Andrei Sakharov’s Russian resonance under Putin

On December 15, 1986, workers in the Russian provincial capital of Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod) installed a turquoise telephone in Andrei Sakharov’s dirty apartment.The physicist and peace activist was exiled in almost isolation 214 Gagarin Avenue Since 1980. A day later, the phone rang. It was Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev who ended Sakharov’s internal exile. “Thank you,” Sakharov replied, “but a few days ago, my friend Anatoly Marchenko passed away in Chistopol prison. He was the first on the list I gave you. Many prisoners of conscience are in Soviet prisons and they must all be released.”

A week later, Sakharov and his wife Elena “Lucia” Bonner got off the train in Moscow. This is a historic moment: Sakharov embodies the freedom of thought suppressed in the Soviet Union. Will his return change the country? When foreign journalists flocked in, he checked the names of many prisoners, but then had to escape: it was Tuesday, and his beloved Institute of Physics FIAN held a weekly theoretical seminar.

This week 30 years ago, the Soviet Union disintegrated, but Sakharov’s spirit still looms over us. The father of the Soviet thermonuclear bomb, who became the main Soviet dissident (he prefers “free thinkers”), will turn 100 this year. When Vladimir Putin’s army threatened Ukraine, Sakharov warned that a country that deprived its citizens of human rights would endanger neighboring countries, which seemed prescient. At the same time, this month, another Russian dissident who was deprived of his liberty, Alexei Navalny, won the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought from the European Parliament. Just this week, Russia’s Supreme Court ordered the closure of the memorial, the country’s most famous human rights organization that Sakharov helped create.

What would he think of Russia today (about 60 streets and squares are named after him)? “I can’t imagine how frustrated he would be,” said his stepdaughter Tatiana Yanklevich.


Descendants from the Orthodox priestSakharov grew up among the remnants of intellectuals before the Moscow Revolution. His father Dmitry wrote popular physics books. Although the Soviet Union was founded in 1922 when Sakharov was only 19 months old, he almost grew up outside mentally, studying at home until he was five years old, and then went to fifth and sixth grades. Sakharov studied physics and mathematics from his father and felt that he “understood everything immediately.”A later colleague wrote that Sakharov “can mentally transform himself into [electrons or neutrons], As if his skin could feel what they were. Sakharov said that the loneliness in his youth made him “very dislike social, which made me very painful.” But he was almost unique among Soviet citizens, and he was taught to think freely.

The relatives “disappeared” in the great horror of 1937, but his parents protected him from politics, and the teenager had no interest yet. In World War II, he used his talents for patriotism and invented a new method of testing anti-tank shell cores. In 1945, he opened his mouth and read an article about the American atomic bomb.

Stalin’s secret police chief, Lavrenti Beria, insisted that he join the Soviet bomb program. This kept Sakharov away from theoretical physics.Recalling the research in the summer of 1947, he regretted it: “I have never been so close to the highest level of science before or since.” (This article and other quotes in this article are from the Centennial Album Andrei Dmitrijevic Sakharov, Published in English next year. )

He and his young family were sent to a research center called “Device”, which was located in a small town called Sarov, which was deleted from the map, where inmates from the local prison were doing trivial work. .

However, his biographer Gennady Gorelik (Gennady Gorelik) explained that bombmaking suits him because he is a rare combination of theorist and practical inventor. Before the age of 30, Sakharov designed the “layered cake” structure of the Soviet “hydrogen bomb” and successfully tested it in August 1953. It can be said that this device is not a real hydrogen bomb, because most of the energy comes from nuclear fission, not fusion. Either way, it is the deadliest weapon in the world, and its destructive power is equivalent to 25 Hiroshima atomic bombs. In 1955, the Soviet Union tested a thermonuclear bomb co-designed by Sakharov, and its power was still four times as powerful.

With so many Jewish physicists, the leaders of the Soviet Union are happy to celebrate the Russian national hero. Sakharov was kissed by Brezhnev and Khrushchev, and he became rich, and he could reach any leader on the phone. He has been named a hero of socialist labor for three times. Whenever he gets confused at the window of the railway ticket office, waving his hero booklet (for security reasons, no photos) can solve any problem.


Sakharov never repented Because of his bomb making. He felt that he was protecting the motherland and by achieving nuclear equality with the United States and the world. But he was also driven by the charm of intellectuals. The installation where he spent 18 years is an oasis of relatively free thought, even though it is closed to outsiders. The party recognizes that physicists need intellectual freedom to develop weapons. Therefore, in a place equivalent to Los Alamos, the “atomic city” of the United States, scientists could even easily chat about BBC radio news, Gorelik recalled. Their library received the American Atomic Scientist Bulletin. Sakharov recalled that this work was “a paradise for physicists.” At that time he still believed mainly in the Soviet system.

Sakharov got on the train in Moscow, 1988 © Sputnik / TopFoto

However, he became more and more disturbed. He saw that nuclear pollution would cause countless deaths. Although the victims are anonymous individuals, many of whom have not yet been born, his ability to combine abstract and concrete thoughts helped him imagine them. For many years, Sakharov lobbied Khrushchev to end the nuclear test. In 1963, the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom abandoned the Moscow Treaty for ground testing, which was part of his achievement.

