Patriotic Work

M.F. Perutz

This book betrays two very different Sakharovs who hardly seem to have communicated with each other. The first was the cold-blooded inventor of the Russian hydrogen bombs; the second was the fearless leader of the Russian intelligentsia’s struggle for human rights. For twenty years, from 1948 until his dismissal in 1968, Sakharov masterminded the scientific groundwork for the development and perfection of ever more lethal atomic weapons, blindly and obsessively absorbed in work that he describes as a theoretician’s paradise. His inventive genius was rewarded by election to full membership of the Academy of Sciences at the unprecedented age of 32, and by being decorated three times with the gold medal of Hero of Socialist Labour. In 1962, he attended a banquet in the Kremlin, seated between Khrushchev and Brezhnev who hugged him in front of the entire Politburo and Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, to thank him for his patriotic work, ‘which was helping to prevent a new war’. This work was the design of a new ‘improved’ hydrogen bomb of unprecedented power. There is no sign that the second Sakharov, once he had realised the true nature of Khrushchev’s and Brezhnev’s regimes, ever asked whether it was wise to put these terrible weapons of mass destruction into their hands. Or what need there was to develop these weapons.

Sakharov was born in Moscow in 1921. His father was a good physicist who became reasonably prosperous by writing popular science books for laymen, an intelligent, kindly and tolerant man whose favourite motto was ‘A sense of moderation’ – would ‘proportion’ be the correct translation? – ‘is the greatest gift of the Gods,’ a motto which his son admired, but confesses he found hard to follow. The cruelty and terror in the midst of which he grew up left its mark on all the adults who lived through it. Roy Medvedev estimates that at least four to five hundred thousand people – above all, high officials – were shot and several million imprisoned. ‘The spiritual atmosphere of the USSR cannot be explained without harking back to this era,’ Sakharov writes, ‘to the crippling fear that first gripped the big cities and then spread to the population at large, and which has left its mark on us even today, two generations later. The repressions caused panic because of their pervasiveness and cruelty, and perhaps still more because of their irrationality; it was simply impossible to fathom how or why their victims were chosen.’ Yet he describes himself as a ‘painfully introverted’ child, ‘totally immersed in his own affairs’, and largely unaware of those terrible events. He made no friends at school nor during his first three years as a physics student at Moscow University. There, the only subject that gave him trouble was Marxism-Leninism, but this was because he found himself unable to memorise words without meaning. It never entered his head that Marxism-Leninism was not the philosophy best suited to liberate mankind.

In June 1941, during Sakharov’s third year at university, the German invasion began. Panic broke out in October 1941 when Moscow itself was threatened, and ‘after a week of indescribable chaos’ the university was evacuated to Ashkhabad in the Turkmen Republic. Sakharov spent the month-long journey silently learning quantum mechanics and relativity, rather than making friends. At Ashkhabad the worst thing he experienced was continuous hunger.

After four years’ study and a final examination in theoretical physics, he graduated with honours and was sent to work in a distant munitions factory rather than being drafted into the Army. The journey there opened his eyes to the terrible suffering the war had brought: the trains were filled to overflowing with people who were worn out, burdened by worry and confusion, and talking endlessly, as if compelled to share the horrors that were haunting them. At the factory men and women had to work 11-hour shifts, on meagre rations; those on night shift often had to queue until midday to get their bread ration, and no one was allowed any leave. Here Sakharov’s inventive genius found its first outlet. Armourpiercing steel cores of anti-tank bullets were hardened in salt baths, a process that sometimes failed. Sakharov invented a fast, non-destructive method of testing the quality of the steel that was based on a brilliant piece of physical insight; for this he was awarded a patent and a cash payment of 3000 roubles. He married Klava, a girl employed at the factory as a laboratory technician, and moved in to live with her and her parents.

