A Paradoxical Peacenik

The Russian physicist Andrei Sakharov is possibly the most controversial person to ever receive a Nobel Prize for Peace, and considering that that's a list that includes a joint award to Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat, that is quite an achievement. He was a vocal human rights advocate, had been described as a "spokesman for the conscience of mankind", and had spent a large part of his life locked into his home for disagreeing with the Soviet leadership under Leonid Brezjnev. He also happened to be the man who invented the Soviet hydrogen bomb.

I never really wanted to be a lumberjack, you know.
I always wanted to.... design thermonuclear warheads!

Andrei Sakharov was born on the 21st of May, 1921. Lenin was in power, and it would be three more years before Joseph Stalin would seize power and complete the Russian descent into complete tyranny. Sakharov's father was a reputable professor of physics and the author of several physics textbooks, who also happened to be a quite accomplished pianist. During the Russian civil war, he managed to earn a living by playing the accompaniment for silent movies at Moscow cinemas. Andrei grew up in a communal apartment, in which most of the rooms were occupied by his family, as well as a few outsiders. Apart from his father, the family member who meant most to young Andrei was his grandmother, who Andrei in his autobiography describes as "the family's good spirit". Andrei's education began at home, and his greatest challenge in school was adapting to his classmates, with whom he didn't really get along. He graduated with distinction in 1938, and followed in his father's footsteps: He enrolled in the Faculty of Physics at Moscow University. He passed his university finals with distinction in 1942, in the middle of World War II. The university had been evacuated to Ashkhabad at the time, because of the war.

After his graduation, Andrei Sakharov was sent to a tiny rural settlement near Melekess, where he was to work as a lumberjack. He witnessed firsthand the tough life of the Russian peasantry and proletariat, and his experiences during that time would bear a large responsibility for his later opinions about the lives of the Russian under-class. As the Soviet army grew more desperate, labour was relocated to munitions production, and Sakharov found himself working as an engineer (doubling as inventor) in a Soviet munitions factory on the Volga. During this entire time, he wrote a number of scientific articles on theoretical physics, sending them to Moscow University to be appraised. None of these works were ever published, but their writing helped Sakharov keep his spirits high.

After the end of the war in 1945, Sakharov started to study for his doctorate degree, and studied under Igor Evgenyevich Tamm (who eventually received a Nobel Prize for Physics in 1958), who became a great influence in Sakharov's academic life. In 1947, Sakharov defended his doctorate thesis on nuclear physics, and in 1948 he was included in a research team given the task of developing nuclear weapons for Stalin. Thus, the chapter of Sakharov's life that he would later come to regret the most, had begun. For the next twenty years, Sakharov would be living in "the installation", a large secret city (even the name of this place was a state secret! It is now known to be Sarov) in the central Volga region, building weapons of terrifying destructive power.

A Young Physics Geek and his Bomb

When Sakharov first learned that an atom bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 (accidentally reading a newspaper headline while on his way to the local bakery), he was, in his own words, "so stunned that my legs practically gave way". Sakharov was invited to join the Soviet nuclear weapons program two times (in 1946 and 1947), both times declining the offer because he wished to stick to his studies in theoretical physics, and because he didn't want to leave his mentor Igor Tamm. When Tamm himself was commissioned to help a Soviet research team led by Yakov Zeldovich study the feasibility of a thermonuclear (hydrogen) bomb, Sakharov joined the team along with his mentor. At the time, most of the Soviet researchers believed that a massive US nuclear attack against the Soviet Union could well be imminent, and considered their work crucial in avoiding this fate. While the Soviets were already trying to overtake the Americans in the arms race by inventing a hydrogen bomb, the main priority was regular nuclear fission weapons, to serve as a deterrent against a possible US attack. The first Soviet nuclear weapon was successfully detonated in 1949, while the H-bomb crew was already hard at work trying to figure out if a "Super-bomb" could be put into production.

