12 January 2022
Larisa Malyukova, columnist for Novaya gazeta, talks to Boris Altshuler about a new film on the life of Andrei Sakharov
Source: Novaya gazeta
On 12 January 2022 on the website of Novaya gazeta the world premiere of the film Andrei Sakharov. On the other side of the window took place. Boris Altshuler talks about the film.
Do we truly understand what the outstanding physicist Andrei Sakharov discovered – what is the difference between the hydrogen and the atomic bomb, how is the Sakharov “layer-cake” created? In this unusual film, scientific enlightenment is intertwined with other aspects of Sakharov’s life such as his selfless humanistic work and his human rights endeavours. It soon becomes clear that whatever the scientific principles of the scientist’s work may have been – that’s to say formulating and setting goals, and then concentrating his efforts to solve the tasks – he was also involved in solving global humanitarian and social problems.
Amongst the materials presented in the film are secret recordings of thermonuclear weapons testing, secret surveillance of Sakharov and Bonner during their exile in Gorky, memoirs of his colleagues and declassified archival documents. There are also Andrei Dmitrievich’s drawings on the margins of scientific manuscripts, calculations and letters to his children and grandchildren, inventively and freely animated by the talented director Dmitry Geller.
A dinosaur in glasses stares longingly at a tall woman who looks like an Egyptian cat, sitting spellbound at her feet. An exhausted dinosaur is tied to an iron bed. Ants crawl across the white screen. They bring the letters and put them into Sakharov’s formula: the square root of truth = love.
Panorama: an ordinary brick house. On the top floor there is a bust of Lenin; on a lower floor, behind a Georgian rug that’s being aired, Stalin, Andropov, Brezhnev; also seen are Zhdanov, Khrushchev, Ordzhonikidze; lower down – scientists with Kurchatov at the head; we go down again – Stakhanovites, metro builders. And downstairs, next to the window, Andrei Dmitrievich leaning against the wall in his overcoat with his hat at a slant. “I’m not on the top floor. I’m next to the top floor, on the other side of the window,” Sakharov once joked, referring to the levels of power.
“On the Other Side of the Window” is not only about a parallel existence in relation to those in power, but also about a sharp disconnect with the system itself.
Zeldovich, an academic, persuaded him to be of use to the country as a member of a group of experts under the Council of Ministers, which would help rebuild technology and science in a more progressive way. The main thing was not to go to the trial of the dissident Pimenov, otherwise Sakharov would put himself “on the other side.” After which Andrei Dmitrievich said that he really was “on the other side.”
He was haunted by the idea of exactly how many people his bomb could kill in a millennium. It was vitally important for him that young Liza Alekseeva should leave the country to join her loved one. “How can you, great one, risk your life for some girl?” well-wishers wrote to him. in his Memoirs, Sakharov briefly described such ‘concerns’ as ‘totalitarian thinking.’ He got his way then, in 1981.
And when, in May 1984, Elena Bonner was imprisoned in Gorky, cutting off Sakharov’s only connection with the outside world, he went on long, painful hunger strikes. “I am on hunger strike not only for your trip, but for my window on the world … They want to make me a living corpse. You kept me alive, giving me a connection with the world.”
This is a film about the passionate desire of the inventor of the bomb to prevent war. The idea that even in the absence of choice, a choice remains. Even in inhuman conditions, a person is able to preserve the human within themselves.
Boris Altshuler: “Sakharov never got personal”
— The idea of making a documentary about Sakharov was developed in parallel with the publication of a book for his centenary. Thanks to the help of physicist Boris Shtern, we got in touch with the director Dmitry Zavilgelsky. His parents are scientists; his father graduated from the physics department at Moscow State University and worked as a molecular biologist. We discussed the idea with the Sakharov Foundation and the Sakharov Archive, and also with Elena Georgievna Bonner’s children – Aleksei Semenov and Tatyana Yankelevich – and Andrei Dmitrievich’s granddaughter, Marina Sakharova-Liberman. But we weren’t the only ones who made a film about Sakharov for his centenary. Elena Yakovich and a number of others made films too.
— Explain briefly what makes your film different.
— First of all, it features a lot of Sakharov himself, his speeches and thoughts. But it’s not just that, of course. The film didn’t happen overnight. Its director Dmitry Zavilgelsky thought long and hard about the best way to approach it so that it wouldn’t be a banal “Lives of Great People”-style documentary. And I think he made the film interesting. Dmitry Geller’s animation is also a real find. It is impossible to capture the global scale of Sakharov’s personality, of course, but the idea of strangeness, of the peculiarity of genius, runs throughout the entire film.
You see, what was important to Sakharov was the individual person who was going to die of cancer in 3,000 years – he worked it out – because his bombs were exploding now.
