• U.S.

Soviet Union Picking Up Where He Left Off

6 minute read
Jill Smolowe

Andrei Sakharov seemed determined to make up for lost time. Within moments of returning to Moscow from seven years of “internal exile” in the city of Gorky, Sakharov spoke out on precisely the issues that landed him in Gorky in January 1980. Asked by reporters to comment on Moscow’s continuing intervention in Afghanistan, Sakharov responded, “I consider this the most painful part of our foreign policy.” The frail nuclear physicist also tackled human rights. “It is impermissible for our country to have prisoners of conscience and people who suffer for their convictions,” he said. “I will do everything within my power to have this stopped.” One day later Sakharov and his wife Elena Bonner issued an appeal on behalf of a Soviet family that had been seeking to emigrate to France.

If Kremlin officials were disturbed by Sakharov’s bold behavior, they did not show their concern. Indeed, Soviet authorities went out of their way to signal a truce with the country’s leading human rights activist. When asked at a press conference if Sakharov might be punished for his Afghanistan comment, Yuri Kashlev, a senior Soviet Foreign Ministry official, responded mildly, “I do not see anything bad in this comment by Sakharov. Indeed, our leadership has stated in the past on many occasions that we seek to resolve the problem of Afghanistan as soon as possible.” As if to reinforce that point, a top Kremlin foreign policy adviser told the Washington Post that Moscow plans to withdraw its troops even if current efforts for a political solution fail.

Sakharov and Bonner were instantly surrounded by foreign correspondents as the couple stepped off the overnight train from Gorky at 7 a.m. last Tuesday at Moscow’s Yaroslavsky Station. For the next 35 minutes, Sakharov patiently fielded questions on the chilly platform. Remarkably, few police officers were in evidence. Usually, any public appearance by a Soviet dissident is well attended by uniformed and plainclothes police, who try to intimidate journalists and passersby. This time no attempt was made to disrupt the impromptu news conference. Nor was there any police stakeout at the couple’s tiny seventh-floor apartment on Chkalova Street.

Still unanswered were questions about Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s reasons for freeing the couple. When Gorbachev phoned the Sakharovs in Gorky on Dec. 16 to invite them to return to Moscow, he offered few clues. “Gorbachev is a shrewd man, and we may not know yet how shrewd he may have been in this case,” says a Western diplomat. “Even if Sakharov takes up where he left off, it is worth it.”

Certainly Sakharov’s release offers Gorbachev some immediate advantages. It eliminates an obvious source of friction in the Soviet leader’s dealings with Western politicians, who want Moscow to improve its human rights policies. The move ensures that Sakharov, who at 65 is in delicate health, will not die in exile, a politically embarrassing prospect. Early last month Soviet Dissident Anatoli Marchenko died in prison of a brain hemorrhage following a hunger strike.

Sakharov’s release seems in keeping with Gorbachev’s calls for glasnost, or openness. That campaign was evident as the Soviet media promptly reported a major methane-gas explosion that claimed an undisclosed number of lives in a Ukrainian coal mine. Beyond such candor, Gorbachev seeks what he has called a “fresh voice” to provide criticism in the one-party Soviet Union. The Soviet leader may hope that Sakharov will play that role. If not, Sakharov’s views may conveniently get lost in the din of glasnost. Gorbachev may further hope that Sakharov will give Moscow’s lagging reform agenda a practical boost at home and a political lift abroad. Toward that end, Sakharov played his part well. “I have great respect for Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev,” he told Western reporters. “I find the new policy of openness in this country very important.”

Gorbachev may now seek Sakharov’s support on Soviet arms-control proposals. A positive word from Sakharov would undoubtedly lend credibility to Gorbachev’s fight to scuttle U.S. plans to develop a space-based missile- defense system, or Strategic Defense Initiative. Western analysts say the teaming of Gorbachev and Sakharov on this issue is not farfetched, given their mutual commitment to arms control. Observes a diplomat: “Judging by what Sakharov has said and written in the past, he would be against SDI if he expressed an opinion.”

But to gain such cooperation from Sakharov the physicist, Gorbachev will have to woo Sakharov the human rights activist. The courtship may already have begun. On Dec. 19, Crimean Tatar Activist Mustafa Dzhemilev was freed from a Siberian labor camp after twelve years of prison and exile. Last week Yuri Lyubimov, a prominent Soviet theatrical director who was stripped of his citizenship two years ago for criticizing cultural restrictions, received a phone call in Washington from a former colleague at Moscow’s Taganka Theater encouraging him to return home. Lyubimov believes the call was officially sanctioned, and is pursuing the overture. And on the day Sakharov’s release was announced, Irina Ratushinskaya, a dissident poet who was freed from a labor camp last October, was allowed to travel to London to join her husband. Last week the couple announced plans to remain in the West.

It is unclear if Sakharov will be permitted to venture outside the Soviet Union. Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi said last week that during a meeting in May 1985, Gorbachev insisted that Sakharov would never leave the country “because he had scientific knowledge that could not be allowed outside.” Sakharov’s thoughts on travel seem to be evolving. Upon arriving in Moscow, he said, “I don’t suppose that would be permitted for me, and I don’t make any appeals.” By week’s end Sakharov had staked out a bolder position. “My fondest desire is to be able to travel abroad,” he told CBS News. Such a trip, he said, would generate “good feelings and more trust in my country.”

Even so, Sakharov may not be up to a rigorous travel schedule. “I’m O.K.,” he said last week, “but my wife is in poor condition.” Bonner, however, told reporters, “He needs a checkup and serious medical care.” Bonner, 63, tried repeatedly last week to get her husband to relax. She turned reporters away from the couple’s apartment Tuesday, stating, “We need rest.” A few hours later Sakharov quietly slipped out to attend a seminar at the Academy of Sciences, where he was applauded by his colleagues. On Thursday, Bonner insisted there would be no further visits for the rest of the week. The next day Sakharov sat for interviews with two U.S. television networks, again with no signs of censorship or restraint. While the years in exile have clearly taken their toll on Sakharov’s health, they have just as clearly failed to diminish his spirit.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com