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“As a thinker, as a man of uncanny judgment and courage, [Andrei Sakharov] was the one figure in the drama of the Soviet collapse who was the equal of Jefferson, Adams, and the rest,” wrote David Remnick in The New Yorker. One of the greatest physicists of the twentieth century—the “father of the Soviet H-bomb”—Sakharov won even greater renown later in life as the leading dissident in the Soviet Union. His courageous and untiring activities in defense of human rights won him the Nobel Peace Prize, six years of exile in the closed city of Gorky, and finally, official restitution as a symbol of Gorbachev’s perestroika.
Richard Lourie, who translated Sakharov’s memoirs, has now written the first full biography of this towering figure of the last century. Drawing on a wide range of sources—including previously secret KGB files, as well as Sakharov’s own correspondence—Lourie tells the story of a life intimately bound up with Soviet history. With the H-bomb, Sakharov made the Soviet Union a superpower; with his courage and moral conviction, he made it accountable to the world for its treatment of its citizens. His untimely death in December 1989 cut short a budding career as a politician, for at the end of his life, Sakharov had been elected to the Congress of People’s Deputies and was engaged in a campaign to reform the Soviet constitution.
As a scientist, Sakharov not only helped change the world through the creation of thermonuclear weapons, he also engaged in theoretical research whose ultimate significance is yet to be determined. As a Russian, he has been ranked by his own people with Lenin and Stalin in terms of his influence on the country. As a human being, he set a standard for principled dissent and compassion acknowledged the world over. This intelligent, detailed biography does justice to all aspects of his multi-faceted achievements.
A DIFFICULT BIRTH
Russia would have a new saint. In mid-July 1903 close to half a million pilgrims—the poor and the ill, the sinful and devout, all hoping for cures, miracles, forgiveness—streamed to the small town of Sarov in the province of Nizhny Novgorod to attend the "glorification" of Serafim. Born in 1759, Serafim had retreated to the Sarov wilderness when he was eighteen, taking a vow of silence to prepare his soul for "the Word of God, the bread of angels." His life in the monastery of Sarov and as a hermit was one of exemplary humility, high spirituality, and the gifts of healing and prophesy; he foresaw Russia passing through an era of ruthless atheism before returning to Christ. In legend and icon, wild bear ate from his hand. However, shortly before his death in 1833, rumors reached the local police that Serafim's relations with the local nuns were not entirely ethereal. The case was dismissed for lack of evidence, but as the subsequent history of Rasputin would demonstrate, a mix of lust and sanctity in holy men was not at all alien to the Russian taste.
Serafim's glorification, as the canonization of a saint in the Russian Orthodox Church is called, was to a considerable extent stage-managed by Tsar Nicholas and Tsarina Alexandra, each of whom had compelling reasons for creating a new point of contact between heaven and Russia. Nicholas, disturbed by his nation's rush to industrialization and its shadow of revolution, wished to establish a direct, mystical bond between himself and his people. The glorification of Serafim was part of thetsar's "mystical activism," Eternal Russia counteracting the poisons of modernity. Pietistic, exalted, willful, Alexandra had given her husband four daughters and was now despairing of ever producing the male heir who would ensure the continuity of the Romanov dynasty, which had ruled Russia for over three hundred years. She too had come to believe that direct contact with "Holy Russia" through the spirit of a holy man was the key to the grace of an heir.
The royal couple arrived in the city of Arzamas on the imperial train and completed their journey by carriage, greeted at every step by adoring throngs, which allowed them the experience, or the illusion, of a personal relationship with the masses that circumvented the bureaucracy of St. Petersburg. At the glorification ceremony, the candle flames in front of the icons flickered as the huge cathedral bells tolled and the voices intoned:
We magnify thee
Holy blessed Serafim
And we honor thy holy memory
For you to pray for us
To Christ, our God.
