Lev Landau, Prosocialist Prisoner of the Soviet State

Gennady Gorelik
(Physics Today, May 1995, p. 11-15)

Anti-Stalin and prosocialist leaflet
A view from the West
From the KGB archives
Atomic and hydrogen bombs

Alexander Akhiezer's "Recollections of Lev Davidovich Landau" (June 1994, page 35) painted an impressive portrait of the famous Russian theorist. However, two important elements could be added to this picture: the nature of Landau's arrest in 1938 and his participation in the Soviet atomic project. The opportunity to fill in these gaps has been provided by the downfall of Soviet socialism, which resulted in the opening of secret state archives and an increased willingness of former atomic scientists to discuss certain key aspects of their work. Based on my investigations in the Soviet archives, including the KGB archives, and on my oral history research on the Soviet atomic project, I would like to comment on these two aspects of Landau's biography.

Anti-Stalin and prosocialist leaflet

First, how real were the "anti-Soviet activities and . . . counterrevolutionary leaflet" that Akhiezer reports as charges leveled against Landau by the Soviet authorities?

As far as I can judge, the arrest of Landau and his friend Moisey Korets in April 1938 differed greatly from the vast majority of arrests during the bloody epoch of 1936-38, referred to in Russia as "1937." There was lawful ground to arrest them. The leaflet, timed for the May Day celebration of 1938, was a reality rather than a forgery of the NKVD (the former name of the KGB). However, the leaflet was not anti-Soviet and counterrevolutionary. It was anti-Stalin and prosocialist Here is its striking wording:1

"Comrades! "The great cause of the October revolution has been meanly betrayed. The country is inundated by floods of blood and dirt. Millions of innocent people are thrown in prison, and no one knows when his turn will be. ...

"Don't you see, comrades, that Stalin's clique accomplished a fascist coup?! Socialism remains only on the pages of the newspapers, which are terminally wrapped in lies. Stalin, with his rabid hatred of genuine socialism, has become like Hitler and Mussolini. To save his power Stalin is destroying the country and making it easy prey for the beastly German fascism. . . .

'The proletariat of our country, which overthrew the power of the tsar and the capitalists, will be able to overthrow a fascist dictator and his clique.

"Long live the May Day, the day of struggle for socialism!"

 It is a text almost incredible for 1938 Russia. It looked (and looks) like an immediate death penalty for anyone who would but touch this leaflet Though Landau was 30, he was well established in science by then. Not surprisingly, some of Landau's friends and colleagues are doubtful about Landau's authorship or even editorship of this text. However, they remember Landau mainly after his "phase transition" in the Lubyanka jail.

LANDAU in Lubyanka prison, 1938. This photo is from the KGB archives.

To understand Landau's social stance prior to this "phase transition" one should keep in mind, for example, his 1935 article "The Bourgeoisie and Contemporary Physics" in the central Soviet newspaper Izvestiya. Most of the article is dedicated to the difficult plight of physics in the West, where Landau saw true science as being "in strong opposition to the general ideology of the contemporary bourgeoisie, which more and more falls into the most wild forms of idealism"; Landau referred here to theological statements made by Arthur Eddington and James Jeans. At the end of the article, Landau speaks in strong terms about the "unprecedented opportunities for the development of physics in our country provided by the Party and the government."

A view from the West

Since we cannot necessarily assume that the newspaper text was a cry from the heart, witnesses who looked at Landau from the outside, from the West, should be valuable. One of them, the Danish physicist Cristian Moeller, reminisced about the Soviet physics of the 1930s in a 1971 interview.2 He met Landau in 1929 in Copenhagen, and in the fall of 1936 he spent six weeks in the USSR.

