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Andrei Sakharov - the USSR, the H-Bomb and Human Rights

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Andrei Sakharov

Andrei Sakharov was one of Russia's top nuclear physicists. Elected to the USSR's elite Academy of Sciences at the age of 32, he was its youngest-ever member. During his career, the highest honours and medals were heaped upon him, up to and including the Nobel Prize. Yet although he was the genius behind his country's nuclear weapons programme, that was not why he received the Nobel Prize. As in Tolstoy's great Russian novel, it was the issues of War and Peace that came to be addressed by Dr Sakharov, who has been credited with providing the inspiration for the democratic movement that brought about the collapse of the USSR.

The Formative Years

Sakharov was born in Moscow in 1921, shortly after the Communist USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics aka The Soviet Union) was itself born out of the Russian Empire in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Of the 15 republics in the Union, the dominant one was Russia. The USSR was the world's largest country in terms of area, covering much of eastern Europe and the northern half of Asia, and was the world's fourth most populous nation, after China, India and the USA.

Sakharov came from the intelligentsia, from a close, strong, cultured family, with a Christian (Russian Orthodox) background, particularly on his mother's side. His beloved grandmother was a lover of literature who taught herself English, quite unaided, to a level where she could read the English classics in the original language. His father was a physics teacher - young Andrei's first physics teacher - and a talented pianist. At the age of 14, Andrei decided that, like his father, he was an atheist.

At the start of World War II, Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov was a shy, introverted, intellectual young man with a deep love of the poetry of Pushkin1. Adjudged medically unfit for military service, Sakharov soon became a star student at the Faculty of Physics at Moscow University, collecting distinctions all the way up to his Finals. Then, because of the war, he was evacuated to Soviet Central Asia, thousands of miles from his native Moscow, where he worked for a time as a lumberjack in a remote settlement. This experience, in contrast to his relatively comfortable upbringing and life in the capital, brought him face-to-face with the harsh realities of the deprivations endured by the workers and peasants in the vastness of the Soviet Union.

The Cold War

'The Cold War'2 refers to the state of hostility which existed between the Communist bloc and the Western allies from the end of the Second World War (1945) until about 1990. It was characterised by threats and counter-threats, brinkmanship, propaganda, subversion, espionage, development and stockpiling of destructive weapons, and other hostile measures short of actually deploying firepower.

After World War II, Sakharov obtained his doctorate and joined a research group developing nuclear weapons. This was an elite group headed by Igor Tamm, the Nobel physics laureate who had supervised Sakharov's PhD research and now hand-picked him for his team. Sakharov spent the next 20 years engaged in top-secret nuclear projects, mostly conducted in a special high-security research facility outside Moscow3, in conditions of the utmost secrecy and under continuous pressure to produce results.

Was this, as it was sometimes portrayed in the Western media, a demonic conspiracy of evil scientists ensconced behind an Iron Curtain, bent on plotting world domination? Not as far as Sakharov and his colleagues were concerned. On the contrary, they were passionately convinced that the last, best hope for world peace depended on the USSR keeping abreast if not ahead of the Western powers in the development of the terrifying technology that both blocs were now engaged with.

Sakharov, stunned and horrified as he had been in August, 1945, when US President Harry S Truman announced the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki4, now strongly felt that his work could make a vital contribution to the balance of power in the world. He was convinced that the concept of 'mutually assured destruction' was the deterrent factor which alone during this period known as the Cold War could avert a calamity of mind-boggling proportions. And at the same time he was awed and fascinated by the sheer magnitude and global implications of what he was grappling with.

Of course under the iron grip of the Soviet system a man like Sakharov hardly had any choice of career. He was told where to live, where to work, what to do. But he later wrote in his memoirs that although his career was forced upon him, the energy and concentration he brought to it were entirely his own. Undoubtedly, he was attracted to working with the amazing new physics of thermonuclear reaction and harnessing this mysterious primordial energy that fuels the sun and the stars. Yet he could easily have found other interesting problems of theoretical physics to work on, were it not for his conviction that this work was essential. Not having fought for his country in the War, he now regarded himself as a combatant in the Cold War.

