Andrei Sakharov, Soviet Nobel Winner, Dies at 68

From a Times Staff Writer

Andrei D. Sakharov, whose brilliance as a nuclear physicist made him the father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb and whose dedicated campaign for human rights won him the Nobel Prize and international respect as the father of Soviet democracy, died here Thursday, apparently of a heart attack, at the age of 68.

Although increasingly frail after years of persecution, Sakharov had continued to speak out on political issues, working within the Congress of People’s Deputies, the new Soviet national assembly, to shape the democracy for which he had fought for so long.

“The Soviet Union, I believe, is going through one of the most critical stages of its development,” he told a gathering of students here last month. “It is essential that this second Congress of People’s Deputies pass a number of basic laws and discuss them at length. . . . Until the nation firmly believes that perestroika is irreversible, no reform can be carried through successfully.”

On Thursday, Sakharov had participated in a lengthy meeting of the Inter-Regional Group of Deputies, the nascent opposition within the Congress, as it struggled with the difficult political and economic issues facing the country. One of the group’s leaders, he had been leading its campaign for a constitutional amendment that would end the Communist Party’s role as “the leading and guiding force” of Soviet society.

Clearly tired by the long meeting and by the meetings of the Congress itself this week, Sakharov had returned to his Moscow apartment and was found dead there by relatives later Thursday evening.


In the long, tragic history of political dissent in Russia, Sakharov stands as a unique figure, a towering symbol of human hunger for free expression and simple justice, and an example of what they can cost in a closed society.

Except for Albert Einstein, who fled his native Germany in the 1930s as the Nazis took power, no other scientist in modern times has had such stature as Sakharov enjoyed as a young physicist and then, for many long years, come to be so savagely reviled by the very nation that had honored him.

Only under President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, whose strong admiration for Sakharov continued even when the veteran human right campaigner criticized him, did Sakharov again win the respect of his nation.

In recognition of his relentless campaign for human rights, Gorbachev called upon Sakharov last May as the first deputy to address the Congress of People’s Deputies, and Sakharov spoke there and in the Supreme Soviet, the national legislature, with all the vigor he could muster in his final months.

He continued his campaign for respect for human rights and broadened it to participate in the shaping of a new political system emerging here as part of perestroika, Gorbachev’s program of political, economic and social reforms, which Sakharov supported.

Elected to the Congress last spring as a representative of his beloved Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Union, he made it his main forum, bringing it his prestige as a scientist and human rights campaigner and determined that it would be a wellspring of the democracy for which he had fought so long and at such great cost.

Calling this week for a debate over the constitutionally privileged position of the Communist Party in Soviet society, Sakharov had said, “We are at a pivotal moment in our history now. Conservative forces have begun to coalesce again in their action against perestroika and the present leadership. . . . This is a very urgent matter. We cannot rest.”

By any measure, Sakharov was among the 20th Century’s most original scientists. As a young man in his 20s and 30s, he played a central role in designing the first Soviet hydrogen bomb.

Less well known is his major contribution to the control of thermonuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Along with the late Soviet physicist Igor E. Tamm, Sakharov deserves credit for the concept of a “Tokomak” reactor, a doughnut-shaped device for the magnetic confinement of superheated plasma that offers the most promising practical method of taming the power of the sun for generating electrical energy.

Although he was showered in secret with official state honors for his work, Sakharov consciously sacrificed privilege and prestige in his homeland to endure more than a decade of recrimination by the Soviet government--and years of internal exile under constant police surveillance--as the price for speaking out in favor of balanced nuclear disarmament and against the Soviet regime’s disregard for human rights.

Even as he continued his work in theoretical physics, Sakharov took on a second life as the moral conscience of the democratic movement that emerged in the Soviet Union in the late 1960s to press, fruitlessly, for a measure of liberalization in the framework of a Communist society. The movement still survives--splintered, crippled and leaderless after 15 years of systematic repression but alive nonetheless.

To Sakharov, the issues of nuclear disarmament and human freedom were inextricably linked. This was the central message of his dissent.

He believed that negotiations between East and West for mutual and balanced reductions of nuclear arms were vital to mankind’s survival. But he maintained that no meaningful disarmament could be achieved until the Soviet people were free enough to examine and criticize their government’s military and foreign policies and thus to influence them.

