The Inconvenient Sakharov: His legacy is a moral challenge to the Kremlin, to Western elites and to many of Russia’s oppositionists

Andrei Sakharov file photo, adapted from image at Russian-speaking Community Council facebook event page

Date: Thu, 20 May 2021
From: DDGlinski <>

His legacy is a moral challenge to the Kremlin, to Western elites and to many of Russia’s oppositionists
by Dmitri Glinski

Dmitri Daniel Glinski, Ph.D., a member of the council of the Democratic Russia Movement in the early 1990s and of Russia’s Constitutional Consultative Assembly under President Boris Yeltsin in 1993, formerly professor at Columbia University (2004-09), is managing director of American Russian-speaking Association for Civil & Human Rights (, founded in 2012.

The Association will be holding a memorial roundtable on Sakharov (mostly in Russian) on Sunday May 23rd at 1pm EST, with participation of some of his comrades-in-arms from the Soviet-era human rights movement, as well as some of the organizers of Russian diaspora rallies in support of Russia’s current political prisoners that took place in recent months around the world. For further details and to RSVP, please go to

The centenary of Andrey Sakharov is being commemorated in a markedly low-key manner. This is at least understandable in Russia, where the values of the present regime are inimical to his, while the opposition is being ruthlessly suppressed, and human rights organizations (including the Memorial Society that he co-founded and the center bearing his name) have been hobbled by their official labeling as ‘foreign agents’ and the onerous requirements associated with it. But in the West too, there have been just two or three academic-style events on this occasion, announced at the last moment with minimal publicity, while the financially well-endowed anti-Putin organizations funded by émigré celebrities are not holding any. This is particularly striking for those who remember that in the last year of his life, 1989, Sakharov was being greeted by heads of states upon his visits to Europe and America as the informal leader of the Soviet – and, arguably, international – human rights movement as well as one of the most influential voices in the world on issues of arms control.

In truth, the round number by itself is just an occasion to notice that the most essential parts of his legacy, and the culture of resistance that he represented, have been erased from public consciousness in Russia as well as in the West. This includes his meticulous concern with the plight of the individuals that were being punished for their beliefs in his own country; in his Nobel Peace Prize lecture, he listed 126 of them by name – with apologies to those who could not be named due to time constraints – and stated that he was sharing the honor of this award with all Soviet political prisoners. (Who among the present-day leading opponents of the Putin regime, or even among human rights advocates would mention any names beyond the two or three internationally famous out of the nearly 400 political and religious prisoners in present-day Russia?) One of his closest Western contacts and most perceptive readers, the late Edward Kline, responding to the critique that Sakharov focused upon individuals allegedly at the expense of systemic issues, wrote: ‘Sakharov teaches us that what is most needed in the Soviet Union, and everywhere in the world, is respect for the unique value of each human personality’.[1]

Sakharov’s fall into near-oblivion in the present-day West is but a symptom of several interrelated developments – which include Western end-of-history triumphalism that diminished the role of non-Western actors in bring the Cold War to a close; the downgrading of human rights on the international agenda of Western powers; and the decline and marginalization of the class of public intellectuals who were promoting it. But what preceded these trends was the singular failure of Russia’s ‘human rights generation’ – Sakharov’s comrades-in-arms and immediate followers – to build an institutional infrastructure geared toward mass audience in those crucial years (roughly, 1990-1993) when their political influence was at its peak, or later, while it was still feasible to do. Tellingly, while during Sakharov’s forcible internment in Gorky (nowadays Nizhny Novgorod) the United States Congress was adopting annual resolutions, starting from 1983, marking May 21st as the National Andrei Sakharov Day, in Russia no known effort was made to establish an official Sakharov Day in his memory.

I would argue that this is but a part of the bigger failure of the liberal flank of Russia’s society – that is, of my own camp – to institutionalize its values and its own historical narrative. Thus, for example, it never established its own “Juneteenth” to commemorate the abolition of peasant serfdom in 1861 – and therefore no one should be surprised that while today an open glorification of slavery in almost any American media is unimaginable, it is not unusual to see idealized portrayals of the times of serfdom in present-day Russia’s official press and broadcasting. And likewise, Russia’s democratic opposition seems to have failed to derive the cultural and political capital from the few victorious moments of its history, such as the release of Soviet political prisoners in the late 1980s and the election of Sakharov, along with other human rights defenders, to the Congress of People’s Deputies and then to Russia’s and other legislatures. This is especially palpable when compared to the ways in which the history of the KGB is being extolled by Russia’s official media – and makes it unsurprising that today in an imaginary contest between Andrei Sakharov and Feliks Dzerzhinsky for the attention of the Russian public Dzerzhinsky would be winning by a large margin.

