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Excerpt from the introduction to The KGB File of Andrei Sakharov
Andrei Sakharov, the KGB, and the Legacy of Soviet Dissent
by Joshua Rubenstein
On July 11, 1968, the New York Times carried a startling piece of news on the front page. Under the headline Soviet Expert Asks Intellectual Liberty, the article described how a distinguished Soviet physicist had issued a plea for full intellectual freedom, Soviet-United States cooperation and a worldwide rejection of ‘demagogic myths’ in an urgent program to avert nuclear war and famine. The essay was now circulating inside the Soviet Union. Its author was identified as Andrei Sakharov, and according to the article, Sakharov had helped design his country’s hydrogen bomb. Over the next few days, the Times elaborated on the story, praising him in an editorial as a very brave man. In the present repressive, almost Stalinist, atmosphere in Moscow, it took great courage for even a distinguished nuclear physicist to write and circulate his remarkable manifesto . . . And then the editors presciently concluded that It would be an insult to the intelligence of the Soviet people to assume that Academician Sakharov is alone in his views.
Other major news outlets quickly carried stories of their own. Newsweek congratulated Sakharov for thinking the unthinkable. Time called the essay a thunderbolt, while the Christian Science Monitor declared the essay to be extraordinary, an attack on the very foundations of the Soviet state. By the end of July, the New York Times so believed in the significance of Sakharov’s essay that it published a complete translation covering three full pages in the front section.
For most Western observers, this unexpected memorandum marked the beginning of Andrei Sakharov’s career as a dissident. Coming at a dramatic moment, when Czech communist reformers had already been capturing world attention with their attempt to create socialism with a human face, Sakharov’s essay reinforced the exhilarating hope that genuine democratic reform could take hold within Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. But Sakharov’s daring initiative and the broader experiment in Prague were crushed when Warsaw Pact forces invaded Czechoslovakia. Alexander Dubcek, who led the Czech Communist party in its noble, failed attempt at liberalization, was taken away to Moscow, where he and his reform-minded colleagues were compelled to accept Soviet demands and reverse the liberal changes they had introduced. After Dubcek’s return to Prague a few days later, he was permitted to retain the formal leadership of the Communist Party until April 1969, when he was demoted, expelled from the party, and later sent to a remote location to work as a forestry official. He was not allowed to talk with anyone outside his family without official permission. Andrei Sakharov endured a less onerous punishment by the KGB (the Soviet secret police). Although his security clearance was withdrawn and he was no longer permitted to work inside a secret weapons laboratory, he was invited to resume his physics research a year later at a prestigious institute in Moscow.
The KGB had learned about Sakharov’s essay in May 1968. Almost immediately, KGB Chairman Yuri Andropov passed along a copy to the Politburo, characterizing the document as anti-Marxist. By June, Andropov was growing concerned about demagogic attempts [by other dissidents] . . . to exploit the name of the well-known Soviet scientist, Academician Sakharov, by systematically asking him to endorse documents of politically harmful content. Nonetheless, Andropov remained cautious and suggested that it would make sense for one of the secretaries of the Central Committee to receive Sakharov and to conduct an appropriate conversation with him. The KGB remained mindful of Sakharov’s unique status and the secretive nature of his work as a physicist; in many of Andropov's initial reports, Sakharov's name, at times the names of people associated with him, and even some of the issues raised in the reports, such as his work on nuclear weapons, were written in by hand so that even KGB typists would not know his identity or learn about sensitive information.
At the same time, the KGB initiated close surveillance of Sakharov himself. Still, because of his high-standing in the nomenklatura, the KGB did not install listening devices in his apartment until the spring of 1970, and then only after receiving explicit permission from the Politburo. From the spring of 1968 until Sakharov's death in December 1989, the KGB kept the Politburo up-to-date on his defiant behavior, sending hundreds of reports to the political leadership of the Soviet Union. A few years after Sakharov's death, his widow Elena Bonner was given over two hundred of these memorandums. One hundred forty-seven are collected here.
The reports, though, portray reality through a distorted lens. After looking over these formerly top-secret documents, the veteran activist Ludmilla Alexeyeva was struck by the language the KGB employed. They sounded exactly like the newspaper articles they used to denounce us, she recalled. We always thought that among themselves, Soviet officials used plain language about what we were trying to do. Who would have guessed that they talked about us in private in the same way they did in public. These reports, in fact, present a distorted picture of Andrei Sakharov's career as a dissident and the intellectual, political, religious, and nationalist dissent that captured the world's attention at a time when Sakharov was moving beyond his role as a scientist to become an outspoken voice for democratic reform and respect for human rights. They also provide important insight into official attitudes and actions.
The evolution of his dissident activity did not unfold in a political vacuum. By 1968, a steadily growing group of audacious young people, intellectuals, and communist party veterans had been holding public vigils and circulating appeals on behalf of imprisoned human rights activists. One case in particular had provoked the initial protests. In September 1965, two Moscow writers, Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel, were arrested for sending their stories and essays to the West where their work appeared under pseudonyms. Their friends refused to quietly accept their arrests and decided to stand up for them publicly. They organized petitions on behalf of Sinyavsky and Daniel and even held a demonstration in Moscow's Pushkin Square on December 5, 1965, Soviet Constitution Day, demanding respect for Soviet laws and that the trial of the two defendants be open. This demonstration is often considered the beginning of the Soviet human rights movement. Sinyavsky and Daniel were convicted in February 1966 under the notorious Article 70 of the Criminal Code which forbade anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda and sentenced to the labor camps of Mordovia, east of Moscow.
