In 1975, the year Vladimir Putin joined the KGB, the Russian physicist Andrei Sakharov was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. A year later, the most famous Soviet dissident was designated “domestic enemy number 1” by the KGB.
Sakharov played a key role in the development of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, winning an unprecedented range of awards for his work, including three Hero of Socialist Labor awards, four Orders of Lenin, a Stalin Prize and a Lenin Prize in 1956.
But by 1975 he was the Soviet Union’s foremost internal critic, opposing nuclear proliferation, demanding democratization and writing appeals on behalf of political prisoners. “Freedom of thought is the only guarantee against an infection of mankind by mass myths, which, in the hands of treacherous hypocrites and demagogues, can be transformed into bloody dictatorships,” he wrote. The Nobel Committee declared he had become “a spokesman for the conscience of mankind”.
Sakharov remained the KGB’s primary enemy for the next 14 years: he was brutally hounded and finally arrested in 1980, after protesting against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Sentenced to five years of internal exile in the closed city of Gorky, now Nizhny Novgorod, Sakharov went on a hunger strike and endured force-feeding.
The Nobel Committee declared he had become “a spokesman for the conscience of mankind.”
With each fresh assault on the liberty of a man who demanded freedom for all, his reputation swelled and the KGB grew ever more alarmed. The West kept up a steady drumbeat of admiration as the Soviet state tried to isolate and silence him. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter wrote him an open letter of support. An asteroid was named after him, swiftly followed by a TV film, Sakharov, starring Jason Robards.
With perestroika and glasnost gathering pace, Mikhail Gorbachev finally called Sakharov in 1986 (a special telephone had to be installed, since he was entirely cut off from the outside world) and told him he could come home to Moscow. By now, his popularity represented a direct political threat to the Kremlin: Václav Havel, the Czech writer who became Czechoslovakia’s president, believed that had he lived longer Sakharov would have been elected president of Russia.
In 1988 the European Parliament founded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, an annual award recognizing outstanding contributions to human rights. Nelson Mandela was the first recipient. It is often awarded to dissidents, journalists, writers and activists who, like Sakharov, paid a heavy personal price for their principles.
He died a year later, with the Soviet Union already heading for collapse. Sakharov had won.
As a young intelligence officer, Putin witnessed the growth of the dissident’s moral stature and the KGB’s brutal efforts to contain it. Sakharov is the ghost that haunts Russia’s president as he tries to suppress opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Having survived an assassination attempt he blames on Putin’s poisoners, Navalny has since been imprisoned and sentenced to two years and eight months in a penal colony.
His arrest and trial sparked protests across Russia, at which 11,000 people have so far been detained. In his efforts to shore up his regime by eradicating Navalny, the Russian president is making exactly the same mistakes as his KGB predecessors, turning his No. 1 domestic enemy into an international symbol of resistance to repression. Like Sakharov before him, Navalny is defended by many ordinary Russians who do not see themselves as part of the opposition but are appalled by the way he has been treated.
Sakharov is the ghost that haunts Russia’s president as he tries to suppress opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
Sakharov was a towering intellectual figure, whereas Navalny is an astute politician whose grin from the dock suggests at least a tolerance, if not a taste, for public self-sacrifice. Sakharov never wanted to be a martyr: “I am against all kinds of self-immolation,” he wrote. Yet they have much in common, including the moral righteousness capable of eroding autocracy, each backed up by an articulate and brave woman: Yulia Navalnaya has become the spokesman for her jailed husband, just as Sakharov’s wife and fellow activist Yelena Bonner worked tirelessly to bring his writings from Gorky to the wider world. It is no accident that some of the biggest opposition protests have taken place on Moscow’s Sakharov Avenue.
Putin fears both Sakharov and Navalny. The Nobel laureate is seldom mentioned in official Russian commemorations and his legacy barely appears in school textbooks. The organizations devoted to promoting Sakharov’s principles in Russia have been harassed and placed on the “foreign agents” list. Similarly, Putin never refers to Navalny by name.
In his efforts to shore up his regime by eradicating Navalny, the Russian president is making exactly the same mistakes as his KGB predecessors.
The Kremlin faces the same conundrum it did with Sakharov a generation ago: to release Navalny would enable him to turn growing popularity into real political power but keeping him locked up and attacking his supporters with riot police is swiftly transforming him into an important domestic and international symbol of state oppression. History is repeating itself and the West has a duty to do the same.
Sakharov ended his life stripped of all the decorations he had received from the Soviet Union but festooned with honors bestowed by the West: the Nobel Prize, but also the Prix Mondial and the International Humanist Award.
Such awards often mean little, or misfire badly. Mahatma Gandhi was nominated for the Nobel Prize five times and never won it. Yasser Arafat, disgracefully, did. Giving the gong to the European Union in 2012 was an act of almost perfect pointlessness. But awarded judiciously, the gesture carries enormous ethical weight, a signal that while an individual may be imprisoned and silenced in his or her own country, he or she is still being heard outside it.
If Alexei Navalny is awarded both the Nobel and Sakharov Prizes in 2021 he will be unable to collect them, which is exactly why he should win them.
Ben Macintyre is the author of several books, most recently The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War