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Chapter 8. The People’s Deputy of the USSR.
A.D. Sakharov. March 1989. Photo: V. Fedorenko. Sakharov Archive.
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1988. Law on the Elections of People’s Deputies of the USSR.

On December 1, 1988, the passage of the USSR laws On Amendments and Additions to the Constitution (Fundamental Law) of the USSR and On the Elections of People’s Deputies of the USSR launched particularly important political reform.

According to this legislation, the Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR was declared the highest body of state power. It received enormous powers, including to amend the Constitution, determine the basic lines of foreign and domestic policy and to elect from the number of people’s deputies of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR and its chair the nominal head of state.

For the first time in many decades, real, competitive elections were to take place, involving an election campaign, open clash of views and political platforms and the free expression of the will of voters. During the electoral campaign, all candidates for deputies were granted immunity.

This became one of the elements of the policy of perestroika during which Mikhail Gorbachev attempted, relying on mass dissatisfaction with the crisis in the country and growing democratic sentiments in society, to weaken the power of the conservative Party apparat.

One of the people’s deputies of the USSR soon to be elected was Academician Sakharov.

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1988. Trip to Azerbaijan and Armenia.

From December 21 to 26, 1988, Sakharov, together with Yelena Bonner and a group of public figures, made a six-day trip to Azerbaijan and Armenia to study on site the problems of the territorial dispute between these republicans and search for ways to resolve the inter-ethnic conflict.

The events, related to the problem of Nagorno-Karabakh, “exposed the falsehoods of official propaganda extolling the ‘indestructible friendship of the peoples of our country,’ and revealed the gravity of interethnic conflicts, which earlier had been kept submerged by terror and censorship. These conflicts, as we know now, affect the entire country,” he wrote.

Under these conditions, Sakharov considered the actions of the central authorities of the Soviet Union, who were trying to preserve the status quo, to be mistaken and to be provoking an escalation of the conflict.

He himself, since the very onset of the Karabakh crisis (in early 1988), had made efforts for a peaceful settlement of the situation, an end to the bloodshed and a resolution of the territorial problem. Sakharov supported the idea of transferring Nagorno-Karabakh, where the Armenian population was in the majority, from the territory of Azerbaijan to the territory of Armenia. In this case, considerations of “national justice,” he wrote, should be the deciding argument in resolving this problem and outweigh any political considerations.

Andrei Sakharov in a helicopter flying to the site of the earthquake in Spitak. Sitting behind Leonid Batkin. December 25, 1988. Photo: Yuri Rost. Sakharov Archive.
Andrei Sakharov at the site of the earthquake in Spitak. December 25, 1988. Photo: Yuri Rost. Sakharov Archive.
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During their trip, Sakharov and his colleagues met with representatives of the authorities and the publics of both republics, talked with refugees, and visited Nagorno-Karabakh itself. Not long before this, the catastrophic Spitak earthquake had destroyed several cities in Armenia; more than 25,000 people had been killed, and more than half a million were left without shelter, so they visited the disaster area as well.

Despite Sakharov’s efforts, the Karabakh problem did not manage to be resolved finally, and it remains a factor to this day for political and military tension in Transcaucasia.

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1989. Elections of People’s Deputies of the USSR.

The election campaign for people’s deputies of the USSR started off the year. It was far from smooth. The procedure for elections of people’s deputies was deliberately complicated, in order that a multi-stage system of selection would filter out the most radical candidates and let through the more manageable. Moreover, deputies were chosen not only from territorial regions; large organizations, including the Academy of Sciences, had their “quotas.”

Report on the results of the nomination of candidates for People’s Deputies of the USSR at a meeting of the expanded Plenary of the Academy of Sciences on January 18, 1989. Samizdat from the collection of the Sakharov Archive.

In January 1989, the collectives of more than 60 scientific research institutes of the USSR Academy of Sciences supported the inclusion of Academician Sakharov among the candidates for people’s deputies in the Academy’s quota. Sakharov’s popularity as an outstanding scientist and human rights defender among the scientists of the Academy’s institutes was enormous; nevertheless, on January 18, an expanded Plenary of the Presidium of the Academy of Sciences refused to nominate him and several other scientists known for their democratic views, as candidates for people’s deputies.

