Sakharov:
From Physics
to Human Rights

 by Dimitar Zlatev,
April 2000
 

 

The public life of one of Russia’s greatest nuclear physicists and passionately outspoken advocates of human rights, liberties, and economic and social reform in the Soviet Union began innocently enough. When, sometime around noon, on June 22, 1941, Andrei Sakharov learned that Germany had attacked Russia earlier that morning and that his country was at war, he could not follow his immediate patriotic impulse to enlist into the Soviet armed forces. Sakharov was considered the brightest physics student in the memory of the faculty at Moscow University, where he had just completed his third year. Declared, in effect, a national asset, he graduated in 1942 and spent the remainder of the war years working as an engineer for the military. Five years later, Sakharov received a degree of Candidate of Doctor of Science—the Russian analog to the Ph.D.—for his work in cosmic ray theory at the prestigious Lebedev Institute of Physics of the Soviet Academy of Science, where he had been a member of the "Tamm group," an exceptional assembly of precocious physicists brought together under the direction of the future Nobel laureate Igor Tamm.

 

Barely twenty-six years old, Sakharov’s scientific career seemed to be taking off. By 1948 he had appeared in the Soviet Journal of Experimental and Theoretical Physics with papers on cosmic rays and the interaction of electrons and positrons. Then came a published paper that dealt with "the temperature of excitation in plasma of a gaseous discharge" (Babonyshev). But then, suddenly, Sakharov disappeared. For almost ten years no one heard of him. To what anyone could tell, Russia’s most promising scientist seemed to have vanished into thin air.

 

Of course, that was not the case. Under the strictest of secrecy, Sakharov, Tamm, and other theoretical physicists had been put to work perfecting the Soviet Union’s hydrogen bomb (the H-bomb). By 1950, Sakharov and Tamm had achieved this task—they had developed the method of an electrical discharge in plasma (placed in a magnetic field) that produces the powerful thermonuclear reaction. For this tremendous work-in-secrecy, Sakharov received, again in secret, the Stalin Prize, three Orders of Socialist Labor (the highest honor a Soviet Union civilian could attain), and the exceptional salary of two thousand rubles a month. He was given every conceivable privilege, from living comforts to special housing to restricted consumer goods to chauffeurs and bodyguards. Yet still no one outside the leaders of the Soviet government, the few scientists possessing the highest security clearances, and the Ministry of Medium Machine Construction (the Soviet atomic energy agency) knew about this immensely intelligent young man. In 1953, merely thirty-two, he was elected a full member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences and entitled a Doctor of Science. What perhaps best shows the remarkableness of this achievement is that, after more than twenty years as a corresponding member of the Academy, his distinguished partner, Dr. Igor Tamm, was also named a full member that same year.

 

After reaching the highest level of academia, Sakharov’s interests turned from nestling with the laws of the universe to nestling with the laws of society. This was not uncommon for physicists. Albert Einstein, after refining his Theory or Relativity, struggled with questions of war and peace. Oppenheimer moved from the A-bomb to efforts to enunciate the delicate interaction between his powerful science and the humanities it directly affected. At thirty-seven, Sakharov, shielded from much of the world by severe security classifications and remote and almost unknown research facilities, began to turn from the defined and restrictive world of applied physics to the more human and tangible problems of the Soviet society, a society of which he was a member, but also, because of his nuclear weapons production, a member who was responsible for much of the strength behind its seeming stability. This process lasted until the end of his life, and is why, much more than his enormous contributions to physics and to Cold War balance or power, the name Sakharov is permanently linked with global humanitarianism.

 

Born in Moscow in 1921 into a well-known and respected family of the Soviet scientific intelligentsia, Sakharov was surrounded from early childhood by an environment of fervent, honest, passionate, and dedicated people known as the Russian intelligent. "The Russian intelligent has no precise counterpart in other societies. He is not simply a university graduate or an individual given over to intellectual pursuits. He is not, for example, a white-collar man as opposed to a blue-collar man. In fact, it is not his academic or economic status that distinguishes the Russian intelligent but, rather, his moral and social outlook, his sense of dedication to principle, to the improvement of the lot of his fellow man, to the elimination of social evils, to selflessness, to the moral imperative of speaking the truth as he believes it, regardless of physical and material consequences. He is imbued, to some extent, by the traditional spirit of Russian universalism. He believes in the perfectibility of man and in his own duty to put sacrifice above self" (Salisbury).

