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.