The Top-Secret Life of Lev Landau



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The Top-Secret Life 

of Lev Landau



KGB archives reveal that 

the Soviet genius co-authored 

an anti-Stalin manifesto 

by Gennady Gorelik



T

he theories of Lev Davido-

vich Landau built the back-

bone of 20th-century con-

densed-matter physics. They described

superfluidity, tenets of superconduc-

tivity, and diverse corners of astro-

physics, particle physics and many

other disciplines. To this day, Landau

levels, Landau diamagnetism, Lan-

dau spectrum, Landau-Ginzburg the-

ory and other Landau discoveries re-

main essential tools. His texts taught

generations of scientists: the library

at Harvard University contains four

times as many titles by this Soviet phy-

sicist as by the renowned American

physicist Richard Feynman.

For his achievements, Landau won

the Nobel Prize in 1962. His admir-

ers saw him as an ivory tower theo-

rist



bold, impudent and charming

but detached from the humdrum of

everyday existence. They ignored two

political aspects of his life: his year in

Joseph Stalin’s prisons in the late

1930s and his contributions to the

dictator’s nuclear bomb a decade later.

Only now do we know Landau had

a political persona that made him

permanently suspect to the KGB, the

Soviet secret police. This revelation

was partly accidental. In 1989 Maia

Besserab, the niece of Landau’s wife,

published the fourth edition of her

biography of the scientist. Glasnost

(or “openness”) had arrived, and the

author claimed she could finally an-

nounce the full story behind his 1938

arrest. A disgruntled former student

by the name of Leonid Pyatigorsky,

Besserab stated, had denounced Lan-

dau as a German spy. This during

Stalin’s Great Terror, when many

millions were executed on fanciful

charges.

Unfortunately for the biographer,

Pyatigorsky was still alive. It was in-

deed true that Landau had expelled

him from the theoretical group at the

Kharkov institute in Ukraine. “Dau,”

as the great man was called by his

adoring students, could be very hard

on them: a sign outside his office door

warned, “Beware! He bites!” But Py-

atigorsky nonetheless continued to

revere Landau, and shocked by the

accusation, he brought Besserab to

court in the summer of 1990.

Inside the KGB

T

he judge for the case asked the

KGB to check Landau’s files.

They contained no mention of Py-

atigorsky, and Besserab published an

apology. It was at this time, I believe,

that the KGB discovered that the

pride of Soviet science was no inno-

cent victim of Stalinist insanity but a

genuine anti-Soviet criminal. In 1991

the KGB published almost the entire

contents of Landau’s file in a short-

lived magazine designed for glasnost

called the

Bulletin of the Central

Committee of the Communist Party.

As it happened, I had seen Landau’s

file just a few weeks before its publi-

cation. Soon after perestroika (or “re-

structuring”) began in the late 1980s,

I obtained a research position at the

Institute for the History of Science

and Technology in Moscow. The in-

stitute’s director was the son of for-

mer defense minister Dmitriy Usti-

nov. Realizing that his name could

lower enormous barriers, I decided

to try my luck at getting into the KGB

archives.

With utmost care, I composed a let-

ter pointing out that almost nothing

was known about the fate of many

important Soviet physicists who had

been arrested in the 1930s. Listing

two dozen names, I asked if histori-

ans could study their files. After two

weeks of contemplation, Ustinov

signed this letter; to my great fortune

(I was later told), it landed next on

the desk of an exceptionally liberal

deputy to the KGB head.

Two months later the agency in-

formed me I could examine the files



inside its headquarters, located in the

Lubyanka building, where countless

prisoners had spent their initial terri-

fied hours. At the door a guard

searched me with intimate and em-

barrassing thoroughness. There was

no reading room, only a very small

room for prisoners’ relatives. Ex-

plaining that it would be uncomfort-

able for me to work in a room full of

weeping people, my hosts gave me

the office of someone who was out

sick. This room, still covered in 1930s

wood paneling, may even have been

the one where Landau was interro-

gated. Through the window, I could

see the inner prison where he had

been incarcerated.

