As the battle for nuclear superiority raged between the US and the Soviet Union, it was the famed Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov who pulled the USSR onto a level playing field. He led the Third Idea program that designed and developed the thermonuclear weapons to rival the US advancements of the era. As a result he was hailed by the soviet people as a hero and awarded many titles, including Hero of Socialist Labor. However, as the devastating power of the weapons Sakharov created became evident to him, he openly called for the project to cease testing and stop creating new, more destructive bombs. His change of heart was not viewed favorably by those in power and Sakharov’s fall from glory began.
Following his shift in opinion over nuclear weapons, Sakharov continued to protest and contest Soviet policies which placed a large target on his back. The USSR could not afford any internal dissent with all of the external pressure they felt so when Sakharov openly criticized the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan he was quickly picked up by the police, stripped of his rank and title, and shipped off to Gorky in the Volga. His so called crimes are listed in an article from Pravda which says Sakharov ”continues to carry out actions aimed at undermining the Soviet system and in fact opposing the Soviet Union’s policy of peace and struggle for arms limitation and the easing of international tension, a policy that enjoys the support of Soviet scientists and of all the Soviet people.” These are fairly vague accusations and they fail to cite any specific actions taken by Sakharov, yet he was still heavily punished. This showed the extreme power that the Supreme Soviet held. They simply named a Soviet hero a dissident and then they were able to exile him and strip him of his freedom without any significant unrest. In fact this article claims that most Soviet people sided with the government.
Interestingly enough, another article from Seventeen Moments in Soviet History entitled “A Just Decision” does side with the Soviet government. The article paints Sakharov as a “renegade and apostate” and claims that he truly intended to undermine the Soviet Union and sought out other saboteurs to aide him in this cause. It shows how much control and support the communist movement had within the Soviet Union as even someone with such prominence as Sakharov was turned on without hesitation as soon as he expressed dissent.
It is very interesting to see how the status of great scientists, such as Sakharov, changed throughout the Soviet era in Russia. As the race to catch up and surpass the West unfolded, scientists were given a very prominent role as their discoveries and breakthroughs were the centerpiece of Soviet advancement. However, there is was great shift during Stalin’s time in power in which scientists began to lose their prominence and were subjugated to great scrutiny. The USSR sought to separate themselves from the West and in doing so chose to follow unsound scientific theories that pulled the country backward. Established researchers voiced their disapproval of the Soviet’s scientist puppets, namely Lysenko, which led to backlash from political leaders and a general distrust of scientific frontrunners. From there, any sort of negativity towards the decisions and actions of the USSR by those in the field were quickly and harshly repressed. All perpetrators were labeled as dissidents who were either jailed or exiled. Scientists went from a pedestal to prison in just a matter of years.
Current Digest of the Russian Press, The (formerly The Current Digest of the Post-Soviet Press), No. 14, Vol.32, May 07, 1980, page(s): 19-19http://dlib.eastview.com.ezproxy.lib.vt.edu:8080/searchresults/article.jsp?art=1&id=13626202
Wikipedia, “Andrei Sakharov.” Last modified November 27, 2013. Accessed November 30, 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrei_Sakharov.
von Geldern, John . Seventeen Moments in Soviet History, “Sakharov Exiled.” Last modified 2013. Accessed November 30, 2013. http://www.soviethistory.org/index.php?page=subject&SubjectID=1980sakharov&Year=1980&navi=byYear.
K. Batmanov, A Just Decision. January 24, 1980 Original Source: Izvestiia, 24 January 1980.
Current Digest of the Soviet Press. Vol. XXXII, No. 3 (1980)
I thought Sakharov’s role in Cold War weaponry was very interesting and appreciated your discussion of his “fall from grace.” Like those who worked on the Manhattan Project, the deadly nature of atomic/deadly weapons is often accompanied by guilt for innocent deaths. I found it interesting the hero turned into the villain, exiled when his actions threatened the state. Your final statement really captured the nature of your post: “Scientists went from a pedestal to prison in just a matter of years.”
It’s kind of frightening to see how ruthless the Soviets were. I mean, this guy is one of the main reasons that the USSR could keep up in the Arms Race, and they punished him for expected dissidence, not even actually committing any deeds. Granted, if he was going to try to undermine the nation it’s more understandable, but do we know he actually intended to oppose the nation, not in words, but acts?
His change of mind is not unusual for the men who worked on such programs. However, the outcome of his dissension is very different. This was a great and very informative post!
I agree – Sakharov’s fall from grace makes for dramatic reading and highlights the precarious position of scientists and intellectuals who dared to contradict the regime. Taking this story up through the eighties, you might want to look into Sakharov’s rehabilitation and role in the reform movement that accompanied the Soviet collapse.