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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Travels in the Soviet Union: Some Background

[Part 1 of 3]

Linus and Ava Helen Pauling traveled to the Soviet Union six times between the years 1957 and 1985. For the most part, Linus Pauling’s relationship with the Soviet Union was steeped in science, but he did speak on peace issues and the need to cease nuclear tests during his travels through the USSR.

Unlike many of his peers, Pauling did not see the Soviet Union purely as a threat, but chose to view it instead as a potential, and vital, partner in peace. Likewise, most of the Soviet scientists with whom he interacted were viewed as having pure motives for advancing their research agendas. Unfortunately, Pauling’s cordial relations with contacts in the Soviet Union caused others in the United States to be suspicious of his own true motives and political affiliation during the decades of the Cold War.

For those inclined to criticize Pauling, one group that raised eyebrows was the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship, of which Pauling was a member. For his part, Pauling affiliated with the group out of hope that it might live up to its name. Specifically, in a letter to the Council, Pauling expressed his desire that the council assist in establishing scientific links, particularly with respect to chemistry and medicine, between the Soviet Union and the United States. He believed that, above all else, the two countries needed to cooperate and ultimately desired to see an exchange of professors and students between the USSR and the US in near the future.

Pauling was also invited to attend the meetings of the Russian-American Club of Los Angeles. At one such gathering, in November 1945, he delivered a speech encouraging that the two countries work together in order to attain peace between all nations. Pauling likewise participated in events sponsored by Progressive Citizens of America, a group considered by some to be communist.

Generally speaking, Pauling was not one to take fright at the specter of communism. Whether or not this meant that he agreed with communist ideals was a matter of continuing debate during his life. A reasonable assessment might be that he had a very tolerant outlook of it all, truly believing that communism was not anything to be worried about; that it was just a set of ideals holding sway in another country and that those views should not affect scientific or diplomatic relationships between the United States and the Soviet Union. He was not naïve though. He was well aware that Moscow was not an innocent player on the world stage. Indeed, he believed them to be recalcitrant, but thought if the United States were to take the first step towards initiating peace, only good could result.

At home, these ideals only served to grow others’ suspicion of him. The start of the 1950s brought about the first wave of false claims being levied against Pauling and the sharpening of the FBI’s keen eye upon his activities. Newspapers would declare that he participated in communist activities and in 1955 declarations were made against him, especially by Louis F. Budenz, that he was a concealed communist. This charge in particular bolstered his FBI file, causing him to be watched and investigated for connection to any activities that may remotely have been related to communism.

On June 20, 1952, Linus Pauling officially denied Communist Party membership. Despite this denial, the FBI still maintained a close record of his associations, investigating and attempting to interpret his activities. Despite this, the Bureau had trouble finding current sources that would identify Pauling as a past or present Communist Party member. Effectively, the investigators were operating off of the testimony given by Budenz – a former Communist Party functionary – that Pauling was a concealed communist. Budenz also claimed that Pauling made monetary contributions to the party even though he was not openly a member. Pauling denied these allegations, stating that he was not a member and not a contributor, but was an advocate for the inclusion of Soviet scientists in international conferences and symposia. In the climate of the time, even this level of support was grounds for reprimand.

Another action that contributed to suspicion of Pauling was his appeal to the White House for the commutation of the death sentences handed down to Julius and Ethel Rosenburg. Pauling was keenly interested in the Rosenberg case and read widely of the details underlying their sentencing. His actions on their behalf were based in his analysis of these details, an analysis that led him to conclude that the death sentences were extreme and unjust. But no matter the reason, these sorts of actions made it difficult for him to convince others of his trustworthiness and his lack of association with the Communist Party. When he did give anti-communist statements in his speeches and talks, they were branded as being too weak.

The pressures on Pauling built up to the point where traveling overseas became extremely difficult. He was famously forced to issue an oath that he was not a communist in order to receive a limited passport to travel to England in 1952. Institutions also began to reject his affiliation with them, including the University of Hawaii, which rescinded its invitation to Pauling that he speak at a building dedication in 1951.

Eventually the climate of fear that permeated the Red Scare began to fade and it grew easier for Pauling to travel and to issue opinions on the Soviet Union that strayed from mainstream orthodoxy. Finally, in 1957, he made his first trip to the USSR where he was at last able to meet with many of the scientists whose right to participate in international meetings he had advocated over the much of the previous decade.

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

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 [Russian-language link], 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.

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.