History in Review
Andrei Sakharov: The Conscience of Humanity
Edited by Sidney D. Drell & George P. Shultz. (Hoover Institution Press, Stanford University, CA: 2015. Pg 184, Illustrations.) ISBN: 978-0-8179-1895-8
Reviewed by Richard S. Rodgers - October 6, 2015
Andrei Sakharov (1921-1989) was a Soviet dissent, a human rights activist, and a vocal advocate for the peaceful use of nuclear technology. Unlike some dissents who worked behind the scenes, Sakharov was very open and public about his views. While he lived, he was a hero to many and in 1975 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Yet today, he is regarded by many as nothing more than a Cold War warrior whose ideas are now outdated. However, there is also a strong cadre that sees his ideas, and his warnings, for being as relevant today as they were during the Cold War. The relevancy of Sakharov's words and ideas are made abundantly clear in, Andrei Sakharov: The Conscience of Humanity. Edited by Sidney D. Drell and George P. Shultz, this new book, published by the Hoover Institution Press, contains eleven essays that explore Sakharov's thoughts and legacy.
The authors of these essays have such diverse backgrounds as Jim Mattis, a retired general who served in the US Marine Corps and was the Supreme Allied Commander Transformation of a NATO organization. Others include Jane Shaw Dean for Religious Life at Stanford University, and Lucy Shapiro, a Professor in the Department of Developmental Biology at Stanford University School of Medicine. Within these pages you'll also find authors who run the gamut from historians and journalist to law professors and physicists.
Throughout, these essays are thought provoking and edifying. In the essay, "The Evolution of Andrei Sakharov's Thinking," Serge Schmemann provides an instructive overview of Sakharov's life, his family background, his personality, and his work on the development of the hydrogen bomb. Most important, he shows that Sakharov was not a 'born again' dissident. Rather, his viewpoint changed slowly over time, as did his entry into the dissident movement. He also tries to separate the 'mythical' image of Sakharov from that of the real man. This, the first essay in the book, serves as an ideal introduction to the book as a whole. It also provides a solid foundation for those unfamiliar with the man, to better understand the essays that follow.
Most of the other essays in this book are not as far reaching as Schmemann's. Rather they tend to focus on one or more related topic, such as the Sakharov as a scientist, his thoughts on technology, the effects of nuclear war, Sakharov's exile in Gorky, his role as a human rights champion, the ethics of nuclear war, and more. Throughout, the authors of these essays try, and admirably succeed, in drawing ties between cold war dissidents, and the threats that we face today from censorship, terrorists, civil unrest, dictatorships, and other evils that simply refuse to go away.
Although well suited to use in university level history, science, politics, and related classes, this book is also accessible to the general reader who will find the essays both informative comprehensible. It is also an ideal book for those seeking to learn more about a remarkable man who, sadly, is not as well known today as he was during the Cold War. For those seeking to delve deeper into Sakharov's life and legacy, many of the essays included endnotes and reference lists that can be used as a guide for further study on the man. In addition, while I'd recommend reading the book in its entirely, specific essays can be assigned, or read, to fit the needs or desires of a given class or subject of interest.
Overall, and excellent book that gives equal weight to Sakharov's career as a scientist and to his activities as a dissident and human rights activist. This book also does an excellent job of illustrating that Sakharov's ideas are still relevant, and that many of the same problems that existed during the Cold War are still with us - they just often go by different names. In many cases, in the past, the 'big' evils were nation-states, now non-governmental players have also entered into the fray, further complicating what could be a very dangerous situation as nuclear weapons and technology become readily available to anyone - or any group - that has the money to buy them. This is a book that should not only be read by general readers and academics, but also by politicians, environmentalist, pubic health officials, and anyone else concerned with what the future might hold for us in an uncertain world...
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