At the end of 1944, Sakharov’s father secured him a place at the Physics Institute of the Academy of Sciences in Moscow as a graduate student working with Igor Tamm, an outstanding theoretician who later won the Nobel Prize. For the next four years he worked in theoretical physics; he gained his doctorate, and became a member of the lab’s staff. In June 1948, Tamm told him the startling news that he was to join a special research group to investigate the possibility of building a hydrogen bomb, a bomb thousands of times more powerful than those that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Sakharov writes that no one asked him whether he wanted to take part in such work, but the concentration, total absorption and energy that he brought to the task were his own. He realised the terrifying, inhuman nature of the weapon he was to design, but was convinced his work was essential and thought of himself as a soldier in a new scientific war. A war against whom? Sakharov does not say. He writes: ‘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 labour 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.’ Sacrifices for what? To enable the Soviets to suppress the Hungarian uprising in 1956, safe in the knowledge that no one would dare to intervene? Sakharov never raises the question, even though he became increasingly aware of the callous brutality of the Soviet regime. He continued to justify his work on the grounds that strategic parity and mutual deterrence kept the peace, even though in 1973 he was to tell foreign correspondents that the Soviet Union was ‘a country behind a mask, a closed totalitarian society of unpredictable actions’. The West, he advised them, must not let the Soviets achieve military superiority – the very superiority which until 1968 he himself had done his utmost to bring about.

In 1949 Beria, the dreaded chief of secret police whom Stalin had put in charge of the project, ordered Sakharov’s team to move to the ‘Installation’, the Soviet Los Alamos, a secret laboratory in the Urals that had been built by slave labour and was kept incommunicado from the world outside. By July 1953 everything was ready to test Sakharov’s first hydrogen bomb at a site in the Kazakhstan steppe, when it occurred to someone that they had all forgotten about its radioactive fall-out. The physicists calculated that tens of thousands of people would have to be moved if they were not to receive doses of radiation of more than two hundred röntgens (600 röntgens would have killed half the population exposed). To the defence officials’ fury, the test had to be postponed. Either the bomb would have to be dropped from a plane, which would have entailed many months’ delay, or tens of thousands of people, including the elderly, the sick and the very young would have to be moved long distances by army trucks over rough roads, with inevitable casualties. Evacuation was decided on all the same; people were told they could return in a month, but in fact were not allowed back in their homes until eight months after the test. Sakharov does not mention the high incidence of leukaemia that prevails among the Kazakhs as a result of that test, even though doubts about the morality of atmospheric testing gradually grew in his mind. Pavlov, the KGB general in charge of the Installation, tried to still them by telling him:

The struggle between the forces of Imperialism and Communism is a struggle to the death. The future of mankind, the fate and happiness of tens of billions of people, alive now and yet to be born, depend on the outcome of that struggle. We must be strong in order to win. If our work and our testing are giving us strength for that battle – and they certainly are – then the victims of that testing, or any other victims, don’t matter.

Marshall Vasilevsky told him: ‘There is no need to torture yourselves. Army manoeuvres always result in casualties – twenty or thirty deaths can be considered normal.’

When the physicists said that the bomb’s force had reached that predicted for a thermonuclear explosion, a celebration was held at which the defence official in charge of the Installation congratulated Sakharov on his ‘exceptional contribution to the cause of peace’. The physicists were lying, however. American analyses of the radioactive pollution caused by that first test have shown that no thermonuclear fusion took place; the explosion was caused purely by a fission reaction. Presumably Sakharov and his colleagues did not dare to confess their failure because Malenkov, the Premier, had already announced the Soviet Union’s possession of the hydrogen bomb. Sakharov keeps this quiet. Only in 1955 did his ‘Third Idea’ produce a true thermonuclear explosion.

