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Andrei Sakharov
Man and Machine
Janet Kriel

February 1989. Photo Y. Karsha.

oday’s world can be frightening at times. Terrorist attacks, political instability are omnipresent. Scientists continue to come up with life-altering inventions that simultaneously awe and terrify us.  Imagine Anthrax, cloning and stem cell research in the wrong hands…

But the combination of power and new science is nothing new.  The Cold War brought with it an intense arms race among global powers, and also saw the emergence of the world’s most destructive bomb.  Yet, out of the former USSR came the story of a man who held the science of that very bomb in his hands, but chose to follow a road definitely less travelled, for people in his elite and privileged class. Andrei Sakharov, father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, is more commonly known as champion of human rights in the tail end of the Soviet Union.

Upon learning Sakharov’s story, you may agree that, apart from his intelligence, nothing really predicted his actions later in life or the greatness he would achieve.  Sakharov was born in 1921.  His family was an educated, tight-knit unit that valued hard work and professional competence.  So far, nothing unusual.  He considered himself socially awkward and obstinate (traits inherited from his mother) and thought he lacked success in dealing with people.  This introversion and intense inner life may even have been considered a detractor from potential success.

…Everyone is arguing and agitated but only Andrei, holding a pack of books and notebooks under his arm, is quiet, and seems to be too bashful to say anything…I was sorry for him, he was so shy and clumsy.
Sakharov remembered by university classmate Leon Bell

The 1st congress of the people’s deputies, June 1989

Sakharov’s father was a lecturer of physics  and fairly well know methodologist, his mother was devoted to her family.  It was a comfortable childhood, but the first obstacle was in sight when Sakharov entered university as a physics student.  Stalin’s purges had already claimed many of the best teachers, and when the Germans invaded Russia in 1941, his studies were further disrupted.  Eventually students were evacuated to central Asia, but in 1942 Sakharov graduated and started working at a cartridge manufacturing plant in Ulyanovsk on the Volga river.

It was here that he met his first wife, laboratory technician Klavdia Vikhireva.  About his wedding day Sakharov remembered how her father blessed them with an icon and gave them advice before they then went running hand in hand across to the registry office.  The youthful simplicity of his memory stands in stark contrast to what lay ahead.

Already at university Sakharov had started toying with various inventions and now continued to do so.  When his thoughts about these inventions led him to certain problems of theoretical physics, he felt a hunger for more knowledge and returned to his studies at FIAN, the Russian Institute for Physics.  This decision would bring him into the orbit of influential physicist Igor Tamm and eventually onto the team developing the Soviet atomic bomb.

World War II was still raging and in August 1945 the US dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

My knees buckled. I realized that my life and the life of very many people, maybe all of them, had suddenly changed. Something new and terrible had entered our lives, and it had come from the side of the Grand Science – the one that I worshipped.
Sakharov’s reaction after reading Truman’s announcement about the Hiroshima bomb

With wife Elena Bonnar. 1974

In 1946 and again in 1947, Sakharov was invited to join the Soviet atomic bomb project, but he declined, at this stage mainly because he was loath to be separated from true science and his mentor, Tamm.  However, fate was against him, and after Sakharov obtained his Ph.D in physics in 1947, Tamm himself was commissioned to help study the feasibility of the hydrogen bomb.  Sakharov was included in the special team studying the H-bomb.

For the next few years Sakharov excelled at the Institute.  His ideas led to the first H-bomb, successfully tested in 1953.  In 1953, when Tamm returned to Moscow from Sarov, the top secret location where they were working, Sakharov was elected a member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, awarded the first of his three Hero of Socialist Labour medals, a Stalin Prize and a luxurious dacha. He took Tamm’s position and was instrumental in the Soviet Union’s first fully-fledged H-bomb, tested in 1955.

I couldn’t ignore how horrible and inhuman our work was. But the war that had just ended was also inhuman.
Sakharov’s observation on bomb research

At the forum of Nobel prize-winners in Japan 1989

Despite the perceived necessity of his work, Sakharov’s discomfort with it was evident from early on, but he reached a sharper bend in the road in 1957 when he was asked to write an article denouncing the so-called ‘clean bomb’ (with less radioactive debris) proposed by the American military.  His research condemned the placating conclusions of both Americans and Soviets about the safety of the bomb.  He calculated that detonation of a one megaton ‘clean’ H-bomb would produce enough radioactive carbon to cause more than 6000 deaths worldwide over a period of 8000 years.  To some, this was simply one statistic comparable with other causes of death, but Sakharov felt strongly about the moral implications of continuing with testing.  His article caused him to see beyond his beloved science to the responsibility involved with this work, so when Nikita Khrushev lifted a moratorium on bomb testing in 1961, Sakharov openly objected.  Yet he trusted Khrushev, who had after all exposed Stalin’s terror and introduced leniencies into Soviet culture.  Sakharov went along with the test of the ‘Tsar bomba’, but in 1962, when he failed to prevent another test, he was distraught.

Sakharov stayed on at the Institute, but especially after 1965 his attention turned to pure science again.  However, it is important to realize that Sakharov never retreated into his scientific cave completely.  Over the years he had championed victims of political discrimination and human rights violations and never relented in his attempts to try and influence political decisions on the arms race.  The expression of his beliefs came to a climax in 1968.

