Review of

Stalin’s Great Science: The Times and Adventures of Soviet Physicists,
By Alexei B Kojevnikov. 2004 Imperial College Press 384pp 
// Physics World, November 2005

 

It is tempting for historians of science to make generalizations, as the title of this book – Stalin’s Great Science – suggests. But where this particular book works best is in describing the adventures of individual physicists who labored under the Soviet regime. Through a series of biographical sketches and amusing anecdotes, Alexei Kojevnikov, a historian at the University of Athens in the US, has produced a colorful portrayal of physics in the former Soviet Union.

The most interesting chapters are where the author has unearthed his own material. They include the contribution to Soviet science by the Rockefeller Philanthropies, who in the 1920s paid for promising young Soviet physicists to travel abroad and collaborate with colleagues in Europe. The author also examines the outstanding careers of Piotr Kapitza, the director of the Institute for Physical Problems in Moscow, and of Sergei Vavilov, president of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. He describes them from a mainly anthropological – rather than scientific – point of view, which is a controversial approach but does help us to take a fresh look at the relationship between science and authority.

The author’s analysis of knowledge and power in the Soviet system produces some clever insights into complex scientific and political situations. However, he sometimes over-emphasizes the power factor, for example presenting Lev Landau as a professional rebel, rather than a physicist: did Landau clash with Niels Bohr when discussing quantum-relativistic measurability just to show who was boss? And was Andrei Sakharov’s metamorphosis into a public figure due to his urge to redistribute power, or was it, as I rather think, based on his professional knowledge of strategic weapons and antiballistic defense in particular?

The key aim of the book is to challenge what the author calls “one of the main postulates of post-war liberalism”, namely that science can only function properly in a political democracy. Kojevnikov wants to show that this is not true, using Soviet physics as a counter-example. Moreover, he tries to prove that Soviet ideology helped to bring about some novel physical ideas. Indeed, Soviet ideology was somehow responsible for the most influential Russian contribution to the history of science: Boris Hessen’s 1931 paper “The social and economic roots of Newton’s Principia”, which revealed new – external – dimensions to science as a social being.

In seeking the Soviet roots to individual scientific creativity, Kojevnikov describes the first true scientific achievement of the Soviet era, namely Alexander Friedmann’s cosmological solution of Einstein’s equations of general relativity. In Kojevnikov’s view, Friedmann’s proto Big Bang cosmology was inspired by the “big bang” of the 1917 Soviet revolution. Einstein, who initially rejected Friedmann’s solutions as being wrong, is presented in turn as a counter-revolutionary: after conceding the solution to be correct, Einstein modified the basic equation of general relativity to restore cosmological stability.

Kojevnikov hopes that some future study will substantiate his picture, but I doubt that this will ever happen. First, Einstein did not modify his equations after Friedmann’s work. Second, Friedmann – who used to quote St Augustine and got married in church – was no fan of the Soviet revolution. If the Soviet big bang had anything to do with Friedmann’s cosmology, it was in the upheaval to scientific life that it triggered, which forced him to move away from his main field of dynamical meteorology.

Where Kojevnikov is “sufficiently confident” is that the physics of collective phenomena – from phonons to superfluidity – is indebted to “Soviet and, more generally, socialist thought”. His account of the history of this field contains two threads – what one might call the “normal” story, which deals with physical concepts, models and experiments, and the “superfluid” story, which involves looking at the pro-socialist feelings and the Soviet adventures of some founders of these fields – Landau, Yakov Frenkel and Igor Tamm.

However, the only concrete reason for thinking that these two themes are linked is that the physicists involved sometimes borrowed words from Soviet collectivist vocabulary to describe certain scientific concepts in the field. The problem is that Kojevnikov presents no evidence that these people ever developed their vague pro-socialist sentiments into some intellectual system or that they thought that the general notion of freedom or collectivization covered both humanitarian and quantum phenomena. So when the author uses Soviet ideology to explain the emergence of strange, new physical ideas like superfluidity, I cannot help feeling that something equally unbelievable enters the story.

Without any firm evidence to support the author’s view, readers will have to decide for themselves if the superfluid storyline is real or superfluous. After all, the actual scientific story is strong enough on its own. As for the use of collectivist words, isn’t it common for a researcher at the cutting edge of any field to use words from everyday life to describe emerging ideas? Living in a totalitarian state, where public discourse was controlled from above, it was hardly surprising that Soviet physicists like Frenkel used Soviet-sounding words in their scientific explanations.

So was Stalin’s physics really great, as the title suggests? Kojevnikov does not try to quantify greatness, but merely says that Soviet science was of “exceptionally high development”, which could imply it was on a par with the best Western science. Kapitza and Sakharov certainly did not think so, pointing to the inefficiency of Soviet science, which lagged behind work done in the West. And since Landau, who used to grade physicists into classes, judged himself to be in the second class, we can infer that he believed that Stalin’s science accounted for less than one-tenth of the world’s physics output.

One indisputable advantage of a Stalinist regime – such as we have in North Korea today – is that it can spend money on any high-priority issue (including physics) without any debate or cost–benefit analysis, regardless of the population’s needs. Total control over the media also makes it much easier to give science a shining image and encourage young people to become scientists themselves. These two tools were certainly at work in the Soviet Union in the 1920s when the groundwork for Soviet science was laid and the popular-science magazine Knowledge is Power was founded.

However, that was really Lenin’s science. Before the Second World War, Stalin did not think much of science and actually rejected two top achievements that were nominated by the Academy of Sciences for the Stalin prize in 1940. One of these was for the discovery of the spontaneous fission of uranium. It took the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to get Stalin to respect science and fund it generously. “Stalin’s great science” was purely a post-war phenomenon.

What proved to be beyond totalitarian control was the efficiency of science, as well as the economy as a whole. As Lenin stated, it is efficiency that decides which social system wins. He was, apparently, right, and Stalin’s science was great more in quantity than in brilliance. Even though the Soviet era produced many world-class scientists, none was as globally significant as Lobachevsky or Mendeleev, both of whom rose to fame before the Communist revolution.


  Gennady Gorelik is a research fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science, Boston University, US, e-mail gorelik@bu.edu. His most recent book is The World of Andrei Sakharov: A Russian Physicist’s Path to Freedom with Antonina W Bouis (2005 Oxford University Press)

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