Andrei Sakharov′s path from bombmaker to human rights icon | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW


The Sakharov Center in Moscow hoped to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of famous nuclear physicist and Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov with a photo exhibition. But the authorities refused permission for the exhibition, citing technical reasons. The center called the move “shameful” and said there was a “sad future” ahead for a country that ignored the legacy of “one of its best sons.”

But Sakharov’s position as a Soviet dissident was unclear early on in his career, according to Karl Schlögel, a German historian specializing in Eastern Europe.

“I think it happened against his will,” Schlögel told DW, adding that Sakharov had become a civil rights activist because of his “decency and loyalty to his principles.”

Massive explosion turns bomb developer into dissident

Born in 1921 in Moscow, Sakharov inherited his passion for physics from his father, also a physicist. His talent shone early on, and he quickly became part of an elite circle of scientists working on a secret project involving nuclear weapons.

Sakharov played a key role in the development of the Soviet hydrogen bomb. However, Tsar Bomba’s trials in the Arctic in 1961 had a major impact on him. It was the most powerful nuclear weapon ever created, about 4,000 times the force of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

The devastating consequences of the test made Sakharov an opponent in the nuclear arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States, and then he became an increasingly vocal critic of the Soviet leadership.

Sakharov and his wife, Yelena Bronner, are both known for their courage

Sakharov’s criticisms of the dissident trials as well as attempts to overturn de-Stalinization reforms have earned him the wrath of the Communist Party. In 1968, his essay Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom became known as the Sakharov Manifesto. From then on, he and his wife, Yelena Bronner, became increasingly involved in the campaign for human rights, especially those of political prisoners. They wrote to Soviet and Western leaders and were interviewed by international media.

Schlögel said Sakharov used his prestige as a scientist to campaign for others, such as Crimean Tatar Mustafa Dzhemilev or the Volga Germans.

Nobel Peace Prize Laureate

Sakharov received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975 but was not allowed to leave the Soviet Union to receive it in person. The Soviet media criticized him more and more, and his colleagues began to defame him. In 1980 he was arrested and stripped of his titles and exiled to Gorky, now Nizhniy Novgorod, after criticizing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

In Gorky he was under constant KGB surveillance. When he went on a hunger strike after his wife was detained, he was hospitalized and force-fed.

But in December 1986, the new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev called him personally to end his forced banishment. He was able to return to Moscow where he became a leading figure in reform. Sakharov helped draft a new constitution after being elected to the new parliament in 1989.

He died of a heart attack on December 14, 1989

European Sakharov Prize

The European Parliament established the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in his honor in 1988. The first prize was awarded jointly to fellow Russian dissident Anatoly Marchenko and South African revolutionary Nelson Mandela and in 2020, it was awarded to the Opposition Coordination Council. of Belarus.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya during her Sakharov Prize acceptance speech in December 2020

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya from Belarus received the 2020 Sakharov Prize

But while Sakharov is celebrated in the West, Russia has struggled with its legacy. At an online memorial event hosted by the Center for Libera Modernity, Russian historian Irina Sherbakova regretted that she no longer had a prominent place in Russian history books.

Unlike the inventor of the AK-47 rifle, Mikhail Kalashnikov, there are no monuments to him anywhere in Russia, despite being Russia’s most famous dissident. However, there is a boulevard in Moscow named after him and it tends to pop up when there are protests.

Alexei Navalny during a walk in a Moscow street

Protest restrictions and arrest of opposition politician Navalny concern Sakharov, some say

However, in the Russia of Vladimir Putin, the KGB officer turned president, protests are increasingly rare and new laws restrict freedom of expression.

If Sakharov were to come to life today, some say he would be dismayed to see Opposition Leader Alexey Navalny is currently in detention and has also been force-fed after resorting to hunger strikes and saw the pressure exerted on his network of supporters.

During the online event, Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Center in Moscow pointed out that today’s Russia is not that different from the Soviet Union.

Karl Schlögel

Schlögel called Sakharov a role model at a time when they were rare

Schlögel said he would agree with this statement to some extent: “Yes, it looks like we have to start over from the beginning.”

However, he also stressed that protests would not have been allowed at all in the Soviet Union.

He said Sakharov refused to be intimidated and was a role model at a time when there were very few of them.

This article has been translated from German.


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