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Andrei Sakharov
1921 - 1989


By courageously speaking truth to power, he became the conscience of the cold war and inspired the movement that toppled Soviet communism


In the fall of 1962, when his life took its fateful turn, Andrei Sakharov was not yet known to the world. He was 41 years old, a decorated Soviet physicist developing atomic weapons of terrifying power deep in the heart of the Soviet Union. The U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were locked in a frenzied contest for nuclear superiority. That September the Kremlin was to conduct two massive atmospheric tests of bombs that Sakharov had helped design. Sakharov feared the radioactive fallout from the second test would kill hundreds of thousands of civilians. He had also come to believe that another nuclear demonstration would only accelerate the arms race. He became desperate not to see his research used for reckless ends. On Sept. 25, he phoned Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev. "The test is pointless," he said. "It will kill people for no reason." Khrushchev assured Sakharov he would inquire about postponing the test. The next day the detonation went off as planned.

Sakharov wept. "After that," he said, "I felt myself another man. I broke with my surroundings. I understood there was no point arguing." Sakharov would no longer be an academician concerned mainly with the theory of thermonuclear reactions; instead he began a journey that would make him the world's most famous political dissident and ultimately the inspiration for the democratic movement that doomed the Soviet empire. Sakharov realized that the ideals he had pursued as a scientist — compassion, freedom, truth — could not coexist with the specter of the arms race or thrive under the authoritarian grip of state communism. "That was probably the most terrible lesson of my life," he wrote. "You can't sit on two chairs at once."

So Sakharov abandoned his cocooned life as his country's leading physicist to risk everything in battle against the two great threats to civilization in the second half of this century: nuclear war and communist dictatorship. In the dark, bitter depths of the cold war, Sakharov's voice rang out. "A miracle occurred," Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote, "when Andrei Sakharov emerged in the Soviet state, among the swarms of corrupt, venal, unprincipled intelligentsia." By the time of his death in 1989, this humble physicist had influenced the spread of democratic ideals throughout the communist world. His moral challenge to tyranny, his faith in the individual and the power of reason, his courage in the face of denunciation and, finally, house arrest — made him a hero to ordinary citizens everywhere. He embodied the role that intellectuals are called upon to play in the creation of civil society and inspired scientists working under other dictatorships, including myself in China, to become leaders in the struggle for democracy.

In an age of constant technological change, Sakharov reminded the world that science is inseparable from conscience. Sakharov believed that science was a force for rationality and, from there, democracy: that in politics as in science, objective truths can be arrived at only through a testing of hypotheses, a democratic consensus "based on a profound study of facts, theories and views, presupposing unprejudiced and open discussion." As a physicist, he believed that physical laws are immutable, applying to all things in nature. As a result, he regarded certain human values — such as liberty and the respect for individual dignity — as inviolable and universal. It is not surprising that in China today, many of the most outspoken advocates of political reform are members of the scientific and academic communities. They are all the progeny of Andrei Sakharov.

He was an unlikely activist. Born in Moscow in 1921, Sakharov was groomed less for political protest than for scholarly solitude. He taught himself to read at four, and his father often demonstrated physics experiments — "miracles I could understand" — to him as a child. At Moscow University in the 1940s, Sakharov was tabbed as one of the U.S.S.R.'s brightest young minds. After earning his doctorate, he was sent to a top-secret installation to spearhead the development of the hydrogen bomb. By 1953 the Soviets had detonated one. It was "the most terrible weapon in human history," Sakharov later wrote. Yet he felt that by building the H-bomb, "I was working for peace, that my work would help foster a balance of power."

His growing awareness of the deadly effects of nuclear fallout soon turned him against proliferation. His efforts to persuade Khrushchev to halt tests in the late '50s and early '60s resulted in the 1963 U.S.-Soviet treaty banning nuclear explosions in space, in the atmosphere and underwater. Khrushchev later called Sakharov "a crystal of morality" — but still one that could not be tolerated within the regime. The Kremlin took away his security privileges and ended his career as a nuclear physicist. But, Sakharov later said, "the atomic issue was a natural path into political issues." He campaigned for disarmament and turned his attention to the Soviet system, denouncing its stagnancy and intolerance of dissent. So uncompromising was his critique of the regime that it estranged him from his children.

Outside the Soviet Union, even in China, where his writings were predictably banned by the government, Sakharov's name and struggle were familiar to intellectuals and dissidents forging their own fights against authority. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975, and in 1980 his arrest and exile to the remote city of Gorky (now called Nizhni Novgorod) made him a martyr. His refusal to be silenced even in banishment added to his legend. And then came the rousing finale: his release and hero's return to Moscow in 1986; his relentless prodding of Mikhail Gorbachev to pursue democratization; and his election to the Congress of People's Deputies, the Soviet Union's first democratically chosen body. At the time of his death, a tidal wave of democracy that he had helped create was about to engulf the communist world.

What is Sakharov's legacy today? With the cold war ended and the Soviet threat gone, his exhortations against totalitarianism might seem anachronistic. Yet in China, where political freedom continues to be suppressed and intellectuals face harassment and arrest, his voice is still one of encouragement. For scientists his career remains a model of the moral responsibility that must accompany innovation. And Sakharov might remind the West too that freedom is fragile, that if democratic societies are not protective of their liberties, even they may lose it. On the night of his death, after returning from a tempestuous meeting of the Congress of People's Deputies, Sakharov told his wife Yelena Bonner, "Tomorrow there will be a battle!" That battle — at its core, the battle of individuals striving to shape their own destinies — must continue to be fought in the century to come.


