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: 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.

Yuri Ovchinnikov, 1934-1988

Yuri Ovchinnikov

Yuri Ovchinnikov, a friend of Linus Pauling’s and the youngest person to ever serve as vice president of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, died thirty-two years ago this month at the age of 53, the victim of an undisclosed illness. A prominent biochemist, much of Ovchinnikov’s work focused on gene-engineering interferons and their potential use in the manufacture of insulin and other medical applications. Ovchinnikov’s contributions were immense and garnered a great many accolades including the Hero of Socialist Labor prize, the Lenin Prize, and the Soviet State Prize, as well as honorary doctorates from universities in Poland, France, Sweden, Bulgaria, Spain, Peru, and East Germany.

Ovchinnikov was born on August 2, 1934 in Moscow. He received his Ph.D. in chemistry from Moscow State University in 1962, and was promptly hired as a research fellow at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, working under a future Nobel laureate in chemistry, Vladimir Prelog. In 1966 Ovchinnikov returned to Moscow to teach at his alma mater, and in 1970 he attained the rank of full professor at Moscow State University. That same year, he became the director of the Shemyakin Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry, a position that he held until his death in 1988.

Ovchinnikov’s scientific and professional achievements paralleled one another and fueled his rise to prominence in the Soviet Union, the United States and Europe alike. Part of his success could be attributed to his ability to deftly straddle the scientific ideals of a failing Lysenkoist system while incorporating these same principles into the new field of membrane biology. Perhaps more importantly, Ovchinnikov was comfortable crossing disciplinary boundaries from chemistry to biochemistry to biophysics, a trait that he shared with Linus Pauling.

Ovchinnikov is perhaps best known for his work on developing gene-engineered interferons, insulin, and other medically useful preparations, but his scientific contributions were not limited to these areas. Working in Switzerland with Vladimir Prelog, Ovchinnikov was introduced to the stereochemical structures of peptides, a line of inquiry that he continued in the years that followed.

Specifically, Ovchinnikov was interested in unraveling the structure of peptides, a task that had stood as a huge challenge for the scientific community up until that point. As he worked on the problem, Ovchinnikov developed a novel spectroscopic approach that ultimately proved successful in developing an understanding of the structures of various depsipeptides as well as certain antibiotics, such as gramicidin. Ovchinnikov’s achievements were so significant that he is now considered to be a father of what is today called dynamic conformational studies.

Ovchinnikov next turned his attentions to molecules that were even more complex, and in 1979 he published what was perhaps his most influential paper. In it, he outlined a correct model for bacteriorhodopsin, the first time that this had been done for a membrane protein. In fact, many of the structures that he found in bacteriorhodopsin, which were completely novel at the time (such as its seven transmembrane sections) are found in other molecular structures, including membrane pumps, channels, and receptors.

The biomedical implications of Ovchinnikov’s work quickly became apparent, and it did not take long before he was collaborating with scientists all over the world. As the collaborations matured, Ovchinnikov began to apply computer modelling techniques to correctly decipher other highly complicated structures, including pig kidney enzymes. This particular discovery eventually led Ovchinnikov to use recombinant DNA to investigate human enzyme functions and structures, which in turn led to the gene-engineering work for which he is so highly regarded today.

Ovchinnikov speaking at the Lomonosov Gold Medal ceremony, Moscow, 1978

In 1974 Ovchinnikov became vice-president of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, and it was in this capacity that his life began to overlap with Pauling’s. One of Ovchinnikov’s tasks for 1977 was to edit a book to honor the 70th birthday of M.M. Shemyakin, a famous Soviet scientist, and Pauling was asked to submit a contribution. Pauling agreed to do so and drafted a paper titled “The Nature of the Bonds Formed by Transition Metals in Bioogranic Compounds and other Compounds.” Not long after, Pauling was awarded the Lomonosov Medal during a trip to the USSR, and it was during this visit that he met Ovchinnikov for the first time.

The two became much more closely acquainted in the summer of 1984 when Pauling spent an additional three weeks in the Soviet Union, in part to attend a conference on “Frontiers in Bioorganic Chemistry and Molecular Biology.” Ovchinnikov was Pauling’s host for that trip, and the two men spent nearly the entire time together. Their friendship cemented by this experience, Pauling returned home from his travels with a profound respect for Ovchinnikov and his scientific work.

Indeed, evidence of a strong, cordial relationship shows up in the correspondence that followed. In January 1985, Ovchinnikov wrote to Pauling to tell him that he was writing a book about bioorganic chemistry and wished to include short biographies of some of the great men in the field. Naturally, he hoped to include Pauling, and asked if a suitable photograph might be supplied. (Pauling was happy to comply.) Two years later, when Ovchinnikov and his brother published a paper on organic polymer ferromagnetism in the highly respected journal Nature, Pauling took the time to send a note of congratulations and best wishes.

When Ovchinnikov unexpectedly passed away in 1988, large segments of the scientific community came together to mourn the loss. In Pravda, a Russian language newspaper based in Moscow, sixty-five prominent Soviet figures signed a letter expressing grief at Ovchinnikov’s passing. Notably, the first signature to appear was that of Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev.

