CHILDHOOD and ADOLESCENCE
Andrei Sakharov was born on May 21, 1921, to a family of educated Russians, or intelligentsia. His mother, Ekaterina, was devoted to her family. According to Sakharov, his mother influenced his character:
“ I inherited …something of my character as well [from her]: a certain obstinacy, as well as an awkwardness in dealing with people that has troubled me for much of my life.”
His father, Dmitri, is a university physics teacher who has written several renowned popular science books. Under his subtle influence, Andrei, who has a long family history of priests and religious relatives, became an atheist at age thirteen. He first introduced Andrei to the fascinating world of science. He also passed on the work ethic that runs in the family:
“He passed on to his children his own firm conviction that work done conscientiously, professionally, and with zest is work well done.”
Andrei’s paternal grandfather, Ivan Sakharov, planted an early seed for Andrei’s outlook on human rights later in life. A man of liberal views, Ivan edited a collection of important essays promoting the abolition of the capital punishment, including the renowned “I Can’t Keep Silent” by Tolstoy. Sakharov said of this book in his Memoirs:
“I read this book as a young boy, and it made a great impression on me. The arguments it presented against capital punishment still seem to me convincing and exhaustive. My grandfather’s work on this book was an act of conscience and, to an extent, civic courage.”
Sakharov’s maternal grandmother, Maria, inspired his lifelong interest in books. Andrei and the other children in his family were quite attached to her, and cherished every second that they spent with her. She used to spend hours reading stories to her grandchildren, and she provided Sakharov’s “first encounter with the miraculous world of books.”
Andrei spent his childhood in a little house shared by much of the rest of his extended family. Though young, he already demonstrated a compassionate side. Once, when his mother complained while mopping the dirty floor, “Oh, look, I’ve finished off the mop!” The young Sakharov immediately began to bawl. Through his sobs, he said, “Why did you k-kill the mop?”
Andrei was also a boy filled with fantasies. His cousin Irina and he often acted out scenes from books.
Tolerance, for which Andrei would later became an advocate, rooted from his childhood. His family, although full of a love for the Russian culture, never made any derogatory remarks about other cultures. In a time when the Russian nationalism is growing increasingly in tolerant, this is very precious.
The young Andrei lived in a turbulent era in Russia. In his own words,
“I grew up in an era marked by tragedy, cruelty, and terror, but it was more complicated than that. Many elements interacted to produce an extraordinary atmosphere: the persisting revolutionary élan; hope for the future; fanaticism; all-pervasive propaganda; enormous social and psychological changes; a mass exodus of people from the countryside; and of course, the hunger, malice, envy, fear, ignorance, and demoralization brought about by the seemingly endless war, the brutality, murder, and violence.”
The Sakharov family was not exempt from this era of terror. In the 1930s, seven relatives of the Sakharovs were imprisoned, not because they have committed any criminal acts, but because of such things as foreign relation. However, the Sakharov family was not alone to suffer this kind of tragedy. Every family that Andrei knew lost members this way, and many lost more than the Sakharovs.