The Defender of Human Dignity
Dr. Sakharov argued for decades that the East and West could collaborate on a better system combining economic justice with the liberties of the democracy.
Just 4.5 hours by plane to Kyiv, and 5 hours to Mumbai lies a secret test-site where the Soviet Union researchers conducted the powerful nuclear explosions exposing the civilian population to the radiation. The move was deliberate. The doctors at the special clinic, known as a dispensary, under the control of Moscow, monitored the development of the radiation sickness in at least 100,000 casualties, the adults and children.
In January 1965 a young Russian nuclear physicist, Andrei Sakharov, witnessed a powerful hydrogen bomb test which he designed. Its force was even larger than expected. Some windows were blown a hundred miles away, and the shock waves from the blast killed two people including a two-year-old girl, who was in an area the scientist thought was outside the danger zone. After the experiment, Mr Sakharov concluded that it was confirmation of his fears that the weapon he was designing could “slip out of control and lead to unimaginable disasters”.
That night at the banquet, in the presence of the top Soviet regime officials, he said, before the first toast, “May all of our devices explode as successfully as of today’s, but always over the test sites and never over the cities.” The Deputy Defence Minister rebuked him saying it was up to the rulers of the Soviet Union how the H-bomb was used.
Mr Sakharov had become increasingly concerned about the harmful effects of the tests on the human organism. Three years later his article ― Radioactive Carbon from Nuclear Explosions and Nonthreshold Biological Effects appeared in the Soviet journal Atomic Energy. Sakharov argued, however, that even the cleanest thermonuclear atmospheric test would cause for every one-megaton exploded 6,600 deaths worldwide over 8,000 years. As for all the atmospheric nuclear tests that had been conducted by 1957, about fifty megatons in total, he concluded they had produced or would eventually do so 500,000 casualties.
Radioactivity’s Damage to the Humans and Climate
It was the first article that discussed the impact of the heightened radiation levels due to the tests in the atmosphere and stratosphere on the global climate. Mr Sakharov argued that the heat produced by the explosion would cause unrepairable damage to the structure of the protective layers against the solar radiation. Hence, the temperature on the Earth would increase in the next century disrupting known climatic zones causing more uncontrollable atmospheric events including tornadoes, tsunamis, and extreme heat. He also mentioned that the climatologist together with physicist should examine the problem of the rise of Ocean levels, as a consequence of such thermonuclear explosions.
Mr Sakharov resigned from his position but only after the Soviet Union acquired the world most powerful nuclear weapon – its flash could have been seen as far as 600 miles from the centre of the explosion. He was convinced that his scientific work helped to bring parity necessary for mutual deterrence in the arms race of the Soviet Union and the United States. But when in the middle of the 1960s Soviet rulers decided to test two variants of these powerful warheads he got upset because he realised that the eventual casualties from the fallout from each device would be in the six-figure range.
The 18,000 square km test-site where these most powerful warheads were dropped was located just 114 km from the lively city, Semipalatinsk in the Kazakhstan republic. It consisted of 186 separate tunnels in natural mountain formations and was the largest underground site in the world. The political prisoners from GULAGs built high-rising buildings, bridges and other infrastructure used to measure the impact of the explosions. Between 1949 and 1989 this place saw 456 nuclear tests, including 340 underground and 116 atmospheric explosions with mushroom clouds. These were roughly the equivalent of 2500 Hiroshima atomic bombs.
An 82-year-old Eliugazy Nurgaliev was among 43 men whom Soviets forced to stay on the open-field during the tests near his village of Qaynar. Soviet officers arranged a tent with food and music in the middle of the steppe. At the same time, miles away, the device was detonated. Mr Nurgaliev described the moment of the explosion as “the sky turned red and a big red storm”. He said, “We lost our minds.” After the test, an officer with a mask in protective uniform approached them, admitting that “the storm” may affect them in 10-15 years. Several forced participants died “not long after”. Others got ill with the radiation sickness. All of his children were still-born, and the majority of his family died in consequence of the heightened radiation.