But once his thoughts go beyond the scope of making bombs, he can’t stop. From 1966 to 1968, in what Gorelik called the “creative wave”, he rethinked his personal politics, and at the same time generated a wave of original research that is rare for physicists in their forties. British physicist Norman Dombey said: “In pure physics, his main achievement is to solve the problem of how the observable universe is composed of particles rather than antiparticles, even though the laws of physics are symmetrical between particles and antiparticles. “

On Constitution Day in 1966, he participated in his first demonstration: dozens of dissidents gathered in front of the Pushkin Monument in Moscow, took off their hats, and remained silent to show respect for the Constitution. (Half of the participants wear hats; they are KGB agents.) Then Sakharov, a Pushkin obsessed, read the inscription on the monument:

I will always be loved by my people
Use my lyre to awaken kind feelings,
Celebrating freedom in this cruel age
And appeal for mercy for those who have fallen.

He has crossed the other side.in a 1968 ThesisHe issued a sensational warning about nuclear extinction in the “New York Times” and called for intellectual freedom and the integration of communist and capitalist systems. He also warned that “the carbon dioxide produced by the burning of coal is changing the heat-reflective properties of the atmosphere”. After publication, he was banned from conducting military research, and he continued to fight even though he was expected to fail. “If you want to be a free person, you won’t stand up for human rights because it will work. But because it’s right“.


Kravdia Died in 1969. During the dissent movement, he met Bonner, and Bonner educated him about life beyond the old bomb-making device. Outside of a trial in Moscow in 1978, he and she separately attacked KGB agents. At the hearing, Bonner said she did not regret, but apologized to the police chief who accidentally punched her. Still protected by Sakharov’s heroic status, the couple was only fined.

In 1974, Sakharov predicted a computerized “universal information system”-the Internet. In 1975, Bonner won the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. Read his speech This explains why peace cannot exist without progress and human rights. In 1980, he was deprived of Soviet honour and exiled for protesting the invasion of Afghanistan.

Sakharov and granddaughter Marina Sakharov-Lieberman

With his granddaughter Marina Sakharov-Liberman © akg-images / SNA

His granddaughter Marina Sakharov-Liberman (Marina Sakharov-Liberman) now lives in London. She recalled having a long conversation in the woods when she went to Gorky (his apartment was tapped). And drew with him skillfully (a family tradition). He once sent her a telegram saying that her moss was blooming. “I haven’t received the telegram for three weeks,” she said with a smile. “I think the KGB is confused about what the code might mean.” Most of his physicist friends are loyal to him. Nobel Prize winner Vitali Günzburg even checked Marina’s progress in physics research and assumed the role of Sakharov’s grandfather.

Five hunger strikes were held in Gorky Sakharov, mainly to allow Bonner to go abroad for medical treatment.

After being liberated from Gorky, he became a democracy activist. In 1988, he co-founded the Memorial Association to commemorate the victims of Soviet repression. That year, he traveled abroad for the first time, landing in the United States before the presidential election. Beside Tatiana Yankelevich, a refugee stepdaughter who lives in Newton, Massachusetts, he is fascinated by the vote in the local elementary school. But when the mayor of Newton suggested that he accompany Yankelevich into the polling station, Sakharov refused: the vote is secret, he insisted.

The citizens of the Soviet Union saw in him unprecedented moral purity. Elected to parliament in 1989, he said, “The people — deceived so often by hypocrisy, corruption, crime, influence-peddling, and inertia — turned out to be alive and well. If their expectations fall through, God will help us. Historically, there has never been a last chance, but psychologically, for our generation, disappointment may be irreparable.” On December 14, 1989, he called for the abolition of the constitutional provisions that guaranteed the party’s “leadership”. That night, Bonner found him on the floor of his apartment, dying of acute heart failure. An estimated 100,000 people attended his funeral.


Three years laterThe Memorial Association estimates that the number of political prisoners in Russia—approximately 450—was at the level of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. Among the hundreds of imprisoned dissidents in Belarus was the winner of the Sakharov Prize last year. Yanklevich pointed out that some imprisonment penalties for protesters are now harsher and more arbitrary than in the Soviet Union, perhaps because Putin does not care about Western recognition like the Soviet leaders.

Navalny flew back to Russia in January, knowing he would be sentenced to prison. He may look like Sakharov’s digitization, the catwalk is ready to be updated, and he also ignores the state of omnipotence, but Sakharov’s stepdaughter and granddaughter refuse to compare. “Both are very brave, but it’s like comparing vegetables and fruits,” Yanklevich said. “Navarny has evolved, but this has not made him a great thinker. Sakharov is a great thinker.”

When Navalny’s daughter Daria accepted the Sakharov Prize in Strasbourg this month, just as Bonner received Sakharov’s Nobel Prize, she criticized Western politicians for not being “pragmatic.” “The reason is against Putin. “Andrei Sakharov,” she commented, “probably one of the least pragmatic people on the planet.” She finally quoted him: “It turns out that my destiny is more important than my personality. . I just try to live up to my destiny.”

Afghanistan in 1980 may become Ukraine in 2022. But Navalny must remember Sakharov returning from Gagarin Avenue. “Maybe one day,” Sakharov Lieberman said, “Russia can become Sakharov’s Russia.”

Simon Cooper Is an FT columnist

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