 

Immersed in such culture, it was perhaps unavoidable that a man of Sakharov’s intellect and sensibility would turn to societal affairs. He had explained his prolonged absorption with weapons research and theory with the belief that "I was working for peace" (Bonner). The Soviets had successfully developed the A-bomb by October 1949, but more was needed to achieve parity with the Americans. Scientists knew that this had to be the H-bomb, and in a rapid and intense contest with American scientists, Tamm and Sakharov won, giving the Soviet Union, for once, a theoretical advantage. Sakharov saw this as a way to peace: if both the United States and the Soviet Union possessed such lethal nuclear arms technology, rather than destroying the world, they would come to a standstill and settle their disagreements. The H-bomb is not what pushed Sakharov away from physics and into politics; what did, seems to have been the way the Soviet government handled the late nineteen-sixties prosperity it was enjoying.

 

By 1958, the Soviet Union was secured from American nuclear threat by Tamm and Sakharov’s H-bomb, and its international prominence was substantially advanced by Sputnik and its space program (a program that was significantly ahead of that of the United States). It was at this time that Sakharov decisively moved from a secluded life of science to a public life of policy and politics. His first action was an attempt to affect a significant Russian policy decision. Convinced that further atmospheric nuclear tests were not scientifically necessary and would only exacerbate the arms race, he persuaded Igor Kurchatov, then head of the Soviet nuclear program, to cancel a sequence of 1958 tests. Kurchatov sought permission from Khrushchev to do so, but Khrushchev denied it, and the tests went on as scheduled. Sakharov’s second action was to gradually allow him the understanding of the possible social repercussions of his nuclear arms work. In 1958, together with Zeldovich (a colleague), Sakharov published a letter that questioned the Soviet educational system that was in place and proposed a new program for advanced children. It was a time when educational reform was a major topic of discussion. Khrushchev had just proposed a program that would interrupt children’s education at the age of fifteen or sixteen for two to three years of what he called "practical" work. Sakharov and Zeldovich vehemently opposed this, saying that the opposite—the acceleration of children’s education—should be done, by arguing that the most productive and imaginative years in science were those of youth, before the age of twenty five. They especially focused on mathematics and physics students, whose education they proposed to thoroughly shake up by moving away from the great emphasis given to Euclidean geometry, algebra, and trigonometry, and converging more on calculus, vectors, probability, and mathematical analysis. This time Sakharov won. His program was implemented.

 

Encouraged by such positive response to his call for social awareness, Sakharov could not escape the awareness he was gaining from the possibly terrible social effects of his nuclear weapons research. "I gradually began to understand the criminal nature not only of nuclear tests but of the enterprise as a whole," he told Hedrick Smith, the New York Times Moscow correspondent. "I began to look on it and other world problems from a broader, human perspective" (Sakharov).

 

It was this realization that brought discord between Sakharov and the Soviet government. It sprung a philosophy inside the brilliant scientist that strictly conflicted with Russian propaganda. He once again unsuccessfully disputed a series of nuclear tests in the fall of 1961. In 1962, again despite his objections, another set of tests was held. The helplessness he felt created a permanent disruption between him and his surroundings. "I could not stop something I knew was wrong and unnecessary. It was terrible. I had an awful sense of powerlessness. After that I was a different man. I broke with my surroundings. It was a basic break" (Daniels). But, fortunately, the arms agreement with the United States did eventually come. Shortly after successfully opposing the deceitful and politics-influenced doctrines of the powerful Stalin-era charlatan biologist T.D. Lysenko in 1963, Sakharov learned that the Soviet Union and the United States had agreed to stop atmospheric, space, and under water nuclear tests.

