This film was produced in 1984 at a time when the fates of Andrei Sakharov and Yelena Bonner were unknown during a brutal period of terror and incarceration in the Soviet Union. With Jason Robards and Glenda Jackson in the roles of Sakharov and Bonner, the film offers an indelible portrait of the Soviet repression that lasted right up until the appointment of Mikhail Gorbachev in March 1985 as General Secretary of the Communist Party.
The brutal conditions of a police state, the absence of civil liberties, and the courageous work of dissidents like Sakharov and Bonner are vividly presented in the film, as the repression of free speech and protests were continuing well into the 1980s. The film is especially successful in presenting the family solidarity and the terror unleashed by the State on the family members of Sakharov and Bonner.
One of the most memorable scenes in the film is a conversation between Sakharov and the mother of Yelena Bonner. The mother had lived through the era of the "cult of personality," the purges, and the gulags of Joseph Stalin. She surprises her son-in-law by telling him that nothing has changed from the Stalinist era. In her words, the authorities are "not different, only smarter." The power elite has evolved to discover ways of stifling the human spirit that more subtle and efficacious. The film thus corrects the record of the "thaw" that was intended to de-Stalinize the Soviet Union and introduce reform.
Beyond Sakharov and Bonner, there is a well-developed group of characters the represent the dissident movement. We watch the meetings and the daring acts of protest. There are appearances in court to observe show trials. There is the smuggling of manuscripts and evidence secretly dispatched out of the country. There are interviews with foreign journalists with the hope of support from foreign nations.
One of the great ironies of the dissident movement in the Soviet Union is that the idealistic spirit and the yearning for freedom of the Sakharov community resemble that of the revolutionaries who started the Russian Revolution of 1917. It was clear from the very outset that Lenin and the Bolsheviks would not fulfill the goals of the Revolution. The promises were empty, and the autocratic rule of the tsar was replaced a nightmare in the dystopia that would last from 1917-91.
The film ends with the incomplete story of Sakharov and Bonner as of 1984. He had won the Nobel Peace Prize, which the Soviet authorities would not allow him to accept in Stockholm. Bonner had to travel to Italy to have eye surgery, as the government would have ruined the career of the Moscow ophthalmologist who wanted to perform the operation. One of Bonner's grandchildren was poisoned to instill terror in the grandparents. With the exception of Sakharov and Bonner, the immediate family members all fled the country. The chilling note at the end indicates that both Sakharov and Bonner are in prison and engaged in hunger strikes in the year 1984.
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