A spontaneous response to this was the nomination of Sakharov by more than 30 territorial regions of the country, from Moscow to Kamchatka. Rallies attended by many thousands of people took place in support of his candidacy. A meeting of voters on January 22 at the Central House of Cinematographers in Moscow, at which Sakharov himself was present, was particularly important.

Speech by Andrei Sakharov at a meeting on his nomination as a candidate for People’s Deputies of the USSR at the Central House of Cinematographers. Moscow, January 22, 1989. Photo: Vladimir Bogdanov, Sakharov Archive.
“That day, I felt that I received a moral mandate to serve as a deputy,” he recalled.

His election program, written during these days, incorporated a wide range of political and socio-economic reforms aimed at dismantling the totalitarian system and opening up the possibility for development of the country on the principles of observance of human rights, political freedom, a market economy, and the government’s social and environmental responsibility of the government. Published in the magazine Ogonyok [Little Flame] and the newspaper Moskovskiye novosti [Moscow News], it was distributed also in thousands of home-made copies. Essentially, it took on the meaning of a manifesto for the democratic movement.

Andrei Sakharov during his work at the Plenum of the USSR Academy of Sciences in the House of Scientists. January 8, 1989 Photo: Lev Sherstennikov. Sakharov archive.
Andrei Sakharov’s election program. 1989. Samizdat from the collection of the Sakharov Archive.
Andrei Sakharov’s election program. 1989. Samizdat from the collection of the Sakharov Archive.
Andrei Sakharov’s election program. 1989. Samizdat from the collection of the Sakharov Archive.
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“The purpose of the program is the deepening and expansion of perestroika, democratization, pluralism, a law-based state, social and national justice, an effective and environmentally safe economy, peace and progress. We cannot allow indecisiveness and contrariness in conducting political, economic and national constitutional perestroika to bring the country to a worsening of the crisis,” he wrote in his program.

On February 2, at a rally of scientists from the Academy institutes in front of the building of the Presidium of the USSR Academy of Sciences, a decisive protest was made against the blocking by the Presidium of the nomination of Sakharov as a candidate for the deputies. By that time, the number of institutes that supported him had reached 250.

A meeting of employees of academic institutions in front of the building of the Presidium of the USSR Academy of Sciences with a protest against the results of the expanded Plenary. Moscow, February 2, 1989. Photo: Lev Sherstennikov, Sakharov Archive.

Sakharov made a principled decision to concentrate on the battle inside the Academy of Sciences. On February 19, Moskovskiye novosti published his open letter, titled “In the Academy or Nowhere,” about his refusal to run from any territorial or national territorial regions.

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This hard position, combined with the powerful support of the scientists of the Academy’s institutions yielded fruit – the procedure for nomination of candidates for the people’s deputies under the Academy’s quota was started anew, and finally at a Conference of the Academy of Sciences, on April 20, Andrei Sakharov was elected a people’s deputy of the USSR from that organization. Together with him, as deputies of the future Congress, were an entire range of people who were to play an important role in the democratic transformations of the coming years, including Nikolai Shmelyov, Yury Karyakin, Roald Sagdeyev, Sergei Averintsev, and others.

The results of the elections of the people’s deputies shook the country. It was a massive failure of the representatives of the Party and Soviet nomenklatura, and the election as people’s deputies of hundreds of real public leaders, demonstrating the enormous social demand for changes.

Sakharov wrote of this:

“Besides apparatchiki themselves and their tame stand-ins, alternative candidates, running on independent platforms, were nominated almost everywhere. For the first time in many years, real election contests developed in our country. (...)The people, deceived so often, surrounded by hypocrisy, corruption, crime, influence-peddling, and inertia, turned out to be alive and kicking. The possibility for change was still only a glimmer but hope and the will for political action grew in people's hearts, and their enthusiasm made possible the emergence of the bold and independent new deputies we saw at the Congress.”

The election of Andrei Sakharov as a people’s deputy of the USSR opened up the possibility for him to become a political figure. In the Soviet Union, where the slightest shadow of independent political thinking had been ruthlessly uprooted for 70 years, public politics was returning, and Sakharov was to become one of the brightest politicians of the first generation after an enormous gap.

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1989. First Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR.

