The First Two Soviet Trips

Ava Helen and Linus Pauling with Soviet colleagues including A. I. Oparin (front right) and N. M. Sissakian (back right), 1957.

[Part 2 of 3]

Summer 1957 marked the first time that Linus and Ava Helen Pauling visited the Soviet Union. Linus had been invited by A. I. Oparin to deliver a paper at the International Symposium on the Origin of Life on the Earth. At first the Paulings were hesitant to accept due to high costs and questions about their ability to obtain travel visas. But ultimately these issues were resolved and they accepted the invitation, voicing in their correspondence with Oparin their excitement at the prospect of the symposium and the opportunity to visit a new part of the world. And so it was that, in August, they arrived in Moscow to attend the symposium at the Institute of Biochemistry where Pauling presented his paper “The Nature of the Forces of Operation in the Process of the Duplication of Molecules in Living Organisms.”

During their first stay in Russia, Ava Helen kept a private diary to record everything they did and saw – mostly museum visits, festival activities and dance performances. Included were trips to the Bolshoi Theatre to see a ballet, an opera, and an operetta. Other noteworthy excursions included the treasure house of the Kremlin, Cathedral Isaac, the Pushkin Museum and a Russian kindergarten. Of the visit to the kindergarten, Ava Helen noted that the children were presented in such an organized fashion – specifically in their music and gymnastics classes – that she had a hard time buying into what she was seeing and enjoying the visit. Something she did enjoy however, was watching the Youth Festival parade, one which featured spectacular performances and a breathtaking fireworks display.

The Paulings made time to dine with Oparin, their primary contact during their visit, as well as their colleagues the Folkensteins, at the Savoy Hotel in Moscow. The duo also went to an old monastery, since repurposed as the Institute of Chemical Physics, to visit N. N. Semenov’s laboratory. This was just one of a number of laboratory tours, including visits to the nuclear physics lab in Moscow, Oparin’s lab, the Orekhovich Lab, and the Tatyveskis Geo-Chemical Institute Lab.

Pauling in Leningrad, 1957.

Upon returning to the U.S., his visit to Russia completed, Linus Pauling invited new colleagues V. N. Orekhovitch to and Vladimir Knorre to visit him at Caltech. It was not to be however as, in December, Pauling received a letter from the U.S. State Department informing him that Pasadena, San Francisco, and Los Angeles were officially closed to anybody holding a Soviet passport. Outraged by this action, Pauling called State Department official Lawrence Mitchell, urging him to arrange for Orekhovich’s visit to Pasadena. In response, Mitchell informed Pauling that Berkeley, California was open to Soviet visitors, but that the U.S. government could not very well make an exception for Orekhovich, as this would have “little effect in applying pressure on the Russian Government.” Pauling then proceeded to write to the Secretary of State, voicing his opinion on the situation. Pauling claimed that he felt very strongly opposed to this action because, “it gives the Russian scientists who come to the United States a false impression – the impression that we are a police state, where scientists are not free to talk with other scientists, but are ruled by the Department of State.” Orekhovitch eventually made it to the U. S. but was unable to visit Pauling or Caltech.

About a month after Pauling wrote to the Secretary of State, he received a reply from Frederick T. Merrill, Director of the East-West Contacts Staff. In it Merrill reiterated Lawrence Mitchell’s original argument. According to Merrill, it was within the seventeen-point policy of the United States to increase contacts with peoples of Eastern Europe, but this policy had been rejected by the Soviet Union. As such, until negotiations could be revived on the matter of the barriers that had been raised by the USSR to contacts between the two countries, the United States had to restrict Soviet travel as a way of pressuring the USSR into negotiations.


Soviet Academy of Sciences, Certificate of Membership, 1958.

In 1958 Pauling was elected a foreign member of the USSR Academy of Sciences (Akademia Nauk USSR), the second American to receive this honor. Asked for a statement on his selection, Pauling conveyed gratitude to the Academy and commented on the great importance of improving international relations. Since his stance on matters of international relations was well known, colleagues and other figures in Russia wrote to Pauling encouraging him to continue to fight against nuclear testing in the United States.

The Paulings made their second visit to Moscow in November 1961. While there, as an elected member of Akademia Nauk, Linus Pauling gave a speech titled “World Cooperation of Scientists” at a conference hosted by the Academy in celebration of the 250th anniversary of the birth of M.V. Lomonosov. In his speech, Pauling discussed the approaches taken by Lomonosov and other Russian scientists to atomic investigations into the structure of matter. He also commented on the contributions that Soviet scientists had made toward world peace, and reflected on the need to reconsider the Soviet Union’s official decision on Pauling’s chemical theory of resonance.

Pauling expounded on the resonance controversy at a later talk given in Moscow at the Academy’s Institute for Organic Chemistry. His theory of resonance used quantum mechanics and wave functions to model a hypothetical structure of a molecular system as expressed as a sum of wave functions. And his presentation of this theory during the 1961 trip was particulalry important because, ten years earlier, the Institute of Organic Chemistry of the Academy of Sciences, U.S.S.R. had formally rejected the work as “pseudoscientific” and “hostile to the Marxist view.” [For much more on the resonance controversy, see this collection of our posts.]

In response, Pauling had written to Akademia Nauk arguing in support of his theory and asking the organization to reconsider. In 1954 the Soviet group eventually consented to a written debate of the theory between Professor N. D. Sokolov and Pauling – a debate which never actually took place. By 1961, when Pauling gave his lecture on resonance to a Soviet audience, technical facets of the theory remained controversial within the chemistry world and as such provided good fodder for conversation among scientists, irrespective of the political aspects of the debate.

While in Moscow, Pauling likewise gave a talk in which he urged the Soviet Union to end its nuclear testing programs and address its stockpiles of nuclear weapons. He also attended a panel discussion at which he once again called on the Soviet government to halt all nuclear tests.

Diary entry by Ava Helen Pauling, 1961. “6 December. Went to Lenin Library with Angella Gratcheva. It is some experience to ride with her in her car. I only worry about the pedestrians. She does seem a bit crazy.”

Ava Helen attended these events with her husband, but once again found time for adventures of her own. As before she kept a diary during the 1961 trip, most of which is devoted to her husband’s presentations. A substantial portion of the diary is, however, dedicated to documenting the “wild rides” that she experienced with her guide, one Angella Gratcheva. Apparently Gratcheva drove very erratically, and while navigating the Russian roads commonly recited poetry, sang songs and engaged in very animated conversations with Ava Helen. Her driving was so unpredictable that the police stopped them, a “misunderstanding” that the guide cleared up with more animated speech. From scientific controversy to peace activism to crazy driving, it would seem that Russia proved to be an interesting place indeed.

As with much of his international travel, Pauling’s relationship with the Soviet Union and its scientists grew stronger with each visit. The 1957 and 1961 trips set the foundation for Pauling to be viewed as a respected figure in the U.S.S.R., established precedence for future visits to the country and strengthened his position as an advocate for peace in both his home country and its rival nation.

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