This cycle of arrest, trial, and protest repeated itself for two years. By 1968, more than fifteen hundred people had signed appeals protesting various cases, evoking the kind of attention in the West that a fish would have for an ichthyologist if it suddenly began to talk, in the words of the dissident writer and activist Andrei Amalrik. These activists were challenging long-held constraints. One emblematic moment occurred in the fall of 1967 when Pavel Litvinov, a physics teacher and the grandson of the famous Soviet diplomat and commissar for foreign affairs Maxim Litvinov, was warned by the KGB that he would be better off to destroy a collection of documents he was putting together about the trials of two young activists Viktor Khaustov and Vladimir Bukovsky; they had been convicted earlier in the year for participating in a demonstration in January 1967 in defense of political prisoners. Litvinov was not intimidated. To everyone's surprise, he wrote an account of his conversation with the KGB, then sent copies to several Soviet newspapers and three Western communist newspapers as well as circulating it in samizdat (or self-published literature). The BBC prepared a dramatized version of his account for broadcast back to the Soviet Union. Amalrik caught the uniquely brazen quality of Litvinov's action: It was not only the conversation itself, of course, since there had been plenty of such conversations and warnings, but the fact that Pavel had recorded it and made it public. In so doing, he had thrown out a challenge not only to the KGB, but to one of the most important unpublished laws of Soviet society: a kind of agreement between cat and mouse to the effect that the mouse will not squeak if the cat starts to eat it.
Amalrik himself was heavily involved as a liaison between the dissidents and the Western press. Thanks to him and others, appeals were handed to foreign correspondents and often broadcast in Russian to the Soviet Union over the BBC, Deutsche Welle, Radio Liberty, and the Voice of America. Such broadcasts spread the word about political arrests and often provoked further protests, even visits to Moscow from people all over the country who wanted to help the defendants or share their own stories of injustice with activists whose names and addresses they had learned from Western radio programs.
But the trials and ensuing protests made up only one worrisome pattern for the regime. At the same time, more and more uncensored literature was now circulating, bringing news of political arrests, violations of judicial procedure, conditions in prisons and labor camps, anti-Semitic incidents, and the suppression of ethnic minorities, along with independent-minded essays, short stories, even entire novels. All this was more than just an affront to the regime's painstaking system of censorship. It was also a signal to the Kremlin that a growing number of citizens were finding their own voices and were discussing aspects of life in the Soviet Union without censorship.
In the spring of 1967, no less a figure than Alexander Solzhenitsyn--whose initial novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich about a labor camp inmate had created a sensation in 1962 but whose subsequent major novels were now banned in the Soviet Union--appealed directly to the Writers' Union to abolish censorship for works of fiction and turn the Writers' Union itself into a defender of artistic creativity rather than a repressive tool of the regime. The country, Solzhenitsyn wrote, needed its writers to express their considered judgment about the moral life of man and society, or to explain . . . the social problems and historical experience that have been so deeply felt in our country. Solzhenitsyn's Letter to the Writers' Union Congress joined the flood of samizdat literature.
Other dissidents had even broader ambitions for samizdat. For two years, ever since the petition campaign had begun on behalf of Sinyavsky, Daniel, and other prisoners, news had reached Moscow activists of reprisals against the signers: loss of employment, expulsions from the party, chats with the KGB, threats of arrests, and incarceration in psychiatric hospitals. Accused of breaking [its] own laws, the activist Boris Shragin observed, [the regime] answered by breaking them again. Each incident deserved to be recorded. For months, there was an ongoing discussion among several of the dissidents over how to collect and circulate this information. Finally, on April 30, 1968, the first issue of A Chronicle of Current Events appeared. It soon proved to be among the preeminent achievements of the human rights movement. By its final issue, number 64, which came out in 1983, the Chronicle had reported on the full range of non-conformist activity in the country, from outlying regions, from all the national republics, from prisons and labor camps, and the proceedings of ostensibly closed political trials, overcoming the arrest of editors, countless searches, and threats of hostage-taking. Sakharov believed A Chronicle of Current Events [embodied] the best in the human rights movement, its principles and highest achievements--the defense of human rights using objective information, and with a principled rejection of violence. The very fact of the almost uninterrupted publication of the Chronicle for more than 15 years is a miracle of self-sacrifice, of wisdom, of courage and intellectual integrity. Its comprehensive information, dispassionate tone, and regular appearance reinforced its appeal. And the activists quickly understood its usefulness as a vital archive of their struggle with the regime. Material circulating in samizdat was now touching on so many specific episodes of injustice that it was only natural for more general criticism of the regime to emerge that would place all of these problems in perspective. The most startling and comprehensive of these early critiques was Andrei Sakharov's long essay Progress, Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom.
Sakharov was not one of the young, disaffected intellectuals or idealistic party members who had joined the ranks of active dissidents, as they would later come to be called. He was among the country's most honored scientists. Born in 1921, he came from a long line of eminent social and intellectual figures. His grandfather, Ivan Sakharov, was a respected defense attorney in tsarist Russia who edited a collection of essays against capital punishment. While still a child, I read with horror the remarkable collection of essays Against the Death Penalty published in Russia with the participation of my grandfather . . . during the wave of executions following the 1905 revolution, Sakharov recalled in a statement to Amnesty International in 1977. My grandfather's work on this book was an act of conscience and, to an extent, civic courage. His father, Dmitri Sakharov, was a talented pianist, but it was his career teaching physics that most influenced the young Andrei. Dmitri Sakharov wrote textbooks and popular science books, including an introduction to physics and a history of lighting devices. On his mother's side, Sakharov's ancestors included a Greek family named Sofiano, who had come to Russia in the eighteenth century. Many Sofiano men distinguished themselves as military officers in Russia's wars. Their careers and their ethnic background made them vulnerable in the 1930s when two of Sakharov's Sofiano relatives were destroyed in the purges. He also lost an uncle on his father's side of the family.
At Moscow University, Sakharov made an immediate impression on his teachers and classmates. He had an unconventional and unexpected way of solving scientific problems. His colleague, the physicist Yakov Zeldovich, said of him many years later, I don't understand how Sakharov thinks. He also had two unusual and dramatic talents that set him apart: he could write in mirror script like Leonardo da Vinci and he could write simultaneously and equally well with both hands. The first talent may have been little more than a parlor trick. But Sakharov's ability to write with either hand made a vivid impression on his colleagues, who would follow him across a broad blackboard as he wrote extensive and complicated formulas.