The first Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR opened in Moscow at the Kremlin’s Palace of Congresses on May 25, 1989. Sakharov was one of the most active of its participants. For the 30 working days of the Congress, he was able to speak eight times.

Andrei Sakharov on the podium in the 1st Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR. May 25, 1989. Photo: Yury Lizunov, Sakharov Archive.

The discussions that unfolded in the hall of the Congress were determined not so much by the formal agenda as by the heated political atmosphere in the country – by the exposes of monstrous corruption by the Party and Soviet elite (the “Uzbek Affair”); by inter-ethnic clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh and Sumgait; by the brutal dispersal of a mass demonstration in Tbilisi on April 9 by Interior Ministry troops; and also by the bloody suppression of the peaceful protests in China on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4.

The main tension of the Congress was caused by the opposition between the radical democratic part of the deputies and the conservatives who tried to preserve unchanged the foundations of the Soviet socio-political and economic order.

Personal ballot of the People Deputy for May 25–29, 1989. Filled in by hand by Andrei Sakharov. Sakharov Archive.

The glasnost and openness of the work of the First Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR were unprecedented. Its sessions were broadcast live on television and radio, and millions of people in the countries watched these broadcasts. For the first time, they could see and hear the speeches of Academician Sakharov. On the outskirts of Moscow in Luzhniki, during the work of the Congress, an improvised rally of supporters of democratic reform ran practically all the time, where deputies came immediately after the end of the sessions at the Kremlin. On May 28, Sakharov as well spoke from its tribunal.

Andrei Sakharov at a rally in Luzniki. Moscow, May 28, 1989. Photo: Getty Images.

During these days, Sakharov received numerous letters and telegrams daily from all over the country, reflecting the lively reaction of ordinary people to what was occurring at the Congress.

At the same time, during the work of the Congress, he encountered open hostility a number of times from the side of those whom another people’s deputy, Yury Afanasyev, called “the aggressively obedient majority.”

Andrei Sakharov and Sergei Chervonopisky (at the podium) during their discussion at the Congress. June 2, 1989. Photo: Sakharov Archive.

One of the most dramatic moments of the Congress was the debate during a morning session on June 2 between Sakharov and Sergei Chervonopisky, a wounded Afghan war veteran, elected from the Komsomol’s quota, regarding Sakharov statements about the Afghan war that had been published in the Canadian newspaper, The Ottawa Citizen. The Presidium and the majority of more than 2,000 participants of the session demonstratively took a rah-rah patriotic position. This massive psychological pressure on Sakharov, the unwillingness to listen and accept his humanist, anti-war position, shocked everyone observing the progress of the Congress over the media.

Letters and telegrams to Andrei Sakharov on the days of the First Congress of People’s Deputies. Sakharov Archive.
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On June 9, the First Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR came to a close, but already, five months later, in November of that year, the Second Congress was to open.

Andrei Sakharov votes at the Congress. June 9, 1989. Photo: Igor Zotin, Sakharov Archive.
Assessing the past First Congress, Sakharov wrote that it “didn't resolve the question of power, since its composition and Gorbachev's attitude made that impossible. Therefore, it could not lay the foundation for dealing effectively with economic, social, and environmental problems. (...) But...the Congress completely demolished the illusions that had lulled everyone in our country and the rest of the world to sleep. Speeches by people from the four corners of the country (...) painted a merciless picture of what life is really like in our society – the impression in the minds of millions of people transcended anyone's personal experience (...) The psychological and political repercussions were enormous, and they will persist. The Congress burned all bridges behind us. It became clear to everyone that we must go forward or we will be destroyed.”
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1989. Sakharov’s Speech on June 9, 1989. Decree on Power.

On June 9, 1989, on the concluding day of the work of the First Congress, Sakharov publicized from the podium of the Congress his draft “Decree on Power,” which represented essentially a sketch of radical constitutional reform.

Draft of the Decree of Authority. Typewritten with proofreading done by Andrei Sakharov. Sakharov Archive.

On that day, he had already used up the time limit given him as a member of the Congress for speeches, and his repeat appearance on the podium provoked the fury of his political opponents. This was the most dramatic moment of the Congress.  Gorbachev, chairing the session, tried to cut Sakharov off, and turned off his microphone, at the same time as people from the hall tried to drown out Sakharov’s speech with shouts and clapping. Nevertheless, thanks to the televised broadcast of the Congress session, the whole country could hear Sakharov’s proposals.

