Pavel Rubinin (Peter Kapitza's assistant), 1992

Interview with Pavel Rubinin, July 1992
Interviewer — Julia Kalinina, on behalf of Metta Spencer

Julia Kalinina: Please, tell a few words about yourself, where did you work, what are you doing now?

Pavel Rubinin: I was an assistant, a secretary of Kapitza since 1955 until his death in 1984. I assisted him in different fields – like the relations with foreign scientists, also helped in writing letters, publishing his books, articles. And after his death I’m working with his archives, participate in the creating of Kapitza’s ____ and also gathering his unpublished articles and letters to get them ready for publication. Since his death the fourth edition of his book “Experiment – theory and practice” was published and I was editing it. I also edited its first edition in 1974. This book had nine editions abroad (in Holland it was published in English). I also took part in compiling his collected works in English that were published by Pergamon Press in 1964-1968. Not long ago his “Letters about science” was published and I was compiling it (155 letters). In Holland in the publishing house Northern Holland a book “Kapitza in Cambridge and Moscow” was printed. It consists of his letters and a biographical article that was written by Professor Schoenberg.

J. What can you tell about his social convictions? He was certainly a liberal and probably he could influence somehow the officials.

R. He was trying to do that. A large part of his letters could be named “Letters to Kremlin”. He wrote lots of letters to Stalin, Molotov, Malenkov etc. His goal was to influence the officials. In his letters there were not only requests; they concerned the situation in science, in the universities etc. These letters sometimes are written in 10-15 pages and even resemble articles. He wrote three or four versions of a letter until he sent it. Usually his wife typed the letter and then she brought it herself to the Central Party Committee. The copies of the letters are kept in our archive. Some of letters considered such secrets as nuclear bombs, the destinies of the arrested scientists whom he was trying to rescue. In that way he wrote a letter to Stalin 1937 when a talented physicist [Vladimir] Fok was arrested and actually in a week after that letter Fok was liberated. He was also trying to protect [Lev] Landau, who was a talented theoretician and was working in our institution as a chief of a Department of the theoretical physics. He was arrested on April 28, 1938. The same day Kapitza wrote a letter to Stalin but Stalin did not react and Landau spent a whole year in prison practically dying. In a year Kapitza wrote the next letter to Molotov, who was a Chairman of the Council of Ministers and in a few days Landau was liberated. He was rehabilitated only in 1987 but in ’39 Kapitza made bail for him. Kapitza was writing regularly trying to explain the situation in fundamental science as it was underestimated, the____ mostly the applied sciences. He wrote 45 letters to Stalin, 71 — to Molotov, 63 — to Malenkov, 26 — to Khrushchev. He had a naive idea that he could re-educate them. His letters were very sincere without any hypocrisy and probably that’s why the officials liked them. The other people’s letters contained mostly complaints or praise. His letters were confidential; he did not give them anybody to read. In 1980 when he wrote Andropov a letter to protect Sakharov, I was typing it (he did not even trust the typist) and I took it to KGB. Sakharov was in exile at that time, in Gorky. Kapitza wanted to help him and Orlov, who was in jail. And Sakharov didn’t even know about that letter; he and other dissidents also wanted Kapitza to appear publicly and Kapitza couldn’t do it. He had a different approach; if he communicated with power it must be tete-a-tete communication. He never pressed the power with distribution of “open“letters, samizdat etc. He considered that in our country something could be changed only with the help of power. He turned out to be right. Gorbachev was a person who understood that something must be changed and he changed it. Kapitza was an adherent of socialism ideas; he believed that socialism is more advanced than capitalism. While he worked for 13 years in Great Britain he didn’t change his citizenship, he stayed a Soviet citizen.He was a professor of the Royal Academy, he was the chief of a laboratory, and he was proposed several times for British citizenship. He always refused, though his wife was an immigrant. She became a Russian citizen after they married. He was very loyal to Soviet power, but he had an inner independence; no power could affect him if he considered something to be important for science. He never felt the hypnosis of power.

In 1945 after Hiroshima he initiated the conflict with Beria which brought him to exile. Kapitza was a member of the Committee for producing a nuclear bomb and the Chairman of that Committee was Beria. Kapitza was forced to work under Beria’s guidance, but due to his independent spirit, his considerations about the attitude towards scientists in our country, he could not work with Beria. He wrote Stalin two letters criticizing Beria. For that he was fired and for several years he was living at his dacha with the permanent threat of being arrested or killed in an accident – like Mikhoals. A car could run over him or something like that. He did not leave his dacha all these years.

