Andrei Sakharov

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Andrei Sakharov : biography

May 21, 1921 – December 14, 1989

In no way did Sakharov consider himself a prophet or the like: "I am no volunteer priest of the idea, but simply a man with an unusual fate. I am against all kinds of self-immolation (for myself and for others, including the people closest to me)." In a letter written from his exile, he cheered up a fellow physicist and human rights activist with the words: "Fortunately, the future is unpredictable and also – because of quantum effects – uncertain." For Sakharov the indeterminacy of the future supported his belief that he could, and should, take personal responsibility for it.

Internal exile

Sakharov was arrested on January 22, 1980, following his public protests against the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979, and was sent to internal exile in the city of Gorky, now Nizhny Novgorod, a city that was off-limits to foreigners.

Between 1980 and 1986, Sakharov was kept under tight Soviet police surveillance. In his memoirs he mentions that their apartment in Gorky was repeatedly subjected to searches and heists. Sakharov was named the 1980 Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association.

In May 1984, Sakharov’s wife, Yelena Bonner, was detained and Sakharov began a hunger strike, demanding permission for his wife to travel to the United States for heart surgery. He was forcibly hospitalized and force-fed. He was held in isolation for four months. In August 1984 Yelena Bonner was sentenced by a court to five years of exile in Gorky.

In April 1985, Sakharov started a new hunger strike for his wife to travel abroad for medical treatment. He again was taken to a hospital and force-fed. He remained in the hospital until October 1985 when his wife finally was allowed to travel to the United States. She had heart surgery in the United States and returned to Gorky in June 1986.

Most of Sakharov’s friends in the human rights movement failed to appreciate the motivation for his hunger strikes and blamed Bonner for his sufferings. Sakharov, meanwhile, claimed his human right to make decisions that he felt to be morally necessary for him personally.

In December 1985, the European Parliament established the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, to be given annually for outstanding contributions to human rights.

On December 19, 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev, who had initiated the policies of perestroika and glasnost, called Sakharov to tell him that he and his wife may return to Moscow.

Political leader

In 1988, Sakharov was given the International Humanist Award by the International Humanist and Ethical Union. He helped to initiate the first independent legal political organizations and became prominent in the Soviet Union’s growing political opposition. In March 1989, Sakharov was elected to the new parliament, the All-Union Congress of People’s Deputies and co-led the democratic opposition, the Inter-Regional Deputies Group.

Death

Soon after 21:00 on December 14, 1989, Sakharov went to his study to take a nap before preparing an important speech he was to deliver the next day in the Congress. His wife went to wake him at 23:00 as he had requested but she found Sakharov dead on the floor. He died of a heart attack at the age of 68. He was interred in the Vostryakovskoye Cemetery in Moscow.

Influence

The Sakharov Prize, established in 1988 and awarded annually by the European Parliament for people and organizations dedicated to human rights and freedoms, was named in his honor.

An Andrei Sakharov prize is also to be awarded by the American Physical Society every second year from 2006, "to recognize outstanding leadership and/or achievements of scientists in upholding human rights".

The Andrei Sakharov Prize For Writer’s Civic Courage was established in October 1990., Literaturnaya Gazeta, October 31, 1990

Quotations

  • "In this pamphlet, advanced for discussion by its readers, the author has set himself the goal to present, with the greatest conviction and frankness, two theses that are supported by many people in the world. These are:
    1. The division of mankind threatens it with destruction… Only universal cooperation under conditions of intellectual freedom and the lofty moral ideals of socialism and labor, accompanied by the elimination of dogmatism and pressure of the concealed interests of ruling classes, will preserve civilization…
    2. The second basic thesis is that intellectual freedom is essential to human society – freedom to obtain and distribute information, freedom for open-minded and unfearing debate and freedom from pressure by officialdom and prejudices. Such a trinity of freedom of thought is the only guarantee against an infection of people by mass myths, which, in the hands of treacherous hypocrites and demagogues, can be transformed into bloody dictatorship. Freedom of thought is the only guarantee of the feasibility of a scientific democratic approach to politics, economics and culture." (Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom, in The New York Times, July 22, 1968)
  • "I foresee a universal information system (UIS), which will give everyone access at any given moment to the contents of any book that has ever been published or any magazine or any fact. The UIS will have individual miniature-computer terminals, central control points for the flood of information, and communication channels incorporating thousands of artificial communications from satellites, cables, and laser lines. Even the partial realization of the UIS will profoundly affect every person, his leisure activities, and his intellectual and artistic development. …But the true historic role of the UIS will be to break down the barriers to the exchange of information among countries and people." (Saturday Review/World, August 24, 1974).
  • "Thousands of years ago, tribes of human beings suffered great privations in the struggle to survive. In this struggle it was important not only to be able to handle a club, but also to possess the ability to think reasonably, to take care of the knowledge and experience garnered by the tribe, and to develop the links that would provide cooperation with other tribes. Today the entire human race is faced with a similar test. In infinite space many civilizations are bound to exist, among them civilizations that are also wiser and more "successful" than ours. I support the cosmological hypothesis which states that the development of the universe is repeated in its basic features an infinite number of times. In accordance with this, other civilizations, including more "successful" ones, should exist an infinite number of times on the "preceding" and the "following" pages of the Book of the Universe. Yet this should not minimize our sacred endeavors in this world of ours, where, like faint glimmers of light in the dark, we have emerged for a moment from the nothingness of dark unconsciousness of material existence. We must make good the demands of reason and create a life worthy of ourselves and of the goals we only dimly perceive." (Last paragraph of Sakharov’s Nobel Lecture, December 11, 1975)