Dissent in the Soviet Union: The Role of Andrei Sakharov in the Human Rights Movement

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004

32 Pages, Grade: A




1. Dissent in the Soviet Union

2. The Human Rights Movement

3. Andrei Sakharov’s ‘First Life’: 1921-1965

4. Andrei Sakharov’s ‘Second Life’: 1966-1979

5. Andrei Sakharov in Exile: 1980-1986

6. Andrei Sakharov Back in Moscow: 1987-1989



‘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.’ (From the Nobel Lecture of Andrei Sakharov, 1975)

Dissent in the Soviet Union was not well known: neither in the West nor in Soviet society itself. Prior to the end of total terror with the death of Stalin in 1953, dissent in the Soviet Union could not be expressed publicly. In his first years in power, Khrushchev tolerated a certain degree of free discussion and even released some political prisoners. Soon, however, the ‘refreezing of the thaw’ began, especially under Brezhnev; critics became too outspoken, and demands for free expression exceeded ‘acceptable limits’. The Communist Party regained absolute control over the flow of information and ideas, and over all kinds of literature. Yet despite the ideological penetration and strict surveillance of society through the authorities and the KGB in particular, some people were able to fight for their rights and for a rival vision of freedom and justice.

It is debatable whether the term ‘movement’ can be appropriately applied to dissent in the Soviet Union since it lacked any organizational structure or formal program. That said, the term is commonly used to describe the group of people, emerging in the early 1960s, who raised their voice against policies of the regime.

Soon, the physicist Andrei Sakharov was considered to represent the spirit of the movement: ‘he embodies the human rights movement in his own person: self-sacrifice, a willingness to help persons […] who are illegally prosecuted; intellectual tolerance, unwavering insistence on the rights and dignity of the individual, and an aversion to lies and to all forms of violence (Alexeyeva 1985: 332).’ A father of the Soviet hydrogen-bomb, Sakharov’s life came to a radical turning-point when his interest shifted from physics – which had placed him among the elite of Soviet society – to politics – which converted him into a nonconformist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate. From the year 1965 on, he fought tirelessly for the rights of individuals and minorities, shrinking from no conflict with the regime that had once provided him with the luxuries due to an outstanding scientist and that ultimately sent him into exile.

This paper seeks to illuminate the role Andrei Sakharov has played in the human rights movement in the Soviet Union. At the same time, a portrait of his life and his activities as a dissident in particular shed light on the history of the country itself. Of course, the following sections can only offer a fragment of Sakharov’s life and significance, but even a partial treatment will allow important conclusions to be drawn.

1. Dissent in the Soviet Union

First of all, the term ‘dissent’ needs to be clarified for it plays a significant role in the following discussion.[1] Dissent is a form of disagreement that is not organized and does not seek to replace the existing regime, or to challenge the right of existing rulers to exercise political authority. It merely seeks to criticize, to exhort, to persuade, to be listened to. Opposition in a sense of legal opposition, in contrast, ‘requires organization and other facilities in order to enable it to achieve political power by displacing the present incumbents from their offices (Shapiro 1972: 35).’

It can be said that politics inevitably produces dissent. In the case of the Soviet Union, however, political leaders have never tolerated, protected, or even encouraged minorities to express their view. Nevertheless, political dissent in the Soviet Union increasingly became a concern for Soviet leadership (Powell 1972). While Khrushchev’s rule (1957-1964) was rather permissive, at least during the so-called ‘thaw’ until 1958 (Goldanskii 1991: 23), Brezhnev and Kosygin initiated politics that focused on maintaining the Communist Party’s power, being manifested in the repression of dissident groups. This policy of punishment and harassment is less cruel than under Stalin but still shocking by Western standards (Powell 1972).

From the very beginning of Soviet rule, freedom of speech and other fundamental rights have been suppressed through directives and practices which were gradually amplified by ‘a comprehensive censorship system, an official style of artistic expression (socialist realism), and a set of laws and administrative procedures designed to punish those who deviate from prescribed norms (Powell 1972: 204).’ Punishment often meant prison, labor camp, mental hospital, or even exile.[2] As a result of continuous exposure to disinformation and manipulation, the population of the USSR ‘lost any real conception of its past and present history. History was replaced by the myths of official ideologues (Alexeyeva 1985: 4).’ Adding to that the penetration of the Communist Party into virtually every aspect of political, societal, legal, and cultural life, it becomes clear that dissidents in the Soviet Union faced an imposing spectrum of instruments used to repress dissent. Nevertheless, the regime did not succeed in inhibiting dissent. Undoubtedly, circulation and exchange of views was made much more difficult but could not be prevented.

