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Andrei Sakharov

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One of the three founding members of the Moscow Human Rights Committee, 1970 (Dr. Sakharov and Andrei Tverdokhlebov). Were given exit permits to give lectures in the United States but then not allowed back to Russia.

He was an unlikely activist. Born in Moscow in 1921, Sakharov was groomed less for political protest than for scholarly solitude. He taught himself to read at four, and his father often demonstrated physics experiments — “miracles I could understand” — to him as a child. At Moscow University in the 1940s, Sakharov was tabbed as one of the U.S.S.R.’s brightest young minds. After earning his doctorate, he was sent to a top-secret installation to spearhead the development of the hydrogen bomb. By 1953 the Soviets had detonated one. It was “the most terrible weapon in human history,” Sakharov later wrote. Yet he felt that by building the H-bomb, “I was working for peace, that my work would help foster a balance of power.”

His growing awareness of the deadly effects of nuclear fallout soon turned him against proliferation. His efforts to persuade Khrushchev to halt tests in the late ’50s and early ’60s resulted in the 1963 U.S.-Soviet treaty banning nuclear explosions in space, in the atmosphere and underwater. Khrushchev later called Sakharov “a crystal of morality” — but still one that could not be tolerated within the regime. The Kremlin took away his security privileges and ended his career as a nuclear physicist. But, Sakharov later said, “the atomic issue was a natural path into political issues.” He campaigned for disarmament and turned his attention to the Soviet system, denouncing its stagnancy and intolerance of dissent. So uncompromising was his critique of the regime that it estranged him from his children.

Outside the Soviet Union, even in China, where his writings were predictably banned by the government, Sakharov’s name and struggle were familiar to intellectuals and dissidents forging their own fights against authority. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975, and in 1980 his arrest and exile to the remote city of Gorky (now called Nizhni Novgorod) made him a martyr. His refusal to be silenced even in banishment added to his legend. And then came the rousing finale: his release and hero’s return to Moscow in 1986; his relentless prodding of Mikhail Gorbachev to pursue democratization; and his election to the Congress of People’s Deputies, the Soviet Union’s first democratically chosen body. At the time of his death, a tidal wave of democracy that he had helped create was about to engulf the communist world.

He regarded certain human values — such as liberty and the respect for individual dignity — as inviolable and universal.

What is Sakharov’s legacy today? With the cold war ended and the Soviet threat gone, his exhortations against totalitarianism might seem anachronistic. Yet in China, where political freedom continues to be suppressed and intellectuals face harassment and arrest, his voice is still one of encouragement. For scientists his career remains a model of the moral responsibility that must accompany innovation. And Sakharov might remind the West too that freedom is fragile, that if democratic societies are not protective of their liberties, even they may lose it. On the night of his death, after returning from a tempestuous meeting of the Congress of People’s Deputies, Sakharov told his wife Yelena Bonner, “Tomorrow there will be a battle!” That battle — at its core, the battle of individuals striving to shape their own destinies — must continue to be fought in the century to come.

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July 2024