For two weeks in November 1988, Soviet nuclear physicist and activist Andrei Sakharov visited the United States. It was a triumphant moment near the end of the life of a man who both pioneered nuclear technology and campaigned to prevent the outbreak of nuclear war.
From 1948, Andrei Sakharov had participated in the Soviet atomic bomb project, going on to mastermind the development of thermonuclear weapons in the mid-1950s. As he and his team tested and perfected the hydrogen bomb, Sakharov began to question the morality of his work. Realising the potential devastating repercussions of the technology he had created, Sakharov spoke out against politicians who threatened to use these weapons to escalate the Cold War. His principled stand brought him into conflict with the Soviet authorities and attracted the hostile attention of the KGB. By the late 1960s, Sakharov’s activism resulted in him losing his security access, after which time he became more openly dissident, backing calls for nuclear disarmament as well as democratic government and the release of political prisoners. Denounced at home and fêted abroad, Sakharov was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975, while the KGB described him as “Domestic Enemy Number One”.
Finally, Sakharov was arrested in 1980 after attending public protests against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. For the next six years he was exiled to Nizhny Novgorod, then known as Gorky. During this time, he was twice hospitalised and force fed after hunger strikes he undertook to secure medical treatment in the United States for his wife. In 1984, the US Congress sought to apply pressure on the Soviet government by voting to rename an area outside the Soviet Embassy as Andrei Sakharov Plaza. (Earlier this year, the move inspired activists to likewise install street signs outside the Russian Embassy renaming the area Boris Nemtsov Plaza, after the assassinated opposition leader.) Finally, as part of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms of Soviet society, Sakharov was allowed to return to Moscow in 1986. Three years later, he died of natural causes.
Andrei Sakharov is now commemorated on both sides of the former Iron Curtain. In 2001, the first bust of Sakharov was installed in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, in a square renamed in his honour. The location was an expression of gratitude for Sakharov’s efforts to raise awareness about pogroms against Armenian communities in Soviet Azerbaijan in the 1980s. Sakharov’s appearance in this neo-classical sculpture by Tigran Arzumanyan resembles a Greek philosopher or Roman senator.
In contrast, a contemporaneous bronze bust of Sakharov in the US capital of Washington, DC shows Sakharov with closed eyes and head in hands. The sculpture is ambiguous in its portrayal, perhaps showing Sakharov the scientist, deep in thought on the edge of a breakthrough, or Sakharov the activist, ruminating on the threat of nuclear weapons or the many injustices about which he spoke out. With the hands entirely supporting his head, which appears disembodied, Sakharov becomes a ghostly figure, whose concerns remain just as valid in the present day. The statue was gifted to Russia House by Russian-American sculptor Peter Shapiro in April 2002, to celebrate Congress’s decision to posthumously honour Sakharov with citizenship of the United States. At the time on its dedication, Russia House was still the headquarters of a society for US-Russian cooperation, but Sakharov’s bust has remained in place since the building has been reimagined as a popular restaurant.
In 2003, the first monument to Sakharov was erected in his home country. Although born and living most of his life in Moscow, a square near St Petersburg State University, already renamed in his honour in 1996, was the site for this honour. The ten-and-a-half foot high sculpture is by Levon Lazarev, well-known for creating monuments around St Petersburg. However, the decision to erect the statue was criticised by the late Yelena Bonner, Sakharov’s widow and a high-profile human rights activist in her own right. Bonner’s belief that Putin’s Russia had failed her husband proved to be prescient. In recent years the Sakharov Center in Moscow, founded by Bonner in 1996 to preserve his legacy, has been targeted by vigilantes for hosting events in support of LGBT rights and Pussy Riot, and fined for failing to declare itself a “foreign agent” after it provided the venue for the lying-in-state of Boris Nemtsov.
Despite the Moscow city authorities claiming since 2002 that the Russian capital would soon receive its own sculpture of the Nobel laureate, so far Sakharov is only honoured in his home town by a motorway renamed after him in 1990, which has become the site of opposition marches. However, in 2008, a statue of Sakharov by Russian sculptor Grigory Pototsky was placed in the Muzeon Park of Arts – formerly known as the Park of the Fallen Heroes to hold the toppled figures of the Soviet regime, and now a popular recreation area that has been augmented with a wider array of artworks. Sakharov’s effigy is placed opposite that of Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet leader who approved his exile. Yet the scientist does not look at him but rather sits back with his face towards the sky, with an expression both serene and defiant.