Andrei Sakharov had two brilliant careers, as the physicist who led the development of the Soviet Union’s hydrogen bomb and as head of the Human Rights Committee, in which role he and his second wife, Elena Bonner, sought to defend individuals against Soviet injustice and cruelty. Richard Lourie has written a comprehensive, detailed, and well-written account of this great man’s arduous life. Sometimes, to be sure, Lourie manages to lose the larger meaning of his subject’s activities in the overwhelming detail of his innumerable struggles. On the whole, however, he has written a valuable biography of a wholly admirable man.
Sakharov’s father, Dmitri, was reared in an intellectual and musical environment and became a physicist. He married Katya Sofiano in July, 1918, a time when British and French troops landed at Murmansk and sought to extirpate Bolshevism by supplying the opposing White Army with advisors and tanks. Andrei was born in 1921, during a time of extreme hunger for most Russians, with even cases of cannibalism occurring. His parents brought him up in an atmosphere that venerated both Russian and Western European culture as well as hard work, modesty, courtesy, and humanitarianism. Like his father, he was shy and lacked physical grace but early on showed great intellectual and imaginative powers. At seventeen, he enrolled in Moscow University’s physics department, soon exhibiting a lightning-fast mind which flashed from point to point, omitting many linkages as too obvious to state. In his spare time, he avidly read the poetry of Aleksandr Pushkin (1799-1837), while avoiding social gatherings.
His quantum mechanics professor asked Sakharov, when he graduated in 1942, whether he would like to stay at the university as a graduate student in theoretical physics. However, Sakharov felt he should be contributing directly to the war effort and was assigned as an engineer to a munitions factory in the Volga town of Ulyanovsk. There he met a chemist, Klava Vikhereva, to whom he proposed in writing after a year’s friendship. They were married in 1943.
In late 1944, Sakharov’s father asked the great physicist Igor Tamm to consider his son for the graduate program at the prestigious Physics Institute of the Academy of Sciences; after a three-and-a-half-hour talk, Tamm accepted Sakharov as a student. In November, 1947, Sakharov received his doctorate but continued working for Tamm. Then, in June, 1948, Tamm invited him and another protegé to join a newly formed group that would explore the feasibility of building a nuclear weapon. Sakharov would work extremely long hours, including mandatory meetings at the Kremlin that usually lasted until 4 a.m. Still, he considered his labors a patriotic duty to his country, which had lost twenty-seven million lives in World War II and had no atomic weapons while, in 1948, the United States had fifty-six. However, Sakharov refused to join the Communist Party, citing his misgivings about the “arrest of innocent people and the excesses of the collectivization campaign.”
In 1950, Sakharov joined a Soviet weapons complex in Turkmenia, the Installation, a small city encircled with barbed wire. Tamm and Sakharov formed a close friendship akin to a father-and-son intimacy, with both careful to express their anti- Soviet opinions only on walks in the surrounding woods. By 1952, Joseph Stalin had initiated a corrosive anti-Semitic campaign which deeply disturbed Sakharov, who had many Jewish friends in the Installation. On November 1, 1952, the United States exploded its first hydrogen-based thermonuclear bomb. This naturally raised the work tension at the Installation. In March, 1953, Stalin died, whether of natural causes or of poisoning by his security chief, Lavrenty Beria, is impossible to prove. Sakharov, to his later regret, mourned the death of a “great man.” On August 12, 1953, Sakharov’s group successfully exploded Russia’s first hydrogen bomb. Sakharov was hailed by politicians as “the savior of Russia” and elected to the Academy of Sciences, at thirty- two the youngest academician to be inducted.
Sakharov began to worry about the human consequences of fallout from the testing of nuclear bombs. In 1957, he put his findings in a published and then widely reprinted article: There would be ten thousand deaths for each megaton tested; no “clean bomb,” eliminating fallout, was possible. After a de facto moratorium on nuclear testing for several years, Nikita Krushchev ordered its resumption in 1961. Sakharov wrote Krushchev a note that such a move would jeopardize test ban negotiations and world peace; Krushchev responded at a...
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