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Andrei Sakharov's Return...

Nothing in recent developments in the Soviet Union has been as exciting and pleasing as the release of Andrei Sakharov after nearly seven years in exile. His return was long overdue, and the exile (which was illegal even by Soviet standards) was entirely unnecessary. It cost dearly the health of Sakharov and his wife, Yelena Bonner, and inevitably damaged scientific cooperation between the East and West. I have known Sakharov since the summer of 1964, when he made his short but strong speech at

By | January 26, 1987

Nothing in recent developments in the Soviet Union has been as exciting and pleasing as the release of Andrei Sakharov after nearly seven years in exile. His return was long overdue, and the exile (which was illegal even by Soviet standards) was entirely unnecessary. It cost dearly the health of Sakharov and his wife, Yelena Bonner, and inevitably damaged scientific cooperation between the East and West.

I have known Sakharov since the summer of 1964, when he made his short but strong speech at the general meeting of the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences against Lysenko's domination of Soviet biology. His speech set the Academy on a collision course with Khrushchev's government and led to threats of severe reprimands. A few months later, Lysenko's fall (which followed that of Khrushchev) proved that Sakharov was right and the government wrong.

Sakharov's statement in 1979 that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was a tragic mistake was also proved right, but this time it took seven long years and three changes of leadership in the Soviet Union to do so.

Scientific Pressure

Sakharov's release from exile in Gorky was not a humanitarian gesture or a public relations move by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, as has been suggested in the media. It was a triumph of rational science over political dogmatism. It was won only through ongoing pressure by the international scientific community (particularly the National Academy of Sciences in the United States and the Federation of American Scientists), by the governments and parliaments of many countries, by peace activists and by countless other groups and individuals. These efforts, coupled with Sakharov's own hunger strikes and struggles in exile, won his freedom.

Indeed, the release of Sakharov, along with the prisoner exchange of Anatoly Shcharansky and Yuri Orlov and the unconditional release of poet Irina Ratushinskaya, proves that Western campaigns on behalf of individual Soviet political prisoners do make a difference, even if it takes a long time. Publicity in the West surrounding the tragic death of Sakharov's friend Anatoly Marchenko in Chistopol prison finally made clear to Soviet leaders a simple truth. If Sakharov were to die in exile in Gorky, it would be an irreversible blow to the legend of the "humanistic nature" of "Soviet democracy." Western scientific efforts to free Sakharoy succeeded because of the remarkable Western breakthroughs in science and technology which Soviet leaders could no longer afford to ignore. The Soviet Union has nearly 1.5 million research scientists and yet has produced fewer than one percent of the technological innovations over the last decade. In many areas of the biological and medical sciences, Soviet research efforts that were improving in the late 1960s have become nearly irrelevant. There are grave problems in Soviet agriculture. The Chernobyl disaster made clear to Soviet leaders the crucial link between full freedom of informational exchange and technical progress.

Gorbachev's domestic objectives of rapid acceleration of technological and scientific progress and his foreign objective of nuclear disarmament require more cooperation and greater trust between East and West.

Does Sakharov's release signal a general amnesty for other political prisoners like Anatoly Koryagin? There are now clear signs from Moscow of more liberal attitudes toward intellectuals, writers, journalists, and cinema and theater figures. The Soviet press is now much more open in its criticism of social and economic problems. On the same day Sakharov was released, criticism of former Premier Leonid I. Brezhnev appeared in Pravda in language so plain that six or seven years ago it would have meant prosecution for anti-Soviet propaganda. Many people arrested in the 1970s and 1980s on that charge are still serving their sentences.

Still, I do not believe that such an amnesty, or abolishment of the political articles in the Soviet Penal Code, are likely in the near future. The international campaign on behalf of prisoners of conscience must continue to grow and become better publicized.

A New Dialogue

Sakharov's future remains unclear. His hope of resuming a full-time job at the Academy (which, for a scientist of his caliber, means a research team, students, and normal collaboration with other scientists) is uncertain.

Nevertheless, Gorbachev's personal call to Sakharov in Gorky was an important gesture. It started a dialogue between one politician and a dissident scientist. They have already found common ground in their opposition to the Strategic Defense Initiative program. If this dialogue can continue and expand to include other politicians and scientists, it could make the upcoming meetings on nuclear disarmament in Geneva more productive.

Medvedev, an exiled Soviet scientist, is now a senior research scientist
in the Genetics Division of the National Institute for Medical Research,
Mill Hill, London NW7 1AA, UK, and an editorial consultant to The Scientist.

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