A Bombmaker of Conscience

A Bombmaker of Conscience


We are all fascinated by the lives of the powerful and famous, and in the last part of the twentieth century Andrei Sakharov became one of Russia’s most famous. He burst onto the world stage in the summer of 1968, and seemingly overnight he went from the high-clearance obscurity of thermonuclear

weapons to world fame. His essay advocating “convergence” of capitalism and socialism, which was smuggled to the West, was extraordinary. It did not matter that its contents were naïve and sophomoric (he envisioned a world government by the year 2000). Its author was the “father” of the Soviet H-bomb, someone who understood that life and civilization could be incinerated in an hour’s time and as such commanded instant respect. Moreover, he was a member of the elite, whose views were “profoundly socialist” and who abhorred the “egotistical ideas of private ownership and the glorification of capital.” But there were deeply heretical undertones in his thinking. He insisted that the Soviet Union needed economic and political reforms, and if necessary a multiparty system, even though he did not regard the latter as an essential step “or even less, a panacea for all ills.”

This was, of course, the time of the Prague Spring, when the peoples of the Communist part of Europe followed with sympathy and apprehension Prague’s reformist Communist leaders taking Czechoslovakia down the path of democratization. A nascent democratic movement had emerged in Russia in the mid-1960s as well, spreading through large sections of the intelligentsia. “What so many of us…had dreamed of seemed to be finally coming to pass in Czechoslovakia,” Sakharov said later. “Even from afar, we were caught up in all the excitement and hopes and enthusiasm of the catchwords: ‘Prague spring’ and ‘socialism with a human face.'”

All hopes were squelched on August 21, 1968, when Russian tanks entered Czechoslovakia and arrested the reformers. It was also a fateful moment for Sakharov: His essay had transformed him into the leading personality of a small dissident movement. The regime ended his career at the secret weapons lab in Turkmenistan but allowed him to work at the Institute of Physics in Moscow. After a decade of defending dissidents, he was arrested in 1980 and exiled to the closed city of Gorky (now Nizhni Novgorod), where he was force-fed when he attempted a hunger strike. The dramatic struggle between a lone individual and a mighty totalitarian state ended with an astounding concession by the state: On December 16, 1986, the new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, personally invited Sakharov to return to Moscow and “go back to your patriotic work.” It was an act of contrition that also enhanced Gorbachev’s reputation in the West.

In this first English-language biography of Sakharov, Richard Lourie offers a beautifully written and engaging account of the physicist’s life. Lourie is a distinguished author and a leading translator of Russian literature. He also translated Sakharov’s own Memoirs, which they had discussed at length. Lourie has had extended help from Elena Bonner, Sakharov’s second wife, and the portrait of their marriage is one of the most insightful aspects of the book. But writing a biography of so complex a figure as Sakharov is more difficult than it may seem, in part because his life was the stuff of which myths are made. It had two distinct phases.

In the first he eagerly served the state and performed his great bomb-making accomplishments. It was a period of Stalinist terror and appalling privations in which Sakharov accepted everything with “cheerful fatalism.” Like Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss, he clung to his belief that everything Stalin did was for the best, that creating the most destructive weapons mankind had known was his patriotic duty, that “the Soviet state represented a breakthrough into the future.” Even the repugnant KGB system of informing seemed to him a normal fact of life, an “ordinary link in the network of surveillance that enveloped the whole country.” When the dictator died in 1953, Sakharov was deeply moved. “I am under the influence of a great man’s death,” he wrote to his wife. “I am thinking of his humanity.”

The second period–one of political activism, open dissent and real sacrifices by Sahkarov–has been meticulously documented in the press. Needless to say, he was lionized in the Western press and awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. Yet his impact on the events that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union remains unclear. As a leading actor in the dissident movement, he seemed from the beginning a tragic figure who most fully reflected its strengths and weaknesses. Sakharov not only lacked charisma, as Andrei Amalrik said, but he also rejected the leadership role bestowed upon him by the dissidents. Sakharov, Amalrik says in Notes of a Revolutionary, wanted to be “a solitary monk under a leaky umbrella whose voice in the defense of the oppressed would be heard because of his moral prestige.”

