In a stunning move directed at critics both at home and abroad, the Soviet Union today stripped Nobel laureate Andrei Sakharov of his state honors and sent him and his wife into internal exile.
The physicist has been by far the most prominent and persistent critic of the Soviet record on human rights, but until today he had been protected by his standing as the father of Soviet hydrogn bomb.
Sakharov was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975 for his defense of human rights in the Soviet Union. Tonight, the government newspaper Izvestia denounced him for "conducting subversive activities against the Soviet state for a number of years."
The charge leaves open the possibility that Sakharov could face further charges or possible expulsion from the Soviet Union.
By sending him to Gorki, a city 250 miles from Moscow that is closed to foreigners, the Soviets have exiled him from the outside world. In stripping him of his state honors, the Kremlin also sent an explicit warning to this country's prestigious and privileged scientific community.
The decision to silence Sakharov and his wife, Elena Bonner, also an activist, adds a startling new element to the tensions created by the Soviet move into Afghanistan and the sharp response to the invasion, particularly from the United States.
Observers here say the action accomplishes two key Kremlim aims. It directly challenges President Carter for his retaliations against Moscow for the Afghan invasion, and for his personal support of Sakharov and the cause of the Soviet dissidents. Second, it further suppresses dissent here prior to the summer Olympics, scheduled to be held in Moscow.
Sakharov, beginning in the mid-1960s, became identified as the spokesman for numerous groups in the Soviet Union charging they had been deprived of their rights.
In several recent interivews with Western journalists, Sakharov has supported an Olympic boycott and called on the world to take steps to force Moscow to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. Izvestia indicated in its brief announcement that these interviews had brought the actions against him -- indicating how deeply stung Moscow is by the world reaction to its intervention.
"Sakharov lately embarked on the road of open calls to reactionary circles of imperialist states to interfere in the U.S.S.R.'s internal affairs," Izvestia said.
Although stripped of the honors he garnered as the outstanding figure in Soviet science in the 1950s and early 1960s, Sakharov apparently retains membership in the powerful Academy of Sciences, to which he has belonged for more than 20 years. That membership until now had protected him from the direct reprisals of jailing, exile or expulsion that have been meted out over the years to such dissidents as Yuri Orlov, Alexander Ginzburg, Anatoly Scharansky and Vladimir Slepak.
It is widely believed here that another reason for his immunity was the open support of Western leaders, and perhaps move importantly, senior Western scientists, whose friendship the state eagerly curries.
The swift chain of events leading to his internal exile began when Sakharov was riding in an Academy of Sciences limousine this afternoon to a seminar he regularly attends, according to his mother-in-law, Ruth Bonner.
The elder Bonner told reporters the car had stopped by a uniformed policeman on Leninsky Prospekt; not far from the ornate academy grounds and Sakharov was orderd out. He was put in another car and whisked to a state prosecutor, who read him a decree from the Supreme Soviet Presidium, which is chaired by President Leonid Brezhnev. It stopped him of the state honors, including Hero of Socialist Labor, and laureate of the U.S.S.R., both prestigious prizes in a country whose leaders glory in awards.
Bonner said Sakharov gave this account of his seizure: He was told he would be exiled in Gorki with his wife "to isolate you from foreigners and foreign correspondents." The Sakharovs were given several hours to pack and taken by separate vans to Domodedevo airport; where under escort they were put abroad a 6 p.m. flight to Gorki.
The mother-in-law said the couple was given no document indicating the length of their restriction to Gorki or under what law the action had been taken.
Meanwhile, word spread from several sources close to Sakharov that he was being arrested and correspondents went to his apartment building in central Moscow. They were barred by a cordon of uniformed and plainclothes police, who refused to say what was going on. One said they were investigating a robbery, another that they were searching an apartment on the first floor.
About 4:30 p.m., some people were seen being bundled into a battered green van drawn up at the rear of the building and it is thought that Elena Bonner was among them. The van, its rear windows curtained, rolled away and a few hours later, Sakharov's mother-in-law returned to the apartment and was interviewed by correspondents.
