In June 1948, a “special theoretical group” was composed of researchers at the Lebedev Physics Institute (FIAN) led by Igor Tamm, which was assigned to develop the design of a new nuclear weapon – a hydrogen bomb. Andrei Sakharov, then a junior researcher at the Institute, was included in this group as well.
“Thus, in 1946 and 1947, I had twice rejected attempts to entice me away from FIAN and the frontiers of theoretical physics. But this time, in 1948, nobody bothered to ask my consent,” wrote Sakharov.
Participation in secret military projects required absolute political loyalty from the scientists. In the fall of 1948, Sakharov received an offer to join the Party, but found the courage within himself to refuse.
"I couldn't join the Party because some of its actions in the past seem wrong to me, and I don't know if I would have additional doubts about it in the future,” he said to the face of the KGB general who had made him this offer and added that he condemned the massive arrests of innocent people and the brutal dekulakization of the peasants.
At that time, such words could have cost any other person dearly, but the talented young physicist was too important for the military project, and Sakharov was not touched.
Tamm’s group worked under conditions of strict secrecy. According to intelligence information, analogical work was being conducted in the US, but Soviet physicists were able to break ahead. Already in August, Sakharov managed to solve the main problem – to propose a general principle of construction for the thermonuclear charge which would be named the “layer cake.”
Here Sakharov’s unique multifaceted giftedness play its role, the combination in him of the talents of a theoretical physicist and a designer. Soon another member of the group, Vitaly Lazarevich Ginzburg (1916–2009), subsequently to become a Nobel physics prize laureate, added his proposals to Sakharov’s ideas, and this enabled them to embark on the practical work of creating a test model of the hydrogen bomb.
In early 1949, the management of the Soviet Atomic Project proposed that Sakharov transfer from scientific work at FIAN to the secret design bureau No. 11 (KB-11), which was working on the practical aspects of the creation of the nuclear weapon. It was impossible to refuse this offer, which came personally from Lavrenty Beria.
In March 1950, Sakharov was appointed as director of the laboratory of the KB-11 theoretical department and moved from Moscow for permanent residence at KB-11, which was located in the town of Sarov, 500 kilometers from Moscow and 80 kilometers from Arzamas. Thus, he wound up not far from the homeland of his ancestors. Among themselves, the physicists called this place simply “the Installation,” and in official documents, at various times it had the working name of “city of Kremlyov,” “Arzamas-75” and “Arzamas-16”.
For Sakharov, just as for other employees of KB-11, transfer to the Installation meant almost total isolation from the outside world. In a city surrounded by barbed wire, the maximum comfortable conditions for life and work were created for the leading specialists, which included Sakharov. Sakharov received an enormous salary by the standards of that time, and he and his wife and children were given half a well-appointed cottage for a residence. By comparison with the extreme poverty of the residents of the surrounding villages, the life of the inhabitants of the Installation seemed almost happy, but Sakharov knew its underside as well.
“[T]he Installation was a kind of symbiosis between an ultra-modern scientific research institute with production facilities for the experiments and test areas – and a large camp. In 1949, I still heard stories about the time when it had been just an ordinary prison camp with a mixed-prisoner population (including long-term convicts) (…) The plants, testing grounds, roads, and housing for future researchers were built by the prisoners,” recalled Sakharov. “We lived in close proximity to that labor camp from 1950 to 1953. Every morning long gray lines of men in quilted jackets, guard dogs at their heels, passed by our curtained windows,” he wrote.
Sakharov’s life was connected to the Installation throughout 18 years. All that time, he had colleagues by his side, outstanding scientists – Igor Tamm, Yuly Khariton, Igor Kurchatov, Yakov Zeldovich, Lev Artsimovich, Isaak Pomeranchuk, and others. The chief task they faced remained as before, the creation and improvement of nuclear arms.
Andrei Sakharov finally left the Installation only in July 1968, when the authorities declared him politically unreliable and removed him from classified military work.
The idea of using for peaceful purposes the nuclear energy which is released during the synthesis (fusion) of the nuclei of light elements (hydrogen isotopes) to form heavier helium nuclei, arose and developed in parallel with the work on the creation of a hydrogen bomb, the effect of which is based on the same physical process. According to Sakharov’s memoirs, he first pondered the possibility of not an explosive but a managed thermonuclear synthesis in 1949, and in 1950 became familiar with the work of a beginning physicist, Oleg Lavrentyev, who developed a schematic diagram of a thermonuclear reactor device. Lavrentyev’s idea turned out to be not possible to implement, since the design did not enable the incandescent plasma to be kept in the reactor chamber. Sakharov found a solution to this problem, however. He proposed isolating the plasma from the chamber walls with the aid of a powerful magnetic field.
Later, an installation of this type would be called a “Tokamak” (toroid chamber with magnetic coils).
Igor Tamm, Sakharov’s former scientific director, and, at that time, already his senior colleague, confirmed the theoretical possibility of creating such an installation and “(…) from that time on the development of the notion of magnetic confinement was entirely the product of a joint effort,” Sakharov recalled. “Tamm was particularly helpful in providing calculations and estimates, and in analyzing such basic physic concepts as magnetic drift, magnetic surfaces, etc.”
Igor Kurchatov, director of the Soviet Atomic Project, highly appreciated not only the scientific significance of this joint work, but also its prospects in terms of the future development of energy. At his suggestion, on May 5, 1951, a Decree of the USSR Soviet [Council] of Ministers was published on the organization of work on controlled thermonuclear synthesis (the first government program of its type in the world), and the funds necessary for continuation of research were allocated.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Sakharov and Tamm outlined the theory of the magnetic thermonuclear reactor in a series of scientific articles. Sakharov advanced several other ideas making it possible to get closer to a practical realization of controlled thermonuclear synthesis; however, the basic work on this topic was to be done later by other scientists.
Today, controlled thermonuclear synthesis is viewed as the foundation of the nuclear energy of the future, since unlike an ordinary atomic reactor, which utilizes the decay of the disintegration of heavy elements, a thermonuclear reactor is “cleaner” in an environmental sense and technologically, far safer. The practical realization of the idea of controlled thermonuclear synthesis, however, has encountered enormous difficulties. Although the construction of the first experimental Tokamaks began in the USSR in the mid-1950s, a full-scale solution of this problem has not yet been found, even at the modern level of development of science and technologies. At the present time, in the south of France near the city of Cadarache, with the participation of scientists and engineers of many countries, including Russia, an International Experimental Thermonuclear Reactor (ITER) is being built. In the event this project succeeds, undoubtedly new theoretical horizons will open for humankind.
The public atmosphere in the last years of Stalin’s rule was especially depressing. Under the conditions of the Cold War, the Soviet leadership relied on isolationism; official propaganda justified the USSR’s superiority over the West above all by the consolidation of Soviet society on the basis of “the only true” teaching of Marx-Engels-Lenin-Stalin. As a consequence, the most primitive Marxist dogmas were aggressively instilled, even in spheres extremely far from ideology, including in the natural sciences. A most brutal crackdown on genetics and cybernetics, accompanied by repressions against scientists, delayed the development of these sciences in the USSR for a long time.
