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, the State Department, and the Right to Travel

[Ed Note: We conclude our posting schedule for 2019 with this look at a controversy from sixty-two years ago. See you again in January!]

Linus Pauling’s largely congenial relationship with Soviet scientists had always been motivated by a desire to foster academic exchange between the two world’s two superpowers. Pauling first visited the USSR in Summer 1957, and as soon as he returned home, he expressed an eagerness to continue collaborating with his Soviet peers.

Perhaps most notably, Pauling extended an offer to Academician V.N. Orekhovitch to come to Caltech and deliver a guest lecture on procollagen, which was Orekhovitch’s subject of expertise. To pave the way for this visit, Pauling offered an honorarium of $250, which was a large sum in absolute terms but especially so for Soviets, for whom “hard currency” like U.S. dollars had tremendous spending power.

Orekhovitch readily accepted this offer and the two initiated the process of securing a travel visa through the usual State Department channels. However, in November 1957, Pauling received an urgent telegram from Orekhovitch in which he stated that he was unable to obtain travel papers and that he desperately needed Pauling’s help.


Pauling in Leningrad, 1957

When Pauling received the telegram he immediately began to work towards understanding why the visa had been denied. One clue was a recent article that he had read that hinted that Pasadena – among other cities – had been declared to be off-limits for Soviet travelers. However, he was not certain of this information, or that this was the reason for Orekhovitch’s denial.

In search of answers, Pauling contacted multiple colleagues across the country asking whether or not they had encountered similar difficulties. Paul Doty, of Harvard University, replied that he had recently become aware that travel by Soviets was not permitted to the entire state of Massachusetts except for Cambridge, where Harvard was located. This bit of information seemed to confirm that Pauling’s initial fears were indeed true: the State Department had established certain areas of the United States as off-limits for Soviet visitors.


Despite this, Pauling was determined to get his Soviet colleague a visa. In December 1957, a month after having first received Orekhovitch’s desperate telegram, Pauling spoke to a State Department official, Lawrence Mitchell, who confirmed that Pasadena, San Francisco, and much of Los Angeles were forbidden for Soviet visitors. Speaking over the phone, Mitchell explained to Pauling that Pasadena had been put on the list specifically to exclude travel to Caltech – an important point that would be contradicted in later exchanges.

Mitchell also made it clear that the State Department did not intend to lift the restriction anytime soon. Nor could Mitchell grant exceptions for specific individuals, because then Soviet travel restrictions “would have little effect in applying pressure on the Russian government.” In effect, this meant that the State Department had barred travel to Pasadena for larger political aims.

For Pauling, the ramifications of this policy were unacceptable. In his view, the refusal of Orekhovitch’s visa was not just a matter of a single person being denied the right to travel, but was actually representative of a much larger problem: the stifling of US-Soviet scientific collaboration.


In the wake of his phone call with Lawrence Mitchell, Pauling set out to express his disapproval in a more formal way. In a December letter to Detlev Bronk, Pauling made clear his perspective, noting that

I feel most strongly about this issue matter because I think that 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. This surely is bad propaganda.

That same day, Pauling wrote a parallel letter to the State Department in which he outlined his frustration with the decision to deny Orekhovitch a visa. In this communication, Pauling emphasized the potential for loss of scientific progress, noting specifically that Orekhovitch’s “inability to come to Pasadena has prevented the scientists here from getting information that would be of value to them.” Further, he felt “strongly that it is wrong for the United States to give visiting scientists the impression that work in fundamental science is not conducted freely in our universities and research laboratories.” Simply stated, “the policy that has permitted this action to be taken seems to me to be one that clearly does harm to the United States of America.”

Importantly, Pauling was likewise bothered by a nagging feeling that Pasadena’s inclusion on the list of banned cities was directed specifically at him. In his letter to the State Department he couched this by writing in “protest against the discriminatory action” where Soviets were allowed to visit Harvard or UC-Berkeley, but not Caltech. A Harvard colleague echoed Pauling’s feelings, describing the situation as “embarrassing and frustrating” in his own letter to the State Department.