Andrei Sakharov (1921-1989), one of the Soviet Union's leading theoretical physicists and regarded in scientific circles as the "father of the Soviet atomic bomb," also became Soviet Russia's most prominent political dissident in the 1970s . From 1980 to 1986 he was banished from Moscow to Gorky and cut off from contact with family, friends, and scientific colleagues.

Andrei Sakharov was born in Moscow on May 21, 1921, the son of a physics teacher. A brilliant student, he studied at Moscow University under Igor Tamm, winner of the Nobel Prize for theoretical physics. During World War II Sakharov served as an engineer in a military factory. In 1945 he entered the Lebedev Institute in Physics and soon joined the Soviet research group working on atomic weapons. Author of numerous scientific articles in this period, his achievements were broadly recognized inside Soviet Russia and out. In 1953, at the age of 32, he became the youngest person ever elected to the Soviet Academy of Sciences.

Between 1950 and 1968 Sakharov conducted top secret research on thermonuclear weapons in a secret location. He also developed an acute awareness of the dangers of nuclear testing activity and the irreversible consequences of nuclear war. His activities as a dissident can be dated from the period of relative intellectual freedom under Nikita Khrushchev in the late 1950s, when Sakharov began to send letters to Soviet leaders urging a halt to nuclear testing. In November 1958 Pravda allowed him to publish a lengthy article criticizing a plan to send children talented in mathematics and physics to the countryside for farm work. He also published several prominent articles in Atomnaia Energiia and other Soviet journals arguing against continued nuclear testing and the arms race. His views apparently carried weight with Khrushchev and others, with whom Sakharov communicated directly, and influenced the Soviet decision to sign the first test ban treaty in 1963.

The freedoms Sakharov and others enjoyed in these relatively liberal years had enormous effect. The ability to think and write openly about critical social issues was not easily repressed, despite the concerted efforts of Khrushchev's conservative successor, Leonid Brezhnev. In 1966 and 1967 Sakharov openly warned against efforts to rehabilitate Stalin and pressed for civil liberties. With the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and the brutal repression of the Prague Spring, Sakharov and others became more militant, expressing their criticism more openly and sometimes standing vigil at trials of those arrested for protest activities. It was at this time that Sakharov published his most prominent and eloquent political essay, Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom, urging cooperation between East and West, civil liberties, and an end to the arms race.

It was while standing vigil at one such trial in 1970 that Sakharov, a widower, met Elena Bonner, who soon became his second wife and strongest supporter. The publication of Reflectionsin the West resulted in Sakharov's removal from most of his scientific projects and his dismissal as principal consultant to the Soviet Atomic Energy Commission. It soon became difficult for him to publish scientific works as well, although he continued his research and writing. In these difficult circumstances, Sakharov, assisted by Bonner, rapidly assumed a leading role in the Soviet dissident movement.

His writings and protests throughout the 1970s generally touched four themes: the treatment of individuals, particularly other dissidents arrested or otherwise harassed for their political views; the suppression of civil liberties in the U.S.S.R. and elsewhere; attacks on Soviet "totalitarianism," as he described it, and demands for political freedom in Russia; and the grave dangers of the arms race and nuclear development and testing plus the likely consequences of nuclear war. Sakharov's great international prestige as a nuclear physicist (and his particular knowledge of the Soviet Union's nuclear weapons program) gave special significance to his views and also for a time helped protect him from arrest and expulsion.

Toward the end of the 1970s Sakharov became increasingly alarmed about the Soviet arms build-up. A strong advocate of East-West parity in nuclear weapons, he saw the development of new Soviet missiles as a reflection of aggressive and expansionist designs. He frequently expressed his views to foreign reporters, and much of his samizdat writing appeared in the West. His outspoken criticism of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979 reflected these concerns and led, finally, to his detainment and expulsion from Moscow. In a celebrated incident, Sakharov was banished by administrative order to Gorky, a small city 250 miles east of Moscow, and cut off from open contact with friends and colleagues. Thus began a period of almost total isolation and constant harassment by the KGB (secret police).

Sakharov's plight became in the 1980s a constant sore in Soviet-American relations. In 1983 he reportedly considered emigration, but was refused because of his knowledge of Soviet state secrets. Continued protests against Soviet militarism resulted in new threats and warnings to him and to family members. On several occasions Sakharov engaged in hunger strikes to call attention to these threats and to gain the right of family members to go abroad. In 1983 President Reagan proclaimed May 21 "National Sakharov Day" in recognition of his courage and his contribution to humanity.

Sakharov was detained in Gorky for almost seven years, released at last by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986. The remaining three years of his life were spent traveling abroad - something he had never previously done, despite his international fame. He died of a heart attack on December 14, 1989, in Moscow.

Three times named "Hero of Socialist Labour" (1953, 1956, 1962), winner of the Order of Lenin, the Stalin Prize, and the Lenin Prize, Sakharov also received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975 for his tireless work for nuclear disarmament and his outspoken criticism of human rights violations everywhere, especially in his homeland. He was for many, inside the Soviet Union and out, a noble symbol of courage, intelligence, and humanity.










This web page was last updated on: 15 December, 2008