 

Sakharov’s increasing political activity had the additional effect to lower him from the high-security classification world he had been put into since the beginning of the war. He began to again publish in scientific journals and shifted his interests from nuclear physics to quark theory and the continuous expanding of the universe. He was more free to meet with members of the Russian intelligent and found that most of them agreed with him that fundamental changes in the system had to be made in order for the Soviet Union not to return to the terror-filled and insecure existence Stalin had created. He joined twenty-four prominent scientists, thinkers, philosophers and distinguished members of society in calling for the Party not to rehabilitate, at the twenty-third Party Congress in 1966, the previously officially condemned Stalin. Whether it was because of the argument of this petition or not, in the end, Stalin was not rehabilitated and remained condemned.

 

By now, Sakharov was methodically formulating his ideas on Russian society. In 1968, these ideas were revealed to the world with his famous Manifesto—Progress, Coexistence, and Intellectual Reform. The manifesto was widely circulated in the Soviet Union by underground channels and was received well by the Russian intelligent and even by some government officials. Calling for a coexistence and cooperation on world affairs by the United States and the Soviet Union, Sakharov’s manifesto proposed that the two superpowers join together to more effectively deal with the widespread problems of hunger, coarse development, militarism, racism, and waste of resources (Babonyshev). It outlined Sakharov’s belief that the Soviet Union could only find progress if it centrally and elaborately liberalized its system, allowing for freedom of thought and information by destroying its system of political trials and political prisoners, by eliminating censorship, and by beginning a gradual economic reform. Aware of the Russian intelligent principles of "dispute, challenge, disagreement, and individuality" (Salisbury), Sakharov pointed out that his conclusions were by no means definitive and asked for an open, public discussion of his ideas. This, however, was not to happen. His manifesto was publicly published extensively throughout the non-communist world, drawing particular interest in the United States, but was distributed only underground in communist countries. In Russia, many knew privately of the manifesto, but publicly it was only mentioned in terms that skewed Sakharov’s ideas.

 

Personally, Sakharov quickly felt the effects of Progress, Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom. One morning, when he arrived for work, he found out from the security guard who denied him access that he had been discharged from the Soviet nuclear weapons program. Subsequently, he was told that he was no longer employed. A full year passed before he was given work as a senior researcher (the lowest position an Academician was permitted to hold) at the Lebedev Institute.

 

But instead of deterring Sakharov’s outspoken social conscience, this had the effect of spurting it more. He began to sign his name to petitions for free-spoken intellectuals in the custody of the KGB. He appeared at prison trials of writers, and, if not admitted in the courtroom, would stand outside the courthouse in protest. In 1970, Sakharov updated his manifesto to take into account current events and presented it to the world as a letter to Leonid Brezhnev, Aleksei Kosygin, and Nikolai Podgorny—the Soviet leadership. Also signed by the physicist Valentin Turchin and the historian Roy Medvedev, the letter, commonly referred to as Manifesto II, concentrated on the domestic difficulties of the Soviet Union, in particular the continued censorship and restriction of free thought and information, the slacking of the economy, the marked Russian inability of keeping up with advancements in the computer world, the precarious condition of Soviet foreign affairs policy, and the distinct possibility of falling from the prestigious status of world super power (Sakharov). "There is no way out of the difficulties facing the country," Sakharov wrote, "except a course toward democratization carried out by the Party in accordance with a carefully worked out program" (Sakharov). The Soviet leadership did not reply.

 

Vowing to make the Soviet government incapable of ignoring him and certain that his country’s problem was the absence of free thought, free speech, and a blind and unbiased law system, Sakharov in 1970 formed with A.N. Tverdokhlebov and V.N. Chalidze the Committee on Human Rights, which pledged "its intent to work within the framework of Soviet law to assist in creating and implementing guarantees of human rights based upon the humanitarian principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948" (Sakharov). Sakharov and his colleagues promised to "engage in constructive criticism of the contemporary state of the system of legal guarantees of individual liberty in Soviet law" (Sakharov).

