Soviet scientist and well-known human rights activist Andrei Sakharov begins a two-week visit to the United States. During his visit, he pleaded with the American government and people to support Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost (political openness) and perestroika (economic reforms), and so ensure the success of a new, more democratic, and friendlier Soviet system.
Sakharov had not always been a favorite of the Soviet government. During the late-1930s and 1940s, he was a respected physicist in the Soviet Union, and was part of the group of scientists who worked to develop Russia’s first hydrogen bomb in the 1950s. By the late 1950s, however, he began to have serious doubts about Russia’s open-air testing of nuclear weapons. He also began to protest for more scientific freedom in the Soviet Union. By the mid-1960s, he was openly criticizing the Stalinist legacy and current laws designed to muzzle political opponents. In 1968, he had an essay published in the New York Times calling for a system that merged socialism and capitalism. Because of this, Sakharov was stripped of his security clearance and job. In 1970, he co-founded the Moscow Committee for Human Rights. His work resulted in his winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975.
Sakharov also urged the United States to pressure the Soviet Union concerning the latter’s human rights policies, and harshly criticized Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. He and his wife were arrested and sentenced to internal exile. Despite his isolation, his supporters continued to smuggle his writings out of the country. In December 1986, Gorbachev released Sakharov and his wife from exile. It was a pragmatic move on Gorbachev’s part: He desired closer relations with the West, and Sakharov had become a hero to many in the United States and elsewhere. Sakharov became a spokesman for the reforms Gorbachev was trying to push through, and praised the construction of the new Soviet Union. His November 1988 trip to the United States was part of this effort. Nevertheless, he continued to press for more democracy in the Soviet Union.
On December 14, 1989, shortly after delivering a speech denouncing Russia’s one-party rule, Sakharov suffered a heart attack and died.