'We Are Counting on Your Help'

Since 1980, Soviet physicist, Nobel laureate and human rights activist Andrei Sakharov has been living with his wife Elena Bonner, a physician, in internal exile in the city of Gorky. Sakharov was banished there with-out trial after he publicly opposed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

By | November 17, 1986

Since 1980, Soviet physicist, Nobel laureate and human rights activist Andrei Sakharov has been living with his wife Elena Bonner, a physician, in internal exile in the city of Gorky. Sakharov was banished there with-out trial after he publicly opposed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In December 1985-following a hunger strike by Sakharov-the Soviets granted Bonner a three-month visa (later extended to six months) to come to the United States to visit her family and undergo multiple bypass surgery. During her stay, she wrote Alone Together (Alfred A. Knopf, 1986), an account of the past three years of her life in exile with her husband. The book is a companion piece to Sakharov's autobiography, smuggled to the West in the early 1980s and due to be published by Knopf in 1987. She describes a life circumscribed by the 24-hour surveillance of the KGB, which has forbidden them to receive mail or telephone calls or to see friends and family members. In this excerpt from the book, she recounts her meetings with American intellectuals and scientists during her visit and their reactions to Sakharov's plight.

Date:     November 17, 1986

The Americans I met were varied-primarily Andrei's colleagues, scientists, but not  necessarily physicists;  there  were also politicians;  people involved in the press, writers, actors-on the whole I would say they were the intellectual elite. I kept thinking that each of them seemed smarter than Andrei and me: they've all seen things, heard things, met people, read, and traveled-while we've been limited in those ways all our lives.

Many of these Americans speak out on 4uestions of disarmament war, peace. They talk about nuclear winter, star wars, pollution. About all the horrors that await man-kind. But when you meet them you under-stand that they are interested in living and that these problems interest them, too. They  have no fear for the future-their own or humanity's-not the doctors who are against nuclear war, not the scientists who carry on nongovenmental talks about disarmament, not all many specialists. They constantly speak and write about all these  horrors in an almost professional way, some-times totally abandoning their original  work. But in their daily lives they are not  troubled by what they talk about. They have their work and vacations planned far into the future, their purchases or remodeling of houses, new tax write-offs; breakfast at home, a business lunch, dinner with wife and friends. I like the way they live.

And they sleep peacefully. They do not notice that they have depressed and ruined  the sleep of millions of other people. Physicians are especially interesting in this regard. I don't know what they've said, but there is an epidemic of insomnia, neuroses, and borderline mental states, which if they have not created they certainly support with their activities.

A Dead Concept, A Dead Man

I am going to try to limit myself to their attitude toward Andrei-and to me, since now that attitude can be expressed only in tandem and through me. Most of them don't need us at all, but almost all of them show formal interest (at dinners and receptions it is so formal that sometimes I just want to ask a person expressing his respects, "Do you at least know who Sakharov is?"), al most all are ready to sign something (there should be more petitions offered around), and yet many know very little. And not only about Sakharov's problems. Typically, they don't feel that this knowledge is necessary. I  had the feeling that politicians sometimes possessed just as little information on other issues. It is not knowledge, but something that leads them to act on problems (be it Nicaragua, energy, medicine, education, human rights), some other stimulus. Maybe it's a question of prestige, the important thing being to understand what's prestigious  and what isn't. A few had read a book of Andrei's statements. At Scientists for Sakharov, Orlov, and Shcharansky [an organization of scientists working on behalf of these Soviet dissident scientists], everyone : at the meeting was handed a copy; they must know their own people. It was there that I found a group who were seriously involved in  human rights and did not just talk about it. But there are people in other places too who want to know and who accomplish things, and they were the ones I hoped to talk to, because I sensed compassion, saw animation in their eyes, and not the alienation and emptiness that Andrei described in his Soviet colleagues who came to see him in November 1984 and February 1985.

Now I have to explain one of my difficult discoveries. I'm thinking about people who know Sakharov's name, even know his work. and views, who always sign everything, who sometimes take the initiative and call upon others to join them, who speak about Sakharov to Soviet scientific or government administrators. I divide these people into two categories. For one group Andrei is alive, and everything relating to him hurts them like their own pain; for the others, he is a symbol, a game, politics, even personal success-a dead concept, I am afraid to say it, a dead man.

Scientific Doublethink

Today, there are politicians and public figures who say they are concerned with the problem [of human rights] but not with each individual case. In fact, they are not really concerned with the problem either; they merely talk about it. And then there are those who are concerned with the person, with his fate. One group may say: do not irritate or annoy; we will do it, but quietly. The other might say: do everything in public; we're not thieves. The former go to Moscow to meet with the scientific establishment and talk about disarmament, contacts, exchanges, and Sakharov. Why not, if it's in someone's office and done quietly, so that no  one learns of it? That won't even annoy the Soviets and you can report back to the West that you did have the talk. The Soviets figured out that game a long time ago and they accept it. Europeans and Americans pretend not to know that it's a game.

But they do know it's a game, a special kind of doublethink. People claim that doublethink is characteristic of totalitarian societies, but unfortunately it's not limited to them. A scientist recently told me that the White House does not like him any more than the Kremlin likes Sakharov. When I asked him why he was there (we were at a fancy reception in Washington) and why he had permission to go to Moscow so often (not to mention all his important positions), he did not reply. He probably had no answer.

There is still talk about organizing medical help for him in Gorky. Who would give it? The doctors whom Sakharov called "the Mengeles of today"? He cannot remain in Gorky, and that must be understood by those who are concerned with human rights-anything can be done in Gorky and no one would know.

Another question. Are my husband's colleagues going to continue nongovernmental negotiations on disarmament and other is sues without his participation, thereby over-looking the only voice that is both independent and competent?

On April 27, as a guest at a garden party at the National Academy [of Sciences] in Washington, I was introduced to a physicist who is working on the problem of peaceful use of thermonuclear power. He hopes for cooperation with the Soviet Union.

I asked him, "Without Sakharov? After all, he did the pioneering work in that field and he is still alive. It seems unethical and amoral to behave that way."

"But it is rational. However, we do re member your husband."

"Remembering him that way is like remembering the dead, isn't it?"


That scientist does not suffer from doublethink. He is a realist. But those whose reason is replaced by doublethink are not much better. As far as I'm concerned, it's easier with realists-at least they do not try to delude you. Perhaps the reason Hitler's Germany lasted only 12 years is that it did not cloak its goals with pretty words. Its ideologists spoke frankly-they did not suffer from doublethink or doublespeak.

I will not start cursing. I will hope. After all, I know there are people who understand and whose hearts are not overgrown by in-difference. It is better to curse someone not enough than to curse someone unfairly.

For the second group of people, Sakharov's name usually does not bring gain, success, or popularity, and often their honesty and lack of compromise actually involve them in loss-they lose an election, or do not receive an invitation, or are turned down for a visa, or are not given an honored post-but through them we live, and to them I say: "Dear, sweet, good people, save Andrei Dmitrievich!" And Andrei says to them, "Help us, we are counting on your help."

Alone Together was translated from the Russian by Alexander Cook. Copyright © 1986 by Alfred A Knopf, Inc. Reprinted on of the publisher.

Popular Now

  1. HIV Spread from Haiti to NYC in 1970, “Patient Zero” Not to Blame
  2. Culprit for Antibody Blockade Identified
  3. Investigation Finds Pathologist Guilty of Systemic Misconduct
  4. Many Evolutionary Paths Lead to Same Bird Trait