Sakharov (1984)  

 

 

Director:    Jack Gold.

Cast:    Jason Robards (Andrei Sakharov), Glenda Jackson (Yelena Bonner), Nicol Williamson (Malyarov), Frank Finlay (Kravtsov), Michael Bryant (Syshchikov), Paul Freeman (Pavel Leontiev), Anna Massey (Klavdia), Joe Melia (Sergej Kovalov), Lee Montague (Slavsky), Jim Norton (Roy Medvedev), Valentine Pelka (Efrem Sakharov), Catherine Hall (Tanya Sakharov), John McAndrews (Alyosha Sakharov), Debbie Farrington (Lisa Sakharov), David Midwinter (Matvel Sakharov, age 10).

Made for TV movie.

Russian dissident Andre Sakharov (1921-1989), a Soviet physicist, was exiled for his fight against social repression.

 

 

Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie. 

The Soviet authorities discuss the case of Andrei Sakharov.  Sakharov was born in 1921.  He graduated from the Moscow State University in physics in 1942.  He got his Ph. d. in 1953 (sic).  Three times he was awarded the order of Socialist Labor.  And, the Soviets claim, he was the inventor of the hydrogen bomb.  He rarely comes to Moscow.  The problem is that he has been showing up at protest demonstrations.  One of them was the protest over two writers, Snyavsky and Daniel, having been given seven and five years of hard labor.  

Moscow 1968.  Sakharov is asked to sign a political petition to modify the sentences of the two writers to get rid of the "hard" in hard labor.  His wife is opposed to his signing any more petitions, but he signs anyway.  The KGB take a picture of his signing the petition. 

Sakharov is fired from his position as deputy director and his salary is halved.  He goes home to find Klavdia unconscious on the floor of their apartment.  She is rushed to the hospital.  

Some political activists want Sakharov to write about the free exchange of ideas and cooperation with the west.  He has already done so and gives them a copy of his "Thoughts".  The activists say that they will make sure that the manuscript is given wide distribution.  When Sakharov gives a copy to his secretary to type, she rat finks on him and he gets called on the carpet.  Sakharov says that he gave a copy to the party central committee and others.  The authorities want him to disavow his work, saying that the foreign press exploited him.  Sakharov refuses and suddenly finds that his security clearance has been withdrawn.  And then his wife Klavdia Sakharov dies. 

Sakharov learns that an activist biologist has been placed in an insane asylum.  He decides to ask his colleagues and others to sign a petition on the matter.  This upsets the authorities and Sakharov is told that his behavior was inappropriate.  He is only able to obtain five signatures for the petition.  At a party of activists, Sakharov mentions:  "To act against the Soviet Union you have to be criminal or insane."   Activist Elena Bonner gives a toast:  "A toast to the success of our hopeless cause."  Despite the initial pessimism, the authorities, for the first time, actually backed down.  The group was able to get the biologists out. 

Valery Chalidze and Andrei Tverdokhlebov comes to speak with Sakharov to ask him to help them found a Human Rights Committee.  Sakharov agrees to help.  He also shows up at a trial of another political activist.  When he enters the courtroom he is shocked to discover all the spectators laughing uproariously at the testimony of the witness on the stand, the wife of the accused.  (Apparently, the Soviets packed the courtroom with Soviet policemen.)  Sakharov speaks with her, saying:  "You're brave.  You have many friends here."   This encourages the woman to stay strong.  Elena hears what Sakharov said to the wife and she is impressed.  She starts to befriend Sakharov.  The wife grabs some of the trial documents and gives them to Sakharov to read and use.  She hopes that it will help save her husband.  Elena and Sakharov take a train to Moscow to make sure the documents see the light of day. 

Sakharov and Elena work on taking testimony about citizen's complaints against the Soviet system for their Human Rights Committee.  There are long lines of complainants.  Elena herself has a major complaint.  Only 1,000 Jewish Soviets are allowed to leave the country each year.  A small group of Jews started to make a fuss, created a scandal and got arrested.  They are now charged with treason, the punishment for which is death.  Sakharov says:  "Only publicity can restrain this regime."  He also says that he knows Brezhnev and will influence him to void the death sentences.  Elena will write President Nixon so he can bring some influence to bear on the Soviets.  They also want to link the problem of the death sentences for the Basques in Spain under Franco with the Jewish situation in Russia.  Happily, Elena and Sakharov are able to get the penalty changed from death to fifteen years in a labor camp. 

Sakharov and Elena learn that the police are searching Valery's apartment and they go their to help witness the police action.  The police seize the records of the Human Rights Committee. 

Elena and Sakharov become closer and she introduces him to her mother, her son, her daughter and son-in-law.  The couple marries and flies to Kiev for a honeymoon. 

The Sakharovs join another protest.  Sakharov is arrested along with many other protestors.  A Soviet official warns Sakharov about his behavior.  His daughter-in-law is very upset because she is expelled from the university.  Sakharov speaks with a university official and he explains that Tanya has been a disruptive influence because she is too argumentative.  Sakharov tells his wife that he thinks that either the children should leave the country or they should stop what they are doing.  But Elena insists that they can't give into Soviet blackmail.  Sakharov agrees.  He arranges for a press conference where he discusses some of the needed changes to the Soviet system.  For this Sakharov is given another warning, this time about his anti-Soviet writings and meeting with foreigners.  Sakharov rejects the charges. 