The failure of the leading anti-Putin oppositionists in Russia and abroad (and I, of course, am writing in this article only about those who, unlike Alexey Navalny, are not in jail) to transform Sakharov’s legacy into a source of inspiration and pride for themselves and their followers also reflects something else: a vague sense of embarrassment. This uneasiness seems to result from the deeply seated understanding (even by those among them who never read his works) that Sakharov’s thought and the movement that coalesced around him point in a very different direction from the one that has been pursued by these oppositionists and their immediate predecessors since Sakharov’s death – including and especially so at the times when their representatives were in government, mostly under Boris Yeltsin’s presidency and a few (like e.g. Andrei Illarionov or Mikhail Kasyanov), under Putin as well.

As a disclaimer, I have no pretense whatsoever to any kind of a privileged or superior understanding of Sakharov’s socio-political thought, which cannot be claimed by anybody as their own, given that, as the work of any complex thinker that evolved over several decades, it is amenable to different interpretations. I am just one among – unfortunately, not so many – present-day readers of Sakharov, approaching him from my perspective as a participant of Russia’s democratic movement since its still semi-underground stage (1988), and later as analyst and a community organizer among Russia’s immigrants and political exiles.

What I will do here is to outline five areas in which the path of Russia’s liberals and democrats – or those we’ve accustomed to describe as such – has over the past 30 years radically diverged from Sakharov’s vision. (And I do not even include on this list his capacity for systemic analysis of interrelationships among disparate international issues – not only because such abilities are exceedingly rare in most countries, but also because this thinking is not as relevant for the post-Soviet Russia which in spite of all pretense and protestations to the contrary is not a global power.)

First and foremost, while Sakharov was unflinchingly steadfast in his defense of the rights of individuals and groups, at the same time he was anti-revolutionary in his approach to political change – as reminded to us by one of his close collaborators Boris Altshuler in his last month’s article.[2] Sakharov earnestly believed in the value of dialogue with the Kremlin, whether direct when there was an opening for it, or via Western politicians and the media. Of course, not just any kind of dialogue for its own sake, but the one to be conducted from a position of moral strength and firmness – and at the same time with respect for each other’s inherent humanity and capacity for change. In his Nobel lecture (delivered in Oslo by Elena Bonner while he was in Vilnius attending court hearings and the sentencing of Sergei Kovalev), he wrote:

“… we must, I am convinced, first and foremost act as protectors of the innocent victims of regimes installed in various countries, without demanding the destruction or total condemnation of these regimes. We need reform, not revolution. We need a pliant, pluralist, tolerant community, which selectively and tentatively can bring about a free, undogmatic use of the experiences of all social systems.”

This is clearly not the approach or the style of the most frequently mentioned and cited oppositionists in today’s Russia and in emigration, whose primary unifying slogan is “down with the bloody and corrupt regime” – although it is also true that the space for any meaningful dialogue about democratization in Russia has been shrinking since 2012 and virtually closed since the constitutional changes of 2020, yet the situation in the USSR between 1970 and 1985 was not very dissimilar.

A second difference is that, also unlike virtually all of them, Sakharov was not afraid of challenging not just the Kremlin, but also Western governments and the media to abide by their own standards and declarations. Thus, he repeatedly criticized the West German government and the public for their lack of support for the struggle of Soviet Germans for the right to emigrate.[3] And he did not mince his words in assigning a part of the blame for Stalinism to Western indifference:

«We [in the Soviet Union] all feel our moral responsibility for everything that was happening at that time – for the expropriation of the kulaks, for the engineered famine that led to millions of deaths, for the camps, for 1937, for the herding of millions of former prisoners of the German army into camps, for the mass relocations of Tatars, Soviet Germans, and many other ethnicities. All this is our shared responsibility – but it is also a responsibility of the West that pretended not to be noticing, was looking the other way, and I believe, was doing it to some extent on purpose…”[4]

