KGB Confidential: Unearthing a Hero of Soviet Jewry

There is a long-standing tradition among the Russian intelligentsia of honoring one’s intellectual heroes by prominently displaying their image for all to see. In a place where others might put family portraits, the Russian physicist has a photo of the professor who trained him; the poet stares up at Mandelstam or Brodsky. When I went to visit Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky in his Jerusalem office last year, I noticed that indeed he had three large images, lined up vertically, of people he wished to emulate. At the top was the well-known visage of Theodor Herzl, sternly looking down his nose over his big, black beard, his arms crossed. On the bottom was a close-up of Sharansky’s mother, Ida Milgrom, who, along with Sharansky’s wife, Avital, had traveled the world for more than a decade fighting for his release. And in between was the distinctly un-Jewish face of a man who may be unfamiliar to most people today: Andrei Sakharov.

Sakharov helped invent the Soviet hydrogen bomb, became the youngest member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, was awarded three Hero of Socialist Labor medals and was privy to every luxury the Soviet state could offer. And yet, in the 1960s he turned his back on it all, becoming the sun around which the entire Soviet dissident movement revolved — an embodiment of morality and justice, and a fierce reminder, as long as he existed, there was another Russia, one that was not willing to sacrifice human rights on the altar of equality. The brutes in the Kremlin, once he turned on them, wanted nothing more than to spit him out of their empire. He persisted, suffering great indignities. And in the process he became more than just a man — he became a symbol, a reality he was willing to accept, despite his humility. Referring to his exile to the sealed-off city of Gorky from 1980 to 1986, he wrote in his memoir: “The question of my remaining in Gorky or returning to Moscow was something more than a purely personal matter: It was a yardstick by which the entire human rights situation in the USSR could be measured.”

This week, in fact, gives us reason to remember his legacy. May 12 marks the 30th anniversary of the founding meeting of the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group, in which Sakhrov played a critical role. The group consisted of most of the major dissidents at the time, whose objective was to hold the Soviet Union to the human rights standards they themselves had codified. The group posed such a challenge to the regime that within three years, most of its members were either arrested or exiled. Still, it helped spawn the modern human rights movement: Many Helsinki watch groups popped up in the Moscow group’s wake, including one in New York, now known as Human Rights Watch.

But it’s more than just for his role as a humanist that Sharansky remembers Sakharov. The Soviet Jewry movement — the struggle to allow the free emigration of Jews out of the Soviet Union — of which Sharansky became chief poster boy, owes an immense debt to Sakharov. The movement’s success stemmed from the fact that its banner was always stretched tautly between two poles. At one end was a tribal impulse, the Zionist dream of ingathering. But at the other end was a very universal demand for free movement, an insistence that the Soviet Union respect the principles embedded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. More than any other individual, it was Sakharov who made sure this second pole was firmly planted.

Sakharov’s memoir makes it clear that he placed a lot of importance on advocating for the freedom of movement and that he valued his connection to the Zionists, and to Jews in general (His wife, Elena Bonner, had a Jewish mother). But now there is additional evidence of his centrality to the Jewish cause — from an extremely unlikely witness: Yuri Andropov, head of the KGB from 1967 to 1982.

In a new book, “The KGB File of Andrei Sakharov” (Yale University Press, 2005), we have, collected for the first time, the Soviet secret police’s perspective on their most famous dissident. Along with the many documents, most of them memos from Andropov to the Central Committee, is an excellent introductory essay by Joshua Rubenstein. (The files were also edited by Alexander Gribanov.) There is much that is surprising here, but at the most fundamental level it is shocking to see how closely and how intensely the state was watching Sakharov and Bonner. The leaders of a superpower sat around discussing the vicissitudes of their mood and health as if they were matters of the utmost national security (“Bonner’s psychological harassment caused Sakharov to experience cardiac pain, and he was repeatedly forced to take nitroglycerin,” one typical report reads). It was as if they understood, Rubenstein writes, “how precarious their power really was, how much open dissent could be tolerated, before the system and its official ideology would be fatally challenged.”

His connection to Jews and to the emigration movement runs throughout the papers. The Soviets always struggled to understand why one of their best and brightest would have turned his back on them. The supposedly pernicious effects of Zionism, cartoonishly painted in the Soviet mind, offered an easy answer. Bonner is often depicted as a Zionist agent, “a beast in a skirt, a henchman of imperialism,” as one Politburo member described her, who, along with other “anti-social elements” that swirled around him, was guilty of exploiting Sakharov. In one of many memos on Sakharov’s “psychological state,” Andropov writes that “it has clearly taken a turn for the worse. Sakharov’s behavior does not conform to accepted norms; it is excessively susceptible to the influence of those around him — above all, his wife; his behavior is patently contrary to common sense.” The Jews had made him insane.

