Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1887
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...
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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 banquet, where he publicly reproved Sakharov for “poking his nose where it doesn’t belong.” Yet Sakharov’s arguments proved instrumental in the successful conclusion of a nuclear test ban treaty negotiated by Krushchev and American president John F. Kennedy in 1963.
In October, 1963, Leonid Brezhnev forced Krushchev to resign his premiership. Much more ideologically rigid than his predecessor, Brezhnev again urged Sakharov to join the Communist Party and was incensed when Sakharov again refused and wrote about “the utter insanity of thermonuclear warfare.” Sakharov spoke out against attempts at re-Stalinization and joined what was to become an annual event: a demonstration at Pushkin Square “to observe a minute of silence out of respect for the [Russian] Constitution and solidarity with political prisoners.” The Komitet Gosudarstvennoi Bezopasnosti (KGB) filmed the proceeding. When he defended the imprisoned writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel, Sakharov was removed as head of the department of theoretical physics and saw his pay reduced by 45 percent.
An advocate of unfettered freedom of discussion, Sakharov in 1968 wrote a long essay, “Reflections on Progress, Co- existence, and Intellectual Freedom,” which enraged both Brezhnev and Yuri Andropov, the KGB chief. Arguing for complete intellectual liberty, Sakharov defended dissident writers, attacked censorship, and attacked Stalinism and Maoism as totalitarian ideologies. He saw a world government as humanity’s best hope. On July 22, 1968, The New York Times published the full text of “Reflections.” In the following year, more than 18 million copies of his essay were printed in book form and circulated throughout the world. He had become world famous, but the KGB had him removed from the Installation.
Thereafter, Sakharov and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn met for the first time, with the writer dominating their talk for over two hours. While the two great men respected each other and agreed in their opposition to Stalinism, they otherwise differed ideologically and temperamentally. Solzhenitsyn was a religious mystic who totally rejected not only communism but also the materialism of the West, instead staking out a Slavophile position that argued for Russia’s moral rebirth as an authoritarian theocracy headed by the Orthodox Church. The soft- spoken Sakharov instead favored pluralism, freedom of expression, human rights, and scientific development.
In the spring of 1969, Sakharov’s wife, Klava, died of inoperable stomach cancer. Her death, as well as his banishment from the Installation, were bitter blows. In May, 1970, two prominent dissenters were forcibly imprisoned in psychiatric institutions: General Piotr Grigorenko, who had publicly criticized Stalin’s military blunders in World War II, and Zhores Medvedev, a biochemist who had written a book discrediting the fraudulent theories of the biologist Trofim Lysenko. Sakharov wrote directly to Premier Brezhnev regarding both men; Medvedev was released in a few weeks, but Grigorenko was not released until four years later, a broken man.
The world of dissident intellectuals included a large proportion of physicists and mathematicians; Sakharov felt comfortable with them and attended an increasing number of trials involving victims of state persecution. He soon met in this company a dark, striking woman who smoked heavily. She was Elena Bonner, the daughter of a Siberian-Jewish mother and an Armenian father, many of whose relatives had been imprisoned by the regime; both her parents had been sent to prison camps in 1937. Elena eventually earned a degree in pediatrics, married, had two children, then divorced. She and Sakharov soon worked together in defense of arrested dissidents. After two years of such camaraderie they married in January, 1972.
Again and again, Sakharov campaigned for the democratization of Soviet society, sometimes expressing his views to foreign journalists. In response, the Kremlin organized a denunciation of him as “highly reactionary” by forty academicians, some of them former colleagues at the Installation. When Elena needed a thyroid operation, the most appropriate surgeon declined, fearing for his career. Meanwhile, Solzhenitsyn, having published the first volume of Arkhipelag GULag, 1918-1956: Opyt khudozhestvennogo issledovaniya (1973-1975; The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, 1974-1978), was deported to Germany. Elena then needed delicate eye surgery and wished to have it done in the United States. Her visa application was refused until her husband began a hunger strike; after three days, her visa was approved.
In 1975, Sakharov was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and declared that he shared “this honor with our prisoners of conscience.” Yuri Andropov, by now his fierce enemy, refused to permit him to leave the Soviet Union to accept the prize; Elena did so for him. Andrei and Elena formed a determined team to defend the human rights of accused Russians, while all but one of their children emigrated to the United States. The Sakharovs attended the trials for such falsely accused people as the physicist Yuri Orlov, Alexander Ginzburg, and Anatoly Shcharansky, publicizing their cases. Exasperated, Andropov had Sakharov stripped of his state awards and exiled to the closed city of Gorky, even though only a court of law was legally empowered to do so.
In Gorky, the KGB monitored the Sakharovs closely and often confiscated their writings. In protest, they went on a hunger strike and, after twelve days, were separated and force-fed. Finally, the KGB yielded and reunited them, but the strain caused Sakharov to have a heart attack, from which it took him a month to recover. Three times the KGB stole the autobiography Sakharov had been writing. After the third theft, it was Bonner’s turn to have a heart attack. In these difficult years, the Sakharovs undertook altogether four hunger strikes, always ended by forced feedings in hospitals. Elena flew abroad to visit their children and, in 1986, to have successful sextuple bypass surgery at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital.
After Mikhail Gorbachev became head of government, he permitted Andrei and Elena to return to Moscow—after 2,500 days of exile. They were welcomed by throngs of supporters and reporters, and Sakharov was given back his old office at the Institute of the Soviet Academy. He participated in science seminars, came to see many foreign leaders, attended international scientific congresses, but kept as his main targets violations of human rights and the peaceful uses of atomic energy. His own energy increasingly failed him; he had become stooped and frail. Visiting President Ronald Reagan, he futilely sought to dissuade him from pursuing a “Star Wars” defense strategy. In 1989 came the prominence of Boris Yeltsin, whose primitive democratic instincts appealed to him. Sakharov was elected to the Congress of People’s Deputies. He opposed the Russian war in Afghanistan as criminal, to no avail. He devoted himself also to writing the second volume of his memoirs and rejoiced when the Berlin Wall came down to sledgehammers and champagne. He proposed a Russian Constitution that would guarantee all human rights in a “flexible, pluralist, tolerant society.”
On December 14, 1989, Andrei Sakharov died in his sleep, at the age of sixty-eight.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 98 (March 1, 2002): 1070.
Library Journal 127 (January, 2002): 116.
The New York Review of Books 49 (May 9, 2002): 13.
The New York Times Book Review 107 (April 7, 2002): 9.
Publishers Weekly 249 (January 21, 2002): 73.
Scientific American 287 (August, 2002): 92.