A typical article titled “Against Reactionary Einsteinism in Physics” was published June 13, 1952 in the newspaper Krasniy flot [Red Navy], the official organ of the USSR Naval Forces. Its author, Alexander Maximov, a philosopher of the USSR Academy of Sciences, maintained, “The idealistic delusions of Einstein are not only a tribute to the ignorance of modern scientific materialist philosophy, the only progressive scientific world view, but the manifestation of an active struggle against this philosophy.”
The appearance of such an article at that time was a herald of the impending political campaign to fight “enemies of the people.” Soviet physicists – followers of “Einsteinism” – at any moment could be declared not only carriers of a hostile philosophical doctrine, but also enablers of the ideological enemy.
In order to prevent the crackdown threatening science, leading physicists in December of that year sent a letter to Lavrenty Beria, manager of the Soviet Atomic Project, in which Maximov’s article was characterized as ignorant and anti-science. They stated forthrightly that the theory of relativity and quantum theory “are the basis for all of contemporary physics and constitute the theoretical basis for electronic and atomic technology.”
“The most important problems facing Soviet physics – the problems of elementary particles and nuclear powers, cannot be solved without the use of the theory of relativity,” the authors of the letter emphasized. By “the most important problems,” above all was implied the creation and further improvement of nuclear weaponry.
The letter was signed by three academicians: Mikhail Leontovich, Lev Landau and Abram Alikhanov; four corresponding members of the USSR Academy of Sciences: Igor Tamm, Lev Artsimovich, Isaak Kikoin, Alexander Alexandrov; three Doctors of Physics and mathematics: Igor Golovin, Georgy Flyorov, Mikhail Meshcheryakov and only one candidate of physics and mathematics, the youngest among the venerable colleagues – Andrei Sakharov.
Igor Kurchatov, the science director of the Atomic Project, supported the position of the authors of the letter as well.
At that time, the scientists’ letter was not made public; the struggle for preservation of the scientific foundations of physics was waged in secret; however, the brave demarche of the scientists was successful – the impending “purge” did not take place. Thanks to this, physical science in the USSR could survive the most dangerous time without major losses, preserve its very high level and give the world a whole number of scientific discoveries and fundamental theories, without which modern science could not exist.
On March 5, 1953, Stalin – the head of the Communist Party and the Soviet Government, the almighty Soviet dictator – died.
For Sakharov, this was a moment when he could be extremely honest with himself and clarify his own attitude to the political regime that existed in the country:
"We realized that things would change, but in what direction"," he recalled. (...) I too got carried away at the time. In a letter to Klava (...) I wrote: "I am under the influence of a great man's death. I am thinking of his humanity." (...) Very soon I would be blushing every time I recalled these sentiments of mine. I can't fully explain it – after all, I knew quite enough about the horrible crimes that had been committed – the arrests of innocent people, the torture, the deliberate starvation, and all the violence (...). I was more impressionable than I care to recall. But still, the main thing, it seemed to me, wasn't that. But above all, I felt myself committed to the goal which I assumed was Stalin's as well: after a devastating war, to make the country strong enough to ensure peace. Precisely because I had invested so much of myself in that cause and accomplished so much, I needed (…) to create an illusory world, to justify myself. (...) I soon banished Stalin from that world (...). But the state, the nation, and the ideals of communism remained intact for me. It was years before I fully understood the degree to which decit, exploitation, and outright fraud were involved in these notions, and how much they deviated from reality.”
The death of the great leader unleashed a struggle for power at the top of the Soviet leadership. In June, Lavrenty Beria, the “chief” of the Atomic Project, was arrested and late that year was executed.
But the chief consequence of Stalin’s death was the general softening of the political regime in the USSR – an end to mass repressions, the release of tens of thousands of political prisoners and exiles, the start of the process of rehabilitation of unlawfully convicted, and a certain relaxing of ideological pressure on society as a whole.
For everyone in the country, the time of fear ended, and the time of hope began.
On June 8, 1953, without defending his dissertation, on the basis of scientific results obtained during secret work at the Installation, Sakharov was awarded the scientific degree of Doctor of Physical and Mathematical Sciences, and on August 12, at the testing ground in the steppe, 130 kilometers from the city of Semipalatinsk (now in the territory of the Republic of Kazakhstan), the first test of the RDS-6s thermonuclear bomb took place.
The first explosion of a thermonuclear device – essentially a large laboratory test – was made in the US even nine months before this, on November 1, 1952, but the construction of the “layer cake” proposed by Sakharov, enabled the USSR to be the first in the world to create a hydrogen bomb suitable for combat. The power of the explosion was 400 kilotons – almost 30 times greater than the explosion of the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.
Sakharov observed the test along with other physicists, located in an open area 45 kilometers from the site of the explosion. As soon as the dust had settled, he traveled to the epicenter and even got out of the car briefly there, dressed in light, dustproof coveralls. He remembered the crunch of the molten earth under his feet and the terrible sight of a scorched, blinded bird – a steppe eagle, which one of the nearby officers killed to end his torment.
The successful test of the hydrogen bomb brought Sakharov higher recognition for his merits. On October 23, he was elected as a full member of the USSR Academy of Sciences, bypassing the title of corresponding member. At the age of 32, he became the youngest academician. In their review of Sakharov’s scientific activity, his senior colleagues Igor Kurchatov, Yuly Khariton and Yakov Zeldovich wrote: “Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov is an unusually talented theoretical physicist and at the same time a remarkable inventor. The combination in one person of the initiative and determination of an inventor with deep scientific analysis has led A.D. Sakharov, in a brief period, in 6 years, to achieve major results, placing him in first place in the Soviet Union and throughout the whole world in a most important field of physics. (…) Sakharov’s youth, his enormous initiative and talent, enable us with confidence to expect further great achievements.”
Sakharov’s accomplishments before the state – his enormous contribution in the creation of a thermonuclear weapon and especially the fact that, thanks to his ideas, the Soviet Union could overtake the US in the nuclear arms race was handsomely rewarded.
On December 31, 1953, a secret Resolution of the USSR Soviet of Ministers was published on the awarding of the Stalin Prize to a large group of scientists and engineers who worked on the creation of the thermonuclear weapon. As a 1st-degree laureate of the Prize, Sakharov received from the government enormous cash payments, an automobile, and a dacha – material goods which at that time were accessible only to the chosen ones.
On January 4, 1954, a secret Decree of the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet [Council] followed, conferring upon him the honorary title of Hero of Socialist Labor, with award of the Order of Lenin and the Hammer and Sickle Gold Medal.
These were the highest distinctions attainable by a citizen of the USSR.
Thus, in the 33rd year of his life, Andrei Sakharov became a member of the confined and completely closed circle of the political, military, and scientific elite of the country.
