The situation demanded a split-screen tableau: in Oslo, Yelena Sakharov was accepting the Nobel Peace Prize and the $143,000 that goes with it on behalf of her husband, Andrei, once the USSR’s top H-bomb physicist. Reading from a speech he wrote, she said repression had not abated in the Soviet Union, where political prisoners “shiver with cold, damp and exhaustion in ill-lit dungeons.”
On the same day in Vilnius, capital of the Soviet republic of Lithuania, Sakharov himself, wearing a faded brown overcoat and a floppy rabbit-skin hat, stood outside a courtroom where a friend was being tried for “anti-Soviet activities.” Barred from the trial of dissident biologist Sergei Kovalev, the 54-year-old Sakharov was yelling, “My voice will be heard in there. I have a right to shout.”
By refusing permission for him to attend the Nobel ceremonies, Soviet authorities had made certain Sakharov would do all of his shouting where they could keep an eye on him. Their justification was that such a trip might lead to the loss of state secrets, even though Sakharov has not been involved in the Soviet nuclear program for almost eight years—since he began speaking out against totalitarianism. (Mrs. Sakharov could take his place in Oslo because she was in Italy for an eye operation that Russian doctors, in retaliation for the Sakharovs’ politics, refused to perform.)
Rather than brood in his cramped two-room apartment in Moscow, Sakharov hoped to testify as a defense witness for Kovalev, who was arrested for working on an underground Catholic journal. Even in Vilnius, however, Sakharov was a target for abuse.
One spectator at Kovalev’s trial told Sakharov, “You’re a disgrace to the Soviet Union.” Another said, “While the masses work for your welfare, you are here instead of doing your job.” The phone of the friend he stayed with in Vilnius went dead when he arrived.
Not that any of this surprised Sakharov. Nor did Kovalev’s fate—a guilty verdict, with a sentence of seven years in a labor camp plus three years exile, presumably in Siberia. “The trial proceeded with gross violations of generally accepted norms of justice,” Sakharov said. “The sentence was unfair and harsh, a challenge to mankind.”