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The Struggle for Light

Memoirs

by Andrei Sakharov, translated by Richard Lourie
Knopf, 773 pp., $29.95

Gorki, Moskva, Dalye Vezde (Gorky, Moscow, and Beyond)

by Andrei Sakharov
Izdatelstvo imeni Chekhova, 288 pp., $15.00

Trevoga i Nadezhda (Alarm and Hope)

by Andrei Sakharov
Inter-Verso (Soviet edition), 334 pp., $8.00

1.

On a winter’s night in 1986, two electricians and their KGB escort installed a “special telephone” in the apartment of Andrei Sakharov. For six years Sakharov and his wife Elena Bonner had been living in the industrial city of Gorky under government edict, and the sudden appearance of the new mystery phone seemed at first just another Orwellian moment in the day of exiles. Maybe the Soviet press would call for an interview, Sakharov thought. Two magazines had already put in requests. Turning the moral equations in his mind, Sakharov arrived at a finely calibrated stand of principle: he would refuse all interview requests until there was no longer a “noose around my neck.” The KGB agent merely turned to Sakharov and said, “You will get a call around ten tomorrow morning.”

The next day, the phone rang. A woman’s voice said, “Mikhail Sergeyevich will speak to you.” Now Gorbachev was on the line, calling to tell Sakharov that he and Bonner could return to Moscow.

You have an apartment there,” Gorbachev said, without a word of apology or regret. “Go back to your patriotic work!”

Sakharov said a brief word of thanks, then wasted no time in going back to his patriotic work. He told Gorbachev that for the sake of “trust, for peace, and for you and your program,” the Kremlin was obliged to release the political prisoners included on a long list he had mailed to the leadership from Gorky. “Gorbachev made a noncommittal reply,” Sakharov remembered. The Soviet leader said he did not quite agree that all the prisoners Sakharov was speaking for had been tried illegally. Then the two men said their awkward goodbyes.

A week later, Sakharov arrived by overnight train at Moscow’s Yaroslavl station, an event of such moral and political importance that it felt as if it were the reversal of yet another homecoming seven decades before—that of Lenin at the Finland Station. But no one then could predict what was ahead for Sakharov in the three years left to him. Exile had worn him down. KGB threats, a painful hunger strike, forced feedings, random attacks, thefts of his diaries and manuscripts—all of it had taken a toll on his health. Now, as he answered questions into the swarm of tape recorders and television lights, his voice was mumbly, hesitant at times. He walked with a stoop and had to catch his breath every few steps on flights of stairs. Bonner said at the time that Sakharov would limit his activities. He would read up on developments in cosmology and work on specific human rights cases.

A few days after his return to Moscow, Sakharov was sitting at the kitchen table of his close friend, the human rights activist Larisa Bogaraz. Mikhail Gefter, one of the country’s few honest historians, turned to Sakharov and said, “How are you feeling, Andrei Dmitriyevich?” Sakharov said rather sadly, “It is difficult to live now. People write me, they visit, and they are all hoping that I will be able to help somehow. But I am powerless.” For months Sakharov mulled over his role, tried to find his political voice. Some younger dissidents were impatient with Sakharov’s hesitation and what they saw as his naive, uncritical support of Gorbachev.

But Sakharov soon sacrificed himself once more, this time completely. It is quite likely that his heart gave out last December because he had betrayed his first modest intentions when he returned to Moscow. As an elected legislator, as the leader of such groups as Memorial and Moscow Tribune, Sakharov provided the Soviet Union—and Gorbachev himself—with the singular model of an uncorrupted human spirit. Sakharov delivered speeches and issued statements that, time and again, stripped away the Newspeak and hesitations of perestroika. He was the voice of the Russian liberal intelligentsia, an heir to the pre-Bolshevik tradition of Alexander Herzen. With the authority of his life and the clarity of his judgments and language, Sakharov in those last years became a one-man loyal opposition, a moral genius who now was free to speak to millions on government-controlled television.

Sakharov was the only one among us who made no compromises,” said Tatyana Zaslavskaya, the country’s leading sociologist and a member of the Congress of People’s Deputies. “For us, he was a figure of the inner spirit. Just the bare facts of his life, the way he suffered for all of us, gave him an authority that no one else had. Without him, we could not begin to rebuild our society, or our selves. Gorbachev may not have understood it quite that way when he let Sakharov come home, but he would understand it eventually.”

2.

Sakharov’s father, Dmitri, a physicist and amateur painist, was the author of The Struggle for Light, a textbook on the history of lighting devices from ancient times to the present. Andrei Sakharov’s Memoirs—as well as the forthcoming second volume, Moscow, Gorky, and Beyond—are a search for another sort of light, an act of witness and conscience comparable to Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope.