Andrei Sakharov speaking on the last day of the 1st Congress of People’s Deputies. June 9, 1989. Photo: Sergei Guneyev, Sakharov Archive.

The question of power in the country was key, he emphasized, and warned that

“A whole host of urgent economic, social, national, and ecological problems cannot be successfully solved until the question of power is decided.”

“We are in the throes of spreading economic catastrophe and a tragic worsening of interethnic relations (...) If we simply float with the current, hoping that things will gradually get better in the distant future, then the accumulating tensions could explode with dire consequences for our society.”

The most important point of his proposed Decree on Power was the repeal of Article 6 of the USSR Constitution, which established the monopoly of the Communist Party over power in the country. Sakharov proposed concentrating legislative power in the country in the hands of the Congress of People’s Deputies as the most democratic body of government at that moment, enjoying the people’s unconditional trust and not controlled by the Party’s apparatchiks. He also proposed granting the Congress the right to confirm the leaders of the state and government, the supreme courts, and others, and to limit the functions of the KGB only to the tasks of protection of the country’s external security, so that in a situation of acute political struggle, the possibility of repression and persecution for beliefs would be excluded.

Furthermore, he advanced several other reformist proposals: reducing the period of military service under the draft, with a transition in the future to a professional army and signing a new Union treaty on the basis of equality of all the national and state formations in the country.

“The Congress should adopt, in my opinion, a resolution embodying the principles of the Rule of Law,” said Sakharov. “These principles include freedom of speech and conscience; the possibility for private citizens and public organizations to contest before an independent tribunal the acts and decisions of all officials and government agencies; due process in trial and investigatory procedure (...). I urge that the laws on meetings and demonstrations and on the use of internal troops be reviewed (...).
The Congress does not have the power instantaneously to feed the country, instantaneously to solve our nationality problems, instantaneously to eliminate the budget deficit, instantaneously to make the air and woods clean again, but what we are obliged to do is to establish political guarantees that these problems will be solved.”

Sakharov’s Decree on Power was not put to a vote, but it was precisely this speech – against the rules, in spite of the indignation of a significant number of deputies and attempts by Gorbachev to silence him – that became the informal summary and symbol of the First Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR.

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1989. Interregional Deputies’ Group.Campaign to Repeal Article 6 of the USSR Constitution.

On June 9, 1989, 388 people’s deputies of the USSR who advocated a fundamental reform of the Soviet political system, who were for market reforms and democratization of social relations, in order to coordinate their actions, formed the Interregional Deputies’ Group (IDG). Sakharov was elected one of the co-chairmen along with the historian Yury Afanasyev, the economist Gavriil Popov, the chemistry professor Viktor Palm, and the opposition Party functionary, the future president of Russia, Boris Yeltsin.

Andrei Sakharov and Gavriil Popov in the meeting room of the 1st Congress of the People’s Deputies of the USSR. June 8, 1989. Photo: Igoк Zotin, Valery Christoforov, Sakharov Archive.

Work within the IDG and preparation of the draft of a new Constitution was the main content of Sakharov’s activity in the second half of 1989 – the last months of his life.

The IDG became the prototype of a real parliamentary opposition. It did not obediently follow in the wake of Gorbachev but worked out its own program. Above all, it set as its goal the radical democratization of the country and the introduction of a multi-party system on the basis of amendments to the current Constitution of the USSR; chief among these was repeal of Article 6 of the Constitution. This article enforced the one-party system and absolute dominance of one political force – the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Despite the fact that the Constitution declared the right of citizens of the Soviet Union to associate in civic organizations, Article 6 essentially blocked the opportunity for the creation of political parties alternative to the CPSU and excluded the possibility of them coming to power.

The liquidation of the Communist Party’s monopoly on power would radically change the country’s political system.

The proposal to repeal Article 6 became known throughout the country as “Deputy Sakharov’s Amendment.” In Moscow, Sakharov and other members of the Interregional Group of Deputies received thousands of letters, telegrams, and collective appeals in support of such a decision.

