Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 98

Today marks the 80th birthday of Andrei Sakharov, the Soviet-era human rights campaigner who died in 1989. A group of veteran human rights activists and politicians gathered in Sakharov’s honor last night at Moscow’s Mir movie theatre. Among those who spoke at the event were Oleg Orlov of the Memorial group, Lev Ponomarev of For Human Rights, State Duma deputy Sergei Kovalev and Grigory Yavlinsky. The Yabloko leader called Sakharov “a person who at the end of the 20th century formulated the main imperative for Russia–that is, the main condition for its successful development. He proved that Russia’s future is inextricably linked to freedom and democracy.” In a somewhat sad sign of the times, only half the seats in the movie theatre were filled for Sakharov commemoration, and most of the attendees were elderly. “They say now that, according to public opinion polls, young people do not know who Lenin and Stalin were,” noted Lyudmila Alekseyeva, chairman of the Moscow Helsinki Group. “But do they know who Sakharov was?” (,, May 20).

Meanwhile, a newspaper asked leading human rights activists, including some of those who participated in yesterday’s commemoration, to comments on today’s political situation from the point of view of Sakharov’s human rights struggle. Memorial’s Oleg Orlov said he thought that were Sakharov alive today, he would view the current situation as “alarming.” Orlov blamed democrats for having too strongly supported former President Boris Yeltsin’s moves against the country’s parliament in 1993 and to strengthen presidential power. He also accused many erstwhile democrats for having adopted an ends-justifies-the-means philosophy–something, he said, Sakharov would have strongly opposed. Likewise, Sergei Kovalev said that Russia’s political evolution was moving in a direction diametrically opposite to what Sakharov advocated. Kovalev pointed to the limitation of press freedom, the war in Chechnya and the restoration of Russia’s Soviet-era national anthem as part of growing authoritarianism.” For his part, Valery Borshchev, a member of human rights group Common Action, said: “I think we are going through a crisis now, in which even those small democratic achievements in the area of human rights achieved thanks to Sakharov and the circle of people around him are under threat.”

A somewhat dissenting opinion was voiced by one of Sakharov former associates–Yury Levada, who today runs the All Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM), one of Russia’s major polling organizations. “In fact, life has changed greatly over the last ten to twelve years, even though no one expected the changes to take place so soon,” Levada wrote in the newspaper Vremya Novostei. “One of the most terrible totalitarian regimes in the history of mankind collapsed. A superpower that seemed eternal went down. Weak sprouts of freedom appeared, and there was the desire to trample them as soon as possible both then, in 1989, and now. But many people learned to think in a different way, learned to think that their country could be no worse than others. That is not so little for ten years.”