I, too, was interrogated. Two offi-

cials asked me why the files of dead

physicists might contain anything in-

Copyright 1997 Scientific American, Inc.




teresting. As I answered their questions,

I began to wonder why I had been per-

mitted to enter the KGB headquarters at

all. Surely my interrogators were aware

that my Jewish parents had just left

Russia for the U.S.

were they trying to



trap me? It took me some time to calm

down, to understand that the KGB was

simply trying hard to soften its public

image. When they finally asked me if

Andrei Sakharov was indeed a good

physicist or merely an overhyped dissi-

dent, I accepted that the two men were

also just curious.

After a few hours, they left me with

five files on the desk. The files were dat-

ed from 1930 to 1952; some were ex-

tremely haphazard. Landau, who was

arrested near the end of the Great Ter-

ror


when some sanity was returning

had a very neat file. Opening it, I first



asked myself if it was a 1990s forgery.

Eventually I decided that all the docu-

ments, including any fabrications, were

made back in the 1930s. Unfortunately,

I had no way of copying anything, ex-

cept by hand.

Physicists Yuri B. Rumer and Moissey

Koretz were arrested the same night as

Landau. Rumer was one of the pioneers

of quantum chemistry. Koretz, though

not a famous man, was Landau’s close

friend and ally, someone he turned to

for advice on the practical side of life.

In Rumer’s file I found three reports

by unnamed informers. One was un-

dated and bizarre

it stated that an ac-



quaintance of Rumer’s was the son of a

rabbi, lived in Berlin and worked for

Adolf Hitler’s Gestapo. The second re-

port, from March 1938, described a

conversation between Rumer and Lan-

dau about Soviet officials, in which Lan-

dau opined that nothing good could be

expected from people who were born

subhuman. In the third, from April 19,

the informer disclosed that Landau and

Rumer were aware of an anti-Soviet

leaflet that had been prepared for distri-

bution. The original, handwritten, copy

of this extraordinary leaflet was sup-

posed to be in Koretz’s file

which, I was



told, was in the office of the attorney

general. But Landau’s file contained a

typewritten copy.

The pamphlet was designed to be du-

plicated and discreetly distributed dur-

ing the May Day parade. Here is its

wording:

Comrades!

The great cause of the October revolu-

tion has been evilly betrayed.... Millions

of innocent people are thrown in prison,

and no one knows when his own turn

will be . . . .

Don’t you see, comrades, that Stalin’s

clique accomplished a fascist coup! So-

cialism remains only on the pages of the

newspapers that are terminally wrapped

in lies. Stalin, with his rabid hatred of

genuine socialism, has become like Hitler

and Mussolini. To save his power Stalin

destroys the country and makes it an easy

prey for the beastly German fascism . . . .

The proletariat of our country that had

overthrown the power of the tsar and

the capitalists will be able to overthrow a

fascist dictator and his clique.

Long live the May day, the day of

struggle for socialism!

—The Antifascist Worker’s Party

To my knowledge, this manifesto is

one of only three explicit denunciations

of Stalin made by a Soviet citizen dur-

ing the Terror. Another, an open letter,

was published in 1939 by a Soviet dip-

lomat who escaped to Paris; soon after,

he died under mysterious circumstanc-

es. The third was an entry in the per-

sonal diary of Vladimir Vernadsky, the

director of the Radium Institute. Writ-

ing, and especially planning to dissemi-

nate, such a denunciation took incredi-

ble courage, perhaps foolhardiness. To

understand why the KGB did not in-

stantly shoot the perpetrators requires

some background.

Ideological Impertinence

B

orn on January 22, 1908, in the oil



town of Baku in Azerbaijan, Lan-

dau was the son of Jewish parents. His

father was an engineer with the local oil

industry, and his mother a doctor. Lan-

dau was only nine years old at the time

of the Soviet revolution of 1917. At 14

he entered Baku University, transferring

two years later to Leningrad State Uni-

versity. Graduating in 1927, Landau

continued his studies at the Leningrad

Physico-Technical Institute, the cradle

of Soviet physics.

