The World of Andrei Sakharov.

A Russian Physicist's Path to Freedom

by Gennady Gorelik with Antonina W. Bouis     

(Oxford University Press,  2005)

 

Preface. 1

Introduction:  How I Came to Write This Book. 6

 

 
Preface
 
 
This book is about how a theoretical physicist and the acknowledged father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb became a human rights activist and the first Russian to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
 
In order to understand this incredible transformation, we must examine how several powerful forces—life-enhancing as well as death-dealing—intersected in Andrei Sakharov’s life. 
 
Within his family, he joined the enigmatic world of the Russian intelligentsia. Just the fact that this word, so Western in appearance, is followed by the tag “Russ.” in dictionaries around the world is an indication of its mystery. It was Sakharov’s lot to live his life during the era of Soviet civilization with its glaring contrasts: the first Sputnik in space while kerosene burned in lamps in the villages, the heights of creativity in the arts against the background of daily suppression of freedom.
 
The scientific school, or rather scientific family, where Sakharov began his path in physics was a miracle given the backdrop of the Stalinist era. In a society in which conformity was a means of survival, the teachers of this school contrived to follow the voices of their conscience. 
 
And finally, Sakharov’s life unfolded against the backdrop of the nuclear alchemy which had, in just a few short years, jumped from the pages of physics journals, understandable to very few people, to the front pages of newspapers around the world.
 
Only by comprehending how these forces shaped Andrei Sakharov’s life can his role in history be grasped.
 
 
One of the main sources for this book was a collection of oral histories—about fifty interviews with colleagues, friends, and family of Andrei Sakharov—that the author began collecting in 1989. My direct contact with the people who participated in and witnessed events helped me understand archival materials and publications.
 
Sakharov’s own eyewitness account is contained in his book, Memoirs.[1] Although he wrote it during his exile in Gorky, relying only on his memory and limiting himself to the requirements of secrecy then in effect, it is truly an invaluable source. Quotations from his book are translated directly from Russian and cited without endnotes.[2] 
 
 
[1] Sakharov, A. D. Vospominaniya. 2 v. Moscow:Pravacheloveka, 1996.  (English ed.: Memoirs. Transl. by Lourie, R. Foreword and bibliography by Edward Kline.New York: Knopf, 1990. Moscow and Beyond, 1986 to 1989. Transl. by Bouis, A.New York: Knopf, 1991.) 

 
[2] All the original Russian quotations can be found in the Russian edition of the book -- Gorelik, G. Andrei Sakharov: naukaisvoboda (Moscow: Vagrius, 2004), while the full references to the Russian-language sources as well as Sakharov’s Memoirs are available at http://ADSakharov.narod.ru/
 
 
Those who shared their reminiscences with the author include Leon Bell, YuryZamyatnin, Boris Erozolimsky, Mikhail Levin, Sofya Shapiro, and AkivaYaglom, who remembered Andrei Sakharov from his student years; IzrailBarit, Vitaly Ginzburg, Moisei Markov, PavelNemirovksy, Iosif Shapiro, and Yevgeny Feinberg, who knew him as a graduate student; Mates Agrest, Viktor Adamsky, Lev Altshuler, Lev Feoktistov, YefimFradkin, German Goncharov, Mikhail Meshcheryakov, Vladimir Ritus,YuryRomanov, Yury Smirnov, and Isaak Khalatnikov, who worked with him on the Soviet atomic project; Boris Bolotovsky, DavidKirzhnits, Lev Okun, and VasilySennikov, who knew the Sakharov who returned to theoretical physics; LyubovVernaya, Sakharov’s daughter, and Maxim Frank-Kamenetsky, who told me about the lives of their families in the closed city of Sarov (aka Arzamas-16); Yakov Alpert, Boris Altshuler,SarraBabenysheva,NatalyaDolotova, Aleksandr Esenin-Volpin, and Maria Petrenko,who knew Sakharov as the defender of human rights; and Elena Bonner, Sakharov’s widow, who talked to me about the last twenty years of his life (I also relied on fascinating material that she collected about Sakharov’s genealogy).
 
The photographs and autographs from personal collections appear in this book courtesy of Elena Bonner and LyubovVernaya, as well as Vladimir Kartsev, and Maxim Frank-Kamenetsky.
 
I received enormous help in my archival research from GalinaSavina. Irina Dorman helped conduct many of the interviews with participants in and eyewitnesses of the events described in this book. I acquired much understanding about Soviet history from my association with PavelRubinin. Priscilla McMillan helped me grasp the history of the American nuclear project. I am indebted to Helmut Rotter for a perspective of events on both sides of the Iron Curtain from the center of Europe. Friendship with these wonderful people was an important support in my work.
 