“Despite our people’s passionate will for peace and the government leaders’ unquestionable desire to avoid a major war, our foreign policy has often been dominated by an extremely dangerous geopolitical policy of force and expansion, and by a striving to destabilize potential enemies,” he wrote in 1980 from the closed city of Gorky, where he was exiled for seven years in an attempt to silence his political dissent.

An open society is a safer society, Sakharov wrote, and by the same token he considered a closed society to be a threat to human survival.

In a 1978 collection of his essays, “Alarm and Hope,” he said: “No matter how important arms control discussions are, they can produce decisive results only when they are joined to the resolution of broader and more complicated problems of military-political and ideological confrontation, including human rights.”

Speaking of the Soviet Union, he added: “As long as a country has no civil liberty, no freedom of information, and no independent press, then there exists no effective body of public opinion to control the conduct of government and its functionaries. Such a situation is not just a misfortune for citizens unprotected against tyranny and lawlessness; it is a menace to international security.”

Two years later, alarmed by what he saw as the failure of the Western peace movement to understand the threat of Soviet militarism, Sakharov urged the West not to let itself slip into a position of military inferiority, but to show “the required firmness, unity and consistency in resisting the totalitarian challenge.”

The 1975 Nobel Prize for Peace, which the Kremlin barred Sakharov from accepting in person, symbolized the outside world’s admiration and respect for his courage. At home, the Nobel Prize brought Sakharov only harsher treatment from government officials who publicly branded him a “sick man,” a “renegade” and a “traitor” to his people.

Sakharov was tall, balding and slightly stooped in a way that accentuated a personal modesty bordering on shyness. He explained his determination to continue speaking out, whatever the cost, by saying simply that “I felt that I did not have the right to keep silent.”

Many of Sakharov’s countrymen, awed by authority and suspicious of those who challenge it, accepted the government’s view that Sakharov was a naive dupe of Western subversive agents determined to smear the good name of the Soviet Union.

But many other Soviet citizens, ordinary workers as well as some of his fellow scientists, secretly and privately sympathized with Sakharov. No doubt they would, if they knew about it, share the tribute of no less an authority than Nikita S. Khrushchev, the deposed Soviet leader who died in 1971.

In his memoirs, which were smuggled to the West in the early 1970s and published this year in the Soviet Union, Khrushchev said of Sakharov:

“He was obviously guided by moral and humanistic considerations. I knew him and was profoundly impressed by him. Everyone was. He was, as they say, a crystal of morality among our scientists. I’m sure he had none but the best of motives.”

Andrei Dmitriyevich Sakharov was born in Moscow on May 21, 1921, into an old and respected family of intellectuals with a long history of humanitarian interests. For a century and a half, Sakharov’s ancestors on his father’s side were Russian Orthodox priests. His grandfather was a lawyer known for his opposition to capital punishment. His father was a musician and physicist who wrote the country’s standard high school physics textbook of the 1920s and 1930s as well as popular science books.

Despite the chaos of the post-revolutionary period, his family managed to preserve the milieu of the old Russian intelligentsia. Poetry and music, science, foreign languages and political discussion were part of young Andrei Dmitriyevich’s daily life in a crowded communal apartment.

“Sakharov was educated in Soviet schools, in a Soviet institution of higher education, but at home there were always his father’s bookshelves,” his longtime friend, exiled writer Lev Kopolev, said in a Radio Liberty broadcast to the Soviet Union in 1982.

It was this humanist environment at home, Kopolev said, that gave Sakharov an enduring sense of “what is good and what is evil, of what is beautiful and what is ugly.”

The young Sakharov followed his father into physics, graduating from Moscow State University with honors in 1942 in the depth of the war. From Ashkhabad on the Iranian border, where the university was situated during the war, Sakharov went immediately to work as an engineer in a Volga munitions plant, where his innovations on the production line earned him a citation, the first of many state honors.

After the war, in 1945, he began graduate studies in theoretical physics in Moscow’s prestigious Lebedev Physical Institute. And in 1948, Sakharov disappeared into the super-secret world of Soviet nuclear weapons research.

In the race for the superbomb, the United States produced the first thermonuclear explosion on Eniwetok Island in the Pacific in November of 1952. But the house-sized device, code-named “Mike,” was far too cumbersome to use as a weapon. Nine months later, with Andrei Sakharov’s crucial help, the Soviet Union detonated the first deliverable hydrogen bomb.

