Andrei Sakharov: Physicist and Dissident

Andrei Sakharov achieved both fame and notoriety in his lifetime, first as the inventor of the Soviet atomic bomb, and later as one of Russia’s foremost dissidents and political activists who tried to warn the world about the dangers of the very technology he worked so hard to create.

Born in Moscow in 1921 into an educated family, Sakharov enjoyed spending time with his father in his physics laboratory. Young Andrei was excited to repeat the experiments he saw in the lab, and his parents encouraged him to pursue his fascination with the field.

During World War II, Sakharov worked as an engineer. When the war ended, Russia and America settled into what was called “the Cold War,” where each country, based on mistrust of the other, worked to develop atomic weapons to be used as deterrents to the other country’s possible attacks. Sakharov played a major role in developing these weapons, and became known as the “father of the Soviet atomic bomb.”

During this period of Cold War escalation, Sakharov became more aware of the destructive powers of nuclear weaponry, and began calling for a slow down in the arms race. He wrote an essay in which he spoke of the threat of a world nuclear war if the development of atomic missiles were to continue. The essay was published in several “underground” Soviet journals and circulated widely outside of Russia, but the Russian government ignored the warnings in Sakharov’s essay, and banned him from conducting any kind of military-related research.

This kind of “punishment” for his outspoken views on the horror of nuclear war, only spurred Sakharov on to greater involvement with human rights. His work on these issues led to his nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize and the eventual awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975. However, the Russian government would not allow him to leave the country in order to go to Norway to collect it.

The tighter the grip of the Soviet Union on his freedom, the more Sakharov resolved to work for peace. He was arrested in 1980 because of his protest of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan and was exiled to a Russian city where foreigners were not allowed to visit. The Russians kept him under tight observation there, and often searched and ransacked his apartment looking for evidence of his contacts with western and progressive scientists who shared his beliefs in the dangers of nuclear weapons. Sakharov was able to call attention to the harassment through essays and papers that were published in western media.

In 1986 he was allowed to return to Moscow under the new policies of perestroika and glasnost, where the Russians allowed more contact and cooperation with the West. For the last three years of his life, he was able to publish his views on peace and human rights without restraint. When Andrei Sakharov died in 1989, he was hailed both inside and outside of Russia, as a man of great integrity and conscience.