After the German invasion in June 1941, he was deferred from military duty because of a chronic heart condition and then completed his undergraduate studies. For the duration of the war, Sakharov was assigned to a cartridge factory where he made a substantial contribution to the reliable production of 14.5 millimeter armor-piercing bullets by inventing a magnetic device to test their cores. He resumed his graduate work after the war under Igor Tamm, the leading theoretical physicist at the prestigious Physics Institute of the Academy of Sciences in Moscow, known by its acronym FIAN. As he finished his graduate training, Sakharov also published several scientific papers until abruptly, in 1949, his name ceased to appear in print; it did not appear again until 1957.
The explanation was simple enough, but it would not be publicly acknowledged for years: Sakharov was drafted into developing nuclear weapons. By 1950, he was directed to work in a secret facility devoted exclusively to their design and production. Known as Arzamas-16, it was located three hundred miles east of Moscow, and incorporated the monastery and old city of Sarov which had ceased to appear on any Soviet map. (It was also not far from Gorky where Sakharov would be exiled many years later.) Arzamas-16, or the Installation, as Sakharov calls it in his memoirs, was a military facility, surrounded by rows of barbed wire and heavy security. It had been built by prison laborers, many of whom were still working there when he first arrived. Every morning long gray lines of men in quilted jackets, guard dogs at their heels, passed by our curtained windows, he wrote many years later. Sakharov joined legendary physicists, most notably Igor Tamm and Yakov Zeldovich, and the scientific director of the Installation Yuli Khariton, in a concentrated effort to build a thermonuclear weapon before the Americans could.
He did not accept the assignment willingly. Blessed with a coveted research position, Sakharov twice rejected attempts to entice [him] away from FIAN and the frontiers of theoretical physics. But the third time, in 1948, he recalled in his memoirs, nobody bothered to ask my consent. By order of the Council of Ministers and the Party Central Committee, he was assigned to a special research group to investigate the possibility of building a hydrogen bomb. Despite his earlier reluctance, Sakharov threw himself into the work. He turned out to be unusually talented, not only as a theoretical physicist, but also as an engineer. I understood, of course, the terrifying, inhuman nature of the weapons we were building, he acknowledged decades later. But the recent war had also been an exercise in barbarity; and although I hadn't fought in that conflict, I regarded myself as a soldier in this new scientific war. . . .
Over the course of time we devised or borrowed a number of principles, including strategic parity and nuclear deterrence, which even now seem to justify intellectually, at least to some extent, the creation of thermonuclear weapons and our role in the process. Our initial zeal, however, was inspired more by emotion than by intellect. The monstrous destructive force, the scale of our enterprise and the price paid for it by our poor, hungry, war-torn country, the casualties resulting from the neglect of safety standards and the use of forced labor in our mining and manufacturing activities, all these things inflamed our sense of drama and inspired us to make a maximum effort so that the sacrifices--which we accepted as inevitable--would not be in vain. We were possessed by a true war psychology, which became still more overpowering after our transfer to the Installation.
Their efforts proved to be immensely effective. Five years after Sakharov joined the team of scientists, on August 12, 1953, the Soviet Union successfully tested a thermonuclear device, which Sakharov had principally designed. For this work and involvement in other, related projects, he received in secret three Hero of Socialist Labor awards (the highest civilian honor in the U.S.S.R.), the Stalin Prize, and the Lenin Prize (awards that carried staggering amounts of money by Soviet standards), as well as a high salary, special housing, a chauffeur on call, restricted consumer goods, and a bodyguard for a time who even went swimming and skiing with him. On top of that, he was rarely permitted to fly because, as he recalled in his memoirs, there were several of us who were considered too valuable to risk in a plane crash. In 1953, at the age of thirty-two, he was also elected a full member in the Soviet Academy of Sciences, among the very youngest scientists ever so honored. Igor Kurchatov said of him that day, This man has done more for the defense of Russia than all of us present here today. But only his colleagues in the highest ranks of scientific research and leading government officials knew of his importance.
After Stalin's death on March 5, 1953, Sakharov gradually became involved in broader social and scientific questions. As he remarked in Progress, Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom, his views were formed in the milieu of the scientific and technical intelligentsia. For years, in fact, his friendships with other scientists, in particular with Igor Tamm, helped to broaden his thinking about Soviet society and the responsibility of scientists to address the country's problems. Their isolated community at the Installation was a haven of relatively free intellectual and political discussion within Stalin's highly controlled kingdom. The scientists could read Western journals, giving them broader and more informed access to the world than almost anyone else in the Soviet Union ever had.
They knew, for example, how the fields of biology and genetics had been devastated by ideological constraints; the followers of Trofim Lysenko, a charlatan biologist who, with the support of Stalin, had thoroughly prevented research into modern genetics and plant biology. One of Lysenko's unfounded theories claimed that he could transform one species of plant into another, like turning rye into wheat, by altering its environment. Perhaps the most notorious consequence of Lysenko's influence was the arrest of one of the world's leading plant geneticists, Nikolai Vavilov, in 1940 and his death in prison in 1943. After the war, Lysenko renewed his ideological offensive. By 1948, he was able to announce the support of the Central Committee for his assertion that genes did not exist, thereby preventing any Soviet scientific research based on modern-day understanding of heredity. Work in the field came to a halt, while hundreds of genuine researchers and experimental agronomists were fired. Lysenko and his followers had triumphed. As Nikolai Nuzhdin, one of Lysenko's principal associates proclaimed, Mendelism-Morganism has been condemned. It has no place in Soviet science.
Other branches of science, including physics, were threatened with similar ideological measures. Already in 1948, while Soviet physicists were frantically working to design an atomic bomb, critical articles about Einstein's Theory of Relativity appeared in Moscow journals. And then in June 1952, a corresponding member of the Academy of Sciences named A. A. Maximov published an inflammatory article called Against the Reactionary Einstein-mania in Physics. In the article he claimed that the Theory of Relativity without a doubt propagandizes anti-scientific attitudes concerning fundamental questions of contemporary physics. According to Maximov, the camp of idealism, running through Einstein, Bohr, and Heisenberg, has directed the development of physics into a dead end. Maximov went on to denounce quantum theory as well.
