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Fang Lizhi with Romesh Ratnesar

In the fall of 1962, when his life took its fateful turn, Andrei Sakharov was not yet known to the world. He was 41 years old, a decorated Soviet physicist developing atomic weapons of terrifying power deep in the heart of the Soviet Union. The U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were locked in a frenzied contest for nuclear superiority. That September the Kremlin was to conduct two massive atmospheric tests of bombs that Sakharov had helped design. Sakharov feared the radioactive fallout from the second test would kill hundreds of thousands of civilians. He had also come to believe that another nuclear demonstration would only accelerate the arms race. He became desperate not to see his research used for reckless ends. On Sept. 25, he phoned Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev. “The test is pointless,” he said. “It will kill people for no reason.” Khrushchev assured Sakharov he would inquire about postponing the test. The next day the detonation went off as planned.

Sakharov wept. “After that,” he said, “I felt myself another man. I broke with my surroundings. I understood there was no point arguing.” Sakharov would no longer be an academician concerned mainly with the theory of thermonuclear reactions; instead he began a journey that would make him the world’s most famous political dissident and ultimately the inspiration for the democratic movement that doomed the Soviet empire. Sakharov realized that the ideals he had pursued as a scientist–compassion, freedom, truth–could not coexist with the specter of the arms race or thrive under the authoritarian grip of state communism. “That was probably the most terrible lesson of my life,” he wrote. “You can’t sit on two chairs at once.”

So Sakharov abandoned his cocooned life as his country’s leading physicist to risk everything in battle against the two great threats to civilization in the second half of this century: nuclear war and communist dictatorship. In the dark, bitter depths of the cold war, Sakharov’s voice rang out. “A miracle occurred,” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote, “when Andrei Sakharov emerged in the Soviet state, among the swarms of corrupt, venal, unprincipled intelligentsia.” By the time of his death in 1989, this humble physicist had influenced the spread of democratic ideals throughout the communist world. His moral challenge to tyranny, his faith in the individual and the power of reason, his courage in the face of denunciation and, finally, house arrest–made him a hero to ordinary citizens everywhere. He embodied the role that intellectuals are called upon to play in the creation of civil society and inspired scientists working under other dictatorships, including myself in China, to become leaders in the struggle for democracy.

In an age of constant technological change, Sakharov reminded the world that science is inseparable from conscience. Sakharov believed that science was a force for rationality and, from there, democracy: that in politics as in science, objective truths can be arrived at only through a testing of hypotheses, a democratic consensus “based on a profound study of facts, theories and views, presupposing unprejudiced and open discussion.” As a physicist, he believed that physical laws are immutable, applying to all things in nature. As a result, he regarded certain human values–such as liberty and the respect for individual dignity–as inviolable and universal. It is not surprising that in China today, many of the most outspoken advocates of political reform are members of the scientific and academic communities. They are all the progeny of Andrei Sakharov.

He was an unlikely activist. Born in Moscow in 1921, Sakharov was groomed less for political protest than for scholarly solitude. He taught himself to read at four, and his father often demonstrated physics experiments–“miracles I could understand”–to him as a child. At Moscow University in the 1940s, Sakharov was tabbed as one of the U.S.S.R.’s brightest young minds. After earning his doctorate, he was sent to a top-secret installation to spearhead the development of the hydrogen bomb. By 1953 the Soviets had detonated one. It was “the most terrible weapon in human history,” Sakharov later wrote. Yet he felt that by building the H-bomb, “I was working for peace, that my work would help foster a balance of power.”

His growing awareness of the deadly effects of nuclear fallout soon turned him against proliferation. His efforts to persuade Khrushchev to halt tests in the late ’50s and early ’60s resulted in the 1963 U.S.-Soviet treaty banning nuclear explosions in space, in the atmosphere and underwater. Khrushchev later called Sakharov “a crystal of morality”–but still one that could not be tolerated within the regime. The Kremlin took away his security privileges and ended his career as a nuclear physicist. But, Sakharov later said, “the atomic issue was a natural path into political issues.” He campaigned for disarmament and turned his attention to the Soviet system, denouncing its stagnancy and intolerance of dissent. So uncompromising was his critique of the regime that it estranged him from his children.

Outside the Soviet Union, even in China, where his writings were predictably banned by the government, Sakharov’s name and struggle were familiar to intellectuals and dissidents forging their own fights against authority. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975, and in 1980 his arrest and exile to the remote city of Gorky (now called Nizhni Novgorod) made him a martyr. His refusal to be silenced even in banishment added to his legend. And then came the rousing finale: his release and hero’s return to Moscow in 1986; his relentless prodding of Mikhail Gorbachev to pursue democratization; and his election to the Congress of People’s Deputies, the Soviet Union’s first democratically chosen body. At the time of his death, a tidal wave of democracy that he had helped create was about to engulf the communist world.

What is Sakharov’s legacy today? With the cold war ended and the Soviet threat gone, his exhortations against totalitarianism might seem anachronistic. Yet in China, where political freedom continues to be suppressed and intellectuals face harassment and arrest, his voice is still one of encouragement. For scientists his career remains a model of the moral responsibility that must accompany innovation. And Sakharov might remind the West too that freedom is fragile, that if democratic societies are not protective of their liberties, even they may lose it. On the night of his death, after returning from a tempestuous meeting of the Congress of People’s Deputies, Sakharov told his wife Yelena Bonner, “Tomorrow there will be a battle!” That battle–at its core, the battle of individuals striving to shape their own destinies–must continue to be fought in the century to come.

Astrophysicist Fang Lizhi helped inspire the Tiananmen Square demonstrations

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