Then Tsar Nicholas and the grand dukes personally shouldered Serafim's coffin out to the square in front of the cathedral where a "deep silence fell on the crowd, broken only by the sounds of women weeping and lamenting. Peasants scattered bits of linen and skeins of thread along the path in front of the pallbearers, so that afterward they might gather up these precious tokens filled with the grace of the saint and take them home."
The three clays of ceremonies were solemn, exultant, but the royal couple found time for their own needs, both private and dynastic. As Edvard Radzinsky wrote in The Last Tsar: "At night the empress bathed in the holy pond, imploring Serafim for the birth of a son, while Nicholas sat on the bank. Her body was white in the silver water."
Those were days of peace and prayer, hope and faith for Nicholas and Alexandra, a moment of serene equilibrium in the Russian summer. It was all to be swallowed up, their Russia, their lives, which were also to end on a mid-July night fifteen years later. Even the town of Sarov would be incorporated lock, stock, and barrel into Arzamas 16, the secret Soviet nuclear weapons lab where Andrei Sakharov would spend nearly twenty years of his life.
The imperial prayers were answered a year later, on July 30, 1904, when Alexandra gave birth to a son, Alexis. The dynasty was assured. But by then Russia was embroiled in hostilities with Japan that was originally touted to be just what the country needed, a "short, victorious war" that would deflect the nation's attention from domestic crises. Short it was. In less than two years Japan, which had gone from samurai swords to dreadnoughts in half a century, humiliated Russia on land and sea. Russia lost its fleet, billions in gold, nearly half a million men, not to mention territory and authority. A peace brokered by the American president Teddy Roosevelt in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, was concluded on September 5, 1905.
From the very start 1905 was a year of presagement. Many of the themes that would dominate the history of Russia, and the world, were first sounded then: revolution, racism, scientific breakthrough.
Once again a religious procession was to play a pivotal role in the fate of the Romanovs. In January 1905 a priest named Father Gapon led a peaceful demonstration of workers to the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg in the age-old belief that if only the tsar could hear their grievances, they would soon be redressed. Carrying icons and singing patriotic songs, the demonstrators were mowed down on the snow by rifles and sabers. The demonstrators had been doubly wrong about the tsar: he was neither in his palace nor was he concerned about their grievances despite his professed policy of direct contact between ruler and people. And they were also wrong about the priest who led them: Father Gapon was an agent of the tsarist secret police, which had decided to control the workers' movement by co-opting it.
Street fighting erupted in Petersburg, Moscow, and a dozen other cities. Mutinous sailors turned the guns of the battleship Potemkin on the city of Odessa. A new meaning was given to an old word, soviet—spontaneously formed councils of workers and soldiers. Though a failure, the Revolution of 1905 was termed by Lenin a "dress rehearsal" for the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917.
The politics of racial hatred in its modern virulent strain also first erupted at this time. The Russian press routinely referred to the Japanese enemy as "yellow devils." Initially, Europe and especially the British, who directly aided the Japanese, were on the side of the "brave little Nippers" against the Russian Goliath. Nevertheless, they were shocked by the very outcome they desired—a Western nation defeated by an Eastern one, whites by Asians.
It was also in 1905, in the great pogrom of Odessa, that over a thousand Jews were slaughtered. That same year a Jew who would himself become a refugee from racism, Albert Einstein, published three papers—on the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion, and relativity—the latter of which changed our image of the universe and would in time result in the unleashing of atomic energy.
Andrei Sakharov's grandparents took part in the events of those heady and violent days, though on opposite sides of the barricades. Ivan Sakharov was a gadfly lawyer who had made his name and fortune by defending victims of pogroms, of negligence in steamship accident cases, and in the political trials of the day. He was known to the police as a "constant lawyer for strikes." In 1905 he formed his own political group, represented the teachers' union, and was a founding member of the Constitutional Democratic Party, known for short as the Kadets.