Subsequently, he made use of his exceptional position a number of times to directly relay to the highest leadership of the country his opinion and initiatives on many very important issues.
The appearance of a new weapon of mass destruction, unprecedented in its degree of cruelty, became a determining factor for the formation of the post-war political reality.
Already by the early 1950s, scientists from different countries working on the creation of nuclear weaponry began to realize what a danger to humankind it presented, in the hands of irresponsible politicians. One of the first to speak out about the necessity of international control over nuclear energy was the American physicist Robert Oppenheimer (1904–1967), “father of the atomic bomb.” He paid for this with harsh political defamation on the part of the “hawks” of the Cold War and removal in 1954 from military work.
On June 9, 1954, 11 world-famous scientists – physicists, philosophers, chemists, and biologists led by Lord Bertrand Russell (18972–1970) and Albert Einstein (1879–1955) disseminated a call to government leaders, to the scientists of the world, and all humankind, known as the Russell-Einstein Manifesto.
They stated that any political and ideological differences dividing people and states should be forgotten in the face of the common death threat uniting humankind. Any nuclear explosion would lead to radioactive contamination of the Earth’s biosphere as a whole, and that meant that the use of a nuclear weapon, even in a local conflict, threatened the extinction of the entire human race. The common survival of humankind demanded radical changes in the consciousness of politicians and all responsible citizens. Henceforth, international relations should be based not on rivalry and the arms race, but peaceful cooperation and a total rejection of war as a means of solving conflicts.
“[W]e have to remember that, if the issues between East and West are to be decided in any manner that can give any possible satisfaction to anybody, whether Communist or anti-Communist, whether Asian or European or American, whether White or Black, then these issues must not be decided by war. We should wish this to be understood, both in the East and in the West,” said the Manifesto. “There lies before us if we choose continual progress in happiness, knowledge, and wisdom. Shall we, instead, choose death because we cannot forget our quarrels? We appeal, as human beings, to human beings: Remember your humanity, and forget the rest.”
At the height of the cold war, the Russell-Einstein Manifesto called for transformation of the system of international relations on the basis of tolerance, cooperation, refraining from confrontation for the sake of a common goal – the survival and development of all humankind.
Two years later in July 1957, in the Canadian town of Pugwash, Nova Scotia, an international conference took place of scientists, where the most important issue would be discussed of the Russell-Einstein Manifesto – the danger of nuclear weaponry for the future of humankind and possible measures to preserve peace. The Pugwash Movement of scientists for peace, disarmament, international security, and scientific cooperation was founded at the conference, which set its goal to achieve a ban on nuclear tests and nuclear weapons in general. The authority of the Pugwash Movement made it one of the influential forces on a world scale; in the second half of the 20th century, it played an important role in drafting the most important international agreements in the area of limitation and ban on nuclear tests, disarmament, and international security.
The ideas of the Russell-Einstein Manifesto and the Pugwash Movement of scientists for peace turned out to be extremely close to Sakharov and resonated with his own thinking. The Soviet leadership refused him, as a scientist involved in secret military work, the right to take part in the work of this international organization; nevertheless, his campaign against nuclear testing was in line with the Pugwash Movement. And in later years, he outlined his views on the problems of international security and détente in appeals to the participants of the Pugwash Conferences in 1975 and 1982.
Only in 1988 – a year before his death – Sakharov was able to personally take part in the 38th Pugwash Conference, which took place in the USSR, in the village of Dagomys on the Black Sea in the Caucasus.
On October 11, 1955, a large group of scientists sent an appeal to the Central Committee of the Communist Party, urging the authorities to cease support of the anti-scientific tendencies in biology, and particular in genetics, connected to the name of the then-president of the All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Trofim Lysenko (1898–1976). An unprecedentedly large number of signatures of major scientists was collected for this letter – 297. Aside from biologists, scientists from other specializations supported it – chemists, mathematicians, and a large group of physicists, including key researchers in the Atomic Project. Academician Andrei Sakharov signed it as well. Today, this appeal is known as “The Letter of the 300.”
Back in the mid-1930s, with the personal support of Stalin, Lysenko and his protégés managed to seize the administrative levers in the field of biological and agricultural sciences. Political stigmatization took the place of scientific discussions. Any disagreement with the views of Lysenko was interpreted as a hostile, anti-Soviet position; many of his scientific opponents were removed from work; several were physically destroyed. The development of biology in the USSR ground to a severe halt.
This phenomenon was called “Lysenkoism”. Essentially, the situation which had formed by the early 1950s in biological science reflected the socio-political situation in the country.
Speaking out for freedom of scientific thought, the authors of the letter drew a direct analogy between the situation which had formed in biological sciences and the recent attempts at an ideologized pseudo-scientific intervention into physics. At that time, the community of physicists successfully rebuffed this attack and thus saved the future of their science and created the condition for a technological breakthrough in the area of the use of nuclear energy.
“The Letter of the 300” was a remarkable manifestation of the solidarity of scientists who bravely spoke out against a common threat. But for Sakharov, the signing of this appeal was the first statement on a socially significant issue not related directly to his scientific activity.
“The Letter of the 300” was not published; it was read only in the highest Party circles. Although Nikita Khrushchev, the leader of the Soviet Union, was outraged by this collective demarche, no repressions were undertaken regarding its signatories, and the influence of the “Lysenkoites” in the biological sciences began to wane. The battle of the real scientists with pseudoscience would continue for many more years, however. In the 1960s, Andrei Sakharov was to become one of its active participants.
A year and a half after the testing of the “layer cake,” in early 1954, Sakharov together with his senior college, the prominent physicist Yakov Zeldovich (1914–1987) and other theoretical physicists advanced the idea of creating a hydrogen bomb based on a new principle of physics. In a two-stage design, the effect of radiation implosion was used, i.e., the compression of the main thermonuclear charge by x-ray radiation that occurs at the moment of explosion of the auxiliary atomic charge located in the same case.
On November 22, 1955, at the Semipalatinsk Testing Grounds, a test of the new thermonuclear bomb under the code name RDS-37 took place. Its explosion turned out to be 4.5 times more powerful than the explosion of the “layer cake,” and its power was 1.6 megatons.
Despite the careful preparation, evacuation, and removal to shelter the local population, within a radius of more than 100 kilometers, during the test people were killed and wounded. At 36 kilometers from the epicenter of the explosion, as the result of a collapse of a dugout, a group of soldiers were buried under earth, one of whom suffocated. And at 55 kilometers from the epicenter, a girl was killed when the ceiling of her home fell in. Glass blew out of buildings located at a distance of up to 200 kilometers from the epicenter. Several dozen people were injured, suffering broken bones and other injuries. Even residents of the city of Pavlodar, located 400 kilometers from the testing ground, felt the action of the shock wave.
That same evening, at an improvised banquet of the bomb designers, Sakharov proposed a toast:
“May all our devices explode as successfully as today's, but always over test sites and never over cities."
