Resistance Remembered

A rich legacy to human rights


If you walk through the Waltham Library at Brandeis University, you will find, in a far corner, a door with an unusual green-and-white sign above it: "Sakharov-Bonner corner." It looks exactly like a street sign, and that's what it is. In 1984, it was installed on a street corner in New York, down the block from the Soviet Mission to the United Nations, to honor the great Soviet scientist and human rights activist Andrei Sakharov and his wife and comrade-in-arms Elena Bonner. Now, it hangs over the door of the Andrei Sakharov Archives at Brandeis.

Stepping through the door of the archives, one enters a different world, where the movement for human rights and democracy that challenged the Soviet regime in the 1970s and 1980s remains vibrantly alive.

The Sakharov Archives were founded in 1993, after Bonner donated her late husband's papers to the university. The unique collection, which has been used by writers and researchers from all over the world, houses the original manuscripts of Sakharov's writings, his diaries and his correspondence, but it is not limited to materials related to Sakharov. It contains a wealth of other documents from the history of the human rights movement in the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe: copies of KGB files on dissidents, photographic records of prison camps, and underground publications, including a microfilm collection of the bulletins of the Solidarity labor movement in Poland.

Some of these documents provide a startlingly immediate, shocking glimpse into the world of communism. The middle-aged archivist, Alexander Gribanov, gingerly opens one folder to show an almost transparent scrap of paper the size of a mailing label, densely covered with letters in blue ink in tiny handwriting. It is a part of a political prisoner's memoirs, smuggled out of the Gulag in the 1970s.

In 2003, when international terrorism rather than communism poses the biggest threat to Western democracies and when our former Cold War opponents are now allies in the war on terrorism, all these materials may seem like relics of a hopelessly distant past, fascinating but quaint, of interest only to scholars.

Gribanov and Tatiana Yankelevich, Sakharov's stepdaughter and the assistant director of the archives, feel that this is how the archives are widely regarded—as an island that history has passed by.

In recent years, the private funding that was the archives' lifeblood has dried up. Last year, Congress stepped in, with strong support from figures as different as ultraconservative Jesse Helms (now retired) and ultraliberal Barney Frank. In October, the 107th Congress passed the Russian Democracy Act of 2002, which, among other things, authorizes a federal grant of up to $1.5 million for the preservation of the Sakharov Archives.

But no actual funds have been appropriated as yet (the question of appropriations may come up in July, or not until the fall of this year). In these fiscally strapped times, the Archives are in urgent need of help to stay afloat until the first federal check arrives.

Gribanov and Yankelevich passionately believe that while the Archives preserve an invaluable historical heritage, their work is very relevant to the present as well—particularly given the ominous trends in Russia today. "The fledgling democracy—or democracy-building—that one can argue was there in the first years after the collapse of the Soviet Union is not there anymore," says Yankelevich. "It has been suppressed from the center, through the destructions of a parliament that had the making of a democratic body." She points to the crackdown on freedom of the press (just last month, the last independent television station in Russia was shut down) and to the war in Chechnya. In recent years, the Sakharov Archives have been collecting materials on the horrific human rights abuses perpetrated in Chechnya by the Russian military and the government.

However, Yankelevich cautions against focusing solely on Russia and the post-communist bloc when speaking of Sakharov's legacy. "His message," she says, "is relevant not only to the fate of democracy in one country, but to the fate of democracy everywhere. There is a connection to the issue of terrorism there, too. Sakharov's main principle was that any closed regime presents a threat to its own people and to the outside world. Only transparency and accountability and respect for human rights can guarantee peace and international stability." Recently, the archives have been working with various organizations on an initiative to introduce the general topic of human rights into school-level education.

The legacy the Sakharov Archives preserves is a living one. If its doors were to close, the loss would be ours.