Meeting the Demands of Reason

Meeting the Demands of Reason: The Life and Thought of Andrei Sakharov

Jay Bergman
Copyright Date: 2009
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 480
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.ctt7z87d
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Meeting the Demands of Reason
    Book Description:

    The Soviet physicist, dissident, and human rights activist Andrei Sakharov (1921-1989) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975. The first Russian to have been so recognized, Sakharov in his Nobel lecture held that humanity had a "sacred endeavor" to create a life worthy of its potential, that "we must make good the demands of reason," by confronting the dangers threatening the world, both then and now: nuclear annihilation, famine, pollution, and the denial of human rights.

    Meeting the Demands of Reason provides a comprehensive account of Sakharov's life and intellectual development, focusing on his political thought and the effect his ideas had on Soviet society. Jay Bergman places Sakharov's dissidence squarely within the ethical legacy of the nineteenth-century Russian intelligentsia, inculcated by his father and other family members from an early age.

    In 1948, one year after receiving his doctoral candidate's degree in physics, Sakharov began work on the Soviet hydrogen bomb and later received both the Stalin and the Lenin prizes for his efforts. Although as a nuclear physicist he had firsthand experience of honors and privileges inaccessible to ordinary citizens, Sakharov became critical of certain policies of the Soviet government in the late 1950s. He never renounced his work on nuclear weaponry, but eventually grew concerned about the environmental consequences of testing and feared unrestrained nuclear proliferation.

    Bergman shows that these issues led Sakharov to see the connection between his work in science and his responsibilities to the political life of his country. In the late 1960s, Sakharov began to condemn the Soviet system as a whole in the name of universal human rights. By the 1970s, he had become, with Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the most recognized Soviet dissident in the West, which afforded him a measure of protection from the authorities. In 1980, however, he was exiled to the closed city of Gorky for protesting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In 1986, the new Gorbachev regime allowed him to return to Moscow, where he played a central role as both supporter and critic in the years of perestroika.

    Two years after Sakharov's death, the Soviet Union collapsed, and in the courageous example of his unyielding commitment to human rights, skillfully recounted by Bergman, Sakharov remains an enduring inspiration for all those who would tell truth to power.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-5838-5
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Preface and Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  4. Note on Transliteration
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  5. Part I Earliest Influences:: 1921–1945

    • 1 A Childhood of Culture and Ideas
      (pp. 3-18)

      The Soviet Union in which Andrei Sakharov was born and grew to maturity was radically different in many ways from the monarchy that preceded it. Mesmerized by the opportunity to remold human nature and create a communist society devoid of everything that had corrupted human existence prior to the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the original leaders of the Soviet Union were genuine zealots and ideologues. The orchestras without conductors and the communes whose members shared everything, including their underwear, that Soviet citizens created enthusiastically in the 1920s were just two expressions of the fanaticism implicit in the communism these leaders...

    • 2 Expanding Horizons
      (pp. 18-28)

      The Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, complicated Sakharov’s life in ways he could not have previously imagined. Neither he nor anyone else in his course of study in mathematics and physics at MGU was conscripted because the Soviet government, despite the gravity of the situation, recognized how helpful to the war effort such persons would be once they graduated and could work for the government in their chosen profession. Sakharov chose not to volunteer for military service, believing that his chronic heart condition—from which he would suffer for the rest of his life—would...

  6. Part II Designing Weapons for the Maintenance of Peace:: 1945–1956

    • 3 Tamm’s Protégé at FIAN
      (pp. 31-45)

      “Never before or since have I been so close to the highest level of science—its cutting edge.”¹ This is how Sakharov described in his memoirs the work he did at FIAN. Reading them one appreciates the enthusiasm Sakharov felt at the time for the academic discipline he had recently chosen as his profession. Sakharov probably had some inkling of what being Igor Tamm’s protégé would be like even before arriving at FIAN in January 1945. One wonders, however, whether he was aware that the Soviet leadership viewed science as critical to the country’s progress from capitalism to socialism and...

    • 4 Arzamas-16—The Secret Installation
      (pp. 46-61)

      To facilitate the task of assessing the progress Zeldovich and his colleagues were making on the construction of a Soviet hydrogen bomb, Sakharov, Tamm, and two other physicists who were part of this project, Vitalii Ginsburg and Iurii Romanov, were moved to different offices and given new calculators. Because their task was by no means an easy one, Sakharov found himself working longer and harder than he ever had before, remaining in his laboratory late into the night.¹ Inevitably, Tamm’s group began to do more than merely check on what Zeldovich’s group had accomplished, and their suggestions for improvement eventually...

