No one in the Soviet Union Symbolizes more the spirit of dissent than Andrei Sakharov. Yet, because of the physicist's high standing as a member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences and the respect for him at home and abroad. Kremlin authorities have long hesitated to stifle his voice as they have so many others. By now suddenly stripping him of his awards and exiling him to a town beyond the reach of foreign reporters, the Soviet leadership has defiantly thrown down the gauntlet to the free world. The move demonstrates anew the inherent moral and ideological weakness of a system unable to tolerate criticism from even one or a handful of individuals.
What lies behind the decision is not entirely clear. Perhaps with East-West detente at such low ebb already the Russians see nothing to be lost by clearing Moscow of the most activist dissidents before the summer Olympic Games. Perhaps they are simply lashing out angrily in reaction to the strong international outcry against their invasion of Afghanistan -- and warning President Carter of how toughly they are prepared to act. In light of Mr. Carter's letter to Dr. Sakharov in early 1977 underscoring his own commitment to human rights, the move against the Nobel Peace Laureate is an especially pointed slap. The fact that Dr. Sakharov has voiced opposition to the Afghan intervention no doubt has also irritated the authorities.
It is possible, too, the banishment reflects a deepening frustration over the whole Afghan undertaking. Not only has the world response been stronger than anticipated. The takeover itself has not proved to be the swift clean-cut operation the Soviets hoped for. Russians troops reportedly have taken some heavy casualties and rebel opposition to the Soviet occupation is mounting. In this situation, elements in Moscow's power structure, seeking to justify themselves, may be fueling an atmosphere of htting back at the US even harder. Media accusations against the CIA, a decline in Jewish emigration last month, and increased pressure against dissidents seem to point to a hardening position.
In any event, it is hard to think that the move against Sakharov will not backfire on the Russians. By finally banishing the most prominent leader of the Soviet civil rights campaign. Moscow invites a torrent of world criticism and countermoves that will further chill East-West relations. It may also find more and more nations joining the growing movement for cancellation or boycott of the summer Olympic Games, a step that becomes increasingly justified.
The gentle-spoken nuclear physicist now exiled to the town of Gorky -- which, ironically, means "bitter" -- would no doubt want the world to speak out in fervent portest. Not on his personal behalf, surely, for he would never have taken up the cause of human rights if he feared for his life. But on behalf of justice and the political and civil rights of all, whether Russians, Jews or Afghanis. As Dr. Sakharov has written, the very authoritarianism and closed nature of the Soviet Union facilitate its aggressive policies abroad. As long as such totalitarianism persists, "no one in our country, nor anywhere in the world, can allow himself to lapse into complacency."
It is up to individuals and nations everywhere to show they are not complacent.