 

This certainly got the government’s attention. Tverdokhlebov and Chalidze immediately lost their jobs. On a trip to the United States to give a series of Lectures, Chalidze was tricked into giving his Soviet passport to Russian officials and was immediately thereafter told that he no longer was a citizen of the Soviet Union. Although Sakharov continued to participate in a weekly seminar on quantum theory at the Lebedev Institute, the increasing strain of government harassment was prohibited him from doing any productive work. The three children from his first marriage (after his wife died in 1969, Sakharov had married Yelena Bonner) ignored him. His stepdaughter was dismissed from Moscow University’s journalism school. His stepson was blocked from entering Moscow University when officials altered his exams. Yet, despite these marked personal difficulties, Sakharov held steadfast in his battle to convince Russians that the only way out of certain economic and societal catastrophe was the liberalization of the Soviet system.

 

In 1971, eighteen years after the death of Stalin, Sakharov again wrote to Brezhnev, repeating and adding to the message of his first and second manifestos—fundamental and complete liberalization, freedom of speech, freedom of information, freedom of press, destruction of the political prison system, the necessity of a scrupulous system of law, democratic elections, and end to censorship and state-motivated persecution. When his letter again drew no response, a year later he wrote another, urging "the democratization of society, the development of openness in public affairs, the rule of law and the safeguarding of basic human rights" and criticizing "Soviet apathy, hypocrisy, petit bourgeois egoism and hidden cruelty, the secret privileges of the elite, their indifference to human rights, progress, genuine security, and the future of mankind" (Sakharov). Sakharov declared that "the country’s spiritual regeneration demands the elimination of those conditions that drive people into becoming hypocritical and time-serving, and that lead to feelings of impotence, discontent, and disillusionment" (Sakharov).

 

Soviet reaction was, as usual, quick and cruel. Mikhail Malyarov, the Soviet Union’s first deputy Prosecutor General, threatened Sakharov with trial on account of allegedly violating the state secrets act. Party speakers publicly condemned him in the Party press, laying the way for what they hoped would be a conviction and sentencing to a Soviet political prison camp. Fighting back, Sakharov remained outspoken in his criticism of the Soviet Union, a nation he felt was practicing a form of polluted Marxism and that was shamefully characterized by intolerance, brutality, hypocrisy, bigotry, conceit, and timid acquiescence to the existing status quo. For these sustained lifelong efforts against the oppressive Soviet regime, he received, in 1975, the Nobel Prize for Peace. Still unsatisfied, he vehemently denounced the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan and called for a world boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow.

 

The Soviet government’s reaction was decisive but, in the end, only fueled and intensified Sakharov’s message of humanitarianism. Stripped of all his honors, Sakharov was internally exiled by the Soviet Union to the closed city of Gorky (today Nizhny Novgorod), where he spent six years in virtual solitude. His exile drew worldwide protest and his noble and distinguished taking in of his banishment gained him the admiration of both communists and non-communists. Sakharov’s message was now, more than ever, supported by personal suffering. In December 1986, the Soviet government under Mikhail Gorbachev released Sakharov from Gorky. He was allowed to return to Moscow, and, in April 1989, eight months before his death, was elected to the Congress of People’s Deputies. His honors fully reinstated, he was able to see many of the causes for which he had fought and suffered implemented as official Russian policy.

 

Works Cited:

Babonyshev, A. and Sakharov, Andrei, Omaggio a Sacharov (Firenze: Arte & Pensiero, First Edition, 1982).

Babonyshev, Alexander, On Sakharov, tr. Daniels, G. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, First Edition, 1982).

Bonner, Yelena, Alone together, tr. Cook, Alexander (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, First Edition, 1986).

Sakharov, Andrei, A. Sakharov v borbe za mir, ed. Trushnovich, Y. A. (Frankfurt: Posev; First Edition, 1973).

Sakharov, Andrei, Memoirs, tr. Lourie, Richard (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, First Edition, 1990).

Sakharov, Andrei, Sakharov Speaks, ed. Salisbury, Harrison (New York: Vintage Books, Vintage Series Edition, 1974).

 

 

 

 

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