J. And what rescued him?

R. That is a puzzle. General Khrulev told him that he had been present at the conversation of Stalin and Beria. Beria demanded the Stalin arrest Kapitza and Stalin considered that it was impossible because Kapitza was too famous in the West. Stalin said: “I’ll fire him but you would not touch him”. Probably Stalin liked Kapitza, liked his openness, his passion for his work. During the War Kapitza was guiding the oxygen industry. He invented a new way to gain oxygen what had a _____ for the tanks, airplanes industries. For this invention he was awarded the Stalin prize. In a year after that he was released from all his jobs and positions. Only the personal ___ of Stalin who liked to receive these letters could prevent him from jail death. In 1950 Kapitza talked with Malenkov, who asked him, “Why don’t you write letters to Stalin?” Kapitza who was in exile at that time said, “I don’t know if he reads them, if he receives any.” Malenkov said:“Stalin reads not only the letters you write him but also those you write me”.

J. Were these letters risky?

R. Yes, absolutely. People who were working with him were just terrified. His secretary entreated him not to send the letter to Beria. Actually in that case Kapitza overestimated himself, he did not expect that it would end so poorly, though it could have ended in a worse way. His worldwide popularity rescued him. During the war he played the same role in international links as [the writer Ilya] Ehrenburg; his role was of the same scale. But even now ___ for example doesn’t understand why he was not arrested. A puzzle about Stalin: Why did not he touch somebody like Kapitza or Ehrenburg, whereas in the same time Mikhoels was run over, though he was an actor and could not be really dangerous?

J. And, later, did Kapitza have any troubles of the same kind?

R. Yes, he was not in good relations with Khrushchev. Khrushchev did not let him travel abroad. He was allowed to travel only in the socialist countries. He was in Bulgaria, Poland, Roumania, Czechoslovakia but could not go to Yugoslavia. Again it can be explained by his independence. For example he opposed Lysenko. In 1956 in our institution a first workshop was held where a famous geneticist Timofeeyev-Resovsky made a report. In January 1955 after Stalin’s death and arrest of Beria, Kapitza again was appointed to be a Director of the Institution and in February 1956 he gathered a workshop and invited an absolutely ____ person who had been in jail – Timofeeyev-Resovsky and another academician physicist, Tamm — and they made a report about the contemporary situation in genetics. Lots of people gathered. Khrushchev did not like it, he knew that Kapitza opposed Lysenko. After that scandal with the Nobel prize (Pasternak) a Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sweden asked Khrushchev if they would award the Nobel Prize to Kapitza. Krushchev answered sharply:“Don’t we have other academicians?” Kapitza initially assumed that Khrushchev could do something reasonable. He wrote him 26 letters. Later he wrote Brezhnev only 1 or 2 letters because he understood immediately that it would be useless. But he appreciated Khrushchev relatively highly, he liked his report in 1954 on agriculture. A year after Khrushchev’s resignation Kapitza traveled abroad for the first time. He went to Denmark and received a Niels Bohr Medal there, and the next year he went to Great Britain, where he hadn’t been for 32 years. The main peculiarity of his nature was independence. If he was convinced of something he never thought: “What will happen to me if I oppose that issue?” Though he knew he could have troubles that never stopped him. People cherished hopes for his help. Our Institution was also guided in a specific way; we did not have the socialist competitions— Kapitza had forbidden it. He obtained the legalized pluralize . . .. n any employee could hold more than one position and get more than one salary. It was forbidden anywhere else. Our institution was like an isle of common sense in the world of s___ and stagnation.

J. Did Kapitza have friends among the officials and did he have friends among the liberal intelligentsia? In other words, who could influence him?

