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.
Kapitza had not learned the Freudian scheme, which relieves such torments by linking them to repressed guilt (and anger): the mourner has no reason to accuse his surviving self, or the beloved dead person, for neither one has willed the total separation; nature has imposed it. Kapitza had an older, romantic view of the way nature deals with a living family, killing some members while the others survive. That process mocks human consciousness: it ridicules the sense that each of us is something more than a replaceable part in a system. “I am not a person,” Kapitza exclaimed, “but some kind of machine, which goes on with its work no matter what.” And later on: “After a year and a half as a canoe upon the ocean, for all who surround me I am only an instrument, a machine, a clever head.” Of course such feelings were intensified by the foreignness of those about him: “I am alone among people who are not only absolute strangers but even of a different breed, who do not speak my language and are utterly alien in spirit.”
One way and the other, by loss of intimate family and separation from the fellowship of Russians, he was immersed in science as if it were his whole life, and was brought thus to question the point of such a life, just when he was proving that he could be a big winner in science as a contest. “What is all this for?” he asked, and could find no answer. He was aware of the psychological motive: the petty pride that savors the envious glances of losers, and the grand pride that insists on joining the contest, however pointless, to escape the “spiritual death” of surrender to despair. But he could find no reason to justify the motives that propelled him, no argument for the scientist’s life deeper than pride. In his soul-searching there was no hint of the natural philosopher’s awe, not to speak of the mystic’s yearning to dissolve the petulant self in the process of comprehending the universe. Rutherford had ordered, “Don’t let me catch anyone talking about the Universe in my department,” and that seemed to suit Kapitza’s temperament very well. But he did yearn for fusion with kindred souls, to overcome his perception of the scientific careerist in himself as a machine seeking triumphs. Thus he recognized the need to renew “a personal life,” and in 1927 he married again—Anna Krylova, a Russian woman studying archaeology in Paris—and fathered two children within a few years.
He also showed his determination to renew the vital link with Russia. In spite or because of the Soviet Revolution? On this critical question the selection of early letters is deliberately frustrating. Almost sixty-five years have passed, but Soviet editor and censor are too stupidly fearful to publish what young Kapitza wrote to his mother concerning politics. “I have met émigrés,” we are permitted to read at the beginning of his journey, for he decries their “false perceptions; they are all still living with this or that unrealizable dream”—and we are cut off by ellipsis points. Later on we are permitted to hear again of his disagreement with émigrés who cannot reconcile themselves with what is going on in Russia and are therefore isolated and depressed. “I believe all the more in the future of Russia, and it seems to me the sooner these civil dissensions are liquidated, the sooner we will rise again”—and again censorial dots cut the reader off.
I am willing to bet that the original letters have many passages on politics, and that they reveal some view akin to smenovekhovstvo (literally: changing landmarks), the argument that the intelligentsia could help bring Russia to freedom and abundance by cooperating with the Soviet government in matters such as education and scientific research, in which they shared the values of the regime, while bearing witness to values that were denied, such as constitutional rights. I would bet that young Kapitza wrote that way, because the leading older scientists who stayed in Russia wrote that way, and because Kapitza’s letters of 1934 and 1935 show the further development of that spirit of critical cooperation with Bolshevism. It could be expressed openly in Lenin’s time, when the government courted “bourgeois” scientists, inviting them to be poputchiki, fellow travelers. In the time of Stalin’s “great break,” between 1929 and 1932, critical cooperation became a treasonous contradiction in terms; to be called a fellow traveler was to be accused of limited loyalty.
The imprint of the new demand for complete commitment is clear in Kapitza’s letters of 1934 and 1935, but so is the older spirit of critical cooperation. The bundle of excerpts presented by Yale University Press was part of his rough-and-tumble bargaining with the bosses as they conscripted him. An American historian of science found the bundle in Rutherford’s archive at Cambridge, and how they came to be there is essential to an understanding of them.
Kapitza had been making vacation visits to his mother in Russia in the Twenties and early Thirties. He had been repeatedly requested, on one occasion by Bukharin in person, to come home for good and contribute his illustrious skill to the upbuilding of the native land. He had shown interest: he would like to establish an institute in Moscow, but he said that certain conditions must be met, including the right to go back and forth between Russia and the West. Even during the liberal Twenties that right seems never to have been promised. During the early Thirties any reader of the Soviet press could see a sharp restriction of rights, making the Soviet Union notorious as the country that locks up its scientists and occasionally jails or shoots a few “pour encourager les autres.”
