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Lost at Home

Many Soviet scientists have been forgotten, even in their own countries. Buried Glory digs up some of these scientists.

By Gildo M. dos Santos | February 22, 2015
Portrait of Soviet scientists Petr Kapitza (left) and Nikolai Semenov by Russian painter Boris Kustodiev (1921). Both scientists were later awarded Nobel Prizes, Semenov for chemistry in 1956 and Kapitza for physics in 1978.

Portrait of Soviet scientists Petr Kapitza (left) and Nikolai Semenov by Russian painter Boris Kustodiev (1921). Both scientists were later awarded Nobel Prizes, Semenov for chemistry in 1956 and Kapitza for physics in 1978.

 

Istvan Hargittai. Buried Glory: Portraits of Soviet Scientists. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. 352 pp. $35.

Istvan Hargittai’s new book is a collection of short biographies of 14 Soviet scientists, many of whom are as little known inside their countries as outside them. This obscurity raises a key question: why are Soviet scientists generally so little known? In the past the Iron Curtain could be blamed, but the names of some of these once-famous scientists have faded in their own countries. Half of them won the Nobel Prize, and almost all enjoyed official recognition through such honors as Hero of Socialist Labor, the Stalin Prize, and membership in the prestigious Academy of Sciences.

The author of Buried Glory met almost all of the scientists presented in the book, with some meetings dating to the early 1960s, when he lived in Moscow as a chemistry student from Hungary. Hargittai includes eight physicists and six chemists: Igor Tamm, Yakov Zeldovich, Andrei Sakharov, Petr Kapitza, Lev Landau, Evgenii Lifshits, Vitaly Ginzburg, Alexei Abrikosov (the only one still living), Nikolai Semenov, Yulii Kariton, Boris Belousov, Anatol Zhabotinsky, Aleksandr Kitaigorodskii, and Alexandr Nesmeyanov.

Hargittai’s sample of scientists is a significant one, encompassing areas of study in which the Soviets were prominent, such as nuclear physics, low-temperature physics, semiconductors, and physical chemistry. The book explores scientists who were faithful followers of Soviet Communism (some even remained loyal to Stalin) and others who later immigrated to the United States.

The author does not hide his own feelings about the Soviet regime, though his belief in and support of Western democracies might have led him to omit certain facts. The postwar period saw the rise of Stalin’s anti-Semitism and the Gulag camps, but at the same time, in the United States, scientists with leftist inclinations, such as Linus Pauling and David Bohm, faced their own difficulties. It is fair to say Hargittai heartily sympathizes with the scientific achievements of the Soviet experts while fully condemning the system in which they worked.

There is little discussion of scientific matters in the biographies, except when it comes to chemistry, where the author feels more at home. As a result Hargittai misses the opportunity to show how research by Igor Tamm and his friend Yacov Frenkel was influenced by nonscientific events. Their observations of political demonstrations in the streets of Moscow in the 1920s informed their theory of the propagation of holes and electrons in semiconductors. Frenkel, a Communist activist, watched the dispersal of the workers’ groups by police, which, by analogy, led to him imagining electrons either scattering or passing through atomic crystal structures.

One point of convergence among the scientists was their trust in the growing might of Soviet science, especially during the Cold War. The physicists and some of the chemists worked on theoretical or practical problems of explosives and nuclear weapons. At first, Western powers did not believe the Soviets capable of building an atomic bomb or the more difficult hydrogen bomb. These doubters were of course quickly proven wrong. Indeed, Soviet scientific successes were made possible only through the efforts of Soviet scientists, men and women spurred on by the threat of mass destruction. Shortly after 1945 many Soviets believed the United States would not hesitate to detonate nuclear bombs on Soviet territory, an act urged on by American mathematician John von Neumann. Years later even Sakharov, who became a well-known pacifist, argued for maintaining an atomic equilibrium as a prerequisite for peace among the superpowers. All the scientists in this book lived through the Great Patriotic War, as the Soviet Union referred to the war against Nazi Germany, and held in common the need to defend the homeland.

Only four of the scientists profiled by Hargittai lived beyond the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 (and two of these immigrated to the United States). The rest had remained more or less loyal to the regime and were recognized for their work, though sudden changes of mood in the Communist Party hierarchy could cause setbacks to research.

But what of scientific prowess after the Soviet period? The four who survived glasnost and the disintegration of the Soviet republics had already outlived the peak of their productive careers. As one scientist said, under the pretext of perestroika, Gorbachev and his followers destroyed the socialist economy without replacing it with something worthwhile. Science and the education system that produced these scientists fell victim to the post-Communist era.