Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov (1921-1989) was a Soviet nuclear physicist. Often called the “father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb,” he later became a human rights activist and won the 1975 Nobel Peace Prize.
Sakharov was born into a family of Russian intelligentsia on May 21, 1921 in Moscow. His father, a well-known and successful physics teacher, was his inspiration and mentor growing up, and encouraged him to perform scientific experiments from a young age. In 1938 Sakharov enrolled in the physics department at Moscow University. Due to World War II, the university was evacuated to Ashkhabad, Turkmenistan in 1941. There he completed his studies and graduated cum laude in 1942.
Recognized for his exceptional intellectual capabilities, Sakharov was exempted from military service and in September 1942 sent to work as an engineer at a munitions factory. Sakharov returned to Moscow in 1945 and began his doctoral work at the Lebedev Institute, the department of physics of the Soviet Academy of Sciences (FIAN), under the direction of nuclear physicist Igor Tamm. He received his Ph.D. in 1947.
Soviet Atomic Bomb Project
The Soviet leadership appointed Tamm in 1948 to head a special scientific group at FIAN to research and develop nuclear weapons and determine the feasibility of a thermonuclear bomb. Recruited by his former professor, Sakharov was included in the top-secret project, and was present at the first Soviet atomic detonation on August 29, 1949.
Starting in 1949-1950, Sakharov focused intensely on thermonuclear research. During this period he co-invented a controlled hydrogen reaction, and proposed a design for a hydrogen bomb called Sloika or “Layer Cake.” His model was similar to American physicist Edward Teller’s “Alarm Clock” design, in which the stable hydrogen isotope deuterium and uranium are placed in alternating layers in order to ignite a fusion reaction. In 1950, Sakharov started work at the Arzamas-16 nuclear facility. Beginning in 1953, he assumed responsibility for the facility’s theoretical department after Tamm returned to Moscow.
Later that year, on August 12, the Soviet Union tested its first hydrogen bomb based on the “Layer Cake” model in the “Joe-4” test. That year, at the age of thirty-two, Sakharov became the youngest person elected to the Soviet Academy of Sciences and received his first of three “Hero of Socialist Labor” titles—the Soviet Union’s highest civilian award for heroic and distinguished achievements.
By the late 1950s, Sakharov became increasingly concerned about the dangers of nuclear testing and proliferation. He felt increasingly responsible for the bomb’s destructive capability, especially after the USSR tested “Tsar Bomba” on October 30, 1961—the most powerful nuclear weapon explosion in human history. As a result, Sakharov began to write letters to Soviet leaders urging them to stop atmospheric nuclear testing while also writing articles in scientific journals about the hazards of radioactive fallout.
Sakharov feared continued proliferation would escalate the Cold War nuclear arms race between the US and USSR and risk all-out war, which would inevitably result in mass human casualties. His concern influenced leading Soviet officials, including Nikita Khrushchev, and contributed to the Soviet Union’s decision to sign the Limited Test Ban Treaty with the US in 1963.
Nevertheless, Sakharov became increasingly disturbed by the Soviet regime. In the late 1960s he began to publicly criticize the USSR’s suppression of civil liberties and human rights abuses, especially following the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Sakharov published an article entitled “Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom” in 1968. In this piece he publicly dissented against the Soviet leadership’s policies and instead advocated for cooperation with the US, an end to the nuclear arms race and the regime’s human rights abuses, and the expansion of civil liberties. Attacking the Soviet political system, he called for a “democratic, pluralistic society free of intolerance and dogmatism, a humanitarian society which would care for the Earth and its future.” A copy of his article was smuggled out of the Soviet Union and published in the New York Times. By the end of 1969, more than 18 million copies of the essay were in circulation worldwide, giving him international prestige and recognition.
Following the publication of his article, Sakharov was removed from his responsibilities on Soviet scientific research and development projects and dismissed from the Soviet Atomic Energy Commission. In the summer of 1969 he returned to the Lebedev Institute of FIAN in Moscow, where he continued scientific research outside the public sphere. In 1970 he founded the Moscow Human Rights Committee, and in 1975 Sakharov was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Soviet authorities denied him permission to go to Oslo, Norway to receive his award so his wife spoke on his behalf. “Both now and for always, I intend to hold fast to my belief in the hidden strength of the human spirit,” Sakharov wrote.
After denouncing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in January 1980, Sakharov was exiled in Gorky or Nizhny Novgorod, a small city 250 miles east of Moscow. Isolated from friends and family, Sakharov was regularly harassed by the KGB. His wife Yelena G. Bonner, a fellow human rights activist, was convicted of anti-Soviet activity in 1984 and exiled in Gorky with her husband. In 1985 Sakharov went on a six month hunger strike, successfully demanding his wife be released and granted permission to have heart surgery in the United States. Sakharov and his wife were released from exile and invited to Moscow in December 1986 by Mikhail Gorbachev as part of his domestic liberalization policy.
In April 1989, Sakharov was elected to the newly created Congress of People’s Deputies where he became joint leader of the democratic opposition. Additionally, he was appointed a member of the commission responsible for drafting a new Soviet constitution.
Sakharov was a tireless activist until his death. Just before he died in Moscow on December 14, 1989, he spoke before the Soviet Congress and advocated for greater economic liberalization and political pluralism.
Sakharov’s legacy as a human rights activist continues to this day. Established in December 1988 by the European Parliament, the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought is awarded annually to individuals and organizations who have made significant contribution to defending human rights and liberties.