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 …

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