Scientist speaks on Cold War

by Jordy Urstadt | 11/9/93 6:00am

A Russian historian spoke last night on how Cold War scientists had to suppress their political views to avoid being purged by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

Alexei Kozhevnikov of the Moscow Institute for Sciences, spoke about Stalin's Academy of Sciences to 25 students and professors in the Rockefeller Center for the Social Sciences.

Kozhevnikov is part of a group of Russian scientists who are revising Soviet history following the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

Kozhevnikov discussed the politicization of the scientific community under Stalin in the 1940s and 1950s. He said examining the career of Sergei Vavilov, who headed the Soviet Academy of Sciences during the Cold War, shows how Stalin influenced scientists.

To avoid becoming a victim of Stalin's unpredictable purges, scientists such as Vavilov left no trace of their political views. Kozhevnikov examined Vavilov's published works to shed light on his private life.

"Vavilov left unconscious traces of how he saw his own problems," Kozhevnikov said.

Kozhevnikov analyzed Vavilov's biography of scientist Isaac Newton to find clues about Vavilov's political views.

Vavilov, drawing a parallel with his own life, portrayed Newton as a man oppressed by his political situation, Kozhevnikov said.

"Vavilov consciously led a double life," Kozhevnikov said. Despite his political appointment in Stalin's Communist regime, Vavilov privately disapproved of political totalitarianism.

Kozhevnikov said he believes Vavilov used science as an escape from irrational politics, disdained Stalin's bureaucracy and felt compromised by his political appointment.

In the Soviet scientific community, scientists underwent a ritualized political dialogue in place of actual scientific exchange. "Stalinism was a very ritualistic culture," Kozhevnikov said.

The political ritualism resulted an atmosphere where scientific accomplishments were determined by political connections rather than scientific merit, Kozhevnikov said.

"The only example of great scientific achievement in this period was the creation of the atomic bomb," Koshevnikov said. "That was partly because the military protected its scientists from political pressures."

As an example of the contrived atmosphere of Soviet science, Kozhevnikov described a 1,000-page script for a physics seminar in 1949. The script was written by the scientists who were sponsoring the event, so that it could be verified by the Politburo.

The Politburo canceled the seminar, he said.

Kozhevnikov's lecture was sponsored by the Russian and History Departments, the Dickey Endowment and SHAPS, a group that studies scientific history and philosophy.