There are many other similar quotations to be added. For fairness’ sake, it was not just Sakharov alone – many of the prominent participants of the Soviet-era human rights and pro-democracy groups developed candid critiques of Western elites’ and societies’ behavior in response to Soviet totalitarianism. And I am speaking here squarely of the liberal, the Westernizing part of that movement, not of its more nationalist currents, represented among others by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. A lot has been written, especially in their times, about the disagreements between Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn, and they were indeed substantial – but not as much in their perceptions of the West as many tend to think. To quote Sakharov’s Memoirs, he saw “a lot of bitter truth” in Solzhenitsyn’ writings about the West, including on the issues of its “internal divisions, dangerous illusions, political gamesmanship, shortsightedness, egotism, and cowardice of some politicians, and its vulnerability to all kinds of subversion”. Sakharov admitted that he had been writing about it with “great concern, but also with hope,” because, evidently unlike Solzhenitsyn, he saw Western societies as “fundamentally healthy and dynamic”. The flip side of this hope was of course a warning of the consequences of its failure – as put by China’s major human rights advocate the late Fang Lizhi, “Sakharov might remind the West too that freedom is fragile, that if democratic societies are not protective of their liberties, even they may lose it”[5] (a reminder, one might add, particularly timely for the age of Trump). Thus, the message of Sakharov and others on his flank of the movement was no less of a challenge than Solzhenitsyn’s (and perhaps even more, due to the higher expectations inherent in his ‘hope’), especially for those parts of Western elites who had vested interests in a purely commercial détente, without a human rights component. And it remains a challenge today – for Western commercial and geopolitical backers of Nord Stream 2, the sellers of Cypriot citizenships and seats in the British House of Lords to members of the Putin oligarchy, and so on.

The critical assessment of the West by ‘the Sakharov generation’ willing to risk its good graces in the short term for the higher common cause was for all intents and purposes abandoned by post-Soviet ‘liberal reformers’. With Russia’s increasingly peripheral position at least in the world economy, almost not one of its democratic politicians (with few exceptions, such as Grigory Yavlinsky) has dared to offer substantive critiques of Western strategy toward Russia, let alone to speak of the West’s shared responsibility for what has been happening in Russia. (And those few Russian democrats who actually do speak out on these matters tend to be silenced by mainstream Western media and excluded from high-level debates on Russian-Western relations). Meanwhile, the issue of moral responsibility of specific members of Western elites (from the promoters of the autocratic scenario of ‘radical market reforms’ in the 1990s such as Jeffrey Sachs and Lawrence Summers to the Kremlin’s more recent business partners such as Gerhard Schroeder or Silvio Berlusconi, to name just a few among hundreds) is not irrelevant to establishing historical truth and addressing the international roots of the Putin dictatorship.

Third, from his very first socio-political writings to the last, Sakharov consistently defended the idea of convergence between the capitalist and the socialist systems (and what he often meant was rather their initial intent and vision behind it rather than their everyday practices, which in the Soviet case he defined as an extreme form of state capitalism). For example, in his draft constitution of the future Union in the place of the USSR, published days before his death, he wrote:

“In the long term, the Union, personified by its government agencies and its citizens, is pursuing a mutual pluralistic rapprochement (convergence) between the socialist and the capitalist system as the only cardinal solution to the challenges global and domestic.”[6]