“Those Who Think Differently”
In 1964, nine years after witnessing the first powerful test, was a turning point for Mr Sakharov. He resigned from the post of the leading state nuclear scientist in the protest against the Soviet politics of the nuclear arms race.
In the Soviet system, his resignation meant not only the loss of the privileged salary, access to the special shops, foreign passport, and other forms of a luxurious apartment but the position within the society. He was no longer a member of the untouchable group known as the Nomenklatura, privileged families who ruled with the millions of citizens of the Soviet Union.
In his Memoirs he reflected, “It was the ultimate defeat for me. A terrible crime was about to be committed, and I could do nothing to prevent it. I was overcome by my impotence, unbearable bitterness, shame, and humiliation. I put my face down on my desk and wept... I decided that I would devote myself to ending biologically harmful tests.”
“The meaning of life is life itself,” he continued, “that daily routine which demands its own form of unobtrusive heroism.”
From this moment on, Sakharovʼs life moved inexorably toward the recognition of the central importance of openness, justice, and human rights in shaping a normal life.
In 1968, Sakharov came to international and national prominence with the publication of his first manifesto: Thoughts On Progress, Peaceful Coexistence, And Intellectual Freedom.
"I read it while a university student in physics," former Soviet dissident Vyacheslav Bakhmin said. "For me, this feat of a man who had everything from the government, who was three times a Hero of Socialist Labor.... For such a person, who had everything, to undertake such a feat—I can't think of anyone else like that in the Soviet Union. A person on such a level decided that for him, the truth was more important than all his personal benefits."
When Sakharov's book was published abroad, the state responded by removing him from all secret projects.
From then on, he became primarily an activist, pushing the Soviet government tirelessly for freedom of speech, for the release of political prisoners, for open trials, and for the rights of ethnic minorities. He donated nearly all his substantial savings from his state prizes to charity, an act he later said he regretted because he could have used the money to help the families of political prisoners and other dissidents.
When the human-rights movement, co-established by him, first gained momentum, the term Russians used was pravozashchitniki, defenders of the law, or inakomyslyashchie, which literally means “those who think differently.” The West began referring to them as “dissidents” and, in the Russian pronunciation, dissident came into general Russian usage.
Against Illegality, and the Cynical Persecution of Persons
During this period, Sakharov began focusing on the rights of individuals that had been destroyed by the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and, particularly, by Stalin's reign of terror beginning in the 1930s.
"The dissident movement represented the opposite of everything that totalitarianism stood for -- primarily what [political philosopher] Hannah Arendt called 'the destruction of the moral person' and the destruction of the legal person," said Vladimir Tismaneanu, professor of comparative politics at the University of Maryland and former chairman of the Presidential Commission for the Analysis of the Communist Dictatorship in Romania.
For centuries of Russian history, the interests of the state always trumped the rights of the individual – and Sakharov dared to say this was both immoral and a major obstacle to the successful development of the country.
"In the course of 56 years our country has undergone great shocks, sufferings, and humiliations, the physical annihilation of millions of the best people (both morally and intellectually), decades of official hypocrisy and demagoguery," Sakharov wrote in 1975. "We are still living in the spiritual atmosphere created by that era."
In 1970, Sakharov and two other dissidents founded the Committee on Human Rights, which monitored and reported on human rights issues throughout the country.
"Thus I was brought into contact with what is perhaps one of the most shameful aspects of present-day Soviet reality: illegality, and the cynical persecution of persons coming out in defence of basic human rights," Sakharov wrote.
Sakharov won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975 for his steadfast opposition to "the abuse of state power and all forms of violation of human dignity," as well as his dedication to "the idea of government based on the rule of law," according to the Nobel Committee's citation. One year later, in a closed meeting of KGB officers, KGB head Yury Andropov called Sakharov "domestic enemy No. 1."
