The Soviet Resonance Controversy: Pauling Fights Back

[Part 5 of 7]

Beginning in the late 1940s, Linus Pauling’s theory of resonance came under attack in the Soviet Union, first by scientists and then by the Soviet state itself. The primary points of contention for Pauling’s Soviet critics hinged on the seeming abstractness of his theory as well as his failure to acknowledge Russian and Soviet scientists deemed important to the development of his ideas. The more they considered the theory, the more their contempt grew, to the point where Soviet chemists were eventually called upon to lead an “army of many thousands strong” against Pauling. These sentiments did not reach Pauling until 1951, a full two years after the debate within the Soviet Union began. Though surprised by the tone of the Soviets complaints, Pauling did not stand down and instead launched a counter-offensive of his own in support of his scientific work.

Pauling became aware of the brewing controversy in August 1951, when a translated article from the Soviet scientific literature was sent to his office. In response, Pauling wrote a charged letter to the Soviet Academy of Sciences condemning the piece and upholding the importance of resonance theory as key to growth in the field of structural chemistry. In the letter, Pauling made clear his belief that the critics’ rhetoric was falsely placed and, indeed, that “the attempted suppression of a part of science is based upon a faulty conception of the nature of science.”

Pauling took particular objection to the ideological arguments against his theory, finding them baseless since they did not intersect at all with the scientific principles that informed his theory. He also warned of the dangers of refusing to incorporate resonance into an entire nation’s scientific vernacular, judging that “Any chemist in the modern world who attempts to carry on his work without making use of the theory of resonance […] is seriously handicapped.”

At the conclusion of the letter, Pauling took pains to praise the two Soviet scientists, Ia. K. Syrkin and M.E. Diatkina, who had translated his work, had spread word of his theory among their colleagues, and who had ultimately been forced to recant their support. In Pauling’s view, the duo were “among the most able chemists in the USSR.”

Pauling’s reply was met with scorn in the Soviet Union, and as a direct result of the letter, the Soviet Academy organized a special meeting to specifically discuss and condemn resonance theory. Held at the end of 1951, the meeting was attended by over 400 people and featured public denunciations of Pauling’s work by no fewer than forty-four prominent Soviet scientists.

One especially notable speaker was Ia. K. Syrkin, the erstwhile translator of Pauling’s Nature of the Chemical Bond. In his presentation, Syrkin introduced his remarks by suggesting that Pauling’s

substitution of the real molecule by a set of resonance structures for the sake of convenience led to an arbitrary and speculative element, and brought about what looks like an explanation, instead of an actual critical analysis and discussion of the mechanism of chemical reactions.

While it is unclear if this notion represented Syrkin’s true feelings, it is reasonable to presume that his words echoed the sentiments of many in attendance. As he moved forward through his talk, Syrkin put forth a standard criticism of resonance objecting to the notion that a molecule might not have a discrete structure. This argument, of course, was grounded fully in Soviet ideology, and specifically the belief that everything must be real and known.

Joseph Stalin lying in state

As it turned out, Pauling’s letter and the Soviet Academy meeting that followed marked the crescendo of the resonance theory controversy. Following the conclusion of the 1951 conference the debate continued to simmer, with small attacks volleyed by both sides for another two years. But in 1953, curiously, the controversy came to an end, specifically because of the death of Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin.

The end if Stalin’s reign ushered in a new era for the Soviets, one where it was no longer imperative to uphold orthodoxy for fear of severe punishment, including death. And the fact that the Soviet scientific community did not pursue its condemnation of resonance theory with any vigor following Stalin’s demise suggests that the debate was never actually rooted in beliefs about problems with the science of resonance. More likely, resonance was just one of many convenient targets for Stalin and other Soviet figureheads in their war against ideas that were ideologically incongruent with Soviet doctrine.

Whatever the case, after 1953 the resonance controversy was effectively concluded, though a few actions remained to be taken by both parties involved. These activities, as well as the western scientific world’s take on the dispute, will be the focus of our final two posts in this series.

The Soviet Resonance Controversy: Escalating the Attack on “Bourgeois Science”

O.A. Reutov

[Part 4 of 7]

In late 1940s and early 1950s, the culture of Soviet science was dominated by Lysenkoist thinking, with little room permitted for other points of view. Indeed, any work that did not fall strictly in line with Lysenkoist ideology was condemned, and those scientists who were brave enough to uphold contrary beliefs were routinely imprisoned or even killed. This period, which coincided with the end of Joseph Stalin’s reign as premier, was clearly not an environment that encouraged innovation; rather, conformity ruled the day.

