Boris Altshuler: Creativity of Physicists in the Struggle for Human Rights

posted 23 May 2014, 03:11 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 23 May 2014, 03:45 ]
Sakharov Prize Talk – 2014 at the Meeting of the American Physical Society, 
5 – 8 April 2014, Savannah 

By Boris Altshuler
Theoretical Physics Department, P.N. Lebedev Physical Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Chair of the “Right of the Child” NGO. Moscow.

USSR was a totalitarian State with an almighty secret service – KGB. To save a repressed victim of the regime, whether they be a dissident or a scientist–Jewish refuzenik, was seemingly an absolutely impossible task. “For the success of our hopeless adventure!”, - as Andrei Sakharov used to say. There were no natural checks and balances in the Former USSR and there are none in modern Russia – that is why the task to save the child in Russia is no less ‘hopeless’ today. But the key word in Sakharov’s motto is ‘success’ – and we managed to reach it earlier in cooperation with the world scientific community, and we are managing to attain it now in our work of protecting of rights of children. The Know-How is creativity. To achieve something absolutely impossible needs unexpected ‘crazy’ ideas (‘it's not crazy enough to be true’, - Niels Bohr). The same in science, in physics in particular, the Step into the Unknown always demands ‘crazy’ creative ideas. This talk traces the parallels between creativity in physics and in the human rights struggle. 

“For the success of our hopeless adventure!”  - Andrei Sakharov 

I am grateful to the American Physical Society for the Andrei Sakharov Prize. It proved to be a great support in our present day work aimed at protection of the rights of children and of families with children in Russia. Here is the Governmental Telegram – congratulations from Vladimir Lukin, Russian Ombudsman for Human Rights, with whom we cooperated fruitfully during 8 years of his two terms. A month ago to this position was appointed Ella Pamfilova – also our good friend for many years.

And I am grateful to the Committee of Concerned Scientists for the long term cooperation in the past and now.

And it is an honour for me to share the Prize with Omid Kokabee whose personal tragedy has become a modern symbol of the intimate connection of the protection of human rights and international security – the connection clearly outlined by Andrei Sakharov in his Nobel Lecture in 1975.

Omid Kokabee, a young physicist, was arrested in January 2011 in Tehran airport on his way to Texas University after visiting his parents in Iran. The day before the arrest one of the top leaders of Iran's A-Program insisted on his joining the Program, but Omid disagreed to accept this proposal. The scientist’s Free Choice of the field of the personal creative work must not be punished by imprisonment. – Is it not evident from the point of view of the principles of freedom of science and of pure humanity? The release of Omid Kokabee would be a clear sign of the real turn of Iran towards peaceful cooperation with the international community. I am sure that it is our common dream that all countries and governments – of Russia, USA, Iran, Ukraine, etc., establish fruitful cooperation and escape wars. Since war is the terrible violation of the first and basic human right – the Right to Life.

However the mass scale requests to release Omid Kokabee were not met positively so far. And then the intriguing question arises: “What can be done when nothing can be done?” This question is in line with Sakharov’s motto “For success of our hopeless adventure!”. Those words, especially the word SUCCESS, were our guides in the human rights struggle in Former Soviet Union and they are the guides in our human rights and children’s rights defense in modern Russia, and also in general. And to achieve the clear goal – i.e. the positive resolution of the particular individual case – it really demands nontrivial approaches and ideas.

1. Andrei Sakharov (1921-1989), in exile in Gorki, 1981 

In January this year while reading media information on the positive moves of Iran’s position in the nuclear issues and on special personal relationship of Presidents of Russia and of Iran I decided to ask President Putin to address Dr. Hassan Rouhani, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, with a request to release Omid Kokabee and to permit him to return to scientific work at the University of Texas. After checking up the idea with colleagues from the Committee of Concerned Scientists I wrote this Letter. I did not receive any answer yet, I suppose that it remained unknown for its addressee at all, and I take a chance to repeat this appeal here – see Attachment.