Nuclear Tests

In 1953, the first Soviet H-bomb test was carried out. A research team had been working on a bomb design based on secret intelligence from the Manhattan Project - the joint venture between America and the United Kingdom to build an atomic bomb that could be used against Germany - gathered by Soviet agents, probably including the notorious spy Klaus Fuchs. This design was codenamed 'Tube'. Sakharov soon spotted the shortcomings of the Tube design and came up with an innovative design of his own, codenamed 'Layer Cake'. The Tube project was continued for a while (but turned out to be a flop), and it was a device based on Sakharov's Layer Cake design that was constructed. The test was a great success.

Champagne, vodka and Ikra (Russian caviar) flowed in the Kremlin. Sakharov was made a full member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences and was also awarded the Stalin Prize as well as the medal of Hero of Socialist Labour, the first of three such medals he was to be given. He was also to receive the Order of Lenin on two separate occasions. His status as a member of the elite class - the Nomenklatura - at the top of Soviet society was firmly established, and he enjoyed all the perks: the generous salary, the fine apartment, the official car and chauffeur, the coveted dacha or holiday cottage in a prestigious location. Andrei Sakharov had it all.

By 1957, disquiet was being expressed among Western scientists about the possible dangers of radioactive fallout from nuclear tests. But other American as well as Soviet experts were arguing that such tests were completely safe. There was considerable debate about this in the USA and elsewhere. Sakharov maintained that the effects of such tests held great dangers for future generations. A paper which he wrote at the time took him outside the narrow confines of physics to the wider questions of responsibility for the human race and for the planet.

Sakharov considered that this paper marked a turning-point for him. He was using the results of his scientific research to draw conclusions about the moral and political questions which they raised. He was now trying to convince the politicians of the importance of stopping nuclear tests. This was of course a highly sensitive and difficult process, not least because of the mutual hostility and distrust between the Soviets and the Americans. He did however manage to persuade his political masters to agree to an American proposal for a limited test-ban treaty, and in 1963 such a treaty was signed by the US, the USSR and the UK banning all except underground tests. Sakharov was proud of this achievement. He knew that it would save the lives of many thousands, perhaps millions of people who would have died had atmospheric nuclear testing continued, and he also thought that this treaty was an important step on the road to averting a thermonuclear war.

He continued working on designs for new weapons, and he likewise continued to try to influence military and political decisions. In 1967 he wrote a secret paper advising the Soviet government to agree to a moratorium on anti-ballistic missile defence systems, fearing that the development of such systems would not only be hugely expensive but would encourage a vicious spiral of ever more sophisticated measures and counter-measures. He wanted his paper to be published openly, in the hope that it would encourage his counterparts in the West similarly to try to rein in their own political hawks. He was forbidden to publish.

'Publish and Be Damned'

Sakharov made a huge decision at this point, in personal terms probably his most far-reaching decision ever, given the repressive nature of the Communist regime. He decided to go ahead and publish his ideas. In May 1968 he wrote an article entitled Thoughts on Progress, Peaceful Co-existence, and Intellectual Freedom. At the time, articles which could not be printed and published openly would be laboriously written out or possibly typed, perhaps many times over, often on someone's tiny kitchen table in the middle of the night, and passed around by hand or even smuggled abroad (and the material produced by this sort of cottage industry was called samizdat, Russian for 'self-publication'). So it was that a number of copies of Sakharov's article circulated in samizdat and were smuggled out of the USSR. The article appeared in the New York Times in July, 1968, and very quickly became known all over the world. By the end of 1969 there were more than 18 million copies of the article circulating worldwide (though the article was of course still banned in the Soviet Union). This document, a plea for Soviet-American understanding and co-operation, carried on its title page a quotation from Goethe:

Only the man who has to fight for them daily deserves freedom and life.

