On 25 December 1979, by decision of the Politburo of the CPSU Central Committee, Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan.
Thus, the Soviet leadership hoped to change the correlation of forces in opposition to the US in Central Asia in its favor. The Afghan war began — the longest, most brutal, and bloody conflict in which the Soviet Union took part after World War II.
Sakharov in an interview to Western media sharply condemned the entry of Soviet forces into Afghanistan.
Interview with ABC News. 17 January 1980.
On 22 January, he is detained on his way to work at the Lebedev Institute and brought to the USSR Prosecutor General’s Office, where he is informed of the stripping of his state awards and honorary titles and of administrative exile from Moscow.
That same day, Sakharov and his wife, accompanied by KGB officers, are brought by a special flight to the city of Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod) and settled in the remote outskirts of town.
This exile without trial lasted nearly seven years. Its purpose was the maximum restriction of external contacts by Sakharov and above all on his communications with foreigners, who were prohibited from entering Gorky.
There was no telephone in the apartment where Sakharov and Bonner lived. The KGB conducted clandestine searches a number of times and confiscated manuscripts; there were listening devices put in the rooms.
Officers of the police and the KGB are on guard around the clock at the building and in front of the Sakharovs’ door, and do not allow undesirable visitors to enter.
Diagram of Sakharov's isolation and surveillance of him in his apartment in Gorky
Surveillance from the house across the street
Artificial jamming of radio stations signals
24-hour post at the door to the apartment
Andrei Sakharov and Elena Bonner in Gorky, summer 1984 Hidden cameras of the USSR KGB
“The policeman sat in the hallway in front of our door, constantly for the entire seven years. There was a desk on the stairway landing, and a policeman sat at it with his back to our door. If I or Lusya came out, he would sit motionless, never turning around, never greeting us. In the morning, one of us would go out for the newspaper, which the mailman would leave on his desk (he was forbidden to ring the doorbell), and ‘our’ policeman would silently hand the newspaper to us over his shoulder”.
Even under such conditions, Sakharov continues his scientific work and his civic activity.
His connection to the outside world is his wife, Elena Bonner. She brings out the texts he writes from Gorky and transmits them to the West, holds press conferences and informs the world community about the status of Academician Sakharov.
Elena Bonner manages to make more than 100 trips to Moscow until, in the summer of 1984, charges are brought against her for “slander against the Soviet social and state order”. She is sentenced to five years of exile, which the punishment to be served at her husband's place of residence — in Gorky. Sakharov is now finally isolated.
The authorities once again try to discredit Sakharov. In the Soviet press, with millions of print runs, attacks on him are published, and libel is disseminated against his wife.
The exiles received by mail the letters of supposedly ordinary people, outraged at their “anti-Soviet activity”. There are even threats of physical reprisals.
While in exile, protesting against the pressure put on his family, Sakharov is thrice forced to resort to the means of hunger strikes for many days.
A 17-day hunger-strike together with Elena Bonner. He demands that Elizaveta (Liza) Alexeyeva, the fiancé of his stepson, Alexei Semyonov, be permitted to travel abroad to rejoin her fiancé, who had earlier emigrated to the US. Liza is released.
Start of an open-ended hunger strike demanding permission for his wife to travel abroad for complicated heart surgery. Fasts for 26 days. Compulsory hospitalization, forced feeding.
Resumption of the open-ended hunger strike with the same demands. Once again compulsory hospitalization and forced feeding. Ends the hunger strike after learning that the authorities have met him halfway. The total duration of the hunger strike is 178 days.
In April 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev is chosen as General Secretary of the Central Committee of the CPSU. The structural crisis of the Soviet system becomes more and more apparent. Gorbachev rapidly declares himself as an advocate of reform.
On July 29, 1985, Sakharov, while in the hospital, sends Gorbachev a letter. Fearing for his wife's life, he once again asks to allow her abroad for treatment and even promises to “cease public statements, except for exceptional situations”. This request was successful.
Elena Bonner obtains the opportunity to travel to the US, but after the operation on her heart, she announces her decision to return to Gorky. On the way home, she visits several European countries where the heads of state receive her, thus emphasizing their solidarity with Sakharov's position.
While Sakharov is in exile, the campaign throughout the world in his defense does not cease.
A number of foreign universities award Sakharov honorable scientific degrees. Washington Square, where the Soviet embassy building is located, is renamed Sakharov Square. President Francois Mitterrand of France, President Ronald Reagan of the United States and President Richard von Weizsäcker of the Federal Republic of Germany personally appeal to Soviet leaders to end the persecution of the world-famous scientist and defender of human rights and peace.
Demonstrations in support of Andrei Sakharov and Elena Bonner. Paris, 1985
Human rights defender Lev Kopelev speaks at a demonstration in defense of Sakharov in West Germany. 1985
On 15 December 1986, suddenly a phone was installed in the apartment of Sakharov.
Telephone in Sakharov's apartment in Gorky
The next day Gorbachev informs Sakharov in a telephone conversation about his release.
Soon Andrei Sakharov and Elena Bonner return to Moscow.
On 23 December, they are met at the train station by nearly all the foreign journalists in Moscow.
The Soviet press was still banned from reporting on Sakharov's return, but the international community perceived the release of the disgraced human rights defender as a very important sign of change in the Soviet leadership's domestic political line.
Meeting of Sakharov and Bonner at the Yaroslavl Station. 23 December 1986.