It is difficult to explain the almost complete break between these two periods. It coincides roughly with the publication of his controversial essay, “Reflections on Progress, Co-Existence, and Intellectual Freedom,” and the death of his first wife. What made him do his U-turn, or, in Professor Philip Morrison’s apt image, what made him go “from a Teller to an Oppenheimer”?

We can only speculate what went on in Sakharov’s head. His explanation seems incomplete. He said he confronted a “moral dilemma” at the time of the 1955 H-bomb test because his calculations of death by fallout over the generations made it clear that the total numbers were staggering. He was also appalled by the ecological consequences and began advocating a ban on nuclear testing.

An incident at a banquet to honor a successful test may have had a greater impact on Sakharov. His toast at the banquet–“May all our devices explode as successfully as today’s, but always over test sites and never over cities”–was immediately countered by Air Marshal Mitrofan Nedelin, who wanted to put the scientist in his place by telling a crude story:

“An old man wearing only a shirt was praying before an icon: ‘Guide me, harden me. Guide me, harden me.’ His wife who was lying on the stove said: ‘Just pray to be hard, old man, I’ll take care of the guiding.'” “And so,” said the air marshal, “let’s drink to getting hard.”

Sakharov felt “lashed by a whip.” An exceedingly proud man, he was humiliated before his colleagues. He drained his glass and never said another word for the rest of the evening. He was, he said later, shocked into a realization that he and his colleagues had created a terrible weapon whose uses “lie entirely outside our control.”

After the first successful test, in 1953, Sakharov’s self-confidence was at a peak. Still “outwardly modest,” inwardly he was “actually quite the opposite.” The director of the atomic weapons program, physicist Igor Kurchatov, had called him “the savior of Russia!” He had replaced Igor Tamm, his mentor, as scientific head of the hydrogen bomb project. He alone had written a report on his conception of the next generation of nuclear weapons and delivery systems; he attended a Politburo meeting that approved it. To outsiders he seemed able to walk on water. He enjoyed every privilege the state could bestow. He had the attribute of highest importance: a high-frequency phone, a direct line to all leaders. He was made a Hero of Socialist Labor, the nation’s highest honor (for the first of three times). He was elected to full membership in the Soviet Academy of Sciences, bypassing the usual period of candidacy (Tamm’s had lasted twenty years in an election before he became a full member).

Yet, as Yuli Khariton, the director of the secret weapons lab, put it, Sakharov’s immense self-confidence was both his strength and his failing. Sakharov “felt his own strength and could not imagine anyone understanding better than he.” When others found the solution to a problem he was unable to solve, Sakharov would set about with “exceptional energy” to search for the flaws in it. Not finding them, he was forced to admit that the solution was correct.

If the 1955 test was the turning point in his thinking, it was reflected only in his interest in and advocacy of a ban on nuclear testing. Clearly he had little understanding of the politics of nuclear weapons or the domestic political pressures that Nikita Khrushchev was facing.

Ignoring his pleas, Khrushchev insisted that the largest Soviet bomb ever be tested so it would coincide with the Communist Party Congress (and the expulsion of Stalin’s body from the Lenin Mausoleum in Red Square). Having been overruled and slavishly following orders, Sakharov proposed that not one bomb but two be tested at the same time. This would provide sufficient information to eliminate the need for further testing for a long time. Even more bizarre was his grandiose proposal for a giant, atomic-powered torpedo with a 100-megaton charge that could inflict enormous casualties on enemy ports. A Russian admiral Sakharov tried to consult would not give him the time of day. As a military man, the admiral believed in “open battle” and was disgusted and outraged by the idea of merciless mass slaughter.

By 1957 the Russians had sent Sputnik into orbit and the competition for the control of outer space became a top priority. In the 1960s the space program was allocated the largest chunk of the research budget. Sakharov and other bomb-makers were shunted aside. This may be one of the reasons for Sakharov’s foray into political theory, though Lourie does not explore it. But Sakharov is a hard man to assess. For example, his role in enabling Russia to detonate its first hydrogen bomb just nine months after the Americans is indisputable, but his accomplishments as a physicist must await final judgment. So far, none of his peers have placed him in the pantheon of top Russian physicists. None doubted his talent, but the common judgment may have been summed up by Lev Landau, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, who called him “outstanding” and said: “While I would not consider him a genuine theoretical physicist, he is rather a ‘constructive genius.'” Tamm, another Nobel Prize winner, was more generous. Sakharov’s tragedy, Tamm said, was “that he had to sacrifice his great passion–elementary-particle physics–first to create an atomic and hydrogen bomb,” then sacrifice it a second time in the struggle for social justice.