In the summer of 1934 Kapitza had reasons to suspect that the requests for his services might turn into an order, yet he went back, ostensibly for another vacation visit with his mother and for scientific consultation here and there. Anna went with him, the children stayed in England. When he was told he could not leave, Anna returned to England and became his chief link with Rutherford and other Western colleagues, who helped Kapitza in his angry bargaining with Soviet officials. Anna translated parts of the letters he wrote to her and passed them on to Rutherford, so Western colleagues might know exactly what they should say (Kapitza is being wronged) and what they should not say (Kapitza is anti-Soviet). The entire episode foreshadowed the post-Stalin era, with the bosses then as now shouting traitor at the dissident who uses the Western press to spread the word that is banned at home, while the dissident and his Western friends fumble for some compromise between principle and practical possibility.
“I pointed out,” Peter wrote to Anna in the summer of 1935, when a settlement was finally being reached,
that all the conflict without you would have taken quite a different aspect, but only because of you, there was no outburst of anti-Soviet character. Mezhlauk [vice-chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars and major Party boss] says that he often heard about you as a very clever woman (blush), and they all think that you must come as soon as possible and be my help. That no pressure will be brought up against you, that they promise you complete freedom of going and coming between England and here, as much as you like it, and that only when you would like it here you could come here with children. For this sentence I gave Mezhlauk full marks, fine fellow, many sins were pardoned him for it. This is how one must treat not only you but everybody.
Of course the bosses did not concede the final point, or even an exceptional right of travel for Peter as well as Anna. Somewhere in the yearlong wrangle he gave up his insistence on it, or rather, he shifted to other aspects of the central issue, which was confidence, trust. Both sides angrily agreed that mistrust obstructed agreement.
If they trusted him, he argued, they would not make a fuss over foreign travel, and they would not be so maddeningly inactive in providing him with a place to start the Soviet part of the Cambridge and the Moscow research institutes that he had in mind. They charged him with lack of trust, in the Stalinist (or Hobbesian) sense of a one-way flow from subjects to rulers. “Altogether [Mezhlauk] says I must obey them if the people gave them the right to rule the country.” Kapitza did not remind the bosses that Lenin’s State and Revolution pictured them as public servants and promised citizens the right of recall. Kapitza was not reckless, but he was daring; within the autocratic frame he argued with the bosses to be sensible, to recognize their need of autonomous citizens:
I said I obey in all and all I was ordered. But some of the orders sound as if Beethoven was called and told to write the 4th symphony, by order. Of course Beethoven can conduct an orchestra by order, but would scarcely be willing to write a symphony by order, in any case good ones. So do I consult and obey all they ask me, but I can not begin creative work, and of course Rutherford is right that Kapitza “requires an atmosphere of complete mental tranquility.” And after the talk with Mezhlauk I was laid down for two hours.
For a time his mental health became an issue; his Western friends feared he might be driven to some unnameable extreme, partly because his letters repeatedly emphasized the depression that afflicted the active man constrained to stand and wait. “Kapitza…was a scientist,” he wrote, “whose fate interests scientists throughout the world. And now Kapitza is tiny, silly and unhappy, dangling on a string as were dangling the little spiders with wire legs which were hanged on the Christmas tree.” The authorities insisted that he cease his special demands, call off the Western campaign, give up his Cambridge lab, and quietly wait for the promised Soviet institute, which would begin to take shape when he had earned their confidence. He threatened to quit physics and go to work with Pavlov on neurophysiology; intermittently the authorities threatened jail or worse.
Kapitza’s response to threats was sometimes a disdainful sneer—“Of course the words of ‘O,’ to the effect that it would be a pity if such a good scientist were to be shot, did sound a bit old fashioned to me.” In another letter he made a mock heroic allusion to the Decembrists, Pushkin and Nekrasov—“At the end they will have to give me back my freedom. The wives were waiting like the famous Penelope…so be courageous and don’t get upset, and obey your husband who is still clever.” At one point, he gave a desperate explanation of his invulnerability to threats:
I had your [Number] 120 letter and as usual was very pleased. It is a great comfort to me. Specially when they want to punish me. But the unfortunate part is it is difficult to punish me, if not quite impossible, as nothing can be worse than my position; no work, no you, no peace, no Rutherford, no comfort, what else can one do with me?
