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Sakharov Centre

   (possibly   if you can read Russian)  - darkometer rating: 5 -
A cultural-political centre in Moscow, Russia, named after the well-known nuclear-scientist-turned-dissident and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrey Sakharov. The centre is run as an NGO and also has a small exhibition about Sakharov's life and work, about the Gulag system and political repression in general, as well as about commemoration efforts of the Soviet dark times. Most of the texts in the exhibition are in Russian only, so without the linguistic prerequisites, or some assistance, you won't get all that much out of the place. So it's clearly not for everyone.  
More background info: Andrey Sakharov (1921-1989) is probably one of the most famous names amongst the human rights activists and dissidents of the Soviet Union. This is partly so because his fame is also rooted in his life and achievements as a nuclear physicist before he turned to political activism.
Sakharov is generally credited with being the “fatherof the Soviet hydrogen bomb – although, as usual, it's not quite that simple. In any case, he was already involved in the development of the first Soviet fission atomic bomb under the project's head Igor Kurchatov from mid-1948. The device, called RDS-1, was tested at the Semipalatinsk Test Site in August 1949 (see Polygon, and also under Polytechnic Museum and Bunker-42).
In 1950 Sakharov moved to the closed town of Sarov, where the Russian centre for nuclear research is located. Here he developed his theories on how to harness a fusion reaction in addition to fission to create a much more powerful bomb. I probably shouldn't get too much into the physics side of things here, but suffice it to say that his initial design of a “layered cake” layout (often referred to as Sakharov's “First Idea”) didn't prove very effective. Yet after an intermediate stage (his “Second Idea”) regarding the relative fission and fusion fuel composition he eventually arrived at the staged primary-secondary design (his “Third Idea”) that is basically of the same nature as the Teller-Ulam design developed in the USA, named after the physicist and “father” of the American H-Bomb, Edward Teller, and the Polish mathematician Stanislaw Ulam, who had provided some initial theoretical inspiration.
It has to be emphasized, though, that unlike the first atomic bomb (which was basically a copy of the design used at Trinity and for the Nagasaki Bomb “Fat Man”), the Soviet development of the hydrogen bomb did not depend on espionage any more but was independent. Of course, no single person is ever a “father” of something as complicated as a thermonuclear weapon, but Sakharov's contribution (just as Teller's in the US) stands out enough to at least figuratively justify such an epithet.
Anyway, thanks to this contribution, the USSR also came to have the “super bomb”. The first proper two-stage-design Soviet H-Bomb was tested in the RDS-37 shot in 1955. The same design by Sakharov was also the basis for the largest nuclear detonation in history (and hence the largest man-made explosion of all time too), namely in the RDS-220 test of a 100 megaton bomb, scaled down to 50 Mt, in 1961. This plane-delivered, but ultimately too unwieldy super-weapon became known as the “Tsar Bomba” (see Kremlin, Sarov and Central Armed Forces Museum).
Sakharov's achievements as a physicist are, however, not limited to nuclear weapons. He is also credited with having taken part in working out the fundamentals of the design for harnessing thermonuclear fusion for non-military purposes, namely with a view to power generation. His “tokamak”design is still the basis for current attempts to develop such a fusion reactor.
From the mid-1960s onwards Sakharaov returned to fundamental research rather than applications of physics, and, for example, contributed to particle physics and cosmology.
Sakharov moved into the realm of politics as he increasingly developed doubts about nuclear weapons, their possible use and even testing. He pushed for ending atmospheric testing of nuclear bombs and thus can be given some credit for the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty.
He increasingly got involved in the politics of nuclear strategies and eventually became a dissident proper, especially after he was banned from taking part in any physics research of military relevance. And so he became an activist and outspoken critic of human rights violations and campaigner on behalf of political prisoners. He married a fellow human rights activist, Yelena Bonner, in 1972.
At the same time the Soviet regime targeted Sakharov first with negative propaganda and then increasingly with open repression. In recognition of his activism and in support of this, on the other hand, Sakharov was in 1972 nominated for Nobel Peace Prize and in awarded it 1975. Yet he was not allowed to travel to Oslo to collect the prize, and so his wife went instead and on his behalf picked up the prize and delivered a speech prepared by Sakharov.