In 1929 Landau won a fellowship to

visit foreign scientific institutions. After

working for a year with Niels Bohr in

S

cientific



American

August 1997      73



A 1934 SNAPSHOT shows Lev Landau

(front, right) and his colleagues on the

steps of the Physico-Technical Institute in

Kharkov, Ukraine. Landau’s attempts to

save pure physics at the institute were

soon to land him in trouble.

C

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Copyright 1997 Scientific American, Inc.



Copenhagen, he came to think of

Bohr


already famous for his con-

tributions to the new quantum

physics


as his mentor. In England

he met Pyotr Kapitsa, an influen-

tial Soviet experimentalist who

had been working in the Caven-

dish Laboratory in Cambridge

since 1921. In response to one of

Kapitsa’s questions, Landau de-

veloped the theory of diamag-

netism of electrons in a metal, his

first major scientific contribution.

In 1932 Landau went to Khar-

kov to head the theoretical divi-

sion of the Ukrainian Physico-

Technical Institute. There he be-

gan his seminal studies on phase

transitions of the second kind

subtle



changes in a system, which, unlike the

freezing of water, do not involve the

emission or absorption of heat. In addi-

tion, he worked on ferromagnetism, the

process by which magnets form.

An able and enthusiastic teacher,

Landau also began to write, along with

his student Evgenni Lifshitz, the nine-

volume classic Course of Theoretical

Physics (Pergamon Press, 1975–1987).

His institute soon acquired a reputation

for creating world-class scientists adept

at tackling almost any problem in theo-

retical physics.

Hendrik Casimir, a physicist who

met Landau in Copenhagen, recalls him

as an ardent communist, very proud of

his revolutionary roots. The enthusiasm

with which Landau went about build-

ing Soviet science was part of his social-

istic fervor. In 1935 he published an odd

piece entitled “Bourgeoisie and Con-

temporary Physics” in the Soviet news-

paper  Izvestia.  Apart from attacking

bourgeois inclinations toward religious

superstition and the power of money,

he praised the “unprecedented oppor-

tunities for the development of physics

in our country, provided by the Party

and the government.” A committed

classifier, Landau designated himself

and his friends as “communists,” those

he hated as “fascists,” and faculty el-

ders as simply wisent

the Russian bi-

son, nearing extinction.

Despite his faith in the Soviet system,

Landau suffered attacks from some so-

cialist writers. In the late 1920s a newly

discovered nuclear decay, in which some

energy could not be accounted for,

caused quite a stir. Landau and others

initially supported Bohr in his idea that

this experiment violated the conserva-

tion of energy. Later, however, Landau

discovered that this hypothesis contra-

dicted Albert Einstein’s theory of gravity

and abandoned the concept. (Wolfgang

Pauli’s explanation

that an unknown



neutral particle, later named the “neu-

trino” by Enrico Fermi, had carried off

the missing energy

won the day.) Un-



fortunately, the co-founder of Marx-

ism, Friedrich Engels, had declared in

the 19th century that the law of conser-

vation of energy was to be forever fun-

damental to science, and Landau was

severely castigated in the local papers

for his (temporary) blasphemy.

In any case, his social views were soon

to undergo a phase transformation of

their own. In 1934 the Kharkov insti-

tute acquired a new director

with a



mandate to redirect the research into

military and applied ventures. Landau

fought fiercely to save pure science. He

suggested that the institute be split, so

that one branch could be dedicated to

physics. On the institute’s bulletin board,

which featured animated arguments on

the future of the institute, Koretz au-

thored a vigorous defense of Landau’s

plans. And Pyatigorsky, who did not

know that opposition to official direc-

tives was to be construed as sabotage of

the Soviet military enterprise, con-

firmed this plan to administrators (for

which offense Landau expelled him). In

November 1935 Koretz was arrested.

Landau tried valiantly to defend his

friend, appealing to the KGB head in



The Top-Secret Life of Lev Landau

74

Scientific American



August 1997

ALL DOCUMENT

S C

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ARREST AND INTERROGATION by the KGB in 1938 were precipitated by a defiantly sub-

versive pamphlet written by Landau and Moissey Koretz. This typeset version (left)  and the

arrest warrant (below) were published by the KGB in 1991. After two months of imprison-

ment, Landau wrote a confession (right) detailing his disillusionment with the Soviet system.

