The Magazine

Sakharov Watch

Fearful police state meets brave dissident.

Sep 5, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 47 • By HARVEY KLEHR
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The KGB File of Andrei Sakharov

edited by Joshua Rubenstein and Alexander Gribanov

Yale, 448 pp., $45

FROM 1968 UNTIL HIS DEATH in 1989, the KGB sent hundreds of reports to the Soviet leadership about the activities of Andrei Sakharov, once one of the USSR's most decorated and senior atomic scientists until his conversion into one of its most prominent dissidents. Along with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov became a worldwide symbol of resistance to Communist repression. Unlike the famous writer, whose brooding Slavic mysticism sometimes discomfited Western audiences, Sakharov couched his arguments in the language of the Western enlightenment and liberalism. Possessing important state secrets from his days as one of the chief designers of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, and enjoying perquisites from his many state awards and positions, he could not simply be stripped of his citizenship and dumped in the West like Solzhenitsyn.

Joshua Rubenstein and Alexander Gribanov have collected and published most of the 200-odd KGB reports given to Sakharov's widow, Elena Bonner, after his death. The picture they provide is a catalogue of horrors, the story of a regime willing and able to resort to all manner of dirty tricks to defame and destroy one man and his family. At the same time, however, it is also a tale of epic courage and consistency, a reminder of the bravery and moral fortitude exhibited by a small group of dissidents who helped to bring down one of the most repressive regimes in human history.

The Soviet dissident movement began to coalesce in 1967-1968, following growing disappointment at the failure of de-Stalinization, increasing repression occasioned by the crushing of the Prague Spring, and the growing willingness of dissidents to use the Western press to publicize their activities. Sakharov was unlike many of the other dissidents. A senior scientist, born in 1921 into a distinguished family, he had, like his father, become a physicist. He did graduate work after World War II, and in 1949 was drafted into nuclear weapons research. Reluctantly, he became the principal designer of the Soviet Union's first hydrogen bomb. He was rewarded for his scientific prowess with three Heroes of Socialist Labor awards, the Stalin prize, the Lenin prize, a large salary and privileges, and election as one of the youngest members of the Soviet Academy of Sciences.

One of the spurs to his activism was concern about the political distortions of science. In 1952, after a public attack on Albert Einstein's theory of relativity and quantum theory for violating Marxism, Sakharov and other physicists warned Lavrenti Beria that the party needed to leave physics alone or risk the same kind of disaster as had befallen Soviet biology after Trofim Lysenko had imposed political controls on scientific research. Within a year, Sakharov was writing private letters to party leaders defending cultural freedom and particular individuals who had run afoul of the authorities. Meanwhile, he was also becoming troubled about nuclear fallout and unhappy about Soviet resumption of above-ground nuclear tests in 1961. He signed his first public petition in 1966, and that same year took part in a public protest on behalf of political prisoners.

The first document reprinted in the book is the report written by Yuri Andropov, head of the KGB, to the Central Committee in May 1968 about "Progress, Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom," the manuscript whose publication in the West would vault Sakharov into prominence. Andropov explained that it approached questions "mainly from an anti-Marxist position," such as the belief that capitalism and socialism could converge, and that it called for democratization, demilitarization, and intellectual freedom. Concerned that Sakharov would be "exploited" by the dissident movement, Andropov recommended that someone in the party leadership sit him down for a stern talk.

Once he began his public defiance of the regime, Sakharov quickly became a major embarrassment and irritant to the Kremlin. He became a founder of the Moscow Human Rights Committee in 1970, stood vigil at trials of dissidents, wrote appeals on their behalf, and met constantly with Western correspondents. As he lost faith in the willingness of the regime to change its policies, Sakharov also sharpened his political sense, appealing to the United States Congress in 1973 to pass the Jackson-Vanik amendment, linking Soviet most-favored-nation trade status to freer emigration of Soviet Jews. To the enraged Andropov, he had become, by 1976, "Domestic Enemy Number One."

