Back in the USSR

Linus Pauling lecturing after receiving the Lomonosov Gold Medal, Moscow, September 25, 1978.

[Part 3 of 3]

In 1967 Linus Pauling was invited back to the USSR by the Soviet Academy of Science (Akademia Nauk USSR) to join their general special meeting session in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution. He was not able to attend but, around the same time, he was also asked by the Academy to participate in the publication of Functional Biochemistry of Cell Structures, for which Pauling submitted a piece titled “Orthomolecular Methods in Medicine.” The paper discussed Pauling’s growing interest in the molecular basis of health and disease. In it, he delved into the benefits of orthomolecular study, providing both examples and rationale in support of an orthomolecular approach to medicine. The piece was published in 1970 and the volume edited by Pauling’s old friend A. I. Oparin.

That same year, Pauling was honored for his peace activism with the International Lenin Peace Prize for 1968-1669, the Soviet Union’s most prestigious award for humanitarian efforts. Pauling was the fifth American to receive the prize since its inception in 1949, following the likes of W. E. B. DuBois and Rockwell Kent. Pauling was presented with the award by Soviet physicist Dmitry V. Skobeltsyn in a public ceremony held at the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C. In his acceptance address, Pauling emphasized the need to achieve global peace through international law and expressed growing confidence in the world’s ability to facilitate international relations without reliance on nuclear weapons.

In 1975 Linus and Ava Helen made a return visit to the Soviet Union to participate in a celebration marking the 250th anniversary of the Akademia Nauk. Linus Pauling was one of twenty-seven Americans invited to participate in the event, which had been delayed for more than one year from its original start date due, according to the Associated Press, “to head off embarrassing discussions on intellectual freedom and Jewish emigration.”

Outline annotated by Pauling concerning his appearance on “The 9th Studio” Soviet television program, October 21, 1975.

While in Moscow, Pauling was asked to appear on a Soviet television program, “The 9th Studio,” alongside Bulgarian scientist Angel Balevski, Soviet physicist Nikolay Basov and Soviet philospher Dzermen Gvishiani. The round table was asked to discuss modern science, the prohibition of nuclear weapons and proliferation, and the struggle for peace. The program was broadcast to a potential audience of 80 million people throughout the Eastern bloc.

Though the bulk of Pauling’s relations with the USSR focused on the pursuit of world peace and disarmament, many of his Soviet colleagues were also interested in his work with vitamin C. His popularity in this field provoked an invitation to return to Moscow in 1978 to give talks on ascorbic acid and chemistry. While there, he spoke to the Shemyakin Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry on his growing interest in using vitamin C in the treatment of cancer. He also presented to the USSR Academy of Sciences on vitamin C, and attended the International Symposium of Frontiers in Bioorganic Chemistry and Molecular Biology.

Ava Helen and Linus Pauling picnicking on the shores of Lake Baikal, southern Siberia, 1978.

During this visit, Pauling was also awarded the Lomonosov Gold Medal, the highest award conferred by the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. Officially, the prize was given for his outstanding achievements in chemistry and biochemistry though, as stated in a letter from Soviet poet Mikhail Vershinin, the award was also in recognition of Pauling’s work as a “knight of peace and progress.” To commemorate the occasion, Pauling gave a lecture on the nature of the bonds formed by transition metals in inorganic compounds.

Pauling visited Moscow again in 1982 for ten days in order to attend the 60th anniversary celebration of the founding of the USSR. This time, he was the only American invited to attend this celebration. The trip came near the end of a long run of international travel scheduled, in part, to keep his mind off of the death of Ava Helen, who had passed on year earlier. Pauling’s diary from this trip is wistful in parts; of his arrival in Moscow he noted only the landing time and a “Russian girl with a Barbie doll.”

In between this visit and his next trip in 1984, Pauling continued to think about the political and cultural norms developing in Moscow, writing a support notice for the book Give Peace a Chance: Soviet Peace Proposals and U.S. Responses and attending a conference, “What About the Russians?” that took place in Corvallis, Oregon. He also nominated two of his colleagues, Dorothy Hodgkin and Joseph Rotblat, for the International 1983 Lenin Peace Prize.

Pauling in lecture to the Chemistry faculty of Moscow State University, June 18, 1984.

Pauling returned to the Soviet Union for the final time in June 1984, during which time he toured the national biological research center and attended the opening session of another “Frontiers in Bioorganic Chemistry and Molecular Biology” conference. In this symposium he and others discussed research agreements proposed by the Union of International Research’s Committee of Human Relations for Peace and by the Academy of Sciences of the USSR.

On this trip Pauling also attempted to arrange a meeting with Andrei Sakharov, the dissident Soviet nuclear physicist and humans right activist. At the time, Sakharov was effectively under house arrest and confined to his apartment in the city of Gorky. Pauling proposed that he meet with Sakharov in Gorky, but the request was denied. In his diary Pauling noted having been told by a Soviet official that “he was sure I could understand that a person with secret information might have to have his travel restricted.” So ended Pauling’s personal contacts with the U.S.S.R., a nation whose enchantments and flaws revealed themselves to Pauling, over the years, in near equal measure.

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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.