We can be sure that Kapitza actually talked to his masters as he wrote to his wife; he had to know that his letters would be opened and read before they reached her. So we must read them as simultaneously written to her and to the bosses and, at her discretion, to the Western colleagues. At one point he went through the formal routine of writing an open letter to Comrade Chairman Molotov, with a copy for Rutherford, asking Molotov to censor the covering letter to Rutherford, which authorized Rutherford, at his discretion, to publish any or all of the letter to Molotov. His central theme, as in the exchange with Vice-Chairman Mezhlauk, was his submission to despotism on condition that it be enlightened. He wanted assurance that it would be “quite safe” for his wife to return. More generally, in sorrow rather than anger, he lectured Molotov on the consequences of ruling through fear:
You know yourself that your ways with people make them nervous sometimes. If I am now and again threatened, I do not mind it, I am only sad, but I do not get frightened…. You said to me that you got plenty of Kapitzas among your youth. I am certain that you have got not only Kapitzas but even super Kapitzas, but with your methods you will never “fish” them out of the 160,000,000. At the moment you must ask for help from England through Rutherford.
I never will admit that the attitude shown to me is the right one. I am not offended for myself, I am afraid for the other Kapitzas. This I see very clearly and cannot pass it in silence for the sake of the Union.
We are retrospective outside observers, looking in on a contest almost unimaginable in our own experience. We would have to imagine Billy Budd not as a naif blessing the captain who condemned him, but as an intellectual arguing with the captain that autocracy would be better served if it recognized individual rights. That would spoil the story by casting doubt on the purity of Billy’s motives; we’d think he was trying to save his own neck. In short, we outsiders may wonder how much credence we can give Kapitza’s repeated assurances that he shared the goals of the Communist bosses and resisted stupid orders only to serve the common cause better. He came to the fortress-state on his own, but he did not expect to be shackled; his letters heave with distress as he argues his country’s need for enlightened despotism.
The most convincing evidence that he sincerely shared the bosses’ faith is his repeated reference to them as “our idiots,” a startling variation of “ours,” as Anna translated what must have been nashi, the possessive used as a noun, an idiom roughly like the German die Unsrigen, “our people,” as distinguished from foreigners or from competitors. Sometimes the words occur in an exclamation of anger or despair, as in a tangle over a package of clothes from Anna: “One of the many proofs of the idiocy of our people…. Well how can one trust them? How can one trust them in big things, when in the details they cannot keep their promise?” At other times he hopes that “at last our idiots will get more reasonable and will let me out of the harem (I am like a white slave),” for “they are not such complete idiots as in Western Europe.” That fleeting suggestion of Slavophile pride in Russian backwardness is not to be taken as seriously as this sober reflection:
I am sincerely fond of our idiots, and they do wonderful things and it will all make history. And I was prepared to do all to help them, and even now I shall do all what is in my power to help them. But what can be done if they understand nothing in science, or more correctly they do not know how to create science. But for this it is clear one has to wait till they will get wiser. And to take up the policy of Semenoff or Joffé, to compromise and to wriggle, this I don’t know and don’t want to do. They (the idiots), of course, can get clever tomorrow, and perhaps in 5–10 years. That they will get clever, there is no doubt about it. The life will make them do it. But the question is—when. I tried to hasten it, but up till now without results.
The exaggeration of this boastful lament, the martyr’s pride in the fellowship that must follow his way after it has destroyed him, proves the intensity of Kapitza’s commitment. We must respect his conceit even as we deflate it. He was not the unique scientist of stalwart principle in a native land of darkness. He was not striving all by himself to show “idiot” leaders that they must add reasonable understanding to their forceful will for modernization. Some of the “idiots” could be educated, and other scientists than Kapitza were trying to teach them. His repeated slurs on Soviet colleagues, who appear in these letters of 1934 and 1935 as moral opportunists and mediocre intellects, were often unfair, or at least one-sided. A.F. Joffé in particular (Ioffe at the Library of Congress; would have been Jaffe at Ellis Island), who was Kapitza’s original teacher and founder of a brilliant school of physicists, deserves better than the phrase “wriggling compromiser.” He too would dare to stand up for a colleague taken by the administrators of terror, though he seems to have had less success than Kapitza would achieve in winning the release of Lev Landau.