Ivan Sakharov was very much a man of his times both in his mentality and his clean break with his own family's past. The Sakharovs had been priests for generations, the nonmonastic Russian clergy being allowed to marry. The Sakharovs first surface in history in the eighteenth century in the province of Nizhny Novgorod, which was to figure often in the life of Andrei Sakharov. At that time the family had no last name. Family legend has it that when Sakharov's great-grandfather Ioann arrived on foot to enter the seminary in Nizhny Novgorod, a teacher looked him over and pronounced: "Since you're as pure and white as sugar, we'll call you Sakharov" (sakhar, accent on the first syllable, being the Russian for sugar). Looks were deceiving. Ioann, who headed the church of Arzamas between 1845 and 1864, was stern and demanding, zealous in his efforts to convert Catholics and Jews, and not above reporting to the higher ecclesiastical authorities that a drunken brawl had broken out in a church, a deacon having apparently punched a peasant.
Ioann's son Nikolai, also a graduate of the Nizhny Novgorod seminary, married the daughter of a priest, with whom he had something like a dozen children. A simple, gentle, and modest man, Nikolai always carried his prayer book with him, on whose first page he had inscribed his credo: "Do not hurt anyone." Of Nikolai and his wife it was said: "They lived long and died the same day," she a short while after him on February 1, 1916.
None of Nikolai's sons entered the priesthood. All the children were well educated, even the daughters, one of whom, Maria, was schooled in Geneva and became a physician in Moscow. Others became teachers, agronomists. Andrei Sakharov's grandfather, the gadfly attorney Ivan, had entered the University of Moscow in 1879 to study law. There in 1881 he met his future wife Maria Domukhovsky, a descendant of the old Russian nobility (with connections to the aristocracy of Poland) whose records of service at court went back to 1655.
In her youth Maria had the sort of boyish features that can make a woman's face somehow seem even more feminine and appealing. Dark-haired, dark-eyed, high-browed, her face in old photographs is intense, direct, and emanates the sort of dangerous purity that led many women of her generation into selfless acts of political assassination. In fact, after abruptly abandoning her first husband after six months of marriage, Maria Petrovna fled to St. Petersburg, where she stayed with a friend, Sofia Usova, who was connected with a terrorist organization, Narodnaya Volya (The People's Will or The People's Freedom, the word volya carrying both meanings). Maria caught the eye of the police early on. In 1884, when Sofia Usova was arrested and exiled, Maria's apartment was searched, and she was kept under surveillance for years, leaving a long paper trail in the archives of the tsarist police.
Maria had met Ivan Sakharov in 1881, a bad year. Tsar Alexander II, who had liberated the serfs in 1861, two years before the slaves were freed in America, now met the same fate as Lincoln. He was killed by a terrorist bomb hurled under his carriage, a document introducing a form of constitutional monarchy left unsigned on his desk. The years between that assassination and the Bolshevik Revolution were essentially one long night of reaction and the struggle against it by people like Ivan and Maria.
Ivan and Maria were very much of a kind. Both had broken with their backgrounds, both were highly critical of their society, both insisted on personal freedom—they did not marry until 1899, by which time they already had six children though, in a sign of the latitude of Russian manners, neither suffered any disapproval from the Sakharov family. And in the best tradition of the Russian intelligentsia, which required commitment and engagement, Ivan and Maria were active opponents of the injustices of tsarist Russia. Ivan provided exiles with legal counsel and helped unite husbands and wives in exile. Maria collected money for exiles, sent them packages, visited them in prison. Their apartment was searched because of Maria's correspondence with exiled members of Narodnaya Volya, and their baggage was always combed through upon their return from frequent trips to western Europe. It was an era of open borders, and the family went abroad two or three times a year, visiting France, Italy, Switzerland, taking the waters in Germany. Ivan found himself in a position not unknown to other lawyers in other countries and times: he prospered by attacking the system. After moving frequently, the family finally settled in a six-room apartment on Granatny Lane in the heart of old Moscow.
