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Unexpected Dissident: Andrei Sakharov
Ben Wattenberg: Hello, Im Ben Wattenberg. The life of Russian physicist
Andrei Sakharov spanned the years from Lenin to Gorbachev, from an expanding
Soviet empire to the collapse of that empire. Sakharov was father of the
Soviet hydrogen bomb, a much-decorated hero of the Soviet Union, an exiled
human rights activist, a Nobel Peace Prize-winner and a man who, with his
wife, stared down the most dangerous government in the world. Who was
To find out, Think Tank is joined by:
Richard Lourie, translator of Sakharovs Memoirs and author of the first
full biography of the Russian physicist.
Tatiana Yankelevich, daughter of Sakharovs wife Elena Bonner and assistant
director of the Andrei Sakharov Archives and Human Rights Center at Brandeis
Ben Wattenberg: Andrei Sakharov was an unlikely candidate to rock the Soviet
ship of state. In 1948, the Kremlin chose the gifted young scientist to
spearhead development of the Soviet hydrogen bomb. Sakharovıs success in
1953, led to his designation as an official ³hero of the Soviet Union.²
But in the early 1960s, Sakharov became deeply troubled by the deadly
potential of the weapons he helped to create. As a leader of the dissident
movement, he criticized the Soviet Unionıs human rights record. His courage
in the face of Soviet repression won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975.
When Sakharov condemned the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980, the
Kremlin exiled him to the closed city of Gorky. Six years later, Mikhail
Gorbachev ordered the physicist released as a symbol of the ³new openness.²
In the last years of his life, Sakharov became an elected politician and was
writing a new Soviet constitution.
Ben Wattenberg: Welcome to Think Tank Tatiana Yankelevich and Richard
Lourie. It is an honor to have you here.
Richard Lourie: Thank you.
Tatiana Yankelevich: Thank you, Ben.
Ben Wattenberg: Let me begin by asking you a brief question. In the year
2000, Time magazine nominated Andre Sakharov as one of the hundred most
important people in the world during the Twentieth Century. Why?
Richard Lourie: He made the Soviet Union a super power by giving it the
hydrogen bomb and by his human rights activity he helped to bring the Soviet
Union down. Either one would have been a grand accomplishment, and he did
Tatiana Yankelevich: No one in the post Second World War history did so
much to furthering the course of democracy and freedom.
Ben Wattenberg: Youıre the biographer Richard, start out at zero and give
us a quick fill-in. Then weıll get up to the more political stuff.
Richard Lourie: Well, he was born in 1921, that is just after the
Revolution and the Civil War so he was born into Soviet history, although he
was born into a family of the true Russian intelligentsia here with its
values and virtues. He was schooled largely at home because it was a
tradition in the family, and also to avoid the indoctrination that went
along with Soviet education. Heıs a physicsı student at the University of
Moscow. Now his is a fairly apolitical family. They were neither
pro-Soviet nor anti-Soviet. I think everybody, in the early Twenties
especially, was sick of war and suffering and the Communists promised a
certain stability and there was this certain attraction to the
Ben Wattenberg: But in 1939, when heıs what, a teenager, the big war
Richard Lourie: Sure. Right. The big war starts. Well, it starts in
Thirty-nine, but Russia was only attacked in June of Forty-one and then in
the Fall of Forty-one his class from Moscow State University is evacuated to
Turkmenistan, Ashgabat, almost to Iran.
Ben Wattenberg: Now, my understanding is that almost everyone served in the
armed services during that war and yet Sakharov did not. What was that?
Richard Lourie: Well, I think probably it waswhat?
Tatiana Yankelevich: The whole class was actuallypractically the entire
class of that year was shipped off, evacuated.
Ben Wattenberg: Because they were regarded as an asset to
Tatiana Yankelevich: Becauseyes, as some sort of intellectual asset. Yes.