By extension, the most lauded Soviet scientists of the era were those who remained ideologically attuned to accepted beliefs, and it was in this environment that pitched opposition to Linus Pauling’s resonance theory emerged. The controversy then, was not so much one based on scientific opposition, but was instead steeped in perceived ideological differences.

As noted in our previous post, Ia. K. Syrkin and M.E. Diatkina’s books – including their translation of The Nature of the Chemical Bond – did much to increase awareness of resonance theory within the Soviet scientific community, and in due course the theory was attacked. In 1949 V.M. Tatevskii and M.I. Shakhparanov became the first authors to criticize the theory in the Soviet literature, and seven more articles followed from there. Much of this work received the formal backing of the Soviet state, and all were approved for publication by the Scientific Council of the Institute of Organic Chemistry of the Academy of Sciences.

Reviewing these articles today, it would appear that more than four hundred Soviet scientists were working in some way to disprove resonance theory within the Soviet Union. The sentiment that emerged from this work held that Pauling’s resonance theory was scientifically unsound because 1) it was not ideologically congruent with Soviet ideology, and 2) it did not recognize the work of previous Soviet or Russian scientists.

The framework established by the seven articles set the stage for the next chapter in the controversy: the approval of an official stance on resonance by the Soviet government.

As part of the tradition of Lysenkoist thinking, Soviet scientists periodically held conferences where theoretical doctrine was debated and a specific piece of ideology was declared the “winner.” These winning ideas would, in turn, become the Soviet government’s supported theory, at which point no other competing theory would be allowed.

In 1951 it was resonance theory’s turn to be debated and, to the surprise of few, it was ultimately decided that Pauling’s ideas were not to be considered as part of the Soviet doctrine surrounding the structure of molecules. Furthermore, according to a U.S. State Department document, a decree was issued that “all remnants of the mistaken conceptions of resonance” were to be eradicated.  

The official Soviet position on resonance theory was disseminated in an article by O.A. Reutov in the Journal of General Chemistry of the USSR and titled, “Some Problems of the Theory of Organic Chemistry.” In it, Reutov systematically attacked Pauling’s ideas as “bourgeois science” and “alien reactionary ideas” that did not take into account Soviet foundational work on molecules.

A.M. Butlerov

According to Reutov, Russian scientist Aleksandr Mikhailovich Butlerov had developed the “true” chemical structure of the molecule, and he argued that Pauling evinced an “insufficient appreciation as well as an incomplete understanding and a perversion of the Butlerov theory of structure.” Pauling’s omissions were so egregious as to force Reutov to conclude that the theory of resonance had been formulated, at least in part, for “the belittlement of the importance of Russian science.”

Reutov’s rhetoric only escalated from there. “[I]t is urgently necessary,” he wrote, to criticize resonance on the “basis of Marxist-Leninist methodology,” a passage that all but admits that the controversy had little to do with scientific thinking. And this needed criticism would reliably be carried out by Soviet organic chemists who, to use Reutov’s words, “form an army of many thousands strong.” By the end of the article, it was clear: the Soviet scientific community was ready to attack western ideas on the chemical bond, and Pauling was their primary target.

Because Reutov’s article was originally published in Russian and chiefly circulated within the Eastern Bloc, Pauling did not find out about it for several months. In August 1951 he finally received a copy from the Consultants Bureau, a translation center specializing in scientific journal articles and based in New York. Pauling was understandably unhappy with the content and tone of the article, and expressed hope that “some action can be taken to stop this attack,” which to him was a “very vigorous one.”

The Soviet Resonance Controversy: Beginnings

Trofim Lysenko

[Part 3 of 7]

Linus Pauling’s resonance theory, while initially a bit difficult to grasp, gradually became an essential tool for predicting and understanding chemical structures. Widely lauded for the links that it provided between classical chemistry and the new quantum mechanics, the theory was also valued for its practical applications in molecular modeling.

But not all found comfort and solace in resonance. In particular, many Soviets viewed Pauling’s theory as an affront to their ideology, regardless of its chemical “correctness.” For these critics, an abstract hybrid model of the molecule – one lacking a foundation in a quantifiable reality – was too troublesome to ignore.