After the Revolution of 1905 was beaten back, Tsar Nicholas's government unleashed a wave of exile and execution, as many as fifteen thousand men and women hung by the neck until dead. Ivan Sakharov protested by editing a collection of essays calling for the abolition of capital punishment, which included Tolstoy's famous "I Cannot Keep Silent." His book influenced the thinking of the time and of his grandson Andrei.
To say that Andrei Sakharov's maternal relatives were on the other side of the barricades in 1905 does not mean in the least that they partook of the reactionary spirit with its jingoism and pogroms. The Sofianos were military men, staunch patriots, solid citizens. Andrei Sakharov's maternal grandfather, Alexei Sofiano, commanded an artillery brigade in the war with Japan, was much decorated, and afterward always insisted that "Russia would never have been defeated had it not been for the anti-patriotic actions of the Bolsheviks and the other revolutionaries." A fine rugged figure of a man with the close-cropped hair, beard, and upturned mustaches fashionable at the time, Alexei Sofiano retired from the army as a major general after the debacle with Japan. When hostilities broke out with Germany in 1914, he returned to active duty at the age of sixty, demanding to be sent to the front. Again he fought gallantly; again he was decorated (photos show his chest bemedaled from epaulet to epaulet). In October 1917 he retired again with the rank of lieutenant general and was supposed to receive a pension but never saw a kopeck of it—that same month the Bolsheviks seized power and were not about to support tsarist generals in their old age.
General Sofiano married twice, the second time to Zinaida Mukhanova, whose last name indicates Tartar origins. Tartar and Mongol are often used interchangeably by Russians to refer to the many peoples that comprised Genghis Khan's Golden Horde, which overran Russia in 1237 and ruled the country for some 250 years. Their legacy included the Russian word for money, diengi, a model of autocratic political structure, and an emotional ambivalence: the Russians were particularly xenophobic about Asians (Nicholas was playing on that with his expression "yellow devils"), but they also took pride in descent from Tartar princes. Zinaida was of the landed gentry/military class, and her lineage was quite ancient. Andrei Sakharov would be in the eleventh generation of that line of the family, from which he would inherit the "Mongol cast" of his eyes and a combination of "obstinacy" and "awkwardness in dealing with people."
The Sofianos were of aristocratic Greek descent, originally from the island of Kea, which Plutarch described as small in size and population but a great source of illustrious people. Historically, Greeks and Russians were united by a common religion and a common enemy, the Turks. But the relationship between the two countries predated the Christian era: parts of southern Russia and Ukraine had been Greek colonies as early as 8 B.C., and there were enough Greeks, both as residents and refugees, in the Caucasus region for Stalin to exile one hundred thousand of them en masse to Central Asia in 1949. It was natural for military men such as the Sofianos to switch their allegiance to Russia, the great power in the region; besides it was nothing unusual for foreigners, especially soldiers, merchants, and instructors of various sorts to seek their fortune in Russia; the great Russian poet Mikhail Lermontov was a descendant of George Learmonth, a Scottish mercenary who served the tsar in the early seventeenth century. From the end of the eighteenth century through the First World War, Sakharov's Russified Greek ancestors served Russia bravely and well, taking part in all the major wars and campaigns, serving in the cavalry, artillery, navy. Nearly all displayed exceptional valor and initiative, winning medals, promotions, and grants of land (not all of which were actually delivered upon, the communists not the only renegers). The Sofianos fought both in the unambiguously glorious war against Napoleon and in ignominious actions like the quelling of Polish uprisings or the "pacification" of the Crimean Tartars, for whose rights Andrei Sakharov would battle nearly two centuries later, not without some consciousness of recompense.
Excerpted from SAKHAROV by Richard Lourie. Copyright © 2002 by Richard Lourie. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Foreward by Carl Freedman
Prologue: A World Apart
Monologues: Visible and Invisible Persons Distributed in Space
From Nepiy to Free-Kantor
The Flower and the Web
Visitors on Velm
Rescue on Rhyonon
Home and a Stranger
Strangers and Visitors
From Breakfast to Morning
A Dragon Hunt
A Tale of Two Suppers
Return to Dyethshome