Sakharov, Andrei (1921–1989)

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SAKHAROV, ANDREI (1921–1989)


Soviet nuclear physicist and human rights advocate awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975.

Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov first received wide attention in July 1968, when his essay "Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom" appeared in a Dutch newspaper and less than two weeks later on the front page of the New York Times. During the next decade Sakharov, a nuclear physicist by training, gained increasing notoriety as the most prominent representative of the community of human rights activists in the Soviet Union who came to be known as dissidents. But Sakharov had already exerted a considerable influence on international politics years earlier and was thus well known to the Kremlin leadership, even as his name remained a secret to the broader public. A designer of nuclear weapons, Sakharov came up with the key technical insight that earned him the title "father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb." His work assured that the United States would not hold a monopoly on this category of weapon, capable of explosive power many hundreds of times that of the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For his efforts on behalf of defense of the Soviet Union, Sakharov received numerous state awards (including the Stalin Prize) and was elected a full member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences at the unprecedented age of thirty-two.

Sakharov's drive to influence Soviet policy for the public good predates his emergence as a dissident. His concern about the baneful influence of Trofim Lysenko on Soviet genetics contributed to his preoccupation with the health risks of nuclear radiation, caused by fallout from the enormous test explosions of thermonuclear devices he had designed. He took his campaign for a moratorium on nuclear tests to the highest levels of the Soviet nuclear establishment and more than once to the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev himself. As he wrote in his memoirs, "I had come to regard testing in the atmosphere as a crime against humanity, no different from secretly pouring disease-producing microbes into a city's water supply" (Memoirs, p. 206). Sakharov's concerns, bolstered by a worldwide peace movement, led to the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, signed in Moscow in August 1963, banning atmospheric tests. Unfortunately, nuclear testing continued underground and at an accelerated pace, but at least without the scourge of radioactive poisoning of the air. In the late 1960s Sakharov promoted a mutual ban on antiballistic missile (ABM) systems, convinced, along with many U.S. and Soviet scientists, that a competition in defensive and offensive weapons would increase the risk of nuclear war. Their work contributed to the signing of the 1972 ABM Treaty.

Sakharov had worked in the weapons field from the time of his university days, when wartime evacuation from Moscow sent him and his fellow students to the east to finish their studies and then work in a munitions factory. He conducted nuclear weapons research from 1948 until the Soviet authorities revoked his security clearance two decades later in response to publication of his "Reflections" essay abroad.

The years 1968–1980 witnessed Sakharov's most active work on behalf of human rights in the Soviet Union. He was alarmed at the attempt by Leonid Brezhnev and other Soviet leaders to rehabilitate the reputation of Joseph Stalin, the Soviet dictator whose crimes had been denounced by Khrushchev in a short-lived "thaw" that brought a measure of political and cultural freedom to Soviet society. Sakharov pursued an approach popular with the so-called Helsinki movement to conduct political activity strictly in accordance with Soviet law and call upon the government to obey its laws as well—thus his efforts on behalf of freedoms of religion, of speech, and of movement, guaranteed by the Soviet constitution, and his frequent attendance at trials where political prisoners were sentenced on trumped-up charges. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975, much to the dismay of the Soviet leadership.

In 1980 the Soviet authorities sent Sakharov into internal exile in the closed city of Gorky, in retaliation for making public his opposition to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Along with his wife, Elena Bonner (b. 1923), Sakharov conducted a number of hunger strikes in support of people seeking to emigrate or receive medical treatment abroad, and he also drafted his memoirs, under constant harassment by the secret police. In December 1986 the reformist leader Mikhail Gorbachev invited Sakharov to return to Moscow. There he pursued a brief but important career as a political figure during the perestroika era, serving as the moral compass of the democratic movement in the Congress of People's Deputies, to which he was elected by his constituency at the Academy of Sciences. In December 1989 a heart attack killed him in his sleep. Years later, his colleagues in the human rights movement continued to regret his untimely passing as they faced the challenges of an increasingly authoritarian regime under Vladimir Putin and a brutal war in Chechnya.

See alsoArms Control; Brezhnev, Leonid; Dissidence; Nuclear Weapons; Perestroika; Putin, Vladimir; Stalin, Joseph.


Primary Sources

Bonner, Elena. Alone Together. Translated by Alexander Cook. New York, 1986.

——. Vol'nye zametki k rodoslovnoĭ Andreia Sakharova. Moscow, 1996.

Sakharov, Andrei. Progress, Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom. Translated by the New York Times. New York, 1968.

——. Memoirs. New York, 1990.

——. Moscow and Beyond, 1986–1989. Translated by Antonina Bouis. New York, 1991.

Secondary Sources

Altshuler, B. L., et al. Andrei Sakharov: Facets of a Life. Gifsur-Yvette, France, 1991.

Evangelista, Matthew. Unarmed Forces: The Transnational Movement to End the Cold War. Ithaca, N.Y., 1999.

Gorelik, Gennadii. Andrei Sakharov: Nauka i svoboda. Moscow, 2000.

Holloway, David. Stalin and the Bomb: The Soviet Union and Atomic Energy, 1939–1956. New Haven, Conn., 1994.

Lourie, Richard. Sakharov: A Biography. Hanover, N.H., 2002.

Matthew Evangelista