Sakharov's ideals: lost in the new Russia?

Russia honors the human rights giant with statues - one unveiled Monday, one planned.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

At a recent Moscow gathering to honor the memory of Nobel Prize-winning human rights champion Andrei Sakharov, Lyudmila Alexeyeva looked around the half-empty hall and sighed.

"It seems there are only elderly people here," said the Soviet-era dissident. "They say the youth today can't even recognize the names of Vladimir Lenin or Joseph Stalin. I wonder if they know who Sakharov was?"

For many of the people who fought and suffered for liberal values during the long Soviet winter, life after the death of communism has been a bitter disappointment. Some Soviet-era dissidents say they feel more isolated in the new Russia - where cash is king and a wildly popular ex-KGB agent runs the Kremlin - than they ever did during the days of the USSR.

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Few things illustrate the demoralization and disarray of the old human rights campaigners better than the sharp debate in their ranks over a Moscow city government offer to build a $600,000 monument to Andrei Sakharov, who died in 1989.

Absolutely not, says Mr. Sakharov's widow, Yelena Bonner, who says her disillusionment at corruption, social intolerance, and resurgent authoritarianism in post-Soviet Russia sent her into voluntary exile in Boston. She assails the Moscow authorities as hypocrites trying to appropriate Sakharov's name for a state that is stifling freedom of the press and waging a bloody war against the small breakaway republic of Chechnya.

"I hope that as long as I am alive there will be no monument," she says. "The memory of Sakharov has evaporated in Russia."

Monday, a monument to Sakharov was unveiled in St. Petersburg - a project Ms. Bonner also opposes.

A nuclear physicist who developed the USSR's H-bomb, Sakharov went on to become a founder of the Soviet human rights movement. He was officially ostracized, and forbidden to visit Norway to collect his Nobel Prize in 1975. His tireless campaigning for freedom of speech, press, worship, assembly, and emigration landed him in internal exile in the 1980s But when reform-minded Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, Sakharov was allowed to return to public life and was elected to the first Soviet parliament just before his death.

Sakharov's uncompromising principles were not embraced, however, by the generation of new Russian leaders who came to power amid the wreckage of the USSR. To many observers, President Boris Yeltsin and other former communist leaders appeared to use democracy and human rights as just a new set of slogans to paste onto a largely unchanged autocratic style of rule.

The new business elite, with its often violent scramble for wealth, horrified the modest-living, intellectually inclined Soviet-era dissidents.

"Sakharov and the movement he inspired did much to bring down communism," says Alexander Konovalov, director of the independent Institute for Strategic Assessments in Moscow. "But after the fall of the USSR, they were just swept aside. There is no room for them in present Russian reality."

Bonner and others express little faith in the motives of Moscow's populist mayor, Yury Luzhkov, who just last year proposed restoring the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet secret police, to its pedestal in front of former KGB headquarters

"I understand Yelena Bonner's position," says Alexei Simonov, head of the Glasnost Foundation, a human rights watchdog group. "I think she objects not so much to the monument [to her late husband], but to the people who would come to deliver speeches at its inauguration. She fears they would discredit Sakharov's memory, and this would split society more than the lack of a monument does."

In deference to Bonner's objections, a monument committee headed by liberal parliamentarians Boris Nemtsov and the late Sergei Yushenkov - who was assassinated by an unknown assailant in mid-April - agreed to reject any state funding for the Sakharov memorial in Moscow. But the city council, which has had a decision on its books since 1990 to erect a Sakharov statue, says it will go ahead with the project anyway, to be built on a square yet to be chosen.

Roy Medvedev, a dissident historian who sat in the first Soviet parliament with Sakharov, says that Bonner's opinion shouldn't be a decisive factor. "Sakharov was a scientist and a public figure; he belongs to history," he says. "It is up to the society and the state to define the ways to pay tribute to him."

For a younger generation of liberal politicians, a Sakharov monument in the capital would be a small, rare victory, one that might be built upon in future.

"Yes, most of our officials do not subscribe to Sakharov's ideals, but merely declare them," says Ella Pamfilova, a member of the Kremlin's human rights commission. "But in the past dozen years Russia has made real progress in human rights; it has covered ground that took Europe centuries.

"A monument to Sakharov is so important for cultivating public perceptions about the importance of human rights. So let it be built. Today we may be a minority, but tomorrow there will be more of us."

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