Polina Filippova, Digital Director, Sakharov Center, EU-Russia Civil Society Forum Board member
On the eve of the centennial of academic Sakharov, I was asked to write a column about what Sakharov means today — yet I am finding it difficult to express my thoughts. As a scientist, a human rights activist and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, academic Sakharov highlighted a full range of contemporary topics — ecology, the extensive growth of resource exploitation, social inequality, racism, and even corruption. You would think, what could be easier? The ideas are relevant. Sakharov is relevant.
I could start as such: in his 1975 Nobel lecture, Sakharov proclaimed that sustainable peace, progress and human rights are inseparable, and neither one of these goals can be achieved while the others are neglected. Through the prism of this Sakharov triad, how are processes seen in the world of the twenty-first century, specifically in Russia, where all three of its elements are called into question?
But the word “question”, however, is not compelling enough.
What would Sakharov say now? What words of support would he choose for those who, almost daily, become victims of arrests, searches, wrongful trials and sentences, and for those whose rights are violated? How would he address those whose rights are violated on an hourly basis (the impossibility of me writing this column should also be attributed to the notifications popping up on my browser about the searches of Team 29 lawyers and the arrests of human rights defenders)? Would he have been a moral authority for the country and the world, as he was in the late 1980s? Although Sakharov wrote in his work “The World in Half a Century” that the World Wide Web “will provide everyone with a maximum amount of freedom in choosing information and demanding individual activity”, would his appeals have “worked” in an age of such a dramatically changed field of information? But there is no doubt that his “individual activism” would now be aimed at supporting and defending political prisoners and human rights.
We could start with how Sakharov’s legacy is perceived now — in an atmosphere of an ever-increasing victory-focused rhetoric, where the agenda of the Russian authorities is becoming virtually indistinguishable from the Soviet one. Despite his “acceptability” by the authorities, despite the fact that his fate and life story are still included in school curricula, despite the fact that, for example, the Central Bank is issuing a coin with an image of the academic against the background of an atom (but without the words “Peace. Progress. Human Rights”), and that a series of events dedicated to Sakharov are planned for 21 May in Russian schools — my organisation, the Sakharov Center, cannot work either with schoolteachers or with state universities because of its status as a foreign agent. This status, which unfortunately we are all too familiar with, also has its “Soviet equivalent”, which is the formalised status of a dissident. Russia is not a totalitarian country (yet?), and with this status we can continue our attempts to bring Sakharov back into the forefront of public attention.
But is it worth the hassle when the very problems Sakharov spoke about in the first place, namely disunity, neglect of the environment and resources, and abuse by authorities and corporations, remain as relevant as they were half a century ago? It probably is. It is important, in the wake of Sakharov, to continue advocating for the priority of human rights, and despite all the contradictions of the world today, there is room in it for simple ethical concepts: responsibility and respect for dignity, and care for people, mankind, and nature.
I could have begun with an epigraph, but I suppose I will have to end with one: “The reality of the modern world is very complex, multifaceted. It is a bizarre mix of tragedy, hopelessness, apathy, prejudice, ignorance and dynamism, selflessness, hope, reason. The future can be even more tragic. It may also be more worthy of human beings — kinder and more reasonable. But it may also not exist at all. It depends entirely on all of us.