During the Stalin years, domestic enemies did not long survive. Numerous dissidents were arrested or confined to psychiatric hospitals throughout the 1960s and '70s, but Sakharov presented special problems for the regime. Andropov frequently discussed arresting him, but in the 1970s, the Soviet desire to extend détente and gain economic assistance from the West limited the leadership's options. American pressure, from both the government and public opinion, was one constraint. Even some European Communist parties, long supinely supportive of every twist and turn in Soviet policy, expressed dismay about repression and warned that their own reputations were at risk. While the KGB threatened Sakharov with arrest, defamed him, and tried occasional acts of intimidation--after he urged a peaceful settlement of the Middle East conflict and criticized Soviet support for the Arab world during the Yom Kippur war, two men claiming to be from Black September showed up at his apartment and threatened his children and grandchildren--the government grew increasingly frustrated at its inability to stifle this one man. In July 1975, after Sakharov warned that he would appeal to Western governments preparing to finish negotiations on the Helsinki Final Act, the Soviet Union finally allowed Elena Bonner, Sakharov's Jewish wife, to go to Italy for medical treatment. That October, Sakharov received the Nobel Peace Prize, triggering a spate of nasty "operational measures" designed to discredit him, but indicating just how obsessed the Soviet leadership was with one individual.

The Helsinki Act proved another thorn in the Soviet side. In return for Western recognition of the post-World War II borders in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union had agreed to a series of humanitarian guarantees, including respect for "freedom of thought, conscience, religion," promotion of civil and political rights, and equality before the law for ethnic minorities. Because the Act also invoked the principle of nonintervention in any country's internal affairs, the Soviets were confident they could ignore the guarantees. The regime's crackdown on dissidents accelerated in 1974, just as the final negotiations were taking place, with arrests and expulsions, including Solzhenitsyn's. But one provision required publication of the accords in Pravda and Izvestia. It inspired the dissidents to set up a Watch Committee to monitor Soviet compliance with Helsinki. As the committee reported on violations and abuses, Western pressure, in turn, increased.

By 1980, Andropov and his aging cohort had had enough. Sakharov had forcefully condemned the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the year before, and called for a boycott of the Moscow Olympics in an interview with the New York Times. No longer worried about offending Western public opinion, the government shut off Jewish emigration and exiled Sakharov to Gorky. Until her conviction in 1984 of anti-Soviet slander, his wife was still able to travel to Moscow and pass along his writings and views to correspondents, including his opposition to a nuclear freeze and support for Ronald Reagan's decision to build MX missiles.

The Soviet leadership never understood what motivated Sakharov or how ineffectual their methods were. In 1971, Andropov told Leonid Brezhnev that the scientist was consumed by guilt because of his role in building the hydrogen bomb--although there is far more evidence that it was his commitment to intellectual freedom and democracy that drove him. At a Politburo meeting in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev blamed Bonner for manipulating him, and linked her to a more sinister enemy: "That's what Zionism really is." But in one important sense the Communists understood just how much of a threat he posed: In 1975, after Sakharov received the Nobel Prize, Andropov wrote to the Central Committee to explain that tolerating dissidents was "fraught with the most negative consequences."

In Gorky, Sakharov faced psychological intimidation, dirty tricks, vandalism, radio jamming of his apartment, and theft of his manuscripts. KGB harassment drove Bonner's son's fiancée to attempt suicide. In one particularly egregious attack, in 1982, a thug smashed Sakharov's car window, stunned him with a drug, and stole his memoirs from the back seat. He undertook periodic hunger strikes in protest and was force-fed. His health deteriorated.

Only after the deaths of Brezhnev, Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko; the Chernobyl disaster, exposing the ossification of the regime; and Gorbachev's realization that the tried and true ways of the past were dead ends, did Sakharov's situation improve. Throughout 1986 there were signs of relaxation--a few political prisoners released, Anatoly Sharansky exchanged for a Soviet spy--and in December that year Gorbachev telephoned Sakharov and informed him he was free to return to Moscow. Typically, the scientist used the occasion to press for the release of all political prisoners.

As perestroika and glasnost gained steam, Sakharov became their most visible symbol. While he incurred the anger of some dissidents for his qualified support of Gorbachev, he remained an implacable opponent of the Communist monopoly on power. Elected to the Congress of People's Deputies in 1989, he spoke more than anyone else at the televised proceedings, standing up to the party leader in defense of democracy. The Soviet public got its first glimpse of the man so reviled for decades by the state-controlled media. One poll showed that he was more respected than Gorbachev, a result that led Gorbachev to threaten to fire the pollsters. Gorbachev cut off Sakharov's microphone at one session, angered by his criticisms and irritated by his work to create a formal opposition to the Communist party. Sakharov died of a heart attack two days later, on December 14, two years before the entire rotten edifice collapsed.

Andrei Sakharov's legacy is by no means assured. This year, for the first time since his death, the annual memorial concert in his memory was not held in Moscow. Governed by KGB veterans like Vladimir Putin, Russia is teetering on the edge of authoritarianism. This book is a welcome reminder of a very different part of the Russian tradition.

Harvey Klehr is author of In Denial: Historians, Communism, and Espionage.