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Sakharov, Gorbachev and the Reforms of 1989

Russia's scientist and dissident, Andrei Sakharov, was addressing remnants of the Stalinist past. He called for the release of "prisoners of conscience." He wrote of "well-known prisoners" having been released, but he complained that people were still serving time in psychiatric hospitals and that people who were not well known were still serving time on "trumped-up charges." Soviet television publicized Sakharov's complaints, and Sakharov was respected as he appeared to be without bitterness or political ambition. Sakharov worked with many others who were as dedicated to reforms as he, and he agitated for giving real political freedom to the various nationalities within the Soviet Union. To a degree, Gorbachev agreed. Gorbachev looked forward to "modernizing" the relationship between the nationalities and central Soviet power, hoping to make that association more genuine.

Sakharov called for an end to the Communist Party's monopoly of power and for freeing the economy from what he saw as excessive bureaucratic dictates. He praised Gorbachev's "courage" in reducing the Soviet Union's armed forces and for his liberal attitude toward the rest of Eastern Europe. But Sakharov believed that greater cuts in military spending would be beneficial, and he advocated a fifty-percent reduction.

Photo of Andrei Sakharov

Andrei Sakharov, dissident and creator of Russia's H-bomb

In May, 1989, Sakharov attended the Soviet Union's newly created legislative body, a 2,250 member Congress of People's Deputies – an event that was televised and presided over by Gorbachev. There, Sakharov and a few others argued for more reform. Sakharov spoke of his being "increasingly troubled" by the government's domestic policies and by the gap between word and deed. He spoke against real power being in the hands of the Communist Party. He spoke against retreats in freedom of information and of ideology being turned over to men who were "enemies of perestroika" (restructuring).

Sakharov observed that his country's economic crisis was accompanied by distrust, and he described the public's confidence in Gorbachev as having fallen "to almost zero." Despair, he said, was a barrier to evolutionary development. He complained that moves toward a market economy had been half-measures and "impractical." People, he said, cannot wait any longer with nothing but promises to sustain them. A middle course in a situation like this, he said, "is almost impossible." Either accelerate reforms toward economic freedom, he complained, or retain administration of the command economy in all its aspects. Gorbachev answered, saying that "many big leaps" had been taken and that the results had always been "tragedy and backtracking." As for public support, Gorbachev said that he expected the people to understand his policies.

Sakharov and his allies were a minority at the Congress. One delegate who spoke against him was a veteran who had lost his legs in Afghanistan. The delegate spoke of problems veterans were having, and referring to words Sakharov had spoken recently during a visit to Canada, he described Sakharov as having committed slander. Sakharov had described the Soviet Union as waging a cruel and horrible war in Afghanistan and had called for a negotiated settlement of the war. The veteran ended his criticism of Sakharov by saying there were three matters that "we must all fight to protect." These were, "state power, our motherland, and Communism." This appeal to patriotism brought the delegates to their feet, and applause rocked the hall.

At the Congress, Sakharov's allies listed their complaints. Economic reforms were described as only cosmetic, and the complaint was lodged that reforms were being stalled by a wave "of retrograde measures." A complaint was voiced against agricultural subsidies, against inflation and against" a bureaucracy that rules without accountability." A complaint was made that there were too few computers and that scientists were still using the abacus. Someone proposed investing only in things that would satisfy consumer demand in the near term. Someone also proposed a one-shot importation of consumer goods to achieve a balance between supply and demand. Also suggested was a cut in the importation of grain, allowing farmers to sell part of their produce for hard currency and allowing them to spend their hard currency as they wished. And it was suggested that the six to eight billions being spent in Latin America – mainly subsidies to Cuba – be stopped.

A biologist complained that 20 percent of the population lived in areas that were ecological disasters and that another 35 to 40 percent lived under unsatisfactory ecological conditions. He spoke of the infant mortality rate in the Soviet Union being higher than in many African countries, of the average lifespan in the Soviet Union being four to eight years less than it was in developed nations. And he spoke of one-fifth of the sausages and 42 percent of children's dairy products produced in the Soviet Union in 1987 containing a dangerous amount of chemicals.

Conditions at the End of 1989

In December, 1989, Sakharov died, at the age of sixty-eight. Four days of national mourning were declared. A poll taken in the Soviet Union shortly after his death placed him as the most popular person in the Soviet Union in the twentieth century – despite the standing ovation received by patriotic Afghanistan veteran who had criticized him. The Soviet Union remained divided in opinion.

The declining economy was producing strikes by labor – something that would not have been tried under Stalin. There were episodes of ethnic violence, with people in some of the Soviet republics blaming their misery on the Russians. In Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia a move toward independence was underway. All those years of Russian control had failed to erase a desire for self-rule among these peoples. And by now, Soviet hegemony was evaporating in Eastern Europe.

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Copyright © 2000-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.

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