At the center of Andrei Sakharov’s life lies a paradox. Known for decades as the moral and intellectual leader of the liberal dissidents in the Soviet Union, he was also the “father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb.” For Sakharov, developing the hydrogen bomb represented the highest kind of scientific challenge and an opportunity to do “superb physics.” “The physics of atomic and thermonuclear explosions,” he observed, “is a genuine theoretician’s paradise.”
Yet, it was more than theoretical physics that attracted Sakharov to the development of nuclear weapons. In the early phase of his research, he believed deeply in the principle of nuclear parity: he was convinced that approximate equality between the nuclear superpowers was essential for deterrence, and thus peace. In later years, he increasingly focused on the dangers of nuclear age rivalry. His 1968 book Razmyishleniya o progresse, mirnom sosushchestvovanii i intellektuyal ’ noy svobode (Progress, Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom, 1970), which coincided with the liberal reform in Czechoslovakia known as the Prague Spring, called for rapprochement between the superpowers and advocated human rights and pluralistic societies.
By his own admission, Sakharov’s career in nuclear physics troubled him in certain respects. He knew the risks, both to the environment and human life, that nuclear energy posed. The “appalling danger” of nuclear war was very real to him, and he thought “long and hard … about ways to avert it.” That aspect of his work brought him the 1975 Nobel Prize for Peace; in his acceptance lecture, “Peace, Progress, Human Rights,” he stated the triad of concerns that defined his later career. In several works between 1968 and the mid-1980’s, Sakharov spoke out in behalf of world peace and the convergence of socialist and capitalist systems. He also founded, along with fellow physicists Andrei Tverdokhlebov and Valery Chalidze, the Human Rights Committee (1970), which was persecuted for its human rights advocacy despite its efforts to stay within the limits of Soviet law.
Sakharov carried with him through life the seminal influences of his childhood and adolescence. The son of Dmitri and Ekaterina Sofiano Sakharov, he was born on May 21, 1921, just as civil war was ending and Vladimir II ich Lenin was implementing the liberal New Economic Policy. Andrei’s father was a physicist and writer whose publications were the major source of the family’s income. Sakharov long remembered his father’s influence in shaping his own interest in science, as well as his values. It was from him, Sakharov notes, that he learned the value of moderation in life. His mother was also quite influential in the development of his values, particularly by her devotion and faith: but Sakharov never internalized the religious experience she exemplified. When he was writing his memoirs, he still had mixed feelings about religion: He respected sincere, believing people but was repelled by the “many instances of bigotry, hypocrisy, money- grubbing, and blatant disregard for human suffering” which he saw in some avowed believers.
Sakharov was both precocious and persistent in his educational odyssey. After learning to read at age foui; he progressed through elementary and secondary schools during the difficult 1930’s as Joseph Stalin consolidated his dictatorship. Like all other Soviet youth, Sakharov was taught the basics of Marxism-Leninism, but his first love was science. At the time, he had no major ideological problem with Marxist theory. “[lit never entered my head,” he wrote, “to question Marxism as the ideology best suited to liberate mankind, and materialism too seemed a reasonable philosophy.” What bothered him most was “the attempt to carry over the outmoded concepts of natural philosophy into the twentieth century (the age of exact science) without amendment.” He disliked what sometimes became scientific chicanery and the polemical thrust of such works as Das Kapital(1867; Das Kapital, 1909) and Lenin’s Materialism i empiriokritisism (1920; Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, 1925).
When World War II began in 1939, Sakharov was in his second year of studying physics at Moscow University. The collapse of the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact in 1941 brought the war into the Soviet Union. Adolf Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa unleashed blitzkrieg attacks on Leningrad, Moscow, and the Ukraine. Sakharov’s senior year was thus markedly different from the first three. Along with all Moscow University students, Sakharov was evacuated to Ashkhabad, where he finished his undergraduate studies. For the duration of the war, he was involved in the military struggle against Nazi Germany. He helped handle military equipment, used his scientific knowledge to make a magnetic probe to locate shrapnel in injured horses, and joined an air defense unit that helped extinguish fires caused by incendiary bombs. For more than two years, he worked in a munitions plant at Ulyanovsk,...
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