The lives of the saints do not alter the fate of nations—except when they do. In 1953, a young physicist named Andrei Sakharov was working at a secret research site in Kazakhstan. The facility was near a forced-labor camp, one of countless outposts of the Gulag Archipelago. Every morning, Sakharov watched lines of prisoners marching in the dust, guard dogs barking at their heels. Yet when the news arrived, early that March, that Joseph Stalin had died, Sakharov did not connect the fallen generalissimo with the misery near his door. “I am under the influence of a great man’s death,” he wrote to his first wife. “I am thinking of his humanity.”
Five months later, Sakharov donned a pair of protective goggles and watched the detonation of his horrific creation, the first Soviet thermonuclear weapon: “We saw a flash, and then a swiftly expanding white ball lit up the whole horizon.” For his contribution to the defense of the motherland, Sakharov received the Hero of Socialist Labor award and a comfortable place in the scientific élite. But, with time, Sakharov—like his American counterpart, J. Robert Oppenheimer—could not bear the thought of what he had helped to produce. He rebelled first against apocalyptic weaponry, and then against the totalitarian system. By 1968, he was the moral center of a small group of Soviet dissidents who were willing to risk everything to confront the dictatorship.
Sakharov, who was born in Moscow a hundred years ago, may have been as responsible for the dissolution of the Soviet Union as its last General Secretary and President, Mikhail Gorbachev. The moral pressure that Sakharov exerted on Gorbachev was no less consequential than the pressure that Martin Luther King, Jr., exerted on Lyndon Johnson. In 1989, when Gorbachev sanctioned an unprecedented degree of open debate at a new parliament, the Congress of People’s Deputies, Sakharov took the podium to call for an end to the Communist Party’s monopoly on power. Gorbachev, whiplashed by his conscience and the disdain of the hard-liners surrounding him, wavered between letting Sakharov speak and cutting off his microphone. It was an unforgettable morality play that was broadcast live across a shattering imperium.
In December, 1989, Sakharov died in his Moscow apartment. Gorbachev came to the funeral. A nervy reporter stepped up to remind the Soviet leader that when Sakharov was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1975, he was not allowed to leave the country to accept his medal. “It is clear now that he deserved it,” Gorbachev said.
For many years after Sakharov’s death, the post-Soviet Russian leadership, even as it grew increasingly authoritarian, did not feel it necessary to dispute the dissident’s moral prestige. No longer. The state-controlled media gave the centenary of his birth minimal attention and kept the focus on his contributions to science and defense. When Moscow’s Sakharov Center, which is devoted to human rights, planned a photographic exhibit in his honor, city officials prohibited it, explaining, “The content was not authorized.”
Writing in the Washington Post, the pro-democracy campaigner Vladimir Kara-Murza deemed that decision “quite appropriate” to the political moment. And so it is. President Putin’s policy on political dissent is not so distant from the seventies-era strictures under Leonid Brezhnev. Putin has insured that the parliamentary opposition is toothless, and has all but crushed any popular opposition; his attitude toward democratic debate is illustrated by the attempted murder of the anti-corruption activist and opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who is now languishing in a prison camp. Kara-Murza is hardly an alarmist. He was an adviser to Boris Nemtsov, a former Deputy Prime Minister and an opponent of Putin, who was murdered six years ago, near the Kremlin. Kara-Murza himself has survived two poisonings.
Last week, at the summit meeting with President Biden in Geneva, Putin made it plain once again that he is nothing at all like Gorbachev, who took positions based on considerations broader than political survival and, at critical moments, consulted the more complex demands of morality articulated by such figures of conscience as Andrei Sakharov. Amoralism is Putin’s reflexive posture. Pressed on any question, he reverts to the now familiar rhetorical maneuver of “whataboutism.” Asked at a press conference about his treatment of Navalny, Putin equated that appalling injustice with the prosecutions of the insurrectionists who stormed the U.S. Capitol, on January 6th. With the greatest of ease, in private and in public, he can flip the subject from Russia’s takeover of Crimea or its interference in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election to American racism, mass shootings, or brutality in Guantánamo. Putin is a smarter and more skilled authoritarian than Donald Trump; he is no less shameless.
In a week of summiteering, Biden did his level best to reassert a sense of common cause with NATO allies and to promote a foreign policy that seeks a foundation in values as well as in raw interests. “Human rights is gonna always be on the table,” Biden said he told Putin. “It’s about who we are.” It was a relief to hear an American President speak up for human rights again, but it will take a great deal more to exert moral suasion in Russia or anywhere else. U.S. history is hardly saintly: that “shining city upon a hill” is, at best, a destination. Shallow talk of American exceptionalism has, over the years, allowed Putin to call us hypocrites, and to declare, as he told the Financial Times two years ago, that the liberal ideal has “outlived its purpose.”
Biden went to Geneva in large measure to reverse the spectacle of Trump’s famous press conference in Helsinki, in 2018, at which he appeared to side with Putinism over his own government. But, although Trump has left the White House, his legacy persists. The leadership of the Republican Party supports voter suppression, coddles conspiracy theorists, demotes dissenters, downplays the dangers of climate change, and refuses to investigate an insurrection inspired by a sitting President.
In 1968, a year in which the Kremlin sent tanks into Prague to crack down on dissent, Sakharov wrote that “freedom of thought is the only guarantee against an infection of people by mass myths, which, in the hands of treacherous hypocrites and demagogues, can be transformed into bloody dictatorship.” It will fall to Russians, not outsiders, to make Russia more free when Putin passes from the scene. But the only way the United States can hope to set an example is by setting itself right. ♦
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