It’s even harder to assess him as a man. I first met him in the hospital of the Academy of Sciences in 1967, where he was a patient. I was visiting another patient, the writer Nikolai Erdman, who took me “to say hello” to Sakharov, who was recovering from a hernia operation. First impressions often gel into lasting images. I have subsequently written dozens of stories about him, and I never had any doubt that he was a rare good man who was prepared to oppose evil. As an absent-minded and eccentric professor, he was unassuming and humble. Yet his benevolent smile somehow demanded respect. He was born into a family that belonged to that section of nineteenth-century intelligentsia that believed it their duty to fight Russia’s backwardness and authoritarianism. There was a sense of entitlement about him, something that must have come about from special considerations and privileges that had been extended to him over the years. Following the publication of his controversial essay, he was banned from military projects but accepted the position offered him at the Physics Institute, working under Tamm. He accepted. Neither side had entirely given up on the other. What if Sakharov came up with a new discovery? At the time, neither science nor politics had much meaning for Sakharov, who was grieving for his late wife and looking after his 12-year-old son, Dima.

Sakharov was still a unique figure, both admired and envied. His unanimous election to the Soviet Academy of Sciences was without precedent for two reasons: Not only had he not completed his doctorate (he was a candidate of science), but his work was so classified that more than 99 percent of those who voted for him had no idea why he was honored. Academic Vasily Yemelyanov, who headed the Soviet atomic energy commission in the 1950s, told me in an interview how Khrushchev had asked him to insure Sakharov’s election without revealing his role in the H-bomb project. Yemelyanov replied that that was impossible. People are going to ask questions. After all, Sakharov, 32 at the time, was a molokosos (baby). “You tell them that he had done a great service to the state but you are not at liberty to reveal what it is,” Yemelyanov quoted Khrushchev as saying.

Sakharov was still viewed as salvageable when two prominent dissidents were incarcerated in psychiatric institutions: Gen. Pyotr Grigorenko and biologist Zhores Medvedev, twin brother of Marxist historian Roy Medvedev, a friend of Sakharov’s who distributed his original 1968 essay in samizdat form. Roy Medvedev’s book about Stalin, Let History Judge, which Sakharov read in samizdat, played a major role in his developing politics. As Soviet policy hardened under Leonid Brezhnev, open dissent turned into a concerted opposition to a return to Stalinism. Sakharov created an international incident in 1970 when he appeared at an international symposium held in Moscow and announced that he was collecting signatures in defense of Medvedev, who was under psychiatric detention. A week later he protested directly to Brezhnev. Medvedev was freed in mid-June, but Grigorenko remained incarcerated for four years.

A void of ostracism, however, began to form around Sakharov. He had crossed over to the other side. This became irrevocable when he met his second wife, Elena Bonner, a die-hard political dissident.

Ironically, Sakharov was finally happy, being married to a woman he loved and who shared his ideas. Like God’s fool from the Russian tradition, he was regularly challenging the lies on which the system was constructed yet not ending up in jail, because God’s fool was the only person who could speak the truth to czars. The authorities, unwilling to lash out at Sakharov himself, instead targeted Bonner’s children. Bonner herself was reviled in the press. Sakharov fought back–hunger strikes were his ultimate weapon. The state had considerable success in radicalizing his image and making it appear that the human rights movement was used by Sakharov to obtain exit visas for his family and friends.

Lourie presents a compelling account of Sakharov’s personal odyssey, going behind the glossy picture we painted and repainted over the years. If there is a serious shortcoming here it is that Bonner’s role has been, perhaps inadvertently, minimized. The book leaves the reader with a sense of disappointment that this genuinely great man did not have a more lasting effect. But we’d be remiss to forget the electrifying impact on Russia of his return from internal exile in 1986. Even more significant was his decades-long struggle to keep alive the best traditions of the Russian intelligentsia. Like his beloved Pushkin, he will remain loved because–in the poet’s words–“I’ve struck the chords of kindness/and sung freedom’s praise in this cruel age,/calling for mercy to be shown the fallen.”

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