Andrei Sakharov is by any measure a great man, certainly one of the more remarkable figures of the 20th century. As a young physicist he was brilliant and was largely responsible, it is said, for the Soviet Union's hydrogen bomb. That work he performed in secret. As a dissident, however, his life has been public, since 1968 he has pursued justice, liberty and dignity for all people, but especially for his fellow citizens of the USSR. For this dedication to humanity he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975.
"Alarm and Hope" is the fourth book in which Sakharov spells out his views to be published over the past decade. It is a collection of speeches, interviews, letters and other statements, amounting to a documentary autobiography. To be found here are some towering sentiments -- a summons to a changed world order based on human rights and civil decency. Sakharov's Nobel speech (as read in Oslo by his wife, Elena; he was refused an exit visa to attend) is reprinted. At his most eloquent, Sakharov can and should stir us all to a better understanding of freedom -- and tyranny.
But there is more to this volume than virtue. Sakharov also displays a testy side, a carping edge, particularly when he complains that the world press does not report his every word in full, advertising each appeal on behalf of the oppressed. He demands, in effect, that the West accord him a forum as uncritical as "Pravda" accords Kremlin pronouncements.
He writes, for instance:
"Unfortunately I -- like many of our friends, for whom, like me, publicity is the only means of civil action -- experience enduring hardships and disappointments in collaboration with the western media so vital to us. Too often, our pronouncements disappear without a trace, sometimes even when they deal with most tragic cases: sometimes they are published in incorrect or seriously distorted versions... the names of the persecuted are dropped, the most important details are overlooked. Sometimes pure negligence is to blame.... It is intolerable to have frivolous causes spoil even a part of the fruits of our struggle."
Americans do well to remember, of course, that only by such passion can Sakharov sustain himself. I find it extraordinary that he has the reserves of energy and courage to go on when essentially he is a retiring, modest person, now in his late 50s and weary. Americans, moreover, need to be reminded just how isolated Sakharov is from the realities outside Soviet borders.
For all his Jeffersonian defense of personal liberty, Andrei Sakharov is still very much a Russian. Descendant of a dissident tradition that predates the Communists, he is nonetheless a stranger to our way of life. This is hardly his fault but remains a fact worth nothing. In "Alarm and Hope" the differences come out clearly.
Sakharov has to be regarded within the context of his society -- and not ours. We tend to simplify the cause of dissenters anywhere is the world as the valiant few against the system. That is often so. But it's also true that Sakharov and what he represents in the USSR can only be viewed by US from a distance. We read these speeches and at some levels can respond to his call for help. Yet the more one learns, the clearer it seems that real change in the Soviet Union will only come from itself. Appeals to outsiders for pressure on the Kremlin serve a limited purpose. Sadly, the West cannot be the answer to Sakharov's dream.
We know that. He does not.