Not only did he reaffirm this idea in dozens of writings over two decades, but he also offered specific proposals toward it in his election platform of 1989 – which included breaking up large state-owned companies “to stimulate competition and prevent monopolistic price-setting”.[7] Of course, as we know, the reforms of the early 90s, launched by Boris Yeltsin, Yegor Gaidar, Anatoly Chubais, and their team, with the advice and support of the international financial institutions, went in the opposite direction – by starting with the removal of price controls in the absence of market competition, thus giving immense power to the Soviet-era monopolies and unleashing hyperinflation. Ultimately, instead of convergence, whatever was ‘socialist’ in the Soviet system – its more or less serviceable social safety net and state-guaranteed full employment (not to be confused with complete absence of unemployment, which was not the case in Soviet Union) – was rapidly dismantled, while the super-monopolistic and state-capitalist aspects of the economy were strengthened or recombined, predictably leading to the restoration of political authoritarianism. In fact, one might argue that as a result of this the possibility of a simultaneous convergence of the Western economic system – of course, not toward the Soviet decaying totalitarian ‘socialism’ but toward the underlying vision of social justice that it had appropriated and, for the most part, debased – was put on hold, as Western capital found, all of a sudden, a vast new terrain for its own expansion into the former Soviet bloc. >From this perspective, the sweeping economic reforms initiated in recent months in the United States and, through it, globally – from the introduction of partially free higher and pre-school education and medical leave in the US to the proposed global corporate tax – can be interpreted as a delayed implementation of Sakharov’s vision of convergence. The main paradox today is that while in the United States the notion of ‘socialism’ is no longer a dirty word for a large swath of its population (according to some of the recent polls, between 20 and 40 percent of Americans have a positive view of it, although they often understand it as merely an expansion of government-provided services and even as better social relations, clearly not a Soviet version of socialism[8], and about a quarter of Americans hold positive views of both capitalism and socialism at the same time[9]), which makes Sakharov’s writings on convergence only more relevant, in Russia such ideas are beyond the pale for most of the anti-Putin opposition.

Fourth, in several key writings Sakharov displayed his keen sense of race relations, first in the United States and then also in the Soviet Union. He used this term, including in his draft constitution, even though it was almost never applied before or after him to intergroup relations in his country:

2. The goal of the people of the Union of Soviet Republics of Europe and Asia and of its government agencies is a happy, meaningful life, material and spiritual freedom, well-being, peace and security for the citizens of the country and for all people of Earth regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, age, and social status.

3. The Euro-Asian Union builds its development upon the moral and cultural traditions of Europe and Asia and of the entire humanity, all races and peoples.[10]

While lay Western readers unfamiliar with Soviet-era rhetoric may be just as misled by this choice of words as they would be by most American 19th-century political writings, Sakharov’s stance presented in this draft is unmistakably antiracist. Moreover, it can also be viewed as an implicit polemic with the other, Boris Yeltsin’s wing of the Soviet democratic movement – whose approach emphasized Russia’s ‘Slavic’ character and ‘Europeanness’ at the expense of its non-European ethnic minorities. This Yeltsin’s view (which informed, among other things, his decision to exclude the Central Asian republics from his negotiations with the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus about the breakup of the Soviet Union) has been the mainstay of Russia’s domestic politics ever since, providing a racially tinged undertone to it and influencing the Putin regime’s affinity and at times collaboration with radical rightwing forces in America and Europe.

Last but by no means the least (and possibly even the first by its importance): Sakharov was – along with a handful of other public figures in the late Soviet Union, such as Academician Alexey Yablokov – among those who issued early warnings about the existential nature of the environmental challenge. In the last year before his death, he wrote that ‘the multifaceted environmental threat must be viewed as the most menacing’.[11] He went on to say that ‘we may have already embarked upon the path leading to the environmental destruction of humanity. The only thing we don’t know is which part of the way we have already made, and how far is the critical threshold from which there is no return. Let us however hope that we still have enough time to stop before it is too late.’[12] These prescient words were certainly not heeded by the Kremlin – as Russia remains higher on the list of world polluters (the fourth largest) than it is in the ranking of economies by the size of their GDP. Yet, less predictably, Russia’s anti-Putin opposition and its predecessors in the 1990s have been relegating environmental concerns to the bottom of their list of priorities. Moreover, some of Russia’s most influential liberals (such as Andrey Illarionov) have remained in denial of the anthropogenic character of climate change. And even for those opposition leaders who haven’t shared such extreme views, their total lack of urgency on environmental issues is diametrically opposite to Sakharov’s approach and one of the primary signs of their collective abandonment of his legacy.

To sum up, a genuine attempt to put Sakharov’s thinking front and center in designing a strategy of a democratic transformation of the present-day Russia would imply a virtually comprehensive repudiation of the ‘liberal’ (known in the West as neoliberal) mainstream of the anti-Putin camp – with the only, or almost only exception of the call for the release of all political prisoners, the slogan that, just like in Sakharov’s times, is the sole unifying force for the anti-Kremlin opposition from right to left.