Following a 1967 memorandum in which he urged the Soviet leadership to accept a US proposal for a moratorium on anti-ballistic missile defenses (ABM), Sakharov prepared an article on the same subject for publication in the open press, but publication was prohibited. Sakharov did not leave matters there and in 1968 he completed an essay, ‘Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom.’  His desperate goal was a discussion between global parties to prevent the worst case scenario of a thermonuclear war.  A few copies of the article were circulated and some found their way to a Dutch publication and the New York Times.

My essay outlined a positive, global program for mankind’s future; I freely acknowledge that my vision was somewhat utopian, but remain convinced that the exercise was worthwhile.
Sakharov comments on his essay

Things went downhill from there: He was banned from all military research. Klavdia died in 1969 from cancer, an event that left him dazed for months.

Finally he accepted an offer to return to FIAN.  But he could not stop contacting the emerging human rights movement and in 1970 he founded the Moscow Human Rights Committee with fellow-dissidents Valery Chalidze and Andrei Tverdokhlebov.  It is here that he met Elena Bonner, who was to become his second wife the following year.

Elena was a spunky Jewish-Armenian doctor whose parents had both gone to Stalin’s camps.  Her father, once a prominent Communist, was executed in 1938, but miraculously her mother survived.  Elena was far more socially adept than Sakharov and she became not only his partner in life, but his first contact with the world.  They were vigorous and worked on articles, interviews, appeals, and demonstrations in defence of victims of political persecution and discrimination.

Our society is infected... the Party apparatus of the government and the highest, most successful levels of the intelligentsia... are profoundly indifferent to violations of human rights, the interests of progress, the security and future of mankind.
Letter to Premier Brezhnev, 1971

At a meeting in FIAN (during a 2-hour strike). December 11, 1989. Photo-A. Kudryavtsevoi

Naturally many feathers were ruffled, and as Sakharov and Bonner became more prominent, opposition to their views increased.  They were denounced by members of the Soviet Academy of Sciences and by fabricated letters published in newspapers.

In 1973, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, another prominent dissident, victim of the gulag and himself a Nobel prize winner (for literature in 1970), nominated Sakharov for the Nobel Peace Prize and in 1975 he was awarded this prize.  However, the Soviet authorities would not allow him to travel and Elena had to accept the prize on his behalf.

…Uncompromisingly and with unflagging strength Sakharov has fought against the abuse of power and all forms of violation of human dignity, and he has fought no less courageously for the idea of government based on the rule of law.
In a convincing manner Sakharov has emphasized that Man’s inviolable rights provide the only safe foundation for genuine and enduring international cooperation.
Nobel Prize citation, 1975

Perhaps Sakharov’s visibility to the Western press prevented earlier, more overt measures by the Soviet government, but in 1980, when Sakharov vehemently protested the government’s invasion of Afghanistan during that country’s civil war, he was detained and exiled to Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod), without trial.  Elena was tried and sent to exile with her husband for 5 years, and served as Sakharov’s link with the outside world.    Elena served as his link to the outside world.  Severe restrictions were outlined: Sakharov was not allowed to leave the city, he could not meet with foreigners and ‘criminal elements’, no correspondence or telephone conversations were allowed, however he was allowed to communicate with his children and grandchildren.

Interview on the day that Sakharov was awarded the Nobel prize, October  9,1975 Photo- Y. Tubima

The next seven years of isolation were some of the hardest for Sakharov.  However, he kept up his human rights activities. He wrote letters, appeals and essays.  He also wrote his memoirs (stolen three times by the KGB; each time he rewrote them).  Objecting to the persecution of his family and in efforts to secure medical treatment for Elena (who by now needed urgent heart surgery), Sakharov went on debilitating hunger strikes.

Following Gorbachev’s introduction of Perestroika, Sakharov and Elena finally returned to Moscow in December 1986.  He was able to resume his public activities and became a prominent opposition figure.  He was elected to the new parliament and he helped draft a new constitution.  There was much to be done, but the years of struggle took their toll and in December 1989, he died suddenly from a heart attack.

In 1990 the Communist party gave up its constitutional monopoly on political power and a democracy – however fragile – was born.  A significant success, one Sakharov and many others had worked hard for.  The surname Sakharov  hardly ever comes up in the press these days, but Elena is still semi-vocal, mostly on internet publications and abroad.

Sakharov has been remembered as a man who communicated his point very successfully, not because there was finance behind him or because he was particularly charismatic, but because of his integrity, which commanded huge respect. The last word should belong to him.

Both now and for always, I intend to hold fast to my belief in the hidden strength of the human spirit.
Andrei Sakharov

Queue outside the ‘Palace of Youth’ on the commemoration of A.D. Sakharov’s death, December 17, 1989

The Sakharov Museum is located at Zemlyanoy Val 57, Building 6.

The museum has an exhibition dedicated to Sakharov, but also has fascinating displays on the gulag system and other Soviet practices.

The museum is open every day except Monday, 11am-7pm and entrance is free. Tel: 923 4401

See for details on the following books:

Sakharov Speaks by Andrei Sakharov
My Country and the World by Andrei Sakharov
The KGB File of Andrei Sakharov by Rubenstein & Gribanov
Alone Together by Elena Bonner

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