Pauling seemed equally shaken by the news. In a letter to Ovchinnikov’s replacement at the Shemyakin Institute, Pauling wrote, “It was one of my pleasures to have been acquainted with Yuri Ovchinnikov for a number of years and to have the benefit of conversations with him about scientific problems. His death is a great loss.” In a separate correspondence, Pauling reflected of his old friend that

If he had lived, he would, I am sure, have become an even more valuable person in developing science in the Soviet Union and improving the relationship between the Soviet Union and the United States. He had a fine personality and a very good mind.

Pauling’s Induction into the Soviet Academy of Sciences


On June 20, 1958, in the midst of the Cold War and almost exactly 25 years after being inducted into the National Academy of Sciences, Linus Pauling was unanimously approved for inclusion in the Akademia Nauk (Academy of Sciences) of the USSR. Founded in 1724 during the reign of Peter the Great and charged with conducting national research and overseeing scientific publications, the Academy had attained a position of major importance in Soviet society and its domestic members were among the highest paid individuals in the communist country.

Though often critical of Soviet leaders, Pauling never had any qualms about engaging in scientific exchanges with Russian scientists, even during the frostiest years of U.S-Soviet tensions. In one particular instance, a year prior to being honored by the Soviet Academy, Pauling had extended invitations to two of its members to visit Caltech and deliver lectures on their current research. At the time however, the greater Los Angeles and San Francisco areas had both been closed “to anybody holding a Russian passport,” and the scientific invitees were unable to accept Pauling’s offer.

In response, Pauling made a point of criticizing the U.S. Department of State, claiming that its policies ran counter to a recent commitment by the federal government to increase “freer exchange of information and ideas,” to push that “all censorship [be] progressively eliminated” and to “further exchanges of persons in the professional, cultural, scientific and technical fields.”

Pauling’s award notification from the Academy expressed “the hope that your election as a foreign member will promote further strengthening of the bonds between scientists of the USA and the Soviet Union.” And while Pauling accepted the offer warmly, others cast a very skeptical eye toward his embrace of this particular decoration.

While the responsibilities of his membership were purely honorary and the Academy insisted that he was being recognized for his scientific accomplishments, many media outlets, including the New York Times, suspected that the decision had been politically motivated. In his response, Pauling noted that the Soviets “have been strongly critical of my work in the past,” pointing out in particular that, in 1951, the Academy had deemed his theory of resonance to be “reactionary” and “bourgeois.” In the years since, Pauling supposed that the Soviets had “learned that you can’t mix politics up with science.”

Pauling was well-aware that his acceptance of the Academy’s nomination would garner criticism, but for him it was worth it to take a stand in favor of academic freedom. In a statement to the Associated Press, Pauling affirmed his strong belief “in the importance of improving international relations in every way” and expressed enthusiasm at the idea of “becoming better acquainted with the scientists in the USSR.” The letters of congratulation that he received from his colleagues indicate that this point of view was shared by many.

Pauling did not travel to the Soviet Union to accept his award, but he did address the topic of his membership in several lectures that he delivered during the summer of 1958. One talk, delivered at Antioch College on the day of his nomination, used the honor as a rhetorical starting point for a deeper discussion of a path toward reducing the risk of nuclear was. In this, Pauling emphasized that the United Nations must be strengthened, that nuclear weapons tests must cease, and that the world choose to recognize the communist government in China.

The president of Antioch College sent Pauling a follow-up letter indicating that the local media had mostly accepted Pauling’s ideas on merit, though the Dayton Daily had refused to report on the event at all due to Pauling’s membership in the Soviet Academy.


In addition to Pauling, one other American was added to the Soviet Academy in 1958. Detlev Bronk, a well-known and accomplished scientist, had also served as president of Johns Hopkins University from 1948-1953. During this time he created the Hopkins Plan, a successful approach to student advancement that emphasized allowing undergraduates to choose their own rate of progression through their course of study.

Bronk and Pauling were also friends who corresponded with one another about issues both personal and professional well before their induction into the Academy. Their bond had been formed by shared scientific interests, but also by a similar worldview. Notably, Bronk had shown himself to be a defender of academic liberty by speaking out in favor of a professor who had been accused by Senator Joseph McCarthy of communist involvement in the early 1950s.

Another relevant and significant name from this time period was Bruno Pontecorvo, who was  inducted into the Academy alongside Pauling in 1958. Pontecorvo, a highly regarded Italian-born physicist, was living in the US and working on atomic research when he disappeared in 1950. Considered missing for several years, Pontecorvo eventually appeared on Soviet television, at which point it was understood that he had defected. Moreover, it later became clear that the scientist had risen to a position of authority within the Soviet nuclear development program.

Confirmation of Pontecorvo’s defection came as a shock, and some feared that Pauling would follow in his footsteps. Needless to say, this did not come to pass. Pontecorvo, on the other hand, remained in the USSR and worked under the Russian flag until his death in 1993.