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Keeping the Sparks Alive

Sakharov: A Biography

by Richard Lourie
Brandeis University Press/University Press of New England, 465 pp., $30.00

Andrei Sakharov first came to world attention on July 22, 1968, when The New York Times published his essay “Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom.” With the advent of nuclear weapons, he wrote, mankind was faced with a choice: to risk extinction by increasing its divisions, or to move toward economic, social, and ideological convergence between socialist and capitalist systems, and a united approach to global problems.

The subject of the essay was sufficient to command attention in an increasingly nervous international climate, but the main reason for its impact was the identity of the author: after twenty years of obscurity working in the most secret installation of the Soviet Union, Sakharov was revealed to the world as the creator of the Soviet H-bomb. In the following year more than 18 million copies of his essay were printed in book form throughout the world (placing him, as he wryly noted, in third place after Mao and Lenin and ahead of Georges Simenon and Agatha Christie). He put his new international prestige to use in the struggle for human rights in his country, publicizing acts of repression through interviews with Western statesmen and journalists, and warning the West that there could be no stable peace without the democratization of Soviet society.

These activities earned him the 1975 Nobel Peace Prize, and also the close attention of the KGB. He was first demoted, then sacked from his scientific post; his family was harassed and threatened, and in January 1980 he was arrested and exiled to the closed city of Gorky, where for seven years his second wife and co-campaigner, Elena Bonner, was his only link with the outside world, the channel through whom he continued his duel with the Soviet authorities and his appeals to Western leaders to insist that Soviet society be opened up as a condition of détente. His isolation only increased his potency as a symbol of moral resistance: on his sixtieth birthday he was honored throughout the world, President Reagan calling him “one of the true spiritual heroes of our time.”

Invited by Gorbachev to return to Moscow at the end of 1986, he was elected to the Soviet Congress of People’s Deputies after it became the supreme legislative body, and put all his energies into accelerating change as well as acting as unofficial ombudsman for those who would not otherwise be heard. Only a few days before his death in December 1989, he completed a preliminary draft of a new constitution.

Sakharov’s contribution to the democratizing of his country owed much to his being the right person in the right place at the right time. The start of his involvement in dissident activities coincided with the birth of the human rights movement, whose policy was to act openly and legally, taking its stand on the freedoms proclaimed in the Soviet Constitution. Politically moderate, Sakharov was inclined by temperament and training toward solving issues through open discussion and rational argument. Western visitors meeting him for the first time were disconcerted to find someone so far removed from the heroic image of the fighter for freedom. His American translator, Richard Lourie, saw “something of the English country parson about him, except for the Mongol slant of his eyes, which are both shy and fearless.” The American physicist John Wheeler found him fascinating and original in conversation, but “painfully shy…. It was hard to imagine this mild, unassuming man challenging the Soviet government in the way he had just done.” It was, however, to this unlikely hero that other Soviet dissidents tended instinctively to turn when seeking someone to head a committee or lead an appeal: as one of them put it, he possessed “an infallible sense of good and a constant readiness to oppose evil.”

His personal goodness has sometimes been seen as responsible for what Western commentators have considered the political naiveté of his “Reflections” and other programmatic statements, with their overoptimistic view of the power of rational inquiry, conducted in an open society and led by a scientific elite, to harmonize technological progress with humanistic values, smooth out conflicts between nations and systems, and cope with global economic, social, and environmental problems. But he himself described his early hopes about convergence between the Soviet and Western systems (formed during the Dubcek reforms in Czechoslovakia) as “optimistic futurology.” We find him writing with the greatest frankness on the problems of freedom and progress in the memoirs published only after his death; there his meditations on science and Stalinism led him to question all generalizations about history and human behavior, setting him at odds not only with the Soviet regime but also with many of his fellow dissidents.1

Lourie translated the first volume of Sakharov’s memoirs, and they are a major source for his new biography. The Sakharov we see here is no naive visionary, but a humanist of formidable intellectual and moral force, who speaks to our time as much as to his own.

Sakharov was born in 1921 into a group that Lourie describes as “something between a class and a clan”—the Russian intelligentsia, who believed it their duty to use their talents for the benefit of society and who over decades of struggle against Russian backwardness and tyranny had developed a commitment to the elimination of social evils. This led many to a dogmatic faith in universal explanatory systems that promised to remedy all ills and, among the Bolsheviks, to the conviction that all was permitted as a means to attaining their utopia. But many others were repelled by the dedication of human beings to the service of abstractions, which had been condemned eloquently by writers like Chekhov and thinkers such as Alexander Herzen.