The next demonstration is to "Free Leontiev".  Some Soviet ruffians threaten Sakharov and their leader gets slapped by Elena.  Valery tells the Sakharovs that the Soviet authorities have given him and his wife permission to go to Georgetown to talk about issues in the Soviet Union.  The couple is very suspicious of the motives of those in power and keep asking Valey "Why?".  They tell Valery that he can't go; he has to honor his commitments in Russia.   

To relax the Sakharov family takes a boat trip on the river.  On the boat there is music and dancing.  His mother-in-law tells Sakharov that the system is still as bad as the old Stalinist system.  But Sakharov protests that the Stalinist reign was one of arbitrary terror;  it was madness for no reason at all.  But mother-in-law insists that the authorities are only smarter about how they go about stifling dissent.  She tells Sakharov that the Soviets will destroy his reputation at home and abroad.  And sure enough, 40 former colleagues of Sakharov denounce him as an "enemy of peace".  Even the steel workers' union condemn him.  And Leontiev gets five years. 

Someone arrives at the Sakharov apartment  to give Elena the secret prison diary of her "nephew".  Elena makes arrangements for it to be published abroad. 

Elena needs an operation on her eyes to prevent blindness.  Added to this problem is the request of the KGB to interrogate her.  The officer keeps forcing Elena to return every day at 3 p.m. for grueling sessions.  Elena just keeps saying:  "I refuse to answer the question."  Sakharov gets so concerned about the negative impact of the interrogations on his wife that he tells the interrogation officer that she will not return at 3 p.m. despite the officer's serious threats of what the authorities will do to them.  Instead of going to interrogation, they call a press conference at 3 p.m.  They tell the reporters that western opinion matters very much to the U.S.S.R. government.  Someone asks why the couple puts themselves in harm's way.  Sakharov says:  "For ideals." 

Elena's eye doctor tells her that the authorities told her that if she operates on Elena, she will be finished as a doctor.  Sakharov says that now they have to get Elena out to the West for the operation.  But after five more months, the answer about leaving the Soviet Union is still "no".  At a press conference, they ask the press to please help them.  But there is already good news.  Influential Americans have demanded that the Soviets let Elena out of the country.  The Soviets decide to let her go, but Sakharov has to stay behind.  Elena tells her husband:  "You are stronger, stronger than they are." 

Sakharov receives the Nobel Prize for Peace for his work to change the Soviet system, but he cannot attend the ceremony.  So Elena attends the ceremonies for him.  Sakharov continues his protest work.  He demands to be let into the trial of a dissident, but is refused.  But Sakharov is able to get the man's wife into the trial.  The accused gets 10 years, 7 in work camps and 3 in exile. 

The Sakharovs go to Siberia to meet an exiled dissident friend.  He is not doing well in the isolation of the cold Siberian weather.  Back home, one of the grandchildren become very ill.  The suspicion is that the Soviets have poisoned him.  The Sakharovs decide to send the children to the west for their own safety.  The children say they do not want to go, but their parents insist and they go. 

January 22, 1980.  Sakharov is arrested and, without a trial, is sentenced to exile in the industrial city of Gorky.   His wife joins him in exile.  Two years later they go on a hunger strike for some 18 days and only relent when the Soviet authorities allow the fiancé of their son to go to the USA to get married. 

At the time of the movie, the Sakharovs were still in exile in Gorky. 

 

Pretty good movie.  It is a pretty straight-forward biography of the activist part of the life of Andrei Sakharov.   The movie could have been a bit shorter.  It seems like they cover one or two too many demonstrations/protests in which the Sakharovs become involved.  They could have cut out some of this material.  The Stalinist era was over.  I was impressed by the fact that the Soviet authorities had to treat the Sakharovs so gingerly.  It seems that in the post-Stalinist era, publicity did make a difference in how dissidents were treated.  Stalin would have just had them killed immediately or abandoned to exile in Siberia. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 

 


Historical Background:

1938  --  Sakharov entered Moscow State University. 

1943  --  he married Klavdia Alekseyevna Vikhireva, with whom he raised two daughters and a son.

1947  --  he received his Ph. d. 

1953  --  he received his D.Sc. degree and was elected a full member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. 

late-1950s   --  Sakharov concerned about moral and political implications of his work.

1963  --  played a role in the Partial Test Ban Treaty, signed in Moscow.

1967  --  major turn in Sakharov’s political evolution begins.  (Motivated by issue of anti-ballistic missile defense system in US–Soviet relations.)

1969  -- Klavdia dies. 

1970 --  Sakharov with Soviet dissidents Valery Chalidze and Andrei Tverdokhlebov founded the Moscow Human Rights Committee. Meets his future wife, Elena Bonner.

1972  -- marries Elena Bonner.

1973  --  writer Lydia Chukovskaya circulates his article about how the Soviet press has distorted Sakharov's ideas.

1975  --  he is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

1979  --  Soviet intervention in Afghanistan leads him to strong public protest.

1980  -- he is detained on the street and then exiled to Gorky located on the Volga river and then closed to foreigners. (His wife, Elena Bonner, was allowed to accompany him.)  He remains in exile for almost seven years. He received support from the American physicists.

Sakharov wrote an autobiographical memoir, manuscripts of which the KGB stole three times. He also wrote an “Open letter on Afghanistan.”

1985  -- went on hunger strikes to protest his persecution. 

1985  --  Mikhail Gorbachev elected General Secretary of the Communist Party and things start to get better.

1986 --  Sakharov allowed to return to Moscow and resume his regular life.

1989   --  elected a member of the Soviet Union’s new parliament.

1989  -- Sakharov dies. 

 

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