Sakharov, Andrey

views updated

Andrey Sakharov

Born May 21, 1921
Moscow, Russia
Died December 14, 1989
Moscow, Russia

Physicist and Soviet dissident

A ndrey Sakharov, one of the greatest theoretical physicists of the twentieth century, was often called the father of the Soviet Union's hydrogen bomb. He also spoke out internationally against the oppressive Soviet system of government. His wife, Yelena Bonner (1923–), was also greatly involved in protecting the human rights of Soviet citizens. Together, they were among the leading advocates of democracy, economic reform, and intellectual freedom in their country. A democratic system of government allows multiple political parties whose members are elected to various government offices by popular vote of the people. Sakharov and Bonner's principled dissent and compassion would be acknowledged the world over when he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975 for his courageous efforts.

Early years

Andrey Dmitrievich Sakharov was born into a solid, middle-class family of professionals in Moscow. His mother was Ekaterina (Katya) Sofiano and his father was Dmitri Sakharov, a physics teacher. A brilliant student, young Sakharov was considered a science prodigy, or highly talented child, and attended Moscow State University. He graduated with a physics degree in 1942, then worked as an engineer in a military factory.

In 1945, Sakharov entered the Lebedev Physics Institute in Moscow. Shy and thoughtful, he spent the genius and energy of his young adult years developing thermonuclear weapons, so called because of the incredible heat associated with their reaction. During his time at the Institute, he published numerous articles on fusion thermonuclear reactions. Fusion involves the joining together of atomic nuclei with other elements such as hydrogen. Bombs based on fusion are referred to as hydrogen bombs (H-bombs). They are vastly more powerful than the atomic bombs the United States dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki near the end of World War II (1939–45).

In 1948, Soviet authorities, fearing the United States was developing an H-bomb, commanded Sakharov to work on the Soviet hydrogen bomb project. He was sent to the newly established super secret weapons laboratory, Arzamas-16. Located about 250 miles (400 kilometers) east of Moscow, Arzamas-16 was nicknamed Los Arzamas after Los Alamos, New Mexico, site of the Manhattan Project, the secret U.S. nuclear weapons development project. All of the Soviets' great physicists would live and work there for periods of time.

In 1949, Sakharov married his first wife, Klavdia (Klava) Vikhiveva. They would have two daughters, Tanya and Lyuba, and one son, Dmitri (Dima).

Dangerous thoughts and the father of the H-bomb

Back in 1948, Sakharov had thoughtfully considered the Soviet policy of collectivism. Collectivism is when a business such as a farm is jointly owned and operated by those farming the land. Farmers share equally in the production and profits. In collectivism, private ownership of property is not allowed. In Sakharov's opinion, collectivism had been carried to excess by Soviet leaders. He was also dismayed at the arrests and murder of citizens who dared to speak against the policies of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin (1879–1953; see entry). Sakharov turned down an offer to join the Communist Party. This party existed within communism, a system of government in which a single party, the Communist Party, controls all aspects of people's lives. In economics theory, communism prohibits private ownership of property and business so that all goods produced and wealth accumulated are supposedly shared equally by all. Because of Sakharov's standing among the elite community of Soviet scientists, his boldness was not punished. Stalin desperately needed Sakharov to apply his brilliance to the development of the H-bomb.

On November 1, 1952, the United States detonated its first hydrogen bomb. On August 12, 1953, the Soviet Union successfully detonated "Joe-1." Although much smaller and not a true H-bomb, "Joe-1's" detonation meant the Soviets were in the Cold War race with the United States for weapon superiority. The Cold War was an intense political and economic rivalry from 1945 to 1991 between the United States and the Soviet Union, falling just short of military conflict.

Sakharov and his staff continued to work on the development of a true hydrogen bomb. On November 22, 1955, at the Semipalatinsk Test Site, the Soviets detonated their first real hydrogen bomb. Sakharov was credited with working out its theoretical basis. For his efforts, he was awarded several of the Soviet Union's highest honors. He received the Order of Stalin, the Order of Lenin, and was made a Hero of Socialist Labor three times. He had been elected a member of the prestigious Soviet Academy of Sciences in 1953.

Budding dissident

Sakharov was profoundly affected by the destructive power of what he had developed. During the late 1950s, his concern grew over the dangerous effects of nuclear testing. He considered the testing unnecessary and contrary to humanity and international law. Interestingly, J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904–1967; see entry), developer of America's first atomic bomb in 1945, and Igor Kurchatov (1903–1960; see entry), also at Arzamas-16 and developer of the Soviet's first atomic bomb in 1949, came to similar conclusions. The atomic bombs developed by Oppenheimer and Kurchatov, the type dropped on Japan in August 1945, were much less powerful than the new H-bombs.

Sakharov asked questions about nuclear responsibility and the rights of human beings in the same manner he asked questions about the physical world—formulating hypotheses and searching for reliable evidence to support his hypotheses. He quickly found that his thinking and the openness with which he discussed his ideas automatically made him a dissident, an individual who disagrees with the ideas of those in power. He soon came to sympathize with other dissidents. Sakharov's moral awakening prompted him to risk both life and reputation in a prolonged confrontation with his government over issues of nuclear responsibility and human rights.


Sakharov first collided with authority in 1961 in his opposition to further nuclear testing. Soviet prime minister Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971; see entry) rejected all of Sakharov's arguments for containing nuclear weaponry. The more Sakharov attempted to express his opinions about cutting back on nuclear testing, the more he was threatened by Soviet authorities. At a time when few others dared, Sakharov readily assumed grave personal risks for his views.

