The 2,028th Meeting of the Society

April 22, 1994

The Making of a Soviet Scientist

Roald Sagdeev

Distinguished Professor of Physics, University of Maryland

About the Lecture

This lecture provides an insider's view to the Soviet Union's secretive military-industrial complex during the cold war. This time was a period of fierce competition between east and west in nuclear science. However, the scientific community was used to an extraordinary extent to foster the objectives of the Communist Party and the military establishment. Accounts of the corruption and hypocrisy of the Brezhnev era provide a portrait of the era. The impact of this condition on perestroika will be discussed along with details of the most politically sensitive scientific issues—including the nuclear weapons program, SDI, and the exile of Andrei Sakharov to Gorky.

About the Speaker

Mr. Sagdeev is a Distinguished Professor of Physics and Director of the East-West Center for Space Science at the University of Maryland. He is a former director of the Soviet Space Research Institute where he led the joint U.S.-Soviet Apollo-Soyuz mission, the Venera series to Venus, and the international missions to Halley's Comet. Mr. Sagdeev also played a major political role during the first five years of perestroika. He was elected to the Supreme Soviet in 1987 and the Congress of Peoples Deputies of the USSR in 1989. He served as an advisor to Gorbachev on issues related to science and space as well as during the summits in Geneva, Washington, and Moscow. Mr. Sagdeev authored the book The Making of a Soviet Scientist on which this lecture is based.


The President, Ms. Enig, called the 2028th meeting to order at 8:16 p.m. on April 22, 1994. The Recording Secretary read the minutes of the 2027th meeting and they were approved. The President then read a portion of the minutes from the 420th meeting, April 14, 1894. The President introduced Mr. Roald Z. Sagdeev, Distinguished Professor of Physics, University of Maryland, who discussed his memoirs “The Making of a Soviet Scientist” scheduled to be published on Monday, April 25. Mr. Sagdeev began by explaining how the changes that occurred while he was writing his memoirs influenced its writing. When he began the prevailing paradigm in the Russia could have been summarized “the future is bright but the past is unpredictable.” His working title was “a view from the black hole”. Now his metaphoric “black hole” has disintegrated and we are living with the debris from the “big bang”. He views his memoirs as a history of a nearly extinct species — the soviet scientist. Although there has supposedly been an approximately 50% decline in the Russian economy, does that really mean that it is now a “third world country"? With underdevelopment evident in many areas of the former Soviet Union, why was the western world in such awe of the soviet state. To have been such a respected power during the period when space exploration began, there must have been a substantial scientific establishment. And for scientists and artists to survive and thrive under the soviet regime, there must have been a substantial creativity among them. Mr. Sagdeev is ethnically a Tartar and grew up in an area about 500 miles east of Moscow. Although the Bolshevik party line asserted that the Russian nationalities and ethnic groups were fraternal and should be submerged in the Soviet Union, people were always aware of ethnic differences and they were officially maintained on line 5 of the internal passport. Now after the breakup of the Soviet Union, many members of the small ethnic groups feel some vindication of their desire to retain their cultural identity. But it is also evident that the reintroduction of borders and other divisions is hindering cooperation and progress. He began his professional career as a controlled fusion theorist. Because of security concerns he and his co-workers were encouraged to communicate with code words; “neutrons” were referred to as “zero points”, “plasma” was “syrup”, and “temperature” was “altitude”. Therefore, he could say that he studied “bringing the syrup to high altitudes to produce zero points”. After the success of the first sputnik, Premier Krushchev was inspired to have a new city dedicated to science built near Novosibirsk. Mr. Sagdeev worked in that largely isolated environment for 10 years until he was appointed director of the Space Institute in Moscow. Upon arriving in his new position he found he had to deal with the bureacracy of a military-industrial complex that he was not entirely prepared for by his previous experience. He met Gorbachev during this period, and after initial confrontational “muscle- flexing” they eventually achieved good social relations, and mutual understanding and respect. Gorbachev realized that the problems of the Soviet Union were systemic, the economic system could not provide the material benefits commensurate with the social sacrifice that was being required. He was a party apparatchik who knew that only a miracle could save the country. Mr. Sagdeev eventually became an advisor to Premier Gorbachev, and his first assignment was to provide a detailed assessment of the dangers posed by President Reagan's “star wars” proposal. This assignment led to his work on the SDI Treaty to block further work on any “star wars” type projects. Mr. Sagdeev kindly answered several questions following his talk. He was asked for his comments on the assertions in the recently published book by a former general in the KGB that Niels Bohr, Enrico Fermi, Robert Oppenheimer and George Gamov may have knowingly passed on intelligence about development of the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. Mr. Sagdeev stated that while it was true that in its early phase intelligence was important in the Soviet development of the fission bomb, the principal source of that intelligence was the acknowledged agent Klaus Fuchs. Niels Bohr was never in a position to provide significant information, and the others were not in positions to be able to provide significant information about the fusion bomb as he asserts they did. The President thanked the speaker on behalf of the Society. The membership chairman announced that there were no new members. The President announced the speaker for the next meeting, made the parking announcement, and adjourned the 2028th meeting at 9:48 p.m. Attendance: 59 Temperature: +16.8°C Weather: clear Respectfully submitted, John S. Garavelli Recording Secretary