Also Malcolm Beasley, the President of the APS, has sent a letter on behalf of the APS, to President Putin, asking him to advise President Rouhani that Iran should free Omid Kokabee. I am grateful to Malcolm Beasley for attaching my Letter as well. And I insist on the concluding words of my Letter saying “The positive role of the Russian Federation on this issue will also be greeted with a huge understanding and approval”. Which would be of especial importance now – in the super dangerous situation around the Ukraine. This is just like in Prince Rupert’s Drops (or Dutch drops, or glass drops) crystals where breaking off the smallest tip changes the structure of all big crystal – the release of one person may change positively the domestic and international structures. Sakharov understood well this nontrivial “social physics”.

There is one more painful issue where Russia’s goodwill may have a global positive outcomes: the “release” of about 70 Russian babies, most of them are disabled ones, who were totally prepared for adoption to American families (where love and special medical treatment waited for them) and who are still locked in Russian institutions by the adoption ban law from December 2012. Situation is more than strange: President Putin not a once openly named corruption as The Main Enemy of Russia, US Congress passed in December 2012 the so called Magnitski Law directed against corrupted Russian officials, and Russia in a revenge immediately punished Russian orphaned babies. This behavior can not be understood in frames of ordinary human logic. It is governed by Another Logic of the unseen “under-the-carpet struggle in Kremlin” (as Winston Churchill put it).

Once upon a time, 40 years ago – in September 1973, I naively asked Andrei Sakharov: “Why they don’t kill you in some ‘car accident’? Who rejects this sort of proposals evidently submitted to the very tops from the different influential circles?”. And Sakharov answered wisely: “It is not our business to think about it. We must insist on our principles – humanity, openness, etc. And results will possibly follow”. That is why I insisted earlier and insist now that Russia must Let This Babies Go and that Administration of President Obama must reconsider its shameful politics of hushing up the problem of Russian ban of adoption to the USA (I know that State Department becomes furious when it is approached on the Russian babies forbidden for adoption to the USA – and this is a shame).

The idea of absolute priority and importance of one separate human life is not a novel one, it roots in many cultures including Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity. “Ha meabed nefesh ahat – meabed olam male. Ha mazil hefesh ahat – mazil olam male” (One who kills a man – he kills the whole world. One who saves a man – he saves the whole world), - this motto was pronounced by judges of Ancient Israel when the cases of murder were considered in the courts, they meant that all people came from Adam, hence killing of somebody is an attack on the very principle of life. I believe that the same wisdom may be found in every culture. Hence killing of one person is not less crime than killing of millions. And it is not permitted to sacrifice the life of one for the happiness of all – the approach formulated by Fedor Dostoevsky in his famous “All happiness of the world does not cost a tear of the child”. Unfortunately this approach drastically contradicts world practice in centuries, including, say, practice of Bolsheviks’ revolution. Let us remember Vladimir Lenin with his “We must shoot as much as possible priests. History will forgive us”. History did not forgive them.

The named above principle of the infinite value of every human life is the basis of human rights struggle. In 1970-th it was marvelously accepted as a basic principle by the Big Politics which proved to be salutary for the Mankind threatened by the nuclear Doomsday. This turn happened thanks to Sakharov, thanks to the struggle of Soviet dissidents and Jewish refuzeniks, including scientists, thanks to support by the world scientific community: Committee of Concerned Scientists, Committee SOS (Sakharov-Orlov-Scharanski), my friend Professor of Oslo University Kristoffer Gjotterud (1931-2001), plenty of scientists of the USA, France, Norway, Sweden, England, Holland, Italy, etc.

What was the Know How of our common struggle? How did we manage to help people – victims of the almighty Soviet machinery of repressions, and how do we manage to save children today? As I promised I trace some parallels with scientific creative work.

1. Strong motivation: in science we know that in the beginning is the intuitive Guess, some Knowledge of Truth (it is known that Dmitry Mendeleed first saw his Periodic Table in a dream) – which of course must be critically considered and proved (or perhaps disproved and reconsidered) in further research.