Pauling examining molecular models with Soviet scientists, 1957

The government’s response to these complaints was, for Pauling, far short of satisfactory. In its reply, and in contradiction to Lawrence Mitchell, the State Department explained that Pasadena was deemed to be a strategic city because of its geographic location; that Caltech was off-limits simply because it was a part of Pasadena; and that all Soviets, not just scientists, were excluded from traveling to the city.

The letter did not clarify why Pasadena’s location made it a strategic city, nor did it provide any indication as to why Berkeley or Cambridge were not geographically strategic. Rather, the suggestion was merely that Orekhovitch had been denied a visa as a matter of routine and that the ban on travel to Pasadena was logical due to the implied importance of the city.

After this initial exchange, several letters were sent back and forth between Pauling and the State Department. In them, Pauling continued to criticize what he believed to be an arbitrary decision, and the State Department adamantly defended its position that Pasadena was a strategically important city that must remain off-limits. In these exchanges, both the State Department and Pauling increasingly became focused on establishing that they were in the right, to the point where tangential details that were not germane to the main issue began to assume a place of primacy.

In one example letter, an official from the State Department wrote that he had reason to believe that Pauling had called the Soviet Ambassador to the United States, Georgy Zarubin, and asked him to work on granting Orekhovitch a visa to visit Pasadena. Pauling, not wanting incorrect information to go unchecked, indicated that he had at no point ever contacted Zarubin or any other representative of the Soviet Union. In all subsequent letters, Pauling always included this piece of information, and the State Department continued to reply in kind. Petty behavior of this sort came to permeate much of the communication between the two parties during this time.


Sadly for Pauling, the issue was never resolved. Near the end of 1958, more than a year after initially extending his invitation, Pauling sent Orekhovitch another letter asking him to come to Pasadena as soon as the visa restrictions were lifted. Perhaps understanding that this opportunity might never actually come to fruition, Orekhovitch chose not to address the issue in his reply, instead wishing Pauling a happy new year and sending his best regards to Ava Helen. That letter appears to have marked the end of their professional correspondence and Orekhovitch does not seem to have ever made it to Pasadena.

Pauling and Sakharov

[Part 2 of 2]

Linus Pauling’s relationship with the scientist and peace activist Andrei Sakharov – a kindred spirit whom he never met – began in unusual fashion. In 1978 Pauling was in Moscow attending the International Conference on Biochemistry and Molecular Biology when an unidentified man handed him a letter written in Russian. As Pauling later recounted, the man, “who spoke with a pronounced Central European accent,” said that the letter was from Andrei Sakharov, and that Pauling “should have it translated by some reliable person.”

Pauling accepted the letter and, about a month later, had it translated by Sakharov’s son-in-law, Efrem Yankelevich, a US-based activist in his own right who helped to give Sakharov a “voice” to the world during his years in exile.

Page 1 of Sakharov’s handwritten letter to Pauling, 1978

But before Pauling could get the letter translated, Sakharov sent it to several news agencies for wider distribution. In it, Sakharov asked for Pauling’s support in the push to help free three Soviet scientists – physicist Yuri Orlov, mathematician Alexander Bolonkin, and biologist Sergei Kovalev – all of whom had been sentenced to terms in labor camps for acts of political dissidence.

Unfortunately, in addition to the original text, the published letter admonished Pauling for a perceived lack of action, and a claim that he was ignoring Sakharov’s plea for support. In actual fact, Pauling had been traveling when the letter was published and hadn’t even received a copy of the translation by the time of the letter’s release. Understandably, he was frustrated for having been called out by Sakharov in this way.

Wishing to set the record straight, Pauling penned an editorial for publication in Physics Today, which was already planning to run an article on Pauling’s receipt of the Lomonosov Gold Medal. In a note appended to the editorial, Pauling stressed that “no changes be made in my letter, unless I have given approval. This is a delicate matter.”

The piece was published, without changes, in the magazine’s December 1978 issue. In it, Pauling confessed that he felt duped and bombarded by Sakharov’s tactics and chided that “in the future he should be more careful in his selection of advisors and agents.”

That said, Pauling also took pains to make clear that he supported Sakharov’s activist work and noted that, in the past, he had written letters in support of Soviet scientists who had been wrongly imprisoned. Nonetheless, in this particular instance Pauling did not follow through on Sakharov’s request, choosing not to write letters asking for the release of the three scientists in question.


