• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Return of the Native

Kapitza, Rutherford, and the Kremlin

by Lawrence Badash
Yale University Press, 129 pp., $20.00

Ispytuiushchie gody; Iz pisem P.L. Kapitsy k materi 1921–23 gg. (“Years of trial: From P.L. Kapitza’s Letters to his Mother, 1921–1923”)

edited by P.E. Rubinin
Priroda (Nature), No. 1 pp.

Dvadtsat’ dva otcheta akademika P.L. Kapitsy (“Twenty-three Reports of Academician P.L. Kapitza”)

edited by P.E. Rubinin
Khimiia i zhizn‘ (Chemistry and Life), Nos. 3, 4, 5 pp.

Peter Kapitza, who died last year at eighty-nine, was probably the most celebrated Soviet scientist before Sakharov, and for analogous reasons. He stood embattled at the intersection of physics and politics, an independent man of astonishing courage. But unlike Sakharov he was not savagely punished; indeed, he was honored at home as well as abroad, confounding simplistic distinctions between “our” side and “theirs.” At the outset of his career he overturned the assumption that anyone with the power to choose would choose the West over the East, would pick an opulent metropolis of free science rather than the poor, unfree, provincial science of Communist Russia. After thirteen years of spectacular success at Cambridge he went home, and managed there to maintain his independence, his scientific creativity, and a very high position.

Kapitza got to Britain in 1921, age twenty-seven, and attained a professorship and the directorship of a laboratory at Cambridge by the early Thirties. He went home to Russia in 1934, just after the peasants had been collectivized and the “bourgeois” scientists, raked by terror, had been forced to declare themselves “red specialists.” He said he wanted to serve the cause of building socialism, while exercising the essential right of the scientist to come and go across national boundaries. He got the predictable reply from Stalin’s government: you have no such right, and you may be jailed or worse if you keep making a fuss.

The stir caused by Kapitza’s situation might have been quickly forgotten, but he kept on making news by combining feats in low-temperature physics with political challenges both to his new masters and to his old friends in the West. In October 1941 he went public—he must have been the first physicist to do so—with a warning that an atomic bomb was a real possibility. But his was no punishable challenge to secretive authorities, like the appeal for public discussion that the atomic physicist Eugene Rabinowitch could not bring himself to write on the eve of the Hiroshima bombing, or the public warning that the British scientists in C.P. Snow’s The New Men persuaded themselves not to issue. Quite the contrary. Kapitza’s declaration appeared with his government’s approval, in Izvestiia as well as the Herald of the Academy of Sciences. It contained an appeal for Anglo-American-Soviet cooperation in a joint bomb project, at a time when the Germans were driving on Moscow and a major Soviet project was impossible.

Whether public or private, such appeals were routinely rebuffed by Western authorities. In the best-known instance Niels Bohr, an old friend of Kapitza’s, tried in 1943 to persuade Churchill and Roosevelt that bringing the Russians into the bomb project was the only way to head off a nuclear arms race. May I call Churchill’s response Stalinist? He wrote that Bohr “ought to be confined or at any rate made to see that he is very near the edge of mortal crimes.”

After Hiroshima the all-out Soviet bomb project began, and Kapitza disappeared from Soviet headlines. Some Western rumors pictured him under house arrest for refusing to take part, while others had him in charge of the entire project. Much later, at a Pugwash conference seeking international cooperation to check the nuclear arms race, he told Herbert York that he had not opposed the Soviet bomb project on principle: “Since your country had the bomb, my country would have to have it too.” He had refused to take part because the chief administrators had assigned to his Institute for Physical Problems an inappropriate part of the project. Between 1946 and 1955 he was punished by exclusion from the institute, which he had founded in the Thirties after he had come home to be conscripted. In the years of ostracism Kapitza improvised a laboratory in his dacha, holding still to his ideal of keeping theory and experiment combined. A recent Soviet biography makes it clear that he was in fact under house arrest.

No doubt this conflict between the man and the state was less exalted than pacifists or anti-Soviet zealots might wish, but they cannot deny him some element of the heroic. In Stalin’s Russia a scientist had refused to give the unquestioning military service that is nearly everyone’s badge of pride in modern states. In Khrushchev’s Russia he still refused to work on military projects, using arguments—if we can trust Khrushchev’s memory—on the conflict between military secrecy and the scientist’s need to publish, which Khrushchev understood as evidence of personal vanity that could lead him to betray state secrets. So Kapitza was restored to his institute in 1955, but confined to Russia until 1965. Someday the public may get an account of Kapitza’s arguments with Stalin and Khrushchev in his own words; he left a very large collection of personal papers. In the meantime we are left guessing about details, but the major pattern is clear. He stood out from the professional herd, not with the blaspheming arrogance of Nietzsche but with the compromised spirit of Galileo, who bowed to the faith that put him under house arrest for claiming the right of individual interpretation.

