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Andrei Sakharov, (1921 - 1989)


Andrei Sakharov, (1921 - 1989) Andrei Sakharov is often called the "father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb," but most people know him as one of the twentieth century's most ardent and unrelenting champions of human rights and freedoms. It was for his work as an outspoken dissident to the Soviet regime that the Nobel Committee awarded him the Peace Prize in 1975. The citation called him "the conscience of mankind" saying that he "has fought not only against the abuse of power and violations of human dignity in all its forms, but has in equal vigor fought for the ideal of a state founded on the principle of justice for all." The Soviet authorities denied him permission to go to Norway to receive his award.

Sakharov was born on May 21, 1921, the son of a physics teacher. He remembers that: "From childhood, I lived in an atmosphere of decency, mutual help and tact, respect for work, and for the mastery of one's profession." In 1938 he enrolled in the physics department of Moscow University where he was quickly recognized to be an outstanding student. He was exempted from military service during World War II and instead worked at a munitions factory.

In his memoirs, Sakharov remembers first hearing of nuclear fission just before the war from his father who had attended a lecture on the subject. But he hadn't given the issue much thought until he heard of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. "On my way to the bakery I stopped to glance at a newspaper and discovered President Truman's announcement... I was so stunned that my legs practically gave way. There could be no doubt that my fate and the fate of many others, perhaps of the entire world, had changed overnight. Something new and awesome had entered our lives, a product of the greatest of the sciences, of the discipline I revered."

Sakharov was himself recruited to work on the Soviet nuclear weapons program in June 1948 by his professor Igor Tamm. Later he wrote, "no one asked whether or not I wanted to take part in such work. I had no real choice in the matter, but the concentration, total absorption and energy that I brought to the task were my own." In a matter of months, the young physics graduate student came up with a totally new idea for an H-bomb design, one that he would call the "Layer Cake."

His work on the nuclear program ultimately led Sakharov down the road toward dissent. Following the test of the first Soviet superbomb in 1955, Sakharov became increasingly disturbed by the consequences of his work: "When you see all of this yourself, something in you changes," he wrote. "When you see the burned birds who are withering on the scorched steppe, when you see how the shock wave blows away buildings like houses of cards, when you feel the reek of splintered bricks, when you sense melted glass, you immediately think of times of war... All of this triggers an irrational yet very strong emotional impact. How not to start thinking of one's responsibility at this point?"

In 1957 his concern about the biological hazards of nuclear testing inspired him to write an article about the effects of low-level radiation. In it he concluded that, the detonation of a one-megaton bomb would create 10,000 human casualties. "Halting the tests," he wrote, "will directly save the lives of hundreds of thousands of people." Over the next ten years he became more and more concerned with civic issues. And in 1968, while still working on the Soviet nuclear weapons program, Sakharov wrote an essay that would thrust him into the international spotlight.

"Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom", attacked the Soviet political system. In it Sakharov argued for a "democratic, pluralistic society free of intolerance and dogmatism, a humanitarian society which would care for the Earth and its future." A copy of the article was smuggled out of the Soviet Union and published in the New York Times. By the end of 1969 more than 18 million copies of the essay were in circulation worldwide.

Following the publication of "Reflections", Sakharov was fired from the weapons program. He became an increasingly vocal advocate of human rights and when he denounced the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan, the Soviet authorities were quick to respond, banishing him to internal exile in Gorkii in January 1980. His long years of isolation finally ended in December 1986, when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev invited Sakharov to return to Moscow.

Sakharov worked tirelessly to promote democracy in the Soviet Union until the very last day of his life. He was elected to the Congress of People's Deputies and appointed a member of the commission responsible for drafting a new Soviet constitution. On the day he died, December 14, 1989, he made a plea before the Soviet Congress for political pluralism and a market economy. Later that evening his wife and fellow dissident Elena Bonner found him dead in his study.
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