Andrei Sakharov is arguably one of the most important figures of the twentieth century of the human rights movement. His campaign against the stockpiling of nuclear weapons by the USSR and the USA is made even more interesting by the fact that he was one of the top phycists who contributed to the creation of the hydrogen bomb – a bomb even more powerful than its predecessor the atomic bomb – which caused widescale destruction in Hiroshima and Nagaskai in Japan.
Sakharov was born as Andrei Dmitrievitch Sakharov on 21st May 1921 in Moscow. He studied physics at the Moscow State University in 1938, and then later went on to complete his education by taking a PhD under Igor Tamm. Upon finishing his doctorate he was appointed as a junior researcher at the Lebedev Physical Institute of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, and it was from this stage that he was recruited into the nuclear program. An increased drive for the creation of Soviet nuclear weapons had developed after the atomic destruction in Japan in 1945, with resources being invested into the nuclear program. The first success test of the hydrogen bomb came about in 1953, but after this Sakharov became disillusioned with the regime, no longer believing the rhetoric that the nuclear scientists were also a form of soliders and that their work was needed in order to keep the USSR safe. Instead he had doubts about the nature of the testing of nuclear weapons, and the effects of radiation poisoning.
One of the most influential works that Sakharov wrote was ‘Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom’; which was published in 1968. Some of the key reforming ideas which he expressed in the work included measures such as a greater policy of openness and greater freedom of expression for the Soviet people. Interestingly, Sakharov does not call for an end to the communist system, but rather ‘the convergence of the socialist and capitalist systems [as] the only alternative to the death of mankind’. This proposal was initially sent to the Party apparatus, but when it was also published in a Dutch newspaper outside of the Soviet sphere of control, Sakharov was dismissed from his job at the institute. This was in part due to the Prague Spring in 1968, in which ideas for reform had led to resistance against the Soviet government there, and officials wanted to discourage anything which could spark a similiar idea with the USSR.
Sakharov’s successes in the field of human rights, including the fact that he was even to campaign for change until his exile in 1980 demonstrates that there was a change of attitude by the Soviet regime to how resistance and call for greater rights were dealt with. Under Stalin, Sakharov and his associates would have doubtlessly been sent to the gulags after the first initial hint that there were doing anything to undermine the regime, but under Brezhnev concessions were made, partly due to Sakharov’s status as being one of the heroes of the Soviet Union due to his part in the creation of the hydrogen bomb. For example, the establishment of the Human Rights Committee in 1970, of which Sakharov was a founding member and the support that he was able to give to the Helsinki Watch Group which was set up by Yuri Orlov in 1975 after the Helsinki accords, which afforded protection of human right as part of its agenda.
Sakharov, along with other figures such as Solzhenitsyn, protested against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 with his work an ‘Open Letter on Afghanistan’, due to the fact that he felt that it was wrong that the USSR, along with the West, were exploiting developing countries. It was because of this and his previous actions that he was exiled in Gorky in 1980, away from the foreign press, and from where he continued his human rights actions with hunger strikes to bring attention to the suffering of political prisoners. He was released by Gorbachev in 1986, and was later appointed a People’s Deputy of the USSR in the Soviet Congress, from which he called for the repelling of article 6 in the Soviet Constitution, which guaranteed a role of leadership and direction of the Party into society before his death later that year. Contempories such as Sharansky credit him with ‘creating the moral climate that has undermined the Soviet regime’.