Sakharov and his colleagues did not let this article pass unnoticed. In December 1952, eleven of them, including Tamm, Lev Landau, Mikhail Leontovich, and Sakharov, took the extraordinary step of sending a collective letter to the administrative head of the hydrogen bomb project, none other than Lavrenti Beria, Stalin's former (and feared) security chief. The letter made it clear that Maximov's article and several earlier pieces from 1948 could lead to an abnormal situation in Soviet physics. With all of our experience, we know what enormous damage such articles can cause. They orient our scientific workers and engineers in an incorrect direction, and they have a malicious effect on the teaching of physics.
In effect, they were warning Beria that if the party wanted to develop atomic and thermonuclear weapons, it had no choice but to leave physics and physicists alone. Beria passed along their letter to Georgy Malenkov (who was regarded as second in command after Stalin) and there were no more attacks on the integrity of Soviet physics. It was spared the fate of biology. Eight months later, Sakharov and his colleagues demonstrated their usefulness with the explosion of the first Soviet thermonuclear device.
Given Sakharov's subsequent career as a dissident, it is startling to recall how affected he was by Stalin's demise in March 1953. By then, he knew quite enough about the horrible crimes that had been committed--the arrests of innocent people, the torture, the deliberate starvation, and all the violence. But he was not immune to the widespread mourning that overtook the country. Years later, the one-time editor-in-chief of Izvestia Alexei Adzhubei (who was Khrushchev's son-in-law) noted how after Stalin's death, there was a widespread feeling of vulnerability, a sort of bereavement. For most people the name of Stalin was linked with the place of our country in the world arenas, with assurance that difficulties, obstacles, disasters would be overcome. ‘He can do everything, he will find the one correct solution.'; that was how people thought, that is how this personality was regarded--higher than God, closer than father and mother, unique. While some independent-minded people quietly celebrated Stalin's death, Sakharov shared the grief around him. I am under the influence of a great man's death, he wrote to his wife. I am thinking of his humanity.
Nonetheless, Sakharov soon understood, as did many other people in the country, that the death of Stalin and the grudging relaxation in cultural life that Khrushchev permitted--the famous thaw--needed to be defended and broadened. At the urging of Zeldovich, Sakharov wrote a letter to Nikita Khrushchev in 1954 in defense of a new play that challenged the highhanded greed and selfishness of party bureaucrats. The Guests by Leonid Zorin was among the independent-minded works that animated Soviet culture in those years and, inevitably, became a target for conservative critics. Sakharov was responding to the organized press campaign against it; although his letter was undramatic and unproductive, he noted that it was the first step I had taken outside my own field.
Soon, however, he was outpacing his colleagues with new initiatives. He made a point of defending the father of a colleague who had been arrested for telling a lewd joke about Khrushchev. After sending his appeal to Khrushchev, Sakharov was summoned to see Mikhail Suslov in his Kremlin office. A long-time member of the Politburo, Suslov was a veteran Stalinist and a strict guardian of Soviet ideology. But Sakharov was not intimidated and spoke up for his friend's father. The fellow was eventually sentenced to two and a half years of confinement, but was released after just one year; Sakharov liked to think that his intervention played some part in this relatively mild treatment. It would not be Sakharov's last attempt to help a prisoner.
Under Khrushchev, Sakharov's most telling confrontations with officials came over the issue of nuclear fallout and nuclear testing. Already in 1955, following the successful atmospheric test of a new and extremely powerful thermonuclear device-- which he was credited with designing--Sakharov learned that the shock wave from the explosion had been so unexpectedly severe that two people, a young soldier and child, had been killed. Their deaths and other related casualties heightened [his] sense of foreboding; he could not escape a feeling of complicity, as he recalled in his memoirs.
At a banquet to celebrate the successful test, Sakharov was invited to propose the first toast. May all our devices explode as successfully as today's, he remarked, but always over test sites and never over cities. His words stunned the other guests, as if [he] had said something indecent. The presiding army marshal quickly offered a rejoinder, invoking a vulgar, sexual joke to make clear who would decide on the actual use of nuclear weapons. Sakharov came away feeling as if [he] had been lashed by a whip, he recalled years later. We, the inventors, scientists, engineers, and craftsmen, had created a terrible weapon . . ., but its use would be entirely outside our control. . . . The ideas and emotions kindled at that moment have not diminished to this day, and they completely altered my thinking.
That same year, on August 16, 1955, two administrators at Arzamas-16 drew up an enigmatic letter for Sakharov's personnel file. At the outset, they acknowledged his substantial contribution to the design of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, referring to it with the standard euphemism izdeliye, or a gadget. And they went on to emphasize that he had earned a place of authority and respect among his colleagues. But then they turned to his shortcomings, including his lack of ideological commitment, his inappropriate refusal to be considered as a candidate to the city council, and similarly incorrect remarks (during the selection of personnel) about the ability and capacity of certain nationalities to do theoretical work. This last rebuke was based on the simple fact that Sakharov was surrounded by too many Jews in his laboratory.* These shortcomings, the authors asserted, could be blamed on comrade Sakharov's easy susceptibility to other people's influence and that the party organization of the institute and the political department have not worked enough with him.
One cannot help but speculate over the tone of this letter. If Sakharov continued to act in a politically independent manner, they were hoping not to be held accountable. And if he continued to make outstanding contributions to weapons research--as he would do for another thirteen years--they could point to their enthusiasm for his work. Sakharov, for his part, did not disappoint them on either count.
In 1957, he wrote about the harmful genetic effects of nuclear testing; the article appeared in 1958 and with Khrushchev's approval, was translated for magazines and distributed by Soviet embassies and propaganda agencies in the West. The Kremlin, at that time, was looking for ways to inhibit further Western development of nuclear weapons and had declared a unilateral halt to nuclear testing; Sakharov's warnings about radioactive fallout fit into the regime's propaganda plans. But Sakharov was determined to stop Soviet atmospheric tests of nuclear weapons altogether. Knowing how advanced Soviet weapons research had become, Sakharov did not think atmospheric tests were scientifically necessary; he also feared they could aggravate the arms race and increase the dangers of nuclear fallout. Although he managed to relay his message to Khrushchev, the Politburo rejected his advice and Soviet testing resumed in 1958.
