20 years under Putin: a timeline

December 14 marked the anniversary of death of Andrei Sakharov, a world-known human rights activist, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and a man who became a symbol of his era. Over the years, his life remained an example of courage, nobility, and humanity for many people. IMR Advisor Boris Bruk highlights some of the details of Sakharov’s extraordinary life and discusses his intellectual and moral heritage.



Academician Andrei Sakharov passed away on December 14th 1989 at the age of 68. His name is associated with an entire era in the history of Soviet science and the human rights movement. He was an outstanding scientist, human rights advocate, champion of peace, protector of freedom, and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate—a “world-scale phenomenon” who, in many important respects, changed the established reality and the mindset of millions.



It all started with physics—an interest (that later became an important part of his life) instilled by Andrei’s father, a professor of physics and author of textbooks and popular scientific works. Following his graduation from the physics department of Moscow State University, Sakharov started his graduate work at the Lebedev Physics Institute of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. After defending his thesis in 1948, he was invited to become part of a research group working on development of a thermonuclear bomb. As Sakharov writes in his autobiography, “I spent the next twenty years continuously working in conditions of extraordinary tension and secrecy…” At the age of thirty-two, he earned a doctoral degree in physics and mathematics and, in a few months, became the youngest academician in the Soviet Academy of Sciences. For exceptional achievements, he was also awarded his first (out of three he would receive in his life) Hero of Socialist Labor star.

According to Sergei Kovalev, a Soviet dissident and human rights activist, Sakharov’s “intellectual activity, whether it concerned science or politics or human rights, completely corresponded to the qualities that should define a real scientist. These qualities can be summarized in three words: fearless, selfless, and passionless.” That was not all, however; importantly, Sakharov “could feel another man’s pain.” His humanist vision and high moral standards, which provided guidance to the scholar, become apparent in the 1950s. In 1958, he wrote an article titled “The Radioactive Danger of Nuclear Tests”, in which he rejects the arguments offered by Edward Teller, the “father of the American hydrogen bomb,” that seek to demonstrate that the threat of radioactive fallout from testing of the so-called “clean” bomb was insignificant. After making certain calculations, Sakharov concludes that every megaton of “clean” thermonuclear explosion causes the deaths of 6,600 people over a period of 8,000 years. In terms of numbers, this might seem insignificant, but Sakarov considers the issue from a different perspective. He writes:

The remote consequences of radioactive carbon do not mitigate the moral responsibility to future victims. Only an extreme lack of imagination can let one ignore suffering that occurs out of sight. The conscience of the modern scientist must not make distinctions between the suffering of his contemporaries and the suffering of generations yet unborn.

With total passion, Sakharov protests against nuclear testing in the atmosphere. For him this is a “crime against humanity, no different from secretly pouring disease-producing microbes into a city’s water supply.” Sakharov refers to the year 1962 as “one of the most difficult” in his life; that was the year for which the testing of two bombs was planned. Realizing the negative ramifications of the testing, Sakharov attempted to minimize them, to limit approval for testing to only one bomb, and gave a call to a minister and to Khruschev; but all his efforts were in vain:

It was the ultimate defeat for me. A terrible crime was 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…


Human Rights Activist

In spring 1968, Sakharov published an essay titled “Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom”, in which, among other things, he denounces Stalin’s anti-people’s regime and discusses challenges of the contemporary era. He strongly believed that the alienation of people might lead to a global catastrophe. He called for integrative processes; these processes would help to bring about socialism and capitalism, and would be accompanied by democratization, demilitarization, and social and scientific progress. In the same article, Sakharov refers to freedom as the highest social value and emphasizes the importance of universally fulfilling the “Declaration of Human Rights.”

In the 1960s, Sakharov became one of the leaders of the human rights movement; the scope of his public involvement was expanding each year. In 1970, he addressed the Soviet leadership with statements that emphasized the importance of democratization, and spoke out in support of human rights advocates Peter Grigorenko and Zhores Medvedev. In the same year, together with physicists Valery Chalidze and Andrei Tverdokhlebov, Sakharov established the Committee for Human Rights that was to embody the principles of the Declaration of Human Rights.

Throughout his life, the sense of freedom allowed Sakharov not only to find advanced solutions in science, but also to fight for human rights at a time when many preferred to keep a low profile. It was often the case that he was alone in his fight for human rights, honesty, and fairness.