Bela Koval and Yekaterina Shikhanovich helped me a great deal in Sakharov’s archive in Moscow. Boston University’s Center of Philosophy and History, headed by Fred Tauber, extended me hospitality while I worked on the book, and my contact with Bob Cohen, its director emeritus, was particularly inspiring. I am grateful to Anne Fitzpatrick and Tom Reed for acquainting me with the world of Los Alamos and Livermore.
 
I am very thankful to Dmitri Zimin for helping me to understand the problem of antiballistic defense that was so important for transforming Andrei Sakharov the scientist into the public figure and human rights advocate.
 
Boris Altschuler,SarraBabenysheva, Leon Bell, Boris Bolotovsky, Elena Bonner, Elena Chukovskaya, Vitaly Ginzburg, German Goncharov, Boris Erozolimsky, Vladimir Kogan, Leonid Litinsky,KlaraLozovskaya, Lev Okun, GalinaShabelskaya,Sofya Shapiro, Lyubov and Aleksandr Vernyi, AkivaYaglom, and Sergey Zelensky all read this book in manuscript form (complete or partial) and made stimulating comments. I am deeply grateful to all of them.
 
 
My work in the history of science would have been impossible without the support of people who believed in me. The first was my father, from whom I learned about life, with whom I discussed all the questions that interested me. For many years, my wife, Svetlana, was a major help in deciphering extensive interviews, while selflessly supporting the family hearth.
 
I am grateful to David Holloway for stimulating contact of many years duration and for his support of my oral history program on Soviet physics. Loren Graham imbued me with the confidence that I needed to tackle Sakharov’s biography. And it was their encouragement helped me to start this work at the Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology at MIT, thanks to a fellowship from the Bern Dibner Fund in 1993.
 
 
My work on this book was generously supported by a grant for research and writing from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation; grants-in-aid from the Friends of the Center for the History of Physics, the American Institute of Physics, and the International Research and Exchanges Board; and funds provided by the U.S. Department of State (Title VII program) and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The generous support of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation made it possible for Antonina W. Bouis to devote herself to the translation of this book.
While none of the providers are responsible for the views expressed here, we gratefully acknowledge this assistance.
And we both are very thankfull to AnyaKucharev who has taken the responsibility for poetic translations of most of the verses cited in the text.
 
 



Introduction:  How I Came to Write This Book
 
 
Andrei Sakharov was my contemporary, a fellow countryman and, you might say, colleague. In the 1970s I listened to him at the Physical Institute of the Academy of Sciences (known by its Russian acronym—FIAN) in Moscow. The topic of these seminars was theoretical physics, and Sakharov seemed so totally engrossed in science, so open and gentle, that it was hard to reconcile this image with the recklessly brave words and actions of Sakharov the Academician, which the “voices of the enemy,” as Muscovites used to dub Western radio in those days, discussed at night over the howling of Soviet jamming.
 
The last time I was in the same room with him was in late 1979 in a small auditorium of the Theoretical Department. Sakharov was lecturing on very nonmaterial matters: the early universe and how the symmetrical laws of nature could have led to the puzzling asymmetry of the observable cosmos. The talk had not been announced anywhere, so only those in the know were there. Academician Yakov Zeldovich, a stocky, quick man with a shiny bald head, wearing a heavy sweater, was also present. As usual, Sakharov’s voice lacked confidence; he sounded like he was thinking aloud. When he ended the talk, Zeldovich rushed to the blackboard and began speaking in a very confident voice about the difficulties of the cosmological blueprint under discussion. He deftly wrote formulas and drew graphs on the blackboard with swift, athletic movements.
 
Sakharov was an entirely different type: much taller than Zeldovich and slightly stooped, and he spoke slowly, almost haltingly. There was nothing athletic about his movements. One thing, however, made him clearly superior to his opponent—he held chalk and wrote on the blackboard equally well with his right or left hand.
 
They were discussing the concentration of unseen bosons in a young, superdense universe. At that point I was becoming aware of the unusually high concentration of invisible stars at the blackboard—six stars of the Hero of Socialist Labor award per square meter. I thought about how these two theorists had met and become friends, then Academicians and three-time Heroes, while they were creating Soviet nuclear weapons. They both had emerged from the closed scientific-military world into the open quest for the physics of the universe. But although they shared a passionate interest in the secrets of the universe, they lived very differently in the everyday world.
 
A few weeks later, Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan. Sakharov spoke out in strong condemnation. He was exiled in January 1980, without a trial, to the city of Gorky, which was closed to foreigners—probably so that nothing would distract him from the problems of the early universe. Zeldovich, who kept silent about such matters, had to contemplate lofty subjects in the bustle of the capital.
 
