The Friendship of Sidney Drell and Andrei Sakharov

The following are remarks by Professor David Holloway at the Sid Drell Symposium on Fundamental Physics given at SLAC on 12 January 2018.


I want to thank the organizers for inviting me to speak at this conference. It’s a particular pleasure for me as a historian and political scientist to be a speaker at a symposium on Fundamental Physics. More seriously it is an honor for me to speak at a symposium in memory of Sid Drell, with whom I had the privilege to work for over thirty years. Sid agreed with Einstein that politics was much harder to study than physics. “The laws of physics stay the same,” he said. “The laws of politics change. And besides, you are supping with the Devil.”


My topic is Sid’s friendship with Andrei Sakharov, whom Sid greatly admired and more than once referred to as a saint. Sakharov was born in Moscow in 1921, five years before Sid. He died in 1989. I don’t want to go through Sakharov’s life, but I do want to mention a couple of things to provide context for Sid’s meetings with him and for their friendship. Sakharov’s mentor, Igor Tamm – a Nobel Prize-wining physicist – drew Sakharov into work on the design of thermonuclear weapons in 1948. From 1950 to 1968 Sakharov lived and worked in Arzamas-16 (now Sarov), the Soviet equivalent of Los Alamos. He played a key role in the development of Soviet thermonuclear weapons.

In 1968 Sakharov was removed from secret work after an essay he had written – Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom – was published abroad. In the opening paragraph Sakharov states that his views were formed in the milieu of the scientific-technical intelligentsia, which was very worried about the future of humankind. Their concern, he continued, was all the stronger because what he called "the scientific method of directing politics, economics, art, education, and military affairs" had not yet become a reality. What did he mean by the "scientific method" in this context? His answer: "We consider 'scientific' that method which is based on a profound study of facts, theories, views, presupposing unprejudiced and open discussion, which is dispassionate in its conclusions." In other words, Sakharov wanted open discussion of important policy issues – something that did not happen in the Soviet Union.

Drell, Yelena Bonner, and Sakharov, c.1976

In his essay Sakharov expressed ideas he had been coming to for some time, but the immediate stimulus to his writing the essay appears to have been that he was refused permission to publish an article about ABM systems. He (and other senior scientists at Arzamas-16) had come to the conclusion that “creating ABM defenses against massed attacks is not realistic, while for individual missiles it is difficult but possible.” Sakharov had written to Mikhail Suslov, an ideologically rigid Politburo member, whom he had met, expressing this view and asking for permission to publish an article on ABM systems. Suslov had denied him permission.

The publication of the essay abroad converted Sakharov from a scientist engaged in secret work into a world-famous figure. The essay sold 18 million copies in one year (it was printed in full in many newspapers).

I mention this episode and this essay to show that Sakharov, like Sid, was interested not only in physics but also profoundly interested in the application of science to policy, something that Sid had begun to do, starting in 1960 with Panofsky’s encouragement. It was the publication of the essay abroad that got Sakharov expelled from secret work. It is only then that he began to turn his attention to the defense of human rights in the Soviet Union, especially after 1970, when he met Elena Bonner, whom he married in 1972. In 1975 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work for human rights. In his 1968 essay he had seen intellectual freedom as crucial for progress – how else could we deal with environmental degradation and the danger of thermonuclear war? In his Nobel lecture, Peace, Progress, and Human Rights, he named over one hundred of the political prisoners being held in the Soviet Union. He also made the general point that peace, progress, and human rights were indissolubly linked. For progress to be beneficial and peace secure, human rights (freedom of conscience, freedom of assembly, freedom of expression etc.) had to be protected. Thus the rights of the individual were intimately linked to our capacity to deal with global problems facing the human race.

Sid and Sakharov meet

In the early 1970s Sakharov was under intense pressure to curtail his activities, This came from the authorities and also from fellow members of the Academy of Sciences. That was the state of affairs in 1974 when he and Sid had their first meeting, which took place in Moscow, at a small conference on composite nucleon structure. Sid recalled “what I considered a great compliment to me, he apparently knew enough about me through whomever to sit down next to me at the meeting.” In his memoirs Sakharov writes of this meeting that Sid was a “young man,” “already a very well-known physicist.” They exchanged notes because Sakharov’s English was very poor and Sid’s Russian even worse. They could both get along a little bit in German. Sakharov then asked Sid about people in the West and invited Sid (and Viki Weisskopf) to dinner at his apartment on Chkalov Street (ulitsa Chkalova) where they met Elena Bonner and Bonner’s daughter Tanya Yankelevich, who was probably the person who made the conversation possible. 