Richard Lourie:. It was simply a decision of why waste the brainy guys in
the trenches. Weıll put the tough guys in the trenches and weıll put the
brainy guys in the research end. It was a smart decision. It was a good
Ben Wattenberg: Sakharov at that time was a communist?
Tatiana Yankelevich: No. He never joined the party.
Richard Lourie: Never joined the party, but
Tatiana Yankelevich: He never joined the party. They probably tried to
persuade him because a person of his standing, by the time he was involved
in the hydrogen bomb project and working on the Installation, was considered
someone fairly high up in the hierarchy, actually quite up in the hierarchy.
And he was offered the chance. And then, in fact, they would have liked
him in the party being the purely Russian guy that he is ethnically. But he
has never joined the party. He always kept his distance and he stated his
differences very clearly.
Richard Lourie: Hereıs the distinction that I would make there, he was a
very Soviet person in his early part of his career, a patriotic Russian and
a patriotic Soviet Russian, I would call him. But not a Communist at all.
He hadnıt thought much about these things but he was sort of a natural
socialist. The intelligencer was not greedy. They didnıt believe in having
too many material possessions. They believed in social justice. Socialism
looked like a better avenue to that end.
Ben Wattenberg: Now, itıs at about this time the atomic bombs are exploded
in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and what does this do to the world of physics and
Russian physics? Had they been at work on atomic weapons before the bomb?
Richard Lourie: Sure.
Tatiana Yankelevich: They were.
Richard Lourie: Yes, they were. There was pause in it but then in sort of
midway in the war was a funny little incident. I even knew this soldier, an
old tough soldier, whoıd fought in four wars, much wounded, much decorated
guy. They found a dead German, or they killed a German. They found this
notebook full of these strange formulae, which they sent back to
headquarters, which turned out that the Germans were looking for uranium in
the parts of the Russia that they had conquered and that set off alarm bells
all the way to the Kremlin.
Ben Wattenberg: Was Sakharov uh?
Richard Lourie: He wasnıt involved yet. He was asked a couple of times if
heıd like to join in the project. Again, like with joining the Communist
Party, he said, thanks but no thanks, because he wanted to do what he called
cutting edge physics right after the war. He had devoted himself to defense
work during the work. He wanted to get back to pure physics. And so twice
he turned down invitations to work on atomic weapons development, and the
third time they just said essentially youıre going.
Ben Wattenberg: Right. When he is called the Father of Soviet H-bomb, what
does that mean the Father of? He was the key scientist?
Tatiana Yankelevich: Well, he always insisted that this was teamwork and
that it could not have been done by any one person. But, in truth, his
idea, his design, was the most productive and the most promising design.
Ben Wattenberg: Does he have any misgivings about the nature of making such
a horrific weapon at that point?
Richard Lourie: He never seemed to. I mean, my take on Sakharov was that
he was a very realistic person. When he was doing the war work, he believed
in it. He saw that parity and patriotism was somehow a relateda related
Ben Wattenberg: Parity meaning that if the United States had the bomb?
Richard Lourie: No, sure.
Ben Wattenberg: There would be a balance of power.
Richard Lourie: Sure, parity and patria were somehow related concepts. I
mean they had just been invaded by a civilized western country known as
Germany, thereıs no reason to have any special belief that the United
States, which had just dropped two atomic weapons on Japan, then it would
have been foolhardy for the Russians not to, especially given the climate
after Forty-six. They wanted to have their own weapons.
Ben Wattenberg: So the Russians make an A-bomb and then they make an H-bomb
and can you tell us the distinction? Briefly, very briefly, very simply.
Richard Lourie: No. One uses fission and the other one uses fusion.
Essentially what Sakharov loved about the work was that stars like our sun
work on the same principles. If you could understand how to unlock that
energy essentially you would be unlocking the power of the sun. In fact,
the temperatures created by these bombs are even greater than the
temperatures on the sunon the surface of the sun. Itıs a magnificent
achievement by human beings to be able to reach so deeply into the nature of
matter and energy and come up with this, even though itıs being used to
decimate cities, but in principle itıs a fantastic achievement.
