Morris Pripstein Wins Human Rights Award For Effort to Help Soviet Dissidents

July 10, 1998

By Monica Friedlander,

It was 20 years ago that Lab physicist Morris Pripstein and his late colleague, Denis Keefe, sat down in a little office on the Hill and decided to almost single-handedly take on the Soviet Union on behalf of fellow scientists incarcerated behind what was then the impregnable Iron Curtain. Motivated by a strong sense of moral conviction but with no funding, staff, or even a concrete strategy, Pripstein engaged the efforts of other Lab scientists--including then-director Andy Sessler and Nobel laureate Owen Chamberlain--and founded a movement that in two years would swell into a world-wide wave of protest.

Morris Pripstein and Andrei Sakharov

Morris Pripstein greets Andrei Sakharov at the New York Academy of Sciences in November 1988

At its height the group included more than 8,000 scientists from 44 different countries and eventually played a major role in the release of three of the Soviet Union's most celebrated political dissidents--Andrei Sakharov, Natan Sharansky and Yuri Orlov -- as well as lesser known dissidents and refuseniks.

Last week, the New York Academy of Sciences recognized Pripstein's efforts with its Heinz Pagels Human Rights Award for his role in SOS--Scientists for Orlov and Sharansky (later renamed Scientists for Sakharov, Orlov and Sharansky).

Pripstein is a joint winner of the award with Boris Altschuler of Moscow. The award ceremony will be held on Sept. 15 in New York. Previous recipients include Andrei Sakharov himself and Wang Dan, a leader of the 1989 Tiananmen Democracy movement.

"The main thing for me is that this is a tribute to everybody who worked in SOS," said Pripstein, stunned by the news. "Many people here deserve that recognition, including Denis Keefe, who was one of the founders of SOS and died before he could see the fruits of his labor." Other Lab scientists Pripstein noted include Bob Cahn, Michael Chanowitz, Owen Chamberlain, Erwin Friedlander, George Gidal, Gerson Goldhaber, Dave Jackson, Andy Sessler, and Bill Wenzel.

Fellow activists, however, insist that Pripstein does indeed deserve special credit for starting SOS and for his unrelenting work, more often than not in the wee hours of the morning -- writing letters, organizing press conferences, raising funds, even placing major expenses on his personal credit card.

"I am delighted that the New York Academy has bestowed this honor on Moishe," said former Lab Director Andy Sessler. "Although many people helped, he was the primary force in developing the organization. He was the one, almost always, who had the ideas about what to do. It may have been something as simple as opening a post office box or an inspired idea such as inviting Sharansky's wife, Avital, to the United States; and of course, conceiving the moratorium concept."

It was this moratorium that set the SOS apart from other efforts. The idea behind it was to exert pressure on the Soviet government by asking members of the international scientific community to pledge themselves to a moratorium on scientific exchanges with scientists of the former Soviet Union. It was an unprecedented, powerful action, as well as one morally troubling at first.

"Scientists always operate with the notion that we must have scientific exchange, that knowledge recognizes no national borders, and that we consider ourselves part of an international community," Pripstein said. "But because of the outrageous behavior of the Soviet authorities and because of the perversion of the scientific exchange process  -- because they would send over who they wanted, who were not always bona fide scientists but people very loyal to the regime--we felt we had to make a protest."

The conditions Pripstein referred to consisted of a complex web of political repression, violations of human rights accords, international aggression, and most poignantly to the mission of the organization, the imprisonment of dissident scientists.

The first dissident whose imprisonment in 1977 sparked the outrage of the American scientific community was physicist Yuri Orlov, head of the Moscow-Helsinki Watch Group -- an organization monitoring compliance with the Helsinki Accords signed by the Soviet Union in 1975. A year later, Anatoly (now known as Natan) Sharansky was tried for treason for his work on behalf of Jewish immigration and imprisoned for nine years. By 1980, human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov was exiled to Gorky and the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. A trend of infamy was developing that SOS was determined to turn around.

Unlike other organizations, SOS did not work by collective but individual action. Pripstein, the group's chairman, would suggest a course of action, such as the non-cooperation moratorium, and ask other scientists to pledge themselves to it.

"We felt it was absolutely essential that each individual scientist stand up and commit himself to a particular course of action," Pripstein said. "We were astonished at the outpouring of support."

Within days of announcing the moratorium, 500 scientists signed on. After Sharansky's trial, SOS held a press conference in Washington and 2400 scientists joined the bandwagon. After Sakharov was sent to Gorky the campaign went international and SOS added Sakharov's name to its name. By October of 1980, some 8,000 scientists had cut off their ties with their Soviet counterparts.

Throughout the campaign, Pripstein and his colleagues had one major worry to contend with. Might their efforts not backfire?

"Sometimes when you focus attention on people it brings the fury of the totalitarian state more on the heads of these individuals," Pripstein said. "So we were often accused that we were making matters worse. But in fact we got consistent feedback through unofficial channels, from people like Sakharov and other major dissidents who felt what we were doing was just right."

As it would turn out, letters in support of Pripstein's nomination for the Heinz Pagels Human Rights Award were signed by none other than Yuri Orlov, now at Cornell University; Elena Bonner, Sakharov's wife, still living in Moscow; and by Natan Sharansky, today a minister in the Israeli government.

Membership in the SOS spanned the entire political spectrum. Even French communists, Pripstein remembers, joined their cause. For once, right and left alike were united by what Pripstein described as a "sense of revulsion" against violation of the most basic human rights in the Soviet Union.

By 1986 their efforts, combined with those of various governments and other organizations, paid off when Yuri Orlov was released. Pripstein and other SOS members met him in New York and were invited by President Reagan to the White House. Sharansky and Sakharov (who died in 1989) followed soon thereafter.

"The greatest thing that amazed me about these people was their sense of humanity and compassion," Pripstein says. "Each of them had suffered terribly, each in his own way -- either by long incarceration or actual torture. After all they went through I figured they'd come out with deep psychological scars and be really embittered. Instead they were filled with compassion for their fellow men and totally lacking in bitterness."

Two decades after launching SOS, Pripstein is determined that the tide of change in the world not obliterate the records of SOS' efforts, which are testimony to a time he wants preserved for history. To that end, most of the SOS' papers have been transferred to the Hoover Institution Archives at Stanford.

"It's so important for everyone to recognize what the truth is so we don't repeat the mistakes of the past, or they'll come back to haunt us," Pripstein said. "That's why I'm so happy that my papers are going to the Hoover Institution where they'll be accessible to scholars who want to be reminded of what happened in the past."

Pripstein, a Canadian-born scientist who has worked at Berkeley Lab for the past 31 years, is especially proud that this historic movement got started here at Berkeley Lab. That, he says, is no mere accident.

"The fact that it started here reflects something about the Lab," he said. "This was not just a random collection of individuals. There's a certain spirit that's fostered here, which is not just a spirit of free inquiry in science, but something that indicates that we care about the impact of what we do. In the sense that we're deeply concerned about human rights, it was only natural that a group of us got together and reached a critical mass."

A group of SOS activists gathered in 1988 at the home of Andrei Sakharov's daughter in Newton, MA. Left to right are Bob Cahn and Morris Pripstein of Berkeley Lab, Andrei Sakharov, Phil Siegelman of San Francisco State University, and Bill Wenzel, also of Berkeley Lab. Kurt Gottfried of Cornell University is in the front.

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