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Reflections on the past: Remembering Andrei Sakharov

December 5, 2009

As the holiday season gets underway, the Washington political scene has been busier than ever. In recent news, the health care bill continues to undergo adjustments, the Democrats are proposing to raise the federal debt ceiling, and the President has outlined his strategy for Afghanistan, a discussion of which is ongoing. This is considerable activity given ordinary Washington Christmas seasons. But these are not ordinary times.

The bracing temperatures and the early evenings are evocative of other unforgettable holiday seasons, including one twenty years ago—when the news that Soviet Nobel Laureate, physicist, human rights advocate, and anti-Afghan war protester, Andrei Sakharov, was dead.

I remember, vividly, the unfathomable news. The historic meeting of the Soviet Congress of People’s Deputies was underway, just after the first competitively held elections in the Soviet Union. It was a tumultuous gathering and during one of the most contentious moments, Sakharov, an elected member, rose to present his draft Constitution of the Soviet Union. The response to his proposal was electrifying, yet frightening at the same time. The struggle for the future of the country had reached a critical point, especially in light of the political upheaval in Eastern Europe. Fear, anger, patriotism, betrayal, shock — all were deeply felt and utterly palpable. On December 14, just days after Sakharov’s emotional presentation, the news broke that the father of radical reform in the USSR was dead of a heart attack.  

In the last years of the Soviet Union, I was making 6-8 trips annually to the USSR, and much of what I wrote at that time had some bearing on Sakharov—and his life and times. Just after his death, I helped his friend and collaborator, Russian physicist Dr. Roald Sagdeev, write an obituary/op-ed for the Washington Post, and some months later, Sagdeev and I collaborated on a piece for Physics Today on the publication of Sakharov’s memoirs. Roald Sagdeev’s 1994 memoirs, The Making of a Soviet Scientist (New York: John Wiley and Sons), which I co-authored with him, told many intimate stories of Sakharov from his earliest days in the nuclear weapons complex through the work they did together during the final days of the Soviet system. My own experiences and impressions of him were chronicled in my 1995 book, Breaking Free, a Memoir of Love and Revolution (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

Sakharov, Soviet hydrogen bomb designer and human rights activist, was a singular force during those revolutionary times. As his fellow board member of the International Foundation for the Survival and Development of Humanity, I was lucky to know him and to observe him at close range. As Sagdeev and I articulated, Sakharov was a complex man, full of contradiction, and utterly without remorse—either for his central role as the father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb or as a destroyer of the very system he help to defend. But he was a great scientist and an agent of change. History will say that he was an indispensable actor in the one of the greatest dramas of the 20th century: the collapse of the Soviet Union.

It is during these holidays of gratitude that we take stock and reflect on people who have shaped our individual and collective lives. Figures of wisdom and courage stand out in such periods of dislocation and strife. Sakharov will remain a man for the ages.

Click here to read the essay from Physics Today by Susan Eisenhower and Roald Sagdeev on the publication of Sakharov’s memoirs.

The anniversary of Andrei Sakharov’s passing is noted in the American Physical Society’s publication this month. Click here to read and to learn more about his life and career.

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