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Sakharov's "Westernism"

"Gorbachev Factor"
Andrei Sakharov 

In contrast to Solzhenitsyn, with his moderate nationalist views, academician Sakharov personified a westernizing strand within the Soviet dissident movement. This tendency became prominent following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 that dashed the hopes of Soviet progressives for the ability of the Soviet system to evolve in the direction of a democratic and humane socialism. The dissident thought now turned to other social systems, in particular, the West.  

Sakharov was an outstanding representative of the Soviet scientific community, which in many respects was one of the most influential groups within the post-Stalin society. It comprised scientists who were responsible for making Russia a nuclear power and placed the first man into orbit and who gave Russia its intercontinental ballistic missiles and created the enormous Soviet educational-scientific establishment. Most leading Soviet scientists were also closely linked to their counterparts abroad. They attended international conferences and were familiar with the main currents of Western thought. In his famous essay Progress, Peaceful Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom (1968), Sakharov acknowledged, for instance, that its basic thrust had been inspired by the ideas advanced in the postwar years by “public-spirited and penetrating thinkers—physicists and mathematicians, economists, jurists, public figures, and philosophers,” including Einstein, Russell, Bohr, Cassin, and many others.

However, for a westernizer, Sakharov’s approach was quite unorthodox. He believed in the “convergence” of socialism and capitalism: eventually the two social systems would come together by retaining the advantages of each and overcoming deficiencies. The West would guarantee wide social provisions, while the socialist system would become thoroughly democratized. The ultimate integration of the Communist and capitalist systems would take the form of “democratic socialism.”

Sakharov’s “westernism” was evident in his emphasis on emulating the democratic system and technological achievements of the West. In his letters to Soviet leaders reproduced in the underground samizdat, Sakharov stressed that the USSR could not develop in economic and technological isolation from the rest of the world and that technological progress was inseparable from the democratization of society. The scientist argued that in the present age no country could resolve its own problems in isolation from global problems and that peace and the prosperity of humankind could only be preserved by the joint efforts of all.

Sakharov’s writings contain many of the ideas that would later crystallize into the principles of the “new thinking” of perestroika. Striking parallels can be found between the ideas of the Soviet dissident and General Secretary Gorbachev’s foreign policy doctrine. As one of the creators of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, Sakharov knew better than others about the threat to the very survival of humankind posed by nuclear weapons. His central idea was that the world could survive only if the United States and the Soviet Union established a cooperative framework, in which they would jointly work at resolving the problems that threatened humankind (Gorbachev would refer to them as “global problems”). According to Sakharov, apart from the universal nuclear war, civilization was imperiled by hunger, overpopulation, and the destruction of the environment:


In the face of these perils, any action increasing the division of mankind, any preaching of the incompatibility of world ideologies and nations is madness and a crime.


This was, in effect, a plea for the deideologization of international relations that would become the chief principle of foreign policy under Gorbachev.

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