The Kharkov Institute of Physics and Technology, where Landau was then working, made a very favorable impression on Moeller, especially against the background of scarcities in everyday life. In Kharkov in September 1936 Moeller did not notice any forerunner of the approaching purges: "When I talked with Landau he said, "Oh, we are expecting to have a little liberalization of the whole situation. Stalin has now gone in for free elections.' Well, that was what they thought "Oh, you should have heard'—and he was very jubilant about it—"you should have heard how impertinent the young people were at the meeting the other day.' He liked that"

However, when Moeller arrived in Moscow in October, he already sensed a different atmosphere: "One had the feeling that the situation had become tense. I remember, [Yuri] Rumer [who would later be arrested with Landau and Korets] was a little jumpy. One morning he came to my room in the hotel and he was walking in big boots, and when he walked down the corridor, he knocked at the door, and I opened it and I said, 'Oh gee, I thought it was the OGPU [another former name of the KGB].' He looked around and said, 'One shouldn't talk about that.' It was like talking about the Devil in the Middle Ages, you know."

By then Rumer already knew that in August Boris Gessen, the director of the Physical Institute of Moscow University, had been arrested, thereby becoming the first "1937" victim among physicists.

Moeller did not forget to note in this interview that in the years of his youth, many physicists of his generation had very radical political views because of the deep economic crisis and enormous unemployment at the beginning of the 1930s. They believed that Communism was the only way to overcome the crisis and the only real barrier against fascism. This belief began to fade only after the 1937 terror and after the Soviet invasion of Finland.

From the KGB archives

As a result of glasnost the file on Landau's inquisition during his imprisonment has been published. However, this pile of paper sheets stuck together by NKVD-KGB officers includes documents of very varying nature.

The minutes of Landau's interrogation (which Akhiezer quotes) show a mixture of fact and invention. The interrogators relied more on their imaginations than on what they could extract from the people they dealt with. And their imaginations were fed by their zeal and ambitions rather than by reality.

Here is an example of one inquisitor's invention. According to the minutes he asked Landau whether he had informed Matvei Bronstein about the leaflet Landau and Korets planned to distribute on May Day 1938, Landau answered that he hadn't, nor had he heard from Korets that the latter had told Bronstein about it. In actual fact Landau was too well aware that his close friend Bronstein had been arrested nine months prior to May 1938.3

According to the document in Landau's file that we can consider the most truthful (since that haphazard brief note was intended just for the inner KGB operation), Landau's conduct in jail was very courageous: In spite of his torments he maintained his silence for more than two months and declared a hunger strike.

Landau's own handwritten testimony is trustworthy enough, and it explains what thoughts led to the leaflet: "At the beginning of 1937, we came to the conclusion that the Party had degenerated and that the Soviet regime no longer was acting in the interests of workers but in the interests of a small ruling group, that the interests of the country demanded the overthrow of the existing government and the creation in the USSR of a state that would preserve the kolkhozes [collective farms] and state property for industry but build upon the principles of bourgeois-democratic states."

So, in fact, the antigovernment leaflet was based on a still "theoretical" view of Soviet ideology. Two decades of "socialist" elimination of "class enemies" had not exhausted the energy of the Russian revolutionary-socialist fit. However, the surviving bearers of the revolutionary energy were striving to move forward toward Gorbachev rather than back to Lenin.

Atomic and hydrogen bombs

It is a wonder of Landau's history that the main accusation against him was not the real anti-Stalin leaflet but the fictitious wrecking of the Kharkov Institute. Landau, the "anti-Soviet? criminal, was released on bail by NKVD head Lavrenti Beria on the responsibility of Peter Kapitsa. However, after this same Beria had dismissed Kapitsa from all his scientific positions, Landau was engaged in the top-secret atomic project. His contribution to the atomic and hydrogen bombs must have been substantial, since it was rewarded with two Stalin Prizes (1949 and 1953, respectively) and a Hero of Socialist Labor award (1954).

Landau's work on the "superbomb" was not in physics but in applied mathematics. According to Isaak Khalatnikov (in an interview with me on 17 March 1993) Landau directed a group at the Institute of Physical Problems, in which Khalatnikov, Naum Meiman and a good team of computing women worked on calculations for nuclear weapons.

