On May 2, 1984, the inventor of the Soviet hydrogen bomb and human rights activist Andrey Sakharov went on hunger strike demanding permission for his wife Elena Bonner to travel to the United States for critical heart surgery.
An outstanding Russian academician and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Andrey Sakharov at the time was living in exile. Banished and sent to Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod) in 1980 by the authorities when he denounced the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan, he was kept in almost complete isolation under constant surveillance. His only connection with the outer world was his wife Elena, who made constant round-trips to Moscow before she was also arrested in May 1984. Convicted of ‘circulating false and slanderous inventions attacking the Soviet state’ she was sentenced to five years exile in Gorky.
From this day in May 1984, for an astonishing 178 days, Sakharov carried out a series of hunger strikes, with intermissions and periods when he was forcibly hospitalized and force-fed through a tube. Only after that in October 1985 was Elena given permission for her trip to the US where she received treatment for her heart.
This was not the first time Sakharov went on a hunger strike. In November 1981, together with his wife, they starved for several days protesting the refusal by the Soviet authorities to grant an exit visa for their daughter-in-law to join her husband (Bonner’s son) in the US. She was finally granted a visa in December.
Sakharov’s worldwide admiration came mainly after his published writings that were meant to overthrow his earlier achievement of inventing the hydrogen bomb.
He described his work in his memoir: "I understood the terrifying, inhuman nature of the weapons we were building. But the recent war had also been an exercise in barbarity; and although I hadn't fought in that conflict, I regarded myself as a soldier in this new scientific war.”
He became a human rights activist concerned with radioactive hazards and nuclear testing. One of his most influential essays ‘Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom’ won the Nobel Prize. It touched on global problems that threatened the existence of the human race and put forward a thesis of “the convergence of the socialist and capitalist systems, accompanied by democratization, demilitarization, and social, scientific and technical progress as the only alternative to the death of mankind.” This work was secretly distributed in the Soviet Union, but was smuggled to the West and published in the New York Times in 1968.
Sakharov and Bonner returned to Moscow in 1986, when General Secretary of the Communist Party Mikhail Gorbachev allowed for their release. He continued the fight for human rights and for a nuclear-free world, until his death in 1989.