The publication in Moscow last year of 155 letters by the famous Soviet physicist Peter Kapitsa on science and the organization of science was one of the more dramatic benefits of the policy of glasnost. Most of the letters are addressed to Stalin, Molotov, Beria, Krushchev, and other Soviet officials; they cover the years between 1930 and 1980, though most were written between 1934 and 1956. These letters have been drawn from Kapitsa’s own files, and have been carefully edited with helpful annotations by Kapitsa’s longtime assistant, Pavel Rubinin. They provide a fascinating portrait of a remarkable man who was the hero of numerous legends during his lifetime.

Kapitsa was known in the West to have gone to the aid of Soviet colleagues who had been arrested, to have refused to work on the atomic bomb, and to have been put under virtual house arrest by Stalin after World War II. But he was also rumored to have been, at various times, a spy master in Cambridge, the Soviet “atom tsar,” and science adviser to Stalin and Krushchev. In the absence of documentary evidence, it has been difficult, even for those who wished to do so (and not everyone did), to distinguish fact from fiction.1 Now glasnost has made it possible to publish Kapitsa’s letters and to clear up some of the mysteries that surround his life.

Kapitsa was born in Kronstadt in 1894, into a family with strong military and intellectual traditions, and he graduated from the Petrograd Polytechnical Institute in 1918. In the following year his wife and two children died in the epidemics then sweeping Russia. In 1921 Abram Ioffe, the most prominent of Russian physicists, took him on a trip to England, and in July Kapitsa entered the Cavendish Laboratory, which was then headed by Ernest Rutherford. Although intending to stay only a few months, he remained in Cambridge for thirteen years.

After some initial experiments on the behavior of alpha particles, Kaptisa devoted himself first to the use of magnetic fields to study various problems in solid state physics, and then to low temperature physics. The boldness and originality of his work impressed Rutherford. In 1925 he was elected to a fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge, and in 1929 he became a fellow of the Royal Society and a corresponding member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. The Royal Society Mond Laboratory was built for him in the courtyard of the Cavendish Laboratory and was opened in 1933 by Stanley Baldwin.

Kapitsa was a colorful man, and liked the limelight. He could be very charming and good company. He took a genuine interest in other people and liked to draw them out. He established a very close relationship with Rutherford, whom he admired immeasurably; Rutherford in turn regarded him with great affection and special favor. Although Kapitsa exuded enormous self-confidence, it is clear that Rutherford’s approval was extremely important to him and helped to calm his anxieties about his abilities.

Kapitsa returned to Russia several times during his Cambridge years. Soviet colleagues frequently urged him to come back permanently, and in 1931 Stalin sent him a message promising him the most favorable conditions for his work if he returned. But Kapitsa remained in Cambridge. He had married again, happily, and had two sons. There is no evidence at all that he was a talent scout for the Soviet intelligence services. His main interest was science; he was pleased with his success and believed that Cambridge was the best place to do physics.

In September 1934, when Kapitsa was in the Soviet Union visiting his mother and giving lectures, he was told by the Soviet authorities that he would not be allowed to return to England. In his expansive way he had created the impression that he could, if given a chance, transform the electrical engineering industry, and the Soviet government may have thought that he was essential to the economy. But vindictiveness may also have been a powerful motive for the Soviet decision. The physicist George Gamow had recently decided not to return to the Soviet Union from a trip abroad, and Stalin may have held Kapitsa in retaliation. Between the mid-1930s and the mid-1950s very few Soviet scientists had the opportunity to travel to other countries.

Kapitsa took the prohibition on his return to England very badly. He referred to Cambridge in a letter to Rutherford as “paradise lost.” He thought for a while of abandoning his earlier research and working on biophysics with Ivan Pavlov, the great Russian physiologist. But in December 1934 he was named director of the newly created Institute of Physical Problems in Moscow. He insisted that his laboratory in Cambridge be brought to Moscow, and this was eventually done.2

Kapitsa was intensely frustrated by his dealings with government officials and by the problems he faced in organizing the new institute and overseeing its construction. In April 1936 he wrote to V.I. Mezhlauk, the deputy premier responsible for science, to complain that he was having to occupy himself with things other than research:


Here is a picture for you of what is going on. Imagine that you saw your neighbor with a violin. You found the opportunity to take it away from him. And what do you do instead of playing on it? For two years you use it to hammer nails into a stone wall.

His frame of mind was not improved by the cool reception his fellow scientists gave him. Some of them may have resented his staying abroad for so long. Others were afraid to have contact with him. Cut off from Rutherford’s support and the European physics community, he felt isolated, and Rutherford’s death in 1937 deprived him of the solace of correspondence with his mentor.

