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.

In 1970 he became a co-founder of the Human Rights Committee, whose aims were to study and publicize violations of human rights in the Soviet Union. He prefaced one of his essays with a quotation from Martin Luther King: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” This was a conscious rejection of the collectivist ethic of his youth. A KGB general named Pavlov assigned to the bomb project had once reassured him that the loss of life through the tests counted for nothing beside the happiness of billions which the triumph of communism over its enemies would bring; but he now knew that this reliance on “the abstract arithmetic of history” made neither moral nor scientific sense. “I believe that the future is unpredictable and indeterminate; it is created by all of us, step by step, in our endless, complex interactions.” This was why the role of an individual whom chance had singled out at some crucial moment in history was so important. His own responsibility to speak out on public issues was reinforced, he believed, by the part he had played in making the bomb.

He summed up his philosophy of life with a quotation from Goethe’s Faust: “He alone is worthy of life and freedom/ Who each day does battle for them anew!” This had been commonly cited by Russian radicals as a call to revolution, but Sakharov took it to say that the meaning of life lies in its daily routine, “which demands its own form of unobtrusive heroism.” The battle for progress he had in mind was gradual-ist and nonviolent, waged mainly through individual example. It was largely for this reason that he condemned the cowardly conformism of his colleagues in the Academy of Sciences. Forty academicians had signed a letter in Pravda denouncing his “Reflections”; the others had remained silent about his subsequent treatment. Yet an open statement by a few respected figures might have changed his situation and, more important, have had a positive effect on the country as a whole. As he once wrote, “Only by setting an example of humane conduct today can we instill the hope that it may someday be achieved.” This was why time he could have given to science was devoted to writing innumerable appeals and statements on public issues. Although these went unanswered by the officials to whom they were addressed, he saw them as a means of educating the public at large—and there was always the hope that the publicity might shame the authorities into action.

This happened one morning in 1970, when Sakharov went to an international symposium at the Institute of Genetics. Before the session began he walked to the blackboard and wrote an announcement that he was collecting signatures in defense of the biochemist Zhores Medvedev, who had been forcibly and illegally placed in a psychiatric hospital for his writings (his punishment for attacking the Lysenkoites). Alarmed by the publicity, the authorities allowed Sakharov to make his case at a meeting at the Ministry of Health. Medvedev was released a fortnight later (although a suggestion was made to Sakharov that he might himself be in need of psychiatric treatment as a person suffering from “obsessive reformist delusions”).

Sakharov’s emphasis on the responsibility of individuals toward all other individuals made him uneasy with the use of the term “movement,” with its connotation of a collective political platform, to describe Soviet dissident activity. But he was aware that many who opposed the Soviet regime did not share his view, and his memoirs recall the changes in their attitudes. In the early 1970s the dissenters had been “young in spirit and pure of heart”; but subsequently people began to separate themselves into categories such as “Christians,” “Zionists,” or “human rights activists.” He ceased attending the traditional silent gathering on Pushkin Square: “I’d never been all that enthusiastic about these demonstrations, which smacked of ‘revolutionary’ party rallies, and I disliked the role of ‘opposition leader’ into which I was thrust.”

He found a more appropriate practical expression of his philosophy when he and Elena Bonner became increasingly involved in individual cases of injustice and cruelty. They began regularly to attend political trials—not in the hope of influencing the verdict, but to show solidarity with the accused and their families and to act as a conduit of information. This hugely time-consuming and often dangerous enterprise took a heavy toll on their fragile health. Many of the trials were held in remote cities, and the difficulties of travel were magnified by active obstruction from the authorities. On two occasions they exchanged blows with police and KGB who were attempting to prevent the families of the accused from entering the court. Most of those to whom they gave support were not high-profile dissidents, but obscure victims of institutionalized cruelty and malevolence. They included Volga Germans and Jews, persecuted because of their efforts to emigrate, and Crimean Tatars, for whom Sakharov had a passionate concern as victims of an act of genocide. They had been deported eastward by Stalin for alleged collaboration with the German army of occupation; nearly half the population had perished as a result. “Rehabilitated” by Khrushchev at the Twentieth Party Congress, they had been trying to get home ever since.