Time moved forward but Sakharov refused to let the issue fade. Two years later, in 1981, he sent several letters – including a handwritten message handed to Pauling via his son-in-law, Yankelevich – repeating the same urgent call to action in support of the three Soviet scientists. Some of these letters even included personal statements from the scientists themselves, and Yankelevich appears to have added updates on their lives. For Sergei Kovalev, the situation appeared to be deteriorating rapidly as he was reportedly suffering from tuberculosis as well as partial paralysis. 

In addition to the personal handwritten notes, Sakharov once again published a separate public letter to Pauling, which appeared in translated form in the now defunct Freedom Appeals magazine. In this instance, Sakharov sought to enlist Pauling’s support for the release of biologist Sergei Kovalev and his daughter-in-law, Tatiana Osipova.

While Sakharov’s initial correspondence had been fairly dry, this latest published letter was more emotional. Addressing Pauling, Sakharov wrote,

I know neither your political views nor the extent to which you may be sympathetic to the Soviet regime. But what I am asking of you is not politics. To save honest and courageous people who are about to perish is the duty of humaneness and a question of honor. Please make good use of your prestige; appeal to Soviet leaders and to the leaders of Western countries. Please do what you can.

This new approach seems to have made an impact, if in an oblique way. Even though Pauling once again did not act to free the imprisoned Soviet scientists – Sergei Kovalev was eventually released by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986 – he did eventually come to the aid of a different Soviet intellectual: Andrei Sakharov himself.


Gerhard Herzberg

In 1980, just five years removed from his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize, Sakharov was sent into exile in the city of Gorky, and was routinely subjected to harassment and isolation in the years that followed. In April 1981, Pauling and Gerhard Herzberg, a fellow Nobel Chemistry laureate, sent a letter to Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev and the Canadian Ambassador to the Soviet Union demanding the “end of [Sakharov’s] confinement.” In the message, Pauling and Herzberg explained that their letter was not a publicity stunt, and that there would be “no communication about it to the ‘media.'”

Instead the authors put forth that, “every society needs its critics if it is to diagnose successfully and overcome its problems […] Surely your nation is mighty enough to tolerate a patriotic critic of the stature of Andrei Sakharov.” Pauling and Herzberg concluded by harkening back to the dark years of gulags and secret police, exhorting to Brezhnev that “Surely you do not want a return to Stalinism.”

Later in 1981, after having been in exile for a year, Sakharov began a hunger strike to demand that his daughter-in-law, Liza, be permitted to move to the U.S. to be with her husband, Sakharov’s son Alexei. As he initiated this protest, Sakharov sent a letter to his foreign colleagues rallying them for support. Though this plea was of a personal nature, Sakharov explained that

I consider the defense of our children just as rightful as the defense of other victims of injustice, but in this case it is precisely me and my public activities which have been the cause of human suffering.

In addition to the open letter, which was broad and impersonally written, Sakharov sent a direct message to Pauling, imploring him specifically to support the release of his daughter-in-law. Ultimately the campaign worked, and before the year had concluded Liza was granted an exit visa to live in the United States.

But the victory did not come without a cost. Namely, as a penalty for having gone on the hunger strike, Sakharov was stripped of all his accolades by the Soviet government. In reaction to this, an international campaign, initated by the Norwegian Helsinki Committee – a non-governmental organization dedicated to insuring that human rights are respected and practiced worldwide – solicited prominent scientists to urge Premier Brezhnev to release Sakharov from exile and allow him to return to his home in Moscow.

Pauling’s letter to Leonid Brezhnev, August 1981

Pauling, clearly aware of Sakharov’s plight, agreed to write a second letter to Brezhnev, and promptly sent the appeal arguing for Sakharov’s release on the grounds of human rights violations. Delivered in August 1981, the letter apparently fell on deaf ears.


By 1983 Sakharov had been in exile for three years and his health was beginning to decline. Pauling’s earlier attempts to secure his release had not worked, so he adopted new tactics. In mid-1983, Pauling sent a telegram to the Soviet Academy of Sciences and to then Soviet premier, Yuri Andropov, offering Sakharov a job as a research associate in theoretical physics at the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine in Palo Alto. Justifying this offer, Pauling told news reporters that “I feel sympathy for Sakharov as a person who gets into trouble for criticizing his own country.” Upon learning of the offer, Sakharov publicly announced that he was willing to emigrate, but the Soviets declined to grant Sakharov an exit visa, citing “state secrets” connected to his scientific work on the hydrogen bomb during World War II.

