Sakharov’s essay, which coincided with the Prague Spring, helped energize democratic dissident movements that were just budding in a post-Stalinist world. The largest of these was one I would soon join: the so-called refusenik movement to allow the Soviet Union’s long-oppressed Jews the freedom to emigrate.
Some Russian dissidents mistrusted the Zionist movement as particularistic and unpatriotic, fearing it would distract from their broader human rights agenda. Not Sakharov. He supported the refuseniks because he recognized the right to emigrate as a gateway to democratic entitlement that opens everyone to embracing freedom in a closed society.
By the mid-1970s I was serving as Sakharov’s spokesman, and I remember after yet another friend of ours had been sentenced to prison, he told me: “They want us to believe there’s no chance of success. But whether or not there’s hope for change is not the question. If you want to be a free person, you don’t stand up for human rights because it will work, but because it is right. We must continue living as decent people.”
Sakharov’s decency made him a moral compass orienting not just the East, but also the West. He insisted that international relations should be contingent on a country’s domestic behavior — and that such a seemingly idealistic stance was ultimately pragmatic. “A country that does not respect the rights of its own people will not respect the rights of its neighbors,” he often explained.