At that first meeting Sid and Sakharov formed a bond. They met again two years later at a High Energy International Meeting in Tbilisi. Sakharov and Bonner were both there. Sid spent a week with them, forming a close and warm rapport.

Sid maintained a steady correspondence with both Sakharov and Bonner. In the late 1970s much of this correspondence had to do with the repression of human rights in the Soviet Union and the persecution of physicists (and others). Sid was particularly helpful to Elena Bonner’s children in Boston, Efrem and Tanya Yankelevich. He also did what he could to keep Sakharov’s name – and his plight – in the news. He made sure Sakharov’s papers were published in the West; he helped to organize conferences on Sakharov, and to keep Sakharov’s name in the public mind. He was not alone in this – there was an organization called SOS (Sakharov, Orlov, and Shcharansky) founded at Berkeley – but he was one of a few, and he was persistent.

There is a touching letter from Sakharov to Sid in June 1981:

“Dear Sidney, I want to write to you this time not an ‘open’ but a most ordinary letter, to thank you from the bottom of my heart. Lusia [Elena Bonner] and I feel all the time that in that infinitely distant world to which our children have been mislaid and where they now live, there are some (very few) people who have not forgotten them or us, and you are one of them.” And then Sakharov writes, perhaps rather slyly in view of Sid’s liking for Madras jackets: “I sense that almost physically, seeing you in my mind’s eye in your check suit (although perhaps you now dress differently.)”

In 1978 Sid wrote N.N. Bogoliubov to explain that he would not take part in a Dubna-sponsored symposium on Elementary Particle Theory because of the way the physicist Yuri Orlov was being treated. Orlov had been condemned to seven years in the GULAG for documenting Soviet infringements of human rights, contrary to Soviet commitments in the Helsinki Final Act of 1975. Sid told Bogoliubov that he was very sorry to miss what would doubtless be a stimulating symposium and that he hoped the conditions would soon return for normal scientific collaboration.

The “Open Letter”

 Sakharov was arrested in January 1980 and exiled to Gorkii for criticizing the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. Gorkii was a closed city; foreigners could not travel there. Up to that point Sakharov had been able to use the prestige he had won by his role in nuclear weapons development to avoid arrest, though he had been under considerable social and political pressure from the authorities. In Gorkii he was cut off from Moscow, though Elena Bonner was able, at least initially, to travel back and forth from Gorkii to Moscow.

In 1982 Sid was invited by the Soviet government to visit Moscow to talk to high-level government and military officials about arms control. He made it a condition that he be allowed to see Bonner; and in fact he did so in a meeting arranged by the American Embassy. Sid gave her papers and copies of recent speeches he had made about arms control to take back to Gorkii.

Among those papers was a lecture Sid had given at Grace Cathedral and also recent Congressional testimony. Those statements prompted Sakharov to write one of his most important papers: “On the Danger of Thermonuclear War – an open letter to Dr. Sidney Drell,” which was published in the Summer 1983 issue of Foreign Affairs. The paper caused a great stir, because it intervened on a particular issue in an American debate about strategic weapons policy. Sakharov expressed qualified support for deployment by the US of the heavy MX ICBM.

Sid replied in a letter to Sakharov, pointing out the many areas of agreement between them that Sakharov had discussed in his letter: the dangers and the scale of disaster of nuclear war, which would be an act of suicide with no winners; the sole purpose of nuclear weapons being to deter nuclear aggression; the importance of parity in conventional arms in order not to feel driven to a nuclear “first use” policy; the grave dangers of escalation once the nuclear threshold was crossed; the overriding importance of arms negotiations and reductions; and the unlikelihood that a “star wars” ABM system would be practical.

Sid justified his opposition to the MX by noting that the silo-based system would be vulnerable to destruction in a Soviet first strike and therefore was essentially a first-strike weapon itself, because it would have to be used first if it were to be used at all.

In his memoirs Sakharov wrote: “I consider [Drell] a friend. For many years Drell was an advisor to the US government on questions of nuclear policy and disarmament. In a series of articles and presentations in recent years he has formulated his position on these questions. I fully share Drell’s basic principled positions, but I can’t completely agree with those assertions relating to recent actions, to assessments of the existing military and political situation, to the ways of attaining the goal of all reasonable people of eliminating the danger of nuclear war.” Then, in a note added in October 1983, he wrote that after reading Sid’s response he thought their differences were not so great after all.

