Commentary Magazine

My Country and the World, by Andrei D. Sakharov; Dissent in the USSR, edited by Rudolf L. Tokes

My Country and the World.
by Andrei D. Sakharov.
Knopf. 109 pp. $5.95.

Dissent in the ussr: Politics, Ideology, and People.
by Rudolf L. Tökés.
Johns Hopkins. 453 pp. $15.00.

“I had money . . . title, and everything which my work entitled me to have. But I had a very tragic feeling.” This is how the Soviet physicist, Andrei Sakharov, once described the years which preceded his open break with the Soviet establishment.

Sakharov’s stunning transformation—from “father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb” to Nobel Peace Prize winner—was not the result of a sudden, dramatic revelation. Rather, his ideas and his political stance have evolved slowly and steadily, generated by a penetrating intelligence, unbending honesty, and moral integrity. His writings reflect the personal and intellectual qualities that have come to be associated with the man: unpretentiousness, acute sensitivity to injustice, personal and political idealism, solid, unflamboyant courage, and an open, flexible mind.

Unlike Solzhenitsyn—whose role as leader of the Soviet dissidents was quietly assumed by Sakharov after Solzhenitsyn’s forcible exile in 1974-Sakharov was not an early victim of Soviet terror and oppression. To the contrary, as a member of the Soviet scientific elite he was favored both with material comforts and unprecedented professional acclaim; at thirty-two, he became the youngest scientist ever to be made a full member of the prestigious USSR Academy of Sciences. It is not coincidental that a surprisingly large number of Soviet dissidents have come from the scientific community. Not only does their high status in Soviet society give them greater access to ideas and information, but the relatively apolitical insulation of pure science has shielded them from the debilitating intellectual compromises demanded of successful writers, historians, and social scientists.



The evolution of Sakharov’s life and views is traced minutely in a scholarly essay by Peter Dornan entitled “Andrei Sakharov: The Conscience of a Liberal Scientist,” one of twelve disparate pieces in Rudolf Tökés’s compilation, Dissent in the Ussr. This thorough, but often tedious, factual account of Sakharov’s life through early 1974 fails, unfortunately, to illuminate the phenomenon of the Soviet scientist-turned-dissident. It does, however, provide background—more than is necessary—to the issues posed in Sakharov’s latest book, My Country and the World.

Sakharov’s views have been revised considerably since his first major essay, Frogress, Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom, was published abroad in 1968. The earlier piece, stimulated by his concern about nuclear war, advanced the thesis that socialism and capitalism would eventually converge as the West moved toward the Left politically and the Soviet bloc toward internal democratization. At that time Sakharov still considered himself a socialist; his essay appeared during the optimistic interlude remembered as the Prague Spring, and his words greatly affected intellectuals both within the Soviet bloc and abroad, many of whom shared Sakharov’s belief that the time was right for a loosening of Soviet internal restrictions and for greater international cooperation.

Instead, 1968 saw Soviet tanks in Czechoslovakia and a new wave of oppression within the Ussr. Sakharov’s security clearance was revoked and he was dismissed from his job. With “pain and alarm” he was forced to admit that the pre-1968 liberalism to which he had addressed himself in his essay had been “largely illusory.” Yet his plea for Soviet-American cooperation, ignored by Soviet leaders and considered a bit naive by many in the West, especially after Prague, might seem to have been heeded after all. Today, only seven years later, détente is the professed policy of both the U.S. and the Soviet governments.

Sakharov, however, while recognizing “great changes for the better,” is not content. In My Country and the World, which is addressed to Western rather than Soviet leaders, he expresses his fear that détente is being used as a “cynical political game serving . . . temporary political and economic interests.” Crushed by the defeat of the Jackson amendment, which would have made U.S. trade concessions to the Soviet Union contingent upon a policy of free emigration for Soviet Jews, he blames divided and disorganized Western leaders who make political capital out of appeasing the Soviet regime. He points to “the amazing miscalculations and defeats of Western foreign policy, which without a struggle is yielding one concession after another to its partner in détente.” He warns against “leftist-liberal faddishness” which may lead the West into unilateral disarmament, pointing out that “balanced disarmament . . . cannot be achieved from a position of weakness.” He urges the West to mobilize its resources, to tighten its belt economically, and to work for political and economic unity under American leadership.

