The moral complexity of Sakharov

He gave the USSR a hydrogen bomb, then a conscience

Andrei Sarkharov was an unusually multifaceted public figure. To put him in an American context, imagine some impossible hybrid of Richard Feynman and Jesse Jackson. He made seminal contributions to the inflation hypothesis in cosmology associated with Alan Guth; he fathered the Soviet H-bomb; and in the early '60s, he was so highly regarded by the Soviet leadership that his disagreement with the science policy of Khrushchev played a part in Brezhnev's engineering of Khrushchev's overthrow.

Most famously, he was the leader of the Soviet dissident movement, insofar as it had a leader, in the 1970s and '80s. For his work on human rights and nuclear disarmament, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975.

Because Sakharov was roughly on the West's side in the struggle against "the Evil Empire," it is tempting to put Sakharov in soft focus, casting him as a kind of saint battling the minions of the KGB. This is to underestimate the continuing unclubbability of his moral stances. When, in 1978, a bomb exploded in a Moscow subway station, killing seven, Sakharov stood up for the rights of the supposed terrorists, calling into question the investigation of the crime, and he opposed their death sentences, as he opposed all death sentences. His position on the recent detention of more than 1,300 Middle Eastern men in the United States would certainly have been as unpopular with Americans as his 1978 stand proved to be with the Russians.

Given the protean nature of Sakharov's life, his ideal biographer should be correspondingly capacious. Richard Lourie seems to have all the qualifications needed for writing the first biography of Sakharov in English. Lourie knew the great man, for one thing. He translated his memoirs into English. Moreover, Lourie, as a journalist, has written several books about everyday aspects of Soviet life. Lourie lived and breathed the claustrophobic atmosphere of Brezhnev's leaden-age Russia, in which the great utopian experiment spiraled toward its corrupt and drunken end.

Unfortunately, Lourie's portrait of Sakharov does not measure up in several important areas. He gives astonishingly little attention to Sakharov's scientific genius, barely summarizing a few papers, and never places Sakharov in the context of 20th-century physics, where he holds an honorable place.

His account of Soviet defense thinking in the period in which Sakharov was most influential, the 1950s and early '60s, is makeshift, with several astonishing lacunas; most notably, he doesn't mention the American overflights of Soviet air space ordered by Eisenhower, surely a salient factor in the projects Sakharov was working on.

Although Eisenhower stopped the overflights after the U-2 incident, they played a major role in strengthening the Soviet conviction that American long-range planning involved a potential first strike. To understand the politics of Sakharov's opposition to further nuclear testing in 1961, which was overridden by Khrushchev, this context needs to be fleshed out in much more detail.

Sakharov was born into the Moscow intelligentsia, a cultural niche that had formed in opposition to Czarist oppression and retained vestiges of that contrarianism even under the incomparably crueler Stalin. His father, Dmitri, was a physicist who contented himself with writing popular science books. Andrei was nicknamed "the Martian" as a young man for his apparent unworldliness. Like many physicists, he was occupied by matters that were difficult to express in mixed company, such as discovering a mechanism to create the fusion of the nuclei of hydrogen atoms. But somehow Sakharov did get married. His first wife, Klava, is a shadowy figure in Lourie's biography, gradually disappearing in a haze of housewifely chores, childrearing, and bickering with her mother.

Somehow, Sakharov also picked up political convictions. In 1948, with Stalin still in charge and the fearsome Beria acting as the Soviet Himmler, Sakharov turned down an offer to join the Communist Party by explaining that he disapproved of the arrests of innocent people and the excesses of collectivization. His boldness was not punished. This little anecdote demonstrates the quasi-immunity accorded to nuclear-weapons scientists in the Soviet system. Up until 1979, when Sakharov was stripped of his state titles and exiled to Gorky, he was still somewhat protected by the awe and need of the state.

Lourie is most comfortable with the second part of Sakharov's life, starting with his break with his masters in the Kremlin in 1965 over the first big trial of dissidents. The sweeter strain in Sakharov's story is his often tested love for his second wife, Yelena Bonner, a remarkable dissident sprung from the Leningrad intelligentsia (a more cosmopolitan group than Moscow's).

Bonner revitalized Sakharov, taking him, it seems, to every trial of every dissident in the country, expanding his network of contacts with artists and writers, and forming a bond with him that others couldn't penetrate. In the macho culture of the dissidents, their unusually close bond was sometimes misunderstood as Sakharov's uxoriousness.

This part of Sakharov's life enrolls him in the list of 20th-century heroes. Lourie, explaining Sakharov's gradual intellectual maturity as a spokesman for civil society, quotes an elegant phrase of Chekhov's about squeezing the slave out of one's blood drop by drop. Disenchantment is a painful process, especially when you have created the bombs that keep the powers that be in place. Sakharov had the courage to go through it in public.

Sakharov's life is proof of the fact that, among conventional thinkers, idealism and realism are confused. In the midst of the Soviet morass, a physicist calling for a civil society that respected the basic rights of its citizens seemed doomed and marginal, while nothing seemed as concrete as Brezhnev's tanks, missiles, and ubiquitous secret police. Yet by 1986, when Gorbachev called Sakharov in his Gorky apartment and lifted the sentence of exile, the balance of power had shifted decisively, although secretly, to Sakharov's side.

Sakharov, as a scientist, recognized that there is a structural contradiction to being a great totalitarian power. Such a power can persevere only by keeping its own society and the societies around it closed, but the power to achieve that repression can come only from a scientific and technological structure that withers in the absence of the open flow of information. It isn't only a moral victory to squeeze the slave out of one's blood. It is a historical necessity.

• Roger Gathman is a freelance writer living in Austin, Texas.

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