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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sakharov: From H-Bomb to Human Rights

The story of science in the Soviet Union is one of baffling paradoxes that challenge preconceptions and make us uncomfortable. Contrary to the common Western assumption that creativity needs freedom, Russian science seemed to do best when political conditions were worst. Six Nobel Prizes were awarded to Soviet physicists for work done in the 1930s and '40s, a period of tyranny and terror. For one of those physicists, Lev Landau, 1937, when Stalin's horrific purges peaked, was his most productive year in terms of scientific publications. The next year Landau was arrested by the secret police but was released with a warning. Another Nobel winner, Pyotr Kapitsa, did his most significant research shortly after he had been detained on Stalin's orders. The designer of the Soviet Union's finest airplanes, Andrei Tupolev, and the rocket scientist who sent the world's first artificial satellites into space, Sergei Korolyov, both spent time in prison before they did the work for which they are most remembered.

Seeking heroes and villains whose work and achievements fit more felicitously into our beliefs, Western observers point to the pseudogeneticist and charlatan Trofim Lysenko as a more representative product of Stalinism, and to the great human rights advocate Andrei Sakharov as an exemplary scientist-rebel against political controls. Lysenko and his doctrines were indeed fruits of Stalinism, but as Richard Lourie's new, subtle and revealing biography of Sakharov -- titled "Sakharov" -- demonstrates, the impulses to Sakharov's scientific creativity and his later rise to political heroism were not simple. Throwing off Stalinism was extremely difficult for Sakharov, and like many of his colleagues he did his best scientific work while still in its thrall.

In 1948, the same year that Lysenko, with Stalin's backing, squelched all resistance to his teachings, Sakharov was commanded to work on the hydrogen bomb project, which was directed by a particularly loathsome man -- personally and politically -- Lavrenty Beria, head of the secret police. Sakharov threw himself into the effort wholeheartedly. He was soon sent to the center of Soviet nuclear research, a secret laboratory named Arzamas 16, where scientists took over a famous monastery near the town of Sarov. Sakharov was told by a colleague that political prisoners forced to build the scientific plant had rebelled two years earlier; Beria's troops surrounded the mutineers and killed every one. Sakharov later described in his memoirs how in 1950-53, as he worked on scientific projects, he frequently saw columns of prisoners marching by under armed guard.

In these years Sakharov was strikingly productive scientifically, perhaps as a subconscious means of avoiding facing the political repression around him; certainly a link between freedom and creativity was completely absent. He designed the Soviet hydrogen bomb in a way that, Western historians now agree, was original and independent of the American one (the Soviet atomic bomb had been built to specifications supplied through espionage). In addition, Sakharov and Igor Tamm worked out a brilliant toroidal approach to controlled thermonuclear reactions that still dominates the field of fusion research everywhere today.

Although surrounded by tyranny, Sakharov and his associates gave their outstanding talents to the service of their country. He even found the environment pleasant in some ways. On his 29th birthday in 1950, he later observed, "we listened to music and had a wonderful conversation about the meaning of life and the future of mankind.'' This combination of scientific creativity, political oppression and utopian dreaming encapsulates the flaws and the virtues of the Soviet intelligentsia. When Stalin died three years later, Sakharov in sadness remarked: "I am under the influence of a great man's death. I am thinking of his humanity.''

Yet he broke out of his intellectual prison and his illusions and became one of the bravest defenders of human rights of the last century. He ranks with Nelson Mandela as a person who helped guide his country to democracy, changing himself in the process. One of the strengths of Lourie's biography is his description and analysis of how this transition occurred. Sakharov's first impulse to liberation was not revulsion against the political system ("I still believed that the Soviet state represented a breakthrough into the future'') but his sense of guilt about the deaths caused by radioactive fallout from the nuclear tests he directed. When he advised cutting back on the tests, he encountered the unyielding, repressive Soviet system that he had seen applied only to others. The more he attempted to express his opinions, the more he was threatened. Nikita Khrushchev accused him of "poking his nose where it doesn't belong.'' When Yury Andropov became head of the KGB, he declared Sakharov "Public Enemy No. 1'' and placed him under constant surveillance. Stripped of his security clearance and dismissed from weapons research, Sakharov turned to research in fundamental science.

Lourie describes what then happened not as the emergence of the inner Sakharov under pressure, but as an interaction between his truth-seeking and his shifting political consciousness. For the first time he began to ask questions about politics the same way he had always asked them about physical nature: testing hypotheses, looking for reliable evidence.

In the late '60s, Sakharov began a campaign to make his society more humane. He attended trials of political prisoners and publicized the plight of persecuted religious believers and oppressed nationalities. He called on the government to allow citizens to exercise freedoms guaranteed by the Soviet Constitution but denied in practice. He helped organize a Committee on Human Rights. He protested the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan in 1979.

Sakharov was seized by the KGB and removed to Gorky (present-day Nizhny Novgorod), where he remained with his wife, Yelena Bonner, under forced exile for six years. Mikhail Gorbachev, after becoming general secretary, invited Sakharov to return to Moscow. He promptly accepted and, on returning, rapidly entered the political fray.

Sakharov went on to become a leader of the democratic forces in the Soviet Union and was preparing a draft for a new constitution at the time of his death in 1989 from a heart attack.

Reading Lourie's book, Sakharov emerges not as a saint but as a powerful and inspiring human being who came to understand belatedly the society in which he lived. As he approached that understanding he transformed himself. And the new understanding brought grave responsibilities and risks, which Sakharov readily assumed at a time when few others dared to do so.

Loren Graham, author of "What Have We Learned About Science and Technology From the Russian Experience?'' contributed this review article to The New York Times.