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Sakharov: A Biography Hardcover – January 1, 2002
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From Publishers Weekly
This first biography of the renowned physicist, Soviet dissident and Nobel Peace Prize winner weaves the details of Sakharov's life together with the history of the Soviet Union, which barely outlasted him. Lourie (Autobiography of Joseph Stalin), the translator of Sakharov's memoirs, touches briefly on Sakharov's scientific innovations (he was pivotal in the development of the H-bomb), but is primarily interested in his political life. Relying on published sources, correspondence and memoirs, he describes Sakharov's upbringing in a liberal family and his rise through the Soviet science program during the 1930s and '40s. Lourie's vivid accounts of Sakharov's meetings with Stalin and KGB chief Beria, his role in the intelligentsia, his marriages and his cramped apartments offer a textured picture of Soviet life during the Cold War. Yet his explanations of what motivated Sakharov to sacrifice the perks of being a Soviet hero for the dangers of political dissidence he was placed under house arrest in the city of Gorky for six years are speculative and less satisfying. Part of the problem appears to be Sakharov himself: he "is as elusive in death as in life," Lourie admits in the final few pages. Despite this weakness, Lourie's intelligent, engaging biography will be appreciated by those interested in Russian and Cold War history. Photos not seen by PW.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
From Library Journal
In contrast to two of Lourie's previous Russian-oriented works, Hunting the Devil and The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin: A Novel, this fine book about a truly great man probes the mystery of virtue. Lourie traces the young Sakharov's upbringing and early years, his love of physics, and his survival under the brutal conditions of the Stalinist Soviet Union in war and peace. He was drafted in 1948 to work on the Soviet H-bomb project and was lavishly rewarded for his work. Soon he began to comprehend the utter insanity of thermonuclear war. In the post-Stalinist decades, he became leader of the loyal opposition to Soviet military and political policies and a champion of human rights. Lourie focuses on this process, presenting a striking portrait of the crude, bullying tyranny of Soviet power against one man strong only in his moral courage and convictions, ably seconded by his equally fearless wife and partner, Elena Bonner. Sakharov is well served by this biography, which is recommended for academic and general collections. Robert H. Johnston, McMaster Univ., Hamilton, Ont.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
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How does a man evolve from being a relatively apolitical nuclear physicist in the 1940s to being the moral conscience of a nation striving for democracy by the time of his death in 1989? How does a man who was offered and provided all the material comforts available to the preeminent scientist in the USSR turn away from those temptations and choose, instead, to stand a lonely vigil outside kangaroo courts intent on hounding dissidents who dared to speak out against the Soviet regime?
Lourie's marvelous biography of Sakharov does a fine job of setting out both how and why Sakharov evolved from a hero of the USSR with direct telephone access to the Kremlin into a pariah who was hounded, slandered, and finally sent into internal exile in the closed city of Gorky. Yet, by the end of his life, Sakharov, this mere twig, managed to face down and indeed outlast those that set the political might of a nation against him.
Lourie comes to Sakharov with an impressive background in Russian and Soviet history and literature. He has translated numerous works of fiction, including works by Vladimir Voinovich, and also translated Sakharov's Memoirs. (The tragic story of the destruction of numerous drafts of Sakharov's Memoirs by the KGB is set out in detail in Lourie's biography.)
Sakharov is set out in a straightforward, chronological fashion. It begins with Sakharov's family background and his childhood and early adult years. Lourie moves relatively quickly through Sakharov's birth in 1921 and his childhood and teen years. Sakharov , along with his families supported the Soviet regime. Dissent was not an issue for them. Sakharov always considered himself a loyal patriot devoted to the Soviet Union. Lourie sets out in detail Sakharov's early interest in math and the sciences and his academic development. By the time World War II had started it was clear that Sakharov would have a career in the sciences.
After the German invasion of Russia, Sakharov quickly found work in the area of munitions. It was here that Sakharov had his first run-ins with authority. Unlike many of his colleagues who was willing to brook interference from unknowing Commissars. Fortunately for Sakharov his suggestions and mechanical innovations were critical in aiding the Soviet war effort and he was allowed far greater flexibility in his approach to work and science than many of his peers.
