Cold War

Andrei Sakharov Is Remembered For His Human Rights Activism—Oh, And The H-Bomb

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Russian nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov's legacy seems, at first, a bit paradoxical. The man who was basically responsible for the Soviet H-bomb was also celebrated for his anti-nuclear-weapons stance. Talk about internal turmoil! Luckily for the world, Sakharov landed on the right side of history.

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In 1948, a 32-year-old Sakharov was recruited to work on the Soviet nuclear program, becoming the youngest person ever elected to the Soviet Academy of Sciences. During the next 20 years, this talented scientist played a huge role in creating the first Soviet hydrogen bomb. He believed this development was key in maintaining a balance of power in the world—which is a very nice way of describing the nuclear arms race of the Cold War. Despite his fancy euphemisms, reality soon came crashing down on Sakharov's conscience.

Once testing of the deadly hydrogen bombs began, he became decidedly less excited about the scientific advancements to which he was contributing and he started speaking out. By 1957, he was writing letters and articles about the horrible effects of nuclear testing. His change of heart came to a head in 1968 when he wrote the essay "Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom," which made its way into the New York Times. By the end of 1969, more than 18 million copies of the essay were in circulation around the world.

Related: Vasili Arkhipov Prevented Nuclear War During The Cuban Missile Crisis

"The Conscience Of Mankind"

Understandably, the Soviets didn't like Sakharov's essay too much. For his vocal opinions on disarmament and human rights, Soviet officials swiftly fired Sakharov from the weapons program. Had he not known so much about the Soviet's nuclear power, he surely would've been arrested too. But he kept on talking and advocating for peace. In 1975, Sakharov was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his activism. Soviet officials, still not on great terms with Sakharov, didn't permit him to leave the country to accept his award. And for openly criticizing the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Sakharov and his wife, a fellow dissident, were exiled to the island of Gorky.

It wasn't until 1986 that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (another Nobel Peace Prize winner) invited Sakharov to come back home. As reported by the New York Times, "Sakharov's response to Mr. Gorbachev's telephone call permitting him to return to Moscow in 1986 to continue his 'patriotic work' was to appeal for the release of all 'prisoners of conscience.'" In 1989, Sakharov was appointed to a commission responsible for writing the Soviet constitution. Later that year, Sakharov died of a heart attack at age 68. Having advocated for peace literally until the day he died, Sakharov cemented his name in history for something much greater than the power of his atomic bomb.

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