During the First Congress of People’s Deputies, the issue of repealing Article 6 was repeatedly raised by Sakharov and other democratic deputies but was not put to a vote. On December 12, 1989, on the day of the opening of the Second Congress, Sakharov once again proposed including it in the agenda, but Gorbachev and the majority of deputies did not support him, and two days later, Sakharov died.

Andrei Sakharov at FIAN on December 11, 1989, during a warning strike calling for the inclusion in the agenda of the 2nd Congress of People’s Deputies, in particular the question of repealing Article 6 of the Constitution. Photo: M. Schaaf, Sakharov Archive

A break in the situation around “Deputy Sakharov’s amendment” was to come soon after his death. In early February 1900, mass rallies and processions were held in major cities, demanding the repeal of Article 6, and this forced Mikhail Gorbachev to change his position, and achieve this at the Plenary of the Central Committee of the CPSU. And on March 14, 1990, the Third Congress of People’s Deputies passed the Law of the USSR on the Establishment of the Post of President of the USSR and Amendments and Additions to the Constitution of the USSR, in which a compromise formulation of Article 6 appeared, essentially legalized political pluralism.

Sakharov did not live to see this day, exactly three months later.

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1989. Draft Constitution of the Union of Soviet Republics of Europe and Asia.

On the last day of the work of the First Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR, Sakharov was elected a member of the Constitutional Commission of the Congress, which was assigned the drafting of the amendments to the existing Constitution and a draft of a new Constitution of the country. This Commission essentially did no work, but Sakharov, in a very tense situation between trips and participation in many civic activities in late November 1989, drafted his own Constitution, which summarized his many years of reflection on the political organization of a democratic society.

Andrei Sakharov at his desk. January 6, 1987. Photo: Yury Rost, Sakharov Archive.

At the foundation of the conception of this document were the principles of a state under the rule of law, including protection of human and civil rights and liberties. The national state system of the country was close to a confederation, providing wide political, economic, and cultural rights to all the republics in the Soviet Union. The name of the country, in Sakharov’s opinion, should be changed from “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics” to “Union of Soviet Republics of Europe and Asia.” Moreover, the concept of “Soviet” was to be imbued with a new, democratic content.

Sakharov envisioned the future state to be free of ideological diktat and open to the outer world. He proposed that such principles be enforced in the Constitution as rejection of expansion, aggression, messianism, and the first use of nuclear weapons, and also an unconditional prohibition on the death penalty.

The highest body of legislative authority of the Union state, according to Sakharov’s plan, was to be the Congress of People’s Deputies; the highest executive body would be the Soviet of Ministers of the Union; he also proposed introducing the post of President of the Union of Soviet Republics of Europe and Asia.

In the economic sphere, Sakharov proposed guaranteeing the coexistence and equal protection of various types of property, including private, and the ensuring of economic activity on a market and competitive basis.

These and other innovations radically broke the traditional model of the state which had existed in the USSR, opening up before the country a way out of the historic dead end in which it found itself. Understanding the importance of this historical task, Sakharov continued to improve his constitutional draft until the last day of his life.

Accompanying note by Andrei Sakharov to Mikhail Gorbachev on the draft constitution. November 27, 1989. Copy. Sakharov Archive.
The text of the draft constitution of Andrei Sakharov. First page. Copy. Sakharov Archive.
The text of the draft constitution of Andrei Sakharov. Last page. Copy. Sakharov Archive.
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The Draft Constitution of the Union of Soviet Republics of Europe and Asia was a sketch containing the main principles of Constitutional reform, proposed for discussion. Sakharov’s death prevented this, and subsequently in 1991, the collapse of the USSR led to the formation in its place of several independent states. Nevertheless, in the part related to human and civil rights and liberties, the principles of social justice, the market elements of the economy and the democratic political system of the country, the Constitution of the Russian Federation passed in 1993 was close to Sakharov’s draft.

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1989. Travel around the Country and Abroad.

The year 1989 was filled with very intensive work for Sakharov, including a whole range of trips.

From February 5 through March 8, he traveled to Italy, Canada, and the US, and from June 15 to August 28 he visited the Netherlands, Great Britain, Norway, Switzerland, Italy, the US, and France. From September 24-30 he visited France once again, where he took part in the annual congress of the French Physics Society and gave a public lecture, known as the “Lyons Lecture” or “Science and Freedom.” Finally, from October 5–8, Sakharov visited Japan to take part in the Second Forum of Nobel Prize Laureates.

