorganised, or can something be done within the existing system to improve and eliminate its defects?

I really don't feel able to answer that question. To reorganise the state completely would be unthinkable, there must always be some continuity, some gradualness, otherwise there would be a repetition of the dreadful destruction that we have already gone through several times, total collapse. So naturally I seek gradual change, I'm a liberal, a ' gradualist', if you like.

Well, what is the first thing that must be done?

What has to be done? Well, I realise that our present system can do nothing, or at least very little, about its own intrinsic qualities. What ought to be done? The ideological monism of our society should be liquidated. It's an ideological structure which is essentially anti-democratic and it is a tragedy for the state. Our isolation from the outside world, for example, the absence of the right to leave the country and return to it, is having an extremely pernicious effect on domestic life. In the first instance it is profoundly tragic for all those people who wish to leave for personal and national reasons. But it is also tragic for those who stay in the country, because a country which cannot be freely left or returned to is, for that reason alone, defective, it's a closed volume where processes develop in quite different ways from those in an open system.

You know that the right of free exit...

. . . is one of the most important preconditions for return, free return.

And what else?

It is one of the necessary preconditions for our country somehow to develop along more healthy lines. Then there are things of a more economic nature which are also certainly very important. The extremely developed state socialisation in our country has led to a situation in which private enterprise has been closed down in the very spheres in which it is most effective, as it has in large-scale industry and in transport, where state control is perhaps the rational [form of management].

And as well as this, it has simply placed severe constraints on the individual initiative of citizens, as it has upon their personal freedom. This is having a bad effect on the living standards of the population and merely makes life more drab and dreary for many people than it might otherwise
be. I'm thinking of private initiative in the fields of consumer goods, services, education, medicine. I am quite certain it would all play a very positive role in loosening the extremely monopolistic structure of the state. There are things relating to the administrative monopoly; the fact that the party's monopoly of the administration has reached such proportions here that . . . it must be apparent even to the party bosses that the whole thing is intolerable in principle. It has begun to affect the efficiency of the administration.

Well, what do we need? We need a great deal of openness and publicity in the work of the administrative machinery. And the single-party system is probably excessively and unnecessarily rigid. Even in the conditions of a socialist economy it is possible to do without the single-party system. As a matter of fact some elements of the multi-party system do exist in some of the people's democracies, though admittedly they look very much like half-caricatures.

We need elections with large numbers of candidates for the organs of state. Generally speaking, a series of measures which would have very little effect individually but which when combined might be able to shake the monolith we have created here, this fossilised structure that oppresses the life of the entire country.

The press must change its character. It's so standardised now that it has lost most of its information value. And when it does reflect any facts this is done in such a way that they are intelligible only to the initiated and give a distorted picture of the realities of life in this country; as for the intellectual life, it just doesn't exist, so it's not really something that can be distorted, there's no variety in intellectual life.

One thing in particular I must comment on is the role of the intelligentsia in society. The intelligentsia is kept down in a way that is quite unlawful. Materially it is very badly provided for. Badly provided for, even compared with manual labourers. But its absolute living standard is very low, of course, if you compare it with western countries which have reached roughly the same stage of economic development. This oppression of the intelligentsia – it is economically depressed too – means ideological depression as well, creates a sort of general anti-intellectual atmosphere in the country, in which the intellectual professions – teachers, doctors – don't enjoy the respect they should. And another expression of this anti-intellectualism is the way the intelligentsia itself is beginning to retreat either into narrow professional specialisation or into a dual intellectual life at work and at home; in the narrow circle of their friends people begin thinking in different ways, and this split mentality leads to hypocrisy and further moral and creative decline. Of course, it's the artistic, not the technical intelligentsia that is most distressingly affected by this. They already feel that they have reached a total impasse. And as a result the literature that does come to the surface is terribly grey, conventional, and generally tedious; literature, art, the cinema are beginning to...

Can I put one final question to you? You have been very active indeed [in the human rights movement] over the last few years. Have you never feared for your own health and liberty?

Not very much, I personally have never been afraid for myself, but that's partly my nature, and partly because I started out from a very high social position; such fears would have been quite unjustified and irrelevant. What I fear at the moment are the kinds of pressure that don't affect me personally but may be exerted on the members of my family and my wife's family. That is the most painful thing, because it's very real and it's already happening, getting closer and closer to us. Things like what happened to Levich¹, his son being picked up; it shows you how they go about these things.

Translated by Hilary Steinberg

¹ Corresponding Member of the Academy of Sciences Veniamin Levich, whose son Evgeny, an astrophysicist, was picked up on the street by the military authorities on 16 May 1973 and called up into the army.

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