By now he was being perceived by the KGB as an enemy of the state, and in 1980, following his participation in protests against the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, he was arrested and exiled to the closed city of Gorky (today's Nizhny Novgorod), where he was kept under house arrest and strict surveillance and cut off from most forms of communication.
In December 1986, he was released by Mikhail Gorbachev, whose policies of perestroika and glasnost had finally changed the political landscape in the Soviet Union. Back in Moscow as a free man he proceeded to go into politics properly and was eventually elected to parliament in March 1989. Yet he did not live to see the final end of the USSR. He died in December 1989.
The Sakharov Centre in Moscow was founded by his widow Yelena Bonner with the aim of continuing his activism and preserving the memory of his life and work. Following a series of preparatory events and the establishment of the Sakharov Foundation in 1991, the Sakharow Museum was finally opened to the public in 1996. It was renamed the Sakharov Centre in 2012.
The Centre has been repeatedly attacked, e.g. by religious (Orthodox) fundamentalists who vandalized an exhibition that was critical of religion, and again in response to the Centre's support for LGBT rights.
In more recent years, the Centre has come under pressure, from the state authorities too, after the passing of new legislation targeting NGOs in Russia. The Sakharov Centre refused to voluntarily declare itself a “foreign agent”, as stipulated by the new law, and was fined twice. In a statement issued by the Centre this was unsurprisingly lamented as a case of history repeating itself …
What there is to see: Before going inside, make sure to take a good look around outside too. Amongst the works of art on display in the open air is also one incorporating a segment of the Berlin Wall, transformed into an oddly shaped sculpture.
From here the Centre is hard to miss, thanks to large panels on the outer walls, including one with a portrait of Andrei Sakharov.
I found it a bit trickier to find the correct door to the public part of the Centre, though, but eventually found it and the staircase leading to the exhibition room upstairs. There was a friendly lady welcoming us, but she spoke only Russian (fortunately my wife, who is a Russianist, was with me so we were able to communicate with her a bit).
The exhibition itself is also largely in Russian only. There are just a few very general summary texts at the different sections of the museum and the odd exhibit also has bilingual labelling, and a few of them are even in English (see below).
The layout of the museum is such that high walls that are at the same time the display cabinets divide the space of the hall into four oblong main sections.
The first section is about the Mythology and Ideology of the USSR, the second about general political repression in the USSR, the next about the Gulag system, and the fourth about resistance and lack of freedom in the Soviet Union.
In addition there is a separate section about the life of Andrey Sakharov himself, plus at the time of my visit an additional (probably temporary) exhibition about the various memorials and monuments relating to the dark days of the USSR all over its former territories.
Instead of going through the sections systematically (for which a sound knowledge of Russian would be a prerequisite anyway) I'll just pick out a few items that especially caught my eye.
Looking up in the first section you see five crudely made wooden heads hanging from the ceiling – one can clearly be identified as Stalin, going by the tash and pipe, the others are less easy to determine, possibly a Lenin, a Gorby, Andropov? Anyway, in the display cabinets, Lenin statuettes are clearly in the majority in this part.
In the repression and Gulag sections are several remarkable items, personal belongings of prisoners, padded jackets against the Siberian cold, a carbide miner's lamp from the labour camps in Kolyma in the far east, photos from the Vorkuta Gulag and much more. At one point there are drawers in which execution lists can be found. It's grim.
It gets quite personal with the display of finger prints of Yelena Bonner (Sakharov's activist wife – see above) taken by the secret police. And it gets even more intrusive with the display of a photo secretly taken by the KGB of Sakharov, bare-chested, as he was examined by a doctor.
Moreover there's an English-language newspaper cutting (from News & World Report, 1986) with a drawing showing the surveillance of Sakharov's flat in exile in Gorky (apparently this very flat is today a museum!).
The main sections are unusually designed in that everything is attached to a tall wall, the outer frame of which is a grid resembling bars on prison cell doors and windows, giving the overall impression almost of an art installation. Some items in the exhibition are predictable, others appear random, yet others make sense by association (e.g. the typewriter as a dissident's “weapon”).
The additional section on Sakharov's life is of a simpler design: just photos, newspaper cuttings and excerpts of text (from Sakharov's memoirs, I believe). This part is subdivided into the following sub-sections: family and education – war and science – the Installation (meaning nuclear weapons) – the turning point – dissent – Gorky – return to Moscow – postscript.