And yet these memoirs are the work of a very different kind of mind, that of a scientist whose metaphors of spirit and truth are rooted in an understanding of cosmology, the “magical spectacle” of a thermonuclear explosion, the calculus of the Big Bang. Sakharov’s sense of rightness, like that of scientist-moralists from Galileo to Oppenheimer, is rooted in his understanding of the scientific problems of light and time, his firsthand appreciation of both the laws of the universe and man’s tragic ability to turn progress into catastrophe. He held in mind, it seems, a picture, even a music, of eternity. Sakharov once turned to his wife and said, “Do you know what I love most of all in life?” Later Bonner would confide to a friend, “I expected he would say something about a poem or a sonata or even about me.” Instead, Sakharov said, “The thing I love most in life is radio background emanation”—the barely discernible reflection of unknown cosmic processes that ended billions of years ago.

As a writer, Sakharov can be rushed, unreflective at times. (The KGB’s habit of stealing his manuscripts in Gorky and, later, the endless burdens of public life, are likely culprits here. Again and again Sakharov was forced to reconstruct hundreds of lost pages from memory.) Neither volume of the memoirs has a novelistic sense of character or narrative. Sakharov will mention his falling out with an important friend—the Marxist historian Roy Medvedev, say—but then dismiss it summarily. Few figures here come to life the way they do in Hope Against Hope, or even in Solzhenitsyn’s strange, score-settling memoir, The Oak and the Calf. As a result, much of the second half of the memoirs, especially the accounts of individual human rights campaigns or publications, seems rather dutiful. As for the period of exile in Gorky, Bonner’s own Alone Together is the more dramatic account.

Instead, the great triumph of these memoirs is the first twenty chapters, the self-portrait of a man inclined toward the purities of theoretical physics who became the conscience of the Soviet Union. Sakharov says he was determined not to write a confession, and yet often enough this alleged attempt to hold the reader at a distance fails magnificently. The transformation of his own mind is by far the book’s most powerful “character.” Almost accidentally, Sakharov reveals how his understanding of even the most speculative notions of the universe helped form a moral understanding, a sense of accountability.

In his Nobel lecture—now available to Soviet readers in a collection of political essays, Alarm and Hope*—Sakharov wrote,

Other civilizations, perhaps more successful ones, may exist an infinite number of times on the preceding and following pages of the Book of the Universe. Yet we should not minimize our sacred endeavors in the world, where, like faint glimmers in the dark, we have emerged for a moment from the nothingness of unconsciousness into material experience. We must make good the demands of reason and create a life worthy of ourselves and of the goals we only dimly perceive.

In his memoirs, Sakharov says he stands apart from official religion, “And yet I am unable to imagine the universe and human life without some guiding principle, without a source of spiritual ‘warmth’ that is nonmaterial and not bound by physical laws.” That “warmth” is perhaps the best way to describe Sakharov’s own remarkable gift for human sympathy.

As the descendant of Orthodox priests, scientists, lawyers, and thinkers, Sakharov had a broad, privileged education. The early chapters of Memoirs are a moving evocation of the life of the Russian intelligentsia in the Stalin era. Tutored at home until the fifth grade, Sakharov began reading at the age of four and immersed himself in the rhythms of Pushkin, Lermontov, and Chukovsky. He spent hours with his grandmother “discussing every page of Tolstoy’s Childhood, Boyhood and Youth.” His father instructed him in the miracles of elementary physics—“miracles I could understand.”

His boyhood was also haunted by the inexplicable, the corruption of the language and the state’s slaughter of millions of innocents. Though the house was filled with recitations of The Bronze Horseman and the sounds of his father playing Bach on the piano, Sakharov also knew of the horror of his aunt Zhenya getting news of her husband’s death in the camps when one of her letters was returned stamped “Addressee relocated to the cemetery”; later one of Sakharov’s friends died in the gulag, the authorities announced, owing to a “chilling of the epidermal integument.”

Sakharov did not react immediately against the Stalin of his childhood and youth. Even as a young man, he was under the spell of the personality cult. Already among the country’s leading physicists, Sakharov wrote home in 1953 to his first wife, Klavdia, about the death of Stalin: “I am under the influence of a great man’s death. I am thinking of his humanity.” As he wrote his memoirs in Gorky in the early 1980s, Sakharov was still bewildered by the pull of the Great Leader, the Genius of All Peoples, and by the way in which Sakharov himself had thrust aside all political doubts to help the Soviet Union build its first thermonuclear bomb:

I can’t fully explain it—after all, I knew quite enough about the horrible crimes that had been committed—the arrests of innocent people, the torture, the deliberate starvations, and all the violence—to pass judgment on those responsible. But I hadn’t put the whole picture together, and in any case, there was still a lot I didn’t know. Somewhere at the back of my mind the idea existed, instilled by propaganda, that suffering is inevitable during great historic upheavals: “When you chop wood, the chips fly.”…But above all, I felt myself committed to the goal which I assumed was Stalin’s as well: after a devastating war, to make the country strong enough to ensure peace. Precisely because I had invested so much of myself in that cause and accomplished so much, I needed, as anyone might in my circumstances, to create an illusory world, to justify myself.

  1. *

    The 1978 American edition (Vintage) is shorter and has somewhat different material.

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