By Andrei Sakharov

Translated from the Russian

By Richard Lourie

Knopf. 740 pp. $29.95

COMPARED TO the might of a State, especially a State as ruthless as the Soviet Union has been for most of this century, it is easy to think of the individual as a ridiculously weak, even helpless entity. Even when the individual in question is as distinguished and influential a scientist as Andrei Sakharov, he can be scooped up out of his life, the way the KGB seized Sakharov after he criticized the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and hurled onto the garbage heap of history, in this case the remote town of Gorky.

And yet the meaning of a life like Sakharov's is that individual weakness can be turned to strength, if one has the will and moral courage to do so. Now that the power of Soviet Communism is crumbling, while the ideas and principles to which Sakharov dedicated his days are changing the face of Europe, the great physicist's endurance and refusal to be broken give his autobiography the status of an exemplary life.

This first volume of Sakharov's memoirs takes the story up to his release from internal exile by President Gorbachev in 1986; a second book, detailing his last years, including his frequent clashes with Gorbachev in the Congress of People's Deputies, is promised. Sections of the typescript were confiscated on four occasions (one time he lost 1,400 pages of work). That it exists at all is proof of the determination with which its author kept at it.

It isn't easy to live a symbolic, even iconic, life; it isn't easy to write about one either. Andrei Sakharov's rather flat style can be heavy-going. His desire to write as a witness, to detail just about every dissident cause in which he participated, every battle he fought, results in many turgid (if unfailingly noble) passages. It was clearly difficult for him to write about personal matters, and that reticence, too, can be frustrating, as can its opposite, the understandably idealizing gushiness which sometimes overcomes him when he writes about his beloved second wife, "Lusia," the formidable Elena Bonner. He speaks at one point in these memoirs of his dislike of books thick enough to be used as doorstops. This extremely thick doorstop would have been a more vivid self-portrait, though a less complete testament, at half the length. As it is, what we're given is an account "for the record," a thorough, often plodding version of a great life.

The Sakharov who emerges from these pages is a boy who loved science fiction novels, Uncle Tom's Cabin and Mark Twain, who was something of an awkward character and made few friends. The boy grew up to be, like many scientists, better at his work than at his private life. In one of the relatively rare intimate passages in his book, he faces up to this: "In my private life, in my relations with Klava {his first wife} and with the children after she died, I always tended to avoid confrontations, feeling myself psychologically unable to cope with them . . . in all honesty, I never spared my time or my physical strength. Afterwards, I suffered, I felt guilty, and then made new mistakes, since guilt hardly improves one's judgment." After Klava's death, his growing involvement with human rights and his new love for "Lusia" were the things that turned him outwards toward the world, and made him whole. His description of falling in love is, however, characteristically laconic. "For months, Lusia and I had been drawing closer, and it was becoming more and more difficult for us to hide our feelings. Finally . . . we confessed our love." That's it.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, among others, has suggested that Sakharov was an innocent, unworldly figure who was manipulated by the ferociously articulate and highly motivated Elena Bonner, and Sakharov repeatedly defends her against these charges. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in the middle. It is impossible to read these memoirs without believing that Sakharov knew exactly what he was doing when he espoused human rights causes in the U.S.S.R.; but one also gains a strong impression of a reserved, inward personality who needed, or felt he needed, his wife to help him with his public utterances.

It was Elena Bonner who insisted, "My husband is a physicist, not a dissident," but of course he was both. His memoirs fall roughly into two halves, the physicist's book and the dissident's book, and each half really needs a different reviewer. As a scientist, Sakharov was in the same league as Stephen Hawking, but as a writer he makes far fewer concessions to the lay reader. As a result, his long and important descriptions of the Soviet nuclear weapons program, and also of his theoretical work, can be bewildering, even for those non-scientists with a keen interest in such matters. Nevertheless, these chapters are in many ways the most informative in the book, in the sense of opening up to us a world we knew almost nothing about -- for example, the secret city, "The Installation," where the Soviet hydrogen bomb was built. It's also clear that the theories Sakharov developed around the notion of "baryon asymmetry" -- crudely, the relationship between matter and antimatter -- prefigured the Grand Unified Theories of the 1970s. (Sakharov plainly regretted not having become involved in the GUTs.)

Sakharov was, in a sense, a Russian version of J. Robert Oppenheimer. The "father of the Russian hydrogen bomb," he came passionately to oppose the testing and proliferation of these weapons. What makes him fascinating is that there was also a part of him that was a Russian version of Edward Teller, Oppenheimer's more hawkish colleague and opponent, who believed that in the late 1940s and 1950s "only American military strength could restrain the socialist camp from an expansion that . . . might trigger a third world war." Sakharov is almost lyrical about the theoretical beauty of thermonuclear explosions. For him, to participate in such work was to be able to witness, in microcosm, the unleashing of the same forces that created the universe. The cruel paradox that these might also be the forces by which life could be destroyed was not lost on him; but the ambiguity of his position allows us a richer understanding of nuclear issues than any simple hawk/dove antithesis. Sakharov was both hawk and dove.

There is much more information of great value, both scientific and political, in these pages: Sakharov's attack on the absurd Stalin-endorsed theories of Trofim Lysenko, who believed that "modified" plants and animals could pass on their new characteristics to succeeding generations, thus offering a "quick fix" for Soviet agriculture; his campaign to save Lake Baikal from pollution; portraits of Beria, Khrushchev and other Soviet bosses; and a notably unsentimental account of the dissident movement, especially of the emergence of a breed of "professional dissidents" with whom Sakharov plainly felt he had little in common. His dispute with Solzhenitsyn, in which he rejects the writer's ultraist religious ideas and dissents from Solzhenitsyn's contempt for Western values, is one in which this reviewer's sympathies, at least, are firmly on the Sakharov side.

Ultimately, however, this book is a monument to the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. But Sakharov's victory was not complete (perhaps no individual victories ever are). There are many Russians today who blame President Gorbachev for the scientist's death in December of last year. They say that Gorbachev may have ended Sakharov's long exile in Gorky, but that he then hastened the great man's demise by his harsh and humiliating public criticisms of Sakharov in the Congress of People's Deputies. We'll have to wait for volume two of these memoirs to find out how Sakharov felt about Gorbachev's behavior. But whether the story is true or not, the fact that people believe it emphasizes the widespread Russian distrust of Gorbachev, and also the extent of public sympathy for the elite academician who became the Soviet system's most distinguished dissident, the boy who made friends with difficulty but who grew up to be, as the Estonian deputy Marju Lauristin said at his funeral service, "the incarnation of intellectual courage and conscience, of the true Russian spirit."

British novelist Salman Rushdie is the author of "Midnight's Children," "Shame" and "The Satanic Verses." Sentenced to death by Ayatollah RuhollahKhomeini in February 1989, Rushdie remains in hiding.