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 Labor" (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.
Further Reading on Andrei Sakharov
Articles by Andrei Sakharov can be found in translation in various places, including the journals Chronicle of Human Rights, Russia; and New York Review of Books. An important article, "A Letter from Exile," was also published in the New York Times Magazine on June 8, 1980. Sakharov's major books in English are Progress, Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom (1972); and Alarm and Hope (1978). There is also a collection of essays, Sakharov Speaks (1974), edited by Harrison Salisbury.
Numerous articles about Sakharov have appeared in Western newspapers and journals, particularly The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (1971, 1978, 1981, 1982, 1983, and 1984); Science (1973, 1975, 1981, and 1984); and TIME; and Newsweek. His activities as a dissident are chronicled in Biographical Dictionary of Dissidents in the Soviet Union, 1956-75 (1982). Readers interested in examining particular aspects of his career more closely should consult the New York Times through its annual index. An "Autobiographical Note" appears in Russia (1981), but there is as yet no adequate biography.
Additional Biography Sources
Sakharov Andrei, Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom, Norton, 1968.
Sakharov, Andrei, My Country and the World, Knopf, 1975.
Sakharov, Andrei, Collected Scientific Works, Dekker, 1982.
Sakharov, Andrei, Memoirs, Knopf, 1990.
Sakharov, Andrei, Moscow and Beyond, 1986 to 1989, Vintage Book, 1992.
Babyonyshev, Alexander, editor, On Sakharov, Knopf, 1982.
Bonner, Yelena, Alone Together, Knopf, 1986.