Commentary Magazine


Sakharov by Richard Lourie

Sakharov: A Biography
by Richard Lourie
Brandeis. 453 pp. $30.00

In the West, Andrei Sakharov is rightly considered one of the greatest Russians of the last century. A brilliant physicist who played a central role in developing the Soviet Union’s hydrogen bomb in the early 1950’s, he subsequently became a prominent critic of internal Soviet repression and external Soviet expansionism. The Communist regime persecuted him, but he courageously persevered in his struggle for human rights and freedom of speech and in 1975 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Since Sakharov’s death in 1989 there have been no obstacles to interviewing people in Russia who knew him, and most archival material is accessible. And yet until now there has not been a biography in English. So there is special reason to be grateful to Richard Lourie, who has not only filled the gap but given us a vivid portrait of this moral and intellectual giant.

Lourie is a translator from Russian, the author of a book about Andrei Chikatilo, Russia’s worst serial killer, as well as a novel about Joseph Stalin, Russia’s worst mass murderer. While inquiring into the nature of radical evil, Lourie, who spent significant periods of time living in the Soviet Union, also sought the company of those who were resisting it. Many dissidents became his close friends, and he in turn helped them in their struggle, including by smuggling their manuscripts to the West. The KGB bestowed a badge of honor on him by briefly arresting him.

In this connection Lourie also got to know Sakharov and Elena Bonner, the physicist’s second wife and indomitable partner in political opposition. He translated Sakharov’s memoirs (1990) and has spared no effort in researching this biography, paying careful attention along the way to the broader canvas of the Russian tragedy in the 20th century. Indeed, the country itself emerges as the book’s second hero—less admirable than Sakharov but no less fascinating.

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Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov was born in Moscow in 1921 at a moment when Russia was still recovering from the ravages of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and the subsequent civil war, events that, together with epidemics and famine, had taken some 15 million lives. His mother, the daughter of a czarist general and a graduate of a school for aristocratic young ladies, had quickly adapted her impractical education to modern times by becoming a teacher of gymnastics. His father was a physicist and a typical member of the Russian intelligentsia who conversed about poetry, philosophy, and music while struggling to survive and find food for his family. A successful teacher and popularizer of science, he lacked the aptitude for original research, but his exceptionally gifted “Andrusha” became his best pupil, who he hoped would one day realize the father’s larger ambitions.

In high school and university, Andrei Sakharov immediately began to do just that, distinguishing himself in mathematics and physics. Former schoolmates recall to this day how he solved the most difficult problems with astonishing speed and in ways that were often incomprehensible, even mysterious. The young Sakharov emerges from Lourie’s portrait as a true scientific genius, one who would have made a major contribution to his beloved field of theoretical physics had he not been impelled instead to become a maker of bombs.

Harder to discern in the young Sakharov was the future dissident who would openly challenge the leaders of one of history’s most powerful and tyrannical empires. True, he did develop a strong sense of duty toward society and an indifference toward material success. And true, he was repelled by injustice: though physically weak (he had inherited a heart condition from his father) and clumsy (he never learned to swim or dance), he did not fear schoolyard bullies and stoically endured the deprivations of the 1930’s. But many other schoolmates and fellow students possessed similar virtues, and none of them became a heroic rebel.

Neither, for a long time, did Sakharov himself. As a student he read the compulsory works by Marx and Lenin and was utterly bored by their primitive scientific concepts and simplistic theories. Still, he believed that the socialism being constructed in the Soviet Union was the wave of the future, for both Russia and the world. Though Sakharov never joined the Communist youth organization or became a member of the party, that was primarily, as he himself would later acknowledge, “for reasons of inertia.”

After a period of stunningly innovative work in a munitions factory during the war, Sakharov returned to theoretical physics, only to be commandeered into nuclear-weapons research in 1948. Although not asked for his consent, Sakharov had no objections. He believed that the security of his country, which still lacked atomic weapons, could be ensured only through parity with the United States, which at that time already had some 56 bombs in its arsenal. Like most of his colleagues he worked toward this end with what he himself would later call “total absorption.”

Russia’s bomb makers inhabited a strange world ruled by Lavrenti Beria, Stalin’s merciless chief of the secret police, the NKVD (later renamed the KGB). Their facilities were located in the middle of vast tracts of untamed land, surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards; wolves howled at night from the dense forests. Political prisoners—“long lines of men in quilted jackets, guard dogs at their heels,” Sakharov later recollected—were used for construction and for mining uranium. Every scrap of paper on which something had been written was considered top secret by the ubiquitous NKVD, which put locks everywhere and ensured that the names of neighboring towns were removed from published maps of the Soviet Union.

