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Meeting the Demands of Reason

The Life and Thought of Andrei Sakharov

Jay Bergman

Publication Year: 2009

The Soviet physicist, dissident, and human rights activist Andrei Sakharov (1921-1989) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975. The first Russian to have been so recognized, Sakharov in his Nobel lecture held that humanity had a "sacred endeavor" to create a life worthy of its potential, that "we must make good the demands of reason," by confronting the dangers threatening the world, both then and now: nuclear annihilation, famine, pollution, and the denial of human rights.

Meeting the Demands of Reason provides a comprehensive account of Sakharov's life and intellectual development, focusing on his political thought and the effect his ideas had on Soviet society. Jay Bergman places Sakharov's dissidence squarely within the ethical legacy of the nineteenth-century Russian intelligentsia, inculcated by his father and other family members from an early age.

In 1948, one year after receiving his doctoral candidate's degree in physics, Sakharov began work on the Soviet hydrogen bomb and later received both the Stalin and the Lenin prizes for his efforts. Although as a nuclear physicist he had firsthand experience of honors and privileges inaccessible to ordinary citizens, Sakharov became critical of certain policies of the Soviet government in the late 1950s. He never renounced his work on nuclear weaponry, but eventually grew concerned about the environmental consequences of testing and feared unrestrained nuclear proliferation.

Bergman shows that these issues led Sakharov to see the connection between his work in science and his responsibilities to the political life of his country. In the late 1960s, Sakharov began to condemn the Soviet system as a whole in the name of universal human rights. By the 1970s, he had become, with Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the most recognized Soviet dissident in the West, which afforded him a measure of protection from the authorities. In 1980, however, he was exiled to the closed city of Gorky for protesting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In 1986, the new Gorbachev regime allowed him to return to Moscow, where he played a central role as both supporter and critic in the years of perestroika.

Two years after Sakharov's death, the Soviet Union collapsed, and in the courageous example of his unyielding commitment to human rights, skillfully recounted by Bergman, Sakharov remains an enduring inspiration for all those who would tell truth to power.

Published by: Cornell University Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-10


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pp. ix-x

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Preface and Acknowledgments

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pp. xi-xv

Andrei Sakharov (1921–1989) was one of the towering figures of the late twentieth century. He contributed much to our understanding of the origins of the universe, and his criticisms of the Soviet Union contributed in no small measure to its collapse. In this biography, I have focused on Sakharov’s ideas, especially...

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Note on Transliteration

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pp. xvii-20

Transliteration of Russian words follows the Library of Congress system. The only exceptions are to render the “ks” in, for example, Aleksei, as “x”—hence, Alexei—and the names of persons and places well known in the West in the way they are spelled in the West—hence “Yeltsin” instead of “El'tsin,” “Gorky” instead...

Part I. Earliest Influences: 1921–1945

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pp. 1-22

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1. A Childhood of Culture and Ideas

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pp. 3-18

The Soviet Union in which Andrei Sakharov was born and grew to maturity was radically different in many ways from the monarchy that preceded it. Mesmerized by the opportunity to remold human nature and create a communist society devoid of everything that had corrupted human existence prior to the Bolshevik...

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2. Expanding Horizons

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pp. 18-28

The Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, complicated Sakharov’s life in ways he could not have previously imagined. Neither he nor anyone else in his course of study in mathematics and physics at MGU was conscripted because the Soviet government, despite the gravity of the situation, recognized how...

Part II. Designing Weapons for the Maintenance of Peace: 1945–1956

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pp. 29-51

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3. Tamm’s Protégé at FIAN

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pp. 31-45

“Never before or since have I been so close to the highest level of science—its cutting edge.”1 This is how Sakharov described in his memoirs the work he did at FIAN. Reading them one appreciates the enthusiasm Sakharov felt at the time for the academic discipline he had recently chosen as his profession....

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4. Arzamas-16—The Secret Installation

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pp. 46-61

To facilitate the task of assessing the progress Zeldovich and his colleagues were making on the construction of a Soviet hydrogen bomb, Sakharov, Tamm, and two other physicists who were part of this project, Vitalii Ginsburg and Iurii Romanov, were moved to different offices and given new calculators. Because...