Although the history of the Soviet H-bomb has not been written yet, Landau's group seems to have coped with a problem that the Americans did not fully tackle. Landau and his colleagues successfully calculated the yield for the first Soviet thermonuclear bomb, a "Sloyka" (layer cake) with lithium deuteride filling, suggested by Andrei Sakharov and Vitaly Ginzburg in Igor Tamm's group at the Lebedev Physical Institute. Some part of the "special" mathematics developed at the Institute of Physical Problems was declassified and published in 1958, during the first nuclear thaw; it looks pretty strange in Landau's Collected Papers.4(In the abstract there is an indication that the methods were developed in 1951-52.) In the same volume, the famous 1950 work on superconductivity by Ginzburg and Landau looks much more natural. However, Ginzburg told me in an interview on 28 March 1992 that that purely theoretical paper was written in the very midst of "impure" applied experimentation; working on superlow and superhigh temperatures in such close proximity did not hurt either effort.

According to Hans Bethe (in an interview I did with him on 13 April 1994), the Americans considered various kinds of thermonuclear explosives along with LiD while exploring the "Alarm Clock" design (analogous to Sakharov's Sloyka), and LiD was not so important for them: LiD was only used by the US in 1954, and they were astonished by how well it worked. They knew it would work, but their calculations were not good enough. Maybe, if they had had more knowledge about the effectiveness of LiD in 1946-47 they would not have laid aside the Alarm Clock.

By contrast, LiD was a key element of the Soviet thermonuclear design, and that was due at least in part to Landau's team.

We now have documentary evidence that the KGB, through its bugs and informers, was aware of Landau's attitude toward his nuclear responsibilities and toward the Soviet government in the 1940s and '50s. The KGB transcribed this "oral history," dated from 1947 to 1957, when it sent a summary to the Central Committee of the Communist Party.5 From this document we learn that Landau felt himself to be a "learned slave" and that he said to one of his friends: "I believe that our regime, as I have learned since 1937, is definitely a fascist regime, and there is no simple way for it to change.... I believe that while this regime exists, it is ridiculous to hope for its development into some decent thing. ... It is quite clear that Lenin was the first fascist. . .. The question of the peaceful liquidation of our regime is the question of the future of humankind. ... Without fascism there is no war."

As to his participation in the atomic project, he believed that "a reasonable person should keep himself as far as he can from that kind of practical activity. One should use all forces to keep away from the atomic business."

Landau had agreed to work in the nuclear project because he believed that it shielded him from the Soviet authorities. Just after Stalin's death Landau remarked to Khalatnikov (as the latter told me in our interview): "That's it. He's gone. I'm no longer afraid of him, and I won't work on [nuclear weapons] anymore." And he quit the bomb project.

Landau's attitude toward the Soviet regime, educated very much by his jail-year experience, and his objection to working on nuclear weapons were the exception rather than the norm. He was perhaps the most tragic character among the Soviet atomic scientists, because he was aware much more than others for whose hands the terrible weapon was to be created.

I am grateful to Spencer Weart of the American Institute of Physics's Center for History of Physics for the opportunity to examine the center's archives of oral history.


1. G. Gorelik, "Meine Antisowjetische Tatigkeit. . .": Russische Physiker unter Stalin, Vieweg Verlag, Braunschweig-Wiesbaden, Germany (1995).

2. Oral history archives. Center for History of Physics, Am. Inst. of Physics, College Park, Md.

3. G. Gorelik, V. Frenkel, Matvei Petrovich Bronstein and Soviet Theoretical Physics in the Thirties, Birkhauser Verlag, Boston (1994).

4. L. Landau, I. Khalatnikov, N. Meiman, in Collected Papers of L. D. Landau, D. Ter Haar, ed., Gordon and Breach, New York (1965), p. 776.

5. A. S. Grossman, Voprosy Istorii, no. 8, 112 (1992).