R. His mother influenced at him greatly, also his son-in-law, famous academician mathematician Krylov. But he always made the decisions himself and nobody could change his opinion. For example, Sakharov. Kapitza respected him greatly, highly valued him as a physicist and as a public figure, but Kapitza always acted in a way he considered to be the right one. Sakharov had another approach: he attended the trials, protected the dissidents, wrote the letters. Kapitza had never condemned him, but he himself would not behave the same way because of his nature and age (he was 80 at that time). He also was acquainted with Solzhenitsyn and respected him highly. They both influenced at him somehow. For example Kapitza was very interested in Sakharov’s Memorandum “Thoughts about the progress..” He discussed it with Sakharov. The main difference between Kapitza and people like Sakharov is that Kapitza was deeply convinced that socialism is more progressive, a more reasonable way than capitalism, and the second thing, he believed that in our country the power might change by itself, that the officials or any of them must understand that the changes are vitally needed. When Brezhnev died Kapitza cherished all his hopes on Andropov. Kapitza always was aware of all the dissidents’ activities; he worried about Orlov’s destiny, Brodsky’s trial. He got a shorthand record of that trial that was made by Frida Vigdorova. He signed the famous letter to Brezhnev of the 25 well-known public figures opposing the threat of rehabilitation of Stalin – it was 1966. He stood up for Vadim Delone, one of those 7 young men who held a demonstration at the Red Square after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Delone was in jail and then his wife was arrested (she was a dissident). Kapitza took the part of her, he wrote a letter to Andropov, after that she was liberated and they left the USSR.

J. How did he get this information (human rights abusement, dissident activities etc)

R. People sent him that information. There was like a circle of academicians , for example academician Leontovitch. He came with these open letters, samizdat publications – so he was aware of all these matters. In the archive there is a separate folder with the letters he had received on that matters. It was a net of people who transferred information to each other. About friends – he did not have any friends among the officials; his friends were usually very bright persons, academician Leontovich for example. But not only academicians – in his last years he was a close friend with (whom do you think, Metta? – Right) Lyubimov. [I had been interviewing the network centering around the chief of the Taganka Theatre, Lyubimov.]

J. And what about yourself? What was your position in this particular sense?

R. Certainly, I knew everything about these matters. Everyday we had lunch together with Kapitza and his wife and he told me everything. He also gave me letters and samizdat editions to read and if I got something interesting to read I also gave it to him.

J. Can you remember any cases when you told Kapitza about somebody of your acquaintances who needed his help?

R. Actually, I was trying to be very careful in my private life — I didn’t want Kapitza to have trouble because of me. For example, I remember a party that took place in the apartment of a person who had just emigrated to Israel. There were lots of people there and you can picture the atmosphere there and a kind of discussions. Suddenly a militiaman came. Fortunately, he did not check the passports of all who were present there but I remember my horror because if he had checked my passport Kapitza (and not only he but also those who were observing him) immediately would receive a report that his secretary was found in “bad company” —that means he was connected with dissidents and provides illegal activity. What can be worse?! Sure, Kapitza would have troubles. So, in that sense I did not belong to myself and I was trying to be very careful. Another thing that can be interesting in that respect is that our institution was so free-minded that we could afford to organize the exhibitions of artists who were actually forbidden — not officially forbidden but no gallery would give them space for exhibitions. Kapitza just displayed these exhibits and always helped to organize them. He always had a free entrance in our institution so everyone could come and see these paintings that could not exhibited anywhere else. The officials didn’t like it but could not do anything with Kapitza. I remember only one case when we gathered the paintings of Filonov (he is very famous now) but he was completely disgraced at that time and that exhibition was forbidden. Kapitza called to the Department of Culture in Central Committee, spoke to a woman who was like Third Secretary of it (a responsible position, but not the highest) and she definitely refused to give the permission. Kapitza was so upset, he didn’t have many failures like that, usually he obtained what he wanted. The paintings stayed in his cabinet for a week but we could not exhibit them. Another story of his failure: in 1976 there was an accident in an American nuclear electric power station. The worker was testing ____ with a candle and thus put the station on fire, then nobody could find the telephone number of a fire team and when the firemen came at last it turned out that they did not know how to extinguish the fire. When Kapitza read about it he immediately realized that the same situation was very probable in our nuclear stations. He made a report on that issue in Stockholm. Then he wrote an article and wanted the magazine “Science and Life” (very popular Soviet magazine for a wide-range of people with a run of 3 millions copies) to publish it. They refused: “No point to make people nervous.” They certainly had a directive from the Central Committee not to publish it. Academician Aleksandrov who was the President of the Academy of Sciences comforted Kapitza: “That would never happen in our country” Who knows if the article would be published or if the Party officials would pay any attention to the problem probably the Chernobyl disaster would not happen.

The Russian Quest for Peace and Democracy, by Metta Spencer, published by Lexington Books