One day a commission arrived to check the political reliability of senior personnel. They asked Sakharov whether he believed in the chromosome theory of heredity. This, as we know, was a political question: in the Thirties Lysenko, an agriculturalist, persuaded Stalin that he could induce beneficial inheritable changes in crop plants simply by changing their environment. When geneticists disputed this, Lysenko denounced them as wreckers and got Stalin to imprison them. Many perished there and in labour camps. Since then, Mendelian genetics had been proscribed as an anti-Marxist heresy. When Sakharov replied that the theory seemed correct, the inquisitors exchanged significant glances, but said nothing; another physicist gave the same answer, but his role in the project was less crucial, and he was saved from dismissal only by Sakharov’s and another leading physicist’s personal intervention.

Sakharov’s worries about the global effects of radioactive fall-out from nuclear explosions gradually increased. In 1959 Khrushchev announced a unilateral Soviet moratorium on nuclear testing. It seemed such a noble gesture that America and Britain soon followed under pressure of public opinion. In June 1961 Khrushchev told Sakharov and others that testing was to be resumed because the USSR had done fewer tests than its opponents. Sakharov replied that the scientists had little to gain from a resumption of testing which would favour the USA, while jeopardising the test-ban negotiations, the cause of disarmament and world peace. Instead of replying directly, Khrushchev chose the subsequent banquet to proclaim in an angry and coarse tirade that Sakharov should keep his nose out of politics, which he did not understand; everyone else sat frozen, not daring even to look in Sakharov’s direction. Sakharov does not mention that Khrushchev’s moratorium had been a ploy to stop American and British tests after a great fire at a nuclear-waste dump in the Urals had put the adjacent plutonium factory out of action, so that the Soviets could make no more bombs.

Sakharov’s final defeat came over the duplicate tests in 1962. Following the example of the United States, which set up an atomic weapons laboratory at Livermore to compete with Los Alamos, Khrushchev set up a rival to the Installation. By 1962 each of the two laboratories had developed a more powerful and lethal thermonuclear weapon, but there were only slight differences between them. Sakharov calculated that worldwide radioactive fall-out from each of them was likely to cause hundreds of thousands of cancers, yet despite the fact that there were only slight differences between them, both were to be tested in order to satisfy the two laboratories’ competitive spirit and to show the Americans the USSR’s nuclear strength. Sakharov used all his standing and influence to prevent this happening, ending with a telephone call to Khrushchev. Khrushchev gave an evasive answer and both tests went ahead. ‘A terrible crime was about to be committed and I could do nothing to prevent it,’ Sakharov writes:

I was overcome by my impotence, unbearable bitterness, shame and humiliation. I put my face down on my desk and wept. That was probably the most terrible lesson of my life: you can’t sit on two chairs at once. I decided that I would devote myself to ending biologically harmful tests. That was the main reason I didn’t carry out my threat to quit the Installation. Later, after the Moscow Limited Test Ban Treaty was signed, I found other grounds for postponing my resignation.

Sakharov does not say what these were and, strangely, he did not consider the making and testing of even a single such bomb to be a crime in the first place.

He never did resign, but was dismissed in stages. He first incurred the Party’s displeasure in 1964, when he publicly and courageously opposed the election of one of Lysenko’s henchmen to membership of the Academy of Sciences. Lysenko, who was present, demanded that Sakharov be arrested and put on trial and Keldysh, the president, reprimanded Sakharov, but the younger corresponding members applauded him loudly. Afterwards, Sakharov wrote to Khrushchev to explain the scientific case against Lysenko, but Khrushchev was furious and ordered the head of the KGB to collect material to compromise Sakharov. He was saved by Khrushchev’s dismissal and Lysenko’s final rout shortly afterwards.

This episode ends the first part of Sakharov’s book. Its chief interest lies in his sometimes vivid accounts of the personalities, attitudes and events that guided the Soviet bid to win the nuclear arms race and, if necessary, also a nuclear war. His contacts with the highest circles of the Soviet hierarchy show them stripped of their public rhetoric, in their ruthless quest for power and barbaric indifference to human suffering and death.