In 1991 the KGB supplied Landau’s prison mug shot (at bottom) to the Soviet magazine Pi-

roda; it declined, however, to provide the profile, on the grounds that it was too depressing.

AIP EMILIO SEGRÈ VISU

AL AR

CHIVES


Copyright 1997 Scientific American, Inc.


Ukraine. And amazingly enough for

those times, Koretz was released “be-

cause of lack of evidence.” (A few

months later the KGB official in Khar-

kov shot himself. He may have been

one of the many idealists who could

not live with the increasingly evident

gap between communist ideals and re-

ality.) But a note in Koretz’s file warned

that the KGB should keep an eye on he

whose “guilt had not been proved” but

who “was a member of a counterrevo-

lutionary wrecking organization head-

ed by Landau.”

In 1937 the KGB arrested several

German physicists working at Kharkov

and an assortment of other scientists.

Before being shot, Landau’s friends Lev

Shubnikov and Lev Rozenkevich “con-

fessed” that Landau headed a counter-

revolutionary organization. Landau felt

he had to flee to some other, possibly

safer, place. In Moscow, Kapitsa offered

Landau a position as head of the theo-

retical division of the Institute of Physi-

cal Problems, and there he went in Feb-

ruary. Koretz soon followed him to

Moscow; Rumer was already there.

Within a year, on April 28, 1938, Lan-

dau and his two friends were arrested.



In Prison

L

andau’s students and colleagues were 



scolded for supporting Landau in

his preachings “against dialectical ma-

terialism, and even against the theorem

of energy conservation.” They believed

Landau had been denounced by an ene-

my for his past impudence. Certainly

Landau had enemies, for he liked to

step on toes. One April Fools’ Day, for

instance, he had posted an official no-

tice classifying the Kharkov institute’s

faculty by ability and rescaling their

salaries accordingly

a joke that did not



sit well with superiors.

The charges against Landau were in

fact much graver than scientific heresy.

He was accused of heading a counter-

revolutionary organization; the confes-

sions extorted from his associates

“proved” that charge to the KGB’s sat-

isfaction. The leaflet merely determined

the date of arrest

a week before the



traditional May Day parade.

Rumer, it turned out, was not involved

in the leaflet at all. Both Landau and

Koretz testified to that, and he was re-

lieved of this accusation. But the fanci-

ful charges of espionage for Germany

forced Rumer to spend 10 years in a

sharashka

a scientific and engineering

institute run like a prison.

Landau was taken to the Lubyanka

prison. A hastily scribbled note in his

file, apparently made by a KGB officer,

records that Landau was forced to stand

for seven hours a day and threatened

with transfer to the even more horrific

Lefortovo prison. After two months he

broke and wrote a six-page confession,

the most eloquent document in his file.

(Every prisoner signed an oath of secre-

cy on leaving prison, and Landau never

talked about this phase of his life.)

The confession states: “At the begin-

ning of 1937, we came to the conclu-

sion that the Party had degenerated and

that the Soviet government no longer

acted in the interests of workers but in

the interests of a small ruling group, that

the interests of the country demanded

the overthrow of the existing govern-

ment, and creation in the U.S.S.R. of a

state that would preserve the kolkhozes

[agricultural farms] and State property

for industry, but build upon the princi-

ples of bourgeois-democratic states.”

Although such confessions cannot be

taken too seriously given the circum-

stances under which they were extract-

ed, this statement is so unusual that I

believe it to be true. The two physicists

had somehow reached a conclusion

that eluded most of their countrymen

for the next half century. It was Koretz

who had convinced Landau of the need

for practical action and whose hand-

writing was on the leaflet. But the polit-

ical intelligence behind it was Landau’s.

Landau was known for his “grapho-

phobia,” and most of his writing was

actually done by his colleagues, includ-

ing the famous Courses. (The confes-

sion was the longest piece of handwrit-

ing Landau accomplished in his life.)