On one front Joffé proved bolder than Kapitza; he published a defense of modern physics against the Stalinist yahoos who attacked it as a subversion of dialectical materialism. Kapitza, I assume, was contemptuously indifferent to the yahoos, in part because of his usual indifference to metaphysical issues, in part because he knew that the Communist bosses were not literally idiots. They shared his passion for applied science. The big problem, once the issue of trust had been resolved, was to make them broad-minded in their practicality, able to see the need for autonomous individuals not only in pure science but also in applied science, all the way down to the countless people who decide on the valves and switches and bearings that determine a country’s level of productivity. That was the central theme of Kapitza’s didactic reports between 1939 and 1941.
In Rutherford’s judgment Kapitza, “if not a genius, had the brain of a physicist and the ability of a mechanician, a combination so rarely wedded in one brain that it made him something of a phenomenon.” He should have added two more qualities: a fine sense of human relations and consummate skill in the blunt mode of telling bosses what they would rather not hear. In that mode, the opening of his first report to the Economic Council of the People’s Commissars’ Council is a tour de force. Director Kapitza tells his superiors that the reports they require are
characteristically boring, soporific, understandable only to the one who writes them, a waste of time and paper…. Unsure therefore that my reports will be read, I have decided that I will talk to myself about what we are doing, for that will help to put my thoughts in order.
After that startling challenge—Are you really interested in the industrial uses of my institute’s research?—he gave unsolicited instruction on the basic question they should be asking: What incentives for creative innovation are built into the Soviet industrial system? And he answered: None that I can see.
In capitalist countries, Kapitza explained, using examples drawn from his British experience, the intertwined process of scientific discovery, technical invention, and widespread adoption of inventions, is driven by large monetary rewards for improvements in productivity. That driving force he declared inappropriate for the socialist system. Perhaps disobedient qualifications followed the declaration, for ellipsis points intervene between socialist piety and humble disavowal:
As a scientist I do not know how the problem of technical creativity will be solved, what incentives will be found for it. That is the business of the leadership, but I think that, by telling honestly how the introduction of our machine is proceeding, I will give you some material on this question.
Kapitza’s new machine dispensed with the great pressure then required to liquefy gases. He had devised it as a research tool, to investigate the strange behavior of matter near absolute zero, but he was keenly aware of the potential benefit to the steel industry if the cost of liquid oxygen could be greatly reduced, and to aviation if an oxygen machine could be shrunk to portable size. The Economic Council ordered the Commissariat of Machine Building to develop Kapitza’s machine for industrial use; the Commissariat translated the order in characteristically Stalinist fashion (“Factory Borets [Fighter] will make ten such machines next year”), and two chief engineers came from the commissariat to put the actual responsibility for making the machine back at the point where the disturbance originated, on Kapitza himself. His institute was to supervise execution of the factory’s assignment, with 20,000 rubles of the institute’s budget to provide bonuses for the factory’s engineers, as incentives.
Kapitza quotes himself blowing up at the two engineers in the idiom of the Soviet bureaucracy, bouncing responsibility right back to where the Economic Council had placed it, on the Commissariat of Machine Building. He refused to concede one penny of his budget for bonuses to the factory, warned the members of the commissariat of the “beating” they would get if they failed to do the job assigned to them, and promised that he would gleefully join in the beating if their factories went on treating his institute as “swinishly” as they had up to then. (Kapitza’s institute had to make for itself the sort of specially designed machines that his lab in Cambridge had got so handily from the Metropolitan-Vickers Company in London.)
If he had stopped there, Kapitza would have been acting like a typical Soviet administrator, intent above all on keeping his nose clean. Or perhaps we should say a typical research scientist, staying clear of messy industrial problems. But he really did believe in the unity of applied and theoretical science to serve the improvement of Soviet Russia, and he had the inventor’s pride in seeing his machine get proper recognition. Moreover, Western firms were showing an interest in challenging his patent while taking over his ideas and grabbing the profits that Soviet machine builders would get if they moved with appropriate speed and efficiency.
All those motives emerged in his vividly detailed reports to the Economic Council, relentlessly documenting the lack of interest and the ineptitude displayed by the factory Borets and by the commissariat that stood over it. Success, of a typically Soviet sort, also emerged. The press took up Kapitza’s complaints, Borets was pressured into making serious efforts, and an industrial version of his machine did emerge. Not ten in one year, but one after eighteen months—like the birth of an elephant, he remarked, the longest gestation in the animal kingdom. Kapitza was awarded a Stalin Prize and the title Hero of Socialist Labor.