In human rights it is the dictates of the heart which says that:

- dissident must not be punished by punitive psychiatry treatment,

- that the country is not a jail where there is no right for exit,

- that orphaned child should not be ‘buried alive’ with the false mental disability diagnose,

- that disabled baby must not be deprived of needed treatment on political grounds,

- that Omid Kokabee being in jail – it is an absolutely abnormal and intolerable situation, etc.

2. This strong motivation results in the so called “bulldog approach” when any failure in helping the person is just a signal for the creative search for new nontrivial attempts, for increase of the efforts – up to infinity. If, as it was said above, one person is equal to the whole world, then to save one separate person the ‘cosmic’ approach is justified.

My friends and colleagues from the “Right of the Child” NGO who did not participate in human rights movement in the Former USSR – they did not know this approach when we began our children’s rights defense work in 1996. And they did not know what to do when their letters and appeals were rejected by the empty answers of plenty of officials of all branches of power and of all law enforcement agencies – even in evident situations of the unbelievable cruelty of authorities against child or family with children.

Then I remembered the old times and we began to use the ‘cosmic’ approach: no humbleness, no shy, no formalities but immediate appeal about one particular child to the top level – to President Yeltsin, to President Putin, to President Medvedev. And I must tell that in cases when our appeals reached this top level we received support. The other point is that to reach tops is a rare case and that even direct orders of presidents are often ignored by the corrupted and irresponsible bureaucracy. That is why in parallel with sending appeals above we send their copies directly to perpetrators of violations of rights or to their nearest chiefs, also we actively use Russian media as well (this option did not exist in USSR), and we invent and invent other approaches, and repeat ant repeat until we reach the ‘success’ in particular seemingly ‘hopeless adventure’. Yes, system deprived of any checks and balances is intact, and every victory is a sort of miracle – like it was in Soviet times. But our ‘bulldog approach’ works in most cases after all – the perpetrators are really afraid of us. Some local activists who we cooperate with said that sometimes only mentioning of the name Boris Altshuler or “Right of the Child” NGO proves to be sufficient for the authorities to become cooperative in resolution of the particular cases, although earlier it was a sort of a blank wall.

And of course we sum up the best experience and propose system reforms targeted at elimination of the roots of violations of rights. And many proposals receive top level support – with subsequent extremely difficult implementation. But ‘Hope Dies Last’ – this is also our motto.

3. Implosion: in difficult cases the plural “outside” pressure from different directions to the one and the same “internal” point is used.

This picture reflects the dramatic events of December 1981 when Andrei Sakharov and Elena Bonner declared indefinite hunger strike insisting on the permission for the young girl – fiancée of Elena Bonner’s son Akexei Semenov – to join him in the USA. The girl was used by authorities as a hostage – to enforce Sakharov to be silent, or as a revenge (let us remember orphaned babies – victims of political revenge of December 2012). This was frightening situation, but enormous plural pressure shown on the picture resulted in the victory: huge system gave in, and be sure that this step of the system against its own strict rules resulted in some its structure changes - perhaps firstly invisible.

To enforce the extremely big system to behave against its rules – even in small - demands extremely strong pressures. And since human rights activity excludes any violence and our only tool is the Word – it is a special challenge for creativity to invent the additional directions of pressure when we face failures.

2. Hunger strike by Andrei Sakharov and Elena Bonner, Gorki, December 1981 

To follow the parallels with physics I show the implosion device constructed by my father Lev Altshuler in 1946-1947. The device was improved in 1948 according to proposal by Yakov Zeldovich and Eugeny Zababakhin. The X-ray microsecond measuring devices used here to fix the phenomena inside the implosion were constructed by Veniamin Tsukerman (who also was a Chief of Lab in the Nuclear Center, who was blind and who was my father’s friend from the young years).

For decades American physicists tried to guess how Lev Altshuler receives such a super-high pressures. Some even supposed that impact of ballistic rockets in cosmos was used. This device was declassified only in 1996. Lev Altshuler studied with it hundreds of materials and really founded new field in physics, which was acknowledged by the APS Award 1991. 

