October 16, 2019
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Sakharov: an enduring legacy

 Monument to Andrei Sakharov in front of the building where he spent almost seven years of internal exile, in Nizhny Novogord, called Gorky in Soviet times. (Photo: Bernardo Suárez Indart/EFE)

Monument to Andrei Sakharov in front of the building where he spent almost seven years of internal exile, in Nizhny Novogord, called Gorky in Soviet times. (Photo: Bernardo Suárez Indart/EFE)

Nizhny Novgorod (Russia), Dec 11 (efe-epa).- The ideology of Nobel Peace laureate Andrei Sakharov (1921-1989), father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, nuclear disarmament activist and human rights defender, survives in Russia today thanks to a handful of enthusiasts who jealously guard his memory and spread his thoughts.

These include the 10 employees of Sakharov's house-museum in Nizhny Novgorod, an industrial city around 400 kilometers east of Moscow, which was called Gorky back in January 1980 when Sakharov was put under house-arrest for opposing the Soviet military invasion of Afghanistan.

An austere house at 214 Gagarin Avenue

One has to travel a long way to reach the museum, as 214 Gagarin Avenue, the house where Sakharov was forced to live for almost seven years, is quite far from the city center.

The apartment, with three bedrooms and a living room, was earlier used as a hotel for a soviet institution and had very little furniture, which was used by the scientist and his second wife Yelena Bonner during their internal exile.

"They donated us the furniture when the museum was established," the director of the museum Liubov Potapova tells EFE, adding that the apartment has been preserved as it was during Sakharov's stay, apart from the exhibition panels used in the museum.

The house is spartan inside, with the slightly discolored floral wallpaper showing the Soviet taste of the time.

A black-and-white television and a radio, standing in a corner, allowed Sakharov to follow the news transmitted by official Soviet media.

Two of the three bedrooms were used as offices, and now one of them hosts an exhibition that remembers citizens of the city who were victim of Stalinist purges.

A piece of barbed wire from a GULAG center, the horrific labor camps of the Soviet regime, and an aluminum jug used by an inmate serve as poignant reminders of the period.  

24/7 surveillance

During almost seven years of internal exile, Sakharov was kept under constant surveillance by the Committee for State Security (KGB), which followed his every step.

"He was under total surveillance 24 hours of the day. The apartment was watched from two posts located in neighboring buildings," Potapova says.

"There was a third guard post just next to the entrance of the flat, where police officers stood guard constantly and did not let strangers enter," she adds.

The director says it was a hard time for Sakharov, especially because he knew that every person who would visit him or talk to him would be interrogated and pressurized by the KGB.

Sakharov was allowed to move around in the city but was banned from leaving its limits, with two KGB cars permanently deployed near the house to follow him if he decided to go out in a car.

Smear campaign

Apart from a strict and constant vigil, Sakharov was also subjected to a smear campaign by the communist propaganda machinery.

"Slanderer and hypocrite," "When honor and conscience are lost," "Think again, citizen Sakharov," are some of the headlines used by the Soviet press, along with letters supposedly sent by citizens who reproached the scientist for alleged activities against the Soviet state.   

Press cuttings from these newspapers are displayed in the next apartment, which was donated to the museum by the Nizhny Novgorod city council.

The physicist was not allowed any contact with foreigners and his wife, working as his courier, was his only link to the outside world.

His situation in Gorky drastically deteriorated in 1984 when Bonner was also sent to exile with her husband and later denied permission to get medical treatment abroad.

The decision came from the highest level, the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of USSR, the center of all power in the country, which met to discuss the issue on August 29, 1985, according to the declassified minutes of the meeting.

"Nothing decent can be expected from Bonner. She is a devil in a skirt, a pawn of imperialism," Mikhail Zimyanin, a secretary of the committee said in support of rejecting her request.

Creator of the hydrogen bomb

Sakharov's wife faced a lot of hostility from the Soviet authorities as they believed that it was her influence which had persuaded the scientist to decisively join the human rights struggle, although actually Sakharov had been a civil rights advocate even before he met Bonner.

The exhibition room in Nizhny Novgorod displays a miniature model of the first Soviet hydrogen bomb, co-created by Sakharov, and replicas of the three golden stars of the Hero of Socialist Labor, an award given to Sakharov for his contribution to USSR's nuclear power, which was withdrawn when he was exiled to Nizhny Novgorod.

"I was working under great stress, as the work we had undertaken was very important for the country and the world (...) a balance between the two big powers was needed (...) only that could work as a guarantee that this weapon would not be used," Sakharov would write later.

While developing and testing nuclear weapons, Sakharov studied the impact of radiation on living beings and advocated a ban on nuclear tests.

"By the beginning of 1968 I was very close to taking notice of the need to make public my views on the main problems of the time (...) and I took a decisive step by publishing the article 'Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom,'" the scientist wrote.

The text, published outside USSR and secretly reproduced in Soviet territory, marked Sakharov as a major dissident.

"Freedom of thought is the only guarantee of the feasibility of a scientific democratic approach to politics, economy, and culture," Sakharov said in the essay.

Freed by Gorbachev, forgotten by Russia

It was Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader of Perestroika and the last president of Soviet Russia, who ended Sakharov's internal exile in 1986.

"I request you to free the prisoners of conscience currently in jail," was the first thing Sakharov told Gorbachev when told on phone that his exile was over and he could return to Moscow.

Gorbachev described that Sakharov began to give data, names of the prisoners in a hurry.

"It was difficult for me to continue the conversation with that level of emotions, but one couldn't but respect Andrei Dmitrievich's desire to help specific people," the president said.

Three decades later, Sergei Lukashevsky, a man working to preserve Sakharov's legacy, says that the new generation knows little about the scientist-activist as Russia's official media has deliberately suppressed his figure.

Lukashevsky is the director of the Sakharov Center in Moscow, an NGO founded in 1996, which was forcibly included in the list of "foreign agents" under a 2014 law and is facing restrictions.

The director says that Sakharov is a very complicated and uncomfortable figure for the Russian authorities.

"They cannot say, as is the norm in state propaganda, that he was a traitor and working for enemy forces. They cannot say that about the man who made the hydrogen bomb (for the USSR)," says Lukashevsky.

But Sakharov ended up denouncing the arms race and promoted world peace, which clashes with the "isolationism" that dominates present-day Russia, according to Lukashevsky.

By Bernardo Suárez Indart

Translated by Iqbal Abhimanyu



The project was co-financed by the European Union in the frame of the European Parliament's grant program in the field of communication. The European Parliament was not involved in its preparation and is, in no case, responsible for or bound by the information for opinions expressed in the context of this project. In accordance with applicable law, the authors, interviewed people, publishers or program broadcasters are solely responsible. The European Parliament can also not be held liable for direct or indirect damage that may result from the implementation of the project.

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