By the end of 1936, however, Kapitsa’s equipment and apparatus had arrived from England and his new institute had begun to function; he could now return to his research and his morale improved. He was dismayed nonetheless by the state of Soviet science, and by the lack of a real scientific community in Moscow. Scientists were burdened by too much teaching, hamstrung by bureaucracy, and immobilized by the fear that they might be branded as political deviationists if they said anything unexpected. In letters and reports to Soviet leaders, including Stalin, he complained that the State did not treat scientists with enough respect. His letters were not always welcomed by their recipients. When he wrote to Molotov, who was then the premier, to protest about an attack in Pravda on the mathematician Nikolai Luzin, the letter was returned to him with the following inscription: “Return to Citizen Kapitsa as not needed. V. Molotov.”

In April 1938 the great terror, which had reached epidemic proportions in 1937, struck close to home. The physicist Lev Landau, whom Kapitsa had brought into his institute, was arrested. On the same day Kapitsa wrote to Stalin that Landau, though only twenty-nine years old, was one of the two leading theoretical physicists in the country, and that his loss would be a serious blow to the institute, and to Soviet and world science. “Of course,” he wrote,

learning and talent, no matter how great they may be, do not give a person the right to break the laws of his country, and if Landau is guilty he ought to answer for it. But I very much beg you, in view of his exceptional talent, to give the appropriate instructions so that his case will be treated very carefully. Also, it seems to me that Landau’s character, which is, to put it plainly, nasty, ought to be taken into account. He is a bully and a tease, likes to look for mistakes by others and, when he finds them, especially if they are made by important old men like the members of our Academy, begins to tease in a disrespectful manner. He has made many enemies in this way…. But for all the faults in his character, it is very difficult for me to believe that Landau was capable of anything dishonest…. No one but another scientist can write to you about this, and that is why I am writing to you.

This letter was an act of considerable courage. Everyone was vulnerable to repression, but Kapitsa’s background was especially suspicious by the standards of Stalinist politics. A lesser man would have kept quiet for fear of drawing Stalin’s anger upon himself.

This letter shows how clever Kapitsa was in his approach to Stalin. Even when he had a serious complaint or request to make, he tried to establish some common ground with the person he was addressing, and to draw that person to his own position. In this case he based his argument on concern, which Stalin might be expected to share, about the harm that Landau’s arrest would do to Soviet science, while his comments about Landau’s character offered an explanation for any denunciations that might have been made of him.

Stalin did not heed Kapitsa’s letter, however, and Landau was still in prison a year later. In April 1939 Kapitsa wrote to Molotov to ask that the case be speeded up and that Landau be allowed to do scientific work in prison. He needed Landau, he said, to explain a number of interesting phenomena he had discovered while studying the properties of liquid helium. At the end of April 1939 Kapitsa was summoned to the NKVD where he was asked to write a letter to Lavrenti Beria, the head of the NKVD, vouching for Landau’s behavior, and Landau was accordingly released. Kapitsa’s work on liquid helium and Landau’s theoretical explanation of Kapitsa’s discoveries led to Nobel prizes for Landau in 1962 and for Kapitsa in 1978.


Kapitsa’s other main project in the late 1930s was the development of a new and cheaper method for producing oxygen on an industrial scale. He devoted most of the war years to this, and from 1943 headed a special government agency with responsibility for the oxygen industry. Many of his letters from this period are addressed to government officials to enlist their aid in overcoming the difficulties he faced in organizing a new oxygen production plant.

Kapitsa was well rewarded for his work in science and technology. He was elected a full member of the Academy of Sciences in 1939, received Stalin prizes in 1941 and 1943 and the Order of Lenin in 1943 and 1944, and in May 1945 was made a Hero of Socialist Labor, the highest civilian honor. He was thus in good standing with the regime when he was drawn into the atomic project in August 1945.

Kapitsa had been consulted in 1942, along with other scientists, about the desirability of a Soviet atomic project, but had taken no part in the small effort that Stalin had initiated then. After Hiroshima, however, when Stalin decided to launch a crash program, Kapitsa became a member of a special committee chaired by Beria who had been given overall charge of the project.

Kapitsa quickly became dissatisfied with the way in which the project was being run. On October 3, 1945, he wrote to Stalin to complain about Beria’s attitude to scientists, and to argue that the authority of scientists ought to be respected:

Is the position of a citizen in the country to be determined only by his political weight? There was a time when alongside the emperor stood the patriarch; the church was then the bearer of culture. The church is becoming obsolete, the patriarchs have had their day, but the country cannot manage without leaders in the sphere of ideas….