    • 5 The “Layer Cake” and Other Weapons
      (pp. 61-78)

      At Arzamas Sakharov was consumed by the task of constructing a hydrogen bomb. This was more difficult than constructing an atomic bomb, but the military benefits were commensurately greater. Even before the United States successfully tested nuclear weapons and dropped them on Japanese cities, Edward Teller and Enrico Fermi had dreamed of building what Teller called a super-bomb (or “Super”) based on the following process. Energy released in the fission of the nuclei of a heavy element such as uranium or plutonium raises the temperature of the atoms of a light element—Teller had in mind deuterium—to the point...

  7. Part III A Scientist with a Social Conscience:: 1956–1968

    • 6 Radioactive Fallout and Other Matters of Conscience
      (pp. 81-92)

      By the late 1950s Sakharov was sufficiently appalled by what he had seen of the Soviet ruling elite that on one occasion, in the winter of 1958, he described the top leaders of the Soviet Union, whom he had recently observed in meetings he attended in the Kremlin, as “monsters.”¹ In time these same leaders would think similarly of Sakharov.

      Obviously descriptions such as this reflected Sakharov’s growing disillusionment not only with the personal qualities of the individuals who ruled the Soviet Union but with impersonal and institutional aspects of Soviet society and government as well. But it was by...

    • 7 Confronting Khrushchev
      (pp. 92-105)

      The substantive issue around which Sakharov’s disaffection crystallized in the late 1950s was the testing of thermonuclear weapons in the atmosphere. He vehemently and unequivocally opposed it. Given his concerns about radioactive fallout, it was logical that he do so. Unlike nuclear tests conducted underground—which, by shifting massive amounts of subterranean material, had the effect, under certain circumstances, of preventing earthquakes or reducing their severity—atmospheric testing had no beneficial effects whatsoever.¹ To the latter Sakharov remained unalterably opposed, even though he was aware that any ban on atmospheric testing meant that the very weapons he and his colleagues...

    • 8 The Nuzhdin Affair
      (pp. 105-117)

      Sakharov scored another victory in 1964. In June of that year, he played a critical role in defeating the nomination of Nikolai Nuzhdin, an acolyte and accomplice of Trofim Lysenko—the longtime “Stalin” of Soviet biology, agronomy, and genetics—for full membership in the Academy of Sciences. By opposing Nuzhdin’s nomination publicly—at the meeting of the general assembly of the academy at which the full members, in a secret ballot, formally rejected the nomination a few hours after Sakharov spoke—Sakharov was not merely criticizing specific policies obliquely and indirectly, as he and Zeldovich had done in their article...

    • 9 A Dissident at Last
      (pp. 118-132)

      Andrei Sakharov joined the dissident movement shortly after it became a recognizable phenomenon in the mid-1960s. A Soviet dissident could be generally described as someone who regarded the Soviet system as flawed, based his criticisms on moral principle, believed in the inherent dignity and worth of the individual, and whose efforts to change the Soviet system for the better prompted the leadership to try to silence him. To a remarkable degree, the trajectory of Soviet dissidence in the 1960s and 1970s—from isolated protests condemning specific actions of the government to a coordinated and organized movement for systemic reform—followed...

  8. Part IV Challenging the Soviet Goliath:: 1968–1973

    • 10 Reflections on Progress, Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom
      (pp. 135-153)

      Reflections made Sakharov famous. Incredibly, some 18 million copies were sold or distributed globally in the first year of its publication.¹ An American edition, with an introduction, notes, and commentary by the American journalist Harrison Salisbury, was published in 1968 and remained in print in the United States for many years.² From 1968 to 1992, no fewer than sixty-five editions of the essay, in seventeen languages, appeared around the world.³ Andrei Grachev, who in the late 1980s served as one of Gorbachev’s secretaries and advisers, claims in his reminiscences of those years that he never had to ask the KGB...

    • 11 An Equal Partner in Politics and Life
      (pp. 153-157)

      Largely because of Reflections and the publicity it received around the world, by 1969 the Soviet government considered Sakharov its principal domestic opponent.¹ In his memoirs, Sakharov describes his newfound notoriety matter-of-factly, perhaps because his life was changing even more dramatically in other ways, for reasons having nothing to do with politics. In 1968 Klava’s health deteriorated rapidly, the result of stomach cancer that metastasized because her doctors had been unable, even with X-rays, to detect it; Sakharov may have considered their incompetence, which verged on malpractice, symbolic of the larger failings in Soviet society he deplored.² By the new...

