It's a little hard to believe that this is the first comprehensive
biography in English of Andrei Sakharov, the famous Russian
physicist and even more famous political dissident, renowned as the
"father" of Russia's hydrogen bomb and then mercilessly persecuted
when his conscience turned him into a mordant critic of the Soviet
Sakharov has been dead for 13 years. World events have moved
swiftly and in totally unexpected directions since his death; his
very name may now seem like a distant echo from a nearly forgotten
era. But his story is worth preserving, if not for total political
relevance to the world of 2002, then simply as a document of
personal integrity, suffering, and courage.
The tale is here told by a writer with vast experience in Russian
political and literary affairs. Richard Lourie translated
Sakharov's memoirs and has written much on Russian history and
politics. He slyly gives himself a cameo appearance late in this
book without mentioning his own name, referring to himself simply
as Sakharov's "American translator." Many quotes from the
scientist's memoirs are woven into the narrative, identified only
by quotation marks.
In general, Lourie has done his job thoroughly and well. Sakharov's
complex character is plumbed in depth, and there are short but
penetrating character sketches of others, friends and foes alike,
who crossed his career path. His personal life, insofar as it
impacted on his scientific and political lives, is given due
attention. Lourie's writing sometimes gets clotted and
grammatically awkward, but he can also on occasion come up with a
deft and illuminating phrase.
From childhood, Lourie tells us, Andrei Sakharov was a loner, an
awkward child given to deep and lasting passions for things that
interested him but never at ease in everyday social intercourse (in
all his life Sakharov never mastered dancing or swimming, and his
relations with his own children were a shambles).
His youthful fascination with physics, pursued with single-minded
zeal, led him to the top of the Soviet scientific community. It
was, however, his very success in masterminding the production of
the first Soviet hydrogen bomb (tested in 1953) that awakened his
social conscience. He began calculating the potential human
casualty figures for actual use of the weapon he had created -- and
what he found appalled him. He began writing and speaking about
this, and his fall from official grace was swift. A pivotal event
in turning him against the whole Soviet system was the 1966 show
trial of the writers Sinyavky and Daniel.
Perhaps the single most harrowing chapter in this book is Lourie's
account of Sakharov's enforced seven-year exile in Gorky, where he
was shadowed, harassed and mercilessly bullied by the KGB, though
he was theoretically a free man. No telephone, for example, was
ever installed in his apartment there until the very end of his
seven years' residence in the city.
Utterly disillusioned with Soviet socialism yet appalled by many
aspects of Western capitalism, Sakharov preached a doctrine of
"convergence," in which the two systems inevitably moved closer to
each other until a middle way that might incorporate the good
features of each and allow people to live decent lives would
Lourie sees Sakharov as a man who started out as apolitical,
obsessed solely with physics. When the political world beyond his
laboratory intruded on his work it forced him to confront political
injustice, and in his obsessive, single-minded way, he took up that
cause even though it converted him from honored and privileged hero
of the Soviet State into its enemy. He died a hero to the
capitalist West but a hotly controversial problem for the masters
of post-Soviet Russia.
The Soviet Russia of Stalin and Khrushchev is a fading memory these
days. But the memory of a stubborn truth-teller like Andrei
Sakharov should not be allowed to fade. This excellent book should
help to keep it alive.
Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on January 23, 2011