The two main strands of his argument were:

  • The more we are divided, the greater the threat of our destruction.
  • Freedom of thought and expression are essential to human society.

It came as no surprise to Sakharov that he was immediately relieved of his post and stripped of all his privileges as a member of the Nomenklatura. Henceforward he would be a marked man. Few of his like-minded colleagues would dare to be seen supporting him. Fair-weather friends retreated behind the woodwork. Articles appeared denouncing him as anti-Soviet and a traitor. Highly respected members of the Soviet Academy of Sciences signed letters of denunciation, widely publicised in newspapers and journals as 'open letters'. Newspapers also concocted angry letters purporting to come from outraged 'ordinary citizens'. The authorities had to resort to such dirty tricks and smear campaigns because Sakharov was by now becoming very well known all over the world and was clearly receiving a wide measure of international support and renown.

Human Rights

In 1970, Sakharov and some friends founded the Moscow Human Rights Committee. He had begun to get involved in human rights issues some 20 years previously, when as an atheist he gave shelter in his own Moscow apartment to a Jewish mathematician (who had lost his job because of his religious beliefs) and his large family, helping them over this traumatic episode until the mathematician could find another job. Now it was through the Human Rights Committee that he met and collaborated with Elena Bonner, whom he later married. (His first wife, Klavdia, had died of cancer in 1969.)

The declared aim of the Human Rights Committee was to bring about reforms in accordance with the principles of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. Sakharov's particular concerns were press freedom, prison reforms, stopping the use of psychiatric institutions for political purposes, abolition of secret trials and the death penalty, and the freeing of political prisoners. These aims were also given world-wide support in the international 'Helsinki Accords' of 1975.

The Final Act of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe was in fact signed in the Finnish capital by 35 different nations (including the USSR) who agreed to:

Respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion ... They will promote and encourage the effective exercise of civil, political, economic, social, cultural and other rights and freedoms all of which derive from the inherent dignity of the human person and are essential for his free and full development.

In many of the signatory nations, human rights activists have set up groups to monitor their nation's compliance with these principles.

The most troublesome thorns in the side of the Politburo (the principal policy-making committee of the Communist Party) at this time were Sakharov and the novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn (author of The Gulag Archipelago), and they were both attacked in the Soviet press during the early 1970s. Sakharov always had a great respect for Solzhenitsyn, while being quite strongly opposed to some of his ideas. It is significant that Solzhenitsyn, who was awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature, daringly nominated the 'traitor' Sakharov for the Nobel Peace Prize, which he won in 1975, the first Russian to do so. Sakharov was forbidden to travel to Oslo to receive his Nobel Prize. The day of the ceremony in Oslo found him in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, monitoring the trial of another human rights activist. By this time, Sakharov had become Russia's most active, fearless and outspoken champion of human rights.


In 1979, when the Soviet Union intervened in the civil war in Afghanistan, Sakharov spoke out strongly against this action. In January, 1980, he was arrested on the street, informed that by a decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet he had been deprived of the title of Hero of Socialist Labour and all other awards and honours, and was put on a special flight to exile in Gorky (now called Nizhni Novgorod), a city which at that time was closed to foreigners. His wife was allowed to go with him.

This action by the authorities was of course quite illegal: Sakharov was not charged with any crime. In exile, he was subjected to constant surveillance, had to report regularly to the local police, and was expressly forbidden to leave the city limits or to have any meetings, correspondence or even telephone calls with foreigners, including personal communication with his children and grandchildren in the USA.

He remained in exile for nearly seven years, enduring many difficulties and privations but continuing to maintain by any possible means his rights and dignity as a human being. During this period, support from abroad was of immense value to him, particularly the various media campaigns organised on his behalf. Also during this period, the European Parliament was in clandestine contact with him and set up a Sakharov Prize to be awarded each year for services to human rights and freedom of thought. Notable recipients of this prize include Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi.