In 1967 Roy Medvedev, the historian, set in train Sakharov’s escape from what he calls his ‘hermetic world’. His book Let History judge opened Sakharov’s eyes to Stalin’s crimes, of which he had been largely unaware. In that same year he made the first of his many interventions on behalf of accused or gaoled dissidents; he wrote a private letter to Brezhnev in defence of Alexander Ginsburg and his associates. Brezhnev did not reply; instead, Efim Slavsky, the minister in charge of the Installation, on learning of Sakharov’s letter, sacked him from his post as head of the theoretical department and reduced his salary from 1000 to 550 roubles a month; he remained Deputy Scientific Director of the Installation.

Sakharov calls this the turning-point in his life. After this he became increasingly concerned with human rights, the environment, ending the Cold War and reforming the Soviet Union. He bought a short-wave radio and listened to the BBC and the Voice of America. He felt compelled to speak out on the fundamental issues of our age and put down his ideas in a passionate essay on Progress, Peaceful Co-existence and Intellectual Freedom. The essay, which begins by warning the world of the dangers it faces from thermonuclear war, calls for some of the reforms Gorbachev has put into effect, but is still firmly based on Marxist-Leninist ideology. Sakharov advocates wide social changes and an extension of public ownership in the capitalist countries, as well as preservation of public ownership of the means of production in the socialist countries. Like Martin Luther, who wanted to reform the Catholic Church rather than break away from it, Sakharov wanted to preserve socialism while freeing it from Party tyranny. In his autobiography Sakharov omits any mention of that profession of his socialist faith, which is a pity, because it would have shown the reader that his detachment from orthodoxy was slow and gradual. It certainly would not detract from the great moral courage and independence of mind which he showed in writing such an essay when he was still living among the hawks of the Installation, isolated from Moscow’s intelligentsia.

When copies of his essay began to circulate in samizdat, Andropov, then head of the KGB, summoned the research director of the Installation and reprimanded him for the heresy that had emanated from his laboratory. After its full text was published in a Dutch newspaper, Efrim Slavsky hauled Sakharov over the coals and ordered him to make a declaration to the effect that the Dutch paper had published a preliminary draft of his essay without his permission, but Sakharov refused to recant and stuck to his guns. The Minister rejected Sakharov’s warnings of nuclear war because he still believed in the possibility of a nuclear victory of the Soviet Union over the Imperialist powers, just as American hawks still believed that the United States could win such a war against Communism. That interview took place in July 1968 during the last weeks of the Prague Spring. The Minister assured Sakharov that the Central Committee had ruled out armed intervention, but the entry of Warsaw Pact troops into Czechoslovakia on 21 August destroyed whatever was left of Sakharov’s faith in the Soviet system. Soon after that interview he was forbidden to set foot in the Installation, which was tantamount to dismissal.

The next blow came in March 1969 when his wife Klava died of cancer, leaving him in a daze for many months, unable to do anything in science or in public life. He did not inform Klava’s parents of her death, an omission which he came to regret (his account of this episode has been deleted from the English translation).

In May 1969 the Minister transferred him back to the Academy’s Institute of Physics in Moscow where his career had begun, with a modest salary to supplement his Academician’s income. Sakharov describes his scientific work from then on as minor: most of his energy went into fighting injustice in all its forms. In 1970 an acquaintance invited him to help found a Human Rights Committee that would study and publicise human rights problems in the Soviet Union. At first Sakharov worried that this would arouse too many false hopes, that the Committee would be powerless to respond to the flood of calls for help it would elicit, but he joined all the same, and ‘not having been spoiled by an abundance of friends’, he welcomed the human contacts its weekly meetings provided, especially those with Elena Bonner.

Sakharov’s inability to form close personal relations extended to his own family. He paints a cheerless picture of family life, devoid of warmth, affection and humour. All he has to say about his relations with Klava and, after her death, with his children is that he ‘always avoided confrontations’, that his affluence never brought him and Klava much happiness, that their lives had been empty and had brought little joy to their children. The less he concerned himself with these insoluble personal matters, he writes, the more productive was his life outside his home. Sakharov’s cold, distant description of Klava reminded me of Einstein’s heartless references to his wife in his correspondence with Max Born. After Klava’s death he gave all the money he had won from various prizes – 139,000 roubles – to charity, without a thought that his children might need it, like Leo Tolstoy, who made over the royalties from his books to charity and left his family destitute. Perhaps all three men tried to make up for their failure to love those closest to them by trying to love all mankind.