After the sensation over his return to Russia and the speculation about his part in the Soviet bomb project, Kapitza was in the Western news off and on for repeatedly challenging his Soviet masters. It came out that his angry protest had rescued a brilliant colleague (Lev Landau) from the Stalinist terror of the Thirties. Confronting the neo-Stalinists of the last three decades, he demanded that they loosen their stultifying system of managing science, drop support of Lysenko, lift the ban on Freud, release a dissident from the madhouse, save Lake Baikal from the pollution caused by paper factories. The Western press also featured his 1966 return in glory to the British college that first made him a celebrity, and his 1978 trip to Sweden, at age eighty-four, to receive the Nobel Prize. The Soviet press has subordinated these themes, Kapitza’s international fame and his gadfly behavior, to emphasis on his passion for pure and applied science as a ceaseless back-and-forth or dialectical unity, simultaneously broadening the mind and increasing productivity, strengthening the native land both culturally and materially.

Such stereotyped images hardly get at the inner person, even when projected by those who knew the man, or at least knew the external traits of the envied young favorite of Rutherford in Cambridge or the outspoken senior scientist in Moscow. During his exotic thirteen years at the Cavendish laboratory, we are told, he rode a motorcycle, smoked a pipe, teased Rutherford while worshiping him—gave him the lasting nickname Crocodile, even had the beast carved over the door of the new lab that Rutherford gave to him—and organized the exclusive “Kapitza Club,” a colloquium by invitation only of young physicists who were competing to report such feats as the discovery of the neutron. Physicists like to call those the “miracle years” of their faith, and Cambridge was one of the wonder-working temples.

During the long Moscow period the portraits change. Kapitza gave popular talks to workers and engineers, sat in on oral examinations for each year’s wave of applicants to higher education, spent very large amounts of time on industrial problems, and showed much solicitude for subordinates and for his family. Whether Soviet or Western, whether they show him as a democrat or intellectual aristocrat, the biographical sketches are stereotyped cartoons rather than serious portraits.

We now have three selections from his private papers to tease our curiosity. Each is a tiny bit of literary remains that are very extensive, for this physicist liked to write. I am happy to discover that he did so with an attractive fluency and color hardly suggested in his previously published works. (In Kapitza’s case we can blame censorious editors and hasty translators for the safe, gray prose that most scientists produce spontaneously.) From personal letters of the Twenties and Thirties, his wife Anna transcribed about a thousand typed pages, out of which Yale University Press and a Soviet journal have drawn a combined total of something like seventy printed pages—fifty or so in the short book from Yale, just under twenty in Priroda (Nature). In addition, a Soviet journal of chemistry offers about thirty pages of official reports written with gusto by Director Kapitza in the years between 1939 and 1941, though he was obliged to do them monthly, to keep the Economic Council of the Council of the People’s Commissars informed of his institute’s contribution to industry. He turned that bureaucratic chore into daring lectures on the defects of their system.

The letters in Priroda are the most intimately revealing. Here a young man is writing his mother of his deeds and feelings between 1921 and 1923, after he left an instructorship at the Petrograd Polytechnic to roam the West, looking for equipment to buy and the best place to do advanced study. After the interruption of world war, revolution, and civil war, a fair number of Russians were resuming the characteristic pattern of the preceding half-century, when Russians who were serious about careers in science went off for postgraduate work in Germany, France, or England. (From the other side of the Atlantic, American provincials came in a similar quest.) Kapitza’s letters to his mother reveal what one expects: a keen sense of the contrast between Western opulence and Russian destitution—especially acute in 1921—and an anxious urge to test himself in the intensely competitive metropolis. Apart from those typical feelings, the letters disclose an unusual trauma. Kapitza had just lost his wife and two small children, to flu and scarlet fever. By numbing labor in the noncompany of foreigners he hoped to escape the torment of a desolated home.

His mother was herself a college teacher, a leading writer on folklore and children’s tales, who evidently expected self-analysis from Kapitza. He probed honestly, aware of the difference between anxiety for his careerist self in Cambridge and yearning for those he had left in a Petrograd graveyard. Success relieved the anxiety but intensified his yearning for community. When Rutherford started to heap compliments on his work, insistently offering a fellowship that Kapitza was at first unwilling to accept and solemnly inviting him to stay at Cambridge to head a new laboratory, Kapitza’s divided mind grieved.

You know, I am almost crying now. Why I don’t know. I only know that I would give it all back, all, if only Nimka and Nadia returned to me…. What is happiness in life, where is it? I have lost it. It seemed to me that if I achieved my scientific plans, I would be happy. But here I have achieved more than I wished for. For what, for whom is this accomplishment needed, these magnetic fields of great power? This may open up a new field in physics. Perhaps. But what’s that for? Only to increase the number of envious eyes, not a few of which have already been directed at me.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print