Dissident, Genius and Countryman

Sakharov Speaks on the Hydrogen Bomb and Social Conscience


By Andrei Sakharov

Alfred A. Knopf

773 pages; $29.95

Picture yourself seated in the garden of an elegant country dacha in an exclusive suburb of Moscow. You sip tea while you admire the golden hues of the lingering Russian sunset. Seated across from you, physicist Andrei Sakharov talks plainly about his life.

Frequently digressing, he tells you the story of his own rise through the established ranks of trusted scientists, and how he eventually came to be called the "father of the hydrogen bomb." Then, following the dictates of his conscience, how he began to speak out against the Soviet regime until he was a world-renowned champion of human rights and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. At the urging of Sakharov's wife, the two of you move inside to escape the cold Russian night air and, to the accompaniment of more pots of tea, he continues the story. He tells you of his internal exile in Gorky and final release by Gorbachev.

The honesty and informal style of Sakharov's newly published Memoirs truly makes you feel like you are his intimate acquaintance. Like a sweeping Russian novel, the book contains such a vast array of material it cannot be characterized or summarized easily. It is a treatise on particle physics, an inside account of the Soviet development of the hydrogen bomb, a look at the Soviet government, education, and legal systems, a love story, a journey from political naivite to passionate struggle against authorities, and a gallery of personal profiles that show a novelist's instinct for description, all imbued a deep human compassion and spiced with an ironic sense of humor.

The lively accounts of his work comprise the first half of Memoirs. Sakharov relates the zeal with which he and his colleagues patriotically pursued a design for the hydrogen bomb, and his accounts sound strikingly similiar to those of the Manhattan Project. Despite the bold sense of purpose and bonds he formed with fellow engineers, his tales of his applied work are tinged with some wistfulness. He expresses his wish that he could have spent more time working in "grand science."

It was his work on the bomb that initiated his now famous political activism. Shocked at the thousands of lives being lost by scientifically unneccessary nuclear tests designed for purely power-brokering purposes, he urged Khrushchev to cancel tests that were duplicating earlier efforts. Although this request was refused and the nuclear test killed thousands of Soviets, he expresses pride in the fact that his encouragement was largely responsible for the Moscow Limited Test Ban Treaty which eliminated tests in the atmosphere, ocean, and space.

His activities then began his transition to the more fervid activism he document in the latter half of Memoirs. His tales of his evolution to widely-acclaimed human rights champion and critic of the Soviet regime are fascinating--never does Sakharov consciously break ties with the past. Sakharov humbly relates the succession of events where he faithfully follows his conscience, and his eventual publication of the essay, "Reflections of Progress, Peaceful Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom" in the New York Times in 1968 which overnight garnered the scientist international fame.

Though Sakharov criticizes the Soviet regime, it is clear from his book that he truly loves his country. He is no defector to the West. On several issues he is intentionally vague to protect state secrets. He writes a whole chapter about the "Third Idea," his crucial contribution to hydrogen bomb, which even 30 years later, he will not reveal.

Sakharov is indisputably a Russian, but his ideals, in contradiction to the other great Soviet dissident Solzhenitsyn, are very Western. The driving force behind his protests is an unshakable faith in the importance of freedom of the individual to belief, speech, religion, from persecution and from want. The scope of his protests cover foreign affairs, prisoners of conscience, the death penalty, the environment, even cruelty to animals. The freedom of the individual is the driving force behind all of his activism.

The fact that this book has been published at all is a testament to Sakharov's irrepresible spirit. On four separate occasions KGB agents stole his notes, diaries, and drafts of the book. In one of these thefts he lost nine hundred pages of manuscript. At first he did not plan to publish Memoirs, but the setbacks, rather than demoralizing him, convinced him that they must be published.

He writes, perhaps with tongue in cheek, that he "has no patience with books so thick they can serve as doorstops; such excessive bulk, I feel, can only result from a lack of clear thinking." Sakharov's 773 page Memoirs would probably stop a door rather well, but it would be unfortunate if its length deters possible readers. Individual chapters can be read profitably, and the non-technical readers may wish to skip the chapters covering Sakharov's work in physics, though they do make fascinating reading for their portrait of the Soviet world of science, the scientific culture of publishing, seminars, classes, and "chalk talks."

Though the 80 pages of appendixes may seem daunting reading after the lengthy narrative, but they form a valuable component of the text. The selection of Sakharov's letters, interviews, and memoranda illustrate the nature of his campaign for human rights. The open letter from Elena Bonner, his wife, to Soviet scientists calling on them to speak out in defense of her husband is an especially moving document. She writes:

Many of us remember the footsteps on the stairway at night, and the strained listening: have they come for me this time, or for my neighbor? Don't worry, they haven't come for you yet. They've come for Sakharov and for the others who refuse to be silent.

The story of his love for his second wife is a moving theme in the latter half of the book. Elena Bonner's dynamic and assertive personality strengthened his existing beliefs. She played a crucial role in his dissident activities and in smuggling the book itself to the West to be published.

His ironic sense of humor pervades the book. He writes that one man makes a poor woman's "life a fairy tale...but a grim one." He writes that "justice triumph--sometimes." Of the retired scientist who scrutinizes the Bible for evidence that the world has been visited by extraterrestrials, he writes, "To say I am skeptical would be putting it mildly."

In an interview included in the appendix, Sakharov says, "There is a need to create ideals even when you can't see any way to achieve them, because if there are no ideals then there can be no hope and then one would be left completely in the dark, in a hopeless blind alley."

During his years of internal exile in Gorky, the silence of his Soviet colleagues disappointed him. His powerful friends would have suffered no personal risk by publicly announcing their support for the man who so often put himself in danger for prisoners of conscience, but they remained silent anyway. Sakharov does not appear bitter at this desertion, but disappointed in the cowardice of his countrymen.

This is the story of a man who loses his innocence but faces the challenges with courage, and acts on his conscience and not his fear. His story, as told in the book, is a sprawling account with endless digressions. But like the countryside, where some of the most beautiful sights are found on the off-roads, here also some of the best material is contained in these tangents.

In an age in which the press proclaims there are no heroes left, citing athletes who take drugs, corrupt politicians, and the superficiality of pop figures created by publicity agents, the powerful figure of Sakharov exists as a promise that our time can still produce heroes. He stands as a prophet who preached of a more peaceful world to men who preferred war. With the barriers between political blocs just now tumbling, we are finally beginning to move on the path he cleared for the rest of us.