Such blunt and crude handling of an academician, a revered title in Russia, is being interpreted here as yet another sign of the toughened internal policies of the KGB state police against dissident voices.
This impression was reinforced strongly by the abrupt announcement today of the dismissal of Vladimir Kirillin, 67, from his powerful post as deputy chairman of the Soviet Council of Ministers and chairman of the State Committee for Science and Technology.
It is believed here that Kirillin, thought of as a liberal intent on opening Soviet science to Western influences, may have picked up some indication of the planned move against Sakharov and may have objected. Kirillin served for some years as deputy president of the Academy of Sciences.
But the fact that Kirillin's departure "at his own request," according to the official Tass news agency, was announced today is seen as a naked warning to the scientists that their immunity from retaliation is fragile. Theoretically, members can be dismissed from the academy only by secret ballot of the membership. Kirillin's chief deputy is Dzherman Gvishiani, son-in-law of ailing Premier Alexei Kosygin.
Its is nuclear what arrangements await the Sakharovs in Gorki, a city of 1.2 million where Volga taxis and Chaika limousines are made and where Stalin exiled some of his foes, including Leon Trotsky, in the 1920s. Most dissidents sent into internal exile have lived in reduced circumstances and been sharply circumscribed in their activities. It is unknown if the Sakharovs would be placed under house arrest, they are certain to be under close surveillance with their mail opened or cut off and deprived of a telephone.
By silencing him, the Kremlin clearly is calculating that the expected Western outcry eventually will die down and that its Opympics, a major event in the leadership's drive for international credibility and acceptance, can proceed without trouble from the principal dissident voice.
The possibility of eventual exile in the West for the Sakharovs seems remote under these circumstances. The Kremlin refused him a temporary exit visa to accept the 1975 Nobel prize in Oslo, denouncing it as an "anti-Soviet provocation."
Elena Bonner, then temporarily in Italy for treatment of a glaucoma condition, accepted the prize for him. Her internal exile could affect her eye disease, which has required periodic trips for special treatment in Italy. e
She has been allowed those trips following intense Western pressure.
The Soviets have only rarely allowed senior scientists to emigrate on grounds they are privy to state secrets. The few who have been allowed to leave, such as Jewish physicist Benjamin Levich, were object of intense campaigns by Western scientists.
The move against Sakharov is only the latest indication that the Kremilin is in no mood now to bend to Western pressure on such issues.
The leadership apparently has ceased believing, after Carter's reprisals over Afghanistan that new trade concessions are likely and it is anticipated here that there will be a significant drop in Jewish emigration which last year was at a record 50,000.
Sakharov's exile could also mark the virtual end of the strong dissident activity that was fostered by the 1970s detente. In the past three months, more than 40 less well-known activists have been rounded up, including human rights dissidents Tatyana Velikanova and Viktor Nekipelov, and dissident Russian Orthodox priest Gleb Yakunin and Dmitri dudko.
Sakharov, tall for a Russian at about 5 feet 11, with a fringe of gray hair and a few longer strands wisping over his bald head, was a unique and compelling figure on the Moscow scene, despite a personal demeanor marked by a shy diffidence that sometimes bordered on the haughty.
But there was nothing remote about his views or the commitment that emerged as he turned his back on his brilliant scientific career -- including 24 years at the center of the Soviet hydrogen bomb program -- and became a strong advocate of social justice in the face of the totalitarian Soviet state.
That he had sought unsuccessfully to convince Nikita Khrushchev to renounce thermonuclear weapons, and had come so far from his priviledged life as a scientist sequestered from social problems, gave his views force.
Over the years, he spoke out for ethnic minorities, religious groups, exprisoners, veterans, the disabled and others who believed themselves deprived by the state.
With his vociferous, chain-smoking second wife Elena in attendance, Sakharov frequently opened his apartment for meetings of the Helsinki monitoring group -- set up chiefly by the now-imprisoned Orlov to check Soviet compliance with the human rights provisions of the 1975 Helsinki Agreement on European Security and Cooperation.
That accord gives legal recognition to Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe and was a major goal of Brezhnev's detente with the West. But the agreement also committed the Soviet Union to the human rights that Sakharov repeatedly found to be violated.