The ancient priestly family of the Sakharovs came from the Nizhegorodskaya gubernia as the Tsarist-era administrative territories were known. Until the end of the 19th century, its members served as clergymen in the cathedrals of Arzamas and Nizhny Novgorod. Dr. Andrei Sakharov’s grandfather, Ivan Nikolayevich Sakharov (1860–1918), the son of a priest, brought fame to the line after obtaining a secular education and becoming a solicitor (lawyer) and public figure. He was a person of liberal beliefs, a member of the Cadet Party, as the Constitutional Democratic Party was known. He contributed a great deal to the development of public literacy, helped political exiles and their families, and in 1906, together with Mikhail Gernet and Onisim Goldovsky, served as the editor and compiler of an anthology of advocacy articles, Against the Death Penalty – one of the most remarkable humanist manifestos of the time of the First Russian Revolution.
Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov was born on May 21, 1921, in Moscow, barely four years after the Bolshevist Revolution, which had turned into bloody terror and civil war for the country. At the head of the Soviet state stood its leader – Vladimir Lenin. Two months before the birth of Andrei Sakharov, the brutal policy of war communism was replaced by the transition to NEP – the “New Economic Policy,” which permitted certain elements of a free market, but the Civil War continued in Siberia and the Far East, famine was growing in many regions of the country, and even in the capital, people were still poor and half-starved.
Andrei’s parents were Dmitry Ivanovich Sakharov (1889–1961), a talented teacher, and later author of textbooks and workbooks of physics problems, which continued to be published even in our day, and Yekaterina Alexeyevna, née Sofiano (1893-1963), who had come from a Grecian noble family which had taken Russian citizenship in the 18th century. They were highly educated people and appreciated classical music and literature in particular.
Andrei was the eldest son in the family. His brother, Georgy (1925–2002), whose family called him “Yura,” was born four years later.
“My childhood passed in a large, communal apartment where in fact most of the rooms were occupied by the families of our relatives and only part by outsiders. The traditional spirit of a large, strong family was preserved – constant, active industriousness and respect for labor skills, mutual family support, and love for literature and science,” recalled Andrei Sakharov.
The pedagogical experiments of the 1920s led to a fall in the quality of school education, especially in the younger classes; therefore, the Sakharov’s created a group of several children from families of their relatives and friends and organized them for home schooling. In the fall of 1927, Andrei began to study as well. When he grown up a little, Dmitry Sakharov himself taught him mathematics and physics.
“It seems to me like I understood everything from half a word. I was very excited about the possibility of reducing all the variety of natural phenomena to relatively simple laws of atoms’ interactions, described by mathematical formulas,” Sakharov recalled. — ”I still did not fully understand what differential equations were, but I already had a hint and was enthusiastic about their almightiness. The desire to become a physicist was probably born out of this excitement. Of course, I was immensely lucky to have such a teacher as my father.”
Andrei entered public secondary school only in the fall of 1934, when he was already 13 years old.
From the moment it emerged, the Soviet government conducted a policy of repression regarding its political opponents and any independent civic forces – entire social groups and even peoples.
By the mid-1930s, a totalitarian society had been formed in the USSR, at the apex of which stood the Communist Party headed by a practically deified great leader – Joseph Stalin. In this closed country, where entry was extremely difficult and exit was practically impossible, mass political repressions were unleashed with particular force. Their peak led to the period of the Great Terror of 1937–1938.
According to official data, more than 1.7 million people were arrested on political charges in that period alone, out of which at least 725,000 were executed. The rest wound up in forced labor camps.
The political repressions of the 1930s affected Andrei Sakharov’s relatives as well. In 1933, his cousin, Yevgeny Sofiano, who worked in the fire department, was arrested, and tried as a member of an “illegal counterrevolutionary organization.” His family believed that he had accidentally perished in a labor camp, although subsequently, it became known that Yevgeny was executed in 1937.
In 1934, the economist Ivan Sakharov, who was little Andrei’s favorite uncle, was arrested and exiled from Moscow to Kazan.
In 1937, Konstantin Sofiano, another uncle who was an electrical engineer, was arrested and died in prison.
That same year, an aunt, Tatyana Sofiano, a translator who worked in the Russian-American Chamber of Commerce, was sentenced on charges of espionage to eight years of labor camp.
“I hardly ever heard my father condemn the regime outright. But there was one occasion in 1950 when he denounced Stalin with such vehemence that Mother feared for his health,” Sakharov recalled. “It may be that Father had refrained until then from expressing his true feelings for my sake; he may have worried that understanding too much too soon might make it difficult for me to survive in this world. This reluctance to reveal one's thoughts even to one's own son may be the most haunting sign of those times.”
In the spring of 1938, Andrei Sakharov graduated from school with honors, which gave him the opportunity to enter the Physics Department of Moscow State University without exams.
“The only subject that gave me trouble was Marxism-Leninism – Ds, which I later corrected. It wasn't an ideological problem (...). What I didn't like was the attempt to carry over the outmoded concepts of natural philosophy into the twentieth century (the age of exact science). (...) But the absolute bane of my existence was the necessity of memorizing definitions: I was unable to read and memorize words, and not ideas.”
Sakharov’s special interest in theoretical physics was determined in the years of study at the university.
The second world war – the largest war in the history of humankind – began on September 1, 1939, with fascist Germany’s invasion of Poland. On September 17, the USSR, which concluded a pact with Germany, invaded Eastern regions of Poland, but on June 22, 1941, it became, in turn, another victim of the Nazis’ aggression.
Italy and Japan took the side of Germany in the war, and the main countries that took part in the anti-Hitler coalition were Great Britain, the United States, the USSR, and China.
Altogether, 62 countries took part in World War II, and war was waged on the territories of Europe, Asia, and Africa and on four oceans. To one extent or another, 80% of the population of the planet was involved in the war. The total losses of those killed in all the countries involved in the war was more than 71 million people, including at least 46.7 million civilians. During the war, monstrous crimes against humanity were committed, the most terrible of which was the Holocaust – the destruction of about six million Jews by the Nazis.
World War II lasted six years, until September 2, 1945, when Japan, the last ally of Germany, capitulated. During the last stage of the war, in August 1945, the US deployed a fundamentally new weapon of mass destruction – the nuclear weapon. As a result of an atomic bombing, the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed. Subsequently, nuclear weapons became the determining factor of international politics for several decades.
The result of World War II was the formation of a new world order, on whose foundation lay the ideologized confrontation of two superpowers – the USSR and the USA. At the same time, the moral lessons drawn by humanity from the war led to the creation in 1945 of the United Nations and the passage by the UN General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human rights – a fundamental international document defining basic human rights.