Andrei Sakharov was born in Moscow on May 21, 1921. His life-long love of science was ignited by his father, Dmitry Sakharov, a professor of physics.
In 1938, he entered the Physics Department of Moscow University, from which he graduated in 1942. The last year of his studies was spent in Ashkhabad, during the evacuation of Moscow. Sakharov was then assigned to a munitions factory in Ulyanovsk, where he met his future wife, Klavdia. In January 1945, weeks before the birth of their first daughter, Tatiana, Sakharov was able to return to Moscow to commence his PhD studies with Igor Tamm.
Sakharov was awarded his PhD at the end of 1947. In June 1948, Igor Tamm and his research group were recruited to help the group of Yakov Zel’dovich in research on H-bomb. In a few months Sakharov invented the key idea of the first Soviet thermonuclear bomb. Early in 1950, Tamm and Sakharov were ordered to move to the secret nuclear centre Arzamas-16.
In 1953, two months after the successful test of the hydrogen bomb, Sakharov, aged 32, was elected the full member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. Over the next ten years, Sakharov received multiple awards including three golden stars of the Hero of the Socialist Labour.
After the devastating WWII, Sakharov believed in making his country strong, to prevent WWIII by reaching nuclear parity with the USA. In 1958 Sakharov published his research on the danger of radioactive fallout from testing of nukes, and advocated an international ban on atmospheric nuclear tests, which resulted in the Moscow Treaty of 1963.
Sakharov’s famous memorandum of 1968, “Reflections on progress, peaceful coexistence and intellectual freedom”, was initiated by his internal secret memo of 1967 for the Politburo regarding the new kind of strategic weapon – anti-ballistic missiles. He argued that the new strategic weapon combined with strategic distrust between the USSR and the USA would make the WWIII much more probable. As it was ignored by the Soviet leaders, Sakharov felt compelled to share his thoughts with the open world both in his homeland and abroad, and in 1968 he released the memorandum to Russian “samizdat” from where it leaked to the West and was published in the New York Times and scores of other newspapers. Sakharov’s main point was that “human inviolable rights provide the only safe foundation for genuine and enduring international cooperation”, in the words of the Nobel committee in 1975.
“Sakharov’s fearless personal commitment in upholding the fundamental principles for peace between men” was recognised by the 1975 Nobel Peace Prize. Expressing his gratitude in a letter read in Oslo on his behalf, Sakharov wrote that the honour “is shared by all prisoners of conscience in the Soviet Union and in other Eastern European countries as well as by all those who fight for their liberation”. His protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 resulted in his exile to the city of Gorki, where he spent nearly seven years, going on several hunger strikes.
Despite the near-complete isolation during his exile and continuous subterfuge, Sakharov found time and energy to focus on his scientific work, publishing fundamental research bursting with novel scientific ideas.
Released by the President Gorbachev in December 1986, Sakharov returned to Moscow and was elected to the Soviet Parliament, becoming the driving force for democratic reforms.
Andrei Sakharov died of a heart attack on 14 December 1989, aged 68.