And finally, a few words about the aspect of his thought that is the closest to my heart as well as my personal biography – his defense of the freedom of movement. I believe this was one of the cornerstones of his thinking – and of his recipes for reform in the Soviet Union. This thread runs from his first political writings – starting from his joint letter of 1970 to Soviet authorities co-authored with Valery Turchin and Roy Medvedev and up to his draft constitution. And his was a fight not just for the freedom of emigration, as many tend to think, but for the freedom of movement both within and outside the country in both directions – which included the right of previously deported Soviet ethnic groups to return to their ancestral homes as well as the right of average Soviet citizens to leave the USSR and to come back. His writings show that his thinking about this also evolved (which included some difficult moments in his relationships with his closest allies such as Valery Chalidze at the time of Chalidze’s departure for lectures abroad), all the way to the point when in the 1980s Sakharov was publically saying that he would not rule out emigration for himself either. This admission, by the way, had a much wider public significance as it removed the sense of embarrassment and social exclusion typically involved in one’s ‘coming out’ as a potential émigré, due to the attitudes to emigration inculcated by the Soviet propaganda. Further, Sakharov emphazised that the right to emigration ought to be recognized not merely for Soviet Jews – whose struggle for the freedom to emigrate was the most visible inside and outside of the country – but for all other ethnic and religious groups, as well as individuals regardless of their belonging to any of them. And in his interview to the Associated Press in 1976 he went from speaking about the right to emigrate to a much broader right to choose one’s country of residence – which he called “the first among other equal rights”. Needless to say, the right to choose one’s country of residence was and is by itself a challenge to the immigration system in the West already in his times, even though Sakharov most likely did not intend it as such because the barriers to exit were so high that they entirely obscured the issue of barriers to entry. Yet in our own age, when entire countries may soon become uninhabitable due to climate change, the issue of the right to choose one’s country of residence in Sakharov’s formulation – even though it has no easy solution – becomes nevertheless more and more central to human rights as a whole.

So, when we think of the wave of emigres that poured out of former Soviet countries around the time of his death, the role of his advocacy for their ability to do so cannot be understated. And yet – was his vision of freely leaving and coming back actually fulfilled? I’ll argue that it was not. First of all, up to 1992 those issued exit visa were being simultaneously stripped of their citizenship and passports and forced to get rid of their homes and other possessions that could not be transported across the border – that is, they were disenfranchised and robbed at the same time at the point of exit, prevented from returning home as full-fledged members of their native society. (And Russia’s citizenship law of 2002 conditioned the restoration of their citizenship upon renouncing the citizenships of those countries, like the United States and most of the countries in Europe, with which Russia has had no agreements allowing dual citizenship.)

Meanwhile, Russia’s democrats – just like the Soviet authorities before them – scrapped emigres from Russia’s political map (even though many in that wave would have been their closest allies had their right to return any time as equal citizens been protected). Instead, they were being sent out not only without any support by their collapsing country but as stateless beggars, forced to rely from the start on the generosity of foreign governments and charities and in many cases to become extremely cheap and unprotected labor force, as the support system in the diaspora was nonexistent except, to a limited extent and subject to certain conditions, for some Soviet Jews (and even that dried out by the end of the century). Further, this abject starting point for most ordinary Soviet and post-Soviet emigres – often with advanced degrees and professional background and yet frequently in need of ‘just any kind of’ job or public assistance – invited further mistreatment and discrimination against them in the West. In practical terms, all of this taken together severely constrained their freedom of choosing their country of residence.

For fairness sake, since the new law on entering and leaving Russia came into force in 1992, no major new restrictions on the freedom of movement have been introduced, not even under the Putin regime. And this can be rightfully viewed as a lasting victory of Sakharov as well as the many thousands of Soviet people who fought for this freedom and their international supporters. The few restrictions exit (which affect the employees of Russia’s police and intelligence agencies as well as defendants and those convicted of crimes, including, needless to say, all those persecuted for political reasons) can still be considered minor given the number of people affected. Yet what has become increasingly difficult for average Russians in the time of Putin is actually to move to a country of their choice, or even travel there. The primary reason, of course, is the hardening of immigration policies in most Western countries – not least under the influence of xenophobic politicians and parties, from Germany’s AfD to France’s National Front to Brexiters to Trump, that the Kremlin has been openly and covertly supporting. Their mutually beneficial relationships with Moscow have helped strengthen the formal and informal restrictions upon immigration in general and specifically from Russia – except, of course, for the oligarchs and the mafia who have been able to buy their ways these restrictions. And, finally, with Putin’s more and more confrontational policies toward the West we’ve ended up with the US embassy in Moscow being forced to suspend issuing any visas to Russians at all.