Only science and scientists can move our technology, economy, and state order forward. You personally, like Lenin, move the country forward as a scholar and a thinker. The country has been exceptionally fortunate to have such leaders, but that may not always be so…. Sooner or later we will have to raise scientists to the rank of patriarch. That will be necessary because without that you will not make scientists always serve the country with enthusiasm…. Without that patriarchal position for the scientist the country cannot grow culturally on its own…. It is time, therefore, for comrades of Comrade Beria’s type to begin to learn respect for scientists.

This letter too is characteristic of Kapitsa’s approach. In order to make his main point more effectively he strives to create a common ground with Stalin by flattery of the type that Disraeli used with Queen Victoria: “We authors, ma’am….”

In this letter Kapitsa asked to withdraw from the atomic project: since it was not possible to be a “patriarch” at present, he wrote, it would be better just to be a monk. This request was evidently denied, or at least ignored, for on November 25 he wrote again to Stalin asking to be relieved of his position. The project was being organized in an unimaginative way, he wrote, and merely following the path the Americans had taken: more thought should be given to mapping out a cheaper and quicker route for the Soviet Union. The basic problem, he wrote, was once again the political leaders’ lack of trust in scientists. “Comrades Beria, Malenkov, Voznesenskii conduct themselves in the Special Committee like supermen,” he wrote,

especially Comrade Beria. It is true, he has the conductor’s baton in his hands. That’s fine, but all the same a scientist should play first violin. For the violin sets the tone for the whole orchestra. Comrade Beria’s basic weakness is that the conductor ought not only to wave the baton, but also to understand the score. In this respect Beria is weak.

At the very end of the letter Kapitsa added a postscript: “I wish Comrade Beria to be acquainted with this letter, for it is not a denunciation, but useful criticism. I would have told him all this myself, but it’s a great deal of trouble to get to see him.”

Stalin showed Kapitsa’s letter to Beria, who now spread the rumor that Kapitsa was unpatriotic and did not want to work on the bomb. This story gained some currency in the West, where it has sometimes been interpreted as evidence of Kapitsa’s moral stand against nuclear weapons. But the letters do not support this interpretation. Kapitsa did not oppose the building of a Soviet bomb. What he objected to was Beria’s heavy-handed management of the project and the policy of copying the United States.

On April 4, 1946, Stalin sent Kapitsa the only letter he ever wrote to him. It was in reply to a letter Kapitsa had sent recommending that a certain book be published, and it reads in full:

I have received all your letters. In your letters there is much that is instructive—I am thinking of meeting you some time and talking about them. As far as the book by L. Gumilevskii, Russian Engineers, is concerned, it is very interesting and will be published soon.

Beria, as Stalin may well have intended, was disturbed by the prospect of a meeting between Stalin and Kapitsa. He asked Stalin for permission to arrest Kapitsa, which would almost certainly have been followed by his death. But Stalin refused, saying, “I will remove him for you, but don’t you touch him.” Beria, presumably with Stalin’s connivance, now organized an elegant intrigue, which resulted in a special commission’s condemning the oxygen production process that Kapitsa had devised. In August 1946 Stalin signed a decree dismissing Kapitsa from the directorship of his institute.

Kapitsa had fallen into disfavor with the Soviet leadership, and yet depended on Stalin’s protection. He may indeed have owed his survival to Stalin’s desire to show Beria who was really in charge. This was a precarious position to be in, and especially difficult for someone who insisted that the sphere of ideas had its own rights within the Soviet political system, and that politicians should respect the authority of scientists.

Kapitsa was now forced to conduct his research at his dacha, where he set up a small laboratory. He taught physics at Moscow State University for two years, but was deprived of that right in 1949 after failing to attend a special session of the Academy of Sciences to celebrate Stalin’s seventieth birthday. He still wrote to Stalin and to other Soviet leaders to seek help with his current research, and to point out that Western technology for oxygen production was being developed on the basis of his ideas. He worked on the problem of using directed energy beams for anti-air and antimissile defense.

Kapitsa and Stalin never met, and their correspondence was very one-sided. There are twenty-four letters from Kapitsa to Stalin in the book recently published, many of them three or four printed pages long, and there are other letters that have not yet been published. In return Kapitsa received one short note. Yet in 1950 Malenkov told him that “Comrade Stalin reads not only those letters that you write to him, but also those that you write to me.” Perhaps, as Rubinin suggests, Kapitsa was saved, like Scheherazade, by his ability to keep his audience interested; or perhaps Stalin was flattered by these artful letters from a famous scientist, who was not afraid to be outspoken and complimentary at the same time.