Everywhere he was received not simply as a famous scientist, humanist, and public figure, but as a kind of ambassador of “perestroika,” a person who was the embodiment of the idea which promised the liberation of an enormous country from totalitarianism and the world from exhausting and deadly dangerous ideological confrontation.

On May 4–5, Andrei Sakharov and  Bonner made a brief visit to Tbilisi, where they took part in the work of the Public Committee to Investigate the Events of April 9 (the dispersal by troops of a rally in the center of town, as a result of which more than 20 people were killed and 300 injured).

Andrei Sakharov and Yelena Bonner with Pope John Paul II. Vatican, February 6, 1989. Sakharov Archive.
Andrei Sakharov during the ceremony in which he was awarded an honorary doctorate in law from the University of Manitoba (Canada). February 17, 1989. Sakharov Archive.
Andrei Sakharov and writer Boris Vasilev during a meeting of the members of the Public Commission with representatives of the division named after Dzerzhinsky. Tbilisi, May 4–5, 1989. Sakharov Archive.
Andrei Sakharov and other participants in the Second Nobel Laureate Forum at the Sapporo High School in Japan. November 1, 1989. Photo: Sakharov Archive.
Andrei Sakharov and Yelena Bonner lay flowers at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. November 4, 1989. Sakharov Archive.
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On May 19, Sakharov flew to Syktyvkar, in order to support the candidacy of Revolt Pimenov, a mathematician, human rights defender, and former political prisoner, in the elections to the people’s deputies of the USSR. And on September 8-9, together with People’s Deputy Galina Starovoitova, he made a trip to the Urals. In Sverdlovsk (now called Yekaterinburg), they took part in a conference of people’s deputies of the Urals region, and met the collective of Uralmash, one of the largest factories in the country. And in Chelyabinsk, Sakharov spoke at the invitation of the Chelyabinsk Memorial Society at a funeral ceremony for the reinterment of the remains of victims of Stalin’s terror.

“The children who are present here, that is the guarantee of our future,” said Sakharov at the funeral meeting. “Looking at them, we must vow never to allow anything even similar to what happened to our country. We will not wait for a strong hand. We ourselves, by our democratic will, will create in our country a state of law, a state of truth, a state of humanity.”

During these trips, Academician Sakharov was received as one of the most popular leaders of the democratic movement, a person with whom people linked hopes for positive changes in the country. Everywhere, his meetings with the public took place in overflowing halls.

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1989. Lecture at Lyons – “Science and Freedom”.

On September 27, 1989, while in France, Academician Sakharov gave a public lecture at Lyons University titled “Science and Freedom,” known as the “Lecture at Lyons.”  In it, he sketched a panorama of the development of the world’s fundamental science in the 20th century. He called the century itself “the century of science,” and it was from fundamental science that he derived the basic principle of the modern world – its unity and systemic interconnectedness.

The Lyons Lecture became Andrei Sakharov’s last wide-scale appeal to the world community.

“Humankind,” he said, “cannot refuse to move forward, it cannot deny itself progress.  Humankind can only develop progressively; there can be no return to the past. A return to a primitive natural farming economy is impossible. Still, we must keep the negative aspects of progress from getting the upper hand, so that progress does not threaten humankind! Above all, this is a question of progress not being used for self-destruction in a great world war. At the same time, we must overcome the enormous ecological and environmental dangers that pose a threat to our existence. A complete solution to these problems is very hard to find; there are no final or easy answers. But one thing is certain: Dividing humankind into two opposing camps is the greatest source of danger, turning global problems into an immediate threat to our existence on Earth. The most dangerous division has historically been between socialism and capitalism. I am convinced that only by bridging the chasm that separates these systems, only by putting an end to their mutual opposition, can we find the key to solving the global problems of humankind.”

The fate of the Soviet Union, he emphasized, depends on whether the country can cleanse itself from the legacy of Stalinist totalitarianism and embark on the path of “pluralistic development,” that is, freedom and democracy.

“All the West's interaction with the USSR, China, and other socialist countries where the fight is raging for the freedom to choose the right path, ought to be built on one and only one principle: helping the move toward pluralism and keeping the road closed to the conservation of stagnation and the reinforcement of Stalinism.”
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1989. Call for a Two-Hour General Warning Strike.

