Still Fighting

On Sakharov Edited by Alexander Babyonyshev Knopf; 283 pp.; $15.95

ON THE OCCASION of the first successful atomic explosion, J. Robert Oppenehimer wrote, "At last physics has known sin. "This realization of a scientist's responsibility to consider the human consequences of his work has gradually become inescapable for modern physicists since 1945. No other scientist has displayed a more acute realization of his duty to the world than Andrei Sakharov, a member of the group which developed the Russian nuclear bomb in 1948, and a prominent dissident and human rights activist since the mid-1960s.

Sakharov has continued to this day to produce important work in physics. But his attention has increasingly grown to focus on the problem of human rights and what he sees as the single most serious threat to them, nuclear proliferation. He was instrumental in fashioning a bilaterally acceptable proposition for the 1962 U.S.-USSR nuclear test ban, and has continued to protest against the arms race. As his consciousness of the human rights issue has increased, he has championed the cause of political prisoners and oppressed peoples all over the world--ethnic minorities in the USSR, Indonesians, Afghans, Palestinians, and many persecuted Russian dissidents--and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975.

His celebrity kept him safe from government persecution until January 1980, when the KGB arrested him. Stripped of his national honors, he was placed under virtual house arrest in the small Russian town of Gorky, where he has remained isolated and under constant surveillance. Though he is removed from Moscow, he remains an inspiration to the handful of dissidents who carry on the tradition of protest against political and intellectual repression.

That influence shines through clearly in On Sakharov, first printed in Russian on the occasion of Sakharov's 60th birthday and just published in English. The collection celebrates Sakharov's life, accomplishments and indomitable spirit, and at the same time presents a brief for the importance of carrying on the struggle for human rights. Two dozen Russian intellectuals and scientists, almost all involved on some front of the crusade Sakharov still leads, and two American physicists who knew Sakharov as a scientists and as a human rights advocate, reminisce about Sakharov and his work. The book also includes poetry, short fiction, and some of Sakharov's own essays on his and the world's situation.

Some passages are redundant or weightless, like the disjointed, if heartfelt, letter from a Russian orthodox priest who vaguely knew Sakharov, which dissolves into a pious "holy meditation." And some sections seem superfluous, particularly the overly technical descriptions of Sakharov's physics research. But the overwhelming balance of the book is valuable and fascinating, both for the personal glimpses of Sakharov and for the astute and seemingly fearless social criticism Sakharov and the other dissident contributors present.

Under one of the most repressive and authoritarian regimes history has known. Sakharov appears oblivious to the danger of official retribution for his statements. As another dissident scientist writes:

What distinguished Sakharov from many others was the fact that for him there never existed any distance between conviction and action, between words and the main strategy of life.

Another adds:

I believe that in him that feeling--the feeling of fear--has simply atrophied. Maybe he just doesn't think about it? He lacks the time, even for other, more important things.

Sakharov even managed to strike a blow against his persecutors from exile, when in 1981 he and his wife went on a hunger strike to protest the refusal of the Soviet government to allow their daughter-in-law to emigrate. The fast continued from November 22 until December 8, when Sakharov was informed that his son's wife would be allowed to leave Russia.

SAKHAROV WAS REMARKABLE, although not unique, in being able to formulate a coherent worldview that differed sharply from communism after being immersed in the Soviet system all his life. He came to believe that a pluralistic society based on human rights was the only system which would yield the ends he desired, and that Soviet communist society could not. "Communist ideology is not a complete fraud," he writes. "It arose from a striving for truth and justice, like other religious, ethical and philosophical systems. But the totalitarian structure of the government, he adds, has led the nation to "the deepest historical dead end."

Sakharov prescribes the conditions he deems necessary for peace and human rights: He specifies the need for parity in arms levels, and urges western countries, particularly the United States, to match the Soviet Union missile for missile if need be. He stresses the accountability of governments for the state of human rights in their countries, and advocates amnesty for and exchanges of political prisoners.

Although the book consists of personal remembrances of Sakharov, it contains as well a few pieces of fiction that relate more or less explicitly to his plight or to the state of human rights in Russia. Though enjoyable to read, these seem not to fit into the book. Much more interesting are a few other dissidents' essays on subjects besides Sakharov, such as a piece by geophysicist Grigorii Podyapolsky, entitled "My Conversation with the Director of the Institute for Geophysics of the USSR Academy of Sciences. "This is a rough transcript of Podyapolsky's interrogation by his superior in the department, who is pressuring him to renounce his signature on a petition supporting a fellow scientist, who has been imprisoned in a mental hospital for expressing dissident opinions. The Director's actual words give unusually exact insights into the mind of a faithful Party mouthpiece.

The "Biographical Notes" on the volume's contributors underscore the writers' dissident credentials. Of the 24 Russian contributors, seven have resigned or been expelled from the body which officially recognizes writers: four have been or still are in labor camps, and others have been persecuted by the government or expelled from the Communist Party. But they share the same bold disregard for Soviet views, displaying a remarkable willingness to speak, although many have already experienced the consequences of such openness. Anatoly Marchenko, for 17 years a political prisoner and newly sentenced to 10 years in a labor camp and five years of exile writes:

You don't have to be a historian to comprehend that the Soviet state has never regarded its subjects as full-fledged rational beings. This applies equally to street-cleaners and to internationally recognized scholars. The state is all-powerful and permits itself to do anything to its subjects.

Ultimately, though, the greatest inspiration in this volume comes from Sakharov's own calm yet stubborn determination in the face of the repression he has struggled against for so long. The unique status of the physicist in international nuclear relations brought Sakharov into the political arena: but it has been his own dedication and hunger to see justice Jone that have made him an icon of the human rights cause.