The first design proposal for a Soviet hydrogen bomb was the so-called Truba ("tube") design, which had been stolen by Soviet spies from the American Manhattan Project. Examining the design, Sakharov found several disadvantages in it (I'm afraid I don't know the exact details; IANATNWD (I Am Not A ThermoNuclear Weapons Designer)) and proposed a completely different scheme nicknamed the Sloyka (a cheap Russian layered pastry) because of its layered design. The design team that had successfully detonated a fission bomb continued with the Truba design, whereas Andrei Sakharov and Igor Tamm worked with the Sloyka design. The first Soviet hydrogen bomb was detonated in 1953, and this bomb was indeed a Sloyka model. Sakharov was credited with its design, and was named the "father of the Soviet Super-Bomb" for his efforts. Also while working at the Installation, Sakharov and Tamm made a design proposal for a thermonuclear fusion reactor for energy production, the so-called TOKAMAK (which is even today regarded as one of the top theoretical candidates for actually getting a fusion reactor to work). With their aims achieved, the Installation scientists shifted towards more peaceful fields, such as cosmology and astrophysics.

From Nukemaker To Eco-Hippie

In 1957, the American military had developed a new nuclear bomb, the so-called "clean hydrogen bomb" (about as big an oxymoron as "Windows network security") that would leave less radioactive debris behind than conventional nuclear and thermonuclear warheads. This trait of the bomb could be used to justify actually putting it to use, which was obviously something the Soviet Union was interested in avoiding. Sakharov was commissioned to write an exercise in propaganda, to deny that the "clean" aspect of this bomb was so clean at all. Always a thorough man, Sakharov put great effort into researching the cost in human life of detonating nuclear bombs. From the biological data he had access to, he calculated that the detonation of a mere one megaton clean warhead would leave enough radioactive carbon in the atmosphere to cause approximately 6600 deaths spread across the world for around 8000 years. Horrified with his findings, Sakharov wrote two articles ("Radioactive Carbon from Nuclear Explosions and Nonthreshold Biological Effects" and the more famous "The Radioactive Danger of Nuclear Tests") in which he disputed the conclusions of both American and Soviet nuclear weapons designers, who claimed that nuclear testings were totally safe ("radioactive dust is good for you!"). Even though the death toll from nuclear particles resulting from weapons testing were quite modest compared to deaths from other causes, the fact alone had inescapable moral consequences for Sakharov. As he said, "only an extreme deficiency of imagination can allow one to ignore visible suffering". He felt that condemning 8000 years of humans he would never know to death was simply something he could not bring himself to do. Sakharov had gone from the realm of physics and into the realm of philosophy and politics. This would prove to be a decision that affected the rest of his life.

He was largely responsible for getting Soviet politicians to sign the 1963 Test-Ban Treaty which outlawed all nuclear weapons tests in the atmosphere, in outer space and underwater (but allowed continued underground testing). He stayed at the Installation for some years to come, in case his presence could prove decisive later.

Humanitarianism: The final frontier

From 1963 onward, Sakharov pursued a career of pure science, while also feeding his newfound interest in politics. One of his combined political and scientific accomplishments was bringing down Trofim Lysenko's heirs from their State-supported throne of the One True Biological Science (Lysenko had been a total crackpot who had rejected genetics on the grounds that natural selection was incompatible with Marxism -- an interesting scientific opinion to say the least, and made historically funny from the fact that Karl Marx had wanted to dedicate Das Kapital to Charles Darwin). But in the same period, Sakharov's political interest was taking over a greater and greater part of his life. He took an active interest in victims of political discrimination and oppression. His interest in human rights had ben spurred when his friend, the mathematician Mates Agrest, had been fired from the Installation because of his Jewish religion. Sakharov was an atheist himself, but was in favour of religious freedom, and provided food and shelter to his friend's large family until the mathematician could find new work. He signed protests against Soviet violations of human rights, and used his political contacts to help persecuted individuals.