Ben Wattenberg: There was an argument in the United States among American
atomic physicists, sort of between Edward Teller and J. Robert Oppenheimer,
as to whether this was a good thing or a bad thing. Did that split occur
within the Soviet scientific community? I mean ultimately Sakharov changes
and comes out for arms control and...
Richard Lourie: He said that split existed in him. He said he was Teller
in his youth and Oppenheimer later on. But in the beginning, he had no
doubts and no guilt. Iım thinking he was not a kind of a person who was in
that classic Russian Dostoevsky, self-lacerating tradition. He wasnıt like
that at all. He was a man of great of integrity and equilibrium and not
given to emotional excess. When he did the work on the bomb, he did it for
the right reasons and when he turned against it, he did it for the right
reasons. And so it was huge change, but not accompanied by operatic
Tatiana Yankelevich: I would argue that there was no change. This is a very
popular misconception that Sakharov went to human rights work, not that you
have said anything of the sort, but itıs a popularitıs like a myth that
exists in the popular consciousness in Russia as well as in this country.
And everyone thinks that he repented and in remorse for what he has done he
started doing human rights work and that is absolutely not the case. And
actually to the very end of his life, he kept maintaining that the bomb was
not only necessary in the immediate, but it was in the interest of humankind
to create the parity, the balance most strategic weapons in the world and
Ben Wattenberg: Did he also turn because he dwelt on the idea that the
above-ground testing would ultimately cause cancer among people.
Tatiana Yankelevich: Well he was actually the first person to write about
it. Until he wrote about it no one really understood how terrible these
effects may be in the long-run genetically speaking and so forth.
Ben Wattenberg: Sakharov was already in the civil rights and human rights
movement before he met your mother, before his first wife died, I think?
Tatiana Yankelevich: Yes he was. He was being drawn into it after 1968
publication of his ³Reflections on Peaceful Existence and Intellectual
Freedom,² which was a completely kind of maverick, if Iım using the word
correctly, work because he was a complete loner.. He was not a part of any
Ben Wattenberg: Well now, the Soviet government in 1968 was not allowing
people to write freely about what they wanted to write about, were they?
Richard Lourie: No. No, in fact; they were visibly invading Czechoslovakia
because they were trying
Ben Wattenberg: Reinvading them or whatever. So in that sense he breaks
with the government. Are they displeased with this?
Richard Lourie: To say the least. Well, just
Tatiana Yankelevich: Not only displeased and not his career as it was is
Richard Lourie: Itıs the end of his career as an atomic scientist. When he
first calculated that there would be ten thousand deaths from cancer down
the line invisibly for every megaton tested in the atmosphere, that was the
beginning of his departure from the Soviet line And then he said, but of
course we have to have weapons and of course we have to test them, but what
we donıt need to do is have unnecessary tests because itıs putting fallout
in the air thatıs going to kill people for no reason and thatıs when he
began clashing with the leadership, of which he was a member. Not the
political leadership, but he was a member of elite of the elite in the
Ben Wattenberg: This is still Stalinıs time?
Richard Lourie: No, this is Khrushchev time.
Tatiana Yankelevich: Nothatıs correct, under Khrushchev. Under what I
like to call more vegetarian times.
Ben Wattenberg: So he just lost his job. He wasnıt sent out to the gulag?
Tatiana Yankelevich: No, he was not. He was too highly placed for that
and, in fact, up until 1980 Politburo would not allow any action to take him
forcibly out of Moscow.
Richard Lourie: Heıs deeply at odds with the State and his thinking is now
becoming much more independent and heıs starting to hammer out a view of the
world for himself which he had never really bothered to do. He had a
scientific vision of the universe before but he had never given great
thought to the actual humanyou know, the world of international affairs.
