Andrei Sakharov and the Russian Protests (February 2012)

The posthumous trajectory of Sakharov in Russian society is difficult to describe outside of the usual cliches attached to the 1990s, namely those of chaos, confusion, overlap, and transformation. But perhaps these taken together in the form of expansion might point to the genuinely diverse range of images that emerged in the 1989-1993 period, and then crystallisation of these images during the late nineties by various means to the point where, in May 2011, central television’s decision to drag up the less palatable side of Sakharov’s life on the 90th anniversary of his birth appears radical. This was produced as part of the television documentary series, Secrets of the Century, and featured Sakharov’s youngest son from his first marriage to Klavdiia Vikhireva. The film, shown on ORT at primetime on 21stMay, follows Dmitrii Sakharov’s journey back into the past as he attempts to contact other family members, visits their old cottage at the secret installation where Sakharov worked for 18 years, and recounts his difficult experiences with his father before, and particularly after Sakharov met Elena Bonner. The whole thing smacks of pathos as Dmitrii Sakharov is referred to as Dima, and spends most of the film looking like a lost child. The numerous memoir accounts that address Sakharov’s relationship with Bonner during the seventies and eighties paint contradictory pictures over Bonner’s real role, but it has to be noted that state propaganda focused particularly on Bonner’s influence on Sakharov and her Jewish heritage during the 1970s. (Nikolai Iakovlev, the historian, devoted a considerable amount of words to this in the period.)

What is interesting though is that ORT chose this occasion to broadcast the film, as Dmitrii Sakharov has been giving interviews in largely the same vein since at least 2004. It understandably provoked a reaction from the rights defence community in the form of a letter to Konstantin Ernst from Sergei Kovalev. This film, according to Kovalev, slandered Sakharov and spoke of a lack of understanding of Sakharov as part of national patrimony. Indeed, Sakharov has been falling in the Levada polls since 1997, and this has been identified by Lev Dubin as a failure of communicative memory. But while this is potentially the case, I think it might also be a sign of the spread of apathy, the fate of perestroika in the popular imagination, and the discrediting of nineties democracy. The continued use of Sakharov as the founding father of Russian democracy and the conscience of the nation has depleted the symbolic capital of Sakharov as a moral figure. This has come to the point where Sakharov is mourned as a potential saviour of the nation by the representatives of the liberal intelligentsia throughout the last decade. Gary Kasparov declared last year at the Sakharov conference ‘Alarm and Hope’ that if Sakharov had been alive in 1993, the tragic and disturbing events of October would never haven taken place. This mourning for a far-fetched possibility was reprised by Boris Akunin in an interview with the Sakharov movement last year, where he stated that ‘if Andrei Dmitrevich had lived another 10 years, just 10 more years, then we’d be living in another country.’ Unsurprisingly, this wish for a different past speaks more of present dissatisfaction.

This rather repetitive narrative of obsessive loss and mythologisation of that loss has left the liberals with a hole that cannot be filled. Late March 2011 saw a fresh attempt to revitalise Sakharov’s memory in the form of the Sakharov movement, a youth organisation which seeks to make Sakharov relevant for people today. This took the early form of posters in the Moscow underground (see below), which attempt to create a connection between the passenger, history, and their moral code. Its formula admits the perceived gap between us and the historical figure, but does not allow that as an excuse.

Source: ‘Ia ne Sakharov, no i Ia…’, 28/03/2011, http://sakharov-today.livejournal.com/2011/03/28/

The position of Sakharov as a moral referent then took on a new lease of life as bloggers made video surveys of people at Nashi parades on Sakharov avenu in April, where they asked the young apron-wearers what they knew about Sakharov. Unsurprisingly, none of the people on the video did in fact know who he was (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-wHj9kIpb4M). This was reprised by the Sakharov movement, which made a video to show that young people did know who he was (alhtough by far not all of them). The Sakharov movement continued attempts at making him relevant, for instance with the suggestion that a public square in the new Skolkovo innovation city project should be named in his honour. Yet most interesting was the fact that after the large public protests on Sakharov avenue on the 24th December, several smear clips using the same format as the other Sakharov videos appeared on the moscowprotest channel on youtube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_9YYM8jy-y4). Following the exact same formula as before, the people who’d attended the meetings disputing the election results and, in general, the direction of the country under Putin, were exposed as ignorant of their own implied democratic and moral heritage by the videomakers.

Meanwhile, however, the broader significance of a huge protest in support of democracy on Sakharov avenue was not lost on prominent liberal commentators. In an article titled ‘What comes after Sakharov’, Nikolai Svanidze spoke of the resurgence in civic activity in terms which were reminiscent of 1989-1990, that is, of a revival of the perestroika democratic values (http://www.mk.ru/politics/article/2011/12/29/657956-chto-posle-saharova.html): the break in the party-state discursive monopoly was being reprised on the streets and virtual diaries of 2011. Another commentator enjoyed the ironic possibility that, if Sakharov was alive today, he would have gone out onto Sakharov avenue to protest with everyone else (http://www.aif.ru/society/article/48585). Historical parallels have been a distinct trend in describing the current situation, but the debates have been dominated by the specters of bloody revolutions past rather than the more recent history of civic activism characteristic of the glasnost period. Like the tropes of temporal dislocation which define Russian liberals’ public statements on Sakharov over the past 20 years, glasnost is a black hole if you’re trying to win a political debate with the patriotic press.

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