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Soviet Union: Missing Person

3 minute read

Sakharov’s fate is unknown

What has happened to Andrei Sakharov? That question took on increasing urgency last week as the Soviet Union’s leading dissident passed what would have been the 18th day of his hunger strike in Gorky, the industrial city to which he was exiled in 1980. Since word leaked to the outside world that Sakharov, 63, had begun a fast to secure permission for his ailing wife Yelena Bonner to travel abroad for treatment for a heart condition, the Soviet authorities have isolated the couple behind a curtain of silence and have accused the U.S. of complicity in their protest. As days passed without news, pressure began to build in the West for Moscow to provide some answers about the fate of the Nobel Peace Prize recipient and his wife.

Sources close to the family said on Saturday that Sakharov was taken from his Gorky apartment nearly two weeks ago and has not been heard from since. The information apparently was contained in a telegram from Bonner to Sakharov’s three children in Moscow. The last definite word about the couple came two weeks ago from Irina Kristi, a family friend. After a visit to Gorky, she reported that Bonner was being prevented from leaving the city. TASS, the Soviet news agency, accused the U.S. embassy of masterminding Sakharov’s hunger strike and plotting to give Bonner political asylum. A senior U.S. official confirmed last week that two embassy officers met with Bonner during her last visit to Moscow in April. He said that Bonner left behind two appeals from Sakharov, but he denied that the embassy had any prior knowledge of the couple’s plans. Moscow charged the U.S. with trying to “wriggle out” of the conspiracy.

Members of the Sakharov family living in the West speculated that Bonner had joined the fast. Aleksei Semyonov, Bonner’s son from her first marriage, who lives in Newton, Mass., glumly noted, “We believe it could be a matter of days now before either one or both of them die.” In Paris, Bonner’s daughter, Tatyana Yankelevich, appealed to French President François Mitterrand, who plans to visit Moscow this summer, to intervene. Foreign ministers from the European Community sent a joint statement on the Sakharovs to their Soviet counterpart, Andrei Gromyko. The U.S. State Department denounced the Soviet treatment of the couple as “inhumane and incomprehensible.”

When they went on a fast in 1981 to force the authorities to grant an exitvisa to Semyonov’s wife, the Kremlin relented after 17 days. The new, tough attitude toward the Sakharovs is seen by some Washington officials as yet another sign of the Soviets’ truculent mood.

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