Best remembered as the father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, shy, retiring Andrei Sakharov was an unlikely Russian dissident. A renowned physicist, Sakharov was also an independent thinker on such issues as intellectual freedom and human rights. The life of this remarkable man who refused to join the Communist Party is examined in Richard Lourie's fascinating new book Sakharov: A Biography. A scholar who knew Sakharov well, Lourie translated the physicist's memoirs which were published in the U.S. in 1990. Lourie also spent time with Sakharov after he was exiled for almost seven years to the isolated town of Gorky. The author traces Sakharov's life from his childhood as the son of a teacher through his career as a brilliant physicist whose central role in developing the H-bomb got him elected to the Soviet Academy of Sciences, the country's top scientific research center and a key part of its administrative structure. Thanks to the work of Sakharov, the Soviet Union became a superpower, but very early on, he was concerned about the human toll of the "terrible weapon" that he had helped to create. Widely regarded as the leader of the dissident movement within the U.S.S.R and universally acknowledged as an important human rights activist throughout the world, Sakharov was instrumental in getting his country and the U.S. to agree to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963. He often signed public letters on behalf of dissidents and had privileges taken from him as a result. After the death of his first wife, Klava, and his marriage to Elena Bonner, a long-time activist for dissidents, Sakharov's commitment to helping political prisoners in his country became even greater.
In 1975, Sakharov received the Nobel Peace Prize. The citation described him as "a spokesman for the conscience of mankind." A poll taken in the 1990s in the former Soviet Union to identify the country's most influential figures ranked him at number three. Ahead of him on the list were Lenin and Stalin. Roger Bishop is a regular contributor to BookPage.