Ben Wattenberg: And then his first wife dies, and he meets your mother,
Tatiana Yankelevich: His first wife died in March of 1968. The article was
published uh, in New York Times in July of 1968 though it appeared in Europe
it appeared sooner, in May I think. And then he leads a very lonely life
except for several new friends from the human rights movement or dissident
movement, which was at that time very vague, and of course he experiences
the Prague Spring of which the elections is a result of, a direct one, and
then August of 1968, which was of tremendously powerful shock and
realization that this whole Socialist system will not allow itself to be rid
of to be reformed into anything with a human face.
Richard Lourie: Right. Thatıs right.
Tatiana Yankelevich: And uh, another year and a half later he meets my
mother and that was also a very important moment in his life.
Ben Wattenberg: Richard, why donıt you tell me about that?
Richard Lourie: Sakharov had already created a world sensation with this
piece in the New York Times, which was really a book-length essay that the
Times chose to publish in full. He had been fired from his job at the
Installation. That was their name for their Los Alamos. He had already
made his connections with the world of the dissidents of the human rights
movement people, the activists. He knew a few of them. And itıs in fact
itıs through one of him that he first spies Tanyaıs mother and is very taken
with this woman that he sees as sort of this dynamic and vivid, very alive,
dramatic woman who actually was so involved with talking to this other
person that she never even noticed Sakharov. But he was instantly taken
with her and thennow, why I want to go back and say that is because many
people, this is another one of the myths about Sakharov. Much too much is
made about the influence of Tanyaıs mother, Elena Bonner on Sakharov as if
she radicalized him, as if she politicized him, as if she somehow seduced
him from the straight and narrow of a good Soviet Russian way into this sort
of world of dissidents and Jews and poets and Refusniks. She actually did
have an enormous influence on him but in a completely different way. She
opened him up emotionally. She was the great love of his life. He said, at
one point I think, that he had what Goethe had called the great luck of a
late love, which you know, they were both around fifty and they wanted to
make every year count for three because they didnıt know how much time they
were going to have together. And anyone who was with them for a minute felt
this tremendous delight, almost embarrassing to be in their presence, the
delight that they took in each other.
Ben Wattenberg: How does the human rights movement develop?
Richard Lourie: Historically I would say that under Khrushchev
anti-Stalinism was part of his politics. He allowed the publication of One
Day in the Life Ivan Denisovich by Solzhenitsyn, which created a sensation.
Russians got a taste of free speech. They got a taste of free press. I
mean in very relative terms. And then when the lid came back on people
said, no, weıre not going to revert back to this subservience of Stalinist
times, and so an underground formed
Ben Wattenberg: How are they uh, organized? I mean, I was there a couple
times during this time and youıd meet in peopleıs apartments and they would
hold discussions and I gathered that their principle aim, or one of their
principle aims was to gain publicity in the West, so that the Soviets would
have to relax their hold on them. Is that about correct?
Tatiana Yankelevich: Well yes and no. You have to remember that this was
not a political movement. It was not a movement to overthrow power and to
gain power. This was something that, forgive the high-flying style. This
was something of an ethical movement
Richard Lourie: Sakharov realized that his position was unique because he
could speak to the West. He was essentially almost immune. He thought he
was immune. He was immune until they finally forcibly exiled him.
Ben Wattenberg: Shipped them off to the city of Gorky, which was a closed
city. Right? Whatwhat does that mean, a closed city?
Tatiana Yankelevich: Oh, closed. That means that foreigner couldnıt get
there, but thatıs not the point. Throughout the Seventies the circle around
the Sakharovıs was being closed up, tightened by the authorities, by the
KGB. And finally the KGB gained what they always wanted, and free reign
basically in Sakharovıs case, They have sent him away where they could
monitor his every movement and control, and even manipulate his every
movement. That they have never gained.
