How I Came to Dissent

Andrei Sakharov
Andrei Sakharov; drawing by David Levine

In giving autobiographical information, I hope to put an end to false rumors with respect to facts which have frequently been misrepresented in the press, because of ignorance or sensationalism.

I was born in 1921 in Moscow, into a cultured and close family. My father was a teacher of physics and the author of several widely known textbooks and popular-science books. From childhood I lived in an atmosphere of decency, mutual help and tact, a liking for work, and respect for the mastery of one’s chosen profession. In 1938 I completed high school and entered Moscow State University, from which I was graduated in 1942. Between 1942 and 1945 I worked as an engineer at a war plant, where I developed several inventions having to do with methods of quality control.

Between 1945 and 1947 I did graduate work under the guidance of a well-known Soviet scientist, the theoretical physicist Igor Evgenevich Tamm. A few months after defending my dissertation in the spring of 1948, I was included in a research group working on the problem of a thermonuclear weapon. I had no doubts about the vital importance of creating a Soviet superweapon—for our country and for the balance of power throughout the world. Carried away by the immensity of the task, I worked very strenuously and became the author or co-author of several key ideas. In the Western press I have often been called “the father of the hydrogen bomb.” This description reflects very inaccurately the real (and complex) situation of collective invention—something I shall not discuss in detail.

In the summer of 1950, almost simultaneously with the beginning of work on the thermonuclear weapon, I.E. Tamm and I began work on the problem of a controlled thermonuclear reaction; i.e., on the use of the nuclear energy of light elements for purposes of industrial energetics. In 1950 we formulated the idea of the magnetic thermoisolation of high-temperature plasma, and completed estimates on the parameters for thermonuclear synthesis installations. This research, which became known abroad from the paper read by I.V. Kurchatov at Harwell in 1956 and from the materials of the First Geneva Conference on the Peaceful Use of Atomic Energy, was recognized as pioneering. In 1961 I proposed, for the same purposes, heating deuterium with a beam from a pulse laser. I mention these things here by way of explaining that my contributions were not limited to military problems.

In 1950 our research group became part of a special institute. For the next eighteen years I found myself caught up in the rotation of a special world of military designers and inventors, special institutes, committees and learned councils, pilot plants and proving grounds. Every day I saw the huge material, intellectual, and nervous resources of thousands of people being poured into creating the means of total destruction, a force potentially capable of annihilating all human civilization. I noticed that…

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