Growing up, Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov had no idea of the impact he would have on his country. From developing the RDS-37 (the Soviet Union’s first hydrogen bomb) to winning a Nobel peace prize, he has made a lasting impact on the world.
However, on this day in 1980, Sakharov and his wife were arrested and banished from the life they knew in Moscow.
The First Two-Step Hydrogen Bomb
After graduating from the Moscow State University physics department, Sakharov received his Ph.D. from the Soviet Academy of Science in 1947. During his time here, he discovered a number of scientific breakthroughs that led to the country’s first hydrogen bomb.
Sakharov’s Change of Heart
In the 1950s, Sakharov began to question the moral implications of his work and the way the device would be used politically. By the 1960s, he found his voice and began pushing to end atmospheric tests and nuclear weapons.
Sakharov spent years engaging in various political protests, speaking out against corrupt leaders, and writing essays about the need for democracy. In 1970, he helped start the Committee on Human Rights in the USSR, where he and his co-founders wrote appeals for over 200 prisoners that were wrongly convicted.
Despite the growing tension with his government, in 1977, Sakharov was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. However, his new bride, fellow activist Yelena Bonner, received it for him as Sakharov was not allowed to leave the state. In the speech she recited, Sakharov shared the prize with a number of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience.
Arrested & Banished
On January 22, 1980, Andrei Sakharov was approached by plain-clothed policemen and forced into custody. He and his wife were placed on a flight to Gorky against their will. They were exiled for six years until Mikhail Gorbachev called the pair back in 1986.
During this time, Bonner required heart surgery but was denied travel rights to obtain one. Sakharov responded with a hunger strike that ended with him being forcibly hospitalized and fed. A year later, he tried once more to send his wife overseas and once again was hospitalized, this time for a year until his wife was eventually released to have her surgery.
Sakharov’s Death & Legacy
On December 14, 1989, the day before he was to give an important speech to Congress, Sakharov was found dead on his study floor. Autopsy reports cite a cardiac arrhythmia and an enlarged heart as the cause.
Since his passing, a number of awards have been implemented to honor Andrei Sakharov, including the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, the Andrei Sakharov Prize by the American Physical Society, the Andrei Sakharov Prize for Writer’s Civic Courage, and a Sakharov Prize for journalism.