But Sakharov did not retreat into silence. No nuclear tests were conducted by the USSR, the United States, or Great Britain in 1959, 1960, or the first half of 1961, as Sakharov wrote in his memoirs. Khrushchev, though, abruptly decided to break this moratorium and resume testing. Sakharov and other scientists were summoned to a meeting with party leaders in July 1961, where Khrushchev announced his decision to resume testing in the fall. He was not asking for the scientists' endorsement and did not expect any criticism.
Sakharov was not deterred. First orally and then in a scribbled note to the General Secretary, Sakharov volunteered the opinion that we had little to gain from a resumption of testing. Moreover, he feared that new tests will seriously jeopardize the test ban negotiations, the cause of disarmament, and world peace. Khrushchev reacted with sharp impatience, berating Sakharov before a roomful of party leaders and fellow scientists. A year later, after the atmospheric testing of two similar devices, which Sakharov argued was unnecessary and likely to result in hundreds of thousands of casualties from nuclear fallout, he broke down under the strain of his futile efforts. It was the ultimate defeat for me. A terrible crime was about to be committed, and I could do nothing to prevent it. I was overcome by my impotence, unbearable bitterness, shame, and humiliation. I put my face down on my desk and wept. Years later, in a conversation with Hedrick Smith of the New York Times, Sakharov vividly recalled the importance of these events in his own life. 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. . . . The atomic question was always half science, half politics. . . It was a natural path into political issues. What matters is that I left conformism. It is not important on what question. After that first break, everything was natural. This marked the beginning of his rupture with the Soviet establishment and his decision to speak out, to act out, to put everything else aside.
For a time, Sakharov's focus remained within the framework of Soviet science. He was heartened by his contribution to the partial nuclear test-ban treaty in 1963. When talks between the United States and the Soviet Union broke down, Sakharov reminded Soviet officials of an American fall-back position put forward by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1959. The Soviets revived the proposal and the treaty, which halted tests in the atmosphere, in space, and under water, was concluded.
In 1964, he helped defend the integrity of scientific research against Lysenkoism. Even after Stalin's death, Lysenko and his supporters retained some influence. But by the 1960s, at the initiative of the biologist Zhores Medvedev, a group of Soviet scientists began to expose the disastrous effect of Lysenkoism on the country's agriculture.
Andrei Sakharov joined these efforts. In June 1964, the nomination of Lysenko's associate Nikolai Nuzhdin for full membership in the Academy of Sciences was scheduled for a vote. It would be a major step to challenge Lysenko in his presence. As Sakharov recounted in his memoirs, he did not look for allies but resolved on his own, in an impulsive but fateful decision, to take the lead against Nuzhdin. Unbeknownst to Sakharov at that time, several physicists and biologists, including Tamm and Leontovich, had been planning a concerted attack on Nuzhdin as well.
Once the debate over the nomination began, Sakharov was granted the floor before the other opponents and made an audacious denunciation of Lysenko and all he represented. He urged all those present to vote so that the only yeas will be by those who, together with Nuzhdin, together with Lysenko, bear the responsibility for the infamous, painful pages in the development of Soviet science, the collapse of Soviet genetics, and the physical destruction of scientists, which fortunately are now coming to an end. When he finished, he could hear Lysenko threaten him in typical fashion, loudly proclaiming that people like Sakharov belong in prison. Lysenko continued to interject himself into the debate, accusing Sakharov of slander and creating a disgraceful scene. There were twenty-nine candidates that day for full membership in the Academy, but only Nuzhdin was turned away on a vote of twenty-three in his favor and one hundred fourteen opposed, an overwhelming rejection.
Sakharov was not easily forgiven for his intervention. In August, the president of the All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Mikhail Olshansky, targeted him by name in the magazine Selskaya Zhizn (Rural Life). The article, Against Misinformation and Slander, referred to Sakharov as an engineer by specialty and branded him as incompetent and na•ve. Olshansky wanted Sakharov to answer for his slanderous outspokenness before a court. Such attacks did not frighten Sakharov. At the beginning of August, he sent a letter to Khrushchev in which he made clear that he could not be silent about the abnormal and tragic situation in Soviet biology. He urged Khrushchev to permit an open discussion of problems in the history of biological sciences in the USSR. . . . The demagoguery of Lysenkoism will not fool anyone who is familiar with its shameful history. And he concluded by recommending to Khrushchev that he read a manuscript by the young scientist Zhores Medvedev which thoroughly exposed the history and impact of Lysenkoism on the country.
That October, Khrushchev was removed from power and replaced by a group of party officials led by Leonid Brezhnev. Brezhnev had once been in awe of Sakharov. In March 1962, after Sakharov received his third Hero of Socialist Labor medal in the Kremlin, Brezhnev darted out of a side corridor and greeted me effusively, Sakharov remembered, taking both my hands in his and shaking them without letting go for several seconds. Even in 1965 after he assumed power, Brezhnev remained solicitous of Sakharov. Through others, he tried to encourage him to join the Communist party. And knowing of Sakharov's misgivings about Kremlin policies, Brezhnev told a colleague that Sakharov has some doubts and inner conflicts. We ought to try to understand and do all we can to help him. But whatever action Brezhnev authorized, it did not assuage Sakharov's doubts.
In fact, the new leadership's reactionary initiatives soon dismayed him. The arrest of Sinyavsky and Daniel in September 1965, rumors of more arrests to come, the suppression of books that might have appeared under Khrushchev, and persistent reports of Stalin's rehabilitation at the forthcoming 23rd Party Congress in March 1966 suffused the intellectual community with a sense of foreboding. Sakharov shared in this anxiety. Before the Party Congress convened, a group of leading scientists, artists, writers, and other intellectuals sent a petition directly to Brezhnev, voicing their opposition to Stalin's rehabilitation. This was not a group to be easily dismissed. Among the signers were the physicists Igor Tamm, Pyotr Kapitsa, and Andrei Sakharov; the dancer Maya Plisetskaya, and the veteran writer Ilya Ehrenburg. Tamm had received the Nobel Prize in physics in 1958; Kapitsa would receive the same recognition in 1978. This petition, in February 1966, was Sakharov's first public expression of dissent. The petition did not mince words. It warned Brezhnev that neither the Soviet public nor Western communist parties would support the rehabilitation of Stalin, and that such a move would be a great disaster. When the Party Congress met a few weeks later, it did not contradict the condemnation of Stalin that Khrushchev had organized at the preceeding Congress in 1961. Stalin's name, in fact, was not even mentioned.