While in exile he wrote an autobiography of over 1000 pages. Three times the KGB5 stole this manuscript from him, three times he rewrote it from memory. From his place of exile he continued writing appeals on behalf of human rights activists and other victims of persecution. He also wrote an open letter on what the USA and USSR should be doing to preserve peace in Afghanistan, and various other essays, some of which were smuggled out and appeared in the Western press. The official Soviet newspaper Izvestia accused him of fanning the flames of a nuclear war against the Soviet Union. Both he and his wife suffered greatly during this period. One below-the-belt blow he found particularly hard to take was when the authorities tried to break his spirit with a barrage of unfounded accusations against his dear and loyal wife Elena, while trying to depict him as the henpecked victim of a scheming Jewish virago.

The Gorbachev Era

Eventually a silver lining appeared with the election in 1985 of Mikhail Gorbachev as General Secretary of the Communist Party. Gorbachev instituted a series of reforms under the twin headings of Perestroika (a process of 'reconstruction', first proposed by Leonid Brezhnev back in 1979) and Glasnost ('openness'). It took until December, 1986, for Sakharov to be allowed back to Moscow. He quickly became the most important and prominent figure in the strengthening political Opposition in the Soviet Union, and demanded changes and reforms far more radical and far-reaching than Gorbachev had put forward. Although his health had suffered because of the hard years in exile, in 1989, Sakharov joined the new parliament of the Soviet Union and set about drafting a new Constitution. On 14 December, he made an impassioned address to the Congress of People's Deputies, in support of political pluralism and a market economy. Later that evening Sakharov suffered a heart attack and died.

Shortly afterwards, following massive political demonstrations in Moscow, early in 1990 the Communist Party of the USSR finally yielded to the will of the people and abandoned its monopoly on power. Then in 1991 the USSR was formally dissolved, and ceased to exist.

Sakharov's Challenge

About a year before he died, Sakharov was finally allowed to make his first visit to the USA. During that visit he threw down a challenge to future generations. Referring to Russian and American scientists working on the H-bomb in the aftermath of the second World War, he said:

While both sides felt that this kind of work was vital to maintain balance, I think that what we were doing at that time was a great tragedy. It was a tragedy that reflected the tragic state of the world that made it necessary, in order to maintain peace, to do such terrible things. We will never know whether it was really true that our work contributed at some period of time toward maintaining peace in the world, but at least at the time we were doing it, we were convinced that this was the case. The world has now entered a new era, and I am convinced that a new approach has now become necessary.

And Fang Li-Zhi, the man who has been described as 'China's Andrei Sakharov', the dissident astrophysicist who helped inspire the student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989, wrote:

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 them.

At the time of writing, in the aftermath of the world-shaking terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, these words seem to have a particularly prophetic resonance.

1Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin (1799 - 1837), regarded in Russia as their greatest poet. His prolific output also included novels and dramas.2Bernard Baruch, American financier and presidential adviser, in a speech to the South Carolina Legislature on 16 April, 1947, quoted the next day in the New York Times, said: 'Let us not be deceived - we are today in the midst of a cold war'.3The small town of Sarov (300 miles east of Moscow, named after its famous monastery of St Sarov) has been called 'The Los Alamos of the USSR'. When nuclear research work was established there, the town was cut off from the world. Sarov disappeared from maps, and the place was renamed Arzamas-16. (To help hide places, the Soviets would rename them after a nearby town, with a postal code. Arzamas was a town to the north-east of Sarov.) It is now called Sarov once again, and houses the Russian Nuclear Weapons Museum.4A 20 kiloton uranium bomb named 'Little Boy', dropped on Hiroshima, killed over 80,000 people. Three days later a 22 kiloton plutonium bomb named 'Fat Man', dropped on Nagasaki, killed over 70,000. Of course many more who were not killed outright suffered terribly for the rest of their lives.5The Committee for State Security, both feared and despised as an all-pervading organisation controlling virtually every aspect of life in the Soviet Union.

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