Actually the device of picture 3 is a sort of small (20-30 sm. in diameter) model of half of A-bomb. It is well known that implosion triggers the explosion of A- or H-bombs. And it is not a chance that Sakharov applied the same strongest approach in reaching the wishful human rights results. 

3. Half-sphere Lev Altshuler’s construction which permitted to study in Lab materials under pressures up to 10 millions of atmospheres. 

Lev Altshuler and Andrei Sakharov knew each other and respected each other beginning from 1950 when Sakharov first came to work in the Nuclear Center Arzamas-16 in Sarov. Soon after Michael Gorbachev returned Sakharov and Bonner from exile in December 1986 my father visited them – see Pict. 5. This was time when Gorbachev considered Sakharov as a main expert in nuclear disarmament etc. And in their meeting Lev Altshuler said with admire: “Andrei Dmitrievich, you are on the top floor of power”. Sakharov immediately reacted: “I am not on the top floor. I am near the top floor – on the other side of the window”. I remembered now this nice Sakharov’s joke because of its deep truth – we human rights activists are not incorporated in any power structures and are absolutely independent from authorities. But authorities must have no option to ignore us. 

To conclude I want to outline again the global importance of protection of human rights – in the past, now and in future. You know the events in Russia nowadays – sometimes it seems that USSR stands up from the coffin. And I must tell that Sakharov and his human rights struggle are strongly misunderstood in Russia, sometimes Sakharov is even condemned as a traitor – exactly like 30 years ago. That is why I considered it my debt to clarify his approach in my recent Talks at two conferences dedicated to 100 years of my father Lev Altshuler – first conference, on 5 November 2013, was organized in the Russian Academy of Sciences by its President Vladimir Fortov, and the second conference took place on 12 November 2013 in the closed town of Sarov, in the Russian Nuclear Center VNIIEF (earlier ‘Arzamas-16’).

4. John Shaner gives APS Award to Lev Altshuler. Williamsburg 1991. 
See: C. H. Gibson, N. H. Krikorian & R. N. Keeler, “L. V. Al’tshuler, and High Energy Density Research” // 2012, Journal of Cosmology, Vol. 18, 7901-7933: 

Thus in short – on Sakharov, human rights and nuclear disarmament. Yes, Andrei Sakharov, Lev Altshuler and their colleagues in the Soviet nuclear project – creators of terrible weapons - honestly believed that to restore and to support nuclear balance of two confronting superpowers - USA and USSR - is the best guarantee from the Third World nuclear war. (I shall not comment or judge to what extent it was justified; as Vitaly Ginzburg, Nobel Prize winner, also participant of the project and also friend of Lev Altshuler from the young years, used to tell: “I would like to be as clever yesterday as my wife is clever today”). But we – physicists know that if two forces which balance each other are multiplied by 10, 100, 1000 times the balance becomes more and more unstable. The same – in the USA – USSR nuclear ‘balance of fright’.

I suppose that in USSR it was only Sakharov who understood well how increasingly dangerous is the situation, how close to the nuclear abyss is all our civilization. That is why the main idea of his famous Memorandum of 1968 was as follows: there is no alternative to the end of the Cold War and to the cooperation of two confronting systems. And the alternative to two confronting ideologies is the global idea of protection of the individual human rights. And it worked.

And now in new epoch the proliferation of nuclear weapons became the most serious threat and problem. And again it is closely connected with human rights issues – as Omid Kokabee case shows.

5. Lev Altshuler, Elena Bonner and Andrei Sakharov, Moscow 1987 

What may be the global meaning of the human rights struggle today? I must tell with great sadness that all huge Western efforts and resources targeted at democracy building in new Russia or in new Ukraine during last 23 years were in vain. Why? Because it was theory – not practice. Because this so called ‘democracy building’ had nothing to do with demos, i.e. with the first-need vital interests of millions of people. Those millions were earlier and remain now the ‘silent majority’ – silently suffering majority. Let us look at the dramatic statistics: there were 2 million 200 thousand annually new born babies in average in 1980-th in USSR on the territory of modern Russia; there were almost twice less, annually 1 million 200 thousand, of new born babies in Russia in average in 1990-th, and there were 1 million 900 thousands new born babies in Russia in 2012.