Pauling developed his theory of resonance in a series of papers authored in the early 1930s, and eventually codified the work in his 1939 book, The Nature of the Chemical Bond. Soviet scientists were surely aware of resonance theory throughout this time period, but it appears that ideological interest in Pauling’s ideas did not fully manifest until after World War II. This was likely because, during the war, the Soviet government diverted scientific work away from theoretical investigations in favor of practical applications that would benefit the war effort. Shortly after Word War II ended however, Soviet scientists Ia. K. Syrkin and M.E. Diatkina translated The Nature of the Chemical Bond into Russian. The tandem then wrote their own book outlining ideas on structural chemistry; a book that was based on resonance theory.

Though they had grounded their text in well-established chemical theory, Syrkin and Diatkina’s work was almost immediately criticized within the Soviet Union. In 1949, Soviet scientists V.M. Tatevskii and M.I. Shakhparanov published an article in the journal Voprosyi Filosofii (Questions in Philosophy) titled, “About a Machistic Theory in Chemistry and its Propagandists.” In it, the authors contended that Syrkin and Diatkina were obliged to carefully critique Pauling’s resonance theory, rather than bestow upon it “laudatory” praise. The paper then points out that Syrkin and Diatkina did not include

even one mention of the works of Russian or Soviet scientists…it was expected that the translator and editor, fighting for the honor of the Soviet science, would have seen to it to fill in this gap.

“Still worse,” the authors continued, “the annotations which Syrkin gives at the end of the book are represented primarily as indication of the works of American and English chemists.” This given, one could only conclude that Syrkin and Diatkina were merely “propagandists for the known-to-be erroneous and vicious theory of the American chemist, Pauling.”

Tatevskii and Shakhparanov’s views were not anomalous. In fact, the Soviet Academy of Sciences itself viewed Syrkin and Diatkina as being in “serious error” for “championing the theory of resonance or failing to expose its supposed fallacy.” The rhetoric only escalated from there, and in 1951 Syrkin and Diatkina were forced to recant their belief in resonance theory. In his recantation, Syrkin was famously quoted as saying that he had “overestimated second rate works of foreign scientists.”

On the surface, the criticism of Syrkin and Diatkina seems to have emerged primarily from their support of a non-Soviet scientist. And while this was certainly a factor, the attack was also a product of a larger ideological push within Soviet science that traced its origins to the 1930s and a man named Trofim Lysenko.

An agronomist, Lysenko came to symbolize the ideal Soviet man; a notion that received the full support of Premier Joseph Stalin. Lysenko had been born into relative poverty but eventually gained entry into the Kiev Agricultural Institute, where he studied wheat production. It was there that he began to develop the ideas for which he would become well known.

Lysenko believed that if he could freeze winter wheat, he would be able to force early germination of the crop, a process known as vernalization. He also believed that this early germination would in turn become a heritable characteristic. A breakthrough of this sort was highly desirable in the Soviet Union, in part because the vast nation had experienced multiple food shortages due to unseasonably cold winters and poorly structured collectivist agricultural practices. In Lysenko, Stalin saw the promise of more easily feeding the Soviet population, and the scientist quickly grew in stature as a “man of the people.”

But Lysenko’s ideas were attractive on ideological grounds as well, chiefly because his ideas on vernalization took a Lamarckian approach to evolution. Simply put, Lysenko believed that evolution was something that could be controlled by man; that the people had the means and ability to enact and propel genetic change.

This idea ran counter to those prevailing in other parts of the world and specifically the United States, where a more Darwinian notion of evolution had been adopted. In the Darwinian model, evolutionary change occurs by random chance and individuals do not possess the ability to create lasting heritable impact through their own actions. For the Soviets, the Darwinian model was seen as bourgeois, a word that was widely held in contempt. In contrast, Lysenko’s view of evolution was one that put the state in control, and it was absolute.

Given this context, it becomes easier to see how resonance could be viewed as being counter to Soviet ideology. And within the USSR, an alternative theory was accordingly developed by a Soviet chemist named Gennadi Chelintsev, who aspired to become the chemistry and biology equivalent of Lysenko.

Chelintsev applied Soviet ideology to chemistry in his book, Essays on the Theory of Organic Chemistry. Importantly, Chelintsev used the book to argue that every molecular compound had only one discrete structure. His ideas were appealing to many Soviet scientists because, as with Lysenko, they were primarily based in the mechanistic world view that was so deeply enmeshed in Soviet ideologies.  

By translating The Nature of the Chemical Bond, Syrkin and Diatkina had brought Pauling’s ideas on resonance to the widespread attention of Soviet chemists, a process that allowed many to become aware of a scientific concept that was contrary Soviet ideology. In reaction, Chelintsev and others found in Pauling’s theory a perfect tool for villainizing non-Soviet science. And while Chelintsev’s book did not target Pauling outright, it did bring attention to a conflict that would continue to grow in the years to come.

