On Tuesday, the Russian supreme court decided to shut down Memorial, a highly regarded institution dedicated to documenting the horrors of Stalinism. The court issued a similar ruling yesterday against its sister organization, Memorial Human Rights Center, which fights present-day violations of civil rights. In light of the disturbing direction in which Russia has been headed, Michael Mandelbaum reflects on two of the heroic figures who helped to bring down Soviet tyranny: the refusenik leader Natan Sharansky and the atomic-scientist-turned-dissident Andrei Sakharov.
In his powerful and affecting memoir, Fear No Evil (1988), Sharansky several times mentions the name of Andrei Sakharov. In his excellent biography of Sakharov (2002), Richard Lourie reports that Sharansky keeps a portrait of Sakharov in his office, to remind himself of his fellow dissident’s “straight, clear, pure moral thought.” Sakharov was a scientist of great accomplishment. . . . He was also, however, a free thinker, and the development of his ideas led him to express publicly his opposition to the regime’s oppressive practices and to support, again publicly, those similarly opposed.
Sharansky, Sakharov, and their fellow dissidents stand as luminous examples of courage in the face of perilous circumstances. They illustrate the value of persistence in a righteous cause even when success seems distant, or even impossible. And they testify to the power of the political ideas that govern democracies. After his release, Sharansky said, “They tried their best to find a place where I was isolated. But all the resources of a superpower cannot isolate a man who hears the voice of freedom, a voice I heard from the very chamber of my soul.”
Nor are the qualities that Sharansky and Sakharov personified relevant only to the past. In the face of Putin’s dictatorship in Russia, the repressions of the Communist Party in China, the assault on freedom by the ruling mullahs in Iran, and threats to life and liberty elsewhere, courage, persistence, and a determined and often perilous commitment to the ideals of democracy remain, alas, both relatively rare and still greatly needed.