 
As it happened, the physics that interested me most of all in 1980 dragged me into the history of Russian science. This area of physics was directly related to the nature of the early universe. I was studying the prophetic and underappreciated work done by a young Soviet theorist, Matvei Bronstein, in 1936. This physicist remained forever young. He was thirty when he was arrested in August 1937, at the height of the Great Stalinist Terror. A bullet to his head in the cellar of a Leningrad prison ended the life of a theorist who understood the physics of the earliest period of the universe better than any of his contemporaries.
 
The more I immersed myself in his yellowed pages, the more I felt attracted to the author. And on October 18, 1980, this attraction led me to a room in the center of Moscow, just five minutes from Red Square. Lydia Chukovskaya, the widow of that forever-young physicist, lived there.
 
I spent many evenings in that room, learning more and more about the hero I had unexpectedly discovered. The unfolding picture of the amazing, amusing, and terrible events of the 1930s was turning me into a historian and biographer. And I acquiesced in this transformation.
 
I also began to appreciate the kind of eyewitness that life had connected me with. The walls of this room were covered with photographs of people who were the pride of Russian literature—Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak, KorneiChukovsky, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. I began to understand how their lives were intertwined with the life of Lydia Chukovskaya and her late husband.
 
There was only one person in the photographs whom I did not recognize, until she told me it was Sakharov—the smile of this man with a child in his arms was just too carefree. It was unthinkable that anyone with such a smile would be forcibly taken from his own house and locked up with round-the-clock surveillance by the KGB. I learned that the seditious academician visited this room often. A common cause united the writer Chukovskaya and the physicist Sakharov: the defense of the hurt and the humiliated, the defense of human rights.
 
I am indebted to Lydia Chukovskaya for my first impressions of Andrei Sakharov outside the realm of physics, the jammed Western radio station voices, and the loud braying of Soviet newspapers. She spoke of Sakharov with tenderness and pain. At that time, the details of his life in exile in Gorky were unknown, and this tormented her.
 
 
Sakharov had endured thirteen years of official persecution and seven years of exile before Gorbachev’s new leadership of the country finally allowed him to return to Moscow at the very end of 1986, the second year of perestroika and glasnost (these Russian words turned into political terms for the policy of social reform and open discussion). The new Soviet leaders allowed Sakharov to be himself. They allowed him to say what he thought.
 
It was incredible, but incredible things were beginning to happen in the nation. For the first time in Soviet history, people were given the right—albeit limited—to choose among several candidates in elections for some seats in Parliament. Sakharov, who was neither an orator nor a politician, became a People’s Deputy. For the first time, his countrymen could see and hear him on Soviet television and find in him the personification of conscience.
 
 
For a Soviet historian of science, walking into the main KGB building on Lubyanka Square was just as incredible. I was able to enter simply in my capacity as a historian of science!
 
In the fall of 1990 Soviet perestroika was still under the control of the Politburo of the nation’s only party. The sword and shield of the Politburo—as the KGB liked to see itself—was still called by its old name, but the people wielding the sword were trying to change the organization’s image. I took advantage of this. I also took advantage of the fact that I had just been hired by the new director of the History of Science and Technology Institute, Nikolai Ustinov, whose late father, a former defense minister, had held an important post in the Politburo. Despite his background, the younger Ustinov was an unusually mild and polite man.
 
I asked him to sign a carefully composed letter, addressed to one of his father’s former colleagues who had been the head of the KGB. In the letter were the names of some physicists who had been arrested in the 1930s and a request for access to their files “for the creation of a complete and objective history of Soviet science in a social context.” A few months later I got the call, “This is the Committee for State Security,” with the invitation to come over.
 
And here I was sitting in an office paneled in solid dark wood. The five case files on the seven defendants lay on the desk in front of me. The man who had “prepared” cases like these had once sat in this very chair and had perhaps seen these very same “enemies of the people”—in the language of the Great Terror—in front of him. Through the window I could see the notorious Lubyanka inner prison, which is not visible from the street because it is completely surrounded by the monumental building of the KGB’s headquarters. Those being investigated were brought from this prison for interrogation to “my” office. I learned from the archival files that three of the seven were executed (shot). One physicist was released from prison after only a year, on the orders of the head of the KGB, despite being guilty as charged: he had dared to compare Stalin with Hitler, not just in his thoughts, but on paper. This released criminal—Lev Landau—would later win the Nobel Prize for Physics.
 
I was overwhelmed by thoughts and feelings. Two main questions had arisen in my mind as I walked into the terrifying Lubyanka building and while the guard carefully compared my face with my photograph receded: why did they grant me permission to come—what was the reason? And when did they prepare the papers I was being allowed to see?
 