Sakharov had several original ideas that led to a breakthrough in designing the hydrogen bomb. (Thanks largely to espionage, the Soviet Union had gotten the A-bomb in 1949.) On August 12, 1953, less than a year after the Americans successfully tested a thermonuclear weapon, the Soviets conducted their own successful test at a site in Kazakhstan. Igor Kurchatov, the chief of Soviet nuclear research, bowed to Sakharov on the spot and called him “the savior of Russia.” In the same year, he was named a full member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences—at thirty-two, the youngest recipient of that honor in history. Medals and prizes followed, and Sakharov’s life became, by Soviet standards, luxurious: a chauffeur-driven limousine, access to shops with Western goods, free holidays in resorts reserved for the party elite. He was also happily married and a devoted (though often absent and absent-minded) father to three children.

But amidst the accolades and triumphs he was also developing doubts about the Soviet system. When Stalin died in March 1953, Sakharov’s reaction was one of sorrow: “I am thinking of his humanity.” Yet he could not forget what he had heard from older colleagues—the terrible truth about the pre-war collectivization of the peasants and the sweeping purges of the party, about concentration camps and execution dungeons. Meeting Beria face to face, he felt he was in the presence of a “terrifying human being.”

Thus, when Nikita Khrushchev began his de-Stalinization campaign in the second half of the 1950’s, Sakharov wholeheartedly supported it. He even began a campaign of his own—to defend science, “a keystone of civilization,” from party coercion and from charlatans supported by ideologues. Genetics, in particular, had suffered under Stalin, with many scientists sent to camps or killed for defending modern Mendelian genetics against the Stalin-sponsored quack, Trofim Lysenko. Sakharov played an important role in convincing the party to return the laboratories to genuine scientists and allow them to establish contacts with colleagues in the West.

Sakharov’s main concern in this period, however, was with the radiation released into the atmosphere during nuclear testing. For each megaton exploded, he calculated, some 10,000 people would die of cancer in the future, never knowing why. In 1961 he wrote to Khrushchev demanding an end to tests, on the grounds that they did not provide any new scientific data and could jeopardize disarmament and world peace.

With this letter Sakharov moved directly into the arena of Soviet foreign policy, an exclusive preserve of the party leadership. Khrushchev rejected his appeal and made it very clear that he had incurred official displeasure. But thanks to Sakharov’s continuous scientific successes and the party leader’s streak of decency, good relations were restored. Two years later the United States and the Soviet Union signed a treaty banning atmospheric testing, a life-saving agreement for which Sakharov deserved a significant share of the credit.

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In 1964, Leonid Brezhnev overthrew Khrushchev in a Kremlin coup. Over the course of the next two decades, Sakharov publicly protested the resurgence of Stalinism and the crippling censorship, calling for complete freedom of discussion and the free flow of information from the West. Imprisoned dissidents and their families could always count on him to sign petitions on their behalf. He also raised his voice for free Jewish emigration to Israel and for the return of the Crimean Tatars, expelled by Stalin to Siberia. He campaigned as well for protection of the environment and for an end to the death penalty.

Sakharov knew from the beginning that he would have to pay a price for giving voice to his conscience. By 1968 the KGB had put him under regular surveillance, and he slowly began to be stripped of his high positions in the scientific establishment. Many colleagues and friends avoided him. But he was not alone. Although his first wife, Klava, had died from cancer, he found companionship, loyalty, and support among fellow dissidents—”free thinkers” was the term he preferred—at least half of whom were mathematicians or scientists like himself.

Sakharov also became a writer of samizdat. His typed and retyped essays on the need for democratic reform circulated widely among the critical Soviet intelligentsia and soon found their way into the hands of the Western media and publishing houses. In its internal memoranda, the KGB referred to Sakharov as “Public Enemy No. 1” and sent him barely concealed “anonymous” death threats.

By the late 1970’s he had become internationally famous and admired—not only the winner of a Nobel Prize but a recipient of international awards for human rights. Yet it was also becoming increasingly clear to him that the West was not about to modify its policy of détente with Brezhnev’s regime or make any sacrifices in order to promote fundamental change in the USSR. Though increasingly pessimistic about the possibilities of such change, he never considered giving up the struggle.

Then, in December 1979, the USSR invaded Afghanistan. In interviews with Western media, Sakharov denounced the move as “expansionism” and demanded the immediate withdrawal of Soviet forces. Within a month, and without any legal process, Brezhnev had him and his second wife, Elena Bonner, exiled to Gorky, a center of military industry that was off-limits to foreigners.

