Remembering Elena Bonner; Honoring Andrei Sakharov

Our guest author today is Arch Puddington, director of research at Freedom House.

Two years ago, Elena Bonner, frail in body but not in mind or spirit, had this to say about conditions in Russia:

The West isn’t very interested in Russia….There are no real elections there, no independent courts, and no freedom of the press. Russia is a country where journalists, human rights activists and migrants are killed regularly, almost daily. And extreme corruption flourishes of a kind and extent that never existed earlier in Russia or anywhere else. So what do the Western mass media discuss mainly? Gas and oil -- of which Russia has a lot. Energy is its only political trump card, and Russia uses it as an instrument of pressure and blackmail. And there’s another topic that never disappears from the newspapers -- who rules Russia? Putin or Medvedev? But what difference does it make, if Russia has completely lost the impulse for democratic development that we thought we saw in the early 1990s.
Here, in a few sentences of remarkable insight, Bonner, who died recently, neatly summarized much of Russian reality today.

The bogus elections, rigged judicial processes, pervasive graft, use of the energy weapon, the interminable, contrived debate over which of the two principal figures will emerge triumphant. And, of course, the violence—directed against journalists, lawyers, and human rights advocates as well as migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Bonner’s instinct for the heart of the things was not limited to Russia. In discussions with Americans and Europeans, Bonner would impatiently dismiss assertions of moral equivalency—that the shortcomings of Western democracy nullified our ability to pass judgment on Vladimir Putin, Hugo Chavez, or Bashar Assad. Her argument with the West derived from its complacency and willingness to compromise fundamental principles when confronted by powerful adversaries. She was also appalled by the democratic world’s apathy in the face of a revived European anti-Semitism and deeply unsettled by the demonization of Israel in Europe and elsewhere.

Perhaps her greatest source of anger was Russia’s failure to honor the memory of her husband, the great dissident Andrei Sakharov. Sakharov was not alone in his criticism of the Soviet system. But he was unique in insisting that Russia’s problems could only be solved through a full-scale embrace of Western-style democracy. He rejected assertions that some sort of uniquely Russian system—especially schemes inspired by Russian nationalism—could substitute for pluralism, freedom of thought, the rule of law, and the kind of civil liberties regime that would prevent the abuse of power by the security services.

In many societies, Sakharov would be honored as one of freedom’s heroes. In Russia, however, his legacy is already fading from memory. A New York Times article recently found that students at the Russian Law Academy had, at best, a murky view of Sakharov’s role. Most, the Times noted, seem not to have heard of him at all. The respected Levada Poll recently found that just 9 percent of Russians aged 18-24 knew Sakharov was a defender of human rights.

Those law students were among the best and brightest of Russia’s younger generation, the very people who, one might hope, would be involved in reforming Russia’s thoroughly corrupt legal system. Their lack of familiarity with Sakharov is a damning indictment of Russian education. More to the point, it is powerful evidence of just how effective Putinism has been in consigning troublesome critics and their inconvenient ideas to the memory hole.  

Several years ago Putin called the influence of the murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya “insignificant." Presumably, he hopes that Sakharov’s legacy would be forgotten as well. Putin treats Stalin differently. To Putin, Stalin ranks as an effective, if complicated, leader and not as one of history’s great monsters: Stalin committed excesses, to be sure, but must be credited for transforming Russia into a world power and in general for being able to “get things done."

As we are frequently reminded, young Americans also suffer from a serious case of “history deficit." But the United States has made a commitment to a comprehensive and ongoing course of civic education on the issue of our democracy’s greatest shortcoming—racial inequality. Today every thinking American is familiar with the history of slavery and segregation and knows something about the icons of racial struggle—Frederick Douglass, Jackie Robinson, and Barbara Jordan as well as Martin Luther King, Jr. And we can discuss the racial dimensions of social policy in a reasonably mature and frank way, something that is essential to actually making further progress.

In Russia, by contrast, the leadership that currently holds sway is determined to evade any serious discussion of the country’s totalitarian past, lest Russians be tempted to ask questions about the present. But the issues that Andrei Sakharov raised three decades ago are precisely the issues that will determine whether Russia is to become a normal and honest society. By honoring Sakharov, Russia would both pay tribute to a man of remarkable intellectual courage and declare its willingness to begin the overdue process of political and spiritual renewal.

- Arch Puddington

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