Sakharov added his signature to another petition in the fall. This time, he and twenty other prominent figures protested the introduction of two new articles into the Criminal Code: Article 190-1 and 190-3. The former made it illegal to circulate false statements about the regime. The second article forbade violations of public order by a group, in effect forbidding unauthorized demonstrations. Both changes were in direct response to the Sinyavsky and Daniel case and their unconvincing prosecution under Article 70, which forbade agitation and propaganda against the regime. During their trial, the regime claimed that the defendants had intended to subvert the government with false statements, which was required for prosecution under Article 70. But it was never clear how the court could determine their anti-Soviet motives, especially when the defendants claimed to be loyal citizens who wanted to strengthen the Soviet Union by eliminating whatever remained of Stalinist abuses.
For the dissidents the introduction of Article 190-1 meant two significant changes. The new article called for a sentence of up to three years in a labor camp rather than the maximum of ten years, plus five years of exile provided under Article 70. On the one hand, this made Article 190-1 a less severe law which the regime could invoke depending on the nature of a defendant's protest or the attention of the West. On the other hand, those convicted under Article 190-1 could be sent to labor camps for ordinary criminals, where political activists, particularly Jewish ones, faced a great deal of hostility from the inmates. (Those convicted under Article 70 were generally confined with other political prisoners.)
Sakharov signed the petition alongside fellow physicists Vitaly Ginzburg, Yakov Zeldovich, Mikhail Leontovich, and Igor Tamm, as well as the writers Vladimir Voinovich, Veniamin Kaverin, and Viktor Nekrasov, and the composer Dmitri Shostakovich. The regime did not retreat and soon found it useful to invoke both articles in response to dissent. But the participation of such luminaries inspired hope in many younger activists. The nature of dissent seemed to be changing: Professors, academicians, writers--not to be compared with us striplings of the early 1960s, the dissident Vladimir Bukovsky once recalled.
In those years, a significant proportion of scientists were among the petition signers. Andrei Amalrik confirmed that a majority of those who protested against a major political trial in January 1968 were scientists. Many individual scientists had been drawn to their fields because other intellectual pursuits involved more substantial concessions to communist ideology. Fruitful scientific research had to employ classical logic and genuine methods of investigation as opposed to dialectical materialism. But once the regime began to harshly respond to this initial campaign of petitions, it became increasingly rare for a scientist to take on a public role. Many remained quiet, behind-the-scene supporters: circulating samizdat or raising money for the families of political prisoners. They were among the most vulnerable to the simplest forms of repression: dismissal from work or, in the case of students, denial of work in the area of specialization. Sakharov was the only prominent scientist to sign several of the movement's initial petitions and then not only refuse to withdraw, but actually deepen his commitment.
By the close of 1966, Sakharov was slowly building momentum for a more daring and dramatic statement. On December 5, 1966, Soviet Constitution Day, he joined a small vigil next to Moscow's landmark statue of Alexander Pushkin, doffing his hat at 6 p.m. in a brief, silent gesture of defiance as a sign of respect for the Constitution and support for political prisoners. None of the other dozen or so participants recognized him. Two months later, he sent a private letter to Leonid Brezhnev, appealing on behalf of the imprisoned writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel, as well as several young people who had come to their defense and then been arrested. This page and a half letter, for all its brevity, presaged the countless appeals he would later address: a focus on specific cases, concern over psychiatric abuse, violations of Soviet constitutional and criminal procedures, with the soon-to-be-familiar rebuke that such actions would unavoidably have the most undesirable international and internal consequences. Moreover, Sakharov did not hesitate to declare that democratic transformation of our country, de-Stalinization of government and party structures make up the most urgent necessity, yet there is strong dissatisfaction with the slow pace of this process. Tellingly, under his signature Sakharov added in his own handwriting that he was a three-time Hero of Socialist Labor, an Academician, and a recipient of a Lenin Prize and other government awards. The signature of several Politburo members are visible on the front page of the letter, indicating they had received and read it, and there is an added handwritten note assigning the letter to the archives. Sakharov did not lose interest in the case of Yuli Daniel. In the summer of 1967, he learned about the deplorable conditions that Daniel faced in a Mordovian labor camp, then called Yuri Andropov directly to ask that the KGB look into the situation. (Sakharov was later told that Daniel would soon be released, a claim that proved to be false.)
That same month, he prepared an article about the role of the intelligentsia and the danger of a thermonuclear war with the long-time journalist (and veteran intelligence officer) Ernst Henry. Sakharov voiced his opposition to any kind of anti-missile defense and invoked the names of two Western figures, the French physicist FrŽdŽric Joliot-Curie and the American chemist Linus Pauling, both of whom had supported nuclear test bans and restraints on Western development of nuclear weapons. On the surface, there did not seem to be anything anti-Soviet in the piece. Sakharov congratulated the Soviet government on its insistence that a moratorium on antimissile defense systems . . . must be studied not in isolation from the problem of disarmament but as part of the whole question of universal disarmament. He went on to express his fears that an exchange of nuclear weapons would destroy civilization and concluded with the observation--no doubt sincere but also to be expected for an article that he hoped to see appear in the Soviet press--that American scientists . . . understand the total senselessness, cruelty, and criminality of the Vietnam War.