The human rights activities of Mr. Sakharov and his wife often involved great hardships. To cite just one example, taken from Mr Sakharov‘s Memoirs and an Andropov KGB report, there was their 1976 trip to visit a fellow dissident and physicist who had been exiled to the Siberian area of Yakutia. The trip was made especially difficult by KGB operatives. Elena suggested it when she saw a photo of the exile and found something disturbing about his expression. On the way to the Moscow airport they suffered whiplash when their taxi was hit by another car. Once in Yakutia, they had to wait overnight, sleeping on terminal benches, in a local airport before they could board a connecting flight to a city within 12 miles of their final destination. Upon this second landing, however, they discovered that the bus ride to take them those final dozen miles had been cancelled and no other transportation was available. So they walked, with Andrei carrying a bag of presents over his shoulder, and arrived in the early morning hours. The KGB reported on their conversations with the exile and that while walking around a lake with him, ―Sakharov hurt his leg and returned to Moscow on crutches. At their first return-trip airport, heart pain forced him to lie down for a while on a bench. At the second airport, they could not get a direct flight to Moscow but had to first fly south to Irkutsk. Once there, they may have had a long wait if Elena ―had not made a scene‖ in order to get them on board a flight to Leningrad, where they spent the night before returning to Moscow and an examination of his leg.
In 1980, after Sakharov spoke out against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the regime had enough. It rescinded all of his Soviet honours and exiled him to the closed city of Gorky, now Nizhny Novgorod. Watched by the KGB around the clock, he had almost no direct contact with anyone except his wife.
Courage to Stand For Human Rights Until the End
A new Soviet ruler Mikhail Gorbachev released Mr. Sakharov.
He himself told that story of that extraordinary phone call from Mikhail Gorbachev on December 16, 1986. One has to understand that Sakharov has been in exile in Gorky for almost seven years, without a telephone and largely isolated from any contacts, and suddenly a pair of technicians come in at night and hook up a phone and tell him to expect a call in the morning.
“Hello, this is Gorbachev speaking.”
“Hello, Iʼm listening.”
Gorbachev then tells Sakharov that his trials are over, that he and Lyusia —the name he and most everyone used for his wife—can come home to Moscow.
So what does Sakharov do? He starts talking to Gorbachev about the recent death of the dissident Anatoly Marchenko in prison, he starts demanding that Gorbachev release all prisoners of conscience.
It really is a remarkable exchange, and a remarkable image of Sakharov, instinctively putting the interests of others ahead of his own at a moment of supreme triumph.
At the first semi-democratic elections in the Soviet Union, Mr Sakharov gets elected to entirely new legislative body called the Congress of People's Deputies. In result of elections the anticommunists, human rights defenders as himself were brought to power.
During his first speech Mr. Sakharov challenged the authority of the Soviet Communist Party, appealed publicly for release of political prisoners, an end to the persecution of the opposition and called for the withdrawal of the Soviet army from Afghanistan.
The KGB’s enemy no 1 was mocked and vilified by the significant amount of the deputies. Mr. Gorbachev pretended not to notice the denigrating reaction of the Congress.
Despite his rapidly deteriorating health, Mr. Sakharov tried to lay a solid foundation under the new system of the state, the Soviet Union that appeared to be under the transformation. He fought for the diffusion of power to the local authorities, and smaller legal democratic bodies.
He demanded the repeal of Article 6 of the Soviet Constitution, which gave the Communist Party a monopoly on political power. Dr Sakharov wrote a project of a new constitution, in which the president would have smaller prerogatives than Mr Gorbachev intended.
''The slogan, 'Don't hamper Gorbachev's efforts' seems to be very popular with intellectuals and our friends abroad,'' he said in an interview last year. ''But I think it is a dangerous slogan, dangerous for Gorbachev as well,'' he said, warning against the concentration of power the Soviet leader felt he needed to bring about change.
''Today it will be Gorbachev,'' he said. ''Tomorrow, it may be somebody else, and there are no guarantees - we must be frank about this - no guarantees.''
The night before the deciding debate, on December 14, 1989, his wife found him dead in his office. The thousands of Russians participated in his funeral while Mr Gorbachev and other Communist Party top officials went to the theatre.
Dr. Sakharov argued for decades that the East and West could collaborate on a better system combining economic justice idealised by Socialism with the liberties of real democracy.