The two conspirators had signed the

manifesto with the name of a fake or-

ganization so that people would take it

more seriously.

Koretz spent 20 years in the Gulag,

returning to Moscow in 1958, where I

met him a few times before he died of

cancer in 1984. He was enthusiastic

about science and worked for a popu-

lar science magazine. Wonderfully live-

ly and vigorous despite his travails, he

told me many stories about Landau

but never the circumstances of their ar-



rest. Nor was Koretz ever rehabilitated

(that is, officially acknowledged as hav-

ing been unjustly accused). This was a

The Top-Secret Life of Lev Landau

Scientific American

August 1997      75

LANDAU’S ASSOCIATES

Koretz (left) and Yuri B. Ru-

mer (below) were arrested on

the same night. Koretz spent

20 years in the Gulag; Rumer

spent 10 years in a penal sci-

ence institution, or sharash-

ka.  Pyotr Kapitsa (right)

saved Landau, by claiming

that only he could explain a

great new discovery. It turned

out to be superfluidity.

C

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hint that unlike most victims of the Ter-

ror, his arrest was for some real reason.

Kapitsa saved Landau. By virtue of

having invented a new technique for

production of oxygen

vital for metal-



lurgy and therefore industry

Kapitsa



had acquired very good relations with

the government. He was also extraordi-

narily gifted in communicating with

officialdom and in his lifetime wrote

more than 100 letters to the Kremlin on

matters of science policy, as well as to

save physicists such as Vladimir Fock,

the quantum-field theorist.

In 1938 the head of the KGB “disap-

peared,” and Lavrenti Beria succeeded

him. After two years of carnage, Stalin

had achieved his purpose

to destroy



all rivals, real and imaginary. Sensing

an opportunity, Kapitsa wrote to Prime

Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, saying

that he had just made a discovery “in

the most puzzling field of the modern

physics” and that no theorist other than

Landau could explain it. And on the eve

of May Day, 1939, after a year of im-

prisonment, Landau was freed on bail.

In a few months, he had explained Ka-

pitsa’s superfluidity using sound waves,

or phonons, and a new excitation called

a roton. It earned both of them a Nobel

Prize a few decades later.

In 1939 Landau married K. T. Dro-

banzeva, and in 1946 they had a son,

Igor. The marriage was unusual. Appar-

ently Landau believed in free love and

urged his students and his distraught

wife to practice it as well.

A few years after Landau’s release,

Stalin instituted the Soviet atomic proj-

ect; after Hiroshima, it was pushed full-

steam ahead. Kapitsa’s institute was re-

cruited for this purpose, and Stalin ap-

pointed Beria as the supreme officer

overseeing the effort. Kapitsa was not a

pacifist but found it unbearable to work

under Stalin’s chief gendarme in an at-

mosphere of deep secrecy. He wrote to

Stalin, charging that Beria was unfit to

be heading such a project.



Enter the Hydrogen Bomb

T

his was an exceedingly dangerous



ploy. General Andrei Khrulev, a

friend of Kapitsa’s, related to him a

conversation he overheard between Be-

ria and Stalin. Beria wanted Kapitsa’s

head, but Stalin told him that although

he could dismiss Kapitsa from all posi-

tions, he could not kill him. Apparently

Stalin respected Kapitsa’s worldwide

reputation as a physicist: he was a mem-

ber of the British Royal Society.

Kapitsa escaped execution

although



he remained under a kind of house ar-

rest until Stalin’s death. Landau was,

however, engaged in the top-secret affair.

His bomb duty was numerical mathe-

matics rather than theoretical physics.

Along with the physicists he directed,

Landau calculated the dynamics of the

first Soviet thermonuclear bomb, called



sloyka

or “layer cake”



filled with

lithium deuteride. (According to Hans

Bethe, one of the creators of the Ameri-

can bomb, the Americans had consid-

ered this compound, along with other

fillers, for the original “alarm clock” de-

sign, which was analogous to the sloy-



ka. Unlike Landau’s calculations, how-

ever, those of the Americans could not

predict the yield.) 

Part of the mathematics developed to

this end was declassified and published

during the first nuclear thaw in 1958.

