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."