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So what are the Sakharov Archives?

Until 2004, Brandeis University was home to the writings, letters, manuscripts and photographs that belong to Andrei Sakharov, former leader of the Soviet Union's nuclear weapons program

Published: April 18, 2008
Section: Features



If one looks closely at the floor diagrams on the walls of Goldfarb 1, the area of the library currently occupied by the Brandeis University Women’s Committee is labeled “Sakharov Archives.” Until 2004, Brandeis University housed a collection of papers (totaling eighty-one linear feet) of letters, manuscripts, and photographs that belonged to Andrei Sakharov, who led the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons program and later became known for his strong advocacy for human rights. In 1975 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, which referred to him as “the conscience of mankind”.

Four years after his death in 1989, his widow, Elana Bonner, donated his collected papers, including early drafts of his memoirs, to Brandeis so that they could be catalogued and accessed by interested scholars. The majority had been carried out of the Soviet Union between 1978 and 1984. When the collection was announced on October 15, 1993, former Brandeis University President Samuel O. Thier, MD described in a brochure that Andrei Sakharov’s work expressed “a commitment to scholarship and passionate regard for the rights of individuals” that “echoed…the spirit that led to the founding of Brandeis.”

Brandeis initially desired to establish “The Sakharov Center for the Study of the Cold War Era,” however a lack of funding and absence of a strong program in Russian language studies made this goal difficult to achieve. “There was hope it [the Archives] would prompt studies of Russian and Soviet history,” recalled program director Tatiana Yankelevich, who is also Sakharov’s daughter-in-law. With the lessening prospects of an endowment to establish a separate center for the archives, Brandeis agreed with Elana Bonner’s decision to transfer the collection to the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University. While the collection now lives at Houghton Library at Harvard Yard, most of the cataloguing began while the collection was at Brandeis.

Yale University Press published the records of Sakharov kept by the KGB, the Soviet intelligence division. Yale University Press has also made digital versions of the documents, in Russian and English, available online.

One of the most valuable works in the collection are the multiple drafts of Sakharov’s memoirs, most of which he wrote while exiled in the city of Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod), about 250 miles east of Moscow. Between 1980 and 1986 his main contact with the non-Soviet world was Elana, who would visit him from Moscow and bring documents for him to reference. Sakharov rewrote portions of his 1,000-page autobiography three times after the KGB stole certain portions. Visitors such as his American colleague and friend Sherman Frankel (Professor of Physics emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania) returned revised manuscripts to him in secret after publishers had reviewed them.

Along with handwritten notes and annotated manuscripts, the collection today includes around 300 personal letters, 200 telegrams, and over 1,000 photographs. All of this was housed for eleven years here at Brandeis. It seems fitting that the collected works of a noted human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner were housed at a university that prides itself on its commitment to social justice. Sakharov’s commitment to individual liberties and an open society are perhaps best illustrated in his Nobel acceptance speech: “We must make good the demands of reason and create a life worthy of ourselves and of the goals we only dimly perceive.” Interestingly, Sakharov was not allowed to travel to Oslo, Norway to receive the Nobel Prize, and his wife delivered his prepared remarks, as she was already in Italy receiving medical care. One cannot help but admire his rationality and positive perspective even while living in an oppressive society.