Soviet novels and plays have told such stories in monotonous variation on the central theme: this is how the stubborn innovator wins out. Happy the land that has such heroes! Kapitza’s reports are unusual, but by no means unique, in turning the formula around, to Brechtian irony: Unhappy the land that needs such heroes! The Soviet innovator must be exceptionally bold and stubborn because the Soviet system works against innovation. The director of Borets was a good executive, Kapitza observed, skillfully devoted to producing the thirty-one items in his assigned plan. A radically new product threatened to disrupt the plan with no benefit to the managers except avoidance of a possible “beating.” Moreover, the price system punished the director who made a cheap product in place of an expensive one. Kapitza took an active part in forcing the factory to work against its own interests—and he kept telling his superiors that he was doing so because their system was self-defeating.
To a large extent it still is. The Soviet editor aptly remarks: “Many problems that Kapitza wrote about…have actually grown sharper today, as the tasks of speeding up scientific-technical progress have come to the forefront.” The Soviet way of buying things “off the shelf” can serve as an example. In any factory’s instrument shop—Kapitza would go there first to learn in a few minutes what level of capacity he could expect—he was astonished to see men laboriously fashioning the most ordinary tools. He estimated that half the time of the country’s instrument makers was going into handicraft production of simple tools that were supposed to be routinely purchased, off the shelf. Tool manufacturers were fulfilling their assigned plans whether or not tool users got what they needed when they needed it. The users learned to accept anything on the shelf, in the hope that it might be traded or refashioned to their particular requirement. Kapitza rebelled. At one point he kicked up such a fuss that the highest officials in toolmaking were scurrying about their far-flung stores to find the precise drills and reamers required by Kapitza’s institute. He had sufficient influence to achieve such a scurrying, and sufficient sense to reproach the Economic Council for tolerating such a system.
At times Kapitza expressed the familiar conviction that enormous talents are bottled up by the system. But sometimes he expressed the opposite, equally familiar, belief: that a low level of knowledge and aspiration in the Soviet population frustrates the creative person. He complained, for example, that most engineers in the refrigeration industry ignored his radically new approach to the design of their equipment because their understanding of thermodynamics was superficial. One of his saddest little touches concerns the first machine that Borets finally put together. It was far less efficient than it should have been because of the single detail where the engineers at Borets had felt free to be innovative. They had put in electrical switches of their own choice, and these showed that they misunderstood the function to be performed. When he tells such stories, Kapitza goes off on a critique of the Soviet educational system: it must stop rote learning and stimulate creative thought.
Kapitza’s faith in his country’s progress through the Soviet system was debatable, as he evidently realized. We outsiders can take part in that debate, which turns on reasoned examination of factual evidence. But we do so with deceptive ease, free of the insider’s obligation to act. Kapitza was not merely born to that obligation; when exceptional talent won him the chance to escape, he chose to return. He chose to believe that good would come of the Soviet system, and took on himself the duty to help make it so, at the possible sacrifice of liberty or life. I cannot help admiring that spirit.
That admiration is accused by the memory of those whom the Soviet system destroyed. In 1932 the biologist Nikolai Vavilov was traveling in the West, keenly aware of great trouble threatening back home. In a crowded lunch room at Cornell he warned the geneticist Dobzhansky that it would be dangerous for him to return. Then he went home himself, to lose the struggle for scientific progress in agriculture, and to die of malnutrition in a prison. Dobzhansky, watching in horror from America, shared enough of the revolutionary faith to go on hoping that the Soviet system would prove selfcorrecting. He could not share the attitude of Vladimir Nabokov, who left Russia in 1917, loathing Bolshevism instantly and totally—he may have told Kapitza so at Cambridge—and spent his creative life dwelling on the loss of community. “His best works,” Nabokov said of himself, “are those in which he condemns his people to the solitary confinement of their souls.”
Soviet intellectuals are still in the process of making such choices. Whether in the violent community of their country’s history, or withdrawn into the solitary confinement of their souls, or straining for some tolerable compromise, they are engaged in shaping the ultimate consequences of the Russian Revolution. Sensible outsiders may learn from watching the process unfold, but we have little power to influence it, and no right to claim the supreme intelligence that knows the outcome in advance.
December 5, 1985