Russian & Soviet Science and Technology


The Soviet Union has traditionally been very strong in the theoretical foundations of physics. In general relativity theory, A. A. Fridman (Friedmann) produced a brilliant mathematical approach that showed that Einstein was wrong to think that his equations of 1915 could lead only to a static universe, an error that Einstein graciously admitted after seeing Fridman’s work.

Beginning in the early 1930s Vladimir Fock, Lev Landau, and Igor Tamm made contributions to quantum field theory that attracted attention from leading physicists around the world. At about the same time, P. A. Cherenkov began his work under the Supervision of S. I. Vavilov on the action of radiation on liquids. This led to his discovery of the Cherenkov effect, for which in 1958 he received the Nobel Prize (along With I. M. Frank and Tamm). Ia. I. Frenkef’ was well known in the 1930s and 1940s for his work on electrodynamics and especially for his two-volume text on the subject. At the same time L.A. Artsimovich, I.Ia. Pomeranchuk, and D.D. Ivanenko were doing important work on quantum electrodynamics. The textbooks on theoretical physics by Lev Landau and E. M. Lifshits came to be known to physicists everywhere. Also in the 1930s Landau and B. I. Davydov established a strong tradition in plasma physics that has continued to the present day. In later years some of the most intluential workers in this field have been V. L. Ginzburg, R. Z. Sagdeev, E. P. Velikhov, L.A. Artsimovich, M.A. Leontovich, A.D. Sakharov, and I. E. Tamm. Sakharov (later famous in the West for his protests against Soviet violations of civil rights) and Tamm suggested the Tokamak toroidal model for controlled fusion, which was widely accepted internationally as a basis for continuing experimentation.

The founder of Soviet work in solid state physics was A. F. Ioffe, a major figure in the history of Soviet science. In 1918 Ioffe established the Leningrad Physico-Technical Institute, which became the cradle of Soviet physics. In a forthcoming history of this institute Paul Josephson describes the 1920s as a “flowering of Soviet physics,” a time when a group of talented young Soviet physicists flourished under Ioffe’s tutelage. Among the members of Ioffe’s group were A. P. Aleksandrov (future president of the Academy of Sciences), A. I. Alikhanov, L. A. Artsimovich, P. L. Kapitsa (Nobel lau- reate), I. KKikoin, V. N. Kondrat’ev, B. P. Konstantinovich, I.V. Kurchatov (later leader of the Soviet atomic weapon project), L.D. Landau (Nobel laureate), P. I. Lukirskii, N. N. Semenov (Nobel lau- reate), D. V. Skobectsyn, and Ia. I. Frenkel’.

Another bright page in the recent history of Soviet physics has been quantum electronics, where new methods have been found for the generation and intensification of electromagnetic waves. In 1964 the Soviet physicists N. G. Basov and A. M. Prokhorov, together with the American physicist C. H. Townes, received the Nobel Prize for research leading to the development of lasers and masers.

Unfortunately, there is very little scholarly work in English on the history of Soviet physics. Good articles on the early history are Paul Josephson, “The Early Years of Soviet Nuclear Physics,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 1987, 43(10):36-39; Josephson, “Physics, Stalinist Politics of Science and Cultural Revolution,” Soviet Studies, 1988, 40(2):245-265 and Josephson, “Physics and Soviet-Western Relations in the 1920s and 1930s,” Physics Today, 1988, 41(9):54-61. Peter Kapitsa, once the Soviet Union’s best-known physicist because of his capture by Stalin while on home leave from England in 1934, has been the subject of several popular biographies, but no one has made use of the Kapitsa family archives. Lawrence Badash has included some of the correspondence between Kapitsa and his wife, Anna, in his Kapitza Rutherford and the Kremlin (New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 1985). Kapitsa’s collection of articles Experiment, Theory, Practice has been published in English (DordrechtlBoston: D. Reidel, 1980). Also useful is the collection Peter Kapitsa on Life and Science: Addresses and Essays, edited and translated by Albert Parry (New York: Macmillan, 1968).

An aspect of Soviet physics that has attracted some attention in the West has been atomic weapons and atomic energy. See David Holloway’s Entering the Nuclear Arms Race: The Soviet Decision to Build the Atomic Bomb, 1939-1945 (Working Paper 9, International Security Studies Pro- gram) (Washington, D.C.: The Wilson Center, 1979); and his book The Soviet Union and the Arms Race (New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 1985). An old book still of some value is Amold Kramish’s Atomic Energy in the Soviet Union (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Univ. Press, 1959). I. Golovin’s Soviet biography of Igor Kurchatov, the head of the Soviet atomic bomb project, has been translated into English by William H. Dougherty: I.V. Kurchatov: A Socialist-Realist Biography of the Soviet Nuclear Scientist (Bloomington, Ind.: Selbstverlag Press, 1968). After the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power reactor in the spring of 1986, many Westerners became interested in Soviet policies toward atomic energy. Sources on this topic include Paul Josephson, “The Historical Roots of the Chernobyl Disaster,Ó Soviet Union/Union Sovietique, 1986, 13(3):275-299. David R. Marples, Chernobyl and Nuclear Power in the USSR (New York: Macmillan, 1987); and Marples, The Social Impact of the Chemobyl Disaster (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988).

Andrei Sakharov is currently the most famous of the Soviet Union’s physicists. Although no complete biography of him exists, there are a number of collections of his writings or of writings about him, such as Sakharov Speaks, edited by Harrison E. Salisbury (New York: Vintage Books, 1974); On Sakharov, edited by Alexander Babyonyshev and translated by Guy Daniels (New York: Knopf, 1982); and Sakharov’s My Country and the World translated by Guy Daniels (New York: Vintage Books, 1975).

An interesting attempt to compare Soviet and Western research in high-energy physics is John Irvine and Ben R. Martin, “Basic Research in the East and West: A Comparison of the Scientific Performance of High-Energy Physics Accelerators,” Social Studies of Science, 1985, 5(2): 293-341.

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