On Bonner’s advice, Sakharov made good use of the isolation to write his memoirs. KGB agents twice stole his manuscript, causing him immense grief, but Sakharov refused, as he put it, to allow them “to rob me of my memory,” and each time started again from scratch. Ultimately, the completed memoirs were smuggled to the West and published.

In telling the story of his life, Sakharov did not try to conceal any of his former political illusions. But he differed from many other disenchanted believers in Soviet-style Communism by declining to indulge in soul-searching or self-flagellation. Nor did he speak of the Soviet leaders who were persecuting him with hatred or bitterness. He was, and came across as, a true man of the Enlightenment: serene and rational, turned toward the future and ready for pragmatic conciliation so long as it did not involve moral compromise.

During the years of solitude and struggle in Gorky, Elena Bonner repeatedly demonstrated both her devotion to her husband and her own fighting spirit. When Sakharov first met this dark, handsome woman in 1970, she was a pediatrician, a divorced mother of two, and a veteran supporter of political prisoners. Possessed of a fiery temper, she could also be a more adroit political tactician than her cerebral and other-worldly husband. Since, formally, Sakharov alone had been banished, she was able to travel to Moscow, acting as an efficient and resourceful courier of his writings and messages.

Bonner’s father was Armenian and her mother Jewish, facts emphasized in the regime’s propaganda, which insinuated that she was unpatriotic and a bad influence on the supposedly naive Sakharov. She was also out of favor among the more conservative and nationalist dissidents, the great Alexander Solzhenitsyn included. But they misunderstood the relationship between Sakharov and her, which was not primarily political. At heart it was as Bonner herself defined it: an “incredible, unimaginable human closeness that fate has bestowed upon Andrei and me.”

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In Gorky, Sakharov sometimes felt “like a mouse in a glass jar from which the air is gradually pumped.” Though slim and frail, he went on several hunger strikes, the first time succeeding in gaining an exit-visa for Bonner’s persecuted daughter-in-law. In another strike, Sakharov tried to prevent continued KGB interrogations of his wife, but was bound and force-fed in a painful and degrading way. Such battles made his heart weaker, and his general health deteriorated.

In February 1986, not long after Mikhail Gorbachev ascended to power in the Kremlin, Sakharov wrote him a letter demanding the release of prisoners of conscience. Gorbachev soon allowed the scientist to return to Moscow, and by April of the following year all political prisoners were free. In turn, Sakharov appealed to the West to support the new Soviet leader.

He was under no illusions: Gorbachev’s stabs at change were cautious and limited. But in Soviet circumstances they represented a huge step forward. Nor, in embracing them, did Sakharov halt his own fight for a truly free Russia, even if it often meant clashing with Gorbachev himself. In April 1989 he was elected a member of the new parliament, where he was a frequent and influential speaker in the short interval before his death later that year.

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In Sakharov, Lourie has written a highly intelligent and exceptionally readable book. He not only captures his protagonist admirably but exhibits a fine feel for the social and political backdrop as well as for the peculiar mixture of fearful servility and courageous generosity of the Russian people. Among other things, he vividly brings to life how the Communist regime constrained scientists, sometimes even arresting and murdering them, while those who survived persevered in their work to achieve remarkable results.

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Where lourie falls short is in offering an assessment of Sakharov’s legacy. Did he influence Gorbachev’s initial steps toward liberalization, as some Western scholars contend? Lourie is silent; but it would seem plausible enough that Sakharov’s words, deeds, and suffering did serve to convince many people in the Soviet Union, not excluding members of the Communist party, that the Soviet system was bankrupt, a moral and spiritual dead end, and that democracy was the only way out. Nor, regrettably, does Lourie say a word about the way in which Sakharov and other East European dissidents reminded many people in the West of the crucial importance of the freedoms they enjoyed, took for granted, and often disdained.

Lourie does convincingly argue that Sakharov’s early death at the age of sixty-eight was a great loss for Russia’s democratic reformers, whose natural spokesman he was and whose unifying leader he might have become. Beyond that, it was a loss for humanity—and for how humanity thinks about itself and its place in the universe. For Sakharov, a scientific rationalist and an opponent of all dogma and fanaticism, was in the last years of his life developing a kind of gentle, open-minded religiosity, a belief that there is an inner meaning to nature and that there are spiritual forces not subject to physical laws. In a sense, his whole life was a corroboration of this belief.

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