Jay Bergman, Meeting the Demands of Reason: The Life and Thought of Andrei Sakharov

By Kojevnikov, Alexei | Kritika, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

Jay Bergman, Meeting the Demands of Reason: The Life and Thought of Andrei Sakharov


Kojevnikov, Alexei, Kritika


Jay Bergman, Meeting the Demands of Reason: The Life and Thought of Andrei Sakharov. 454 pp., illus., bibl., index. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009. ISBN 0801447313. $39.95.

Andrei Sakharov, not unlike Mikhail Gorbachev, has been more respected than listened to lately, and more heard of than actually heard, since the views of the two Soviet winners of the Nobel Peace Prize do not easily fit into the narrower ideological currents of today. Their names are often invoked symbolically in various political contexts, but their actual words would make uncomfortable both those who are painting the Soviet Union as a totalitarian bogeyman and those who nostalgically recollect idealized features of the Soviet past. Despite official public homage, Sakharov's political essays have rarely been reprinted or reread in the West or in Russia since the early 1990s. Sakharov's Collected Works finally appeared in Russian in 2006, in eight volumes compiled by his widow, Elena Bonner, but the response was muted, as far as I am able to tell. (1)

The task of Sakharov's biographers is complicated, as much as helped, by the dominating power of his Memoirs, an autobiographical narrative of exceptional sincerity written during Sakharov's Gor'kii exile in the 1980s, which outweighs in volume and detail most other sources on his life. Yet additional materials continue to come to light, including formerly classified documents from the Soviet atomic project and from the KGB, recollections (mostly hagiographic) by Sakharov's friends and colleagues, and his own personal diaries and writings, political as well as scientific. (2) Existing biographical studies had to rely heavily on the Memoirs but explored in greater depth certain facets of Sakharov's life and work. Richard Lourie emphasized Sakharov's family history and his indebtedness to the worldview of earlier, prerevolutionary generations of the Russian intelligentsia. Gennady Gorelik focused primarily on Sakharov's scientific milieu and how his work, teachers, and colleagues in physics contributed to his transition from science toward political and moral preoccupations by the late 1960s. The revised recent edition added a chapter on Sakharov's possible religiosity, however unconventional and undeveloped. (3)

Some biographical chapters of Jay Bergman's study reviewed here follow Sakharov's Memoirs very closely, summarizing and paraphrasing the episodes in the same order as they are narrated in the autobiography. But Bergman delves much more extensively into the intellectual aspects of Sakharov's life, analyzing the development of his thought as revealed by his other writings, for which the Memoirs often provide only brief descriptions of context and motivation. Such an undertaking could have been an extremely valuable and pioneering account, but this would have required the intellectual courage to contradict today's conventional wisdom. Bergman, unfortunately, fails to rise to the challenge. Many events and ideas in Sakharov's life do not fit into the propagandistic stereotype that American readers typically have of the Soviet Union and the Cold War. Bergman resorts to reinterpreting or somewhat "correcting" Sakharov's ideas on several key points, thus bringing them more in line with the neoconservative mentality that has so self-confidently dominated American public discourse for a large portion of the last two decades.

His study is sketchier than both Lourie's and Gorelik's in describing the earlier half of Sakharov's life, up to the 1960s. Bergman is not particularly interested in elaborating on the reasons behind Sakharov's commitment to socialist ideas; he can hardly wait for him to finally become a dissident. Physics and nuclear weapons, Sakharov's main preoccupation during that period, are not Bergman's primary concern either. Physicists among the readers will stumble upon a number of strange assertions in his biography. For example, that deuterium can release energy through fission (43). …

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