The Soviet hero who turned dissident

Human rights activist Andrei Sakharov speaking (few days before his death) during session of Congres

Andrei Sakharov, a few days before his death, during a session of the Congress of People's Deputies, with Mikhail Gorbachev listening behind - Credit: The LIFE Images Collection via G

CHARLIE CONNELLY on the life of Andrei Sakharov - a hero of the USSR who became one of its fiercest critics.

On the day he died Andrei Sakharov had spent many hours in the Supreme Soviet, making his case with a characteristic combination of passionate enthusiasm and forensically detailed argument.

While he welcomed the perestroika measures introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev they didn’t go far enough. For one thing, he insisted on that snowy Moscow afternoon in the turbulent last days of the 1980s, tangible political change in favour of a more democratic system was impossible without a plausible opposition party. It was a point he made jabbing his forefinger on the desk, a point he made so forcefully that even Gorbachev felt it necessary to cut off his microphone.

Just before he was silenced, Sakharov had paused, sighed and said, “I am so tired”. Little wonder. The 68-year-old had been a key figure in the early Soviet nuclear programme and a much-decorated hero of the USSR until he became one of its internal pariahs. A constant thorn in the side of the Soviet leadership, Sakharov proved impossible to suppress despite their best attempts to first mollify and then isolate him. When he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1975 it became even harder to keep Sakharov out of the spotlight. They still did their best, making it grimly fitting that Sakharov’s last act in Soviet politics was to have his voice silenced.

At the end of the session he returned to the apartment he shared with his second wife Yelena, a high-profile dissident herself who had met Sakharov when they both attended a protest outside a show trial during the 1970s. They ate together before at around 9pm Sakharov went to the spare bedroom he used as a study for a nap, leaving instructions to be woken again at 11pm to work on the speech he was giving in the Supreme Soviet the next day. He looked exhausted, thought Yelena, but there would be no convincing him to properly rest.

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Andrei Sakharov was different from most high-profile dissidents, different from the writers and activists agitating for change both inside the Soviet Union and abroad. He was one of the most brilliant physicists of the 20th century who had spent years deep inside the Soviet machine at its highest levels: where most had turned to resistance as victims of the state, Sakharov did so having been one of its most vital instruments.

The son of a notable physicist Sakharov graduated from Moscow University in 1942 ready to embrace a bright future serving his country in the pursuit of scientific breakthroughs. He earned his doctorate at 26 and joined the nuclear physics team headed by Nobel Prize winner Igor Tamm charged with the development of a nuclear bomb that would confirm the USSR as the most powerful nation on earth.

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“I had no doubts of the importance of creating a Soviet super-weapon,” Sakharov recalled. “Carried away by the immensity of the task I worked strenuously and became the creator or co-creator of several key ideas."

A born scientist enchanted and inspired by the advances in which he played a vital part, Sakharov became almost entirely disconnected from the world outside the top secret Soviet nuclear research facility. Instead he threw himself willingly into what he called, “the huge material, nervous and intellectual resources of thousands of people poured into the creation of a means of total destruction capable of annihilating all human civilisation”.

In 1948 Sakharov designed a weapon in which layers of deuterium and uranium were placed between the fissile core of the bomb and its surrounding chemical high explosive. The ‘layer cake’ bomb was the most advanced nuclear weapon of its time and when tested in 1949 sent shockwaves through the West, immediately ramping up the nuclear arms race.

At the age of 32, having helped to create an even more powerful hydrogen bomb, Sakharov became the youngest ever inductee to the Soviet Academy of Sciences. It was an honour he could add to the Stalin Prize, Lenin Prize, four awards of the Order of Lenin and three Hero of Socialist Labour medals.

Then his scientific mind began to question exactly what he and his colleagues were facilitating. He began to think outside the lab, about the effect on the world both inside and outside the Soviet Union of the apocalyptic weapons they were creating. The effects of radiation on humans and the rest of the world began to trouble him and as the scientific evidence mounted up he realised these were not just powerful bombs decisive in a war, they were devising the end of the world itself.

In 1961 Sakharov expressed his concerns in person to Nikita Khrushchev, characteristically setting out his findings methodically before requesting the cancellation of all forthcoming nuclear tests. It made perfect sense, he thought, it was clear to any rational, intelligent person that the regular testing of nuclear bombs could cause untold harm to the planet and its people even in peacetime.

To his horror, Khrushchev dismissed his doubts and pressed ahead regardless. It was then Sakharov realised this wasn’t just about science, it was just dangerous, short-sighted politics that valued ideology ahead of humanity. This realisation, he said later, filled him with a combination of “fear and impotence” as he watched the arms race he had helped to instigate escalate ever further.

As the 1960s progressed Sakharov became more forceful in his questioning of the path his country was taking. It wasn’t that he thought his lofty position and collection of honours made him untouchable; to Sakharov the reasons for his disquiet should have been obvious to everyone. A nation genuinely concerned with world peace and the welfare of its citizens would surely act on the kind of expert observations and analysis he was providing.

The Soviets were prepared initially to overlook Sakharov’s criticisms. He was, after all, a brilliant scientist, one of the best in the world. These were just eccentricities, they thought, the by-product of an exceptional mind they were prepared to indulge. But only so far. In 1968, in the aftermath of the Prague Spring and the beefing up of anti-ballistic missile defence systems in the US and the USSR, Sakharov wrote the 10,000 word Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom in which he called for a more liberal post-Stalinist path than the Soviet Union was following while warning of the global catastrophe fostered by the nuclear arms race.

“Intellectual freedom is the only guarantee of a scientific-democratic approach to politics, economic development and culture,” he wrote in a work widely disseminated in dissident circles that was eventually published in full by the New York Times.

Although he was subsequently removed from his high-level post Sakharov’s reputation did afford him enough protection that he was able to spend the 1970s in Moscow agitating openly for a greater level of democracy and an end to the arms race. Repeated visits and warnings from the KGB couldn’t deter him until his vocal denouncement of the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and call for the world to boycott the 1980 Olympic Games saw him abducted on his way to a seminar at the Academy of Sciences on January 22, 1980. Put before a state prosecutor Sakharov was stripped of all his honours and informed of his immediate banishment to Gorky, now Nizhny Novgorod but in 1980 a closed city 250 miles from Moscow entirely off limits to foreigners. As far as the world was concerned, the Nobel Peace Prize winner vanished.

Sakharov was closely watched during his seven years in Gorky, occasionally able to get word out to the world, not least when he went on hunger strike to secure medical treatment abroad for his wife, but it wasn’t until a 1987 telephone call from Gorbachev inviting him to an international peace conference in Moscow that the outcast was able to return to the Soviet mainstream. A year later he was encouraged to stand for election to the Supreme Soviet where his carefully-constructed arguments became increasingly hard to counter even in the new spirit of Soviet openness. Well, without cutting off his microphone, anyway.

When Yelena went to wake her husband she found him sprawled on the floor, his speech still unfinished on the table. The pressure he had put himself under had combined with a long-standing cardiac issue to silence forever one of the Cold War’s most important political voices, a voice fuelled by a simple concept: genuine faith in the innate goodness of humanity. “Both now and for always,” he said on receiving the Nobel Prize, “I intend to hold fast to my belief in the hidden strength of the human spirit.”

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