He was born in Moscow and educated at Moscow State University from 1938. However, following evacuation in 1941 he graduated in Ashkhabad, in today's Turkmenistan. He was then assigned laboratory work in Ulyanovsk. He returned to Moscow in 1945 to study at the Theoretical Department of FIAN (the Physical Institute of the USSR Academy of Sciences). He received his PhD in 1947.
In mid-1948 he became part of the Soviet atomic bomb project under Igor Kurchatov. The first Soviet atomic device was tested on August 29 1949. After moving to Saratov in 1950, Sakharov played a key role in the next stage, the development of the Hydrogen bomb. The first Soviet device was tested on August 12 1953. In 1953 he was elected full member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, and was awarded the first of his three Hero of Socialist Labor Medals. Sakharov continued to work at Sartov, helping on the first genuine Soviet H-bombs, tested in 1955, and the 58MT 'Tzar-Bomba' of October 1961, the most powerful device ever exploded. He also proposed an idea for a controlled fusion reactor, the tokamak, that is still the basis for the majority of work in the area.
From the late-1950s Sakharov had become concerned about the moral and political impications of his work. Pushing for the end of atmospheric tests he played a role in the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty, signed in Moscow. In 1965 he returned to fundamental science and began working on cosmology but continued to oppose political discrimination. In May 1968 he completed an essay, "Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom." which was published outside the Soviet Union. After this Sakharov was banned from all military-related research and Sakharov returned to FIAN to study fundamental theoretical physics. In 1970 he was one of the founders of the Moscow Human Rights Committee and came under increasing pressure from the regime
In 1973 he was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Peace and he won the prize in 1975, although he was not allowed to collect it. Sakharov's ideas on social development led him to put forward the principle of human rights as a new basis of all politics. He was arrested on January 22, 1980 following his protests against the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and was 'exiled' to the closed city of Gorki. He remained isolated but unrepentant until December 1986 when he was allowed to return to Moscow. He helped to initiate the first independent legal political organizations and became prominent in the Soviet Union's growing political opposition. In April 1989 Sakharov was elected to the new parliament, the All-Union Congress of Peoples' Deputies and co-lead the democratic opposition.
On December 14 1989, Sakharov died of a heart attack.