At 32, Sakharov thus became one of the Soviet Union’s least-known but most-honored scientists, the youngest member of the elite Academy of Sciences, holder of a Stalin Prize and the first of three medals designating him a Hero of Socialist Labor.

In a society racked by scarcity, where special privileges denote rank and status, Sakharov enjoyed all the privileges: a chauffeured car, a princely salary, a dacha in the country, access to special stores, special vacation spas, special medical care and constant protection by armed bodyguards.

Fifteen years later, he cast it all aside, even to the extent of donating his savings and his government prize money, amounting to 100,000 rubles ($130,000) to the construction of a cancer hospital. (His first wife, Klavdia, died of cancer in 1968, leaving him a widower with three children.) In doing so, Sakharov exchanged the honor and protection of the state for its surveillance and recrimination.

Sakharov’s apostasy was one of steady evolution, not an instantaneous or impetuous act. Although feelings of remorse over his work on thermonuclear weapons may have contributed, he considered his involvement at the time to have been a matter of patriotism, and he never publicly disavowed it. His second wife, Yelena Bonner, once explained that he felt that it was far more dangerous for only one nation, in this case the United States, to have such weapons. Only two could make a balance of power.

Sakharov himself dates the beginning of his dissidence from the 1950s, when, he once said, “I felt myself responsible for the problem of radioactive contamination from nuclear explosions.”

“My social and political views underwent a major evolution over the 15 years from 1953 to 1968,” Sakharov wrote from exile in Gorky in 1981. “In particular, my role in the development of thermonuclear weapons from 1953 to 1962, and in the preparation and execution of nuclear tests, led to an increased awareness of the moral problems engendered by such activities.”

Beginning in 1957-58, Sakharov lobbied in secret, from within the Soviet nuclear weapons establishment, for a halt to testing. He was not alone in this effort, but he appears to have been more persistent than most.

In 1961, Sakharov wrote in vain to Khrushchev urging that a three-year moratorium on testing not be broken. The next year, as the military prepared to detonate a new weapon of Gargantuan power, the physicist telephoned Khrushchev in a desperate plea to stop the test.

“ ‘As a scientist and as the designer of the hydrogen bomb, I know what harm these explosions can bring down on the head of mankind,’ ” Khrushchev, in his memoirs, quoted Sakharov as saying. “He hated the thought that science might be used to destroy life, to contaminate the atmosphere, to kill people slowly by radioactive poisoning. However, he went too far in thinking that he had the right to decide whether the bomb he had developed could ever be used in the future.”

The test went ahead as planned. The bomb produced an explosion equal to the blast of 57 million tons of TNT, making it the largest single man-made release of energy in history.

The bomb was so powerful, Soviet scientists warned, that it could never be used against West Germany without contaminating East Germany, Poland and parts of the Soviet Union itself with radioactive fallout. Khrushchev noted, however, that “we would not jeopardize ourselves or our allies if we dropped the bomb on England, Spain, France or the United States.”

Ultimately, Sakharov’s pleas and those of some of his colleagues helped persuade Khrushchev to sign the 1963 treaty with the United States and Britain banning atmospheric nuclear testing.

Even so, his failure to stop the 1962 test marked a turning point in Sakharov’s life. After that, his dissent evolved steadily into a basic concern for human rights and dignity in the Soviet Union and the world at large.

Sakharov’s dissent, which in the early 1960s was still apparently within the bounds Soviet leaders considered acceptable for an eccentric genius, as they regarded him, also included a staunch defense of the Academy of Science’s right to choose its own members--a unique degree of autonomy in the Soviet system, and one that later would benefit Sakharov himself.

In 1964, he tangled with Khrushchev again, this time speaking out in an academy meeting against the Soviet leader’s efforts to install a crony of geneticist Trofim Lysenko, a favorite of Stalin’s and Khrushchev’s, whose wild theories and bureaucratic tyranny had set Soviet biology back by decades. The Lysenkoites lost and an angry Khrushchev threatened to dissolve the 200-year-old academy, a step forestalled by his removal from power that October.

In 1966 and again in 1967, Sakharov joined writers, artists and other scientists in unpublicized appeals to the Soviet leadership protesting, first the rehabilitation of the late dictator Josef Stalin, then a proposed law against “slandering” the Soviet state. The new law soon became a major tool in the state’s suppression of dissent.

