In 1989, Mikhail Gorbachev permitted elections for the first popularly elected legislature in Soviet history. The Communist Party still dominated, but about a third of the seats in the 2,250-member chamber were open, and in many of them, establishment party members were booted out. When the first session of the new Congress of People's Deputies opened on May 25, the nation was mesmerized by the televised proceedings. Work stopped on factory floors as millions of people witnessed an astonishing new phase in Gorbachev's revolution from above -- open criticism of the powers that be.
One of the most memorable speakers in those weeks was Andrei Sakharov, the dissident physicist and Nobel Prize winner who was the father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb. Two years earlier, Sakharov and his wife, Yelena Bonner, had been released from exile in Gorky and allowed to return to Moscow, where they were beacons of hope for those who believed in human rights and democracy. Sakharov's appearance in the legislature seemed to be a singularly radiant moment.
On Bonner's death Saturday, June 18, in Boston at age 88, it is worth recalling once again their legacy, one that seems to be fading in today's Russia.
It was on display, in part, during those hectic two weeks of 1989, when Sakharov made the opening speech at the parliament, and a longer, more detailed one in closing. In between, the Congress became an explosion of public debate and unprecedented criticism leveled at the KGB, the military, and the country's leaders.
Sakharov, in the closing remarks, called for repeal of Article 6 of the Soviet Constitution, which gave the Communist Party a monopoly on power. He wanted a political system that would be built by "genuinely democratic methods," based on principles of the rule of law, including freedom of speech and conscience, and the possibility for citizens to contest the actions of their government at all levels. He wanted pluralism and competition.
When Sakharov called for the repeal of the party's hold on power, even Gorbachev lost his cool. He unplugged Sakharov's microphone.