December 19, 1986 Soviet nuclear physicist and political dissident Andrei Sakharov is released from exile in Gorky, along with his wife, Yelena Bonner. As a scientist, Sakharov led the development of the USSR’s nuclear weapons program in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. But concerned by the moral and existential implications of his work, he campaigned against nuclear proliferation and by the late 1960s was voicing opinions that put him at odds with the Kremlin. As the Soviet leadership shunned and then punished him, Sakharov became increasingly involved with the promotion of human rights and civil liberties. In 1980 his protests in public against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan landed him in exile in Gorky, a city forbidden to foreigners. In 1985 the European Parliament established the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, to be awarded each year to individuals or groups who have made an outstanding contribution to the defence of human rights. A year later, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had him released as part of the policy of political openness, or ‘glasnost’. In December 1989, nine months after becoming elected to the Soviet Union’s new parliament, he died of a heart attack aged 68.
Also on December 19: coronation of Henry II of England (1154); start of the first Indochina War (1946); US president Bill Clinton is impeached, charged with lying under oath (1998).
Born on December 19: Leonid Brezhnev (1906), Edith Piaf (1915), Alyssa Milano (1972), Jake Gyllenhaal (1980), Karim Benzema (1987).