As Alexeyeva (1985) in her book impressively demonstrates, dissent in the Soviet Union was no homogeneous phenomenon but appeared in different forms. She classifies the numerous movements in seven categories: movements for self-determination, movements of deported nations, movements for emigration, movements for religious liberty, the movement for human rights, the movement for social and economic justice, and the Russian national movement. Of course, there are several overlaps of these movements in terms of their adherents and causes, illustrated especially by the activities of Andrei Sakharov who stood up for the rights of many groups in the Soviet Union. Yet since he was considered to be one of the leaders of the human rights movement, the following sections will focus on his activities in this realm.

2. The Human Rights Movement

According[3] to Alexeyeva (1985), the human rights movement in the Soviet Union is considered to have a specific birth-date – December 5, 1965 – when for the first time demonstrators gathered in Moscow’s Pushkin Square, claiming the respect of the Constitution. The cause for this silent protest was the arrest of the Moscow writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel who published their essays and books under pseudonyms abroad and frankly approved Boris Pasternak’s work, which was condemned by the regime (Alexeyeva 1985). Their arrest seemed to be a calculated declaration of war on samizdat (self-published materials) by the authorities. On their behalf, Alexander Esenin-Volpin, a mathematician and writer, often referred to as the father of the human rights movement, with the help of Vladimir Bukovsky, who was known for organizing of the poetry readings in Mayakovsky Square in the years before, encouraged their friends to ‘act as free, responsible citizens’ (Rubenstein 1985: 36) by demanding a public trial in conformity with the Constitution.[4]

From a broader perspective, as Alexeyeva (1985) points out, ‘the human rights movement was born out of the experience of people who lived their lives under conditions of lawlessness, cruelty, and assault on the personality “in the interests of the collective” or for the sake of “the bright future of all humankind” (268).’

The arrest of Sinyavsky and Daniel and the subsequent demonstration were, as it turned out, followed by a crucial series of events. After a trial lasting for four days, on February 10, 1966, Sinyavsky and Daniel were tried under article 70 of the Criminal Code, accused of ‘anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda’ and received a (maximum) seven-year sentence in the camps and five years respectively.[5] Although the regime calculated to intimidate the intellectual community, petitions and letters of protest descended on the Soviet leadership that was also criticized from abroad, even by Western Communist party leaders.

The early efforts by secret discussion groups and Moscow students publishing samizdat journals, backed by the extensive domestic and foreign protest against the trial, developed into a nationwide movement. As Tökés (1975) puts it, ‘the appearance of scores of signed statements and new self-published journals and newsletters and the large-scale influx of many hitherto politically passive elements into the movement, especially between 1966 and 1968, represented the high-water mark in the history of postwar protest (12).’

At the same time, rumors of Stalin’s rehabilitation through official references circulated – a useful barometer to gauge the repressive attitude of the authorities. In a similar vein, a public discourse on June 22, 1941 , a book by historian Alexander Nekrich on the effects of Stalin’s purge of the military, was occurring.

It was in this context, that Andrei Sakharov appeared for the first time as a spokesperson for human rights. Together with several other influential intellectuals, he signed a petition sent directly to Brezhnev, expressing their opposition to Stalin’s rehabilitation (Rubenstein 1985). Whether their protest was decisive or not, the Party Congress continued to condemn Stalin.

Before turning to Andrei Sakharov’s activities in the human rights movement, the following section will give a short outline of his life before the ‘metamorphosis from conformist to dissident’ (Bailey 1988) as his role as an activist can be assessed and understood only by considering his complete life course.

3. Andrei Sakharov’s ‘First Life’, 1921-1965

Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov was born in Moscow May 21, 1921. His father, Dmitri Ivanovich Sakharov, was a well-known physics professor and publisher of a number of books in his field. Andrei grew up in the same house with his parents, grandparents, four uncles and one aunt, ‘… a close-knit family [preserving the traditional atmosphere of] respect for hard work and ability, mutual aid, love for literature and science (Sakharov 1981).’ Nevertheless, he did not remain completely unscathed since his uncle Ivan was several times arrested for belonging to a group of people involved in ‘counterrevolutionary acitivities’ (Lourie 2002). Yet his parents avoided discussing politics in front of the children, so that Andrei’s political views developed in accordance with official ideology (Feinberg 1991).