In the second half of November 1989, events unfolded in Czechoslovakia which later were called the “Velvet Revolution.” For two weeks, demonstrations with many thousands of people took place and finally a general political strike involving the whole country, which led to the fall of the pro-Soviet regime and to repeal of the article of the Constitution, analogous to Article 6 of the USSR Constitution, which guaranteed the monopoly on power of the Communist Party.  A radical renewal of the political system took place, and changes began in other key spheres of life.

Manifestation in Prague on the day of the general two-hour political strike. November 27, 1989. Photo: L. Kotek. AFP/EAST NEWS.

Demands advanced during the Velvet Revolution in many ways echoed the political tasks which the democratic movement in the USSR faced at that time. Once again, as they had during the Prague Spring in 1968, people in the Soviet Union followed events in Czechoslovakia with sympathy and hope. And the most important lesson which Sakharov took away from the Velvet Revolution was that movement forward along a path of radical reforms is only possible on the basis of direct popular expression of will, with massive support on the part of citizens.

On December 1, a small group of people’s deputies – members of the Interregional Group of Deputies – headed by Sakharov distributed a brief appeal to their fellow citizens:

“Perestroika in our country is encountering organized resistance. The passing of the basic economic laws on property, on enterprises, and the most important Law on Land is being delayed (…). The Supreme Soviet has not included on the agenda of the Congress discussion of Article 6 of the Constitution of the USSR.
If the Law on Land is not passed, yet another agricultural year is lost. If laws on property and enterprises are not passed, the ministries and agencies will go on commanding them as before and ruin the country. If Article 6 is not removed from the Constitution, the crisis of confidence in the leadership of the government and Party will grow.
We call on all workers of the country (…) to express their will and hold a general political warning strike on December 11, 1989 from 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 pm Moscow time, demanding that discussion of the laws on land, property, enterprise, and Article 6 of the Constitution be included on the agenda of the Second Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR.”

The authors of the appeal saw the salvation of the country, which was crawling more and more toward political and economic catastrophe, in the immediate implementation of fundamental reforms.

Andrei Sakharov, Gavriil Popov and Arkady Murashyov on the podium during the general meeting of the Interregional Deputy Group. December 9, 1989. Photo: Sakharov Archive.

Most of the members of the IDG did not dare to support this call.

The two-hour warning strike did not become a general one; however, dozens of labor collectives took part around the entire country. Many limited themselves to rallies in support of the program outlined in the appeal of the people’s deputies.

Among the collectives that supported the strike was the Physics Institute (FIAN) as well. On December 11, Sakharov went there to speak to the researchers.

“We all hope for a calm, evolutionary course of development, and it is possible precisely with the will of the people. That is why we have decided to appeal for a strike (…),” he said. “The strike which is under way now was not prepared in any way; therefore, its scale will likely be insignificant (in the percentage sense, at any rate). But it has already begun, and people have understood that they can have their say in the political history of our country.”
Andrei Sakharov at FIAN during a warning strike. December 11, 1989. Photo: M. Schaaf, Sakharov Archive.

Three days later, in his last public speech at a meeting of the IDG several hours before he death, Sakharov once again repeated:

“What has happened this week with the discussion of our call – this is a very important politicization of the country, it’s a discussion that has gripped the whole country. (…) It’s important that the people have finally found a form to express their will, and they are ready to give us political support.”
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1989. Second Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR.

On December 12, 1989, the Second Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR began work.

Andrei Sakharov in the conference room of the 2nd Congress of the People’s Deputies of the USSR. Photo: Sergei Smirnov, Sakharov Archive.

The IDG proposed including on the agenda the issue of repeal of Article 6 of the USSR Constitution. Sakharov placed on the desk of the Congress presidium boxes which contained letters, telegrams, and signed pages with tens of thousands of signatures which had come in all over the country in support of this decision. But Gorbachev cut him off, and the majority of the deputies voted against discussion of this issue.

Sakharov had only two days left to live.

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1989. Last Speech. Death.