Real détente, in Sakharov’s view, is linked inextricably with the democratization of Soviet society. He maintains his conviction that avoiding nuclear destruction takes priority over all else in international relations; nevertheless, disarmament cannot precede trust among nations which, in turn, is dependent upon “overcoming the secretiveness of Soviet society . . . and weakening its totalitarian character.” His position was made clear in a 1973 interview with Western reporters:

Détente without democratization, détente in which the West in effect accepts the Soviet rules of the game, would be dangerous. It would not really solve any of the world’s problems and would simply mean capitulating in the face of real or exaggerated Soviet power. It would mean trading with the Soviet Union, buying its gas and oil, while ignoring all other aspects. . . .

I think that if détente were to proceed totally without qualifications, on Soviet terms, it would pose a serious threat to the world as a whole. It would mean cultivating a closed country where anything that happens may be shielded from outside eyes, a country wearing a mask that hides its true face.

I would not wish it on anyone to live next to such a neighbor, especially if he is at the same time armed to the teeth.

The time seems right for Sakharov’s admonition that the West be firmer in its dealings with the Ussr. The word “détente,” often used incorrectly as a synonym for “peace,” seems more a slogan these days than a description of a significant development in international relations; it has been employed by the American government as justification for a series of one-sided concessions to the Russians, aimed, it appears, at achieving an arms accord before the 1976 elections. Yet Sakharov’s belief that we can use our leverage to bring about volitional changes in Soviet internal policies seems highly unrealistic, for Moscow has demonstrated over and over again its firm opposition to outside interference in its domestic affairs. Indeed, Sakharov’s appeal to the West to press for liberalization in the USSR may very well reflect his growing despair over the inefficacy of dissident action within the Soviet Union itself. Back in 1972, confronting the harsh campaign against dissidence that began in the early 1970’s and has continued to this day, Sakharov stated:

Our struggle is really useless and senseless. In ten years nothing will change. This country could perish but it would still be the same. We know we cannot change anything really, despite all the things I write. . . . No, I am not a pessimist, I am a born optimist. I am just making an objective analysis of the situation.

A similarly discouraging picture of the dissident movement emerges from the essays in Dissent in the Ussr. The small band of active dissidents, estimated at between 1,000 and 2,000 out of a total Soviet population of more than 250 million, is not a “movement” at all but a number of loosely connected small groups lacking structure and consistency. Many dissidents have emigrated or have been forcibly expelled; others are in prison or in psychiatric hospitals. Their variegated ideological and ethnic loyalties sometimes cause disunity and make them vulnerable to police infiltration. KGB repression is effective and can succeed in driving a whole movement underground, almost overnight. And the dissidents lack mass support. As Walter Connor points out in an essay in this collection, for the ordinary Soviet citizen legality, representative institutions, and freedom are exotic concepts; many have never even heard of the dissidents we know so well in the West. There is general agreement among contributors to the book that if change does occur, it will be generations from now.

Dissent in the Ussr closes with an essay by George Feifer on “The Passive Minority,” in which he describes his own experiences with disaffected Soviet intellectuals, whom he calls “the silent haters.” These people, according to Feifer, shun activism, not just because they fear police reprisal but because they see protest as pointless self-sacrifice. A common attitude, Feifer reports, is that “the country as a whole is backward and dark” and that the Russian people are “not only happy with the heavy hand of dictatorship but actually require it.” These thoughts echo in the sentiments of an emigré playwright, Nina Voronel, who recently told the New York Times that “each people has the government it deserves” and that the Soviet regime “enjoys tacit support from a population that makes compromise a way of life.” They remind me of a comment in a letter I recently received from a Russian emigré: “It’s not Russia which has to be saved but the world which must be saved from Russia.”

Both these books, one about dissenters and the other by a leading dissenter himself, leave the reader with a pervasive feeling of pessimism about the Soviet Union today, about the intentions of its leaders in pursuing a policy of détente with the West while continuing to use violence and repression at home, about the seemingly intractable difficulties faced by Soviet dissidents who want to change their society from within, and about the apparently fearful and conciliatory posture of the West in the face of all this. They also evoke wonder at men like Andrei Sakharov, whose very existence bears witness to a striving for freedom that cannot be suppressed.


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