Two years ago Andrei Sakharov was living in forced internal exile, enduring constant harassment by the KGB. Now the celebrated Soviet physicist and human rights activist has Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's blessing to realize a long-held dream - to see the West. Dr. Sakharov arrives in Boston Sunday to begin a two-week visit to the United States, his first ever.
His aim is to visit family members, receive medical attention, and publicize the goals of the new International Foundation for the Survival and Development of Humanity: disarmament, ecological responsibility, and improved human rights. Sakharov is a member of the board of directors of the foundation, which has offices in Moscow, Washington, and Stockholm.
Has the premier Soviet political dissident of the past 20 years sold out? No, say US human rights activists.
``His principles haven't changed - it's the context that has changed,'' says Joshua Rubenstein of Amnesty International. ``He has always wanted a dialogue with the regime, but the regime wasn't listening. Now it is.''
Sakharov holds a unique position in Soviet society, as a ``senior statesman'' of sorts, or ``loyal opposition,'' says Cathy Fitzpatrick of the US Helsinki Watch committee, a view echoed by other human rights observers. Sakharov is an ideological ``bridge'' between radical dissidents and the Soviet bureaucracy, she adds.
He has Gorbachev's ear, and the ear of the nation's intellectual elite - if not that of the public at large. His views have been publicized in the narrowly distributed Moscow News, but not in the major official organs.
On Nov. 1, at a Moscow meeting of American Sovietologists and Soviet scholars, Sakharov warned of the dangers of Gorbachev's plan to boost his power. Excerpts of the discussion are to be published in Ogonyok, a weekly magazine that supports radical reform, but has far less circulation than the major dailies.
Despite Sakharov's continuing reintegration into the Soviet intellectual elite - most recently he was elected to the governing board of the Soviet Academy of Sciences - US human rights advocates were surprised to learn of his US visa.
``For the Soviet government, it means more than an effort to make themselves look good,'' says Mr. Rubenstein of Amnesty International. ``It means they respect his message. It shows they have confidence in Sakharov, and confidence in themselves. He's no longer an embarrassment.''
Sakharov's visit comes on the heels of Gorbachev's recent maneuver to attain more personal power, a maneuver that may have insulated him enough from likely critics of the decision to let Sakharov travel.
Sakharov's trip also comes at a time when the Soviet Union is lobbying hard for agreement by the West for it to host a human-rights conference in Moscow in 1991. The US and Britain are taking a hard line on the issue. On Tuesday, Alexei Glukhov, first deputy head of the Soviet foreign ministry's human rights bureau, told a Moscow press conference that the Soviets are ready for the ``strictest examination'' of human rights.
The US maintains that while the Soviets have made strides in settling cases over the past few years, more progress is needed before it will agree to a Moscow human rights conference. Meanwhile, the Soviets continue to open themselves up for inspection and discussion. On Nov. 14, a delegation from the joint administration-congressional US Helsinki commission will go to Moscow for talks on setting up a regular mechanism for dealing with specific human rights issues.
Another US delegation, including officials from the American Psychiatric Association, will go to Moscow on Monday. This advance team aims to work out a later visit to Soviet psychiatric hospitals and individual patients said to be victims of abuse. The Soviets have long been accused of putting dissidents in psychiatric hospitals. The US psychiatric team will look into 15-20 cases.
According to the US Helsinki commission, there are still some 25 psychiatric cases that need to be resolved, 200-plus cases of political prisoners, and 35 cases of divided families or spouses.
According to the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society, 13,039 Soviet Jews have emigrated so far this year. Last year, 7,776 were allowed to depart the USSR.