Sakharvov remembered

By Joel Goldenberg on January 7, 2010

On Dec. 14, 1989, law professor, rights activist and now Mount Royal MP Irwin Cotler was on his way to Moscow to have dinner and a discussion with renowned Soviet human rights activist Andrei Sakharov, when he called his wife Ariela during a stopover in London.

“She said ‘you won’t be able to have dinner with Dr. Sakharov,’” Cotler recalled, his voice breaking and halted. “’He died this morning.’ Instead of having dinner with Andrei Sakharov, I attended his funeral.”

Cotler paid extensive tribute to Sakharov recently at the YM -YWHA at an event put on by Dr. Vera Parnes’ Raoul Wallenberg International Movement for Humanity to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Sakharov’s passing. The RWIMH was formed to commemorate and look into the fate of the Swedish diplomat who saved some 100,000 Jews but was captured by the Soviets, whose claim he died in 1947 was met with widespread doubt.

In his speech, Cotler pointed that he recently released an international petition on the danger of a nuclear, genocidal and rights violating Iran, as led by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

“Would we have had a Sakharov today, in the last 20 years, to be sounding the alarm with respect to what was happening, maybe we would not have reached that point in Ahmadinejad’s Iran. The man who almost alone, stood up against the whole of the Soviet Union and, in terms of his moral voice in history, prevailed, we would have heard that moral voice.”

Cotler said Sakharov was “one of the authentic heroes of the 20th century, a person who emerged not only as a metaphor for the struggle for human rights. Others could lay claim to that as well — he was not the only metaphor for the struggle for human rights — but he was a metaphor for moral courage in the 20th century.

‘”It was Sakharov who stood up in 1968, when there was for a brief moment, the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia, to speak out against the Soviet invasion as he did against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He perhaps, amongst those of the 20th century along with Wallenberg, deserves to be spoken of in that Talmudic idiom, that ‘if you saved a single life, it is as if you have saved an entire universe.’

“Sakharov’s [unparalleled] moral courage saved untold lives, freed untold peoples and freed countries in the 20th century from the yoke and oppression of Communist tyranny. He was the conscience of his own people, as the Soviets called him, and the conscience of humankind.” Cotler added that he was also a pioneer in calling for the freedom of Soviet Jews.

Cotler said the funeral of Sakharov on Dec. 15, 1989, was unforgettable.

“People, one by one, walked by in solemnity, some expressing their apologies for not standing with him, when they should have stood up on his behalf as well as on the causes for which he stood.

“Indeed, two hours before we went to the cemetery, close to 100,000 people had gathered in a stadium, where they held placards saying ‘we’re sorry.’ In effect, ‘please forgive us for not standing up for you and for what you stood up for. Forgive us, for you stood alone.’ 

“That was the greatness of Andrei Sakharov, he stood alone, together with his wife Elena Bonner, who continues that courageous advocacy, which sometimes goes unnoticed or unacknowledged. And so, 20 years later, Sakharov’s legacy may be said to live on in terms of all the things he made possible.”



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