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2 June, 2019  ▪  

A hotbed of physicists

The rise and fall of Kharkiv’s school of physics under Josef Stalin

In May 1934, one of the most renowned physicists in the world, the godfather of quantum mechanics and Nobel laureate Niels Bohr spent three weeks in Kharkiv. He came to the All-Union Theoretical Physics Conference, invited by his student Lev Landau, who was then head of the theoretical physics department at the Ukrainian Physico-Technical Institute. At that time, Kharkiv had turned into one of the world capitals of science and the Kharkiv school of theoretical physics was flourishing.

A home for physicists

Founded in October 1928, UPTI—now known as the Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology—was a strong scientific institution from the very start. Then-director Ivan Obreimov believed that it could only develop in close contact with prominent world physicists. He invited Piotr Kapitsa and Paul Ehrenfest to become scientific advisors to the institute. Kapitsa, who went on to win a Nobel prize, was the young star of experimental physics and work with supercritical magnetic fields in the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge under the direction of the great Ernest Rutherford. Emigrating in 1921 from the USSR, Kapitsa maintained professional contacts with soviet physicists, but he rejected Obreimov’s proposition to come back and work in Kharkiv. In 1934, the soviet government handled him differently: while on a visit to the USSR, he was prohibited from returning to England. For several years Kapitsa was completely cut off from scientific work and was seriously afraid for his life. Later, Kapitsa was to say that he was “like a violin that someone stole and instead of playing on it, used it to hammer nails into a concrete wall.”

Ehrenfest helped to set up UPTI’s cryogenics lab, and thanks to his contacts among leading physicists like Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, he became a major link in attracting foreign scientists to the Institute. Another Nobel prizewinner, Paul Dirac, visited Kharkiv three times and became an honorary member of the Institute’s scientific council. Russian-American physicist Boris Podolsky, co-author of the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen (EPR) paradox that formed the basis for quantum teleportation, worked at the Institute for an entire year. Together with Vladimir Fock and Dirac, he developed the formalism of quantum electrodynamics. Austrian physicist Victor Weisskopf also worked at UPTI under contract. Later, he would move to the US and take part in the American nuclear project and become the director of CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, which runs the Large Hadron Collider today. The Kharkiv conferences were also visited by future Nobel laureate Igor Tamm and famous soviet-American astrophysicist George Gamow.

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By 1932, Kharkiv was undertaking experiments in the decomposition of lithium nucleus by protons just 18 months later than at Cambridge. The experiment caused some excitement among the country's leadership and the increase in funding made it possible for nuclear research to gain a prominent position at UPTI. In time, the Institute took part in the soviet nuclear project.

In 1934, the director of the cryogenics lab, Lev Shubnikov, and Yuriy Ryabinin discovered the gradual penetration of the magnetic field in some superconductors, which led to the discovery of type II superconductivity. The same phenomenon had been observed by German physicists Walter Meissner and Robert Ochsenfeld not long before. When magnets are raised to superconductors, electric currents are induced whose magnetic fields compensate for the magnet's field, so that the superconductor can levitate above the magnet. This phenomenon is the basis for maglev trains to run. Shubnikov's discovery of type II superconductivity was Nobel-quality work.

Obreimov’s staffing policies had a real breakthrough when they invited Lev Landau to head the department of theoretical physics. Over 1929-1931, Landau had interned in Europe, working with Niels Bohr, whom he considered his mentor. Landau bemoaned the fact that he had been born too late to be there at the foundation of quantum mechanics and to stand in the pantheon alongside Max Planck, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and Erwin Shrödinger. Still, at the young age of 19, he came up with the density matrix, one of the key mathematical instruments in this field. From 1930 on, he developed quantum theory of diamagnetism and back in Kharkiv, he will build the domain theory of ferromagnetism with his student Evgeny Lifshitz. The work of Landau and Lifshitz explains why so many metals are magnetized. The magnetic moments of the atoms of such metals are arranged in parallel, which causes them to become magnetized. On the other hand, why is it that the magnetism of a large block of iron can disappear? Because iron is composed of sections or domains in which the magnetic moments of the atoms go in one direction but the aggregate magnetic moments of the domain are already directed opposite to each other. A middling size of iron will always be magnetized, whereas a very large piece will depend on the presence of an external magnetic field.

In Kharkiv, Landau devised the theory of phasal transitions to a second type. The phasal transitions of the first type are very observable in the melting of ice or the evaporation of water. They are tied to sudden changes in the specific volume and the amount of stored energy. The transitions to the second type are more subtle: they take place without absorbing or releasing heat, but the heat capacity of the material changes, the thermal coefficient changes, and so on. Landau linked this to the change of system symmetry, and after Kapitsa discovered the phenomenon of superconductivity in liquid helium, Landau was able to explain it based on his theory. In 1962, Landau received the Nobel prize for physics based on this work.

Such significant discoveries were made possible because of the intelligent way that the theoretical department worked. Landau set up his own scientific school and thought up the theoretical minimum: a cycle of exams in math and all branches of physics then known. Together with Lifshitz and Leonid Pyatigorsky, they began to write a 10-volume course of theoretical physics that remains a guide to physics in many universities to this day.

Landau believed that productive scientific work was possible only when the scientist had deep, comprehensive knowledge. He sought out talented students and worked with them. The first theoretical minimum was passed by a native of Ekaterynoslav, today the city of Dnipro, Oleksandr Kompaniets, who went on to become a major specialist in the physics of explosives and shock waves.

Because of his independent nature, his tendency to be forthright even if it bordered on rudeness, Landau had plenty of those who did not wish him well. After a clash with the rector of Kharkiv Sate University, where he headed the department of experimental physics starting in 1935, Landau was fired in 1937. In solidarity with him, quite a few colleagues organized a strike and left KSU as well.

At this time, Stalin’s Great Purge was well underway and it became more dangerous for him to work. Already in 1936, the NKVD had begun to build a case against “a group of counterrevolutionary physicists at UPTI led by Professor Landau.” The police interrogated Lev Rosenkevich, who was then the head of the radioactive measurement lab at the Institute. During this interrogation, Rosenkevich supposedly confessed that back in 1930 Landau’s “counterrevolutionary group “ had already been active at UPTI, and included Shubnikov and the head of the x-ray laboratory, Vadim Gorsky. The NKVD acted swiftly and in November 1937, Shubnikov Gorsky, Rosenkevich and nuclear physicist Valentin Fomin were shot.

Landau moved to Moscow to the Institute for Physical Problems and began to work at the superconductivity of liquid helium that had been discovered by Kapitsa. But the work that led to both getting the Nobel prize was stopped when Landau was arrested. On April 28, 1938, he was imprisoned in the dungeons of the NKVD, along with several colleagues.

During his training in Europe, the young scientist had boldly worn a red shirt and argued with everybody about communism. By the time he arrived in Kharkiv in 1932, he was a fanatic of the communist idea. But his views quickly changed in the face of the soviet realities. Possibly the Holodomor had its impact as well. Landau could not have seen the famished people on the streets of his city and not understood what was going on. Moreover, he went around the schools in the Kharkiv countryside with his colleague Moisei Korets to check the scientific knowledge of the pupils and was able to converse with people in smaller towns. He became an ideological opponent of the soviet government and in 1938 he and Korets wrote a letter calling for the overthrow of the Stalin regime, comparing Stalin to Hitler and Mussolini. “Stalinist fascism survives only because we are disorganized,” the letter said. “The proletariat of our country managed to overthrow the tsars and the capitalists. We can also overthrow the fascist dictator and his clique.” 

Landau ended up spending a year in prison. Bohr, Einstein and Kapitsa step forward to defend him. Kapitsa was ordered to keep an eye on Landau and the renowned theoreticist was finally released. His friends did not do so well: Korets and another colleague at the Institute, Yuri “Georg” Rumer, ended up serving their entire sentences.

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Even foreign citizens working in Kharkiv were caught up in the purges. Dutch-German Friedrich “Fritz” Houtermans was engaged in pioneering work back in the 1920s in quantum tunneling and calculations of thermonuclear reactions inside stars. A member of the Communist Party in Germany, he emigrated to Great Britain after Hitler came to power, and then accepted an invitation to work at UPTI. In 1937 he was arrested for “spying on behalf of Germany.” During the interrogation with his communications staff, he gave the names Messer, Gneisenau and Scharnhorst—who were at that point dead German generals in whose honor naval vessels had been named.

Ivan Obreimov himself, who had turned UPTI into a world-class institute by inviting top scientists and holding prestigious conferences, was also arrested for this in 1938. Conversing with foreigners and traveling abroad automatically meant he was a German spy. He was released from labor camp three years later “ for lack of evidence of a crime.”

In the UPTI Affair, 16 physicists became victims, 5 of them shot by execution squads. The remainder were given various sentences in prisons or camps. Two of them, Houtermans and Weissberg, were turned over to the Gestapo. The Kharkiv scientific school was effectively devastated. Seven of the Institute’s eight department heads were prosecuted. If world famous physicists had not interceded, writing constantly to Comrade Stalin, the list of victims might have been much longer.

By Oleh Feya 



Niels Bohr at the UPTI conference in 1934. First row, left to right: Dmytro Ivanenko (arrested in 1935), Lev Rosenfeld (executed), Nils Bohr, Lev Landau (one year in jail), Yakiv Frenkel, American Robert Williams Wood, Igor Tamm. Back row: Matvei Bronshtein (executed), Yuri Rumer (labor camp), American Milton Plesset, Lev Shubnikov (executed), German Rudolf Peierls, Ivan Woller, Viktor Ambartsumian, Vladimir Fock (arrested in 1937)

Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj

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