Even tragic history often has its ironic side, but Sakharov appears to have been blind to the ironies of his own life; there is not a single joke in his 600-page book; I wonder if he ever laughed. Did he want to atone for his lethal inventions by becoming an angel of peace? His book contains no hint of regret, even when he advises the West that only when it deployed equivalent weapons as bargaining chips would the USSR be induced to eliminate its gigantic ICBMs and its medium-range missiles. Had he forgotten that these weapons were in part of his own making?

In 1972 Sakharov married Elena Bonner, of whom he writes with the greatest admiration. The second half of his autobiography recounts, on the one hand, the misdeeds of an all-permeating, callous, underhand, corrupt and cynical tyranny that poses as a theocracy devoted to the defence of the Holy Marxist Grail, and, on the other, it relates the Sakharovs’ heroic struggle for human rights, for détente and disarmament, for Jewish emigration, and against injustices of all kinds, in the face of continuous, vicious harassment and intimidation by the KGB. One of his first cases was that of Zhores (the Russian spelling of the French socialist’s Jean Jaurès’s name) Medvedev, the biologist and twin brother of Roy, who had been arrested and confined in a psychiatric hospital when his ‘scandalous’ book The Rise and Fall of Lysenko was published in the West. Sakharov responded by walking into an international conference on biochemistry and genetics which was being held in Moscow, writing the news of Medvedev’s imprisonment on the blackboard and appealing for signatures on a letter of protest. This led Academician Alexandrov, the physicist who succeeded Keldysh as president of the Academy, to tell Sakharov that he himself needed psychiatric treatment. The storm of international protest set in train by Sakharov and by Roy Medvedev led to Zhores’s release soon afterwards.

Sakharov didn’t only fight injustice when scientists or dissidents were implicated, however. In the early Sixties, for example, two black marketeers were sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment. In the labour camp they gossipped about members of the élite who had been among their customers. The elite silenced them by passing an amendment to the criminal law that made such black marketeering a capital offence, and having the men retried under the new law and sentenced to death. Sakharov protested – in vain – against punishing them under a law passed after the crime had been committed.

Sakharov’s advice to the West not to let the Soviets achieve nuclear superiority, and his later appeal to the International Red Cross to demand the right to inspect Soviet prisons, labour camps and psychiatric hospitals, unleashed a press campaign against him of the kind often used by the Politburo to prepare public opinion for a show trial. This time he may have been saved by a telegram from Philip Handler, president of the Academy of Sciences of the USA, who wrote: ‘were Sakharov to be deprived of his opportunity to serve the Soviet people and humanity, it would be extremely difficult to imagine successful fulfilment of American pledges of binational scientific co-operation, the implementation of which is entirely dependent upon the voluntary effort and good will of our individual scientists and scientific institutions.’ Even so, a Russia mathematician who issued an open letter in defence of Sakharov was dismissed from his job.

The Politburo finally decided to silence Sakharov by exiling him to Gorky, where a whole regiment of KGB personnel supervised and impeded his every move. I believed I had heard enough about the KGB before I read this book, but the degree of petty vindictiveness and mean cunning disclosed in Sakharov’s memoirs exceeds anything I had imagined. This volume ends in December 1986 when two engineers and a KGB man came to install a telephone in the exiled Sakharovs’ flat in Gorky. The next day, Gorbachev rang to invite them back to Moscow ‘so that Sakharov could continue his patriotic work’. Twenty years earlier, this had been the official designation for his work on atomic weapons. Did Gorbachev have in mind instead Sakharov’s campaign for an end to the Cold War?