In early July 1973, Sakharov gave an interview to a Swedish Radio and Television correspondent. In the interview, he criticized the Soviet Union for its significant lack of freedom and the bureaucratization of its governance, shared his thoughts about the existing system, and drew parallels between socialism and capitalism:

[Our socialism] is simply capitalism developed to its extremes, the sort of capitalism you have in the United States… but with extreme monopolization. We ought not to be surprised, then, that we have the same problems, qualitatively speaking, the same criminality, the same alienation of the individual, as in the capitalist world. With the difference that our society is an extreme in stance, as it were, extremely unfree, extremely constrained ideologically… [also] probably the most pretentious society; it's not the best society but it claims to be far better than all the others.

A month later, Sakharov was called to meet with Deputy Attorney General Malyarov, who told Sakharov that his activities and public statements had taken on a “harmful and frankly anti-soviet character.” Malyarov warned him to consider the meeting with all seriousness and to draw his own conclusions. At the same time, Pravda published “The Letter of Members of the USSR Academy of Sciences” condemning Sakharov for his statements discrediting the regime and the domestic and foreign policies of the Soviet Union. A number of other letters—from Soviet medical scientists, composers and musicians, farm machinery operators, metallurgists, and grain growers—harshly criticizing Sakharov for his unacceptable behavior, would follow.

Despite the seemingly unstoppable wave of accusations, Sakharov continued on his course. He sent a letter of support for the Jackson-Vanik Amendment to the U.S. Congress, tried to attract attention from the international community to the fate of political prisoners by starting a hunger strike, published in the West a book entitled My Country and the World, and reviewed hundreds of letters from citizens requesting his help. In 1975, Sakharov was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In his Nobel Lecture “Peace, Progress, Human Rights”, which his wife, Elena Georgievna Bonner, delivered on his behalf (the academician was not allowed to leave the country), Sakharov again emphasized the universal importance of civic liberties and the “decisive significance of civic and political rights in moulding the destiny of mankind.”

With the beginning of Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, Sakharov spoke out in protest. In January 1980, he gave an interview to the New York Times, spoke with correspondents from other publications, and participated in an interview with ABC. He was one of a few individuals at that time who had the courage to openly declare his opposition to the decision of the Soviet leadership. The reaction of the authorizes was immediate: that same month, Sakharov was sent into internal exile—with no court order issued or time period defined—to Gorky, a city closed to foreigners. He was also deprived of all state decorations and awards. Later Sakharov would say, “I spoke out against sending Soviet soldiers to Afghanistan, and for this I was exiled to Gorky. I am proud of this exile in Gorky. I wear it like a medal.”


Andrei Sakharov with his wife, a well-known human rights activist Elena Bonner.


While in exile, Sakharov continued his human rights work and wrote articles, letters, and political statements that Bonner would bring to Moscow. In June 1983, Sakharov wrote an open letter to Dr. Sydney Drell titled “The Danger of Thermonuclear War,” which was published in Foreign Affairs magazine. In it, Sakharov writes about the importance of solving world problems by peaceful means. He links this issue with questions of human rights and the openness of society. Among other things, Sakharov states that “The most acutely negative manifestation of Soviet policies was the invasion of Afghanistan.” Shortly after, the Soviet newspaper Izvestia featured an article titled “When Honor and Conscience Are Lost” written by four academicians outraged by Sakharov’s piece.

Sakharov’s exile lasted for six years and eleven months; after Mikhail Gorbachev called the academician, he was allowed to come back to Moscow. Sakharov’s reaction to Gorbachev’s call is quite illustrative: “Hello, Mikhail Sergeevich, I am asking [you] to release all prisoners of conscience…” As always, he felt himself responsible for the destinies of others, and his fight continued despite his personal travails.

In March 1989, Sakharov was elected to the Soviet Congress of People’s Deputies from the Academy of Sciences. Addressing the Congress of People’s Deputies, he continued to raise the most acute questions and openly express his opinions. He warned about the danger of concentrating power in the hands of one leader (the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet), spoke about the Russian leadership’s crisis of confidence, emphasized the importance of democratizing public administration, and called for a solution to the national question, including returning the people who had been coercively removed from territories where they had resided. Within the congress, many were hostile to Sakharov and booed and talked over him as he spoke. His speech and the freedom of his thinking did not fit within the confines of the established protocol.

Throughout his life, this freedom allowed Sakharov not only to find advanced solutions in science, but also to fight for human rights at a time when many preferred to keep a low profile. Recalling his conversations with Sakharov, Vladimir Ritus noted that he once asked the academician why he was championing a cause that seemed absolutely hopeless. Sakharov said, “If not me, then who?” It was often the case that he was alone in his fight for human rights, honesty, and fairness. Perhaps this is why, when Sakharov passed away, many people, as they approached his coffin, asked for his forgiveness…