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5. The “Layer Cake” and Other Weapons

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pp. 61-77

At Arzamas Sakharov was consumed by the task of constructing a hydrogen bomb. This was more difficult than constructing an atomic bomb, but the military benefits were commensurately greater. Even before the United States successfully tested nuclear weapons and dropped them on Japanese cities, Edward...

Part III. A Scientist with a Social Conscience: 1956–1968

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pp. 79-102

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6. Radioactive Fallout and Other Matters of Conscience

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pp. 81-92

By the late 1950s Sakharov was sufficiently appalled by what he had seen of the Soviet ruling elite that on one occasion, in the winter of 1958, he described the top leaders of the Soviet Union, whom he had recently observed in meetings he attended in the Kremlin, as “monsters.”1 In time these same leaders would...

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7. Confronting Khrushchev

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pp. 92-105

The substantive issue around which Sakharov’s disaffection crystallized in the late 1950s was the testing of thermonuclear weapons in the atmosphere. He vehemently and unequivocally opposed it. Given his concerns about radioactive fallout, it was logical that he do so. Unlike nuclear tests conducted underground...

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8. The Nuzhdin Affair

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pp. 105-117

Sakharov scored another victory in 1964. In June of that year, he played a critical role in defeating the nomination of Nikolai Nuzhdin, an acolyte and accomplice of Trofim Lysenko—the longtime “Stalin” of Soviet biology, agronomy, and genetics—for full membership in the Academy of Sciences. By opposing...

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9. A Dissident at Last

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pp. 118-131

Andrei Sakharov joined the dissident movement shortly after it became a recognizable phenomenon in the mid-1960s. A Soviet dissident could be generally described as someone who regarded the Soviet system as fl awed, based his criticisms on moral principle, believed in the inherent dignity and worth of the individual...

Part IV. Challenging the Soviet Goliath: 1968–1973

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pp. 133-158

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10. Reflections on Progress, Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom

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pp. 135-153

Reflections made Sakharov famous. Incredibly, some 18 million copies were sold or distributed globally in the first year of its publication.1 An American edition, with an introduction, notes, and commentary by the American journalist Harrison Salisbury, was published in 1968 and remained in print in the United...

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11. An Equal Partner in Politics and Life

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pp. 153-157

Largely because of Refl ections and the publicity it received around the world, by 1969 the Soviet government considered Sakharov its principal domestic opponent.1 In his memoirs, Sakharov describes his newfound notoriety matter-of-factly, perhaps because his life was changing even more dramatically in other...

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12. Moral Anchor of a Dissident Movement

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pp. 157-188

In the early 1970s Sakharov became a central figure among the dissidents. For this reason he could not remain aloof from the effort to create permanent organizations as a vehicle for pursuing the goals they shared. Through these organizations Soviet dissidence became an actual movement, as opposed to sporadic,...

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13. The Regime Reacts

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pp. 188-196

Five weeks after Chakovskii’s piece appeared, Sakharov was summoned to answer questions from the KGB. This was the first time the Soviet police had demanded this of him. At the meeting, which the KGB termed an interview but which quickly became a unilateral denunciation, the KGB informed Sakharov that...

Part V. “Domestic Enemy Number One”: 1973–1980

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pp. 197-225

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14. Orchestrated Vituperation

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pp. 199-210

“Sakharov, that traitor.” This is how Sakharov characterized the slander he heard several Soviet citizens utter in September 1973, not long after the press campaign began, when they spotted him on a beach in Batumi on the shore of the Black Sea. He and Bonner had hoped to find a brief respite there from the...

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15. Debating Solzhenitsyn

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pp. 211-223

Sakharov’s revelation in early September of the Princeton invitation caused his relations with Solzhenitsyn to worsen. The two men met for the last time on December 1, 1973. At the meeting, Solzhenitsyn argued strenuously against Sakharov’s leaving the country. When Sakharov assured Solzhenitsyn he had...

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16. Détente and Human Rights

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pp. 223-242

However much futurology attracted him, Sakharov devoted most of his attention in the 1970s to issues of immediate concern both to him and to the Soviet Union. The most pressing and prominent of these was détente. Sakharov himself never defined the term, but he used it repeatedly to describe a relationship between...

