Unkown Figure Still Unknown-Just Another Biography (of Sakharov)

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A recent survey in Russia asked the following question: who was the most important Russian figure of the 20th century? It's no surprise that Lenin and Stalin topped the list. On the other hand, how many of you out there are familiar with third-place: Andrei Sakharov? Even your Russophile reviewer had never heard of him outside of a Soviet history survey course. Surely the father of the Russian H-bomb and the USSR's most troubling dissident deserves a place in contemporary American relevance. Richard Lourie's new work "Sakharov: A Biography" may help fill that void in the American consciousness.

Lourie has written his book for a wide audience-you don't have to know much about Soviet history, or atomic weaponry, or chemistry, or samizdat literature. As a result, the book gets off to a slow start with an overview of the last gasp of Imperial Russia and the first years of revolution and civil war. Even more mind numbing was a family history of Sakharov's ancestors. However, you can skim the first two chapters and join in as Lourie picks up speed throughout young Andrei's childhood.

During the Second World War, the Soviet government sought to protect its brain power. Sakharov, the son of a physicist and a promising university student in his own right, was thus spirited away to the interior of the Soviet Union, where he sought to contribute to the war effort while completing his studies. Upon returning to Moscow, his intellectual gifts got him on the fast track to a great scientific career, culminating in his assignment to Arzamas-16, the Los Alamos of the USSR, where work on Soviet atomic weapons was taking place at furious speed. Dedicated to the science for both academic and patriotic reasons, Sakharov spent the next several years caught up in his work and the privileges that came with the award of Hero of Socialist Labor, given upon the successful test of the hydrogen-bomb.

Lourie attempts to chart the slow progression from atomic scientist extraordinaire to human rights activist by highlighting the moments when Sakharov stands up for Jewish friends persecuted by the Kremlin, or when he calculates the number of lives risked by each above-ground nuclear explosion. However, there is no denying that his dissident leanings might still have been stifled had he not, a widower at age 49, met Elena Bonner.

Bonner, daughter of a gulag survivor, was in 1970 a lively divorcee and Party member dedicated to reforming the system from within. Her influence on Sakharov's life is unclear. He had already roused the KGB's suspicions before he met her, but they tended to look upon him as a wayward soul who could be re-converted to proper Soviet patriotism. Bonner earned the KGB code name "Vixen" for driving Sakharov toward further radicalism. Sakharov's children likewise disapproved of her and their marriage; they later blamed her in print for endangering their father's life by encouraging his dissident activities. Lourie dismisses this analysis, and largely shortchanges Bonner's efforts, remarking instead upon her excellent cooking, renowned among the dissident population.

The remainder of the biography is the tale of the struggle between the KGB and an aging yet tireless scientist/activist. Lourie provides several examples of the life of a dissident. Sakharov attended trials of other dissidents, lobbying for their release and attracting the notice of the press. He continued to publish articles against nuclear testing, and co-founded the Human Rights Committee, an organization dedicated to upholding the Soviet Constitution (which, if applied literally, was the most progressive constitution of its time). Essays that were smuggled out of the country laid out Sakharov's theory of convergence, a belief that the Soviet Union and the United States would gradually come to resemble one another as they adopted the best qualities of each system. Sakharov warned the US that nuclear détente needed to be followed by qualitative domestic change, and suggested an array of reforms to the Soviet political structure.

Though prohibited from leaving the country (he possessed state secrets), his fame in the Western world grew and earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975. Even internal exile to the city of Gorky for the first half of the 1980s did not silence him, as he supplemented writing with hunger strikes in order to achieve his goals. Under the headings of glasnost and perestroika, Gorbachev allowed Sakharov to return to Moscow and eventually to travel overseas. He continued to battle with the Soviet regime over human rights issues and won a seat in the Congress of People's Deputies in the USSR's first semi-free elections. His untimely death in December 1989 was mourned as though Russia had lost a saint.

Sakharov may have been revered by the Russian people, and his influence may continue to be felt, but the Western world, it appears, forgot about him immediately after his death. In a non-fiction market driven by the current American preoccupation with Islam and terrorism, readers are unlikely to flock to a figure from the Cold War. Such a man ought to have a better fate than oblivion, but Lourie's book is unlikely to give him the recognition he deserves. Like Russia itself, Sakharov's day has yet to come.


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