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.

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