By 1968, Sakharov decided to speak out about what he called "the fundamental issues of our age". He held ideals of an "open society, convergence and world government", and eventually took his final step into political dissidenthood by publishing a text named "Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom", published by the New York Times. Sakharov advocated a reapproachment between capitalist and socialist systems, and speculated that the cooperation between the Soviet Union and the United States would be the only hope for the survival of the species. He warned against "thermonuclear war, ecological disaster, uncontrolled population explosion, alienation, and dogmatic distortion of our conception of reality", which (sans the thermonuclear war) seems to be a frighteningly good approximation of the state of the world circa 2003. He believed that a synthesis of the socialist and capitalist systems could bring about a social order which could be "scientifically governed, democratic, pluralistic", "free of intolerance and dogmatism, a humanitarian society which would care for the Earth and its future, and would embody the positive features of both systems". He drifted into the emerging Russian human rights movement, where he met Elena Bonner, whom he would eventually marry. But as Sakharov's international support grew, his status in his home waned. He became persona non grata, and writers lost their jobs if they dared defend him against the barrage of attacks hurled at him in Soviet newspaper, usually expressed in a language mostly reminescent of a Slashdot flamefest. But the world had noticed him. In 1975, he was nominated to the Nobel Prize for Peace, but was not allowed to leave the country to receive the prize. Elena Bonner accepted it for him.

Exile, Rehabilitation, Death

The final straw came in 1979, when Sakharov protested the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He was arrested on the street, deprived of the honourary titles he achieved earlier in his life, and exiled to Gorky, where he was kept captive until 1986, his only company and only link to the world being his wife. He went on three hunger strikes during his time in exile, and on several occasions even his wife was not allowed to see him. The KGB had started a propaganda campaign to convince the Soviet populace that it was indeed her who had "corrupted" him, and at one point, he was completely cut off from the outside world for over 200 days.

When Mikhail Gorbachev was elected General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1985 and initiated his Perestroika, one of his actions was to allow Sakharov to return to Moscow in 1986. Sakharov became one of the most prominent figures in the political opposition, and eventually was elected into public office in 1989, as a member of the new Soviet parliament. He was elected a co-leader of the democratic opposition faction. In December 1989, Sakharov died of a sudden heart attack and was found dead in his bed by his wife. A few months later, the Soviet Communist Party gave up its constitutional monopoly on political power. The Soviet Union was no more.

"Other civilizations, including more successful ones, may exist an infinite number of times on the pages of the Book of the Universe. Yet we should not minimize our sacred endeavors in this world, where, like faint glimmers in the dark, we have emerged for the moment from nothingness into material existence. We must make good the demands of reason and create a life worthy of ourselves and of the goals we only dimly perceive."
--Andrei Sakharov, in his Nobel Prize lecture, quoted by Elena Bonner


  • http://asf.wdn.com/
  • http://www.nobel.se/peace/laureates/1975/sakharov-autobio.html
  • http://www.time.com/time/time100/heroes/profile/sakharov01.html
  • http://www.aip.org/history/sakharov/


  • Sakharov, A.D. Progress, Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom. New York: Norton, 1968.
  • Sakharov Speaks. New York: Knopf, 1974.
  • Sakharov, A.D. My Country and the World. New York: Knopf, 1975.
  • Sakharov, A.D. Alarm and Hope. 1978.
  • Sakharov, A.D. Collected Scientific Works. New York, Basel: Marcel Dekker Inc., 1982.
  • Sakharov, A.D Memoirs. New York: Knopf, 1990.
  • Sakharov A.D. Trevoga i nadezhda. Moscow: Inter-Verso, 1990.
  • Sakharov, A. Moscow and Beyond, 1986 to 1989. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.
  • Sakharov A.D. Nauchnye trudy. Moscow: Tsentrkom, 1995.
  • Sakharov, A. Vospominaniya. Moscow 1996. 2 vols.

Amusing Side Note:

An interesting little fact is that Sakharov predicted the World Wide Web about 18 years from its first appearance. From an article he wrote in 1974:

“Far in the future, more than 50 years from now, I foresee a universal information system (UIS), which will give everyone access at any given moment to the contents of any book that has ever been published or any magazine or any fact. The UIS will have individual miniature-computer terminals, central control points for the flood of information, and communication channels incorporating thousands of artificial communications from satellites, cables, and laser lines. Even the partial realization of the UIS will profoundly affect every person, his leisure activities, and his intellectual and artistic development. Unlike television... the UIS will give each person maximum freedom of choice and will require individual activity. But the true historic role of the UIS will be to break down the barriers to the exchange of information among countries and people.”

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