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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

What Andrei Sakharov Might Have Done

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On Dec. 14, my day's e-mail included a Jacquie Lawson animated greeting card.

To view it, all I needed to do was click on the link. Expecting a season's greeting somewhere between cutesy and kitschy, I was startled by the message commemorating the 16th anniversary of Andrei Sakharov's death. I immediately recalled the day -- the drained, stricken faces of the family, the inability to discuss anything but the most basic logistics, the vastness of his absence.

The anniversary made me wonder what Sakharov would make of his country now. I did have some clues to his mentality, having translated his memoirs into English. He wrote them while in exile in Gorky, and they were smuggled out in small batches and delivered to me in Boston, always with the same joke -- Top Secret, burn before reading. And I had written the first biography of Sakharov and had spent time with him too -- at a desk fine-tuning the translation, at the dinner table in wide-ranging conversation.

Sakharov always considered the freedom to leave one's country to be the No. 1 human right. A country you couldn't leave was a prison. So, the freedoms that Russians more or less routinely enjoy today -- travel, religion, print -- he would count as real progress. He would not think the same about the collapse of funding for science and the arts and would have been repulsed by the flood of vulgarity onto television and the Internet. He would, however, have loved the principle and potential of the Internet, whose existence he predicted and which he called the Universal Information System.

Always a staunch advocate of nuclear power, he would have pressed that unpopular stance even harder now that energy and politics are more entwined than ever. And, as the builder of the Soviet Union's hydrogen bomb, he would have been well suited to judge Iraq's atomic capabilities for what they were.

He had done some of the preliminary work on a new Constitution, with his version stipulating one five-year term for the president. A lover of precision, he would have been appalled by the sentence in the current Constitution that states with maddening ambiguity: "No one person shall hold the office of president of the Russian Federation for more than two terms in succession."

He would probably have taken Mikhail Khodorkovsky's side during the oligarch's trial -- not out of any sympathy for the looters of Russia, but because he knew from long experience when someone was being railroaded.

He could defend and denounce the same people at different times, as he did with the Palestinians, and would have no doubt done the same with the Chechens, championing them when they were the victims of Russian military atrocities and condemning them for terrorist acts like the school massacre in Beslan.

He would have rebuked the authorities for their constriction of much of the mass media, especially television. He could have forced those authorities into some very uncomfortable positions -- if they refused him air time, they would be indicting themselves; but if they granted him air time, he'd be doing the indicting.

He would have attended the trials of scientists charged with treason for selling publicly available information. He would have shamed the justice system for not finding the murderers of journalists like Vladislav Listyev and Paul Klebnikov or of political figures like Galina Starovoitova. And he would have kept an especially close eye on the new law regulating NGOs that comes into effect on April 10, recognizing it as a threat to the fragile system of civic organizations that keeps the country from slipping back into reflexive authoritarianism. And the FSB would no doubt have kept a close eye on Sakharov in the best tradition of its predecessors.

The paradox is that had he lived, Russia's problems would not have been so acute. But he didn't and they are.

Richard Lourie is the author of "Sakharov: a Biography" and "The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin."