On December 25, 1979, by decision of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, Soviet forces invaded the territory of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. Thus, the Soviet leadership hoped to change in their favor the correlation of forces in opposing the US in Central Asia. A regime loyal to the Soviet Union was installed in Afghanistan; however, an internal conflict immediately broke out there, and the Soviet Union was inevitably drawn into it.
The Afghan war ensued – the longest, most brutal, and bloodiest military conflict involving the Soviet Union since World War II. The Soviets took the side of the government troops of Afghanistan; they were opposed by radical Islamists called mujahideen (“holy warriors”), who were supported by the US, and by influential Islamic countries and their allies.
The Afghan war provoked a sharp increase in international tension, and inside the USSR, despite all the propagandistic efforts, it remained very unpopular.
Soviet losses in the Afghan totalled 14,500 killed and about 53,000 wounded. The number of Afghans killed is estimated from one to two million people. The majority were civilians. From 850,000 to 1 million people were forced to leave their own country and become refugees. The country was plunged into chaos and hunger, and its economic, health system, and educational systems were destroyed.
Soviet troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan only after 10 years, in April 1988, already under a new political leadership in the USSR. Yet this did not lead to the end of the civil war in this country.
The entry of Soviet forces to Afghanistan at the end of 1979 led to an escalation of the conflict in that country and a sharp escalation of international tension. Against this backdrop in January 1980, Sakharov gave several interviews to Western media condemning the irresponsible policy of the Soviet authorities. He reminded them that in half a year, the Olympic Games were to take place in Moscow:
“The ancient rules of the Olympics called for suspension of hostilities during the games. The USSR should withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. If it does not, the Olympic Committee should refuse to hold the games in a country that is waging war.” Sakharov told the German newspaper Die Welt.
Sakharov called on the warring sides to declare a cease-fire and proposed replacing Soviet troops with a UN contingent and holding free elections in Afghanistan without foreign intervention.
This became the last drop to overfill the cup of patience for the Soviet authorities. At the KGB’s initiative, the Politburo made the decision to isolate Academician Sakharov and remove him from Moscow to avoid his active public statements during the Olympics.
On January 22, Sakharov was detained by KGB officers on his way to work at FIAN and brought to the USSR Prosecutor’s Office, where he was informed of his exile “to a region of the country closed to visits by foreigners,” and to be more precise, to Gorky (renamed Nizhny Novgorod today), an industrial town in the provinces which was officially closed to entry by foreigners.
The Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR passed Decrees on the administrative exile of Andrei Sakharov from Moscow, on his residence under surveillance of the KGB, and on the stripping of his government awards “in connection with the systematic commission of actions defaming him as an awardee and taking into account the numerous proposals by the Soviet public.” In fact, no charges were made against him, a criminal case was not opened, and there were no judicial decisions regarding him. Everything that occurred was an act of abuse – one of the severe violations of human rights which Sakharov himself campaigned against.
On that same day, on a special flight, accompanied by KGB officers, Sakharov was brought to Gorky. Yelena Bonner voluntarily joined her husband.
They were settled in an apartment on the ground floor of an ordinary residential building on the outskirts of the city and informed that they were under the open surveillance of the KGB. Exile began, without a trial and without a limit, which lasted nearly seven years.
The KGB did everything to make Sakharov’s communication with the outside world as difficult as possible, especially with human rights defenders and the foreign press. Since Sakharov had not been arrested, he could leave his home; however, he was accompanied everywhere by KGB officers. Only his closest relatives and colleagues – scientists from FIAN – were allowed to visit him. His apartment was not equipped with a telephone, and near the door, a policeman was on duty round the clock, who did not allow visitors through to him. Mail addressed to him was confiscated. Foreign radio stations were jammed with a special device, so that the exiles could not listen to them at their home. Listening equipment was installed in all the rooms, and when Sakharov and Bonner were absent, their home was repeatedly and secretly searched, and manuscripts confiscated.
Nevertheless, the KGB could not completely isolate Sakharov. Yelena Bonner became his voice. Formally, she was free and not limited in her movements. It was she who, on December 28, brought to Moscow a statement from her husband in connection with his exile and read it at a press conference for foreign journalists.
“The actions of the authorities against me are aimed at making the continuation of my public activities completely impossible. They are aimed at humiliating and discrediting me and at the same time making possible further repressive measures against all dissident groups in the country (with less possibility of the world finding out about them), and also further international adventures,” stated Sakharov. “Soviet representatives are trying to calm world opinion by saying that I will be able to continue scientific work and that there is no threat of criminal prosecution against me. But I am prepared to stand trial openly. I do not need a gilded cage. I need the right to fulfil my public duty as my conscience dictates.”
On May 4, 1980, Sakharov completed work on his article “Alarming Time,” in which, as in his essay of 1975, “My Country and the World,” he appealed to a foreign audience. Yelena Bonner was able to transmit this article to the West, and it was published in the US.
Sakharov summarized in this article his views on the main problems of international politics (especially under the conditions formed after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan). Once again, he called on the West to preserve its consolidation around the values of humanism, freedom, and human rights. It was precisely in such consolidation, and not in the growth of military might, that he saw a guarantee of effective opposition to the political expansion of Soviet totalitarianism.
He also sketched out the moral state of modern Soviet society.
“The people of our country are to some extent confused and intimidated, of course. But there is also a conscious self-deception and an egoistic escape from difficult problems," wrote Sakharov. “But it was from the ranks of the people that the defenders of human rights emerged, standing up against deceit, hypocrisy and silence, armed only with pens, ready to make sacrifices, yet lacking the stimulus one derived from the certainty of quick success.”
He never forgot about his fellow human rights defenders who at that time were subjected to far more severe repression than he himself, and constantly called on his readers to show solidarity with them.
About himself, Sakharov wrote:
“In terms of everyday life, my situation is much better than that of my friends sent into exile or, particularly, sentenced to labor camp or prison. But all the measures taken against me have not even a shred of legality. It is part of a harsh, nationwide campaign against dissidents, including the attempt to force me to keep silent and thereby make it easier for repressive action against others. (…) Every time my wife leaves, I do not know whether she will be allowed to travel without hindrance and to return safely. (…) It is impossible to foresee what awaits us. Our only protection is the spotlight of public attention on our fate by friends around the world.”
From the first days of the exile of Academician Sakharov, a campaign of solidarity with him was launched throughout the world, which became one of the most important elements of international relations in the course of the next seven years. The governments of a number of Western countries expressed outrage against the gross violation of human rights in the Soviet Union through diplomatic channels. There were dozens of public actions in defense of Sakharov which took place in various countries of the world in the years of his exile. French President Francois Mitterrand, US President Ronald Reagan, and Federal Republic of Germany President Richard von Weizsäcker personally appealed to Soviet leaders, urging them to end the persecution of the world-famous scientist and defender of human rights and peace.
In subsequent years, several foreign universities awarded honorary scholarly degrees to Sakharov in absentia; a number of scientific societies and national academics of science elected him as their honorary member; and he was awarded several prestigious awards in the field of human rights. In 1981, an asteroid was named after him. By decision of the US president and Congress, May 21, 1983 was named National Andrei Sakharov Day, and in 1984, by decision of the city authorities of Washington, the square in front of the building of the Soviet Embassy was renamed “Sakharov Square.”
Throughout their whole time in exile, the fate of Andrei Sakharov and Yelena Bonner was the object of constant attention on the part of the governments of foreign countries and the international community.
In the years of Gorky exile, Sakharov did not cease his scientific work. He received a lot of scientific literature by mail from all the ends of the earth, although he was extremely limited in live conversation with colleagues. Fortunately, in March 1980, a month and a half after his exile from Moscow, researchers from the Department of Theoretical Physics at FIAN received permission to visit Sakharov in Gorky, and in the next six years and some months, they were able to visit him 23 times. There were 17 researchers from the department who took part in these trips, and for Sakharov, particularly significant were the visits of theoretical physicists who were working on the two areas of interest to him – cosmology and string theory. Each time, a meeting with colleagues turned into a discussion of many hours about their latest work and fresh news from world science.
“I continued to study physics and cosmology, working on the same themes that attracted my attention in the 1960s, but I wasn't able to come up with any substantially new ideas,” he wrote later.
In fact, six of his articles written and published from 1980–1986 became an important contribution to world science.
The first of these, “Mass Formulas for Mesons and Baryons in the Quark Model” and “An Estimate of the Coupling Constant Between Quarks and the Gluon Field” were published by 1980. They are devoted to the world of strongly interacting elementary particles – baryons (protons, neutrons, and their heavier “relatives”) and mesons (pi-meson and other carriers of strong interactions). According to the hypothesis advanced in 1964 by Murray Gell-Mann and George Zweig, baryons and mesons are not elementary, but consist of elemental particles called quarks; each baryon is made up of three quarks and a meson of two quarks. Aside from the usual electrical charge, quarks have their own specific charge, called a “color,” and corresponding to this charge an analogue of an electromagnetic field called a gluon field (its quants [gluons] are an analogue of photons). Unlike the usual particles, quarks, and gluons “do not fly,” that is, they do not exist in a free state, and do not disseminate through space. They are "locked" inside baryons and mesons, because their mutual attraction does not decrease as the distance between them increases (as is the case for electromagnetic or gravitational interaction, according to Coulomb's law and Newton's law of gravitation), but rather increases in proportion to the distance.
This speculative mathematical construction describes a lot of different experimental data, but the most important of the measured values – the masses of baryons and mesons, as well as the value of the quark interaction constant with the gluon field – is not predicted by the theory. Solving this problem, Sakharov proposed empirical formulas in his works in 1980 enabling the calculation of these masses and constant interaction, and subsequently it turned out that the values obtained by him differed from the observed values by only 1–5 percent.
The rest of his work during the period of exile was connected with cosmology and astrophysics. Above all, these articles, “Cosmological Models of the Universe with Reversal of Time’s Arrow'' (1980) and “A Multi-Sheet Cosmological Model” (1982).
Sakharov had been developing the hypothesis of the “multi-sheeted Universe” since 1970. By this term, he meant the pulsating University with the repetition of cycles of expansion-contraction (the “pages” of the “book” of the Universe); in fact, each subsequent cycle differed from the previous one. According to Sakharov’s calculations, the Universe with each cycle was becoming even greater, until at a certain moment the conditions would be made favorable for the formation of complex chemical compounds and a living cell with its hereditary apparatus and, as a result, the emergence of an intelligent civilization.
The idea of the pulsating “multi-sheeted” Universe so attracted him, that he mentioned it at the end of his famous Nobel lecture (1975), and in fact linked it to the most important ethical imperative which lay at the foundation of his civic and political beliefs:
“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.”
But Sakharov the physicist was especially interested in the initial moment of the process of the pulsation of the Universe and the emergence of the so-called “arrow of time.”
The ordinary irreversibility of processes observed by us, flowing through time, is called “the arrow of time.” Statistical physics connects this unidirectionality of the passage of time to the fundamental law of increasing entropy. In classical physics and in quantum mechanics, this "arrow" is not present – the whole theory is T-symmetric with respect to the reversal of time (T – time). That is, if you simultaneously change the speeds of all the planets to directly opposite ones, then the planets will move around the Sun along the same trajectories, only in the opposite direction.
In his article, “Cosmological Models with a Reverse of the Arrow of Time,” Sakharov advanced the hypothesis of the T-symmetry of the Universe as a whole relative to the initial moment of the Big Bang (the "moment of cosmological collapse Ф”), that is relative to that moment, which began with the first cycle of expansion of the Universe. According to this hypothesis, the question “What was before the Big Bang” (before the moment Ф) does not make sense, since our time was not there. The universe is perfectly symmetrical with respect to this moment; it began to expand in both directions from it – this is what Sakharov calls the “reversal of the arrow of time”.
The next article Sakharov wrote in 1984 was titled “Cosmological Transitions with a Change in Metric Signatures.”
The term “metric signatures” he used to designate the number of time axes. In our space-time there are three spatial dimensions (length, width, and height) and a one-time axis; that is, the signature is equal to one. Sakharov designated such a space-time with the letter U (from “Universe”). In classic theory, the change in the number of time axes is impossible, but Sakharov viewed the possibility of a quantum tunnel transition between spaces of different signatures, where “time” could be not one, but zero, two, three – as many as you like. Space without time, that is, with a zero signature, he designated with the letter “P”.
This work by Sakharov was in the vein of theoretical works on the reasons and first moments of the Big Bang and developed an approach according to which the Universe emerged “from nothing.”
“Nothing” is a space with the zero signature of P. The metric of such a space is Euclidean, since all its dimensions are spatial, but there is no time. If there is a “cosmological constant” in Einstein's equations of gravity, mathematically such a P-universe is simply a four-dimensional sphere. The quantum tunnel transition from the world P to the world U (that is, to “our” world with the signature one, described by the Minkowski metric) occurs along the large diameter (equator) of the sphere.
From this point on, the previously immobile “nothingness” of space P begins to expand rapidly (exponentially) with time. This stage of rapid expansion of the universe is called “inflation". The cosmological constant introduced into Einstein's equations now takes on the physical meaning of the gigantic “vacuum energy” that causes inflation. This quantum transition of the Universe from state P to state U occurs on a microscopic scale of the order of the so-called “Planck length” of 10⁻³³ cm. Sakharov’s work was an important contribution in the development of this entire line.
In this article, Sakharov also reviews the idea of the Mega-Universe, popular in our time, that is, the multiplicity of worlds likes ours (U-universes), as well as worlds with substantially different characteristics: “Let us note in conclusion that in the space P we should consider an infinite number of U-inclusions; even so, the parameters of an infinite number of them can be arbitrarily close to the parameters of the observed Universe. Therefore, we can assume that the number of Universes similar to our own, in which structures, life and intelligence are possible, is infinite. This does not exclude that life and intelligence are also possible in an infinite number of essentially different universes, forming a finite or infinite number of classes of ‘similar’ universes, including universes with a different signature than ours.”
Finally, Sakharov wrote a sixth6th article in 1986, the last year of his exile: “Evaporation of Black Mini-Holes and the Physics of High Energies.”
What is a black hole? A stone thrown upward on the surface of the Earth’s globe falls back to earth (disregarding losses of speed due to air friction) if its initial speed is less than 11 km per second (the so-called second cosmic velocity).
The light from the beam of a flashlight aimed upward does not fall back, since the speed of light at 300,000 km per second is obviously more than 11 km per second. The second cosmic velocity obviously increases if the mass of the gravitational center is increased, leaving its radius unchanged. If we increase the mass of the planet Earth to approximately a thousand masses of the Sun, keeping its radius of 6,400 km, then the second cosmic velocity on its surface is comparable to the speed of light. Such an “Earth” becomes a black hole – black, because it shows no light, if viewed from afar. Its light falls back on it.
In space, such concentrations of mass are quite possible, which lead to the formation of black holes, including supermassive black holes (with a mass of about a million or more masses of the Sun) discovered at the center of many galaxies. In the classic general theory of relativity, black holes are stable – eternal, since nothing can fly out from them. In quantum theory, however, as Steven Hawking illustrated, there is a quantum tunneling of radiation from inside the black hole into the surrounding space, because of which the black hole gradually evaporates, and the “lifetime” of the black hole depends only on its mass, and with a decrease in mass it quickly decreases. Thus, the lifetime of the black hole whose mass is equal to the mass of the Sun is many times more than the time of existence of the Universe, and for a black hole of a mass of ten tons, it is about one second.
The hypothetical black mini-holes studied by Sakharov are microscopic; accordingly, their quantum evaporation occurs in a negligible fraction of a second. Such mini-holes could in a large quantity form – and immediately evaporate – in the initial moments of the expansion of the Universe. Sakharov noted that the decay products of these early black mini-holes preserved in space until today are not trivial and studying them (if these products would be detected in cosmic rays) may yield information about the processes of ultrahigh energies. His calculations also enable us to get closer to an understanding of the nature of the hidden mass – the so-called “black materials,” whose mass, according to the estimates of astrophysicists, make up 25% of the mass of the Universe, whereas the mass of visible material is only 5%, and the remaining 70% accounts for the mass of “dark energy” (the energy of a vacuum).
Some of Sakharov’s works written in exile, for example the empirical formulas for the mass of mesons and baryons anticipates numerous works by other authors on the same topic. Others were directed at the distant future.
Fundamental physics remained a subject of joy and admiration for Andrei Sakharov throughout his entire life. When Yelena Bonner, after his death, was asked to characterize her husband with one word, she replied, “He was a physicist.” And he himself, completing in 1988 his memoirs, with unexpected emotion called the majestic spectacle of developing world science a “miracle,” and wrote:
“I don't believe that we will come up with a theory that can explain everything in the universe anytime soon (and perhaps never), but I have seen fantastic advances just in the course of my own lifetime, and there is no reason to expect the stream to dry up: on the contrary, I believe it will broaden and branch out.”
On May 1–3, 1981 in New York, the Physics Society and the National Academy of Sciences held an international symposium, “Scientists and Human Rights,” devoted to the 60th birthday of Andrei Sakharov. It was part of a broad international campaign of solidarity with Sakharov and ended with the passing of an appeal to the Soviet government in his defense.
For this symposium, Sakharov wrote an article, “The Responsibility of Scientists,” appealing to the international scientific community.
“Scientists in the modern world bear a special responsibility both in the professional and in the civic sense”, he emphasized. "Because of the international nature of our profession, scientists form the one real worldwide community which exists today. (...) But the integration of the scientific community has inevitably progressed beyond narrow professional interests and now embraces a broad range of universal issues, including ethical questions.”
Sakharov devoted a significant portion of his article to the fate of Soviet dissidents repressed for their beliefs and their civic activity and called on colleagues from around the world to take a more active part in the international campaigns of solidarity with the prisoners of conscience and in defense of human rights as a whole.
“I am not speaking about a struggle for power. This is not politics. It is a struggle to preserve peace and those ethical values which have been developed as our civilization evolved. By their example and by their fate, prisoners of conscience affirm that the defense of justice, the international defense of individual victims of violence, the defense of mankind's lasting interests are the responsibility of every scientist,” Sakharov wrote in conclusion of his essay.
Sakharov, who ascribed a great deal of meaning to freedom of the place of one’s residence and the right to emigration, was compelled to face the violation of this right regarding a member of his own family. After his stepson Alexey Semyonov emigrated to the US in 1978, the Soviet authorities categorically refused permission for his fiancé, Elizaveta (Liza) Alexeyeva, to follow him. Thus, they hoped to put mental pressure on Sakharov, in order to force him to cease his human rights activity. But they failed to achieve this goal. Before Sakharov and Bonner wound up in exile, Liza Alexeyeva had lived with them as a daughter-in-law and had supported them in everything, and they did everything to help her.
In the fate of Liza and Alexei, Sakharov saw a personal example of a general problem; due to the closed nature of the country and the impossibility of reuniting with relatives, thousands of people suffered in the same way in the Soviet Union.
Sakharov’s appeal to the Soviet leadership and calls to influential politicians in the West for help went without results. So, in the fall of 1982, he was forced to resort to an extreme measure: on November 22, Andrei Sakharov and Yelena Bonner began a hunger strike.
The fact that in the Soviet Union, a prominent scientist, a well-known public figure, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate was forced to go on a hunger strike in order to obtain permission from the authorities of his country for a woman to go abroad to reunite with her finance, became one of the central topics of the international agenda. Official representatives of several Western governments spoke in support of the position of Sakharov and Bonner; the US Senate passed a resolution in solidarity with Sakharov; scientists, public figures, and journalists spoke out, sharply condemning human rights violations in the USSR. The famous American science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke dedicated his new novel: 2010: Odyssey Two, from the Space Odyssey series, to Sakharov.
The Soviet authorities could not ignore the international campaign in defense of Sakharov for long, but they did not give in right away.
On December 4, KGB officers broke into the home of Sakharov and Bonner and under the pretext of concern for their health, forcibly took them to different hospitals. They threatened both with using the torturous procedure of forced-feeding if they did not cease their hunger strike; however, Sakharov and his wife firmly stood their ground. And finally, on December 8, KGB officers came to Sakharov and reported that the demand to let Liza leave had been granted, but first, he must cease his fast. "I said that I took the KGB's promises seriously, but that my wife and I had jointly made the decision to begin the hunger strike and we could decide to end it only when we were together." That same day, Yelena Bonner was brought to him. The 17-day hunger strike was ended, and on December 19, Elizaveta Alexeyeva flew to the US.
This hunger strike cost Andrei Sakharov and Yelena Bonner dearly. The state of their health significantly worsened after these events.
On February 2, 1983, Sakharov finished work on an article, “The Danger of Thermonuclear War: Open Letter to Dr. Sydney Drell.” This was the most comprehensive exposition of his views on issues of peace and disarmament.
Sidney Drell (1926–2016) was a prominent American physicist and public figure who was a friend of Sakharov and one of the most active of his defenders in the West. Sakharov’s article was a response to Drell’s speech dedicated to the danger of nuclear war and issues of détente and nuclear disarmament.
Stating that in the 1970s, the arms race had come to a new stage and that a shift in the strategic balance in the world had occurred in favor of the USSR, Sakharov warned the readers of his article of naivete and political idealism on the questions of détente.
“Of course it would be wiser to agree now to reduce nuclear and conventional weapons and to eliminate nuclear weapons entirely. But is that possible now in a world poisoned with fear and mistrust, a world where the West fears aggression from the USSR, the USSR. fears aggression from the West and from China, and where China fears it from the USSR, and no verbal assurances and treaties can eliminate those dangers entirely?” he wrote. “I am certain that it is absolutely necessary to be mindful of the specific political, military, and strategic realities of the present day and to do so objectively without making any sort of allowances for either side; this also means that one should not proceed from an a priori assumption of any special peace-loving nature in the socialist countries due to their supposed progressiveness or the horrors and losses they have experienced in war. Objective reality is much more complicated and far from anything so simple.”
In that connection, he considered it was the correct decision to place American medium-range missiles in Europe, believing a parity of forces would thus be formed, which would serve as the basis for serious negotiations between East and West.
“What is necessary is to strive, systematically though carefully, for complete nuclear disarmament based on strategic parity in conventional weapons,” emphasized Sakharov. “As long as there are nuclear weapons in the world, there must be a strategic parity of nuclear forces so that neither side will venture to embark on a limited or regional nuclear war. Genuine security is possible only when based on a stabilization of international relations, a repudiation of expansionist policies, the strengthening of international trust, openness and pluralization in the socialist societies, the observance of human rights throughout the world, the rapprochement-convergence of the socialist and capitalist systems, and worldwide coordinated efforts to solve global problems.”
In June of that year, the article was published in the American journal Foreign Affairs. It provoked a great response in the West since the vision of a strategic correlation of forces between East and West which Sakharov expressed contradicted the views of many Western pacifists. At that same time, the article’s tendency against pro-Soviet propaganda aimed at the West, the exposure by Sakharov of the peace-loving rhetoric behind which was hidden the striving of the Soviet regime toward political expansion, provoked the fury of the Soviet authorities.
Soon after the publication by the American journal Foreign Affairs of Sakharov’s article, “The Danger of Thermonuclear War: An Open Letter to Dr. Sidney Drell,” a campaign of harassment of him was launched, sanctioned by the authorities.
On July 2–3, 1983, an article appeared in several newspapers signed by four Soviet academicians (who, most likely, were not its real authors) titled “When Honor and Conscience are Lost.” In it, Sakharov was portrayed as a person who is "suggesting the use of the monstrous force of nuclear weapons to intimidate the Soviet people again, to compel our country to capitulate before an American ultimatum."
“We know that Sakharov is very popular with those Americans who would like to wipe our country and socialism off the fate of the earth. Such friends are always raising a hullabaloo about ‘the tragic fate of Sakharov’,” said the article. (…) “No, our government, our people, have been more than tolerant toward this man who is living peacefully in the city of Gorky, from where he sends out his misanthropic concoctions.”
Sakharov himself assessed this article as a provocation, the purpose of which was to “provoke public indignation at my ‘warmongering’ stance and to brand me a traitor, scorning and hating the people.”
Following this article, a flood of insulting and threatening letters deluged Sakharov and his wife. There were about 2,500 of such missives, and in fact all of them were promptly delivered to their apartment in Gorky, despite the fact that the senders could not have known the exact address of the exiled academician.
Several times, Sakharov and Bonner were subjected to hysterical attacks in public places from strangers who fiercely denounced them as “traitors.”
The organizers of the harassment counted on mentally breaking Sakharov and giving him the impression that he himself and his activity were rejected by the people whose rights he defended.
As for the official position of the authorities, Yury Andropov, who replaced Leonid Brezhnev in 1982 in the post of head of the party and state (having previously headed the KGB), in a conversation with a group of American senators, said Sakharov was “psychiatrically ill,” and therefore his statements about persecution should not be taken seriously.
In 1983, enormous psychological pressure was concentrated on Sakharov’s wife.
In sharing her husband’s exile, Yelena Bonner provided him a connection with the outside world. She brought out his articles, letters, and statements from Gorky and passed them to human rights defenders and foreign journalists. Thanks to her help, Sakharov preserved the ability to express himself on issues of international policy, in defense of human rights in the USSR, and in support of prisoners of conscience and victims of “punitive psychiatry.” It was her activism that did not let the discredited academician become completely isolated. This made Yelena Bonner a target of the KGB’s hatred.
In his book The CIA against the USSR, Nikolai Yakovlev devoted a separate chapter to an “expose” of her, filled with libel and personal insults. Several similar articles by the same author were published in several popular journals with enormous circulation. In them, Yelena Bonner is depicted as the “evil genius” of her husband; it is exclaimed that she pushed him on to the path of treason against the Motherland out of mercenary motives, and Sakharov himself is portrayed as a completely dependent person, who is manipulated by Western intelligence services through his wife.
On July 14, 1983, at a time when Bonner was in Moscow, Yakovlev came to Gorky, came to Sakharov’s apartment, and announced that he wanted to make an interview with him for a new edition of his book. Their conversation ended with Sakharov, who was usually restrained and tactful, slapping the unwanted guest in the face and kicking him out of his home.
The unbridled harassment of Yelena Bonner led her to suffering several myocardial infarctions during 1983. In an open letter to “scientist colleagues,” appealing to scientists in the Soviet Union and throughout the world, which Sakharov distributed in November 1983, he wrote:
“[M]y wife Yelena Bonner became the sole hostage for my public activity. The whole responsibility for my statements in defense of peace and human rights has been shifted onto her (...) The KGB appraises Yelena's role in my life and public activity very highly and seeks to eliminate her moral influence and, I have reason to fear, her physical presence as well.”
In April 1984, the Politburo made the decision to open up a criminal case against Sakharov’s wife. Thus, they counted on depriving the exiled academician the connection with the outside world which she provided. By that time, Yelena Bonner had managed to make more than 100 trips from Gorky to Moscow, where she always met with human rights defenders and foreign journalists and passed on to them the manuscripts of her husband. As long as Bonner had freedom of movement, the KGB could not completely isolate Sakharov. Moreover, Sakharov had for several months attempted to obtain permission for her to travel abroad for necessary medical treatment, but the Soviet authorities categorically refused to let his wife out from under their control.
On May 2, Yelena Bonner was detained at the airport in the city of Gorky before a flight to Moscow. She was charged under Art. 190-1 of the RSFSR Criminal Code (dissemination of deliberately false fabrications defaming the Soviet state and social order) and made to sign a pledge that she would not leave town. That same day, Sakharov began an open-ended hunger strike and soon was forcibly hospitalized. He did not know what was happening with his wife, and even if she was still alive. She also did not receive information about what was happening with her husband in the hospital. She could not leave the city, and she had no means of communication accessible to her.
The trial of Yelena Bonner took place on August 10. She was sentenced to five years of exile with the punishment to be served at the place of residence of her husband, that is, in the same city of Gorky, from which she did not have the right to leave without special permission. Sakharov was in the hospital on that day. He had maintained the hunger strike, but he was subjected to the tortuous procedure of forced-feeding.
After the conviction of Bonner, the Soviet authorities managed almost completely to halt the flow of reliable information about the fate of Sakharov and his wife to the outside world, and it seemed to them that the “Sakharov problem” would soon be solved.
Back in late 1983, after his wife Yelena had suffered several heart attacks, Sakharov had begun to appeal to the Soviet leadership with requests to permit her to travel abroad for treatment of her heart and eye disease – the consequences of a concussion suffered during the war. It was a question of her health and even life; it was impossible to obtain medical assistance in the Soviet Union commensurate with the severity of her medical condition: the qualified doctors the disgraced academician reached out to, refused to treat her; she didn't feel safe in the hospital.
Without a response from the authorities of his own country,, Sakharov began to turn for support to the international community. Soon, as with the case of Liza Alexeyeva, he encountered an outrageous violation of human rights within his own family. Under threat was his wife’s right to life, but in a country where freedom of movement was restricted, thousands of citizens were in the same position.
The name of Yelena Bonner was no less known in the West as the name of Andrei Sakharov himself; however, the authorities did not want to meet the exiled human rights defender halfway as a matter of principle. Finally, on May 2, 1984, Bonner was detained, and she was charged with disseminating “deliberately false fabrications defaming the Soviet state and social order.”
In reply, Sakharov the very same day declared an open-ended hunger strike. This was an extreme measure to save Yelena. He did not demand anything for himself; on the contrary, he emphasized that the ruthless attitude toward his wife was connected only with her support of his human rights activity.
On May 7, under the pretext of concern about his health, he was forcibly hospitalized in a hospital in Gorky. Yelena Bonner was forcibly dragged out of his room and later not allowed to visit him.
For the next four months Sakharov was held in the hospital. The authorities, fearing an international outcry, did not want to allow the death of a Nobel Peace Prize laureate due to a hunger strike; therefore, they began to force-feed him – an extremely torturous, humiliating, and life-threatening procedure. The most difficult part of his exile began. On May 27, after they began to strangle him during each feeding to force him to open his mouth, he agreed to begin voluntarily accepting food. He was released from the hospital only on September 8 – the day after the sentence imposed on his wife entered into legal force.
During Sakharov’s hunger strike, an international campaign of solidarity with him reached unprecedented intensity. Every change in his situation became an active factor in international politics. These events had a particularly strong influence on Soviet-American relations. President Ronald Reagan and the US Congress declared Sakharov’s birthday, May 21, a National Sakharov Day.
In response, the Soviet authorities disseminated officials reports in which it was claimed that the information about the systematic persecution of Sakharov and Bonner in the Soviet Union, and especially that their life was under threat, were a provocation on the part of American intelligence services, and that Bonner’s state of health did not require treatment abroad.
The Soviet government at first denied the fact that Sakharov was on a hunger strike, and then began to emphasize that it had been voluntarily ended. As proof that the academician and his wife were alive and well, video tapes made with a hidden camera were given to Western television campaigns. “Sakharov and Bonner are healthy. Perhaps, in the psychological warfare centers of the West, they would like to hear different news, but we cannot report anything else to them,” said an official report.
On March 11, 1985, after the death of the 74-year-old Konstantin Chernenko, at an emergency meeting of the Plenary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CC CPSU), the energetic 54-year-old Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev was elected as General Secretary of the CC CPSU. He became the first leader of the Soviet government whose career developed in the post-Stalin era, and his vision of the problems and prospects for development of the USSR were different than his predecessors.
Under Gorbachev, the country was gradually drawn into a process of economic, and then political reforms as well, which were called “perestroika”; however, the first period of the change in government did not reflect on the situation of Soviet political prisoners and exiles, including Andrei Sakharov and Yelena Bonner.
On April 16, 1985, Sakharov resumed an open-ended hunger strike, as before, demanding permission for his wife to travel abroad for medical treatment. Five days later, once again he was forcibly hospitalized in the same hospital, where the torturous procedures of forced feeding were resumed three times a day. Now he was not being suffocated, but by pressing heavily on his face, they were forcing him to open his mouth to pour in liquid nutrition.
Just as during the previous time, Yelena Bonner was refused permission to visit her husband. Sakharov did not know what was happening to her, and this was an additional torment for him.
On July 11, he halted his hunger strike. On the same day, he was discharged from the hospital, but after resting at home for a while, on July 25th he renewed his hunger strike, realizing what would follow. And once again he was hospitalized. The torture of forced feeding continued. By that time, he had lost about 20 kilograms or about 44 pounds of weight. At his age, and with his state of health, everything happening with each passing day was increasingly threatening his life.
With great difficulty, information about the situation of Sakharov and Bonner reached the West, but the international campaign in their defense did not lessen. US president Ronald Reagan and West German President Richard von Weizsäcker appealed to Mikhail Gorbachev with a request to release the exiled human rights defender and permit his wife to leave the country. Tens of thousands of people sent appeals with the same content through the mail. The UN, the International League for Human Rights and several other civic organizations announced that Andrei Sakharov had been declared a missing person since there was no news of his status. The most influential public figures of the world and the most prominent scientists expressed solidarity with the Gorky exiles.
The Soviet authorities continued to insist that Sakharov and his wife were all fine; however, what was happening was causing more and more concern for Gorbachev.
On July 29, Sakharov sent him a letter from the hospital, once again asking to permit Yelena Bonner the trip abroad, and stating about himself that he intended to concentrate on his scientific work and “cease public statements, except for exceptional situations,” that is, those cases when his conscience would not allow him to remain silent.
By an accidental coincidence, that same day, the USSR declared a unilateral moratorium on conducting nuclear tests. Gorbachev figured that in response, the US would start negotiations about nuclear disarmament; however, the unsolved “Sakharov problem” hindered this. And finally, the Politburo, under pressure from Gorbachev, agreed to meet the exiled academician halfway, and allow his wife “as an exception” to travel abroad for treatment. Yelena Bonner signed a statement that while abroad, she would not give any interviews or press conferences. Only after that, on October 21, 1985, the documents for her travel began to be processed.
On that same day, Sakharov announced the end of his hunger strike, and was discharged home from the hospital. He was exhausted, but not psychologically broken.
The total length of his hunger strike, beginning May 2, 1984, was 178 days.
On December 2, Yelena Bonner flew from Moscow to Italy, where she consulted with an ophthalmologist, and then headed to the US, where her mother, children and grandchildren were located. In January 1986, she had complicated open-heart surgery in an American clinic, and her life was saved. After that, despite expectations, she did not remain in the West, but voluntarily returned to exile, to her husband.
She did not directly fly back to the USSR but made several trips around the United States and then around Europe. She expressed gratitude to all those who during the years of exile supported her and Sakharov. She was received by the heads of states and governments of Italy, France, and Great Britain and also high-ranking officials of the US as well as Pope John Paul II. This was a signal directed at Mikhail Gorbachev, head of the Soviet state. The leaders of the countries of the West thus emphasized their solidarity with the position of Andrei Sakharov.
On June 2, 1986, Yelena Bonner flew back to Moscow, and on the next day, returned to her husband in Gorky. In their own country, both remained exiles as before.
On February 19, 1986, Sakharov sent General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev a letter, devoted to one of the socially significant problems about which he considered he could not remain silent. He called on the head of state to release the prisoners of conscience – human rights defenders and religious believers in labor camps, exile, and psychiatric hospitals.
This appeal was a reaction to the interview with Gorbachev published by the organ of the French Communist Party, L’Humanité, in which he said in particular: “Now, about political prisoners, we don't have any. Likewise, our citizens are not prosecuted for their beliefs. We don't try people for their opinions.”
Sakharov explained that prisoners of conscience were “persons detained for their beliefs or for actions motivated by their beliefs that have not used or advocated violence” and are political prisoners. By his calculations, at that moment in the USSR, there were about 200 prisoners of conscience, out of which he personally knew about 30 people.
“In all the cases known to me, honest, selfless people have been convicted (...) for the circulation of information which they believed to be true and which in most instances was in fact true (...),” he wrote. Despite the diatribes in our press, their motives in the overwhelming majority of cases were honorable – they were striving for justice, for openness and for the rule of law. People do not sacrifice themselves because of greed or vanity, for base or insignificant aims!”
Sakharov appealed not simply to the head of the Soviet state; he saw Gorbachev as a person of a new generation, capable of changing the traditional repressive policy of the Soviet regime and had hope in him.
“There should not be any prisoners of conscience at all in a just society! (...) Release them and get rid of this painful issue (...),” he urged. “It would substantially increase our country's prestige. It would make all international contacts easier. It would advance the openness of our society, international confidence, and the cause of peace. It would gain the support of a significant part of the Soviet intelligentsia. (...) And this wise, humanitarian act would certainly evoke a positive response throughout the world.”
Several months passed, but Sakharov did not receive any reply. Then he decided to make public his appeal to the General Secretary. On September 3, 1986, the text of the letter was published abroad.
“I like to think that my letter, and my return with Lusia to Moscow in the era of proclaimed glasnost, may have played some role in the prisoner release program initiated in January 1987,” Sakharov wrote later.
On the evening of December 15, 1986, a KGB officer unexpectedly came to their home accompanied by two electricians. Without explaining anything, they ran cable into the apartment and installed a telephone. As he was leaving, the KGB man said that tomorrow, they should expect a certain call.
The next day the phone really did ring – it was Mikhail Gorbachev personally calling Sakharov. He announced that the Gorky exiles were free and could return to Moscow.
Thanking him, Sakharov immediately spoke up about the political prisoners, reminding him of his February letter.
“I urge you to look one more time at the question of releasing persons convicted for their beliefs. It's a matter of justice. It's vitally important for our country, for international trust, for peace, and for you and the success of your program,” he said.
Gorbachev did not keep the conversation on this topic going, but the main thing had already been said – Andrei Sakharov and Yelena Bonner, the most famous Soviet human rights defenders and prisoners of conscience were granted freedom.
Undoubtedly, this was for Gorbachev one of the most important decisions taken by him in his entire political career. The release of the discredited academician was the first sign of a coming softening of the political regime in the country.
The next day, the Decrees of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR concerning the exile of Sakharov to Gorky was rescinded, and Yelena Bonner received a pardon. Thus, Sakharov’s exile without a trial, which had lasted 6 years and 11 months, was ended.
On December 23, Andrei Sakharov and Yelena Bonner arrived back in Moscow. For the whole world, their release was sensational news, the harbinger of important changes in the USSR. Dozens of correspondents from foreign media met them at the station, but the Soviet press was forbidden to write about the return of Sakharov. The internal political situation in the country remained uncertain.