MEMOIRS. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 873 pp., $29.95 WHEN Russia recklessly casts out its most prominent statesmen, artists, and thinkers, it also frees them to write their memoirs. In January 1980, when Leonid Brezhnev's government abducted Andrei Sakharov from the streets of Moscow and exiled him to Gorky, it inadvertantly freed him to write the story of his unique life.
His memoirs describe in striking detail the fascinating milieu from which he emerged; his key role in the creation of the Soviet hydrogen bomb; in the development of Soviet dissent; and in the transition from Stalinism to the Soviet Union of Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin.
Andrei Sakharov was born in 1921 into a family of traditional Russian intelligentsia. His great grandfather was a village priest; his grandfather was a liberal lawyer; and his father was a teacher of physics. A late first child, Andrei gained the nickname of ``Prince,'' and received an exclusive, almost princely education.
He did not attend regular school until he was 12, and even then continued working with tutors, including his father. After graduating from high school before World War II, Sakharov began studying physics at the renowned Moscow University.
In 15 years, the prince of the family had been transformed into a prince of Soviet physics. As part of Russia's intellectual elite, he was exempted from military service during World War II; he survived when many young men did not. Still, Sakharov did something unusual, rejecting graduate school in favor of a forlorn military factory on the Volga.
In 1945, Sakharov returned to Moscow to do graduate studies under Igor Tamm, a future Nobel Prize winner. In 1948, Tamm brought Sakharov into classified research - a feasibility study on the creation of the hydrogen bomb. Sakharov informs us that the initial Soviet information on the H-bomb stemmed from an intelligence operation. Sakharov offers no hard facts to support his theory, feeling himself obliged not to divulge military secrets. On another occasion, Sakharov stated that this information did not come from the Rosenbergs.
In a 1987 interview in the Moscow News, Sakharov stated that ``the execution of the Rosenbergs was revenge by US counterintelligence for Klaus Fuchs, who passed significant atomic secrets to the USSR ....'' While speaking to me in 1988, Sakharov reiterated his position that the information which American authorities alleged was, in actuality, of negligible value to the Soviets.
Sakharov's observations collide with Khrushchev's recently revealed ``The Glasnost Tapes.'' ``I was part of Stalin's circle,'' Khrushchev says, ``when he mentioned the Rosenbergs with warmth. I heard from [Stalin] that the Rosenbergs provided very significant help in accelerating the production of our A-bomb.'' Sakharov, the top scientist of his country, says one thing; Khrushchev, the top politician of his time, says another: Whom to believe?
Sakharov's opinion may stem from his own decisive contribution to the Soviet success. ``Once,'' he writes, ``as I was standing in line for the cashier at the public baths, mulling over certain questions in gas dynamics (I could not stop thinking about them), I realized ... what I would call `the first idea.' Two months later I radically changed the direction of our research.''
Sakharov was becoming a key figure in the H-bomb project, even though he defied the system by politely refusing to join the Communist Party. ``At last our day arrived, August 12, 1953. I reached my station 20 miles from ground zero. We saw a flash, and then a swiftly expanding white ball lit up the whole horizon.'' A rain of honors followed: the Stalin prize, the Golden Star of the Hero of the USSR, full membership in the Academy of Sciences (he was the youngest member ever elected). He was just 32.
But there was a different group of ideas, which Sakharov began formulating on his own. Those ideas dealt with a major reform of the Soviet political system.
How could the technology being developed by Sakharov and Tamm be harnessed, so that the Soviet Union would not pose a mortal threat both to itself and humanity? The answer was the following: The Soviet Union has to democratize its political system; arms control treaties should be concluded with the West; and he, Sakharov, should become politically active, using his authority as a scientist to advance that cause.
Starting with some practical steps that influenced the conclusion of the first test-ban treaty in 1963, Sakharov ended his activity at the secret installation in 1968 by writing his essay, ``Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom.''
Sakharov's essay ultimately changed the Soviet Union, for it was one of the first blueprints of what we now know as perestroika (restructuring). It also changed Sakharov's life. It brought him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975, transforming the prince of Soviet physics into the prince of the world; but it also led to years of exile and persecution in his own country. Those difficult years are described in great detail in the Sakharov memoirs, ending with his triumphant return to Moscow from exile in Gorky in 1987.
While reading through this unique record, we are sometimes confused because the text is of very uneven quality. Sakharov's science, politics, and private life sometimes pull the narrative in three different directions and occasionally create a maze. But as it always was with Sakharov, his deeds and his fate have an almost magical quality, which is very difficult to express in words, sentences, phrases, essays, or books.
The epilogue to the book is signed Dec. 13, 1989, the last full day of Andrei Sakharov's life. This very Russian man, who all his life served with great devotion the long-term interests of his country, was motivated by ideas that were broader and more universal. He perceived science as a vital part of the world's cultural heritage and himself as a son of humanity at large.
Learning of Sakharov's death, I remembered the man and our only meeting. Andre Malraux describing his first meeting with Charles de Gaulle, speaks about de Gaulle's ``intense presence that had nothing to do with words.'' Sakharov's presence was not intense at all. Of course, he was tired at the time, but he was also confident, calm, and serene. I recalled, when his death was announced, a very Russian place, a cliff overlooking the Volga River, immortalized by a famous Russian landscapist, a place I had visited in the summer of 1989: a small birch grove, the Volga, its waters as light blue gray as Sakharov's eyes, a wooden church, an old cemetery. Eternal serenity.