Sakharov and Henry wanted to place the article in Literaturnaya Gazeta (Literary Gazette) but in the end did not succeed in convincing the editor-in-chief, the notorious reactionary Alexander Chakovsky, to publish it. Sakharov even appealed directly to Mikhail Suslov to review the decision, but Suslov did not want to see such an article appear in the Soviet press since its ideas might be interpreted incorrectly. Sakharov himself later admitted that his answers were more radical than he had anticipated. (The article subsequently appeared in Roy Medvedev's unofficial journal Political Diary.) Sakharov's loyalties remained intact. Later that same year, he joined another group of one hundred twenty-five cultural and scientific figures in an appeal to Brezhnev to end censorship. Here again, although the language of the appeal challenged official Soviet attitudes, it was still addressed in a respectful manner and was not circulated in a way that would embarrass or discomfit Kremlin officials. Sakharov still carried hopes for a genuine dialogue with them.
The regime, nonetheless, was not pleased with his persistent forays into politics. As a politician he's muddleheaded, one official declared at a meeting. In an attempt to discipline him, Sakharov's salary was reduced almost by half and he lost his position as department head at the Installation, although he remained its deputy scientific director.
By 1968, Sakharov was ready to be more outspoken and defiant. That January, there was another notorious political trial in Moscow, the Trial of the Four, as it was called, involving Alexander Ginzburg, Yuri Galanskov, Alexei Dobrovolsky, and Vera Lashkova, young people who had collected information on earlier political trials and tried to defend those defendants with petitions and appeals. Their trial and attendant publicity in the West proved to be more than a minor irritant to the regime and helped to embolden other activists. At the same time, the Prague Spring began to unfold in Czechoslovakia, provoking a host of expectations that communist rule could be reformed without violence. Written in a voice that was fresh, utopian, and hopeful, Sakharov's essay Progress, Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom encouraged such optimism. While he summarized his concern over the fundamental dilemmas of modern industrial society--military expenditures, environmental pollution, the role of scientific and technological progress--he also described the continuing legacy of Stalinist dictatorship in Soviet society.
Two ideas in particular startled readers in the West. First, Sakharov outlined his belief in the convergence of the Western and socialist systems of government. Convergence was not a new idea in the West, but Sakharov's essay signaled that Soviet scientists shared the notion that the rapprochement of the socialist and capitalist systems, accompanied by democratization, demilitarization, and social and technological progress, is the only alternative to the ruin of mankind. And second, Sakharov insisted that the challenges before modern society could only be effectively addressed within a democratic society, with the participation of a country's citizens and respect for human rights.
So many years have passed since Sakharov's first memorandum appeared and so many events have overtaken the drama of that time, including no less an event than the collapse of the Soviet Union itself, that it is hard to re-create the breathless feelings his essay aroused. Alexander Solzhenitsyn took exception to many of Sakharov's ideas, but he still expressed the admiration that so many people shared in response to his first essay.
We so rejoice in every little word of truth, so utterly suppressed until recent years, that we forgive those who first voice it for us all their near misses, all their inexactitudes, even a portion of error greater than the portion of truth, simply because something at least, something at last has been said!
All this we experienced as we read Academician Sakharov's article and listened to comments on it at home and from abroad. Our hearts beat faster as we realized that at last someone had broken out of the deep, untroubled, cozy torpor in which Soviet scientists get on with their scientific work, are rewarded with life of plenty and pay for it by keeping their thoughts at the level of their test tubes.
The KGB was not so pleased. Until the appearance of Progress, Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom, Sakharov had not crossed an ill-defined boundary that separated tolerable non-conformity from outright, disloyal dissent. Certainly the regime was keeping track of his written appeals, his participation in the vigil at Pushkin Square, his meetings with the independent-minded historian Roy Medvedev, whose book Let History Judge was among the first from within dissident circles to document Stalin's crimes. No doubt the KGB was wondering how far Sakharov would go and if he would dare jeopardize his august position within society. The answer became clear in the spring of 1968.
As it happened, the KGB learned of the memorandum when a secretary he had asked to type it passed a copy to the KGB. And it was the dissident activist Andrei Amalrik who shared a copy with the Dutch correspondent Karl van het Reve. Van het Reve thought of an ingenious way to evade Soviet censors and inform his newspaper Het Parol (The Word) of Sakharov's essay: he called his editor in Amsterdam on a Saturday, when he guessed that his own office telephone would not be monitored by a Dutch-speaking KGB agent, and dictated a translation. From that moment on, Sakharov's life would be turned upside-down.
The KGB reports to the Central Committee made up only a modest portion of its files on Sakharov and Bonner. In 1991, the KGB informed Bonner that it had destroyed 583 volumes of operational reports; these were raw materials based on information from KGB informers and surveillance teams that watched and intruded upon their lives for nearly two decades. See New York Review of Books, June 25, 1992, p. 46.
Tamm was not initially disposed to accepting Sakharov. During an interview, he is reported to have told him, You know, young man, it's hardly likely that you will make a physicist. You have a sort of humanistic mind. Tamm was both wrong and acutely prescient. See New York Times, December 20, 1986, p. 8.
The first Soviet atomic bomb was detonated on August 29, 1949, and shocked the United States which had assumed that the Kremlin would require years to develop such a weapon. Sakharov had not worked on this device.
The famous dissident Yuri Orlov studied physics at Moscow State University after World War II. His department enjoyed a similar kind of autonomy and was relatively free of ideological constraints. As Orlov once recalled, it was a wildly un-Soviet regime. See Yuri Orlov, Dangerous Thoughts: Memoirs of a Russian Life (New York, 1991), p. 98.
* His supervisors in the government were always nervous about Arzamas-16 because so many of its leading figures were Jews, among them Khariton and Zeldovich. When a second secret Installation was created-- with the hope that competition between the two organizations would generate new ideas . . . and spur an overall expansion of research--the ministry made a point of having few Jews in its leadership. As Sakharov wryly observed, In private, ministry officials nicknamed the second Installation ‘Egypt' (implying that ours was ‘Israel'), and referred to our dining room as ‘the synagogue.' (Sakharov, Memoirs, p. 84).
Khrushchev also admired Sakharov. In his memoirs, he remembered him as an extremely talented and impressive man and a crystal of morality among our scientists; see Strobe Talbot, ed., Khrushchev Remembers, The Last Testament (Boston, 1974), pp. 68-71.
