Book review (but not really): My Life

Title: “Mijn Leven” (Dutch title; translation: “My Life”)
Author: Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov
Year: 1990
Publisher: Meulenhoff
Pages: +/- 850, incl. notes, occasionally decorated with photographs and technical drawings

I don’t want to start this article using tired old rhetoric like “Having read Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov’s “My Life”,…” so I’ve inserted this particular prefix before getting to the matter at hand. Because, having read Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov’s “My Life”, I realized there was a matter at hand: closing the book for the last time made me feel relieved and depressed at the same time, and not just because of what I’ve just read. No, it was because of what I was about to write next.

I had it all worked out, initially. Surely I was going to write a review on this particular book, no? I mean, that’d make for some relatively useful content with the added bonus of it being relatively easy to whip up. “Imagine having to write something meaningful and original tonight – oh no, that’s not going to happen tonight,” I thought to myself. Obviously, things are never that easy in my mind and sooner than later, my conscience began to act up again.

You see, “My Life” is the story of a nuclear physicist turned activist (for human rights) by means of dissent – awesome material to work with for people ranging from Ludlum to Figes. However, “My Life” wasn’t written by a certified historian or best-selling author; it was written by, you guessed it, a nuclear physicist turned activist (for human rights) by means of dissent (that’s the second time I’ve made use of this cheap page-filling trick – no more). It’s hard to value the life of a man by judging his writing style, especially if you’ve familiarized yourself with the hardship this guy’s been through by means of his 802-page autobiography.

Now, I won’t lie – it’s never taken me this long to finish a book before (6 weeks or so); partly due to shortcomings of my own (shortage of time, procrastination, lack of interest, more procrastination), partly due to Sakharov’s writing style. The man obviously loved physics while being equally passionate with regards to human rights affairs; yet, all he offers is the naked truth. He almost never perks things up, and when he does it’s just because “that’s the way it happened”. He goes from A (in time) to B, summing up pretty much everything he can remember – including relatively elaborate theories on all kinds of physics-related subjects (ranging from particle physics to cosmology). I can’t say I’ve read all of this “stuff” with equal attention; although enjoying the bits on cosmology quite a lot (strings theory, origin of the universe and what have you), I’ll gladly admit to having skipped a few pages here and there when matters became too technical to my likings.

Yet, I can’t blame Sakharov for this – better still, he actually advises people to skip ahead if they’re not interested in mathematical formulas and technical mumbo-jumbo. One just chooses the parts one’s interested in most – e.g. daily life in “the Object” (research and test site for nuclear developments) or the man’s persistence in attending show trials – so as to end up with some memorable passages and something of a storyline. Sakharov doesn’t seem too bothered by shape or form, he just wants to document his experiences – everything that comes to mind gets its place in the sun as a result.

In his foreword, he dedicates the book to his family and friends, mentioning he doesn’t aim for his work to become a best-seller: it’s just there for future reference. And besides that, there’s another reason for it to be so chuck-full of data: most of it was written “in secret”, never to be read by anyone other than himself or his wife (Jelena Bonner or “Lyusha” as her husband prefers to call her), for all they knew. Obviously, some material did surface every now and then; but the KGB’s modus operandi was to twist and turn Sakharov’s speeches and manifestos out of their original shapes, resulting in him being turned into a pariah amongst his own people (his wife even more so).

Andrei Sakharov was robbed of his writings several times – he’d put his most important works in a bag which he kept on his person most of the time, having experienced the KGB’s urge to just barge in and steal things from his newly-assigned (due to exile) home in Gorky (present-day Nizhny Novgorod). This particular bag got stolen during a visit to the dentist’s at some point in time, after which he had to recount most of his works from memory and write them down on paper again. A year-and-a-half later, Sakharov claims to have been sedated by means of gas, after which his bag got stolen from his car once again – leaving him with practically nothing. And yet, despite the obviously depressing nature of the situation, he got back to recounting and rewriting again, culminating in “My Life” eventually, as well as his release from exile.

All in all, the book reads like a constant struggle rather than a path towards victory; it’s no wonder its author outlived his imprisonment by a only few months, dying at the age of 68. In fact, he barely outlived “My Life” – a testament to the completeness of this book, ranging from his childhood years all the way up his phone call with Gorbachev (1988) via World War 2 and the Nobel Peace Prize (1975). How’s that for a re-cap of the main storyline, huh?

To grade this book, then, is to grade this man’s life. It doesn’t make sense to grade people’s lives – they’re subject to our individual perceptions, while at the same time we’ll judge them according to what history has taught us. Sakharov basically designed the hydrogen bomb – hardly an act of humanism, so why would we value his later activism without noting the obvious hypocrisy? To read the book is to know the answer: Sakhorov, a loving father and husband, understood the horrific powers that he had helped to come to fruition. A down-to-earth kind of guy, he realized that if not himself, someone else would have come up with powerful bomb designs just the same; not everyone would be equally bothered in preventing the actual use of such devices, though. That’s why he pushed hard for the Partial Test Ban Treaty and even went as far as to urge the West to develop more advanced nuclear devices, so as to counter the treat of Russia’s MRV missiles; for the former, he was attacked by hawks; the doves nearly ate him alive for the latter – and rarely did anyone ever get to know Sakharov’s true motivations, this being Soviet Russia during the Cold War, after all.

There’s a little bit of everything for everyone to be found within “My Life”. It offers an interesting insight in the paranoid society that was Soviet Russia, while at the same time proving that bonds of friendship and the love for science can last a lifetime and are worth fighting for – till death, by means of starvation, for instance: Sakharov went on a hunger strike several times. He got into fights with policemen, got threatened with execution during World War 2, received death threats on an almost daily basis in Gorky. Most of us would have “snapped” at some point under that much pressure.

But a designer of total destruction is hard to break.

Verdict: What did I just tell you?

3 Responses to “Book review (but not really): My Life”

  1. Geweldig artikel, hier kan ik wat mee.

  2. I just signed up to your blogs rss feed. Will you post more on this subject?

  3. I’ll post fuzzy book reviews from time to time, and yeah – they’ll mostly be related to the Soviet union in one way or the other.

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