RUSSIAN THEMES knock around in my head. John Reed shares the space with Andrei Sakharov. Reed is dead, a hero of the revolution, the only American (we are told time and time again) who is buried in the Kremlin. Sakharov, though, is alive. He lives the consequences of Reed's revolution. He tried starving himself to death.
Reed would have been shocked by that. He could not have foreseen to what extent the revolution poisoned itself, and he would have trouble understanding how starvation in Russia is today an option. In Reed's day, it was commonplace. Starvation was not a means of protest. People starved to death because there was no food.
Now there is a movie out about Reed. It is called "Reds" and it details, in enormous but gripping length, his short life. He died of typhus at the age of 33. He died too young to see the revolution go sour, to see the mass murders of Stalin, the horrors of the Gulag, the killing of the Kulaks, state-sponsored anti-Semitism that rivaled that of the Czars, internal oppression, external aggression and a succession of regimes in which evil became just another government program.
SAKHAROV, though, has seen all this. He has been banished to the city of Gorki because of his political views. He could not stay in touch with the Western press or with the dissident community in Moscow. This was cruel. But cruelest of all was depriving this man of the fuel for thought -- his books. He is a scientist, a physicist, the so-called father of the Soviet H-bomb, but above all he is an intellectual. For an intellectual to be without books, without conversation, without stimulation, is slow death. Maybe Sakharov really just wanted it all to end.
So you would think that if John Reed met Andrei Sakharov they would have very little in common. You would think that Sakharov would have contempt for this naive visionary -- this barely critical believer in the revolution, in communism, in workers and what workers could do when organized. And you might think that Reed would feel the same way about Sakharov -- that he would remind him of the old starvation, point out how far Russia has come and ask him where his petty dissent belongs in this scheme.
But the two men have much in common. They believe -- Reed in his way, Sakharov in his -- in the difference a person can make. At bottom for both men is conviction -- a body of belief. In a sense, they are totally free. What they have is the conviction that is within them. They cannot be deprived of that. It cannot be seized or repossessed or outmoded or withheld and it is not too far-fetched to think that if Reed were alive today, he would stand with Sakharov.
They knew something about goals. They both had that. Reed had one. Never mind that it failed. Never mind that it was one of history's cruel jokes. How could he have known that at the time? All he knew is what he could have known, and the future was not part of that. All he knew was that what existed at the time was cruel, that it should be changed and that he, he and others, could change it.
THIS IS WHAT Sakharov believes, too. He sees bad things around him. He sees the tyrannically abusive Soviet State. He sees no civil liberties and a government that lies. He sees human rights violations and cruelty and he thinks, as Reed once thought, that it could be better, that he, he and others, could make it better.
Contrast this with the dominant American belief that there is nothing to believe. Contrast it with the cynical view that nothing can change -- and the almost universally held contempt toward "do-gooders." Compare it to the belief that the future is the past, that reform is utopian nonsense and that the path to a better world is through individual selfishness -- that we are riding a historical current we cannot control or affect.
This is not what Reed thought. And this is not what Sakharov thinks. He is alone, alone and exiled. But he has managed to put his thumb into the eye of the Russian bear and stand taller than the government itself. The Russians must look at him the way we now do at Reed -- wrong, misguided, egotistical. It doesn't matter. What matters is the example both he and Reed set. This is why, in their own times, they were both feared. They tried to make things better.