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17. Nobel Laureate

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pp. 242-264

Sakharov did not confront the Soviet goliath in a vacuum. His ideas and objectives and his sense of what was politically possible were all colored in varying degrees by the circumstances of his personal life. In 1974 and 1975 these were dominated by Bonner’s medical problems. In the spring of 1974 her glaucoma...

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18. The Noose Tightens

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pp. 264-275

From 1977 to 1980 the government’s persecution of both the dissidents and the refuseniks increased. Paradoxically, the more the government harassed these groups, the more it seemed to fear them. In March 1979 Andropov told a conference of KGB officials assigned to the Fifth Directorate (which had the task of...

Part VI. In Exile, Unrepentant: 1980–1986

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pp. 277-308

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19. Arrested but Still Defiant

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pp. 279-301

On January 22, 1980, the day he expected the government to arrest him, Sakharov was determined to follow his usual routine.1 In the early afternoon, in a limousine the academy provided him, he set off for the Lebedev Institute to attend its weekly seminar on theoretical physics. Although he had had no formal...

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20. Finding Hope in Quantum Physics

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pp. 302-322

The exhilaration Sakharov felt when Liza finally received an exit visa did not last long. However gratifying it was in personal terms, his success in forcing the Soviet government to capitulate momentarily could not obscure the harsh reality that the dissident movement, by 1981, was in extremis. In the late 1970s...

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21. The Soviet Leadership Softens

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pp. 323-329

In the late summer of 1985, when Bonner’s prospects of going abroad and Sakharov’s of leaving Gorky never seemed worse, the new Soviet leadership, unbeknownst to both of them, was reconsidering its refusal to grant Bonner a visa. On August 29 the Politburo discussed her application formally. Gorbachev...

Part VII. The Conscience of Perestroika: 1986–1989

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pp. 331-362

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22. Return to Moscow

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pp. 333-353

On his first full day back in Moscow, Sakharov returned to the Lebedev Institute to attend its weekly seminar on theoretical physics. If he did so in the expectation that he could resume his activities as if nothing had changed since he was last there in January 1980, he was wrong. As he entered the seminar, the scientists...

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23. A Different Kind of Perestroika

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pp. 354-372

On the Soviet economy, Sakharov’s views became more radical. In 1987 and through most of 1988, as Gorbachev proposed reforms that modifi ed economic relations without changing the economic institutions themselves—such as allowing individual enterprises limited freedom in how they functioned but with...

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24. The Congress of People’s Deputies

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pp. 372-390

There were moments of high drama at the First Congress of People’s Deputies after it convened in late May 1989. Sakharov was involved in several of them. But the one that captured most poignantly his ambivalent attitude toward both Gorbachev and the program of reform the latter believed would save the Soviet...

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25. Apotheosis Postmortem

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pp. 391-398

In the four days between Sakharov’s death, on December 14, and his funeral, on December 18, Gorbachev negotiated the terms of the funeral with the same ambivalence he had demonstrated when Sakharov was alive. Even in death, Sakharov was someone whose support he wanted, whose reputation he envied,...

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Conclusion. Sakharov’s Legacy

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pp. 399-411

In assessing Sakharov’s influence after his death, the first thing to determine is the effect he had on the collapse of the Soviet Union, arguably the most significant event of the late twentieth century. Though he made a substantial contribution to this event, he never advocated the overthrow of the Soviet system or...


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pp. 413-444


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pp. 445-454

Image Plates

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pp. 455-462

E-ISBN-13: 9780801458385
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801447310

Page Count: 480
Publication Year: 2009

Edition: 1

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Subject Headings

  • Sakharov, Andreĭ, 1921-1989.
  • Sakharov, Andreĭ, 1921-1989 -- Political and social views.
  • Dissenters -- Soviet Union -- Biography.
  • Physicists -- Soviet Union -- Biography.
  • Political prisoners -- Soviet Union -- Biography.
  • Human rights workers -- Soviet Union -- Biography.
  • Soviet Union -- Politics and government -- 1953-1985.
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