Tuesday, July 17, 2012

I have Ukrainian or Russian Neighbors... I'm not sure which

My neighbor has lived next door since I was in sixth grade, a little over a decade, and just last week he told me he was actually from Russia, not Ukraine. Judging from his history, I think he’s full of shit, but that’s beside the point.

I was telling him about how I’d been reading the letters of Richard Feynman and how Feynman, known for his contempt towards “high societies” and frequent refusal to a) support these societies or b) implicitly support them by providing recommendations to induct people into these guarded groups, made an exception for a Russian by the name of Andrei Sakharov.

Alright, so it wasn’t a blatant violation of his ethics, but Feynman did associate himself with a press statement that was released on December 9, 1975, which congratulated Sakharov for receiving the Nobel Prize for Peace.

Andrei Sakharov was an academician most closely associated with mathematics and physics. In 1948, Sakharov worked on the Soviet Atomic Bomb project which successfully tested the USSR’s first atomic bomb in 1949. Sakharov directly influenced the testing of the Tsar Bomba in October of 1961. These contributions helped Sakharov remain safe from Stalin’s unforgiving persecution of intellectuals and artists who, as determined by Stalin, posed a threat to the sanctity of the USSR.

Unlike Sakharov, composer and musician Dmitri Shostakovich came under intense scrutiny throughout his career during the reign of Stalin. At one point in Shostakovich’s career, his music was blacklisted throughout the USSR and he was deemed an enemy of the state, all because of an article that declared a misunderstood composition to be “muddle instead of music”. Though Shostakovich faced exile in his late life, he remained safe for a long period of time. Much of Shostakovich’s safety came from his adherence to Russian musical traditions when creating music for propaganda films meant to glorify the USSR. These compositions tend to avoid Shostakovich’s musical idiosyncrasies in favor of a more commercial, nationalistic style. This artistic compromise suggests a sense of desperation on the part of Shostakovich to continue to make a living through music.

You could argue that Shostakovich attempted to appease Stalin by writing music for propaganda films but these contributions did not prevent him from having conflicts with Josef Stalin. At one point, after being invited to the US to present some of his compositions to an American audience in NYC, Shostakovich called Stalin and asserted he would not represent the USSR unless he was taken off the blacklist of composers. To confront Soviet authority, as Shostakovich had, presented the potential for stiff consequences, including death.  This type of confrontation was later mirrored by Andrei Sakharov in challenging a decision made by Nikita Khrushchev to restrict the publication of Sakharov’s essay, “Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom.”

In spite of his earlier contributions to the Soviet nuclear program, Khrushchev forbade Sakharov from releasing his essay outside of the USSR. Before reading Sakharov’s, “Reflections…” I assumed there would be some controversial information regarding the Soviet Union, but I was pretty far off the mark. I think a paragraph from the Press Release, drafted by Nobel Laureate Max Delbruck, summarizes a major component of the essay better than I ever could (without plagiarizing):

[Sakharov] argued that the capitalist and the socialist systems have great merits and demerits. There should be a freer flow of information, of visits, and of open critical discussion, to accelerate the natural process of convergence between the two systems, and thus lead to a more humane way of life for all of us, including the Third World.

It should be noted that when Sakharov received the Nobel Prize, seven years after the original publication of the essay, Khrushchev would not allow him to leave the country to accept the award. This is why Delbruck drafted a press release in support of/congratulating Sakharov for his recognition. Many other Nobel laureates, including Harold Urey, Carl Anderson, Julian Schwinger, and Richard Feynman, associated themselves with this press release.

At first, I was alarmed by the fact that Khrushchev and the Soviet Leadership would take offense and try to prevent the spread of such a balanced essay. With more consideration, I understood this is the exact type of thing leadership hates when trying to maintain control. By taking a balanced approach, a person reading Sakharov’s “Reflections…” will have to admit that both systems have good and bad aspects. If the “opponent’s” system is not 100% evil/wrong then the power of the controlling party begins to erode from doubt.

Balanced arguments only upset those who are trying their hardest to convince people of something, regardless of their stance. This happens because a balanced argument has truths that become self evident to the reader after a proper amount of consideration. A person with underlying motivations can’t afford to allow an audience to find these truths because then their charged argument becomes moot.

What’s interesting to me, in regards to large groups of people, is how we often write them off as stupid, ignorant, lazy, or blind followers of ideology. I sometimes do this, and it’s a very lazy habit that helps avoid having to think for myself. If people were as dumb as we sometimes like to think, then people like Khrushchev or Stalin would not work so hard to maintain a certain ideology because people would never change their ideas or rebel when something wasn’t working. In other words, the fact that fascists and dictators attempt to control how people think is an admission that people can think and determine truths for themselves.

There’s one main ingredient necessary for people to reach these truths: the ability to think freely without fear of consequence. While this is important, there’s an assumption that people will take advantage of this freedom, but that is not always the case…

In the following post I will break down Andrei Sakharov’s essay, “Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom,” and provide analysis regarding why this is such a potent essay. In addition to this analysis, I will pose some questions I have about the essay and connect this back to the current times.

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