Sakharov Is Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize

The Nobel Peace Prize Committee selected Andrei Sakharov to be the 1975 recipient of the prize in recognition of his important contributions to the cause of human rights and the promotion of world peace. Soviet authorities refused to permit him to attend the awards ceremony in Norway.

Summary of Event

“I am not a professional politician,” Andrei Sakharov wrote in 1981 from his exile in Gorky (now Nizhniy Novgorod). “I shall refrain from specific predictions, but today as always I believe in the power of reason and the human spirit.” These few words succinctly provide Sakharov’s creed, which motivated his advocacy of human rights and his continued efforts to reduce the dangers of thermonuclear war. His designation as the 1975 Nobel Peace Prize laureate reflects the respect in which he was held by human rights supporters throughout the world. Nobel Peace Prize;Andrei Sakharov[Sakharov]
Peace activism
[kw]Sakharov Is Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (Dec. 10, 1975)
[kw]Nobel Peace Prize, Sakharov Is Awarded the (Dec. 10, 1975)
[kw]Peace Prize, Sakharov Is Awarded the Nobel (Dec. 10, 1975)
[kw]Prize, Sakharov Is Awarded the Nobel Peace (Dec. 10, 1975)
Nobel Peace Prize;Andrei Sakharov[Sakharov]
Peace activism
[g]Europe;Dec. 10, 1975: Sakharov Is Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize[02200]
[g]Norway;Dec. 10, 1975: Sakharov Is Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize[02200]
[c]Human rights;Dec. 10, 1975: Sakharov Is Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize[02200]
Sakharov, Andrei
Bonner, Elena
Gorbachev, Mikhail
[p]Gorbachev, Mikhail;and Andrei Sakharov[Sakharov]
Brezhnev, Leonid
[p]Brezhnev, Leonid;Andrei Sakharov exile[Sakharov]
Khrushchev, Nikita S.
Dubček, Alexander

Born on May 21, 1921, into a Russian middle-class family, Sakharov earned his major fame as a nuclear physicist working on the development of major weapons systems following World War II. Many refer to him as the father of the hydrogen bomb, first detonated in 1953. He continued this very technical and secret scientific activity, for which he received many honors, high salaries, and other privileges, until the late 1960’s.

His scientific work gradually moved Sakharov’s perspective beyond the purely technical to the implications of nuclear armaments in the Cold War period. He studied the effects of radioactivity and became convinced of the great dangers of this massive unleashing of energy. While previously believing that military strength would be a key factor in maintaining world peace, Sakharov by the mid-1950’s seriously doubted that a peaceful and environmentally safe world could exist with weapons of such mass destruction in the hands of the superpowers. He shared these concerns with colleagues, as well as with government and party officials, when the opportunity permitted. His goal was the banning of development and testing of nuclear weapons. In one famous instance in 1961, Nikita S. Khrushchev publicly rebuked Sakharov, asserting that scientists were expected to develop weapons but not discuss the conditions under which they might be used. Sakharov welcomed the U.S.-Soviet Union partial test ban agreement (August, 1963) prohibiting atmospheric and undersea testing, but he feared the harms of continued underground testing.

Khrushchev’s ouster in 1964 and the rise of Leonid Brezhnev as the new Communist Party leader coincided with Sakharov’s expanding human rights concerns. Harassment and arrests of literary figures and other intellectuals in 1965 and 1966 often resulted in substantial sentences in prison or labor camps. Sakharov signed petitions of support for many of these individuals. His first act of public witness was to participate in the December, 1966, Constitution Day observance in Moscow.

Andrei Sakharov, whose protests against Soviet human rights abuses earned him a Nobel Peace Prize in 1975.

(The Nobel Foundation)

These activities led him steadily toward a break with the official Soviet system. As his controversial views could not be published openly in the Soviet Union, they circulated in typed form among close friends and other civil rights activists. His views gradually coalesced into a broad assessment which appeared in the West as “Progress, Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom,” first published in The New York Times (July 22, 1968) and then in book form the same year.

This ten-thousand-word statement advocated “convergence,” in which the communist and capitalist worlds would learn from each other and promote common human goals. Sakharov sought a “scientifically governed, democratic, pluralistic society free of intolerance and dogmatism, a humanitarian society which would care for Earth and its future, and would embody the positive features of both systems.” His manifesto immediately caught the favorable attention of Western observers but also led the Soviet government to remove Sakharov from his secret research responsibilities. Soviet authorities classified Sakharov as a dangerous voice in the Soviet Union.