But it was only in 1968, the year of the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia to suppress a reform-mind Communist regime, that Sakharov finally emerged fully in public view. His emergence came with the publication--in the form of an underground samizdat manuscript soon smuggled to the West--of a broadly philosophical, 10,000-word essay he called “Thoughts on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom.”

The essay ranged broadly over the problems of nuclear war, hunger, pollution, freedom. Far from being a luxury, he wrote, intellectual freedom “is essential to human society--freedom to obtain and distribute information, freedom for open-minded and unfearing debate, and freedom from pressure by officialdom and prejudices.”

While Westerners took such ideas for granted, Soviet authorities considered them to be subversive.

Retribution was swift but measured. Sakharov was summarily stripped of his security clearance and reassigned to the Lebedev Institute, where he had done his graduate work. But he kept his privileges as an academician, including his comfortable dacha in the forest outside Moscow, a substantial salary and the right to summon a car and driver from the academy.

While dissenters of lesser stature would find their names censored from public print, Sakharov, as a member of the academy, continued to rate references in Soviet encyclopedias until his death. The capsule references, however, included a wholly untruthful line: “In recent years he has left scientific activities.”

On the contrary, Western physicists who continued to receive his manuscripts found that Sakharov remained on the cutting edge of theoretical physics even in the isolation of exile in Gorky. But with time, his involvement in human rights activities also became more intense and more impassioned, draining his energy and subjecting an intensely private man to the dual burden of worldwide attention and official harassment.

By the early 1970s, the scientist who had once been at the lowest depths of Soviet secrecy was now in regular contact with Western correspondents.

Ardently supported by his second wife, Yelena Bonner, who came from a long line of revolutionaries, Sakharov now issued an astonishing stream of harsh but carefully researched commentaries on what he saw as the pervasive brutality and injustice of the Soviet system.

He publicized the plight of the Crimean Tatars, cruelly deported en masse to Siberia by Stalin in 1944 with a heavy loss of life, and even now denied the right to return to their homelands.

Taking up issues the official press dared touch only obliquely, he probed the reasons for the chronic food shortages, the privileges of the elite, stagnation in industry, corruption, rampant alcoholism, destruction of the environment and, in his words, “the brazen lying of the press.”

Sakharov championed the right of Jews and other ethnic minorities to emigrate to the West, attacked the “hell that exists” in the KGB’s special psychiatric prisons, and spoke out against injustice in the common criminal courts.

Somehow, Sakharov still found time for physics, which for him was a form of recreation.

In recent years, he had been working at the Academy of Sciences on theoretical questions, including cosmology, and Bonner repeatedly urged him to drop politics and return to science, to conserve his energy and get his ideas on paper.

Friends tried to persuade Sakharov, who suffered from a heart ailment, to conserve his indignation and use his energies more selectively. The flood of statements in behalf of people unknown in the West, they told him, was diluting his impact. He rejected the advice.

“How, I ask you, can I not speak out for these people?” he said in 1975.

The award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975--the first to a Soviet citizen--was dismissed by the government news agency Tass as an act of “political pornography.”

In the interest of protecting U.S.-Soviet detente, Bonner was allowed to go to Oslo to collect the prize and read his speech. Denied a visa on the grounds of state security, Sakharov stood outside the closed trial of Sergei Kovalev, biologist and human rights activist.

In January, 1980, not long after he condemned the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Sakharov was stripped of his state honors and exiled to Gorky, a city 250 miles east of Moscow closed to foreigners.

Despite the isolation, the 24-hour surveillance and the harassment he endured, Sakharov was not silenced. The appeals and the philosophical statements came less often, and they bore an edge of desperation, but they still came. And a 17-day hunger strike he and his wife conducted in the winter of 1981 won an exit visa to the United States for Bonner’s daughter-in-law, Lisa Alexeyeva.

Sakharov was freed from internal exile by Gorbachev in December, 1986, and he returned to Moscow in triumph. He met with the Soviet president for the first time a year later, and became a strong--though often critical--supporter of perestroika.

What Andrei Sakharov accomplished over the years has no tangible measure. Probably the pressure of publicity he brought to bear helped mitigate the sentences of some fellow dissidents. The totality of his dissent illuminated for the eyes of the world the dark underside of contemporary Soviet society that official propaganda strove so hard, and often so effectively, to conceal.