    • 12 Moral Anchor of a Dissident Movement
      (pp. 157-188)

      In the early 1970s Sakharov became a central figure among the dissidents. For this reason he could not remain aloof from the effort to create permanent organizations as a vehicle for pursuing the goals they shared. Through these organizations Soviet dissidence became an actual movement, as opposed to sporadic, ad hoc, and generally amateurish expressions of opposition whenever a particular instance of repression or mistreatment presented itself. Unlike Solzhenitsyn, for whom intellectual independence was an end in itself, Sakharov could see the practical benefit of collective action, and in the years that followed participated in organizations of a political nature...

    • 13 The Regime Reacts
      (pp. 188-196)

      Five weeks after Chakovskii’s piece appeared, Sakharov was summoned to answer questions from the KGB. This was the first time the Soviet police had demanded this of him. At the meeting, which the KGB termed an interview but which quickly became a unilateral denunciation, the KGB informed Sakharov that he was not “morally sound.”¹ In addition, he was told that his membership in the HRC was in itself “slanderous” of the Soviet Union, that his attempts to attend trials of dissidents were improper, and that foreign correspondents like Axelbank who interviewed him did so for the purpose of weakening the...

    • Illustrations
      (pp. None)
  9. Part V “Domestic Enemy Number One”:: 1973–1980

    • 14 Orchestrated Vituperation
      (pp. 199-210)

      “Sakharov, that traitor.” This is how Sakharov characterized the slander he heard several Soviet citizens utter in September 1973, not long after the press campaign began, when they spotted him on a beach in Batumi on the shore of the Black Sea. He and Bonner had hoped to find a brief respite there from the incessant attacks.¹ Sakharov does not reveal in his memoirs what his reaction was to the charge, but one can be fairly certain he was not pleased by it. Not only was it completely false but it also showed that the government’s rhetorical onslaught was having...

    • 15 Debating Solzhenitsyn
      (pp. 211-223)

      Sakharov’s revelation in early September of the Princeton invitation caused his relations with Solzhenitsyn to worsen. The two men met for the last time on December 1, 1973. At the meeting, Solzhenitsyn argued strenuously against Sakharov’s leaving the country. When Sakharov assured Solzhenitsyn he had no intention of defecting in the unlikely event he received a visa, Solzhenitsyn, who knew that both Chalidze and Zhores Medvedev had been stripped of their Soviet citizenship while abroad after receiving official permission to leave, told Sakharov that the same fate might befall him as well. To this Sakharov replied unrealistically and with a...

    • 16 Détente and Human Rights
      (pp. 223-242)

      However much futurology attracted him, Sakharov devoted most of his attention in the 1970s to issues of immediate concern both to him and to the Soviet Union. The most pressing and prominent of these was détente. Sakharov himself never defined the term, but he used it repeatedly to describe a relationship between states that was less bellicose than that in a cold war but without the shared interests implicit in ententes and alliances. What most clearly distinguished détente from a cold war, as these terms were used in the West in the 1970s, was that, while the former suggested a...

    • 17 Nobel Laureate
      (pp. 242-264)

      Sakharov did not confront the Soviet goliath in a vacuum. His ideas and objectives and his sense of what was politically possible were all colored in varying degrees by the circumstances of his personal life. In 1974 and 1975 these were dominated by Bonner’s medical problems. In the spring of 1974 her glaucoma worsened, the result, in Sakharov’s view, of the thyroidectomy she had undergone in February of that year. Untreated, her affliction would leave her blind. In June Bonner entered the Moscow Eye Hospital for surgery, fully expecting it to be performed once the preoperative procedures were completed. But...

    • 18 The Noose Tightens
      (pp. 264-276)

      From 1977 to 1980 the government’s persecution of both the dissidents and the refuseniks increased. Paradoxically, the more the government harassed these groups, the more it seemed to fear them. In March 1979 Andropov told a conference of KGB officials assigned to the Fifth Directorate (which had the task of combating ideological subversion) that “every act” a dissident carried out against the Soviet Union “represent[ed] a danger.”¹ Because the dissidents chose to challenge nothing less than the moral legitimacy of the Soviet system, the paucity of their popular support and the smallness of their numbers were irrelevant. Moreover, by seeking...

  10. Part VI In Exile, Unrepentant:: 1980–1986

    • 19 Arrested but Still Defiant
      (pp. 279-301)

      On January 22, 1980, the day he expected the government to arrest him, Sakharov was determined to follow his usual routine.¹ In the early afternoon, in a limousine the academy provided him, he set off for the Lebedev Institute to attend its weekly seminar on theoretical physics. Although he had had no formal duties at the institute since 1969, he retained an office there and enjoyed the intellectual stimulation the seminars provided. As his limousine traversed the Krasnokholmskii Bridge, the police, who had closed the bridge to other vehicles, stopped Sakharov’s car and surrounded it. Two KGB agents quickly got...