A year later, in August 1968, Sakharov called Andropov for a second and last time. Once again, he was calling on behalf of imprisoned activists: the arrested demonstrators who had gone onto Red Square to protest the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. Sakharov expressed concern over their fate, reminding Andropov that Communist Parties are following developments [in Czechoslovakia], and it will make matters worse if the demonstrators are tried and sentenced. Andropov told him that he did not think the sentences would be severe; see Sakharov, Memoirs, pp. 293-294.
This is a bitter message for any dictatorship to accept. In China, the now deceased reformer and Communist party leader Deng Xiaoping issued a famous declaration in 1978 calling for economic reform based on Four Modernizations: of agriculture, industry, science and technology, and defense. After the young dissident Wei Jingsheng composed a wall poster demanding that democratization be added to these four goals, he was arrested and sentenced to eighteen years of imprisonment. Without democracy, Wei Jingsheng proclaimed, society will become stagnant and economic growth will face insurmountable obstacles. For the text of the wall poster, see The Fifth Modernization in his book The Courage to Stand Alone: Letters from Prison and Other Writings (New York, 1997), p. 210.
New York Times, July 11, 1968, p. 1 and July 14, 1968, p. E10.
Document 1, May 22, 1968
Document 3, June 13, 1968.
Ludmilla Alexeyeva, interview with author, Moscow, 2002
Ginzburg's book on the Sinyavsky-Daniel trial appeared in English as On Trial, trans., ed., and with an introduction by Max Hayward (New York, 1966).
Andrei Amalrik, Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984? (New York, 1981), p. 15.
Amalrik, Notes of a Revolutionary (New York, 1982), p. 23. The text of Litvinov's conversation with the KGB can be found in Abraham Brumberg, ed., In Quest of Justice: Protest and Dissent in the Soviet Union Today, (New York, 1970), pp. 90-92. For information about the trials of Khaustov and Bukovsky, see Pavel Litvinov, ed., The Demonstration in Pushkin Square (Boston, 1969).
The full text of the Letter to the Fourth Congress of the Union of Soviet Writers can be found in Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Oak and the Calf (New York, 1980), pp. 458-462.
Boris Shragin, The Challenge of the Spirit (New York, 1978), p. 207.
Sakharov's foreword to Mark Hopkins, Russia's Underground Press (New York, 1983), p. vii.
Andrei Sakharov, Letter to the Amnesty International Symposium on the Death Penalty, September 19, 1977, in Memoirs (Knopf, 1990), p. 654.
Sakharov, Memoirs, p. 6.
See Elena Bonner, Volniye Zametky k Rodoslovnoy Andreia Sakharova (Random Notes Toward a Genealogy of Andrei Sakharov) (Moscow, 1996).
Cited in Vladislav Mokhov, Grazhdanina Mira (A Citizen of the World), Atom, January 1998, p. 30. (This is a Russian language journal published in Sarov, Russia.)
Sakharov, Memoirs (New York, 1990), p. 114.
Ibid., p. 97.
Ibid., p. 170.
Cited in Vyacheslav Feodoritov, On byl svetlym (He Was Pure), Atom, January 1998, p. 6.
Sakharov, Progress, Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom (New York, 1968), p. 25.
See Mikhail Heller and Aleksandr Nekrich, Utopia in Power (New York, 1986), p. 483. The article by Maximov appeared in Krasny Flot (Soviet Navy), June 14, 1952.
See the letter of eleven scientists to Beria in the Andrei Sakharov Archives (Brandeis), folder S.II.188.8.131.52.
Sakharov, Memoirs, p. 164.
Cited in Alec Nove, Glasnost' in Action, Cultural Renaissance in Russia (Boston, 1989), p. 30.
Sakharov, Memoirs, p. 164.
Ibid., p. 200.
Ibid., p. 207.
Ibid., pp. 193-195.
Atom, January 1998, p. 9.
Sakharov, Memoirs, p. 203
Ibid., p. 215.
Sakharov, Memoirs, p. 229; Hedrick Smith, The Intolerable Andrei Sakharov, New York Times Magazine, November 4, 1973, p. 56; Sakharov, Memoirs, p. 263.
Ibid., pp. 234-235.
A copy of the transcript of the meeting of the Academy of Sciences of June 22-26, 1964 can be found in the Andrei Sakharov Archives (Brandeis), folder S.II.2.9.01.1.
Selskaya Zhizn (Rural Life), August 29, 1964, from the Andrei Sakharov Archives (Brandeis), folder S.III.1.01.0
The letter was dated August 3, 1964 and can be found in the Andrei Sakharov Archives (Brandeis), folder S.III.184.108.40.206. Medvedev's manuscript appeared in the West under the title The Rise and Fall of T. D. Lysenko (New York, 1969).
Sakharov, Memoirs, p. 224.
Ibid., p. 232.
Vladimir Bukovsky, interview with author, London, England, 1977.
Andrei Amalrik, Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984, pp. 15-17.
Ludmilla Alexeyeva, Soviet Dissent: Contemporary Movements for National, Religious, and Human Rights (Middletown, Conn., 1987), p. 309.
Sakharov, Memoirs, p. 273.
Andrei Sakharov Archive (Moscow), fund 1, catalog 3, item 6, leaves 1-2.
A somewhat abridged translation of the article can be found in Stephen F. Cohen, ed., An End to Silence (New York, 1982), pp. 228-234. The text is drawn from Medvedev's journal Political Diary.
Sakharov's letter to Suslov can be found in the Andrei Sakharov Archives (Brandeis), folder S.II.2.4.26.
Sakharov, Memoirs, p. 276.
A copy of the appeal on censorship can be found in the Andrei Sakharov Archive (Moscow), fund 1, catalog 3, item 1.
Sakharov, Memoirs, p. 275.
See The Trial of the Four: The Case of Galanskov, Ginzburg, Dobrovolksy, and Lashkova compiled by Pavel Litvinov and edited by Peter Reddaway (New York, 1972).
Kevin Klose, Washington Post, December 16, 1989, p. A24.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, From Under the Rubble (Boston, 1975), p. 5. Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn met for the first time in August 1968. Solzhenitsyn described this and subsequent meetings in The Oak and the Calf (New York, 1980), pp. 367-377.