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Andrei Sakharov, Symbol of Soviet Dissidence, Dead at 68

December 15, 1989 GMT

MOSCOW (AP) _ Andrei D. Sakharov, father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and one of the world’s leading dissidents, died Thursday at age 68.

Yefrem Yankelevich, Sakharov’s son-in-law, said the revered human rights activist died alone in his study after returning Thursday night from a meeting of opposition Congress deputies, where he gave an impassioned speech charging the Soviet leadership was leading the country to catastrophe.

Yankelevich, bleary-eyed when he answered the door at Sakharov’s apartment on Moscow’s Garden Ring Road early Friday, said his father-in-law ″died last night of what the doctors say was a heart attack. We don’t exactly know the cause of death yet.″

Sergei Kovalev, a fellow human rights activist in Moscow and longtime friend, said the noted scientist was found in his downstairs study by Sakharov’s wife, Yelena Bonner.

Born May 21, 1921, the Moscow native had suffered from heart disease for several years and had aged visibly in recent months, which were busy with international speaking trips and his work as an outspoken member of the newly elected Congress of People’s Deputies.

″Andrei Sakharov was a man of great principle and a true general in the fight for human rights,″ said former President Reagan in California. ″His courage, his eloquence and his unshakable belief in the dignity of man was an inspiration to us all. Now, as his vision of freedom for all mankind begins to become a reality, we mourn his passing but take comfort in knowing that his work and spirit will live on forever.″

Natan Sharansky, a human rights champion who spent nine years in Soviet labor camps before immigrating to Israel in 1986, knew Sakharov and told Israel radio Friday:

″I often said that maybe all this exists only in order to give the world such a man as Sakharov who had tremendous influence, I think, on all the moral climates, among dissidents, among free people in the Soviet Union and who by his own personal example helped change the whole climate in the Soviet Union. I believe that we Jews have a tremendous obligation to this man.″

Sakharov died preparing a speech to the Congress demanding the Communist Party’s constitutional monopoly on political power be revoked, Yankelevich said, recalling the last thing Sakharov said to his family was: ″Tomorrow there will be a battle.″

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Only hours before his death, Sakharov told fellow opposition members of the Congress that the Communist leadership, headed by President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, was ″leading the country to catastrophe, prolonging the process of perestroika many years.″

Gorbachev brought Sakharov back from nearly seven years of internal exile, but the famed physicist remained an independent figure in Soviet politics and clashed openly with Gorbachev at the opening of the Congress’ second session this week.

Earlier Thursday, Liza Semyonov, the daughter-in-law of Sakharov’s wife, said Bonner called to notify the family of the death. Ms. Semyonov lives with her husband, Alexey Semyonov, in the Boston suburb of Westwood. Bonner’s daughter, Tatiana Yankelevich, lives in nearby Newton.

Kovalev, who had worked with Sakharov for years in the human rights movement, said, ″It’s a terrible pain for the country and much more. It’s a big tragedy.″

Sakharov had suffered from angina, but during a visit to the United States in December 1988 doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital performed cardiovascular tests and determined he did not need heart surgery or a pacemaker.

In Washington, White House spokesman Roman Popadiuk read a statement praising Sakharov as ″a historical figure who will be long remembered for his human rights efforts in the Soviet Union. His voice was an important dimension in the contemporary changes under way in Soviet society.″

Selfless, brave and determined, the stooped, disheveled dean of Soviet dissent lived to see many of his dreams come true and his own people begin to acknowledge his greatness, as the rest of the world had done earlier.

But Sakharov was never satisfied, saluting reforms but faulting their inadequacy. He constantly challenged even Gorbachev, the man who turned many of his dreams into reality and set him free after nearly seven years in exile.

Indeed, Sakharov’s tireless activism continued until his death. On Tuesday, he engaged in an angry exchange with Gorbachev in Parliament, proposing Congress debate not only the monopoly issue but ″all the articles hindering the passing of the laws of the land, property and other bills promoting perestroika.″

Gorbachev told Sakharov, ″I am under the impression that neither you nor we will know how to realize your suggestion. Who is to define what articles to exclude?″

Sakharov then turned to Gorbachev and handed him a stack of telegrams in support of his position.

″You come to me, I will give you three files of telegrams,″ Gorbachev retorted. Nevertheless, Gorbachev brought Sakharov’s proposal up for a vote. It was defeated 1,415 to 477.

Sakharov’s early fame was not as a political activist. He first became known as a brilliant scientist, inducted into the Academy of Sciences in 1953 at age 32, the youngest-ever member. Like his father, he became a physicist.

In 1948, he joined physicist Igor Tamm in developing the hydrogen bomb and for 20 years lived and worked in secrecy, with privileges including a good apartment, driver, high salary and government awards. But, like Albert Einstein, Sakharov began to worry about the morality of developing weapons of mass destruction.

He had his first brush with top Soviet officials in 1961, when he appealed to Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev to stop nuclear weapons tests. Khrushchev responded that scientists shouldn’t meddle in politics. Two years later, the Soviet Union agreed to such limits in a treaty with the United States.

After Sakharov formed the Human Rights Committee in 1970, he became better known as a dissident leader, clashing with four Kremlin leaderships over human rights, foreign policy and the morality of the nuclear weaponry he helped create.

As an emerging dissident, Sakharov appeared to be immune to official sanctions while other prominent dissidents were forced to emigrate or sent to labor camps. But in 1973, Sakharov was warned by authorities that his interviews and statements were used by the foreign press for anti-Soviet slander and that he should be aware of the consequences.

Sakharov continued to speak out, and he and his wife attended the trials of prominent dissidents and lent their names to international appeals for prisoners of conscience in all countries to be freed.

The physicist’s tireless campaigns on behalf of disarmament and human rights won him the 1975 Nobel Peace Prize, and he steadfastly argued that without international respect for human rights there could be no guarantee of peace.

He was stripped of his Soviet awards after he criticized the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and then-Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev banished him in January 1980 to Gorky, 200 miles east of Moscow.

Reporters, foreign visitors and diplomats who knew Sakharov before he was sent into internal exile described him as a modest man of patience and humor but determined once his ire was aroused.

Sakharov was recalled in December 1986 by Gorbachev, and swiftly took a leading role in urging the Soviet leader to follow through on Gorbachev’s twin policies of perestroika, or restructuring, and glasnost, or openness.

He was elected to the Congress of People’s Deputies this year, completing a remarkable comeback. In June, he told the Soviet Congress he had no regrets. ″I am proud of this exile in Gorky like a medal I wear.″