The decision December 16 by Soviet party leader Mikhail Gorbachev to allow Sakharov to return to Moscow and to continue both his scientific and human rights activities is generally viewed as a bold move that deserves applause from scientists everywhere. What is less clear, however, is the best way for the numerous human rights organizations who have worked long and hard for the release of Yuri Orlov, Anatoly Shcharansky and others to capitalize on this latest development without abandoning their tactics of applying pressure on Soviet leaders by rallying worldwide support for the victims of oppression.
"The fact is that the Soviets are moving to solve some of these problems themselves," said Andrew Sessler, a physicist at the University of California at Berkeley and a co-founder in 1978 of the group now called Scientists for Sakharov, Orlov and Shcharansky. "The task for western scientists is to take steps that will reinforce that behavior."
The release of Sakharov has led Sessler to "reconsider" the moratorium on travel to the Soviet Union that he and other SOS members imposed on themselves seven years ago when Sakharov was sent to Gorky. "It's time to think about going to Moscow, although first we'd need to be invited." Such a visit, he said, could lead to additional talks about improved relations, including joint conferences and freer exchanges of people and information.
"We would not be abandoning the others," he emphasized. "But I think we should accept the gesture for what it is, and hope it's significant. If we make a move and they reciprocate, great. If not, then we can pull back and reassess the situation."
Already on Track
The leaders of the Berkeley-based human rights group, with 8,000 members worldwide, hope to meet later this month with both Shcharansky and Orlov before they chart a new course for the organization. Sessler said his own desire would be to retain the organization's name "to honor three great scientists and humanitarians who have endured years of suffering."
Sessler's assessment of the Sakharov case is shared by many colleagues. One of his last acts as president of the American Physical Society, recalled Sidney Drell, was to send a telegram to Gorbachev congratulating him on his decision to release Sakharov.
"I tend to be an optimist," said the veteran human rights activist and director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. "I hope it's part of a general pattern of improvement in relations, and it's important for, scientists to express their appreciation."
Asked about the role of scientists in bringing about Sakharov's release, Drell said he had "no doubt" that the continued pressure by colleagues around the world was an important factor. Although many in the movement acknowledged that it is almost impossible to know how important decisions are made in the Soviet Union, others saw the release as vindication for their years of hard work.
"We regard it as a triumph, a positive reinforcement of our behavior," said Dorothy Hirsch, executive director of the 5,000-member Committee of Concerned Scientists based in New York City. "It tells us our tactics have been a success, and that we must continue to speak out for those who are prohibited from doing so." However, Hirsch was less hopeful than some about the long-range impact of Gorbachev's action.
"We need to digest it before we decide what to do next," she said. "It's a gesture, although to be sure it's a marked improvement."
Next week Orlov begins a three-year appointment as senior scientist in the Laboratory of Nuclear Studies at Cornell University. Orlov will divide his time between conducting research on particle accelerators and working on behalf of dissident Soviet scientists still imprisoned.