The resulting paper on numerical inte-

The Top-Secret Life of Lev Landau

76

Scientific American



August 1997

Landau’s Science

I

n 1927 Lev Landau became one of the first to introduce the density matrix, a



mathematical tool for dealing with mixed quantum states. He went on to de-

scribe the behavior of an electron gas, finding that electrons in a magnetic field

are confined to orbits of discrete energy, now called Landau levels. In the realm of

astrophysics, he postulated the existence of neutron cores, which have come to

be known as neutron stars. And simultaneously with an American group, he ex-

plained how cosmic rays produce electron showers.

Landau’s greatest contributions involve phase transitions of the second kind, in

which a substance changes from an ordered to a disordered configuration with-

out absorbing heat. One such transition is that of helium from a normal to a su-

perfluid state. Landau described superfluidity by means of a roton, an excitation

that has since been discovered but whose true nature remains mysterious. He also

introduced the order parameter, a kind of large-scale wave function. Applied to

superfluid helium, the order parameter described the behavior of atoms in their

common quantum state; applied to superconductors, it revealed such properties

as how current flows around an intruding magnetic field; applied to superfluid he-

lium 3, it described a host of complex configurations. 

In 1950, with his student Vitaly Ginzburg, Landau developed a framework in

which the universal phenomenon of broken symmetry

by which, for example,



quarks are believed to acquire mass

can be simply described, again by means of



an order parameter.

Landau also studied how ferromagnets

the magnets of ordinary experience



divide into domains in which the microscopic components point in different di-

rections. He worked on plasma physics and in 1956 developed the theory of Fermi

liquids, which contain strongly interacting electronlike particles. His interests en-

compassed particle theory as well: he developed a statistical picture of a nucleus,

challenged the consistency of quantum electrodynamics and, along with others,

postulated the principle of charge-parity conservation. And this is only a partial

list of his achievements.

The Editors



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TEN COMMANDMENTS of Lan-

dau, an engraved list of his major dis-

coveries, were drawn up by Landau’s

students to celebrate the physicist’s

50th birthday in 1958. Landau creat-

ed a “school” of physics



a style of

describing the natural world



which

he passed on through his teachings.

Copyright 1997 Scientific American, Inc.




gration looks rather strange in Lan-

dau’s Collected Works. Also in this vol-

ume is perhaps his most far-reaching

publication ever, co-authored with Vi-

taly Ginzburg in 1950 in the midst of

bomb research. The paper describes a

simple and powerful framework in

which an enormous variety of sys-

tems



superconductors, elementary par-



ticles, chemical mixtures and so on

can be described. It anticipates the gener-



ic phenomenon of symmetry breaking,

vital to particle theorists, among others.

For his contributions to the atomic

and hydrogen bombs, Landau received,

ironically enough, two Stalin

Prizes, in 1949 and 1953.

In 1954 he was awarded

the title “Hero of Socialist

Labor.”

In 1957, I believe Landau



asked the central Communist

Party for permission to go

abroad. At the party’s request,

the KGB produced transcripts of

Landau’s conversations with his

friends between 1947 and 1957.

These drew on “special tech-

niques”


as the KGB described

them



and informants’ reports. The



document was found in the archives of

the Communist Party; it is revealing.

In the transcripts, Landau describes

himself as a “scientist slave.” Given his

rebellious nature, that is not surprising;

besides, his experiences of the 1930s had

turned him against Stalin. But the docu-

ments reveal a deeper political transfor-

mation. On one occasion a friend re-

marked that if Lenin were suddenly to

revive, he would be horrified by what

he saw. “Lenin employed the same

kinds of repression,” Landau retorted.

Later, he said: “Our regime, as I have

learned since 1937, is definitely a fascist

regime, and it could not change by itself

in any simple way. . . . I believe that

while this regime exists, it is ridiculous

to hope for its development into some

decent thing . . . . The question about a

peaceful liquidation of our regime is a

question about the future of human-

kind . . . . Without fascism there is no

war.” Finally, he concluded, “It is quite

clear that Lenin was the first fascist.”