I was able to answer the second question, an archival and historical one, once I studied the archive papers—apparently, they were written in the years that were indicated on them. All their documentary fictions and incongruities, as well as precious traces of reality, also dated from that time.
 
As for the question regarding my own personal, rather than state, security, it diminished on the first day of my unusual archival work. It began with an interrogation, so to speak. Two KGB men had a conversation with me for about an hour and a half. One was somewhat grim and world-weary; the other was younger, kind, and curious. They wanted to know what I, frankly, hoped to find in such specific documents and what my findings could contribute to the history of science.
 
I immediately began sincerely testifying, explaining with concrete examples, how much the simple exact date of an event can sometimes yield. I had a lot of examples in reserve, and my KGB officers visibly softened. The conversation loosened up, with history converging with contemporary life at times. In closing, they asked me a question that both upset and amused me: “Was Sakharov really a good physicist?”
 
How could the members of such a competent or, in any case, well-informed institution imagine that the dissident academician had been a physicist in name only? You see, by that time it had been more than year since the famous People’s Deputy had died. The genuine public mourning had been shown on television. And how many publications had there been about him?!
 
After that ingenuous question from the KGB officer, I almost completely stopped worrying about being used by them in some way for purposes unrelated to my work in the history of science. I realized that they were simply obeying orders from their superiors to assist historians. Had their orders been different, they would have docilely obeyed those orders.
 
 
Afterward, I revisited that odd question on many an occasion. I admitted to myself that I didn’t understand how such disparate things could be contained in a single life either: the hydrogen bomb and the Nobel Prize for Peace, his mourning for Stalin in 1953 and his staunch opposition to the Soviet system created by Stalin, and last but not least, the physics of the early universe. I knew that all of this was true—the most powerful thermonuclear explosion in history and the brave defense of human rights before the powers-that-be, the gentle nature and the symmetries of the universe—but how could it all come together in a single person, a single life? And so, having begun with the young physics of the early universe, I ended up reflecting upon one of the most humanitarian of physicists on this planet.
 
Six months after my visit to the bowels of the KGB, the head of the organization, Comrade Kryuchkov, took part in a coup against the state. He wanted to save the Soviet regime. The outcome was just the opposite—the Soviet state collapsed, and the last Soviet head of the KGB ended up in prison (not Lubyanka). But before that, alas, his institution managed to destroy hundreds of volumes of materials relating to Sakharov, including his manuscripts, which had been stolen by KGB agents.
 
However, the highly visible demise of the Soviet regime allowed even people of older generations to discover freedom of speech. Along with my work in the archives, I began collecting oral histories from people in Sakharov’s circle. I interviewed people who had shared his life’s journey: his university classmates, those with whom he began his scientific path and work on nuclear weapons, and those who knew him when he returned to pure physics, when he came out into the world of human rights and entered world history.
 
The archival materials helped me ask the eyewitnesses the proper questions, while their stories helped me ask myself new questions and seek out new documentary evidence. The documents from the KGB archives, which I studied at the actual scene of the crime, also turned out to be useful.
 
I discovered much that was unexpected. For instance, I learned that Lev Landau, the theorist who had compared Stalin to Hitler in 1938, did calculations for the Sakharov hydrogen bomb in the 1950s, for that same Stalin. And I realized that when Sakharov returned to pure science after working on the bomb, he answered the very same question about the physics of the early universe that had made me a historian of science—the question asked by Matvei Bronstein, my first hero, who was executed in 1938.
 
As a result, I think I began to understand the connection between the incredible contrasts in Andrei Sakharov’s world, the world of Russian physics, of Soviet unfreedoms, and personal aspirations for knowledge and freedom. I realized that in order to tell the story of Andrei Sakharov I must explain the “physics” of this strange world. And I set out the results of my research in my hero’s native tongue, Russian.
 
In order to bring this story to the American reader, I turned to Antonina W. Bouis. Her numerous translations include books by Sakharov and his wife, Elena Bonner. Nina was among the first Americans to see Sakharov when he returned to Moscow, and she was a frequent guest at his home, working on various human rights and literary projects. She observed his scientific curiosity manifested in his responses to the most mundane, everyday experiences. Once, Nina’s husband offered to bring the right kind of adhesive compound for the tiles that had started to fall off after a bathroom refurbishment at the Sakharov apartment. “How interesting,” Sakharov mused several minutes later, although the general conversation over tea had turned to other topics, “that you put glue only in the corners and not over the entire tile. So, it’s the surface tension . . .”
 
I am grateful to Nina Bouis not only for her translation and additions to the text but for keeping it focused on the human side of Andrei Sakharov. 
 
 




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