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 …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.