A visit to the Soviet Union’s Oppenheimer

It was hard to reconcile Andrei Sakharov’s shy, soft-spoken manner with his fame as the “father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb.”

In late 1979, my companion Lies van Veen and I knocked on a Moscow apartment door, hoping Sakharov and his wife, Yelena Bonner — the Soviet Union’s best known dissidents — would be home. Sakharov, then in his late 50s, opened the door.  We had come to the Soviet Union, we explained, on behalf of American human rights organizations, to meet with regime opponents and report on their plight.

The Sakharovs were deeply upset over recent arrests of fellow dissidents. Their telephone line had gone dead.

“You have come at a bad time for us,” he said. We sat around a wooden table in their kitchen, sipping tea, and eating bread, cheese, and apples. It was a cozy evening despite the Kremlin’s relentless harassment — KGB interrogations, public denunciations by Soviet academicians, doctors indifferent to their health problems — that had left them beleaguered but unbowed.

After receiving his Ph.D. in particle physics in 1947, Sakharov had joined the Soviet nuclear weapons program, where he made a breakthrough contribution to the development of a hydrogen bomb. He had started out as the Soviet counterpart to nuclear physicist Edward Teller, the “father” of the American hydrogen bomb. But, as he put it, he went “even further” than Robert Oppenheimer.

Sakharov considered work on nuclear weapons a patriotic duty to his country. But the scorched steppe, toppled buildings and melted glass from the hydrogen bomb test, he later wrote, had a “very strong emotional impact. How not to start thinking of one’s personal responsibility at this point?”

He broke with his government, calling for a nuclear test ban and then daring to openly question the foundation of the communist regime.

In 1968, Sakharov wrote an internationally publicized essay proposing, among other reforms, intellectual freedom in the Soviet Union — a shocking heresy coming from a man who had been awarded three times the Hero of Socialist Labor medal, one of the country’s highest honors.

He was consequently removed from top secret work. He thus sacrificed a life of privilege but continued to campaign for human rights in the Soviet Union. In 1975, Sakharov was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but the Kremlin refused to let him travel to Oslo. Bonner, a human rights activist in her own right, went instead to accept the award.

As the evening went on, several dissidents entered the Sakharovs’ apartment. Soon, the kitchen table was crowded, the talk ranging from human rights to Russian cooking. Sakharov liked to doodle while conversing and, after completing one of a man riding a bicycle, inscribed it “To Lies and Gregory, from Andrei” and gave it to us.  He explained that he had not signed his last name, because otherwise the border guards would confiscate the doodle when we left the country. (we still have it.) We stayed until one in the morning.

A few weeks after our visit, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Sakharov publicly protested the invasion, enraging the Kremlin even more. Despite his international stature, he was arrested and exiled to the closed city of Gorky. Bonner was allowed to accompany him and later sentenced to exile there herself.

“Alone together,” as she put it, they remained there for six years. When the Kremlin refused to allow Bonner to travel to Italy for urgent medical treatment, Sakharov went on a hunger strike. As his health worsened, worldwide outrage forced the regime to allow his wife to go to Italy. 

In 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev, as part of his campaign for reform, permitted the Sakharovs to return to Moscow. He was elected to the new parliament and continued to press for reform until his death in 1989.  At Sakarov’s funeral, Gorbachev and Politburo members, leaders of a government that had spent decades trying to physically and psychologically crush him, stood before the casket and removed their hats.

Gregory J. Wallance was a federal prosecutor in the Carter and Reagan administrations and a member of the ABSCAM prosecution team, which convicted a U.S. senator and six representatives of bribery. He was a producer of the HBO movie ”Sakharov,” starring Jason Robards and Glenda Jackson. His newest book, Into Siberia: George Kennan’s Epic Journey Through the Brutal, Frozen Heart of Russia, is due out in December.

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