Lourie then traces the path that took Sakharov from improving the quality of tank shells and munitions to being the lead scientist in charge of the development of the Soviet atomic and H-bombs. Here Sakharov crossed paths with Stalin, Beria, and most of the other leaders of his time. It is clear that Sakharov would not have survived a failure. Sakharov was committed to the project and believed developing these weapons were in the best interests of Russia. The projects were successful and Sakharov became something of a national hero. It is here that Sakharov's life began to change.
He was provided almost unheard of access to the Soviet leadership. He had direct phone lines to the Kremlin. Gradually, Lourie shows Sakharov repeatedly refusing membership in the Communist Party. He also began taking up the causes of his fellow scientists who were treated unfairly by the apparatchiks that dominated all areas of life. He didn't hesitate to pick up the phone and complain to Khrushchev
As Sakharov grew increasingly distanced from the Soviet regime, the regime grew increasingly intolerant of Sakharov's actions. Sakharov's dissidence evolved from one focusing on small issues to issues of internal democracy and global peace. It is clear that if Sakharov did not possess a vast array of nuclear secrets he would have been subject to the exile in the same manner as Alexandr Solzhenitsyn and Vladimir Voinovich. At the same time, Sakharov was awarded the Nobel Peace Price. The Soviet authorities were as put off by this award as the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Boris Pasternak. The authorities finally did exile, but to the closed city of Gorky. There he was harassed and harried on a daily basis.
It should be pointed out that Sakharov became famous throughout the world for his dissident activities. However, Lourie's examination of Sakharov focuses almost exclusively on Sakharov from an internal, domestic view point. I believe this was a wise choice as the West actually knew very little of what Sakharov actually was going through during those years.
Lourie's Sakharov is not an exercise in pure idolatry however. Lourie does not fail to note the lack of warmth, in fact the animosity, between Sakharov and his children from his first marriage (his first wife died after over 20 years of marriage) once he met and married Elena Bonner.
Sakharov was, of course, a scientist and Lourie had to address certain scientific concepts and issues throughout the course of the book. His treatment was precise yet understandable to the lay reader.
Lourie's writing is precise and to the point. He lets Sakharov's actions speak for themselves and does not engage in an excessive amount of self-indulgent psycho-analysis of Sakharov. Lourie treats his readers as adults and he allows the reader the opportunity to read the story of Sakharov's life in a manner that allows us to ponder exactly how any man can become a twig that changes the course of history.
This is a book worth reading.
Since Sakharov was seeking convergence with the rest of the world more than anything else, it made sense for him to go see everyone "From Margaret Thatcher to Daniel Ellsberg" (p. 360) when he had the chance. He even "had half an hour alone with Edward Teller before a formal banquet honoring Teller on his birthday." (p. 375) Later he convinced Solzhenitsyn's wife to call Solzhenitsyn to a phone in Cavendish, Vermont so that "there should be nothing left unsaid between us." (p. 376). With Elena, he met "both the head of the Italian Socialist Party and the pope. And, in an event that captures the flavor of that year of wonders, Sakharov and the pope discussed perestroika in the Vatican." (p. 379).
He finally met Gorbachev on January 15, 1988, (p. 366) and the two found themselves in an interesting political situation. After elections on March 26, 1989, Sakharov was to represent the Academy of Sciences in the First Congress of People's Deputies on May 25. "Yeltsin won Sakharov's admiration when he demanded live television coverage of the congress." (p. 381). Gorbachev had a committee to draft a new constitution approved "when someone noticed all its members were communists." (p. 384). Sakharov was added to the committee and became the major opponent of Article 6 of the constitution, which gave the Communist Party a monopoly on power. Open debate was new to those who had been involved in officially secret proceedings, and Sakharov found himself involved in arguments in which Gorbachev said, "I'm against running around like a chicken with its head cut off." (p. 385). When the fight turned to Afghanistan, Sakharov had said things which rankled the usual superpower thinking on the Soviet side, and continued to insist, "The real issue is that the war in Afghanistan was itself a crime, an illegal adventure, and we don't know who was responsible for it." (p. 386). There were shouts in opposition to his views, but polls for the best deputy "showed Sakharov number one, Yeltsin two, and Gorbachev seventeenth." (p. 386). When he died, a "crowd of fifty thousand" came to his funeral. (p. 401).