Pauling and the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s: The Thawing of Frosty Relations

As the dynamics of Soviet dogma evolved, the enmity surrounding the so-called “resonance controversy” simmered down, and by the late 1960s Pauling had gone from being a disparaged name in Soviet chemistry to a respected scientist and much-admired advocate of nuclear test bans and international peace.

Pauling’s first visit to the Soviet Union in 1957 did a great deal to rehabilitate his scientific reputation among Soviet scientists.  In his Pauling Chronology, Dr. Robert Paradowski notes that “Russia remind[ed] Pauling of Eastern Oregon, and the Russian people seem[ed] to him like Western Americans. ”

This visit was swiftly followed by his election to the Soviet Academy of Sciences in 1958 – along with Detlev Bronk, the head of the National Academy of Sciences, Pauling was the first American to receive full recognition from the Soviet Academy.  Predictably, the honor was likewise enough to raise the eyebrow of the U.S. media, including the New York Times, which suggested that “it is impossible in today’s world position simply and naively to ignore the political implications” of the decoration.

Linus and Ava Helen traveled to the Soviet Union a second time in 1961 to attend the second centenary celebrations of the Academy of sciences, where they took the opportunity to deliver a handful of lectures, and to see more of the country, including a visit to Siberia and the shores of Lake Baikal.

The early 1960s also saw the reacceptance of Pauling’s formerly disgraced popularizer, Ia. K. Syrkin, back into the Soviet Academy of Sciences. By 1970 Pauling was recognized by the Soviet government for his peace activism with the Lenin Peace Prize, a honor bestowed upon foreign individuals conducting notable work in furthering international peace. Eight years later the Soviet Academy of Sciences decided to formally recognize Pauling’s scientific achievements by awarding him the Lomonosov Gold Medal, the highest award the Academy gave.

Lenin Peace Prize medal, June 15, 1970

Lenin Peace Prize medal, June 15, 1970

Lomonosov Medal, awarded by the Presidium of the Academy of the USSR, September 1978.

Lomonosov Medal, awarded by the Presidium of the Academy of the USSR, September 1978.

As might have been expected, Pauling did not hesitate to use his increasing fame in the Soviet Union to continue his advocacy for nuclear testing bans and better cooperation between the Soviet Union and the United States. His correspondence with Nikita Khrushchev, as contained in the Pauling archive, provides a revealing look into the increasingly intimate relationship between advocacy and diplomacy that helped define Pauling’s later peace work.

Draft of a letter from Linus Pauling to Nikita Khruschev, October 18, 1961.

Draft of a letter from Linus Pauling to Nikita Khruschev, October 18, 1961.

Khruschchev's response to Pauling, October 27, 1961.

Khruschchev's response to Pauling, October 27, 1961.

Learn more at the website “Linus Pauling and the International Peace Movement,” available via the Linus Pauling Online portal.

Pauling’s Theory of Resonance: A Soviet Controversy

Notes by Linus Pauling documenting one of several meetings that Pauling held with a Soviet science bureaucracy that had formally declared the theory of resonance to be “pseudo-scientific” and “idealistic,” 1961.

As to the Russian scientists and the scientific controversies, I must say that I have great difficulty in understanding what is happening. The most likely explanation seems to be that some of the Russian scientists are taking advantage of the political situation to advance themselves at the expense of their colleagues. Others are then drawn into the controversy, and required by practical considerations to align themselves with those who say that they are supporting the correct Marxist position. I have read the Russian articles carefully, and I must say that I cannot understand the arguments.
-Linus Pauling to Frank Aydelotte. September 25, 1951.

In the 1947 Russian translation of Pauling’s Nature of the Chemical Bond (Priroda khimicheskoi sviazi) Pauling wrote on the fly leaf in black pen “Moscow, 8 August 1957. Today…ten years after it was published, I have for the first time seen the Russian edition of The Nature of the Chemical Bond – this copy, given to me by Prof. Voevodsy. Linus Pauling.”

Just above this, is Voevodsky’s lightly penciled inscription, reading “To the author, In remembrance of your stay in the URSS, 8 VIII 57”.

The book that Pauling received from Voevodsky – which is held in the Pauling archive today – is a careful translation done by two Soviet scientists, Ia. K. Syrkin, a chemist, and M. E. Diatkina, a mathematician. Syrkin and Diatkina were two of the Soviet Union’s most prominent sympathizers and popularizers of Pauling’s resonance theory of chemical bonds. Their own textbook on the new quantum methods in chemistry, Structure of Molecules and the Chemical Bond, had been published in Moscow in 1946 and, by 1950, already served as a textbook at Moscow State University.