Sakharov’s father, Dmitri Sakharov, was of this type. A teacher of physics, he wrote popular scientific works that brought him some fame in his field. His sense of the complexity of life and the value he placed on moderation and forgiveness made a deep impression on his son; but the most potent influence on the young Andrei in the Stalin era was the Communist state’s relentless pursuit of the utopian dream. “It never entered my head,” he wrote, “to question Marxism as the ideology best suited to liberate mankind.” When Stalin died he shared in the general mourning. He could explain this in retrospect only by the hypnotic power of mass ideology: he knew quite enough about the crimes that had been committed to pass judgment on those responsible, but “somewhere at the back of my mind the idea existed, instilled by propaganda, that suffering is inevitable during great historical upheavals. ‘When you chop wood, the chips fly.’”

In the physics department at Moscow University, where he enrolled in 1938, he immediately distinguished himself by his brilliance. After spending the war as an engineer in a munitions factory, he was admitted as a graduate student to the Physics Institute of the Academy of Sciences under the direction of the renowned Igor Tamm. His passion for atomic physics reached its height at that period: “I felt like the messenger of the gods,” he writes about reporting on the latest developments in science at Tamm’s seminars.

When in 1948 he was assigned to work on the Soviet hydrogen bomb project, his awareness of the terrifying nature of the weapon he would be building gave him no qualms. With the fervent patriotism of the war generation, he and his colleagues were convinced that their work was essential to ensure that the sacrifices of their devastated country would not have to be repeated: “I regarded myself as a soldier in this new scientific war.”

The Soviet weapons complex in Turkmenia in which he worked occupied an expanse the size of a city and was encircled with barbed wire. The local peasants had an explanation for what was going on behind the wire: “a test model of Communism.” The scientific community Sakharov joined there certainly came close to the Bolshevik model of single-minded dedication. He recalls that their isolation, the sense of national urgency, the intellectual fascination of the work, and the material privileges they enjoyed along with government honors and awards all combined to create an atmosphere of fierce concentration on a single goal. Although they were kept informed of pivotal events such as Khrushchev’s speech denouncing Stalin at the Twentieth Party Congress, the rest of the world was still “far away, somewhere beyond the two barbed-wire fences.”

All that changed on August 12, 1953, the day of the first test of Russia’s hydrogen bomb. Arriving in advance at the test site, Sakharov had discovered that one huge factor had been overlooked: “We had all been so busy preparing the device, organizing the test, and performing calculations that we had simply lost sight of the fallout problem.” Delay was impermissible; the only alternative was a hasty evacuation of the tens of thousands of Ka-zakhs who would be downwind, an operation in which casualties would be inevitable. This forced Sakharov for the first time to confront the human and moral implications of his work. A subsequent test left him with a sense of complicity in the deaths of a soldier and a little girl left behind in the danger zone. He began to calculate the probable number of deaths by fallout over generations and arrived at the staggering figure of ten thousand for each megaton tested. He now regarded all testing in the atmosphere as “a crime against humanity, no different from secretly pouring disease-producing microbes into a city’s water supply.” His pressure on the leadership to discontinue tests enraged Khrushchev, but eventually contributed to the 1963 test ban treaty signed by Kennedy and Khrushchev.

Sakharov was again in favor with the Soviet establishment, but not for long. The following year at a meeting of the Academy of Sciences he spoke against the election of a close associate of Trofim Lysenko, the biologist whose fraudulent theory of heredity, backed by Stalin, had led to a purge of geneticists in the late 1940s. Sakharov urged his fellow academicians not to vote for a man who shared responsibility for the shameful backwardness of Soviet biology, “the defamation, firing, arrest, even death, of many genuine scientists.” Amid uproar, the candidate was roundly rejected. Khrushchev was so incensed that he threatened to shut the academy down—Sakharov, he said, was “poking his nose in again where it doesn’t belong.”

Sakharov saw his intervention as part of a process involving the Soviet intelligentsia as a whole, a process he characterized with a quotation from Chekhov: “We are squeezing the slave out of ourselves drop by drop.” The mid-Sixties were a turning point in his life, as his awareness of the reality of individual responsibility led him logically to the defense of individual rights.

As Soviet policy hardened under Brezhnev, the open dissent unleashed by Khrushchev’s criticism of Stalin’s reign became a concerted opposition to a return to Stalinism. Now back at the Institute of Physics in Moscow (he had been banished from the weapons laboratory after the publication of “Reflections”), Sakharov began to fill out his picture of the Stalin era from a wide variety of samizdat sources, including Roy Medvedev’s Let History Judge. In December 1966 he attended the first of what was to become an annual event: a demonstration in Pushkin Square at which a minute’s silence was observed as a sign of respect for the Soviet Constitution and solidarity with political prisoners. During the next two decades he lent the aura of his name to a succession of appeals on issues ranging from the treatment of political prisoners to the despoliation of Lake Baikal; and he initiated protests of his own.

  1. 1

    See Andrei Sakharov, Memoirs, translated from the Russian by Richard Lourie (Knopf, 1990); Andrei Sakharov, Moscow and Beyond: 1986 to 1989, translated by Antonina Bouis (Knopf, 1991).

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