There is a bit of physics, some formulas, images of the Tsar Bomba (of its fireball as well as of the replica on display at the atomic weapons museum in Sarov), but mostly it's about the man's life, his family, people he met as an activist and so on.
There is also a photo, taken just over a year before his death, of Sakharov meeting his American counterpart in the development of the hydrogen bomb, Edward Teller, in the USA for the first time in November 1988.
At the far wall stands a Sakharov bust with a sorrowful, pained expression holding his head in his hands (as if suffering from severe headaches). Very evocative.
When I visited the place (August 2017) there was an extra exhibition, probably only temporary, about commemoration of repression, Gulags, etc., mostly in the form of simple photos, with just some general text (Russian only). I recognized several familiar sites, such as Perm-36, Katyn, the victims of totalitarianism monument in the Muzeon sculpture park, the “Mask of Sorrow” Gulag monument in Magadan, the Solovetsky Stone outside the Lubyanka, etc., but I was surprised how many more there were that I had never seen or heard of, many dozens!
All in all, this is a very specialized museum, and clearly not for everybody. You have to have a special interest in either Sakharaov and his life and work as such, or in the topic of political repression vs. dissidents in general, but without a sound knowledge of Russian and a good grasp of the historical background you won't get much out of this exhibition. Infotainment it is not. It's dead serious and “difficult”, but very interesting nonetheless.
Location: to the east of the centre of Moscow, Russia, (ca. 1.5 miles/2.5 km from Red Square) at the southern end of Usachev-Naydenova Park overlooking the banks of the Yauza River on Poluyaroslavskaya Naberezhnaya. The official address is Ulitsa Zemlyanoy Val 57.
Google maps locator: [55.7512, 37.6588]
Access and costs: a bit off the beaten track but not too hard to get to; free, but donations are welcome.
Details: Getting to the Sakharov Centre invariably involves a little walking. The nearest metro station is Chkalovskaya on the metro line 10 (light green), which also intersects with Kurskaya station (line 3, dark blue, and circle line 5, brown). From there head down the wide boulevard that is Ulitsa Zemlyanoy Val and before the bridge over the river turn left.
Opening times: daily, except Mondays, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Admission free (but donations are welcome).
Time required: depends very much on whether or not you know Russian. If so, you could probably spend up to two hours or so here: If not, you'll probably be out again in less than 20 minutes.
Combinations with other dark destinations: in general see under Moscow.
The only other dark site listed here that is within fairly easy reach, even walkable (20-25 minutes) would be Bunker-42, though that would make for a rather odd combination stylistically.
Thematically much more fitting would be the Gulag History Museum in the north of Moscow, far away from the Sakharov Centre but the area is reached quite quickly by metro line 10 (light green) too: from Chkalovskaya it's only three stops and then a relatively short walk.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: in general see under Moscow.
Not far from the Sakharov Centre are some of the newer, younger, hipper attractions of the city such as the design centre ArtPlay, ca. 10 minutes' walk east (along Bolshoy Poluyaroslavskiy Pereulok, under the railway bridge and then right), or the Winzavod 'alternative' cultural complex just to the north of ArtPlay.
  • Sakharov Centre 1 - artwork outsideSakharov Centre 1 - artwork outside
  • Sakharov Centre 2 - upstairsSakharov Centre 2 - upstairs
  • Sakharov Centre 3 - exhibitionSakharov Centre 3 - exhibition
  • Sakharov Centre 4 - weapon of mass enlightenmentSakharov Centre 4 - weapon of mass enlightenment
  • Sakharov Centre 5a - gulagSakharov Centre 5a - gulag
  • Sakharov Centre 5b - behind barsSakharov Centre 5b - behind bars
  • Sakharov Centre 6 - reshuffling cardsSakharov Centre 6 - reshuffling cards
  • Sakharov Centre 7 - Soviet blockheadsSakharov Centre 7 - Soviet blockheads
  • Sakharov Centre 8 - headacheSakharov Centre 8 - headache
  • Sakharov Centre 9 - gulag memorials documentationSakharov Centre 9 - gulag memorials documentation

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