And this means that those of us who care about Sakharov’s legacy in general and in this area in particular have to start all over again – but now with advocacy with Western governments, and Western societies, for those who are trying to escape from the regime. This includes the need to campaign for the increase of the US refugee quota for Europe and Central Asia – which fortunately has just been raised for this year to 4,000 by the Biden Administration, but is still woefully low. And we need to push for more invitations to the West for back-and-forth travel for those Russians – scholars, writers, activists etc. – who are to some extent independent from the regime, which is essential for restoring dialogue between the Western and the Russian societies so necessary if we want to lay the groundwork for at least somewhat broad-based support for any future liberalization in Russia.

To sum up, for Russia’s society – including its anti-Putin opposition both at home and abroad – rediscovering Sakharov is essential in order to start pulling out of its present quagmire of fruitless polarization and jp[e;essness. And no, one should not expect his thinking to become prevalent in political circles, because after all he was not a political strategist. But it is a must for Sakharov’s writings to be made more widely available – and accessible – outside of the well-intentioned but narrow, and narrow-minded circles of Moscow-based liberal establishment. One of his favorite terms to describe the desired changes in the Soviet Union – democratization – needs to be applied to his own works. Sakharov’s specific ideas – including his focus on protecting individuals and using every channel available to him in order to push for necessary change, as opposed to merely denouncing regimes; his hopeful yet critical engagement with the West; his advocacy of convergence; his antiracist Euro-Asian vision; and the urgency of global action to avert environmental collapse – must be brough back to the public square, both in Russia and internationally. This is regardless of the embarrassment that debating them is likely to cause among those in the Kremlin and in the present opposition who, while seemingly at war with each other, have been moving Russia in a direction that is opposite to his values. And the Russian and other post-Soviet diasporas, whose swelling since the end of the Cold War owes so much to his advocacy of the freedom of movement, need to trace their roots back to his struggle, his petitions and hunger strikes in order to overcome their current disunity and lack of purpose.

After Sakharov’s death, Vaclav Havel wrote that he was ‘the only integrating personality’ in the last years of the Soviet Union.[13] It may sound implausible today, yet Sakharov’s legacy is likely to be the only integrating force available for the next generation of the Russian diaspora, if and when it becomes capable of organizing itself to play a constructive role in the post-Putin transformation and reinvention of Russia.

[1] Edward Kline, ‘Sakharov Stands for the Individual,’ Los Angeles Times, Dec. 22, 1986,
[2] Boris Altshuler, ‘Glavnyi urok Sakharova: k 100-letiyu so dnya rozhdeniya velikogo uchenogo i pravozashitnika,’ Novye izvestiya, Apr. 19, 2021,
[3] Memoirs, Pt. II, chp. 7.
[4] Interview with Ulle Stenholm (1974), audiofile on the Open Society Archives website,
[5] Fang Lizhi with Romesh Ratnesar, ‘The Dissident ANDREI SAKHAROV,’ Time, June 14, 1999,
[6] ‘Konstitutsiya Soyuza Sovetskikh Respublik Evropy i Azii. Proekt.’
[7] ‘Predvybornaya platforma,’
[8] See e.g. Mohamed Younis, ‘Four in 10 Americans Embrace Some Form of Socialism,’ May 20, 2019, Gallup,
[9] Hannah Hartig, ‘Stark partisan divisions in Americans’ views of ‘socialism,’ ‘capitalism’, Pew Research Center, June 25, 2019,
[10] ‘Konstitutsiya Soyuza Sovetskikh Respublik Evropy i Azii. Proekt,’ ibid.
[11] Memoirs, Vol. I, chp. 16.
[12] ‘Konvergentsiya, mirnoe sosushestvovanie’ (1989),
[13] Robert Coalson, Collapse Of The Soviet Union: The ‘Humanizing’ Role Of Andrei Sakharov, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, December 22, 2016,