After 1986

Through the years of Sakharov’s exile to Gorkii Sid kept up his activities on Sakharov’s behalf. In January 1986 he wrote an eloquent letter to Mikhail Gorbachev, who had become General Secretary in March the year before, urging him to allow Sakharov to return to Moscow from Gorkii. Gorbachev allowed Sakharov to come back to Moscow in December 1986. That Sid’s letter played a role in this decision seems unlikely, but the campaign for Sakharov in which Sid played such a large part surely was an important factor in Gorbachev’s decision, for it kept Sakharov in the public eye and meant that Gorbachev had to make a decision. Sid visited Moscow in the summer of 1987, seeing Sakharov for the first time in eleven years.

Sid made the comment that if you met Sakharov you would know he was an extraordinary person. Thanks to Sid, I had the opportunity to spend an evening with Sakharov in Moscow in June 1987, and my impression confirms Sid’s judgment. I talked to Sakharov about his role in the nuclear weapons program. I remember as I approached his front door thinking, “What am I doing here? This man has very important things to do in Russian public life. Why am I bothering him with my historical research?” Within a minute of his opening the door that feeling was gone. His personal charm made me feel totally at ease and he seemed very happy to talk about his life at Arzamas-16. Two impressions from that meeting: first, Sakharov did not speak quickly. If you asked a question, you could sense his mind turning like a searchlight and illuminating the issue you had brought up. Second, he had a clear, but detached, understanding of his own importance in Soviet history. I recalled at the time that one of the characteristics the Catholic Church looks for in a candidate for sainthood is the person’s awareness of their own holiness, but that awareness should be devoid of all arrogance. Humility does not mean denying one’s own gifts or role in life, but it does mean not taking the credit for oneself.

Drell, Sakharov, and Panofsky at Stanford,1989

In August 1989 Sakharov and Bonner visited Stanford. There was a physics meeting, I think, but what I remember is the talk Sakharov and Elena Bonner gave at CISAC, in Galvez House. 1989 was a tempestuous year in Soviet politics. Sakharov had been elected in March to the new Congress of People’s Deputies and at the first session of the Congress he had been the focal point of several tumultuous debates. He and Elena Bonner talked about that and discussed three broader issues: the constitutional issue; the question of nationalities; and the question of property. It was an extraordinary session. Four months later Sakharov died in his sleep in his apartment, a huge loss for the Soviet Union and the world.


The friendship between Sid and Sakharov was a genuine and close one, though they did not meet often. But they had maintained a correspondence during the difficult years between 1976 and 1987, and Sid had done whatever he could to help Sakharov and his family. The two men were in some ways alike. Physicists of course, and theoretical physicists. They had similar views on nuclear weapons. They were both greatly interested in the implications of new technologies.

The main similarity that strikes me, however, is their integrity. They both took their ethical responsibilities seriously. They thought about what was right, but once they decided what that was, they stuck with it, even if it looked like stubbornness to others. They had a commitment to do what they thought was right, and that was especially important when you engaged in policy or in politics – for then, in Sid’s words, you were “supping with the Devil.” The situations in which Sid and Sakharov found themselves were of course very different, but I think that integrity was there in both of them. Sid greatly admired Sakharov’s moral courage – he saw it as heroic, tantamount to sainthood. And my sense is that Sakharov recognized the same quality in Sid.

I want to end by reading from a poem by Boris Pasternak, which I think captures that quality. It was written in 1956 and addressed to himself. But it can be applied to physicists too. Sakharov organized his obituary of his mentor, Igor Tamm, around this poem. And I hope you will agree that the qualities Sakharov admired in Tamm are qualities we saw in Sid too. It is a short poem, and I will read only part of it, in my own (inadequate) translation.

It’s not becoming to be famous,

For that is not what lifts us up.

So do not build yourself an archive

Or pore over your manuscripts.


To be creative, give of yourself.

Don’t seek sensation, or success.

It’s shameful, when you don’t signify,

To be on everybody’s lips.


But live your life without imposture,

And live it so that, in the end,

You hear the summons of the future

And draw love in from far and wide.




And never for a single moment

Renounce your true self, or pretend.

But be alive, alive and only

Alive and only, to the end.


Boris Pasternak 1956