In 1986 Sakharov was finally released amidst the Gorbachev regime’s policies of glasnost and perestroika. The famed scientist and activist promptly returned to Moscow, and in 1989 he died in his home. While it seems that Pauling’s attempts to free Sakharov did not ultimately work, and there is no documentary evidence that their relationship advanced in the years following his release, it is worth mentioning that Pauling received an advance copy of Sakharov’s memoirs prior to their posthumous publication in 1990. It is not clear if Pauling requested the copy, but his receipt of the volume is a suggestion that, even in death, Sakharov remained with Pauling.

Andrei Sakharov: An Overview

[Part 1 of 2]

Esteemed scientist, subject to ridicule in his home country, becomes outspoken opponent of nuclear weapons testing and wins Nobel Peace Prize with activist wife by his side. Without thinking twice, one might quickly assume this to be a short summary of the life of Linus Pauling, but it also suffices nicely as a capsule biography of the Soviet physicist and activist, Andrei Sakharov.

Indeed, the lives of these two men were striking in their similarity. Both were famous scientists – Sakharov a nuclear physicist and Pauling a chemist – and, following World War II, both became very outspoken critics of the nuclear arms race. Both were likewise criticized by their governments for their rhetoric and world view, and both eventually won the Nobel Peace Prize for their activist work. It is no surprise then, that the lives of these two men intersected more than once and that their relationship seemed to be based on a mutual understanding that their lives were unique, yet in some ways intertwined.


Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov, born in 1921, spent the early chapters of his scientific career advancing research that directly led to the development of the Soviet hydrogen bomb. Regarded to be the “great equalizer” in the arms race against the United States, the first successful H-bomb tests were celebrated as a significant milestone within the Soviet Union, and Sakharov’s contributions to the project led to his receiving multiple accolades from Soviet leadership, including both the Lenin and the Stalin prizes.

Andrei Sakharov and Yelena Bonner, 1988. Credit: New York Times photograph.

As time moved forward however, decorations of this sort did nothing to quell Sakharov’s growing concerns about nuclear weapons and the threat that they posed to world safety. Sakharov soon channeled his worry into activism and protest, often rallying around the cause of nuclear disarmament. During this period, the recently widowed Sakharov also met his second wife, Yelena Bonner, who was an activist in her own right. The couple remained married and worked together until Sakharov’s death in 1989.


Sakharov’s protests were not always about nuclear weapons; he was also very concerned about human rights violations and was not shy about vocalizing his opinions. These activities were not embraced by the Soviet regime – outspoken criticism of the government was never welcome in the USSR – but for a time Sakharov’s voice was not entirely silenced by the government, probably because of his well-established prominence on the global stage, which included his receipt of the 1975 Nobel Prize for Peace.

Official tolerance had its limits though, and when Sakharov protested his country’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 he had crossed the proverbial line. Within a year, and despite receiving public support from respected colleagues including Nobel laureate Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov was banished from his Moscow home and exiled to the city of Gorky, which was then a closed city to foreigners, and is now known as Nizhny Novgorod. Frequent reminders of governmental censure and dissatisfaction followed from there, including restrictions on telephone and visitor access, unannounced raids of his apartment, and force-feedings during hunger strikes.

Nonetheless, Sakharov endured and managed to find ways to spread his message around the world. Eventually, in 1986, under the promise of glasnost and perestroika, Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev freed Sakharov from exile and allowed him to return to Moscow. Sakharov died just three years later at the age of 68.


Andrei Sakharov’s life was punctuated by moments of great passion and defined by an unbreakable determination. Throughout all of the hardships that he endured, he never wavered in his dedication to the causes that he believed in, a trait that he had in common with Linus Pauling. But despite the many similarities that these two men shared, they did not formally interact with one another until the late 1970s, several decades after they had both begun to speak out against a common foe: nuclear weapons. Sakharov, it seems, was the first to reach out and initiate a relationship between the two men. The specifics of this connection will be explored in greater depth next week.

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.

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.

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.