The Life and Thought of Andrei Sakharov

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Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Jay Bergman, a Professor of History at Central Connecticut State University, where he teaches Russian and modern European history.  He received his bachelor’s degree from Brandeis University and his M.A., M. Phil., and Ph.D from Yale University.  He is the author of Vera Zasulich: A Biography, published by Stanford University Press; and articles in Russian intellectual history.  He is also on the Board of Directors of the National Association of Scholars, a nationwide organization of professors committed to reasoned scholarship, intellectual diversity, and nondiscrimination in faculty hiring and student admissions. His newest book is Meeting the Demands of Reason: The Life and Thought of Andrei Sakharov, published by Cornell University Press.

FP: Jay Bergman, welcome to Frontpage Interview.

Let’s begin with what inspired you to write Meeting the Demands of Reason.

Bergman: As a historian of Russia, I have been intrigued by the degree to which certain critics of the Soviet Union, referred to as “dissidents,” resembled the so-called intelligentsia of prerevolutionary Russia, the members of which condemned the tsarist regime for failings similar to those the dissidents found in the Soviet one.  This resemblance seemed to me particularly striking in the case of Andrei Sakharov, who, along with Alexander Solzhenitsyn, was the most prominent dissident and among the best known in the West.  And since none of the existing biographies of Sakharov analyzed his ideas in any serious and systematic way, I thought I should write a biography that did.

FP: Tell us about Soviet dissidence, what spawned it and what its character and objectives were.

Bergman: By the term one means a particular kind of opposition to the Soviet system that emerged in the late 1960s, continued through the 1970s, and ended in the mid-1980s when Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika (reconstruction) and glasnost’ (openness) incorporated aspects of this opposition and in the process rendered it largely moot.  Substantively, Soviet dissidence was marked by its rejection of the political status quo in the name of human rights, by which the dissidents meant moral and philosophical principles that were timeless, universal, and absolute.  In this respect the dissidents resembled not only the intelligentsia of nineteenth century Russia but also the Enlightenment of eighteenth century Europe, to which many characteristics of the intelligentsia can be traced.

What caused the dissident movement to emerge was the desire of the Soviet leadership, for ideological as well as political reasons, to modernize the Soviet economy and society while at the same time maintaining its monopoly of political power.  The first objective requires that those who were pursuing it – such as the nuclear physicists who, like Sakharov, were conscripted to develop thermonuclear weapons for the state – be granted vocational autonomy; the weapons the physicists designed would not work if the government intervened in their construction.

But because vocational autonomy or freedom can cause those who enjoy it to demand political freedom – something the Soviet leadership could not grant – these physicists were in fact secluded from the general population in an installation surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by security personnel carrying guns.  It is true that similar precautions attended the American nuclear project at Los Alamos.  But there the reason for these precautions was to prevent scientific information from leaking; in the Soviet Union there was the additional reason that freedom is contagious.  If nuclear physicists can enjoy vocational freedom, why can’t everyone enjoy it?  And if everyone is granted vocational freedom, why can’t everyone have political freedom as well?  It was because the leaders of the Soviet Union had no real answers to these questions that some Soviet citizens like Sakharov became dissidents.

At first the dissidents mostly demanded that the Soviet system be reformed, rather than transformed or destroyed, and that they participate, along with the government, in this endeavor.  But because the Soviet leadership was so intent on preserving the existing system, which by the 1960’s provided it with privileges as well as political power, it could not agree to either of these demands.  Like the tsars who preceded them, the Soviet leaders viewed the Soviet people, even the most gifted intellectually and artistically, as children, too immature and irrational to share in governance.  And because the dissidents were demanding, in effect, that they be treated as adults, their demands had to be rejected, their movement stopped, and their leaders jailed, exiled, or consigned to psychiatric hospitals for mental illnesses that were entirely nonexistent.  In this effort, after more than a decade in which the number of dissidents actually increased, the government was finally, in the early 1980s, successful.  But to the extent that Gorbachev’s reforms, beginning in 1985-86, were influenced by the dissidents, as I think they were, the dissident movement can be said to have enjoyed a posthumous vindication.

FP: What led Sakharov to become a dissident?

Bergman: Sakharov’s parents were insufficiently alienated from the existing political order to be intelligenty (the Russian word for members of the intelligentsia).  Nevertheless, they cultivated several of the qualities the intelligentsia possessed, and passed them on to their son: an aversion to self-promotion and personal vanity; a respect for individual excellence; a firm belief in the primacy of ideas; and an ethos of “moral wholeness” requiring the application of moral principle to every aspect of life.