Also in 1968, Sakharov admired the efforts of Alexander Dubček in Czechoslovakia to undertake democratic reforms. Dubček’s efforts led to the Soviet Union’s military intervention in August, 1968, and the abrupt termination of reform. Sakharov strongly opposed this Soviet action. His wife’s illness and death from cancer (March, 1969) and alienation from his three children in this period added to Sakharov’s stress. In 1970, he helped create a human rights organization in the Soviet Union which called on Soviet authorities to fulfill human rights guarantees contained in the nation’s constitution and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which the Soviet government was signatory. During this period, Sakharov met Elena Bonner, another human rights activist. They married in January, 1972, and began to give particular attention to the plight of prisoners designated as “prisoners of conscience.”

An intense anti-Sakharov campaign occurred in 1973 both in the Soviet media and in public meetings across the nation. Hostile voices accused him of being a traitor to his homeland and called for his punishment. Substantial Western protests at the excessive harassment are thought to have prevented Soviet authorities from taking punitive action against him at this time. During the early and mid-1970’s, he wrote two books published in the West, Sakharov Speaks
Sakharov Speaks (Sakharov) (1974) and My Country and the World
My Country and the World (Sakharov) (1975). By 1975, he had become the foremost public figure and inspiration in the Soviet human rights movement.

Few were surprised when the Nobel Peace Prize Committee in October, 1975, selected Sakharov for that year’s award. Soviet authorities refused to permit him to attend the ceremony in Oslo, citing his sensitive scientific knowledge. Elena Bonner, in the West for medical treatment, accepted his award on December 10, 1975. She also presented Sakharov’s Nobel Peace Prize lecture, “Peace, Progress, and Human Rights,” on December 11, 1975. It was typical of Sakharov that at the time his wife was accepting his award in Norway, he was outside a Soviet courtroom giving moral support to a friend and human rights activist then on trial.

Sakharov’s Nobel lecture included both his philosophical views on human rights and world peace and a political statement of current issues and controversies. He referred by name to many Soviet citizens still facing official harassment and punishment and called on the world community to act on their behalf. He also commented on the recent Helsinki conference in which more than thirty nations, including the Soviet Union, had adopted an agreement committing the signatories to support a variety of human rights objectives: freedoms of conscience, press, and assembly, as well as the right of travel and emigration. These provisions in the Helsinki Accords Helsinki Accords (1975) (August, 1975) made the Soviet refusal to permit Sakharov to attend the December ceremony in Oslo all the more striking and controversial.

Despite his inability to attend the 1975 ceremony, Sakharov and his wife eventually were permitted to travel to Oslo on June 25, 1989, as guests of the Norwegian Nobel Committee. He met the press on June 26 and attended a dinner in his honor on June 28. He also visited the hall where the 1975 ceremony had taken place, but no presentation was made, as the award had been given to him in absentia. He did not give a public address, either, as Elena Bonner had delivered his Nobel lecture. Nevertheless, it was fitting that he finally saw the place where the Nobel Peace Prize Committee had conferred the award so many years earlier.

The citation of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee accurately described Sakharov and his contribution to human rights and might serve as his epitaph: “Sakharov’s love of truth and strong belief in the inviolability of the human being, his fight against violence and brutality, his courageous defense of the freedom of the spirit, his unselfishness and strong humanitarian convictions have turned him into the spokesman for the conscience of mankind, which the world so sorely needs today.”


Only two Soviet citizens have received the Nobel Peace Prize: Andrei Sakharov (1975) and Mikhail Gorbachev (1990). When Sakharov received the award, the Soviet media vilified him as a traitor to his country. Criticism in the Soviet Union intensified during the decade because of Sakharov’s continued human rights efforts. His correspondence with U.S. president Jimmy Carter Carter, Jimmy
[p]Carter, Jimmy;human rights in 1977 further fueled these anti-Sakharov attacks.

In 1979, Soviet military forces invaded Afghanistan, and Sakharov immediately opposed the foreign venture. In response, Soviet authorities sentenced Sakharov in January, 1980, to internal exile in the city of Gorky. He remained there until December, 1986, when Gorbachev personally authorized Sakharov’s return to Moscow. During his nearly seven years in isolation, Sakharov faced deteriorating health and the effects of being separated from friends in the human rights movement. His wife was allowed to join him, but her poor health prompted Sakharov to go on a hunger strike Hunger strikes to force the authorities to let her receive additional medical treatment in the West. Following his return to Moscow, he immediately resumed his human rights activity. He also continued his writing, including completion of a two-volume autobiography. Sakharov was permitted to travel to the West in 1988 and 1989.

