Ten days ago I started a hunger strike near the Soviet Embassy to protest the Soviet Union's persecution and mistreatment of my parents, Dr. Andrei Sakharov and Dr. Elena Bonner. My demand: to see my parents, either in the West or in the U.S.S.R. Why have I taken such a step? I do not regard a hunger strike as a weapon of choice -- only of desperation. But did I have a choice?
For over half a year nobody has seen my parents. We do not any longer have any communication with them. My parents' health is poor. In the past few years my mother has suffered three heart attacks. She is a disabled World War II veteran, lgally blind in one eye. To save her eyesight, she needs surgery; she may also need bypass heart surgery. My stepfather also needs expert care for a number of illnesses. Yet in their exile my parents are treated only by KGB-supplied doctors whose actions are determined by KGB will and not by the needs of their patients.
That in itself is bad enough, but lately their situation has become even worse. We learned (long after the fact) that in April Dr. Sakharov began a hunger strike. Immediately my parents were isolated from each other and the rest of the world. Later the Soviets showed two videotapes made with hidden cameras: in June, to prove that my stepfather had ended the hunger strike, and in July, to claim that the Sakharovs were reunited. Why, then, is there still no word from the Sakharovs themselves?
The silence is threatening. Having achieved the complete isolation of my parents, the KGB is free to do anything to them, even to kill, and count on that never becoming known to the world (remember Raoul Wallenberg? We are yet to learn his fate 40 years after the Soviets removed him from Vienna and into the Gulag.)
I believe human rights should be the underlying principle in the policies of Western countries toward the Soviet Union; thus I believe my parents, who have become symbols of the struggle for human rights in the Soviet Union, should be vigorously defended by Western countries. Unfortunately, I cannot see that happening now in the Sakharovs' critical and tragic situation.
Many Western countries, justly outraged by South Africa's breaking the moral laws of humanity, are right now applying or considering punitive actions against that state. The Soviet Union is disregarding both moral and legal obligations. The U.S.S.R. has signed international treaties (the Helsinki Accords, the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights) in which it obligated itself to respect human rights.
South Africa still allows its Nobel Peace laureate, Bishop Desmond Tutu, to be outspoken and free. In Poland, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Lech Walesa, is under severe restrictions, but at least is at home and with friends. What country, then, can the Soviet Union be compared to in its treatment of my stepfather, the only Russian ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize? Only one example comes to my mind: Carl von Ossietzky, a German journalist and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, who was imprisoned by the Nazis. But with this qualification: von Ossietzky was released and allowed to leave Germany.
But the Western countries have effectively dropped human rights issues from the agenda of their relations with the Soviet Union, probably believing that this way progress in other areas can be more easily obtained. I think this is self-defeating: sensing a weakness in the Western positions on principles, the Soviets become confident they can bully the Free World to accept the short end of the deal on any other question too.
As the situation of my parents was worsening in the last year, there was also a change in the policy of the National Academy of Sciences, of which my stepfather is a member. Five years ago, when the Soviets forcibly moved Dr. Sakharov from Moscow, the NAS discontinued scientific exchanges with the Soviet Union. This step was in complete accord with the NAS's traditional strong stand in defense of human rights.
Now, however, under the presidency of Dr. Frank Press, the NAS has reversed course. Although no improvements had been made in Soviet human rights policies, and nothing had changed in cases particularly important to the scientific community -- such as those of Drs. Orlov and Scharansky -- and although the Sakharovs are still in Gorky and worse off than before, Dr. Press went to Moscow and signed an agreement resuming the exchanges. He did so on the day that was the fifth anniversary of my stepfather's illegal exile. The very choice of the date says to the Soviets that human rights are not important to the NAS anymore. Even in the face of consequent protests from scientific organizations and a number of individual scientists, including some Nobel laureates, the NAS has refused to change its position.
In view of all this, believing my parents to be in mortal danger, I have started this hunger strike. I know that I cannot win alone. But there are many people concerned about my parents, and with their help I hope the situation can be changed. The administration can be moved from a passive position of denouncing the Soviets' treatment of my parents to actively seeking a resolution of the case.
It would, I believe, have lasting negative effects on East-West relations if Mr. Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev had a friendly meeting and afterwards we learned that the Soviets had killed or let die the Sakharovs and kept it a secret. I also believe that now, before the summit, my parents can and should be rescued.