What caused this ethos of self-perfection that Sakharov inherited to crystallize in a rejection of the political status quo was the treatment he received at the installation in the early 1950s.  On the one hand, he and the physicists he worked with were allowed to discuss political issues freely, and could even read George Orwell’s novel 1984, as direct a condemnation of Soviet communism as has ever been written.  On the other hand, Sakharov’s request that his input be considered in deciding how exactly the weapons he designed should be used was rejected by his superiors in the political leadership.

Their rejection was driven home to Sakharov most forcefully in July 1961, at a meeting in the Kremlin at which Sakharov and the other scientists present were expected to inform the Soviet leadership of their progress in developing the weapons it demanded.  During the meeting, Sakharov passed to the Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, a note objecting to the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, which the latter at the time considered necessary.  A few hours later, at a formal dinner, Khrushchev exploded.  Very angrily he told Sakharov, in so many words, to mind his own business: he and the other scientists, Khrushchev insisted, should limit themselves to making weapons; their political superiors in the Kremlin would decide how to use them.  In his memoirs Sakharov describes this occasion as one of “the principal turning points” of his life.

FP: What were the human rights Sakharov championed as a dissident?  How were they like the values and principles espoused by the so-called intelligentsia in Russia of the 19th and early 20th centuries?  How did Sakharov avoid the zealotry and fanaticism that characterized many members of the intelligentsia, especially after the emergence of a revolutionary movement in Russia in the late 19th century?

Bergman: The human rights Sakharov championed most passionately and consistently included the right to choose one’s place of residence, which caused him to support the Soviet Jews who wished to leave the Soviet Union for Israel or the United States.  Another was the right to a presumption of sanity, which precluded the government’s policy of incarcerating dissidents in psychiatric hospitals, where KGB agents disguised as doctors dispensed highly toxic drugs that reduced some of those they treated to a vegetative state.  Yet another was the right of everyone to due process in the administration of justice.  Also worth mentioning among the human rights Sakharov demanded was the provision of education, housing, and adequate medical care to go along with the intangible civil liberties, such as freedom of speech, that Western conceptions of human rights tend to emphasize.  And because Sakharov, like the intelligenty who preceded him, considered the human rights he favored to be universal, in the sense of transcending national borders, he believed he had the right, and indeed the obligation, to protest their violation wherever they occurred.  As a result, Sakharov condemned – to cite just a few examples — South African apartheid, Iraqi persecution of the Kurds under Saddam Hussein, and the Khmer Rouge for its genocide against the people of Cambodia.

Sakharov avoided the zealotry and fanaticism you mention in your question by never subordinating his respect for the individual – which was implicit in his belief that every individual possessed a dignity and self-worth that were inviolable — to his desire to serve all of humanity.  As a result, unlike the Bolsheviks and the other revolutionaries who emerged out of the intelligentsia in the late nineteenth century, Sakharov never apotheosized any collective entity such as the proletariat or believed that the perfection of humanity as a whole justified using force and coercion to achieve it.

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  • jbtrevor

    I enjoyed reading that, thanks.

  • kblink45

    As a graduate student and teacher, I had many opportunities to interact with Russians. Two things strike me about these encounters: first, almost all of the Russians I dealt with were significantly different personally from Americans. They were austere and cold. Second, there seemed to run beneath the surface a nationalistic condescension toward America and Americans. This was particularly apparent in one encounter when a fellow mathematics grad student from Russia refused to discuss gulags with me, essentially telling me that they were fabrications of the West. She then demanded that I take my political discussions to the PoliSci department, where they would be more welcome. The interesting thing was that this student was normally very polite, even soft-spoken.

    Can anyone more intimate with Russia and its history explain the origins of this nationalism and/or explain the perception that Russians are haughty?

  • Chezwick_Mac

    Sakharov had a significant impact on my life.

    I was 15 in the mid 70s when I discovered Marx. I was enthralled, not just with the concepts he espoused, but by the language he used: "bourgeoisie" vs "proletarians", "progressive forces" vs "the forces of reaction", "revolutionary violence" in the "service of mankind", etc.

    I gobbled up the 'Manifesto', tried as hard as I could to comprehend 'Das Kapital', went on to read Engels, Lenin, Bukharin, Trotsky, I even bought Mao's little red book. I was on my way to becoming a committed Marxist, but something happened along the way…

    I became fascinated with Russia as a country and started reading Dostoevsky and Chekov…and almost anything else I could find written by a Russian. I felt the language, even though translated, lent itself to expressiveness.

