WHEN PEOPLE talk about Andrei Sakharov -- even the most unromantic and politically blase of people -- they tend to use words like "valor" and "nobility" that are fairly rare in these self-conscious, easily embarrassed times. But it is hard not to. The extraordinary message the exiled and hounded Soviet physicist managed to convey to The New York Times from the city of Gorky -- which was reprinted in the Star earlier this week -- will tell you why. These several thousand words of clear, beautifully reasoned, incisive and heartbreaking prose comprise perhaps the single most important current analysis we have of the condition of the Soviet and the mores of its leadership. It exudes authority. One only wishes that the lotus-eating school of Soviet analysts in this country, those folks who keep writing about the frightened, baffled, defensive mind-set of the poor teddy bears in the Kremlin, would read Sakharov. He is there; they are off the wall.
Even to say as much or to hail this amazingly brave man's courage is to feel little uncomfortable about one's own motives. As has been the case with Alexander Solzhenitsyn (from whom Mr. Sakharov is politically and temperamentally so different -- the conservative, mystic brilliant Slavophile v. the Westernized, liberal scientific man), the specter of exploitation arises. For the sake of winning our own tiresome political arguments, are we in this country taking advantage of the suffering of a sakharov or a Solzhenitsyn, cheapening their genuine anguish and reducing the large, complex meaning of their experience to little debaters' points and I-told-you-sos? This is a tendency, a temptation to beware of. But even so there remains much to be said when a man like Andrei Sakharov speaks out, recounting as he does in this article the nature of the Soviet repression as he and others have endured it, and prescribing very direct, clearheaded responses from the West.
Had Mr. Sakharov not been so passionately and publicly committed for so long to the pursuit of arms control and disarmament agreements among the superpowers, especially the U.S.-Soviet SALT accords, and were he not in this crucial sense so indisputably a detente-minded liberal, his arguments for tough responses to current Soviet moves (in Afghanistan, in some arms development) might not be so persuasive. But Mr. Sakharov is clear: he believes that in the interest of pursuing disarmament and "a peaceful settlement of "hot' conflicts," America and the European countries should press back when the Soviets overstep and aggress, as in Afghanistan: "Economic and political sanctions are important; they can help strengthen the hand of the more responsible, nondogmatic members of the Soviet leadership. In particular, the broadest possible boycott of the Moscow Olympics is necessary."
Mr. Sakharov tells us he is getting his information these days from a transistor radio that he takes on walks. The Soviets have gone to the trouble of rigging a whole private jamming system against him so as to prevent his being able to pick up Western broadcasts in his Gorky-exile home. When he goes for these walks, he reports, the trade-off is that the official thugs who patrol his quarters and monitor his activities enter the house for the purpose of committing various acts of thievery and destruction. Reading this, you have several reactions. One is to marvel at the consistency and lucidity of Mr. Sakharov's interpretation of very current world events given the roadblocks put in the way of his getting news. Another is to marvel (yet again) at the crushing, petty steps the Soviets will take to persecute and torment a citizen like Andrei Sakharov whose brilliance and dependence are too much for them. A third is to joice that there is such a man, not just in Russia, but anywhere.
The blessed thing about Andrei Sakharov is that he is dogged and fearless without showing any sign of that pretention and hubris the martyr so often succumbs to. You do not have to buy the outsized vanity along with the heroic stand -- it just isn't there. Mr. Sakharov is steady, generous, humble and direct. He is an invincibly honest and serious man. That is why, whatever the Soviets do to him now -- and it seems clear, especially after this latest public statement, that they will do more -- they will not succeed. They can persecute Mr. Sakharov, but they will never get him.