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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sakharov: Martyr, But No Mandela

It is still difficult to predict how Andrei Sakharov will be remembered: Father of the hydrogen bomb, human rights activist, democrat, patriot or martyr. Sakharov, who would have been 75 on Tuesday, covered a lot of ground in his 68 years. But at this difficult moment of Russia's history he is to be mourned as Russia's conscience, a voice of unquestioned moral authority, an unsullied national icon.


As June's presidential elections approach and Russians turn away in disdain from the candidates on offer, there seems to be no right choice available to the country, only less wrong ones. So it is especially tempting now to wish Sakharov alive again. Might he not have been Russia's Nelson Mandela?


Certainly, Russia has no Mandela. Alexander Solzhenitsyn has a similar claim to moral authority, but he has remained largely silent since his return from the West two years ago. Sergei Kovalyov has braved politics and Chechnya, but he has failed to gain acceptance as a moral authority for all the country -- even those who disagree with him -- which is the genius of Mandela.


Could Sakharov have massed the right-thinking forces behind himself? Could he have bridged the divide with those who now hark after a return to the system against which he fought for so long?


The answer, unfortunately, is "no." A living Sakharov could never command the influence and respect of Sakharov the fallen hero. The nature of Russia's chaotic political scene doomed Sakharov to the role of a powerless visionary, trying to impose impossible standards on an unruly country. He was by no means universally revered during his time in the perestroika-era Supreme Soviet -- or at least not until he died.


Russia's dissidents have traditionally been measured not by their concrete accomplishments but by the steadfastness of their opposition to a monstrous regime. In their acceptance of persecution, they inspired many who had similar convictions but little courage. They were the voice of clarity and reason in a dark time.


Almost seven years after Sakharov's death, Russia's political scene is no longer about right versus wrong, freedom versus slavery, light versus darkness. Maybe it never was. It is now about power, survival and a brutal realpolitik. It is difficult to imagine Sakharov having a role in such a world.


Sakharov was a scientist, a philosopher, and, perhaps, a secular saint. But unlike Mandela, whose moral authority has proved so vital in holding post-apartheid South Africa together, Sakharov was not a politician. The Soviet Union brooked no opposition politicians of Mandela's kind, in or out of jail, and Russia is paying for that particular totalitarian success today.