    That's when I stumbled upon Sakharov's 'Reflections'. It helped me to reconcile my adolescent infatuation with socialism and my adult comprehension that there was no freedom in the socialist world.

    Sakharov naively predicted a global "convergence", that the West would socialize, the East would liberalize…and the two would meet in the middle. His writing style was that of a scientist, non-polemical, eminently reasonable. The tract gave me hope for the future of mankind.

    But after 'Reflections', I began pursuing other dissident literature…and found Solzhenitsyn, Roy Medvedev, and Milovan Djilas (the great Montenegrin author of 'Conversations with Stalin') . In the process, the edifice of respectability for the socialist ideal began to crumble in my eyes.

    In '74, Sakharov released 'My Country and My World', where he repudiated his earlier belief in convergence…and laid out a convincing case against Soviet totalitarianism. From then on, I became a foreign policy hawk vis-a-vis the Soviet Union (it would take me two more decades to shed my liberal illusions over domestic policy).

    I think what Bergman postulated above struck to the heart of the man: Whatever genius Sakharov possessed, this was not why he took the road less traveled…instead, it was his code of ethics and his morality that precluded him from living the life of other privileged members of the Soviet 'nomenklatura'.

    Idealists and moralists come in every hue, but when the ideal one commits to – no matter how noble in theory – is predicated on falsehoods, eventually, one is compelled to betray either the ideal or the morality that was deigned to accompany it. Sakharov's belief in the dignity of the individual was the basis of his morality and this was why he chose a life filled with persecutions and indignities. He was – in short – a man of conscience. I'll admire him until the day I die.

  • USMCSniper

    President Barack Obama is meeting with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to talk about a pending arms treaty with Russia and other issues . The New START treaty, signed in April, would slash existing warhead limits by roughly a third. It has been approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but the timing of a ratification vote by the full Senate is uncertain. Hmmm… something must be wrong with the present Secretary of State, whatshername?

    • ObamaYoMoma

      With all due respect, Condi "appeaser" Rice is just as leftwing and incompetent as the present occupier of that office. She may have been a Republican, but she was a far leftists when it came to foreign policy. In fact, she was one of the worse Secretary of States in history.,

  • http://etiotropic.com Jesse W. Collins II

    I've been away from Frontpage Magazine for several years, working in my own projects. In returning, and then recommending the site to a friend, I emphasized several writers, particularly Dr. Glazov. Here, then, in the interview of Professor Bergman's study of Sakharov's work is another example of why I visit this page.

    Through his questioning, Jamie Glazov inquires through Dr. Bergman into the most important issues of the human consciousness in order to make sense of all in humankind that appears not to. No matter that the subject is the collective heart of darkness that attends management of social hierarchies or an exegesis of the core of Islam's behavioral construct for management of its Ulum, and then its interface with its antitheses, this writer / editor / facilitator makes me proud to be a genetic curmudgeon, of course as I'm sure most would agree referencing it in the good sense.

    Now, then, comes the comments from the readership. Chezwick_Mac and kblink45 demonstrate real thought. No cliches or diatribe. Just immutable individualism not afraid of ontologically engineered expression.

    I bought Jamie's most recent book because, although I don't have serious time to venture back into this world of clarity as these writers and their proteges exude it, I did want to stop for a journey's moment to acquire a deeper understanding of how these people think; how they rise to the occasion to defend concepts of logic as it then relates to being; how they expand themselves without being hegemonous; how they face unpopular truths; how they demand of themselves to be in the incarnates of a John Adams or a Natan Sharansky; how they speak with eloquence in their attempts to determine the constitution of the soul; how they aspire to be free; how they in doing all of that still care never just for themselves, but for others.

    I enjoy the depth Dr. Glazov brings to the Internet. Thank you all for your continuing efforts.

    Jesse W. Collins II

    • sebyandrew

      Now if we just had Barbara Billingsley to interpret. But I take it as a thumbs up on the article/interview. I enjoyed it too. Men like these (Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn) were and are great men. Years ago I read Cancer Ward, One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and then Gulag Arch. ! and 2. In regards to the "novels" I, as a Christian was interested in what suffering did to the characters (transformation, both for good or ill) and/or the author himself. His observations about people encountered in the Gulag were also fascinating. Not really having any ed., much in the Gulag series passed over me. There seemed to have been discussion and rebuttal of the idea that communism had degenerated Into "stalinism" as if to vindicate "true" communism which AS, if I remember correctly, deemed propagandish and w/o merit. I thought that was important. Still do. It was painful to read what that system did and was capable of doing to its own people.