    • 20 Finding Hope in Quantum Physics
      (pp. 302-322)

      The exhilaration Sakharov felt when Liza finally received an exit visa did not last long. However gratifying it was in personal terms, his success in forcing the Soviet government to capitulate momentarily could not obscure the harsh reality that the dissident movement, by 1981, was in extremis. In the late 1970s the government decided to destroy the dissident movement in its entirety, and sending Sakharov to Gorky was just one of many steps it took to achieve its objective.¹ Indeed, in the months that followed Sakharov’s victory in December 1981, the government’s persecution accelerated. By the summer of 1982, Helsinki...

    • 21 The Soviet Leadership Softens
      (pp. 323-330)

      In the late summer of 1985, when Bonner’s prospects of going abroad and Sakharov’s of leaving Gorky never seemed worse, the new Soviet leadership, unbeknownst to both of them, was reconsidering its refusal to grant Bonner a visa. On August 29 the Politburo discussed her application formally. Gorbachev, who, as general secretary, chaired the meeting, ascribed Bonner’s behavior to her “Zionism,” and Chebrikov, the head of the KGB, expressed the commonly held view among the Soviet leadership that Sakharov was little more than Bonner’s puppet. Nevertheless they decided to approve her application. But they also agreed on several conditions Bonner...

  11. Part VII The Conscience of Perestroika:: 1986–1989

    • 22 Return to Moscow
      (pp. 333-353)

      On his first full day back in Moscow, Sakharov returned to the Lebedev Institute to attend its weekly seminar on theoretical physics. If he did so in the expectation that he could resume his activities as if nothing had changed since he was last there in January 1980, he was wrong. As he entered the seminar, the scientists who were present applauded him, and during the course of it an adoring crowd waited anxiously outside for him to emerge—proof that not everyone in Moscow believed the falsehoods the Soviet press had spread about Sakharov in the years he was...

    • 23 A Different Kind of Perestroika
      (pp. 354-372)

      What, then, did Sakharov think the reform of the Soviet Union required? How, if at all, did his proposals and prescriptions evolve from 1987 to 1989, and how much did they correspond to what Gorbachev was enacting concurrently under the aegis of perestroika?

      On the Soviet economy, Sakharov’s views became more radical. In 1987 and through most of 1988, as Gorbachev proposed reforms that modified economic relations without changing the economic institutions themselves-such as allowing individual enterprises limited freedom in how they functioned but with the state continuing to own them-Sakharov was largely silent, focusing his attention on other matters.¹...

    • 24 The Congress of People’s Deputies
      (pp. 372-390)

      There were moments of high drama at the First Congress of People’s Deputies after it convened in late May 1989. Sakharov was involved in several of them. But the one that captured most poignantly his ambivalent attitude toward both Gorbachev and the program of reform the latter believed would save the Soviet Union occurred on June 9, the last day the congress was in session. The assembled delegates were contemplating a resolution supportive of perestroika. Sakharov thought the resolution did not go far enough. By this time in his political evolution, the perestroika he favored was more radical and should...

    • 25 Apotheosis Postmortem
      (pp. 391-398)

      In the four days between Sakharov’s death, on December 14, and his funeral, on December 18, Gorbachev negotiated the terms of the funeral with the same ambivalence he had demonstrated when Sakharov was alive. Even in death, Sakharov was someone whose support he wanted, whose reputation he envied, and whose political opposition he resented. Moreover, how Gorbachev reacted to Sakharov’s passing could have repercussions for the general secretary’s standing both at home and abroad. The official obituary in Pravda, signed by Gorbachev and fifty-five other government and party officials, perfectly reflected this ambivalence and uncertainty. It described Sakharov simply as...

    • Conclusion: Sakharov’s Legacy
      (pp. 399-412)

      In assessing Sakharov’s influence after his death, the first thing to determine is the effect he had on the collapse of the Soviet Union, arguably the most significant event of the late twentieth century. Though he made a substantial contribution to this event, he never advocated the overthrow of the Soviet system or did anything with the conscious intention of causing it.

      He contributed mostly by pressuring Gorbachev to continue and to widen perestroika, which instead of preventing or retarding the collapse of the Soviet system, had the paradoxical and wholly unintended effect of accelerating it. About Sakharov’s relationship to...

  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 413-444)
  13. Index
    (pp. 445-454)