That is why many in Russia define the 1990s as a “decade of national genocide”. That is why for millions of Russian people, who never had experience of real democracy and working Rule of the Law, the word “democracy” is associated exclusively with the chaos and unlimited power of criminal corrupted bureaucracy on the every local level. And the words “free market” are associated only with unlimited power of monopolies which artificially increase the prices of the first need food and goods by 400-500-600% - hence the mass scale malnutrition of millions of children, of pregnant future mothers etc. The same corruption and monopolists’ prices are in the industry of construction of dwellings; Russia is a big country, but there are so many people, including many children families, who do not have dwellings at all, and no hope to acquire the roof. Etc.

And I must tell you a rather clever Russian joke which appeared recently in internet in connection with events in Crimea and the Ukraine: it was announced that people of Vologodskaya and Tverskaya regions of Central Russia appealed to President Putin to use army and to join these regions to Russian Federation because of the mass scale violations of rights of population of these regions. We – “Right of the Child” NGO face all these dramatic problems in our everyday work.

Andrei Sakharov connected global human rights movement with the issues of international security and nuclear disarmament. We suppose that today the ways and tools must be found to connect global human rights movement with global anti-corruption and anti-monopolization international measures directed at improving the standards of life for millions. Only in this case people will see the real positive meaning of words “human rights” and “democracy”. There are ideas of this sort but it’s impossible to present it here.

And finally, following the motto ‘Hope Dies Last’, - on the situation in science in Russia. You heard, I suppose, about new attack of Russian bureaucracy against Russian science, against Russian Academy of Sciences. And again – like in all other fields – the only remedy may be if the wide Russian scientific community stop to be a ‘silent majority’ and acquire muscles making bureaucracy responsible. We also have ideas on construction of these ‘muscles’. Who knows – perhaps they may be useful here in the USA as well.

Thank you!

P.S. This is the symbol of the “Right of the Child” NGO: 




«Right of Child»

Orphans, Violence in the Family, Homeless children, Handicapped children, Children-Prisoners
4, Luchnikov Lane, Entr. 3, of. 6, Moscow, 103982, Russian Federation; 
ph./fax: (7-495) 624-07-52
e-mail: , Web-page:

ATTACHMENT: Appeal on Omid Kokabee

«_17_» _January__2014 №___01/14___

To President of the Russian Federation

Dear Vladimir Vladimirovich !

In Autumn 2013 American Physical Society awarded me the Andrei Sakharov Prize "For the long struggle for democracy in Russia and work to protect the rights of children ", shared with the Iranian physicist Omid Kokabee, who is in detention since January 2011. 32-year old Omid is a brilliant specialist in quantum optics, in 2007-2010 he worked in Spain, then he worked on a dissertation at the University of Texas in the United States. He was arrested during a visit to his parents in Tehran, accused of "relations with a hostile government" and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment. Omid Kokabee was always infinitely far from any policy. Injustice of this situation was a shock for the global scientific community and not only for it. Organization Amnesty International announced Omid Kokabee Prisoner of Conscience .

Currently there is an encouraging mutual softening of tension in relations between Iran and the international community, in a particularly fruitful way is developing the interstate cooperation of the Russian Federation and Iran. I ask you to apply to your colleague Dr. Hassan Rouhani, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, with a request to release Omid Kokabee and to permit him to return to scientific work at the University of Texas.

Andrei Sakharov in his Nobel lecture in 1975 clearly showed that observation of human rights is the foundation of international security. The release of Omid Kokabee would be the most important step of goodwill on the part of Iran. The positive role of the Russian Federation on this issue will also be greeted with a huge understanding and approval .


Boris Altshuler ,
Chairman of the Board of the NGO "Right of the Child ",
Member of the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation ,
Member of the Moscow Helsinki Group.

4 Louchnikov Lane, Entr. 3, off. 6 , Moscow, 103982, Russia
NGO "Right of the Child"