By Andrei Sakharov

Translated from the

Russian by Antonina Bouis

Knopf. 168 pp. $19.95

ANDREI D. Sakharov died barely a year ago, exhausted from a 25-year struggle with the authoritarian state he first served as few ever had and then opposed, in ways none ever had.

Sakharov's unique meaning in this century of the atom derives from his remarkable moral journey. Having perfected the hydrogen bomb for the Soviet Union, he spent his remaining years seeking democratic change at home and warning of the perils of totalitarian regimes armed with weapons of mass destruction. Sakharov's insistence that his country's leaders and institutions submit to the rule of law helped shape the complex upheaval now gripping the Soviet empire. In a nation which idolizes patriotic heroism, Sakharov became a sublime hero of the conscience.

Much of this extraordinary life is described in Memoirs, the magisterial autobiography published last year. That account closed in December 1986, when the seven-year provincial exile of the Nobel peace laureate and his wife, Elena Bonner, was ended by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

This brief work spans the intense period from the couple's triumphal return to Moscow to June 1989, the end of the first-and only-Congress of People's Deputies in which Sakharov would serve.

In a preface, he says these seven chapters originally were to be included in Memoirs but they grew too important and merited separate treatment. Recounted in his unadorned, straightforward style in a smooth, accessible translation by Antonina Bouis, Moscow and Beyond offers fresh insights into the elegant intellect and simple personal tastes of a most uncommon man, set in a totally new situation: For the first time without fear of reprisal, Sakharov exercises civic freedoms. Gorbachev, whose reforms allowed this, is an important if elusive presence. One wishes for a thorough, face-to-face debate between the two, but it is not to be. Relations are wary between reformer and politician. At their first meeting soon after being freed, Sakharov remarks, "I feel a heightened responsibility. Freedom and responsibility are indivisible." "I'm very happy to hear you connect those two words," Gorbachev replies edgily.

Toward the memoir's end, his hopes for reform sinking and doubts about Gorbachev rising, Sakharov arranges a final conversation. He urgently warns Gorbachev that perestroika -- the restructuring of the Soviet economy and polity -- is foundering, that faster, deeper reform is crucial. Gorbachev accuses the reformers of having "spoiled many things" and insists his course is right. Their talk ends sourly, with Sakharov warning that Gorbachev must stand for nationwide election or remain fatally vulnerable to backstage party blackmail. Gorbachev, whose presidency has never been ratified nationally, evades the point, declaring, "I'm absolutely clean. And I'll never submit to blackmail -- not from the right, not from the left!"

Concludes Sakharov, "Our conversation had no concrete consequences, and none could have been expected." The titans had passed in the night. ELSEWHERE in the narrative, events speed by at breakneck pace in a capital lit by the promise of reform. There are numerous visitors: foreign officials, high Central Committee members, democrats seeking Sakharov's support. He and his wife work to improve Armenian earthquake relief; they investigate the complex and explosive struggle by the Christian Armenians to wrest control of the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave from the Moslem Azerbaijanis. He delivers speeches on democracy and arms control to various forums, and says some of his ideas made possible the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty with the United States.

Each episode is told in a voice completely accessible to the American ear: self-deprecating, observant of detail, balanced.

There is a level-headed appreciation of the enormity of the reformers' tasks. Despite the arrival of declamatory legislative politics whose bare-knuckles debates make world headlines, party and bureaucracy still hold almost all power. Law-making has little real meaning outside the legislative chambers. The book carefully makes clear how little progress has been made to embed guarantees of common freedoms in the workings of the nation.

In the absence of meaningful reform, Sakharov is drawn into numerous interventions with senior aides to Gorbachev on behalf of press freedoms and national ethnic issues involving the Balts, Armenians, Meskhi, Tatars and others. He uses his cachet to try to ensure that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago will be serialized in Novy Mir. There are letters and telephone calls and a compromise is worked out. "That's the way 'telephone government' works," Sakharov remarks ruefully, and then, in an observation that shows how little has really changed in the workings of the Soviet state, he adds, "The negative decisions were reversed, but we will probably never learn whether this was due to another shift of political direction or to our own letters."

Sakharov comes to the United States and drily recounts meeting then-President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George Bush. "Reagan was a charming host. I tried to talk to him about {the Strategic Defense Initiative} in the broad framework of international strategic stability and disarmament, but he somehow managed to ignore my arguments and repeated his usual claim -- that SDI will make the world a safer place." When he tried to engage Bush in a discussion of "an American undertaking not to initiate nuclear warfare," Bush, he relates, took out a photograph of his family and called it a "guarantee that we'll never use nuclear weapons first. This is my family, my wife, children, and grandchildren. I don't want them to die. No one on earth wants that."

Sakharov recalls, "I replied, 'If you'll never make first use of nuclear weapons, you should announce that publicly, write it into law.' Bush was silent."

But above all, this book tells of thwarted hopes and dying illusions. Sakharov knew in June 1989 that perestroika was falling far short of the genuine reform he had struggled for. In a gesture meant to force back the encroaching ring of reactionary darkness, Sakharov, in the closing pages of his last memoir, sounds a final haunting call to the Soviet people to shoulder the burdens of forging a lawful society:

"The {Soviet} Congress does not have the power instantaneously to feed the country, instantaneously to solve our nationality problems, instantaneously to eliminate the budget deficit, instantaneously to make the air and water and woods clean again, but what we are obliged to do is to establish political guarantees that these problems will be solved. That is what the country expects from us.

"All power to the Soviets!"

Kevin Klose, a former Moscow correspondent for The Washington Post, is an Outlook editor.