Developed by Pauling in the early 1930s, the theory of resonance was, twenty years later, an accepted component of the scientific lexicon.  As it turned out, however, the theory did not agree with Soviet dogma, at least as conceptualized in the early 1950s.  Biographer Thomas Hager writes

The Lysenko-era Russian researchers, intent on boosting the reputation of Russian achievements in structural chemistry, had for two years been tearing away at Pauling’s ‘reactionary, bourgeois’ chemical ideas, especially his use of idealized resonance structures with no real independent existence.  Resonance theory, it was decided, was antimaterialistic and hence anti-Soviet.  The chemists’ division of the Soviet Academy of Sciences in the summer of 1951 formally resolved that Pauling’s approach was ‘pseudo-scientific’ and ‘idealistic’ and should be rejected.  Pravda trumpeted the decision, which was echoed in Soviet scientific publications with appropriate denunciations of Pauling’s approach to chemistry as ‘contrived, a made-up convenience, an economy of thought that bore no relation to reality.’

Simon Shnol, a student of Syrkin and Diatkina’s, remembers having attended their lectures on resonance theory in 1950 before its fall from grace. Syrkin’s lectures were full of “brilliant digressions” and “literary analogies,” Shnol recalls, making the complicated topic of quantum mechanics in chemistry seem “accessible and interesting.” Diatkina, somewhat more severe than Syrkin, handled the mathematical aspects of the topic.

Typescript by Linus Pauling: “Resonance,” 1946.

Shnol attended the 1951 conference at which the official rejection of resonance theory was formulated, believing that it would merely consist of a conversation about the new theories of the structure of chemical bonds. The conference quickly turned into an auto de fe, and Syrkin and Diatkina were severely criticized. While “the majority felt sympathy for Syrkin and did not want to destroy him,” they nonetheless agreed that his propagation of resonance theory in the Soviet Union had been false and dangerous.

Syrkin and Diatkina, along with several others, issued official and formal recantations of their views, but their careers were effectively stifled. Both Syrkin and Diatkina were made to leave Moscow State University and Syrkin lost his membership in the Academy (though he retained his leadership of the Institute of Fine Chemical Technology until his death in 1974).

Pauling, of course, was not uninformed of the controversy taking place in the Soviet Union. His collection of press clippings is full of mentions and analyses of the resonance theory debate from its inception. I. Moyer Hunsberger acknowledged in his 1954 review of the Soviet resonance theory controversy, “I am indebted to Dr. Linus Pauling for his valuable criticism of this paper. In particular, the contents of footnote 13 were suggested by Dr. Pauling.” Years later historian Loren Graham relied on personal communications with Pauling to construct parts of his article, “A Soviet Marxist View of Structural Chemistry: The Theory of Resonance Controversy,” (1974).

Though he seems to have been unimpressed with Syrkin and Diatkina’s own 1946 text, Pauling was nonetheless concerned by the ideological path that Soviet chemistry was taking. In a characteristically humorous way he alluded to these concerns in a lecture he that gave while visiting the Soviet Union for the first time in 1957.  In his memoir, Simon Shnol recounts this lecture, which was delivered by Pauling at the Institute of Organic Chemistry in the Soviet Academy of Sciences.

It was perfect…with artful gestures, which included his eyebrows, eyes, hands (he reminded me of Louis de Funes), Pauling lectured on the successes of the theory of the structure of chemical bonds….In the lecture room that day the audience separated spatially into three tiers. The most important, high level academic bureaucrats sat in the front rows, the professors and doctors of science sat in the middle rows, and the graduate students filled the back rows. In the course of his lecture Pauling encouraged the students not to repeat the mistakes of those in the front rows (literally: “to not pay attention to them”), a comment that was translated as an encouragement to the students to follow the example of their teachers.

Shnol recalls that the discrepancy was immediately noted by many in the audience. Someone from the back rows then shouted an accurate translation of Pauling’s admonition and the room was filled with laughter and noise.

The Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers contain a large collection of correspondence and publications with marginalia in Pauling’s hand that relate specifically to the resonance theory controversy. Pauling’s collections of photographs, press clippings, reprints and official correspondence, combined with recently-added interpretive material, provide a rich archive of this important and in some ways still unexplored scientific controversy.

Learn more about Pauling’s theory of resonance from the website Linus Pauling and the Nature of the Chemical Bond, available at the Linus Pauling Online portal.