A number of cases involved religious freedom. Sakharov and Bonner once flew to Tashkent to attend the trial of the eighty-three-year-old head of the Church of Seventh-Day Adventists, who had already served twenty-five years in prison, along with four of his fellow believers. The involvement of the Sakharovs did not end in the courtroom: when a German metalworker, most of whose relatives had died in prison, received permission to emigrate, Sakharov accompanied him to the station to “share in the joy of victory” with a farewell toast in champagne.

As Lourie comments, “Tartars, Jews, ethnic Germans, nationalists of every stripe, priests and sectarians, urban intellectuals” had found one overall defender to whom they could turn. Sakharov was swamped by letters from desperate people appealing for help. Strangers appeared on his doorstep with stories that were horribly similar: relatives executed by Stalin, false charges followed by decades in camps. He and Bonner could do nothing for most of them but never stopped trying. From the start of their married life in 1972, their efforts to right some injustice would constantly oblige them, as he wrote, “to rush off somewhere, to sit up typing until four in the morning, to argue with some official until we became hoarse.” During his exile in Gorky, Bonner’s trips to Moscow kept him informed of new arrests and trials; in his appeals to the Soviet government and the world at large he made a point of mentioning each individual name.

His view that every case of injustice had its own absolute claim to attention brought him into conflict with other dissidents. When the physicist Andrei Tverdokhlebov, a co-founder of the Committee of Human Rights and a friend, was tried in Moscow, Sakharov was in Omsk, attending the trial of the Crimean Tartar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev. He reasoned that Tverdokhlebov’s trial would be well attended and reported by foreign correspondents, while Dzhemilov was a leader of a small people, being tried in a distant city. The KGB chief Yuri Andropov reported to his masters that this decision caused a “negative reaction” among Sakharov’s friends.

Disapproval turned to outright condemnation when in 1981 Sakharov and Bonner began a hunger strike to protest the refusal of permission for Liza, the wife of Bonner’s son, to join him in the US. Sakharov notes in his memoirs that he had spoken out many times over the previous decade on the freedom to choose one’s country of residence as a fundamental right. In 1971 the plight of Jewish and German refuseniks, together with some tragic incidents at the Berlin Wall, had moved him to appeal to the Supreme Soviet to respect the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by granting Soviet citizens this “essential condition of spiritual freedom.” When this freedom was refused to a person for whom they felt a direct responsibility, he and Bonner felt it morally imperative to take action. Their protests met with wide support from Western leaders and public figures, but not from their fellow dissidents, few of whom seemed to understand that they were battling for freedom in general, “and not just for Liza’s exit visa.”

Solzhenitsyn’s wife had disparaged their concerns over their children, exhorting them to think instead about the Russian people. Now a dissident whom Sakharov had himself defended maintained that the young couple’s right “to argue, to make up, to fall into bed” should not be bought at the cost of a great man’s suffering. Sakharov sensed that such people regarded him as a means to an end, rather than a human being. They cited “my importance to science, or the cause of peace, or something else equally abstract and ‘grand.’” One telegram urged him to “stop and to sacrifice private interest for the general good.”