It was in the essay in which he established himself as a dissident leader, “Progress, Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom,” written and passed around in samizdat form in 1968, that Sakharov first articulated the basic principle that would guide his activism for the next two decades. His idea was “convergence,” which he described as “the rapprochement of the socialist and capitalist systems.” This had to take place, “accompanied by democratization, demilitarization, and social and technological progress,” because, really, Sakharov wrote, it was “the only alternative to the ruin of mankind.”

It was not long after he penned these words that he lost his job and became an epicenter of dissident activity and a pariah in the eyes of the regime. By April 1971, Andropov was describing the situation pretty accurately: “As a result of enemy propaganda, the name of Sakharov is gaining even greater popularity inside the country as an ‘uncompromising fighter’ against injustice. His apartment has become a place of pilgrimage for various kinds of ‘victims’ of ‘arbitrary actions’ by Soviet authorities. Some citizens come from remote regions of the country to Moscow specifically to meet with him.” Andropov makes specific reference to the refuseniks who saw a savior in Sakharov, noting, “Many people who have been denied permission to leave the country ask Sakharov to help them obtain exit visas…. He advises people to make ‘noise’ each time an exit visa is denied, to publish relevant material in samizdat, and to resort to the services of the bourgeois press and Western radio stations.”

The biggest “noise” Sakharov himself made on behalf of free Jewish emigration came during the long battle, from late 1972 to 1975, over the Jackson-Vanik amendment. The bill threatened to explode the detente that Kissinger was carefully cultivating at the time by demanding that in exchange for Most Favored Nation trading status with the United States, the Soviets would have to let a large number of Jews go. Sakharov liked the idea. He always thought detente was flawed and would mean, as he put it in 1973, “rapprochement without democratization, rapprochement in which the West in effect accepts the Soviet Union rules of the game.” Jackson-Vanik would put pressure on the Soviets to change internally. And in a strongly worded memo to the United States Congress, Sakharov threw his support behind it, possible tipping the balance and helping it pass.

As the KGB file attests, all throughout the 1970s Sakharov never stopped championing both the principal of free emigration and those individuals who made up the refuseniks’ community. His relationship with Bonner began, in fact, while they both stood outside the courtroom as 10 Jewish activists from Riga were being tried in late 1970 for trying to hijack a plane so that they could escape the Soviet Union. And then there was, of course, the arrest and trial of Anatoly Shcharansky, as he was known at that time. The charismatic young mathematician and chess player got his start as an activist when Sakharov began depending on his services as an English interpreter. And he specifically became a target of the KGB because of his closeness to the human rights movement. Only once he was arrested was it necessary — in order to increase his support base in America — to overemphasize his role in the Jewish movement. But in reality, he had always straddled the two groups, Zionist and democratic, Herzl and Sakharov.

By 1980, when Sakharov’s exile began, he had already won the Nobel Peace Prize and had become an icon. As Andropov makes clear here in almost frantic memos to the Politburo, it’s the reason that the Soviets felt the need to isolate him. The KGB files during this dark period offer a chronicle of the intense hunger strikes, forced hospitalizations and constant harassment of Sakharov and Bonner. And then, just in the flip of a few pages — around 1985 — we see the harsh language used to describe him suddenly slacken and fall away. Glasnost and perestroika had arrived. Sakharov’s epic battle with the Soviet state finally ended in December 1986, when Mikhail Gorbachev called to let him know that he was free to return to Moscow. It was nothing less than a call of concession. Sakharov’s Russia had won, and, as we all know now, the massive emigration of nearly 1 million Soviet Jews soon followed.

The current state of democracy and human rights in Russia notwithstanding, Sakharov’s legacy is enormous and extends far beyond the Soviet Empire’s borders. It’s unfortunate that this fact is too often forgotten. While Russian Jews should be grateful to those who fought for their rights as Jews to live in Israel, they might also want to remember a man who fought for their rights as human being to live wherever they wanted.

Gal Beckerman, a regular contributor to the Forward, is writing a history of the Soviet Jewry movement, to be published next year by Houghton Mifflin.

This story "KGB Confidential: Unearthing a Hero of Soviet Jewry" was written by Gal Beckerman.


Gal Beckerman

Gal Beckerman

Gal Beckerman was a staff writer and then the Forward’s opinion editor until 2014. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Follow Gal on Twitter at @galbeckerman

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