Those present fell silent in confusion, and then the military director of the tests, Marshal Mitrofan Nedelin, snickered, and replied with an off-color “parable”:
“An old man wearing only a shirt was praying before an icon. ‘Guide me, harden me. Guide me, harden me.’ His wife, who was lying on the stove said, ‘Just pray to be hard, old man, I can guide it in myself.’ Let's drink to getting hard.”
“Many years have passed, but I still feel as if I had been lashed by a whip,” recalled Sakharov. “Not that my feelings were hurt.... (...) Nedelin wanted to squelch my pacifist sentiment, and to put me and anyone who might share these ideas in our place. The point of his story (...) was clear enough. We, the inventors, scientists, engineers, and craftsmen, had created a terrible weapon, the most terrible weapon in human history; but its use would lie entirely outside our control. The people at the top of the Party and military hierarchy would make the decisions. Of course, I knew this already – I wasn't that naive. But understanding something in an abstract way is different from feeling it with your whole being, like the reality of life and death. The ideas and emotions kindled at that moment (...) completely altered my thinking.”
On February 25, 1956, on the last day of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, gave an anti-Stalinist speech titled, “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences”.
Khrushchev gave harsh assessments not only to Stalin’s “cult of personality,” but Stalinism as a whole, citing the terrible facts of lawlessness and mass repressions, forced deportations of entire people, and spoke of fabricated political trials, of erroneous decisions in the economy, on the falsification of history and the false aggrandizement of the great leader.
This speech stunned listeners with its boldness and the scale of the crimes uncovered and became the reference point for the “Thaw” – a brief but vivid period of liberalization of political and civic life in the Soviet Union. In subsequent years, there would be a mass release of surviving political prisoners and exiles, the system of forced labor camps would be ended, and elements of freedom of speech and freedom of discussion would appear in public life; the cultural and scientific contacts with the countries of the West, interrupted many years previously, would be resumed. The humanistic trends would enliven literature, cinema, and the theater. A generation of “sixties people”, which included the majority of Soviet human rights defenders, would appear in the public arena.
The “Thaw” ended in 1964, when as a result of a Party conspiracy, Khrushchev was removed from all his posts and put on a pension. Leonid Brezhnev took his place, and in the years of his rule, the Soviet Union gradually sunk into stagnation.
The successful testing of the RDS-37 hydrogen bomb, based on the new physics principle, on November 22, 1955, opened the way for the creation of a thermonuclear charge of unlimited power – a super bomb. This was a breakthrough in the design of nuclear weaponry.
On September 7, 1956, by a secret Resolution of the USSR Soviet of Ministers, Zeldovich and other directors of the work were awarded the Lenin Prize (the most distinguished state prize, which after the death of Stalin, came in place of the Lenin Prize). And on September 11, also by a secret Decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, Sakharov was granted the title twice Hero of Socialist Labor. In this connection, he received a second Hammer and Sickle Gold Medal.
Sakharov was only 35 years old, but his exceptional services to the state as a scientist and nuclear weapons designer guaranteed him a highly special status within the Soviet elite. His family was very well provided for, and he achieved unprecedented career success, although his name and his achievements were known only to the leaders of the country and a few colleagues. He continued to live at the Installation, and all of his activity remained deeply secret.
It would seem that he had everything of which a person could dream in the Soviet Union; however, Sakharov was uneasy at heart. He kept thinking of the test of 1955, its accidental victims, and his clash with Marshal Nedelin.
Later he wrote that he was overcome with “a range of contradictory sentiments, perhaps chief among them a fear that this newly released force could slip out of control and lead to unimaginable disasters. The accident reports, and especially the deaths of the little girl and the soldier, heightened my sense of foreboding. I did not hold myself personally responsible for their deaths, but I could not escape a feeling of complicity.”
On October 4, 1957, the launch of the first artificial Earth satellite took place in the USSR. The Russian word for satellite is sputnik or “fellow traveler,” and thus the first space satellite was called Sputnik. This day was the start of the space era in the history of humankind. “It was small, this very first artificial satellite of our old planet, but its ringing call signs spread throughout all the continents and among all the peoples as the fulfillment of the daring dream of humanity,” said Sergei Pavlovich Korolyov (1906–1966), the chief designer of the Soviet rocket and space technology.
A rocket carrier initially designed for military purposes was used for the launch of the device to low-earth orbit. Thus, from the moment of its emergence, the rocket and space sector were closely connected with work in creating nuclear weaponry.
The construction of the R-7 intercontinental ballistic missile, capable of carrying a thermonuclear warhead more than 5,000 kilometers, began in late 1953, soon after the successful test of the first Soviet RDS-6s hydrogen bomb.
“In essence, this means that the weight of the thermonuclear charge, as well as the dimensions of the missile, had been fixed on the basis of my report. The program for an enormous organization was set in this manner for many years to come," noted Sakharov. “The rocket designed for that program launched the first artificial satellite into orbit in 1957, and also the space craft with Yuri Gagarin aboard in 1961.”
Sakharov became acquainted with Korolev that same year, in 1953. Another one of their meetings took place not long before the launch of Sputnik.
“He showed us the satellite, which was receiving its final checks, and he joked as usual, although I sensed the enormous stress he was under,” Sakharov said tersely, recalling the episode in his Memoirs.
Strictly adhering to the pledges he had given to preserve military secrets, even many years later, he gave an extremely scant account of those events which were related to classified work.
Already in preparing the first test of the hydrogen bomb in 1953, Sakharov was forced to encounter the problem of the radioactive “trace,” which inevitably formed after an explosion with radioactive fallout on territories beyond the bounds of the testing ground. Later, his reflections on the environmental consequences of nuclear tests and their dangerous effects on people’s health and the planet’s biosphere as a whole would have a decisive influence on the formation of the component of his worldview, which is called “planetary consciousness.”
Thanks to his communication with geneticists, Sakharov had access to the results of the tests of the so-called non-threshold biological effects arising in the human population as a consequence of the additional irradiation of a mass of people with the smallest doses of radiation. He noted the increase in morbidity which became visible only at the level of medical statistics, and that radiation contamination of the biosphere was capable of affecting the health and genetics of people for several generations. He was particularly concerned about the biological consequences of nuclear tests in the atmosphere, since this was the way most radioactive fallout spread over the planet.
Even back in 1954, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964) called on the nuclear powers to sign an agreement to end nuclear tests, but his voice was not heard. In the second half of the 1950s, the number of nuclear tests conducted in the world rapidly increased. If in 1955, the powers that took part in the nuclear arms race had conducted 20 tests, by 1958 their number had already exceeded a hundred. Simultaneously, the power of the test explosions increased, and accordingly, the amount of radioactive substances spewed into the atmosphere and oceans.
According to Sakharov’s calculations, in the next 5,000 years, as a result of the action of non-threshold doses of radiation, every megaton of test explosions in the atmosphere would cost up to 10,000 human lives around the globe. In other words, nuclear tests have turned out to be no less deadly for humankind than real war, although, from their effects, people die gradually, over a long period of time.
This shocked him. Not so long ago, when creating the thermonuclear weapon, he was convinced that the overall death of humanity in a nuclear war would be prevented in this manner. Now nuclear tests had become a source of common peril, and Sakharov, feeling responsible for the radioactive contamination of the planet, set himself the goal to achieve an end to them. He gained confidence from the example of others campaigning against nuclear tests – Linus Pauling, a prominent American scientist and Nobel Chemistry Prize laureate, and Albert Schweitzer, the French philosopher, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
Meanwhile, the problem of nuclear testing and the harm they caused to the planet turned into one of the most urgent topics of world politics.
On March 31, 1958, the Soviet political leader Nikita Khrushchev announced that the USSR would no longer conduct nuclear tests if the other nuclear powers would refrain from them as well. This was unexpected both for Soviet hawks as well as Western politicians. Nevertheless, neither was prepared to suddenly interrupt the development of planned scientific and technical programs. The US and Great Britain announced that they were prepared for talks, but only after they conducted planned tests. In reply, Linus Pauling called on scientists throughout the world to support the call for the ending of nuclear tests. This was the backdrop for the outbreak of a brutal propaganda struggle between East and West.
At that time, Kurchatov, knowing Sakharov’s sentiments, offered him to write two articles – once scholarly and the other popular science – of the dangerous consequences of nuclear testing. In May 1958, the popular science article “On the Radioactive Danger of Nuclear Tests” was ready. Khrushchev personally approved it for publication, and that summer, it was translated into several foreign languages and printed in the journal Sovietskiy Soyuz segodnya [Soviet Union Today], intended for distribution abroad.
This article remained inaccessible for the Soviet reader, but at the international level, the opinion of a leading nuclear science on the danger of nuclear testing was supposed to emphasize the importance of the USSR’s peace-loving initiative, and, on the contrary, the irresponsible position of the US, which refused to cease tests immediately. But regardless of the context, Sakharov, for the first time, was granted the opportunity to directly appeal to the international public (albeit through propaganda publications); he made use of it in order to make a statement about a problem uniting all of humankind through a common danger, and to call for a unification of efforts to resolve it.
Moreover, in his article, Sakharov spoke critically against the position that the loss of some human lives was a safe price for technical progress. A caring attitude toward each human life; a categorical rejection of the approach to a human being as expendable material to solve some grand problems was to become one of his fundamental convictions for his whole life.
That same year in the Soviet journal Atomnaya energiya [Atomic Energy] his scholarly article appeared on the same topic, titled “Radioactive Carbon of Nuclear Explosions and Non-threshold Biological Effects”. The publishing of both articles by Sakharov was not noted in the world; however, he evaluated the work on them as an important stage in the formation of his views on the moral problems of nuclear tests.
The United States did not cease its tests, and the Soviet moratorium was also maintained for only a little more than half a year.
Sakharov recalled: (…) “orders came from Khrushchev to prepare to resume testing…Thus the question was decided politically without regard to its technical aspects. (...) I found what was happening completely unacceptable, both politically and morally. I felt that such a rapid change of position would lead to a complete loss of trust in the USSR on this already exceedingly complex issue.”
On September 30, 1958, the Soviet Union resumed its own nuclear tests. Despite the mutual accusations which both sides exchanged through the press, they nevertheless began expert consultations among themselves, and already by November, after the previously scheduled programs for test explosions were completed, all three nuclear powers – the USSR, US, and Great Britain – temporarily halted tests.
Ahead were long and complicated negotiations to draft an agreement on the limiting of nuclear testing.
In 1959, 1950, and 1961, the Soviet Union, the US and Great Britain did not conduct nuclear tests; however, this was not a total moratorium: in 1960, a new nuclear power – France – began its own series of tests.
On July 10, 1961, Nikita Khrushchev held a meeting in the Kremlin with nuclear scientists at which he announced that the USSR in the near future must renew its nuclear tests. This decision was not subject to discussion; however, Sakharov nevertheless tried to object. Right at the meeting, he handed Khrushchev a short note in which he drew his attention to the fact that a violation of the moratorium then was not in the interests of the USSR, since it would give an opportunity to the United States to improve its nuclear weaponry. The note ended with a question: “Do you not think that renewal of the tests will cause irreparable harm to the negotiations on halting tests, and the entire cause of disarmament and guaranteeing peace throughout the world?”
Khrushchev was furious. After waiting for the end of the meeting, when all its participants were invited to a dinner, he gave the obstinate scientist a harsh rebuke. He “began to speak about my note – calmly at first, but then with growing agitation, turning red in the face, and raising his voice. He talked for half an hour or more,” recalled Sakharov.
He said that the USSR could not permit itself to conduct less tests than the United States. “But Sakharov goes further. He's moved beyond science into politics. Here he's poking his nose where it doesn't belong. You can be a good scientist without understanding a thing about politics. (...) Leave politics to us – we’re the specialists. You make your bombs and test them, and we won't interfere with you; we'll help you. But remember, we have to conduct our policies from a position of strength. We don't advertise it, but that's how it is! There can't be any other policy. Our opponents don't understand any other language. (...) Sakharov, don't try to tell us what to do or how to behave. (...) I'd be a jellyfish and not Chairman of the Soviet of Ministers if I listened to people like Sakharov!”
Thus, Khrushchev, just as Marshal Nedelin before him, directly gave Sakharov to understand that his opinion in political questions did not mean anything and would not be taken into account by the government leadership. But Sakharov once again became convinced that power in the country was in the hands of people who did not completely realize how dangerous and fraught with total destruction was the political situation humankind had found itself in as a result of the Cold War.
Позднее, вспоминая то время, он напишет:
“Beginning in the late fifties, one got an increasingly clearer picture of the collective might of the military industrial complex and of its vigorous, unprincipled leaders, blind to everything except their ‘job.’ I was in a rather special position. As a theoretical scientist and inventor, relatively young and (moreover) not a Party member, I was not involved in administrative responsibility and was exempt from Party ideological discipline. My position enabled me to know and see a great deal. It compelled me to feel my own responsibility; and at the same time, I could look upon this whole perverted system as something of an outsider.”
Despite his internal disagreement with the resumption of nuclear tests, Sakharov was forced to obey Khrushchev’s order, and by the fall of 1961, under his direction at the Installation, a thermonuclear device was ready for testing, unprecedented in might in the history of humankind. The Semipalatinsk Region Testing Ground in Kazakhstan turned out to be too small, and it was decided to conduct the test at another testing ground located in an unpopulated region of the Arctic on the Novaya Zemlya archipelago.
The maximum power of the “product” intended for testing exceeded the equivalent of 100 megatons of TNT – several thousand times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped in 1945 on Hiroshima. Sakharov made the decision to reduce the power in half, however, since this would enable the scientific and research significance of the test to be maintained yet substantially reduce the environmental harm caused to the biosphere and human population.
Nevertheless, this test still turned out to be the most powerful in human history. Later, the AN602 device was unofficially called the Tsar Bomb by analogy with the enormous creations of ancient Russian craftsmen – the Tsar Canon and the Tsar Bell.
The test took place on October 30, 1961.
The thermonuclear explosion of the equivalent of more than 57 megatons of TNT was conducted in the atmosphere at an elevation of about 4,000 meters; however, in the area of the explosion, mountain rocks melted. The nuclear mushroom cloud rose to an elevation of 67 kilometers. The plane that dropped the bomb, which managed to get 39 kilometers away at the moment of the explosion, was burnt in the air and damaged. The light flash was visible at a distance of 1,000 kilometers; the sound of the explosion could be heard for 800 kilometers. The radius of the zone of continuous damage on the ground exceeded the area of Paris, and the seismic wave caused by the explosion circled the globe three times. Meanwhile, because a large part of the power of the explosion was obtained from the reaction of the thermonuclear synthesis, the testing of the Tsar Bomb did not cause very large radioactive contamination of the environment.
This explosion, the most powerful in human history, became a massive demonstration of the USSR’s strength in the Cold War.
For conducting the test, Academician Sakharov was awarded his third Hammer and Sickle Gold Medal and third title of Hero of Socialist Labor. In the eyes of the authorities, he still remained a loyal executor of the orders of the country’s leadership, but with every passing year, he experienced increasingly profound moral doubts.
Soon afterward Sakharov visited his father, Dmitry Ivanovich, who was in the hospital after a heart attack, and they had a remarkable conversation. Dmitry Ivanovich said to his son with sadness:
"When you were at the university, you said that uncovering the secrets of nature could make you happy. We didn't choose our fate, but I'm sorry that yours took a different turn; I imagine you could have been happier.”
Later Sakharov said, “I don't remember my reply. I think I agreed that we don't choose our fate. What more could I have said to him on that November day in 1961.”
Bound by the requirements of secrecy, he could not even tell his own father – also a physicist – about his military work, nor about the fact that he was actively fighting for an end to nuclear testing. He only shared with him his scientific plans – to seriously take up the fundamental problems of physics and cosmology.
Five days later, Dmitry Ivanovich Sakharov passed away.
By decree of the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet, on March 7, 1962, Andrei Sakharov was granted the honorary title of thrice Hero of Socialist Labor “for exceptional services to the state in the performance of a special task of the Government,” and the third Hammer and Sickle Gold Medal. As in the previous cases, the decree was secret. The law provided for the awarding of these honors no more than three times; thus, Sakharov, who was not yet 41, achieved the highest degree of state awards available to a citizen of the USSR.
“Khrushchev made the presentations in the Kremlin with great ceremony (...)," Sakharov recalled. “Khrushchev pinned my third star next to the two I already had and embraced me. (...) Leaving the Kremlin, I went directly to where my mother had been living (...). She gasped at the sight of me decked out in my fancy regalia.”
Only at that moment did Yekaterina Alexeyevna Sakharov realize how great the services of her son to the government were, and how grateful they were. His father, Dmitry Ivanovich, did not live to see the day.
Despite the peace-loving statements of the USSR leadership and its reproaches of Western governments continuing nuclear testing, the Soviet nuclear program also continued to develop. The tests continued as well, including those which, in the opinion of specialists, had the greatest danger of radioactive contamination – tests in the atmosphere. Work on the designing of thermonuclear warheads intended for installation on missile carriers were simultaneously under way at two secret scientific production centers – KB-11 (Arzamas-16), where Khariton and Sakharov were the directors of the design work, and Scientific Research Instituate-1011 (NII-1011 or Chelyabinsk-70), directed by Yevgeny Zababakhin. By the fall of 1962, working independently from one another, the two competing design bureaus arrived at similar technical solutions. According to the calculations, the power of both devices was the same, and the question of which of them would be accepted as an armament had to be decided after the tests.
As a scientist, Sakharov understood that the testing of two almost identical devices was pointless, but even more important, from his perspective, was the fact that this would lead to double the harm to the Earth’s biosphere, and that meant, the number of human casualties, inevitably connected to each nuclear test, would double as well.
“During the 1950s, I had come to regard testing in the atmosphere as a crime against humanity, no different from secretly pouring disease-producing microbes into a city's water supply. But my views were not shared by my associates,” – he acknowledged bitterly.
He was unsuccessful in his attempt to convince the director of the atomic industry, Yefim Slavsky, minister of medium machine-building, that an extra test could be cancelled without any detriment to the country’s defense capability. Then Sakharov tried to come to an agreement with Zababakhin. In order to prevent a criminal double test, he was prepared to sacrifice the interests of his own KB-11 in the competitive battle and agreed to refrain from the testing of his own device.
The testing of NII-1011’s device which took place September 25, 1962 demonstrated that it really was equal to the calculated power of the KGB-11 design in power. But even so, it was somewhat heavier – a significant shortcoming in the eyes of the military. It would seem that in this competition, KB-11 would win without a fight, but the testing of the second device was scheduled anyway. In desperation, Sakharov strained every effort to stop it. Using his exceptional position in the system of the Soviet military-industrial complex, he telephoned Khrushchev directly, and tried to explain the absurdity of what was happening, but in vain. Slavsky, irritated at Sakharov’s activism, which was incomprehensible to him, secretly moved the test ahead by several hours, so as to prevent him from interfering.
The second test occurred September 27. This was a triumph for KB-11, but Sakharov was shaken to the depths of his soul.
“A terrible crime was about to be committed, and I could do nothing to prevent it. I was overcome by my impotence, unbearable bitterness, shame, and humililation. I put my face down on my desk and wept. That was probably the most terrible lesson of my life: you can't sit on two chairs at once. I decided that I would devote myself to ending biologically harmful tests.”
That day became one of the most important in his life. In 1974, already as a recognized human rights defender, he would write:
“The feeling of impotence and fright that seized me on that day has remained in my memory ever since, and it has worked much change in me as I moved toward my present attitude.”
In 1962, the Cold War had reached a new stage. Nuclear tests had resumed in the world, and in October of that year, events played out that threatened all of humankind with destruction. The confrontation of the two great nuclear powers – the USSR and the USA – led to an acute crisis which threatened to turn into a genuine military (and nuclear) clash.
In 1961, the US deployed its medium-range missiles with nuclear warheads on the territory of Turkey, not far from the border with the USSR. The whole Western part of the Soviet Union, including Moscow and the most important industrial cities, was threatened.
Soviet leader Nikita Khrutchev came up with a plan for a “symmetrical response” – to deploy nuclear delivery vehicles off the USA’s coast- in Cuba. From there, Soviet missiles could hit Washington and many major American cities and military bases. In August-September 1962, the USSR launched the operation to deliver armaments to Cuba, including missiles with nuclear warheads, along with military personnel. The military freight was secretly shipped on ordinary commercial ships but still, the weapon transfer was noticed by American intelligence.
In response to this threat, on September 27, the US Congress granted the president the right to use armed forces to invade Cuba. And on October 14, American reconnaissance aircraft photographed the launching positions prepared in Cuba for Soviet ballistic missiles and missiles themselves.
President John Kennedy, in an attempt to avoid unleashing a full-scale war, announced a “quarantine” starting October 24, in fact a total sea blockade of the island. The delivery of Soviet weapons to Cuba was stopped.
The situation was extremely difficult. All over the world, the armed forces of the USA, the USSR and their allies were put on red alert. On October 27, an American reconnaissance aircraft was shot down over Cuba by a Soviet anti-aircraft missile and its pilot was killed. The nuclear conflict was only one step away.
Americans, due to the coverage of the situation in the free press, were on the verge of panic; the inhabitants of the USSR were less informed about what was happening, but the country's decision makers were fully aware of the degree of danger. Finally, Khrushchev agreed to enter into negotiations with Kennedy, and on October 28 the parties came to an agreement. The USSR immediately began dismantling its military installations in Cuba and withdrawing its weapons systems from there. Satisfied, the USA lifted the blockade of the island on November 20 and, a few months later, withdrew its strategic missiles from Turkey.
A catastrophe had been avoided.
In Russia, these events were called the “Caribbean Crisis,” and in the US, the “Cuban Missile Crisis”. The acute phase, when the world stood on the brink of World War III, lasted 38 days.
The Caribbean Crisis led to a turning point in the Cold War. From that moment, mass anti-war movements began to appear throughout the world as well as the policy of international détente. The few politicians and intellectuals who had spoken out for peace finally acquired the necessary broad public support needed, and politicians had a visible lesson that showed them that international relations in the nuclear era must be built on new principles, chief of which was ensuring the common survival of humankind.
The Caribbean Crisis changed the attitude of politicians to issues of the planet’s nuclear security and pushed them toward an awareness of the unity of humankind’s fates, despite the military rivalry and ideological disagreement between countries.
On August 5, 1963, the Partial Test Ban Treaty, formally the Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space and Under Water, known as the Moscow Treaty.
The efforts of Sakharov and many scientists and public figures throughout the world, who persistently spoke out against uncontrolled nuclear testing, finally bore fruit.
Negotiations between the nuclear powers about the total ban on testing had been underway since 1958; however, they were hampered by the inability to organize effective monitoring of underground nuclear explosions. US President Dwight Eisenhower was the first to state the idea of not a total, but a gradual ban on tests, starting with the most harmful – tests in the atmosphere – but it had not been supported by Khrushchev. The next few years of talks continued without noticeable progress.
The problem of the radioactive contamination of the biosphere, as a result of nuclear tests, very much concerned Soviet nuclear scientists. In the spring of 1963, one of the leading researchers of KB11, a colleague and subordinate of Sakharov, Viktor Borisovich Adamsky (1923–2005), in a conversation with him, proposed that a way out of the impasse could be a ban on tests in three environments, which are more accessible to international oversight, that is in the atmosphere, under water, and in space. In his view, the time had come when such a ban could be realized, if the Soviet Union took the relevant initiative. Adamsky outlined his proposals in a memorandum addressed to Khrushchev. Sakharov enthusiastically supported him and used all of his authority and connections to convey this idea quickly to the country’s leadership. Later, recalling this, he emphasized that “radioactive contamination occurs only during explosions in the atmosphere, space, and ocean. Therefore, limiting an agreement on a test ban to these three environments solves both problems (contamination and oversight).”
The idea of banning nuclear tests in three environments found understanding in the Kremlin, and on July 2, Khrushchev appealed to the US with this proposal. US President John Kennedy replied with his consent, after which Soviet, American, and British diplomats and experts drafted the text of the agreement within only a few weeks.
The preamble of the treaty states that the signatories not only strive to put an end to radioactive contamination of the environment and, “to achieve the discontinuance of all test explosions of nuclear weapons for all time," but proclaims its main goal’s "the speediest possible achievement of an agreement on general and complete disarmament (...) which would put an end to the armaments race and eliminate the incentive to the production and testing of all kinds of weapons, including nuclear weapons.”
At first the Moscow Treaty was signed by three nuclear powers – the USSR, US, and Great Britain, although it was open to signature by other countries, including those that did not possess nuclear weapons and thus declared their principal renunciation of them.
At the present time, there are already 131 countries that have signed the treaty.
The Moscow Treaty of 1963 played an important role in the process of a gradual renunciation by humankind of nuclear tests.
“I consider the Moscow Treaty of historic significance,” wrote Sakharov. “It has saved the lives of hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of people who would have perished had testing continued in the atmosphere, under water, and in space. And perhaps even more important, the treaty was a step toward reducing the risk of thermonuclear war. I am proud of my contribution to the Moscow Treaty.”
In the early 1960s, under the influence of the theoretical works of Yakov Zeldovich, Sakharov turned his attention to the problems of cosmology, that is, the science of the origin and evolution of the Universe.
In 1965, his first cosmological work was published, “The Initial Stage of an Expanding Universe and the Appearance of Nonuniform Distribution of Matter.” It was devoted to solving the problem of how the original homogenous and superdense state of the Universe formed the observed heterogeneity of the distribution of matter – planets, stars, galaxies, and clusters of galaxies separated by almost empty outer space.
All these astronomical objects emerged from the initial insignificant quantum fluctuations of matter after the Big Bang in the expanding Universe under the influence of gravitational instability.
Gravitational instability presupposes that the minimal random increase in the density of matter inevitably increases, as a heavier body attracts the surrounding matter to itself, thereby becoming even heavier and increasing the force of gravity. How the initial inhomogeneities of matter gave rise to the astronomical objects known to us can be calculated mathematically, but the origin of these initial inhomogeneities themselves remained unclear before Sakharov. He advanced the “additional physical hypothesis,” according to which the initial inhomogeneities of the density of matter are of a quantum nature, that is, in principle, irremediable due to the quantum-mechanical uncertainty relation. They also allow for an accurate theoretical description. Currently, this assumption is generally accepted.
In 1967, Sakharov published another very important article on cosmology titled, “Violation of CP in Variance, C Asymmetry, and Baryon Asymmetry of the Universe.”
As is known, all the heavy matter of the Universe (we ourselves, the Earth, the Sun, the stars, the interstellar dust) consists of molecules, and molecules of atoms. The heavy nucleus of atoms consists of baryons (the general term for protons and neutrons). Light electrons orbiting the nuclei of atoms make a small contribution to their mass, and the bulk of the heavy matter of the Universe is concentrated in baryons. The total number of them in the visible Universe is approximately 10⁸⁰.
It is known that each particle, except a photon, has an antiparticle, including the baryon, which has an antibaryon (antiproton and antineutron). It is also known that when a particle and an antiparticle meet, they annihilate – they disappear, turning into photons, and when very energetic photons collide, on the contrary, a baryon-antibaryon pair can be born.
In theory, particles and antiparticles are equal; however, the Universe has a so-called “baryon asymmetry” (that is, only baryons are present and not antibaryons). At the same time, the number of photons of relic radiation (i.e., photons formed after the Big Bang and like a rarefied gas evenly filling the cooling Universe) is one hundred million times greater than baryons.
“But what was the situation at earlier stages in the expansion of the universe?,” Sakharov wondered. “(...) At the early stages of expansion, when the energy of the photos was greater than the energy required to form baryon-antibaryon pairs, baryons and anti-baryons must have been present, and in numbers equal to the number of photons in the same volume.”
His article is then devoted to the solution to the mystery of baryon asymmetry of the Universe.
According to Sakharov’s thesis, originally the number of baryons and antibaryons was equal and led to their annihilation. The existence of an insignificant remainder of baryons, making up the heavy matter of the observable Universe, is explained purely dynamically by the fulfillment of three “Sakharov” conditions, which have become classic:
1) The situation must be non-stationary, which, obviously, was the case during the rapid expansion of the Universe.
2) The likelihood of the formation of particles and antiparticles must differ (in scientific language, this is called a violation of C-and CP-symmetry). Such a violation was first discovered in an experiment in 1964. “The earliest work known to me that discusses the consequences of conservation of CPT-symmetry and violation of CP- and C-symmetries is that of Susumu Okubo. (...) It was this insight, together with the violation of baryon number, that formed the basis for my work.”
3) The fundamental “building block of the universe” proton is unstable, that is, in time it must decay. “ [P]hysicists have concluded that there is an absolute law of baryon number conservation: in the universe, the total number of baryons minus the total number of antibaryons never changes.”
Realizing the importance of his scientific work, Sakharov did not lose his ironic attitude toward himself. On a copy of the article about the baryon asymmetry of the Universe, which he gave to a colleague, the theoretical physicist Yevgeny Fainberg, he wrote a humorous epigraph:
Making use of the effect
S. Okubo has proposed,
While the temperature is high,
The universe is richly clothed
In a coat made to fit
Its crooked figure – head to foot.
Sakharov’s theoretical works of the 1960s substantially defined the science of his time. The hypotheses advanced by him and his calculations, gradually, year after year, were confirmed by the research of other scientists. Thus, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, data obtained from modern radio telescopes enabled scientists to study the structure of the relic ray and discover its small inhomogeneities (oscillations) – nothing more than the “fingerprint” of the very inhomogeneities of the initial superdense matter which has come down to us after billions of years, which Sakharov calculated in his 1965 article.
In our day, efforts continue to experimentally detect the proton decay he predicted. They are complicated by the fact that the “lifetime” of the proton calculated by Sakharov is very great (more than 10⁵⁰ years, which substantially exceeds the time of the existence of the Universe – which is approximately 10¹⁰ years); however, the observation of this phenomenon is nevertheless possible. For that, scientists put large vats of water deep under the earth in caves (in order to eliminate the background of cosmic rays) and surrounded them with thousands of detectors able to record the high energy products of decay. Then they will wait until even one of the myriad protons of that water decays. If successful, this discovery will be one of the greatest in the history of science and knowledge of the world.
On June 26, 1964, the General Meeting of the USSR Academy of Science, at which new full members of the Academy were elected, ended in scandal. When the Department of General Biology nominated for discussion the candidacy of Nikolai Nuzhdin, a protégé of Trofim Lysenko, a man personally involved in the destruction of Soviet genetics in the late 1940s, several major scientists openly spoke against having such a person become their colleague at the Academy.
Academician Vladimir Engelgardt, a biologist, noted Nuzhdin’s lack of scientific merits and achievements. Sakharov took the floor after him.
“As I recalled the tragedy of Soviet genetics and its martyrs (...) I decided that Nuzhdin's candidacy must be defeated,” he wrote later in his Memoirs.
“The Academy's Charter sets very high standards for its members with respect to both scientific merit and civic responsibility. Corresponding member Nikolai Nuzhdin (...) does not satisfy the criteria. I call on all the academicians present to vote in such a way that the only ballots ‘for’ will be the ballets of those persons, together with Nuzhdin, and together with Lysenko, who bear responsibility for those shameful, difficult pages in the development of Soviet science which at the present time, fortunately, are ending.”
Sakharov’s speech was met with applause. Returning to his seat after his speech, he heard how Lysenko, who was sitting nearby, said loudly, “People like Sakharov should be locked up and put on trial!”
Other nuclear physicists spoke against Nuzhdin’s candidacy as well – Academicians Igor Tamm, Mikhail Leontovich and Yakov Zeldovich. Despite Lysenko’s furious objections, the firm and well-argued positions of the physicists played their role. As a result, 114 out of 137 voted against the candidacy of Nikolai Nuzhdin.
The issue of his election as an academician was not raised again.
Sakharov himself regarded this episode as one of the most significant in his life.
“Like my struggle against atmospheric testing, the Nuzhdin affair was another landmark (...) on my way to becoming active in civic affairs,” he wrote.
Sakharov’s impressive speech against the election of Nuzhdin to the Academy of Sciences made his reputation among biologists as a noble and brave fighter for the purity of scientific principles and the dignity of scientists. Thanks to this, the circle of his acquaintances, which had been very limited until then, broadened with new like-minded people, among whom was Zhores Medvedev, a specialist in the field of radiobiology.
By his own admission, Medvedev’s book Biological Science and the Cult of Personality, which existed at that time only in typescript, became the first document of samizdat, or self-published documents, that he read.
The rush of a significant number of academicians and corresponding members of the USSR Academy of Sciences to purge the scientific community of carriers of anti-scientific and obscurantist views, scoundrels, and opportunists turned out to be one of the last civic phenomena of the “thaw” era.
“I gathered from several sources,” recalled Sakharov, “that my speech against Nuzhdin had enraged him to the point that he stamped his feet and ordered Vladimir Semichastny, the KGB Chairman, to gather compromising material on me. Khrushchev supposedly said: 'First Sakharov tried to stop the hydrogen bomb test, and now he's poking his nose again where it doesn't belong.’”
The Lysenkoites, recovering from their defeat, went on the counterattack. In August of that year, an article appeared in Sel’skokhozyaystvennaya gazeta [Agricultural Gazette] by Mikhail Olshansky, president of the Academy of Agricultural Sciences in which the speech by “the engineer Sakharov” was declared “slander.” This was the first negative mention of Sakharov in the Soviet press.
Khrushchev’s anger extended not only to Sakharov but to the entire USSR Academy of Sciences. His taking of harsh measures, which would have dealt a blow to the Academy’s independence, was prevented, only by the removal of Khrushchev from all his government posts soon afterward, in October 1964.
As a result of a conspiracy of the Party elite, Leonid Brezhnev came to power in the Soviet Union.