It is important to realize how extra-

ordinary these views were. Almost all

Landau’s colleagues were profoundly

pro-Soviet

including Igor Evgenyevich



Tamm, who won the first Soviet Nobel

Prize for Physics, and Andrei

Sakharov, who won

the first Soviet Nobel Prize for Peace.

Those who did recognize Stalin’s sins

saw him as a criminal who had be-

trayed Lenin’s cause; still, Lenin re-

mained a hero. 

So far as I know, there were only two

physicists who expressed their distaste

for working on Stalin’s bomb. One was

Landau, and the other was Mikhail

Leontovich, who in 1951 became the

head of theoretical research in the Sovi-

et fusion program. Landau served on

the bomb project because it shielded

him from the authorities. He tried to

limit his participation and at one time

cursed the physicist Yakov Zeldovich

(as “that bitch”) for attempting to ex-

pand it. After Stalin died, Landau com-

mented to a friend and pupil, Isaac M.

Khalatnikov: “That’s it. He’s gone. I’m

no longer afraid of him, and I won’t

work on [nuclear weapons] anymore.”

And he quit the bomb project.

An obvious question remains. Given

that Landau was reluctant to work on

the bomb, how is it that his contribu-

tions were so substantial? Khalatnikov,

who became the director of the Landau

Institute for Theoretical Physics, creat-

ed in 1965, offered me an answer:

Landau was simply unable to do a

shoddy piece of work. 

Thus, Landau was exceptional in

being able to understand the true

nature of the Soviet system and for

being courageous enough to ex-

press himself. Among the Soviet

bomb physicists, his position

was curiously poignant, be-

cause he realized with full clari-

ty for whose hands he was creating

the mighty weapon.

In 1962 Landau suffered a car acci-

dent. He survived, but with severe brain

injuries that, tragically, changed his per-

sonality and robbed him of his scientific

genius. Landau seemed to be well aware

that he had changed. He died on April

1, 1968; his student Alexander I. Ahkie-

zer recalls that on receiving the news,

he assumed it was just another of Dau’s

April Fools’ jokes.

After just two weeks of studying the

KGB files, I found myself unable to

continue. The multitude of broken lives

recorded in them overwhelmed me

emotionally. After the fall of the Soviet

Union in 1991, the KGB was restruc-

tured, and so far as I know, no historian

has had regular access to the archives

since then. Unquestionably, the files still

conceal many amazing stories

perhaps



even a few more about this extraordi-

nary physicist.



The Top-Secret Life of Lev Landau

Scientific American

August 1997      77

The Author

GENNADY GORELIK is a research

fellow at the Center for Philosophy and

History of Science at Boston University.

He received his Ph.D. in 1979 from the

Institute for the History of Science and

Technology of the Russian Academy of

Sciences. With the aid of a Guggenheim

Fellowship and a grant from the Mac-

Arthur Foundation, he is writing a biog-

raphy of Andrei Sakharov.

Further Reading

Landau, the Physicist and the Man: Recollections of L. D. Landau. 

Edited by I. M.

Khalatnikov. Pergamon Press, 1989.

Kapitza in Cambridge and Moscow: Life and Letters of a Russian Physicist. 

Edited


by J. W. Boag, P. E. Rubinin and D. Shoenberg. North-Holland, 1990.

Matvei Petrovich Bronstein and Soviet Theoretical Physics in the Thirties. 

Gen-

nady E. Gorelik and Viktor Ya. Frenkel. Birkhauser, Basel and Boston, 1994.



Stalin and the Bomb: The Soviet Union and Atomic Energy, 

1939–1956. David Hol-

loway. Yale University Press, 1994.

‘Meine Antisowjetische Taetigkeit...’: Russische Physiker unter Stalin. 

Gennady

Gorelik. Vieweg, Braunschweig, 1995.



TOP-SECRET NOTE by Landau asks

Igor Evgenyevich Tamm to send data on

particle velocities, needed for calculations

on the first Soviet hydrogen bomb.

SA

C



OUR

TESY OF GENNAD

Y GORELIK

Copyright 1997 Scientific American, Inc.





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