What totalitarian thinking!” This remark of Sakharov’s breaks through his habitual reticence about his differences with people whose courage he greatly admired. The resemblance of the arguments of some of Sakharov’s critics to the reasoning of General Pavlov and others of his kind was too strong: when you chop wood, the chips fly. Those critics represented a throwback to the old intelligentsia tradition according to which the cause always takes absolute precedence over individual rights—even when the cause is individual rights. Moreover, the right that Sakharov was defending ran counter to a collectivist ethos deep in the intelligentsia’s psyche. He observed that he and Bonner had met with no objection when they had undertaken a hunger strike on behalf of Vladimir Bukovsky and others imprisoned for championing the right to freedom of expression. But many saw the desire of Russians (and particularly Jews) to emigrate as a betrayal of civic duty or a lack of patriotism, often expressing their criticism in language with unpleasant echoes of official anti-Semitism. Sakharov was deeply wounded by Solzhenitsyn’s public assertion that Bonner had led him to play “the emigration tune” at the expense of more important issues, and support people (such as the ninety Jews who addressed a written appeal to the US Congress) “who did not feel that Russia was their own country.”

Sakharov’s memoirs leave no doubt that he saw the defense of the right to emigrate as the touchstone of a view of freedom that separated him from many other opponents of the Soviet system; but this fact does not emerge with the same clarity from Lourie’s biography. Spiced with well-chosen quotations from the memoirs and enlivened with a strong sense of the dramatic, Lourie’s book is a very readable account of an extraordinary life, but we are left with only fragmentary insights into the vision that inspired it. A notable flaw in this respect is the lack of any discussion of Sakharov’s public polemic with Solzhenitsyn, which was set off by the latter’s Letter to the Soviet Leaders of 1973.

The Letter and Sakharov’s response were both published in the West, where it surprised many that the two figures who had come most to symbolize resistance to Communist tyranny differed profoundly in their views of the kind of society that should replace it.2 Lourie makes no mention of this debate, perhaps because he has already briefly characterized the participants in describing the clash of personalities at their first meeting in 1968. “It would,” he wrote, “be difficult to imagine two more perfect embodiments of the Westernizer and the Slavophil, the rational, progressive humanist and the defender of the faith that was Russia.” These simplistic images are often used to define the differences between the two, but (as one study of their polemic has remarked) they caricature a complex reality.3 Sakharov’s memoirs are the best source on what he describes as the “profound and critical issues” which forced him to go public with his differences with Solzhenitsyn.

Part indictment, part programmatic statement, Solzhenitsyn’s Letter contended that Marxist dogma was merely a particularly noxious expression of the spiritual emptiness that drove the West’s obsession with material progress. He contended that Russia’s moral rebirth would be best achieved under an authoritarian system with a strong foundation in national tradition and the Orthodox Church, which would set the country on a non-Western path of development through the creation of distinctively Russian cities in the undeveloped Northeast.

In his memoirs Sakharov emphasizes that he and Solzhenitsyn were not diametrically opposed; he too had called attention to the West’s “lack of concerted action, its dangerous illusions, the factional gamesmanship, shortsightedness, selfishness, and cowardice displayed by some of its politicians, its vulnerability to subversion of every sort.” On the other hand, the West’s lack of unity, which Solzheni-tsyn so deplored, “is the price it pays for the pluralism, freedom and respect for individuals that constitute the sources of strength and flexibility for any society.” He opposed Solzheni-tsyn’s religious nationalism on the ground that religion should be a private matter. (On the same subject he came closest to self-revelation when he once declared himself “unable to imagine the universe and human life without some guiding principle, without a source of spiritual ‘warmth’ that is non-material and not bound by physical laws.”)

The fundamental conflict between the two men was on a question that had divided Russian intellectuals since pre-Soviet times: the value of individual freedom. As Sakharov observed, Solzhenitsyn feared that concentration on human rights might divert attention from more important matters. He had described freedom as “a gift of conditional, not intrinsic, worth, only a means by which we can attain another and higher goal.”4 This collectivist and future-minded vision of liberty had a long history in Russian thought: it had been held both by revolutionary utopians and by religious romantics such as the Slavophiles. Sakharov’s rejection of it places him in an opposing tradition of Russian humanists, which included early-twentieth-century liberals such as Pyotr Struve and Semyon Frank.

