Creation of widespread general awareness about a specialized field and successful dissemination of information on a global scale regarding major contributors is, to a large extent, dependent on two important factors in the digital age: first is the English language; the second one being political alignment with the major global powers. And the Russians are tangential to both of these for most of us to be even minutely aware of anything beyond the color Red – the capital R signifying the over-importance given to Communism. Such is the state of ignorance and non-existential data about individuals, who have contributed not only in the Soviet/Russian space but even globally in the fields of science and arts, that often a search-engine leads to unworthy results. Buried Glory: Portraits of Soviet Scientists by Istvan Hargittai is a splendid and mighty work aimed at dispelling the unfamiliarity surrounding the works of various Soviet scientists whose“personalities have remained mostly in obscurity”.
Hargittai, himself a scientist, has written several other books in the past aimed at the general reader and brought out the toil and sweat that scientists have to go through for even minor successes. He is regarded as a fine interviewer and has personally met many Nobel Laureates. The author starts with describing Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow and how many a famous people have been buried there. This book brings out the major works of 14 eminent Soviet scientists like, to name a few, Igor Tamm, Yakov Zeldovich, Andrei Sakharov, Petr Kapitza and Yulii Khariton. Each chapter gives a family background of the scientists and the circumstances in which they were educated, followed by reasons and circumstances which led them to be distinguished, and the principal challenges they faced from the Soviet regime coupled with, in most cases, personal tragedies they had to go through owing to the oppressive state of affairs.
All the scientists portrayed did oppose the overbearing interference of the government in science in their own ways. Some became Human Rights activists; some protected unjustly treated colleagues and unfairly demoted subordinates; while some risked their own lives and kept opposing unscientific approaches and views. Each portrait, however, brings forth few common traits: the unwarranted decision making capacity of the rulers; the spread of anti-Semitism and its effects on scientific contribution; the dogmatic approach of restricting free exchange of ideas and physical movement of scientists; the orthodox approach of not only punishing and incarcerating but even executing dissident scientists. The author has also diligently brought out the finer aspects of the personalities of the men: Landau’s grapho-phobia, super-intelligent Zeldovish’s wearing of stars to gain importance when it suited him; Kapitza’s unwavering writing of opposing letters to Stalin; Kitaigorodskii’s enthusiasm towards life and multiple girlfriends. The underlying dark currents of Soviet-US animosity are well evident from various events: the use of spies by the Russians in the bomb-race, wire-trapping and even Nobel Prize nominations influenced by politics.
In the Epilogue, Hargittai answers three important questions: what made extraordinarily talented scientists stay loyal to the oppressive system; whether the Soviet conditions facilitated or hindered creativity; and if the future of Russian science would be as bright as it was earlier. Here he expresses sadness at the subjugation of fundamental sciences at the hands of other “business-related activities” and how, if this trend is not reversed, the bygone era will “remain a unique phenomenon for a long time to come”.
A must read for history lovers and equally so for science fans.
Nikhil Sharma is a technology professional and over the last few years has discovered a newfound interest in literature, predominantly non-fiction history. He lives in Mumbai.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Oxford University Press. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.