December 14, 1989 was an ordinary working day for Sakharov. In the morning, he was busy at home preparing a summary of his forthcoming speech at the Second Congress of People’s Deputies, then he headed off to a meeting of the IDG, where he was co-chairman. There, he called on his colleagues to declare themselves the democratic opposition to the half-hearted, indecisive policy of Gorbachev.

Andrei Sakharov, Yury Afanasyev, Boris Yeltsin and Gavriil Popov (left to right) during a meeting of the Interregional Deputy Group. December 14, 1989. Photo: Oleg Klimov. Sakharov Archive.

By that time, perestroika had exhausted itself, and the country was plunging further and further into a political and economic crisis. Many members of the IDG were frightened by the very concept of a political opposition, discredited in the Stalin era, when any expression of opinion differing from the opinion of the government was deadly dangerous. But Sakharov believed that the existence of a strong and active opposition capable of advancing and promoting an alternative program of reforms was necessary to save the country.

“What is an opposition?” he asked. “We cannot take all the responsibility on ourselves for what the leadership is doing now. It is leading the country into catastrophe, dragging out the process of perestroika for many years. It is leaving the country during these years in such a state, when everything will collapse (…). All the plans of transition to an intensive, market economy will remain unfulfilled, and the disappointment in the country is already growing. And this disappointment makes the evolutionary path of development in our country impossible. The only path, the only opportunity for an evolutionary path is the radicalization of perestroika.
In declaring ourselves an opposition, we at the same time take on ourselves the responsibility for the solutions we propose – that is the second part of the definition. And that is also extremely important.
Now we are living in a state of a deep crisis of faith in the Party and the leadership from which we can exit only by decisive political steps. Repeal of Article 6 of the Constitution and other articles of the Constitution related to it (…) is an especially important political act, which is needed for the country now, and not in a year, when the work on the new text of the Constitution will be completed. Then all this will be too late.”

This last speech became his political testament.

Andrei Sakharov speaking at a meeting of the Interregional Deputy Group on December 14, 1989. Photo: Oleg Klimov. Sakharov Archive.
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After this, he gave an interview for many hours to a film crew from the Kazakhfilm movie studio making the documentary film Poligon [Testing Ground] about his work on nuclear weapons and their testing in the 1950s at the Semipalatinsk Testing Ground on the territory of Kazakhstan. Finally, he returned home, in order to continue preparation for his speech the next day.

Late that evening, Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov died prematurely of a heart attack in his apartment in Moscow.

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1989. Farewell to Sakharov.

The death of Academician Sakharov shocked the country.

On the next day, USSR People’s Deputy Academician Dmitry Likhachev, a former prisoner of the Stalin labor camps, from the podium of the Second Congress of People’s Deputies, said: “With the death of Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov, a piece of our heart has gone from us. We could agree with certain of his proposals or not agree, but this was a person of absolute sincerity, absolute purity.”

On December 17, 1989, the casket with Sakharov’s body was placed in the Moscow Palace of Youth, where a civil mourning service was held. For 12 hours, thousands of people went there, despite the freezing weather, joining an enormous, slow-moving line, waiting for the chance to go inside. Sakharov’s relatives and friends stood in the honor guard, along with his colleagues from the Interregional Deputies Group, other deputies, representatives from “Moscow Tribunal”, “Memorial” and other civic organizations.

Poet Evgeny Evtushenko reads his poem, “The heart was striking like a mine,” dedicated to the memory of Sakharov, during a funeral service in Luzhniki on December 18, 1989. Photo: W. Laski/EastNews

On the next day, December 18, the coffin was transferred to the building of the Presidium of the USSR Academy of Sciences, where government leaders, including Mikhail Gorbachev, paid their respects to Sakharov, and then the service continued at the Physics Institute (FIAN), where Sakharov had been a scientist. After that, the funeral procession which numbered tens of thousands of people headed to Luzhniki, where yet another civil memorial service took place under the open sky.

Funeral procession on December 18, 1989. Archives of the International Memorial.

At the Moscow Novodevichy Monastery and the patriarchal Epiphany Cathedral, religious services were held in absentia.

On that same day, memorial rallies with thousands of people took place in many cities around the Soviet Union: Novosibirsk, Kyiv, Vorkuta, Yaroslavl, Odessa, Lviv, and others.

That evening, Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov was buried at Moscow’s Vostryakovskoye Cemetery.

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