Richard Lourie: The apartment was totally bugged so that if they really
wanted to communicate to each other they would have to write each other
notes. Sometimes using even those childrenıs magic slates, which they used
to do in Moscow, but you knew your apartment was bugged. Every phone booth
within blocks would be out of order so you couldnıt make a phone. People
could not come up to you on the street. There was a policeman sitting out
in front of your door. There was a police station across the street, a
special post set up to monitor Sakharov. His radio was personally jammed.
Ben Wattenberg: Tell us what happens when the electrifying news is received
that Andrei Sakharov wins the Nobel Peace Prize? What happens within the
Tatiana Yankelevich: Well, this was a tremendous symbol of recognition of
Human Rights Movement and thatıs what Sakharov said in his remarks, that
were actually read by my mother because he was not allowed to go to Norway
to accept his Nobel Peace Prize which is given by the Committee of the
Norwegian Parliament and itıs the only prize thatıs not given in Sweden.
She gave his address and that is exactly one of the things that he said,
that this is a recognition of the contribution of the Soviet human rights
movement into the peace movement. And I think that in this regard itıs
very appropriate to remember that Sakharov was actually--we always say
Father of Hydrogen Bomb but he also was the Father, or certainly the author
of whatıs called Sakharov Doctrine, which is the indivisibility of human
rights and international security.
Ben Wattenberg: How does Gorbachev when suddenly the Perestroika and the
Tatiana Yankelevich: Oh, Gorbachev needed Sakharov., and Gorbachev was
smart enough at that time even though not immediately. He was in power for
a year and a half before he realized that he needed Sakharov for the
intelligentsia and for anyone who had any sense and heart in him to believe
the policy of Perestroika. He needed Sakharov to be out of exile, so he
finally liberated him after having been in power for a year and a half, and
I wouldnıt say that itıs because Gorbachev was such a humanist or such a
humanitarian figure. I think he was just being pragmatic. He realized that
he needed Sakharov out of exile and he brought him back to Moscow.
Ben Wattenberg: And yet they clash on certain issues.
Richard Lourie: They clashed on the very first one. from the beginning to
Tatiana Yankelevich: They clashed. Sakharovıs support was never
unconditional and he spoke of it openly.
Richard Lourie: But he respected Gorbachev and he had hopes in Gorbachev.
From the veryfrom the first time he saw Gorbachev speak, was while he was
on a hunger strike and had been forcibly hospitalized, and he said, Russia
lucked out this time. Weıve got an intelligent man.
Tatiana Yankelevich: I just want to say that, to me, the Sakharov lesson if
you will, or example and the meaning of his legacy is that not being a
political man he assumed the responsibility of political activity.
Ben Wattenberg: He actually becomes a political leader of some of the
forces in Congress. Hereıs this man who had been exiled and then under
Gorbachev he becomes a political leader with press conferences and
Tatiana Yankelevich : Yes, and he was widely respected not only by
dissidents and human rights activists of the former Soviet times but by
general public and he won this respect and this trust in their in amazingly
short period of time between his release in December of 1986 and his death
less than three years later.
Richard Lourie: Heıs a winner. I mean, Sakharovthereıs things that we
should remember about Sakharov because his life sounds very serious. But I
think he was a happy man. I think he was a lucky man and he was definitely
a successful man. Nearly everything he did ultimately he succeeded.
Towards the end of his life he quite clearly said that he couldnıt think of
the universe as cold and dead and mechanistic. For him it pulsed with
warmth, life, and meaning. Even in his Nobel Prize speech, the concluding
phrases of his Nobel Prize speech rise almost to a kind of a mystic sense of
the universe. And in the end he died as part of the Russia that he had
envisioned and fought for.
Ben Wattenberg: Thank you, Richard Lourie
Richard Lourie: Thank you Ben Wattenberg.
Ben Wattenberg: And Tatiana Yankelevich.
Richard Lourie: Very good.
Ben Wattenberg: And thank you. Please remember to send us your comments
via e-mail. For Think Tank, Iım Ben Wattenberg.
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