To the Editors:

I would like to bring to your attention the following letter from I.A. Mel’cuk. He is a very distinguished linguist, certainly one of the foremost scholars in this field.

Noam Chomsky


On March 25, 1976, at a session of the Faculty Board (Uceny j Sovet) of the Institute of Linguistics, Soviet Academy of Sciences, Moscow, I was not reelected senior research fellow, the position I held up to that time. According to the regulations senior research fellows must be re-elected by their Faculty Board every five years. It is usually a routine procedure which, as a rule, the person concerned should not even attend. If he is not re-elected, the researcher must be fired by the administration no more than a year after the decision by the Faculty Board took place.

I have been with the Institute of Linguistics since 1956, and have written and published more than 150 linguistic works, including several books; many of my papers are translated and published in the USA, France, Spain, West Germany, Poland, Hungary, and East Germany. I have often been invited to take part in international linguistic conventions, to give lectures, to serve on editorial boards of Western linguistic periodicals, etc.

The only reason explicitly stated for dismissing me was my letter published in The New York Times on January 26, 1976. This expressed my disagreement with the campaign waged against Andrei D. Sakharov by the Soviet press, as well as my protest against the arrest and the trial of an eminent Soviet scientist, the biophysicist Sergei Kovaljov, who has been sentenced (on purely political charges) to seven years in prison and three years more in exile.

Yet the Soviet Union has ratified the International Agreement on Civil and Political Rights (adopted December 16, 1966, by the XXI Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations) which—in accordance with Soviet legislation (see Article 569 of the Civil Code of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic)—has become eo ipso a Soviet law. Article 19 of this agreement gives me “a full right to freely express my opinions including the freedom of disseminating any kind of information and ideas independently of national borders—orally, in writing, or by means of the press.” Consequently, by addressing my letter to The New York Times I have by no means violated the laws of my country. (Even if this were not the case I should have been prosecuted by the Soviet justice authorities, not by the Faculty Board of an academic institution!)

But those speaking at the Faculty Board meeting said, for example, that my letter to the Times “besmirches our country and covers with shame any research worker,…such an action is inadmissible not only in the scientific community of the Institute, but in the community of all Soviet people as well”(V. Yartseva, the director).

According to another speaker, M. Guzman, by “slandering against our country I.A. Mel’cuk does serious harm not only to it but also to all progressive mankind…so that his hostile action makes impossible further presence of I. Mel’cuk in the Institute of Linguistics….”

N. Gadziern said, “the position of I. Mel’cuk borders on war propaganda,…and all his behavior produces a very bad impression: we hoped to hear words of repentance but what we actually heard is a firm conviction.”

Such speeches were summed up in the second address by V. Yartseva: “The world is split in two, and I.A. Mel’cuk turns for help to our enemies!”

I have worked in the Institute for almost twenty years and I thought I had friends there; I maintained with many colleagues not only professional but also warm personal relations for a long time. But there was no one who would side with me or at least say a few words in my favor. More than that: as far as I know, not one of the Soviet scientists (apart from close friends) found it possible or necessary to defend me….

The purely political character of my firing makes it practically impossible for me to find another job anywhere in the USSR. All the more so since before the decision by the Faculty Board my position in Soviet science was a very difficult and precarious one. For several years I have found it practically impossible to publish my papers in leading Soviet linguistic journals. (The appearance of each of my papers required no less than a heroic act on the part of some member of the editorial board.) The second volume of my monograph Toward a Theory of Linguistic Models of the Meaning-Text Type (the product of many years of painstaking work) awaited publication more than eight years and—and finally was not published.

I was and am forbidden to teach, to take part in many scientific conventions, to go abroad to meet with Western colleagues. Immediately after the appearance of my letter in The New York Times, Soviet linguistic periodicals and publishing houses began suppressing references to my works, as well as acknowledgments by other authors mentioning my name; one publishing house (“Progress”) even suppressed my name as an editor or translator.

Under such conditions, I can no longer carry out regular linguistic research. Which amounts to presenting me with a tragic choice: either a meaningless existence in my country…or emigration—a lifelong separation (such is Soviet law) from my native land as well as from my relatives, friends, and colleagues.

I understand quite clearly that my situation cannot even be compared with the terrible lot of those people who, deprived of their freedom, are serving terms in Soviet prisons and labor camps for political reasons and whose health and perhaps lives are in danger. But still I feel I have a moral right to address the public since it is not my personal feelings that are of importance here. My case is but a modest yet very vivid illustration of the moral life of the top layer of Soviet intellectual society, of what used to be known as the “Russian intelligentsia.” It is another bit of evidence to be added to the monstrous chronicle of felonies and base toadyism which were and are so easily practiced in the USSR by many persons holding scientific degrees and often posts of responsibility in the hierarchy of Soviet science.

The aim of this letter is to make its readers seriously ponder once again over the fate of Soviet scholars and scientists forced to choose between degrading behavior and emigration. (Bright times now! Not so long ago they had to choose between felony and a bullet or, at best, years behind barbed wire.) Do not forget, please, that each of them, aside from a few active militants like Andrei D. Sakharov or Igor R. Safarevic, is either a victim, or a hangman, or—what is perhaps most dangerous of all—a tacit accomplice of hangmen.

I.A. Mel’cuk

40/17 Bajkal’skaja Street, flat 113

Moscow, 107207, USSR

(Formerly Senior Research Fellow,

Institute of Linguistics

Academy of Sciences of the USSR)

This Issue

October 14, 1976