And that was Sakharov back in 1959 before any kind of dissident movement, and in the early 1960s, when he disagreed with Khrushchev over his decision to resume testing. In 1962, he tried to stop a double test by sacrificing his own bomb. He said: “Just detonate the bomb made in the Urals, not mine. Let’s not poison the atmosphere unnecessarily.” A minister deceived him, however, and both bombs were detonated. Sakharov writes: “A terrible crime was committed, and I could do nothing to prevent it! A feeling of impotence, of unbearable bitterness, shame and humiliation overcame me. I put my head on my desk and wept.”
No one understood him. Yuli Borisovich Khariton, who was very fond of him, said: “He was very sensitive.” However, it was thanks to Sakharov and his perseverance that the Moscow Treaty was signed in 1963 banning nuclear weapons testing in three environments, and atmospheric poisoning ceased. These are the idiosyncrasies of genius that save humanity.
And there were the 127 names of Soviet political prisoners that he listed in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. But what is a prisoner of conscience to the powers that be? They’re nothing more than an ant. There are people dealing with serious matters – international nuclear security, issues of war and peace – and then some prisoner or other. But, thanks to Sakharov, human rights have become the subject of mainstream politics, which has allowed humanity to step back from the edge of the thermonuclear abyss.
— The film begins as a popular science look at Sakharov’s discoveries, then the director gradually moves on to his human rights activities.
— That is the reality of Sakharov’s life, the “bomb story” came first. Imagine a junior researcher, a Candidate of Sciences, and suddenly he is being constantly invited to the Kremlin for meetings that last until four in the morning before everyone disperses – and each to their own car. He recalled: “I don’t have a car, and I don’t tell anyone that I don’t have a car.” If he couldn’t find a taxi, then it was a 10–12 km walk home.
And a few years later, this member of the Soviet Academy of Science became the Kremlin’s main authority in the field of nuclear weapons. This is shown in the film. This was his significance for the country’s leaders, of course, and this was an important factor later in the human rights years of his life.
In fact, Brezhnev idolized him. In the book “Sakharov and Power” I refer to episodes that corroborate this. This helps to explain the incredible tolerance of the authorities for “Sakharov’s antics” (an expression coined by L.I. Brezhnev in his recently published Working Notebooks).
But after the sending of troops to Afghanistan, the tightening of the screws began. They decided to send Sakharov into isolation, exiled him to a city which was closed to foreigners, in order to exclude his contacts with “hostile elements”. He was sent into exile on 22 January with Elena Georgievna Bonner. She was immediately allowed to return and she gave a press conference in her flat in Moscow where she read Sakharov’s statement. In the following four years and four months, although she was suffering from poor health, she made the round trip from Moscow to Gorky more than seventy times. It was a very hard slog. Sakharov’s voice sounded out to the whole world, a thousand times enhanced by the fact that he was heard from exile. Why she was spared this herself is a mystery. Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev could probably explain, but he remains silent.
– It remains something of a riddle for us today. It is known that the scientific community is divided on this. Letters were published from academics accusing Sakharov of connections with “reactionary, anti-Soviet, militarist circles.” But did a large number of scientists still dare to speak out in his defence?
– What does it involve to “speak out”? Actually, the members of the Physics Institute of the Academy of Sciences (FIAN) really did provide support. Firstly, they prevented him from being dismissed from his post after his exile in January 1980. The pressure was enormous, though only verbal. There were no written directives. Various scientists were allowed to travel to see him. On several occasions, despite the strictest prohibitions, they smuggled Sakharov’s documents and letters, including in February 1986 a copy of the letter to Gorbachev requesting the release of Soviet political prisoners. This extremely important letter of Sakharov’s, completely isolated from the outside world as he was, was published in good time abroad. The letter was taken out by Professor Vladimir Yakovlevich Feinberg, who visited Sakharov on his birthday on 21 May 1986. A few days later, after a seminar at the Physics Institute – I worked as a janitor at the time, but I attended seminars – he called me back and, weighing his words, quietly said: “Boris (I was his postgraduate student), this is for Elena Georgievna,” and he handed the letter to me. Two days later, Elena Georgievna flew in from America, I took her the letter and she managed to send it through her own channels. Sakharov had added a note: “To be published on 11 September” (a month before the meeting in Reykjavik between Gorbachev and Reagan). As a consequence, after publication of this letter, the question of the release of Soviet “prisoners of conscience” became the main theme at this summit.
— For all his modesty, when he recalled his first report at the Lebedev Physical Institute in 1945, he wrote: “I felt myself to be a messenger from the gods.” That is to say, did he have the self-perception of a great scientist, a notable person who could change the world?
— Without a doubt.
But in the phrase “I felt myself to be a messenger from the gods” there is no narcissism. It is closer to an expression of admiration for quantum field theory, theoretical physics. He bowed before science.
And when Elena Georgievna was asked to encapsulate who Sakharov was in one word, she said “Physicist.” This was the most important thing. And it is shown in the film.
And he approached societal and political problems as a physicist, an engineer and designer of genius, along with a feeling of enormous personal responsibility. “My name does not belong only to me, and I must take this into account,” he said to me sometime in the 1970s.
