Sakharov: A Biography. Richard Lourie. xiv + 465 pp. Brandeis University Press, published by University Press of New England, 2002. $30.
Andrei Sakharov, the theoretical physicist who would become the father of the Soviet H-bomb, was recognized early on by his peers as a "magician"?one of those geniuses of whom it is said that "Even after we understand what they have done, the process by which they have done it is completely dark." For Sakharov, as for those with whom he would often be compared?Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller?physics offered an escape from what Einstein called the "merely personal." But it is the personal, ironically, that feeds our interest in such figures.
Richard Lourie, who was also the translator of Sakharov's Memoirs, here provides much of the personal and fascinating detail that is missing from his subject's autobiographical account. It seems somehow fitting, for example, that Andrei's father, Dmitri, a science popularizer and would-be composer, chose to carry his newborn son around in a folder meant to hold original musical scores.
"Papa made me a physicist," Andrei would later claim, but the future hardly seemed foreordained. His work with a mentor, physicist Igor Tamm, a subsequent Nobel prize-winner, left him feeling "like the messenger of the gods," Sakharov once said. In 1946 and 1947, he twice refused invitations to work on nuclear weapons. The following year brought not an appeal but a summons, and shortly thereafter Sakharov found himself a "soldier in this new scientific war" at the Installation, a weapons laboratory built on the site of an ancient monastery, where others were already hard at work on an atomic bomb.
There at Arzamas-16?or "Los Arzamas," as Soviet wags dubbed the lab?Sakharov in 1948 proposed the "layer cake," an H-bomb similar in design to Teller's "Alarm Clock," which had been conceived two years earlier. The successful test of Sakharov's bomb in August 1953 ended America's thermonuclear monopoly and earned the physicist his first medal. Igor Kurchatov, the man most responsible for producing Russia's atomic bomb, proclaimed Sakharov "the savior of Russia." In 1955, Sakharov's inventiveness gave the Soviet Union its first multimegaton H-bomb, a feat that earned him a second medal.
But amid the cascade of honors came nagging doubts. When two people were accidentally killed in the 1955 test, Sakharov felt complicit in their deaths, since it was his bomb. Shortly thereafter he calculated that every megaton expended in atmospheric tests caused 10,000 deaths from fallout-induced cancers.
Yet it was not this grim calculus but a seemingly unremarkable incident that finally caused the physicist to turn away from the bomb, according to Lourie's account. Sakharov's crisis of conscience occurred after his earnest toast?"May all our devices explode . . . always over test sites and never over cities"?was topped by an obscene joke of a Red Army commander, who thereby reminded Sakharov that the scientists might build the bombs, but the military would decide how to use them. "The ideas and emotions kindled at that moment . . . completely altered my thinking," Sakharov later wrote. As far as epiphanies go, however, Sakharov's seemed not only remarkably late but incomplete. (Oppenheimer confessed about this same time that his moral awakening had come a decade earlier, when Hiroshima and Nagasaki convinced him "that we would tend to use any weapon we had.") Astonishingly, it was after this incident that Sakharov enthused to a Soviet admiral about the possibilities of building a multimegaton, atomic-powered torpedo to destroy enemy port cities in time of war. The shocked naval officer promptly denounced Sakharov's ultimate weapon as an instrument of "merciless mass slaughter." The reader is left to wonder whether the cause of Sakharov's outrage was not the sword that hung over humanity but pique upon discovering that his was not the hand on the hilt.
Instead of abandoning weapons work, Sakharov instead began a kind of wary, intellectual self-exile: "I do my work and carry out orders," he sullenly told Soviet officials.
But, gradually, disaffection grew into disobedience. Sakharov was fired as director of Armazas after he participated in a seemingly innocuous protest. (Only in the Soviet Union, perhaps, could one be arrested for raising a banner reading "Respect the Soviet Constitution!" on Soviet Constitution Day.) Silent vigils gave way to long, discursive manifestos, which focused on Soviet human rights violations and called for a "convergence" between Russian communism and Western democracy. In response, the Kremlin gerontocracy declared Sakharov guilty of "obsessive reformist delusions." Puzzled KGB agents, dogging the physicist's steps and bugging his apartment, assigned him the apt code name "Ascetic."
Unwilling to kill or deport the goose that laid the golden egg?Sakharov was now a three-time winner of the Hero of Socialist Labor medal?the Soviet government finally sent him to Gorky, a closed military city, where he was given an apartment equipped with no telephone but plenty of listening devices.
Lourie's account of Sakharov's nearly 2,500 days in Gorky makes for painful reading, although it is skillfully written. The physicist wrote that he "felt like a mouse in a glass jar from which the air is gradually being pumped." Alienated from his children and deserted by old friends during this banishment, Sakharov took comfort in the company of a fellow exile, Elena Bonner, an iconoclast and rebel no less difficult than Sakharov himself. Described by some as "a dominating hysteric," Bonner seemed to have a Rasputin-like influence over Sakharov. But she also became a soul mate who nursed "Andrusha" back to health following his frequent hunger strikes. At times, Russian-style, Sakharov and Bonner seem almost to enjoy their misery?using an Etch-a-Sketch to carry on "conversations" unheard by KGB spies, and saluting each other at bedtime with the nightcap toast: "To the success of our hopeless cause!"
Like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and the refuseniks, Sakharov and Bonner ultimately outlasted their tormentors. But the experience, sadly, left them neither magnanimous nor humble in victory. Sakharov actually hung up on Mikhail Gorbachev when the latter telephoned to announce the end of their long exile. (When the Soviet leader subsequently refused to accede to one of Sakharov's demands, the physicist threatened to sabotage an upcoming meeting between Gorbachev and the chancellor of West Germany.)
At some point high-mindedness gave way to megalomania?a disturbing transition, which not even Lourie, a highly sympathetic biographer, can disguise. In 1987 a visiting American admirer was disappointed to find Sakharov "oracular." (As a seer, Sakharov's acumen was not on a par with his physics: "There is no chance that the arms race can exhaust Soviet material and intellectual resources and that the Soviet Union will collapse politically and economically, all historical experience indicates the opposite," he intones.)
In his memoirs, Sakharov would muse that although he started out as a Teller, he later would "go even further than Oppenheimer had." Indeed, like Oppenheimer, Sakharov earned world renown as a scientist of conscience; unlike Oppenheimer, Sakharov continued to be an activist and a partisan for the causes he believed in until the end.
It is one of the Cold War's ironies that, shortly after Sakharov's death in late 1989, a videotape of the last days of the man who had campaigned against the cult of personality and who had armed the Soviet Union against its enemies in the West went on sale in Moscow for $1,500, rubles not accepted.