He notes that Solzhenitsyn’s entire conception rests on the belief that the salvation of the Russian people lies through the replacement of Marxism by a different, healthy, ideology. There was little new about its content: enthusiasm for the development of virgin lands was a feature of recent Russian history, and the appeal to patriotism was “straight out of the arsenal of semiofficial propaganda.” Solzheni-tsyn’s idyll of a return to Russia’s patriarchal past romanticized what Sakharov saw as the greatest of their country’s historical misfortunes; a “servile, slavish spirit combined with a scorn for people of other countries, other races, and other beliefs.” Solzhenitsyn’s program was more myth-making than a real project,” but no less dangerous for that. “We know from history that the ‘ideologues’ were always milder than the practical politicians who came after them.”

It is a strange irony that the father of the H-bomb felt the need to remind the ex-prisoner of the Gulag of the price that great synoptic visions exact in human lives, pointing out that in his antipathy to material progress Solzhenitsyn ignored the better life it offered to millions by tempering racial and regional conflicts, minimizing inequalities and bringing relief from hunger and disease. Solzhenitsyn’s dream of transforming the vast Northeast without using large-scale technology reminded Sakharov of the many grandiose projects of the tsarist and Soviet past that had been built on Russian bones.

In the decade since his death, some of Sakharov’s forebodings have been realized, as politicians of the far left and right such as Gennadii Zhuganov and Vladimir Zhirinovsky preach nostalgia for Stalinism, hostility to parliamentarism, and a hysterical xenophobia. Some of those who knew Sakharov best believe that if he had been granted a few more years he would have developed into a brilliant politician who could have united the country in a movement toward democracy. The theme of what might have been dominates Lourie’s attempt at a final summing up of Sakharov’s achievements and failures as a scientist and political activist. Some scientists believe that his role in developing the peaceful uses of fusion power may in the long term prove his most significant contribution; but his scientific work is inevitably judged against a standard of what he might have achieved if not for his work on nuclear weapons and human rights. Lourie observes that his importance in the transformation of his country is also unclear: “To ask whether it would have happened without him is as imponderable as asking whether communism would have been different without Lenin and Stalin.”

Readers of Lourie’s biography might be left with a sense of disappointment that so great and so good a man did not make a more dramatic and lasting impact on Russia and the world. But this was not how he himself ever saw his role. His humanistic opposition to revolution and the intransigence of right and left expressed what the Russian left used to call contemptuously the philosophy of “small deeds,” which would never bring about the transformation of mankind. But Sakharov believed that the doers of small deeds were his country’s only hope:

The grandeur of Russia’s history, the Orthodox religious revival, our role in revolutionary internationalism may well seem unreal illusion when we contemplate today’s Russia, but sparks of simple humanity and compassion for others and a thirst for spiritual fulfilment have not yet been utterly extinguished. Will anything come of them? For the nation as a whole, I have no idea, but is that so important? On the personal plane, I am certain that so long as there are people, the sparks will glow.

It can be argued that Sakharov’s greatest achievement was his role in keeping these sparks alive in Soviet Russia. There can be no better tribute to him than the lines by the poet Pushkin inscribed on the base of the statue in the square where Sakharov made his first public stand in defense of human rights:

And long by the people will I be loved/For I have struck the chords of kindness/And sung freedom’s praise in this cruel age,/Calling for mercy to be shown the fallen.

  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).

  2. 2

    See Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Letter to the Soviet Leaders, translated by Hilary Sternberg (Harper and Row, 1974), and Sakharov, “In Answer to Solzhenitsyn,” The New York Review, June 13, 1974.

  3. 3

    See Donald P. Kelley, “The Solzhenitsyn–Sakharov Dialogue: Politics, Society, and the Future,” Contributions in Political Science, No. 74 (Greenwood Press, 1982), pp. ix–x.

  4. 4

    As Breathing and Consciousness Return” (written in 1969, updated in 1973) in From Under the Rubble (Little, Brown, 1975), p. 18.