— One wonders how Sakharov would have reacted to our present-day situation in Russia, to the instability in Kazakhstan.
— With regards to instability I cannot but cite Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin and the 1999 article “Russia at the Turn of the Millennium”: “History decisively illustrates that all dictators and authoritarian systems of rule are transitory. Only democratic systems turn out to be permanent. For all their flaws, humanity has come up with nothing better.” Indeed, the tripod – three independent branches of power – is more stable than relying on one leg of executive authority, even more so one tapered down to one person. The most important factors making provision for the stability of democratic systems are effective local governance and multifaceted anticorruption mechanisms of control and supervision over the law enforcement officials and bodies. Without this it is not possible, as a law enforcement system is a load-bearing structure for any state, and if it rots through inside, there is disaster. All these mechanisms are well known, and it is unnecessary to reinvent the wheel. Sakharov understood this like no one else.
— You spoke with him over the course of many years, and saw him three days before his death, at his presentation at the Lebedev Physical Institute. Tell us, what was he like in general conversation? Did he have a sense of humour?
— From my vivid impressions of conversations with Sakharov — he was very democratic. And very dialectical, I have met no one like him since. He could reconsider his point of view, ponder a problem, constantly analyse, replay things in his mind. In his Memoirs he quotes the words of Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, which were important to him: “This is a secret consciousness of the inconsistency of the world, this is a constant sense of possibility of one’s own mistake, and if not one’s own mistake, then the possible correctness of one’s opponent.” But when he decided something for himself, this was a guide to action, and then he turned into flint.
He was attentive to his conversational counterparts, with no kind of vanity. For example, when he and Elena Georgievna got married, what a circle of acquaintances she had. Galich, and Okudzhava, Akhmadulina. He admired Galich when he sang. And he looked up to Grigory Pomerants, who spoke at their seminar in 1972 — he writes of this.
In conversations with Sakharov, one could always see how wonderfully he listened … If you were to say something to him passionately, spiritedly – his response would be: silence. Some would get offended. And for me it was an education: well, that meant I was talking nonsense, as always, if he was silent. But sometimes he agreed, or in one word would object or somehow add to what had been said. There was such an episode, one where I had read in the newspaper – perestroika had already begun – about how the Bolsheviks, having come into power, went around St. Petersburg and gathered up 20,000 prostitutes, transported them outside of the city and shot them. The sort of episode from a real revolution. Not the revolution that we were brainwashed with for 70 years, but the horrible one, like in Cursed Days. So, I go to see Sakharov and tell him about this episode that had made such an impression on me. I say: ‘That’s a form of fascism!’ Turning away a little, Sakharov said after a pause, very quietly and thoughtfully: ‘Fascism, of course’.
That’s what is so interesting and exemplary: no matter what statements he made on whatever issue, they never contained what people would call strong language. His great-grandfather, Nikolai Ivanovich Sakharov, had a prayer book in which it was written: ‘Do not cause offence to anyone.’
Sakharov never got personal, he never pointed a finger at a leader and said – Look what they are like! He understood that things were not so simple.
Tatyana Mikhailovna Velikanova, a remarkable person, mathematician and human rights activist, defined this attitude of Sakharov’s toward other people with mathematical precision: ‘presumption of decency’. And it didn’t matter who the person was.
Did he have a sense of humour? Of course. He joked and laughed at witty jokes and anecdotes when there was a reason and the right mood. A few days after returning from exile in December 1986, friends gathered in the famous kitchen at Apartment No. 68. And someone asked: ‘Andrei Dmitrievich, in your opinion, how irreversible is all this? When all these incredible miracles with perestroika, glasnost, and your release come to an end – will everything return to their usual and terrible course? Sakharov did not begin to guess about our common future – he simply answered with a long quote from Saltykov-Shchedrin’s Eagle-Maecenas. In this tale, the eagle decides at some point to introduce enlightenment into his kingdom, and everyone started chirping away. And then the eagle got fed up with it all. Sakharov quoted the end of the tale, how the words ‘You wretched lot!’ suddenly resounded in the sky. It was the cry of the eagle. The period of enlightenment had come to an end. Such silence reigned throughout the whole palace that one could hear the whispers of slanderers as they crawled over the ground.’
Andrei Dmitrievich repeated the last words several times. Moreover, he uttered whistling and hissing sounds with special pleasure. It’s as though I can hear them now.
Dmitry Zavilgelsky: a master of documentary science fiction, author of the films Dissernet. The Evolution of Altruism, about an online community that detects plagiarism in the writing of dissertations; Once We Were Stars, about astronomers; and Waiting for Waves and Particles, about the search for gravitational waves.
Boris Altshuler is a physicist, human rights activist, member of the Moscow Helsinki Group and author of the book Sakharov and Power.
Translated by James Lofthouse, Nicky Brown, Graham Jones, Alyssa Rider and Tyler Langendorfer