Why did Kapitsa write so often to Stalin? Letters to the leader were not an unusual feature of Stalinist politics: one way to get things done was to draw Stalin’s attention to them. Such letters also reflected the belief, or illusion, that it was not the leader but his subordinates who caused injustices; if only Stalin knew, he would set things right. Both of these motives can be discerned in Kapitsa’s letters.

Yet there was another factor too. In May 1946, when the special commission was investigating Kapitsa’s work on producing oxygen, Kapitsa wrote to Stalin that Stalin’s support had helped him when he was struggling to develop the new technology (he was unaware at the time of Stalin’s promise to Beria to remove him):

Of course you could not, as Rutherford did, enter into the details of the technical side of my daring ideas, but it seemed to me that you, like him, believed in me, and that is the chief thing that I need. At times it even seemed to me that you understood the difficulties of my struggle. For who, if not you, knows what struggle is? Sometimes, on the contrary, I was seized by doubts about the reliability of your support, for you never wished to talk to me.

Kapitsa may well have exaggerated in order to flatter Stalin, but his letter and the accounts of people who knew him suggest he had a deep need for approval from figures of authority. This seemed to spring from anxieties about his own worth, and the same anxieties were apparently reflected also in boasting about his own achievements. He seems to have hoped that Stalin might provide something like the support that he had received from Rutherford in Cambridge, but in this he was sadly disappointed.

It was not until August 1953, after the death of Stalin and the arrest of Beria, that Kapitsa emerged from disfavor. In January 1955 he was reinstated as director of his institute, and remained in that position until his death in 1984. In 1958 the Soviet government formally rescinded the report of the commission that had criticized his work on oxygen production. In 1965 he made his first trip to Western Europe, and in the following year he visited Cambridge, after an absence of thirty-two years.

Kapitsa achieved a position comparable to that of patriarch in the last years of his life. He cooperated with the physicist Igor Tamm to try to protect genetics from the depredations of the charlatan Trofim Lysenko; and with other intellectuals, including Tamm and Sakharov, he wrote to the Soviet leaders in 1966 to warn against rehabilitating Stalin. He wrote to Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and other Soviet officials to criticize censorship, the pollution of Lake Baikal, and the poor organization of scientific work, and to warn about the danger of accidents at nuclear power plants.

His tone in these letters is much more self-assured than in his letters to Stalin. As before, however, his concern was with the deplorable condition of Soviet science. His argument against the repression of scientists, for example, was that this would harm Soviet science. Unlike Sakharov, he did not base his protests on the rights that each person should have. On the contrary, when he wrote to Yuri Andropov, then head of the KGB, to protest about the treatment of Andrei Sakharov and Yuri Orlov, he argued that people of great talent should not be judged in the same way as ordinary people.

It is ironic that Kapitsa, who spent thirteen years in Britain, should be less democratic in his attitudes than Sakharov, who did not leave the Soviet Union until he was well into his sixties. What Kapitsa brought from Cambridge was not a democratic outlook, but a sense of the English intellectual elite’s self-confidence, and of the social prestige and political authority that it saw as its due; it was these values that he wished to see reproduced in his native land.

Sakharov’s commitment to human rights, on the other hand, seems to have sprung from an innately democratic personality. Many of the scientists with whom he worked in the nuclear weapons program had a clear understanding of the defects of the Soviet system, but none was as courageous as Sakharov in speaking out about them. His teacher, Igor Tamm, exercised an early influence on him, but Sakharov went much further. Sakharov’s role as a dissident would not have been possible in the 1930s, for anyone who attempted it would have disappeared at once. Kapitsa, in trying to win Soviet leaders to his own views, had perforce to base his arguments on premises that he and they shared, and belief in the importance of science and its contribution to the state was the most obvious common assumption.

During the last twenty years of his life Kapitsa was able to travel freely, and to enjoy the immense esteem in which he was held in the international scientific community. He once wrote to Khrushchev that when he was in disfavor he had drawn strength from the award of honorary doctorates and medals by universities and academies in other countries. “Of course,” he wrote, “in normal conditions this external side serves more to satisfy personal vanity, but in the position in which I found myself, it was a source of confidence that I was right and helped me to keep my spirits up.” It is evident that his pleasure in such honors did not diminish with age, or with the improvement in his position.

The significance of these letters, however, lies not in what they reveal about Kapitsa’s idiosyncrasies, nor even in their always interesting comments on a wide range of topics. These letters are valuable because they give a detailed picture—from the front line as it were—of a courageous and skillful defense of the dignity and authority of science, which Kapitsa regarded as the highest form of intellectual endeavor, in the face of crushing and ruthless totalitarian power.

This Issue

March 1, 1990