In April, 1989, he was elected to the newly formed Congress of People’s Deputies, where he supported reform efforts right up to his death on December 14, 1989. In his apartment that night, after an exhausting day at the Congress, Sakharov died at the age of sixty-eight. His body lay in state for several days, with an estimated 100,000 persons passing his bier. The civic funeral on December 18 at Moscow’s Olympic Stadium included approximately eighty thousand more. Gorbachev attended the ceremony before the private funeral at Vostryanko Cemetery.

An official statement of condolence appeared in Izvestia and Pravda on December 16. It referred to the “gross injustice” for banishing Sakharov to Gorky and praised him for his commitment to peace and justice: “An outstanding scientist and public figure, a man of honesty and sincerity, has left us. Everything that Andrei Dmitriyevich [Sakharov] did was dictated by his conscience and his deep humanistic convictions.” Gorbachev’s name headed the list of signatures. Sakharov, in death, finally achieved the acceptance and recognition not accorded him in his lifetime in his own country.

One unusual consequence of Gorbachev’s designation as the 1990 Peace Prize winner was that Elena Bonner in January, 1991, requested that the Nobel Committee remove her husband’s name from the list of Peace Prize laureates. She believed that her husband’s memory and human rights achievements were sullied by Gorbachev’s name being included on such a list. This step cannot lessen Sakharov’s contributions to world peace and civil rights. Nobel Peace Prize;Andrei Sakharov[Sakharov]
Peace activism

Further Reading

  • Babyonyshev, Alexander, ed. On Sakharov. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982. Half of the book contains Sakharov’s own articles on scientific and human rights subjects (to 1981). The balance includes essays about Sakharov by his acquaintances and admirers. Includes an autobiographical statement, plus a useful list of his publications, appeals, and human rights efforts grouped by year.
  • Bonner, Elena. Alone Together. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986. Memoir by Sakharov’s wife of her own life, and description of the official harassment of the controversial couple. Most attention is given to the exile period in Gorky. Her writing is intense and angry and conveys the atmosphere in which they were forced to exist. Covers Sakharov’s hunger strikes in the 1980’s.
  • Lourie, Richard. Sakharov: A Biography. Waltham, Mass.: Brandeis University Press, 2002. A vivid account of the human rights activist’s life. For both academic and general readers.
  • Rubenstein, Joshua, and Alexander Gribanov, eds. The KGB File of Andrei Sakharov. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2005. This work presents KGB files on Sakharov (from 1968 to 1989), which were made available during Boris Yeltsin’s presidency.
  • Sakharov, Andrei. Alarm and Hope. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978. Collection of articles and speeches from 1975 to May, 1978, including his 1975 Nobel Peace Prize lecture. An excellent biographical appendix identifies fifty Soviet dissidents involved in Sakharov’s efforts.
  • _______. Memoirs. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990. A lengthy autobiography, from birth through the Gorky exile period. Very detailed and complete description of incidents, controversies, and official reactions. Has a chapter on the 1975 Nobel Peace Prize. Essential for an understanding of the man and his career in science and human rights issues.
  • _______. Moscow and Beyond, 1986-1989. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991. Continuation of his Memoirs, from the end of the Gorky period to the fall of 1989. The book was completed just before his death in December, 1989. Includes Sakharov’s post-Gorky activity in Moscow, with special focus on political activities in the Congress of People’s Deputies and his difficulties in getting elected to that body.
  • _______. My Country and the World. New York: Vintage Books, 1975. Substantial account written as an extension or clarification of his famous 1968 essay, “Progress, Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom.” Assesses the failings of the Soviet Union’s political, social, and economic systems. Presents an eleven-point program for domestic reforms. Includes a useful publisher’s introduction about his life and career.
  • _______. Progress, Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom. New York: W. W. Norton, 1968. This is the first extended statement of Sakharov’s views, published originally in The New York Times in July, 1968. Proposes “convergence” between East and West and the creation of a pluralistic, democratic, open Soviet society. This is the essay that created such a negative Soviet response.
  • _______. Sakharov Speaks. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974. A collection of his essays, petitions, and interviews from 1968 to early 1974. Includes the complete text of the 1968 “Progress, Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom” essay. Harrison Salisbury provides a lengthy introduction on Sakharov’s career and significance for the human rights movement of the period.

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