Tiny museum honors Sakharov, all-but-forgotten dissident

March 01, 1995|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia -- The four small rooms of the Andrei D. Sakharov Museum are silent on this cold, sunny afternoon, as if Russians have forgotten the man who changed their history.

Dr. Sakharov was the gifted Soviet physicist who became a dissident and human rights activist only to be punished with internal exile. The father of the Soviet H-bomb, he was exiled in 1980 to this city, known in the Soviet era as Gorky, a place no foreigner was allowed to visit.

Dr. Sakharov was sent here because he criticized the Soviet Union for embarking on its war in Afghanistan.

Today, largely because of him, Russians can criticize their government's war in Chechnya without fear and criticize their leaders.

To visit this apartment where he lived for six years under constant harassment by the KGB is to feel the bitter chill of the past.

Masha Gavrilova, the 27-year-old deputy director of the museum, points to the window of the small, plainly furnished bedroom, and from that window one sees red-cheeked children skating on the icy sidewalk. When Dr. Sakharov looked out this window, he saw the KGB agents who watched him 24 hours a day from the next building. For a time, one of the "watchers" lived in the Sakharov apartment.

"On Fridays, I could look out the window and see the special food packages arriving for the KGB agents assigned to my case," he wrote in his memoirs. He figured there were 35 foot soldiers and many more bosses.

Vyacheslav Bolyak, a government official who lives in the neighborhood, recalls neighbors being terrified of even looking at Dr. Sakharov, and they wouldn't have dreamed of trying to visit him.

"You knew what would happen to you," said Mr. Bolyak. And most people in this city wouldn't have wanted to talk to him anyway. They were told he was an enemy of the people, and they believed it.

Dr. Sakharov, who had been a national hero for his scientific work, found himself growing increasingly critical of his government in the 1960s, largely because of his fears about nuclear weapons.

"I was influenced by a feeling of personal responsibility," he wrote, "reinforced by the part I'd played in the development of the hydrogen bomb, the special knowledge I'd gained about thermonuclear warfare and my familiarity with the Soviet system."

He became the Soviet Union's most influential human rights activist and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975.

For a time, this status protected him. But Soviet officials refused to tolerate his criticism of the Afghan war. On Jan. 22, 1980, police pulled Dr. Sakharov over on a Moscow street, took him to the airport and put him on a plane bound for Gorky. He would not see Moscow again until Dec. 23, 1986.

He lived in official silence. A jamming device was put in near his apartment so he couldn't hear foreign radio broadcasts. He wasn't allowed to have a telephone.

"Our life in Gorky," he wrote, "strained our strength and our nerves to the limit."

On the night of Dec. 15, 1986, the KGB brought two electricians to install a white, boxy telephone. The next evening, it rang. It was Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

"Quiet," Yelena Bonner, his wife, shouted to the noisy policemen at the door. "Gorbachev's on the phone."

Mr. Gorbachev told Dr. Sakharov he could return to Moscow. The long exile was over, and soon the Soviet Union would be as well.

The museum was established in 1991, with the help of the Nizhny Novgorod governor, another former physicist.

Today there's a small plaque on a wall of the 12-story apartment building, which is otherwise indistinguishable from the equally shabby buildings around it. Dr. Sakharov lived in apartment No. 3, and the furnishings have not been changed: a small living room with a television and two worn easy chairs, another room that was Dr. Sakharov's office. On the glass of the door he wrote, in Latin, "Through difficulties to the stars."

Dr. Sakharov died in 1989. His widow still lives in their apartment in Moscow but travels frequently to visit her children in the United States and to keep up the fight for human rights.

The two were full partners: "From the first day to the last," Dr. Sakharov wrote, crediting his wife with allowing him to survive the Gorky ordeal, "she helped me set a course that preserved my honor and dignity through all the vicissitudes of fate."

Miss Bonner has been no less bold in criticizing the Russian government, most recently for its human rights abuses in Chechnya. She has charged that President Boris N. Yeltsin has betrayed any democratic pretensions with the fighting and moved Russia closer to being a police state.

Miss Gavrilova, the museum official, said about 4,000 people a year come to the museum. But on this winter day there was only one visitor. There are crowds in the city, but people are looking for something else now.

Many gathered downtown at a display of American-made floor and ceiling tile. Shoppers were in awe at the concept of a dropped ceiling, as if installing one in every room would make life finally better.

Miss Gavrilova wonders how many people today appreciate what Dr. Sakharov struggled to give them. She wonders whether they value the right of dissent he left behind, and his desire for peace in the world.

"Now we see regression," she said, "No, worse than regression. Now we see the same measures the Soviet Union used to solve internal problems."

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