Andrei Sakharov Biography

Physicist, Activist(1921–1989)
Andrei Sakharov was a leading physicist in the development of the Soviet atomic bomb. He was also an ardent critic of the Soviet nuclear-arms program and the regime’s lack of political freedom.


Born May 21, 1921, Andrei Sakharov became a leading nuclear physicist in the Soviet Union. While helping develop a hydrogen bomb, he became increasingly concerned and vocal about the dangers of a nuclear world. In 1968, he published "Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom," urging an end to the arms race. Honored abroad with a Nobel Peace Prize in 1975, he was later exiled at home for several years. During Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev’s period of glasnost, Sakharov was released and appointed to the Soviet Congress. He died of a heart attack on December 14, 1989.

Early Years

Andrei Sakharov was born May 21, 1921, to a large extended family living in a crowded apartment in Moscow. His father taught physics and his mother was a homemaker. Through his father, he became fascinated with physics, performing his own experiments from a young age. In 1938, he entered Moscow University and during World War II served as an engineer in a military factory. During the war he met and married Klavdia Alekseyevna Vikhireva. They had three children before her death in 1969.

Developing a Soviet Nuclear Bomb

In 1945, Andrei Sakharov entered the Lebedev Institute of Physics and in 1948 was recruited by nuclear physicist Igor Tamm to work on the Soviet nuclear program. At age 32, Sakharov became the youngest person elected to the Soviet Academy of Sciences. Between 1953 and 1968, Sakharov conducted top-secret research on thermonuclear weapons and played a key role in the first Soviet hydrogen bomb. For this work, he was named the “Hero of Socialist Labor” in 1953, 1956 and 1962.

During this time, however, Sakharov developed a deep awareness of the dangers of nuclear testing and the irreversible consequences of nuclear war. He began writing letters to Soviet leaders urging them to stop nuclear testing. In 1957, he wrote articles in Soviet scientific journals about the biological hazards of nuclear testing and the effects of radiation. Many of these articles found their way into the Western press.

Speaking Out Against Oppression and Nuclear War

Between 1966 and 1968, Andrei Sakharov began to openly push for greater civil liberties in the Soviet Union. In 1968, while still working on the Soviet nuclear weapons program, Sakharov wrote the essay, "Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom," urging greater cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union, expansion of civil liberties in the USSR and an end to the arms race. A copy was smuggled out of the country and published in the New York Times.

Quickly, Soviet officials removed Andrei Sakharov from the Soviet Atomic Energy Commission. For a time, his international prestige and deep knowledge of the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons program prevented his arrest. In 1975, Sakharov was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on nuclear disarmament and promoting human rights. However, he was not permitted to leave the country to collect his prize. His criticism of the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan led officials to banish Sakharov and his new wife, Yelena Bonner (whom he had married in 1972), to Gorky, a city located about 250 miles east of Moscow that was closed to foreigners and journalists for security reasons.

Exile and Redemption

Living in Gorky from 1980 to 1986, Andrei Sakharov was kept under Soviet police surveillance and harassed by the KGB. In 1984, his wife was arrested, and he went on a hunger strike, demanding her release so she could travel to the United States for heart surgery. His long years of banishment finally ended in December 1986, when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev invited Sakharov to return to Moscow. In 1989, he was elected to the newly formed Congress of People’s Deputies and appointed to a commission responsible for drafting the Soviet constitution. On December 14, 1989, the evening before he was to make a speech before the Soviet Congress advocating for more political pluralism and a market economy, Sakharov died of a heart attack.

Andrei Sakharov

(Photo: RIA Novosti archive, image #25981 / Vladimir Fedorenko, via Wikimedia Commons)

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