Cathy Young

Russia turning back the clock on rights

By Cathy Young
December 19, 2009

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EACH YEAR, the European Parliament awards a Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, named after the great Russian scientist and human rights activist Andrei Sakharov. Past recipients have included Chinese and Cuban dissidents, Israeli and Palestinian peacemakers, and groups such as Reporters Without Borders. In a ceremony in Strasbourg this week, the prize was given to Memorial, a human rights group from Sakharov’s native country. It is symbolic, perhaps, that this award coincides with the 20th anniversary of Sakharov’s death - an anniversary on which his legacy is beleaguered and often neglected.

Sakharov’s death of a heart attack at age 68, at a time when the Soviet Union was on the cusp of collapse, is seen by many as an irreparable loss to the cause of freedom and human rights in Russia. Freed from internal exile and virtual house arrest in the city of Gorky at the beginning of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms, Sakharov threw himself into political activity and was elected to the Congress of People’s Deputies, where he joined the bloc of radical reformers in advocating for such controversial causes as the legalization of multiple political parties. With his sudden death, the democratic movement in Russia was left without moral leadership and authority. No other man or woman of such stature was around to oppose the backsliding to authoritarianism under Vladimir Putin.

Today, dissenters and human rights activists in Russia again face dire circumstances. While they have far greater opportunities to speak and publish than they did in the Soviet era, and are no longer threatened with years of imprisonment merely for criticizing the government, they are effectively barred from the airwaves and often subjected to arrest and police brutality when they try to hold protests in public spaces. They are mocked and smeared in the official media. They are harassed by the authorities. The organization Memorial spent nearly six months in a legal fight to retrieve important files and archives confiscated during an illegal police raid on its St. Petersburg office.

Sometimes, the harassment escalates to deadly levels. One of Memorial’s top activists, Natalia Estemirova, was abducted and shot dead last July in the violence-plagued Chechnya region. Some of the group’s leaders openly link her death to Chechnya’s president, Ramzan Kadyrov, who deplored the crime but assailed the dead woman as a liar and a troublemaker. (Memorial suspended its operations in Chechnya after the murder but reopened them this month.)

It is hardly surprising that the greeting from Sakharov’s widow, Elena Bonner, that was read Monday at a Moscow conference commemorating Sakharov and his ideas was a rather pessimistic one. Bonner, a former leader in the Soviet human rights movement who lives in Boston, noted that today’s Russian regime has effectively abolished elections and revived censorship and political persecution.

Meanwhile, a program shown on state-run Russian TV emphasized Sakharov’s role as a scientist and the father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb. It portrayed his human rights advocacy as primarily an offshoot of his peace activism and virtually ignored the political battles of his final years. Bonner, 85, whose criticism of the Russian regime today makes her inconvenient, was shown in the program only once - in KGB surveillance footage from nearly 30 years ago.

The treatment of Sakharov’s legacy in Russia today brings to mind the adage that there is no prophet in his own country. Yet it is not just in Russia that his ideas are both relevant and, much of the time, sadly unattainable.

Sakharov advocated a foreign policy rooted in regard for human rights - a principle that many people in the West today see as suspect, a prescription for arrogant meddling into other nations’ business if not for reckless interventionism. Among Sakharov’s key beliefs, Bonner noted in her remarks, was the view that “politics can and should be moral - without a moral foundation, it turns into political machinations’’ and that “ultimately, the choice that is morally right is also the most pragmatic.’’

In the year after Sakharov’s death, when tyrannies around the world were falling and liberal democracy was on the march, such idealism seemed feasible. Can it still be a useful guide for us today, or is it an impossible dream?

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine and author of “Growing Up in Moscow: Memories of a Soviet Girlhood.’’

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