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ANDREI SAKHAROV

The Bolshevik Revolution was less than 5 years old when Andrei Sakharov was born in 1921, the son of a famous physicist. He once told an interviewer that he was brought up in the tradition of the old Russian intelligentsia, which he defined as decency, sympathy for minorities, respect for the opinions of others and rejection of brutality and oppression.

Sakharov lived to see those values hideously violated in the police state built by the Bolsheviks and their heirs. Speaking out against those abuses became his life work and earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975. Mercifully, he lived to see the ideology of Marx and Lenin utterly discredited and the truth told about many of the horrors perpetrated in their names.Even so, Sakharov's death at the age of 68 was untimely. His country needs him more than ever now. It is engaged in a process of uncertain reform. Decisions just this week in the Kremlin signal an ominous retreat from the promised political pluralism and economic decentralization.

Revulsion at the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 prompted the essay on human rights that branded Sakharov a dissident and triggered the slanders, harassment and beatings of the KGB. The day after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, on Dec. 29, 1979, Sakharov was exiled to the closed city of Gorky.

In the decade since, the Soviet Union has launched its dramatic reform under Mikhail Gorbachev. Allowed to return from Gorky in 1986, elected to the new Congress, Sakharov could at last speak freely in his own land.

He said what desperately needed saying: that Gorbachev's reforms concentrate unprecedented power in the president's hands; that no mere loosening of censorship by the state can substitute for rights inherent in individuals; that collectivism is by its nature "a system of unlimited exploitation" and must be renounced altogether for agriculture, industry and a way of life to prosper.

Sakharov's courage set him apart from other men. But his wisdom will be missed even more.