Tutored at home until he was twelve, Sakharov called his relation to his age group difficult when he entered public school at the age of twelve. After he graduated in 1938 at the age of seventeen, he enrolled in the physics department of Moscow State University, completing his studies with ‘the most brilliant thesis ever offered in physics (Bailey 1989: 126).’[6] Over the next three years, Andrei Sakharov worked as an engineer in a war plant before enterin the Lebedev Physical Institute as a graduate student in 1945. His adviser was Igor Thamm, an outstanding theoretical physicist and the country’s leading authority in quantum mechanics. Three years later, after he had taken his doctoral degree, Sakharov became a member of Thamm’s research group working on thermonuclear fusion which they finally achieved in 1950. As a result, the Soviet Union tested its first nuclear device in 1953 (Dornan 1975).[7] In the same year, Sakharov was elected a full member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, at age thirty-two the youngest scientist ever to receive such honors.

During the whole period of work on thermonuclear fusion, Sakharov resided in a secret city, totally isolated from ordinary Soviet citizens. For his extraordinary work and his involvement in other projects, he was thrice awarded the Order of Hero of Socialist Labor, as well as the Stalin and the Lenin Prize. More material remunerations came in the form of an exceptionally high salary, special housing, chauffeurs, restricted consumer goods, and a bodyguard (Salisbury 1974).

Although still primarily preoccupied with scientific work in the nuclear weapons research center, in 1958, Sakharov made his first attempt to influence an important policy decision: He tried to stop tests of nuclear weapons, convinced that further such testing was not needed for scientific purposes and would likely exacerbate both the arms race and the dangers of fallout. Yet a letter sent to the chief scientific administrator of the Soviet nuclear weapons program and the publication of an article in which he argued that continuation of tests was contrary to humanity and international law (De Boer1982) proved to be futile.[8] Again in 1961 and 1962, Sakharov spoke out against further nuclear tests, directly appealing to Khrushchev. As with three years prior, his attempts were not successful.


[1] Literally, the word ‘dissent’ means ‘otherthinking’ (Chalidze 1984).

[2] The principal statutes used to prevent and punish dissent were articles 70, 190(1) and 190(3) of the Criminal Code. They prohibit:

…agitation or propaganda carried on for the purpose of subverting or weakening Soviet authority or circulating for the same purpose slanderous fabrications which defame the Soviet state and social system, or circulating or preparing or keeping, for the same purpose, literature of such content.

…the systematic dissemination in oral form of recognizably false fabrications defaming the Soviet state and social order, as well as the preparation or dissemination in written, printed or other form of works having such a content…

…the organization of, as well as active participation in, group activities which grossly disturb public order, are coupled with manifest disobedience of lawful demands by the authorities, or involve disturbance of the functioning of transport or state or public institutions or enterprises (Powell 1972: 208).

[3] The Soviet human rights movement is sometimes, especially some decades ago, also called ‘democratic movement’, ‘liberal movement’, and ‘civic protest movement’ (Alexeyeva 1985).

[4] Bukovsky himself, however, was not able to join the demonstration since he was arrested and taken to a mental hospital three days before it was to be held.

[5] This was the first time in Soviet history that the main evidence against defendants was their published work.

[6] After the outbreak of World War II, the classes of the physics department were evacuated from Moscow to Ashkabad in the Turkmen Republic. Though exempted from military service because of his scientific talent, Sakharov was not spared by the privations of the Soviet retreat before the German armies.

[7] More than twenty years later, Sakharov’s former schoolmate A.M. Yaglom asked him ‘whether he was disturbed by the fact that his scientific work involved the development of a superbomb intended for annihilating people.’ After thinking for a moment, Sakharov answered “No. You know, at the time I did not think about this. I was very interested in learning whether everything we had imagined would in fact work” (Yaglom 1991: 33)

[8] In the same year, Sakharov for the first time took a public stand on a public policy issue. When Khrushchev proposed a reform of the educational system which would impose youngsters to carry out two years of farm work during their formal education, Sakharov together with his associate Zeldovich protested and proposed a reorganization of mathematics instruction as well as earlier training of talented pupils at the Universities. Surprisingly, they succeeded (Salisbury 1974).

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Dissent in the Soviet Union: The Role of Andrei Sakharov in the Human Rights Movement
Johns Hopkins University
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Dissent, Soviet, Union, Role, Andrei, Sakharov, Human, Rights, Movement
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Kirsten Kuptz (Author), 2004, Dissent in the Soviet Union: The Role of Andrei Sakharov in the Human Rights Movement, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/25109


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