In an international publication in 1968, Sakharov called for an end to the arms race and asked for cooperation between the United States and Soviet Union on world problems. He was pulled off secret projects and dismissed as head consultant of the State Committee for Atomic Energy. Stripped of his security clearance and dismissed from weapons research, Sakharov returned to research in fundamental science at the Lebedev Institute. Shortly after this, his wife died and left him a widower after twenty years of marriage.

In the late 1960s, Sakharov began an open campaign to make Soviet society more humane. He attended trials of political prisoners and publicized the plight of persecuted religious believers and oppressed populations within the Soviet Union as well as the countries under Soviet control such as Poland and Czechoslovakia. He called on the government to allow citizens to exercise freedoms guaranteed by the Soviet Constitution but denied in practice. Sakharov was perceived as the salvation of the dissident movement. Political dissidents were a disorganized and repressed group. The Soviet official propaganda presented them as minor figures who were victims of foreign influence. When the famous physicist joined them, he gave the human rights groups in Moscow a needed jolt of respect.

Yelena Bonner

It was while attending a human rights trial in 1970 that Sakharov met Yelena Georgyevna Bonner. She was born in Merv, Turkmenistan, on February 15, 1923, the daughter of a prominent Armenian communist and Comintern secretary. The Comintern was a political body formed to guide the expansion of communism in the world by the Soviet Union. Her father was arrested at the height of the Stalinist purges when she was fourteen. Stalin directed purges that killed millions and sent many more millions to isolated, harsh labor camps. Most of the people were killed for reasons no one but Stalin understood. Bonner's father was shot, and her mother was exiled to the labor camps. Bonner was wounded twice while serving as a nurse in World War II. After the war, the determined young woman earned a degree in pediatrics from the First Leningrad Medical Institute.

Sakharov and Bonner were married in 1972. She spurred Sakharov on, expanding his network of contacts and giving international dimension to their common cause of human rights. In 1975, Sakharov received the Nobel Peace Prize. The citation called him "the conscience of mankind." With acts of courage and moral conviction, he held the Soviet Union accountable to the world for the treatment of its citizens. It was Bonner who read his statement of acceptance and received the Nobel Peace Prize on his behalf since he was forbidden to travel to Oslo, Norway. He was denied a visa on the grounds that he knew too many state and military secrets of the Cold War. Yuri Andropov (1914–1984), head of the Soviet secret police (KGB), placed Sakharov under constant surveillance.


Sakharov helped organize the Committee on Human Rights and openly protested the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan in December 1979. This enraged Soviet leaders, and in January 1980 Sakharov was stripped of all his state titles, seized by the secret police, sentenced, and removed to internal exile in Nizhny Novgorod, then known as the closed city of Gorky. Bonner was allowed to freely come and go from Gorky. She served as Sakharov's connection to the outside world until 1984, when she was no longer allowed to leave Gorky as well.

Gorky, a port city 250 miles (about 400 kilometers) from Moscow, was not open to Western journalists and foreigners. Sakharov lived there in forced residence until December 1986. Although Sakharov and Bonner were constantly insulted in the Soviet press, they remained somewhat protected by Sakharov's status as a nuclear scientist. In 1986, a work crew arrived at their apartment and installed a telephone. Sakharov soon received a phone call from Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev (1931–; see entry), who lifted the sentence of exile, calling Sakharov and Bonner back to Moscow. Gorbachev had inherited an immensely depressing economic situation in the Soviet Union. Sakharov's official return became a symbol of Gorbachev's perestroika (reform) and glasnost (openness) as he strove to build a socialist democracy.


Sakharov emerged from exile to become leader of the new opposition in the Congress of People's Deputies. He was elected in 1989 and appointed as a member of the commission responsible for drafting a new Soviet constitution. On the day he died in December 1989, he had made a plea before the Soviet Congress for multiple political parties and an open market economy. Bonner found him dead of a heart attack in his study later that evening. He did not live to see the crumbling of the Soviet state that came in 1991. Bonner continued to campaign for democracy and human rights in Russia into the twenty-first century and worked tirelessly for the defense and self-determination of all the peoples of the former Soviet Union.

For More Information


Bonner, Elena. Alone Together. New York: Knopf, 1986.

Lourie, Richard. Sakharov: A Biography. Hanover, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2002.

O'Balance, Edgar. Tracks of the Bear. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1982.

Sakharov, Andrei. Sakharov Speaks. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974.

Time/CBS. People of the Century. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.

Web Sites

"Andrei Sakharov (1921–1989)." The American Experience: Race for the Superbomb. (accessed on September 14, 2003).

"Yelena Bonner: Human Rights Activist." Radio Free Europe: Radio Liberty. (accessed on September 14, 2003).

The Helsinki Accords

One of Andrey Sakharov's most powerful alliances was with prizewinning novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918–), another internationally known dissident. Helsinki, the capital of Finland, became the location for important international conferences. One such conference, held in 1975, produced the Helsinki Accords. It was attended by thirty-three European nations and the United States and Canada. European security and cooperation in economic, technological, and humanitarian concerns dominated discussions. The Western world saw this agreement among European countries as a significant contribution to détente, or easing of tensions between countries.

Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev (1906–1982; see entry) was among those who signed the agreement. He was greatly enthused about most parts of the agreement but was very displeased with the section addressing human rights. He and other Soviet leaders decided to ignore that part.

After the agreement was signed, Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov, along with Yelena Bonner and a group of prominent civil rights activists, organized the Moscow Helsinki Group. This group monitored human rights violations within the Soviet Union and proved very unpopular with the Soviet government. Many of those who participated in the group were imprisoned or exiled. Nevertheless, the group managed to alert the rest of the world to the oppression of Soviet citizens by their government.