Matvei Petrovich Bronstein
and Soviet Theoretical Physics in the Thirties

By Gennady Gorelik and Victor Frenkel

Birkhaeuser, Basel-Boston, 1994.

Afterword to the English edition. HALF A CENTURY LATER

New facts about Bronstein's posthumous life came to light after the Russian edition had appeared.

1. From the KGB-NKVD Archives

In summer 1990 Lydia Chukovskaya was allowed to look into her husband's inquisition file. Obviously she was aware that it was no more than a pile of paper sheets sticked together by NKVD/KGB officers--they had nothing to do with the true story of her husband's last months. Yet there was no other evidence. Not even a grave...

The file opens with an arrest warrant issued on 1 August, 1937 and an order by the Kiev State Security department of 5 August that said:
"M.P. Bronstein who is trying to escape arrest should be detained for an active involvement in Leningrad counterrevolutionary organization."

He was arrested at night in Kiev in his parents' flat. In prison they took from him a voucher to a Kislovodsk sanatorium, a soap dish, a toothbrush, shoelaces...

The people's Commissar of Ukraine for Internal Affairs ordered:
"Bronstein Matvei Petrovich arrested as a dangerous criminal should be despatched to Leningrad to the NKVD Leningrad Regional Department in an individual compartment of a prison van."

Out of the documents in the file only one was indubitably done in Bronstein's own hand--it was a questionnaire of 15 August. There is one genuine signature of his that confirmed the minutes of the interrogation of 2 October when he rejected all accusations heaped on him. Other signatures cannot be recognized as done in his own hand.

At that time the interrogators relied more on their imagination than on what they could extract from the people they had to deal with. Their zeal and ambitions rather than reality fed their imagination. This can be clearly seen from another inquisition file - Lev Landau's file. (He was arrested in April 1938.) The minutes of interrogation that Landau signed is a careless mixture of facts and stupid inventions. Here is one of the examples of the official's zeal: he asked Landau whether he had informed Bronstein about a leaflet they planned to distribute in April 1938. According to the document Landau answered that he had failed to tell Bronstein about it. [1] In actual fact Landau was only too well aware that his colleague had been arrested long before April 1938.

The minutes of Bronstein's interrogations are nothing more than his interrogator's flights of fantasy. According to one of them dated 9 October Bronstein was a member of a
"counterrevolutionary organization of intelligentsia who wanted to topple down Soviet power and set up a new political order that would allow intelligentsia to take part in state administration together with the other social groups according to the Western pattern" and was working "to create a basically fascist state that would be able to resist communism". Besides, according to the same author, Bronstein "was resolutely opposing materialist dialectics being applied to natural science".

On 2 December, at the next interrogation session, he was confronted with supporting
"individual terror against the leaders of the CPSU(B) and the government as the only efficient form of struggle."

On 16 December inquisition was completed.

According to the indictment signed on 24 January 1938 the NKVD
"exposed and liquidated a fascist terrorist organization that had been set up in 1930-32 by the German intelligence... In 1933 it contacted the Trotsky-Zinoviev organization in Leningrad". Bronstein's "practical anti-Soviet activity" consisted in "preparing terrorist acts against the CPSU(B) leadership and the Soviet Government", he also "did a lot of harm to geological prospecting and melioration"; he was a "foreign spy" and supplied "theoretical substantiation of terror as the only correct form of anti-Soviet struggle."

On 18 February 1938 the Military Judicial Board of the Supreme Court of the USSR sat from 8:40 till 9:00 a.m. The verdict was: "Death by a firing squad and confiscation of all personal property". It should have been immediately executed. There is a note in the file stating that the verdict was carried out.

The same file contains pleads of his colleagues physicists and writers who tried to help him never suspecting that he was dead. Earlier like letters seemed to go into other files or into garbage-can.

There are also documents of the period of Bronstein's rehabilitation including those about the investigators Georgi Karpov, Nikolai Lupandin and their chief Yakov Shapiro.

Shapiro met his death from a firing squad in 1939 during the "anti-Ezhov purge". In August 1938, Lupandin, a sadistic torturer, was exiled to the NKVD department of economic management that was believed to suit more his lack of schooling. Poet Nikolai Zabolotsky who had a misfortune to meet him in his office shortly after Bronstein's execution described him at great length [2]. In 1977 this worthy man was allowed to retire on a privileged pension [3]. Karpov made even a more spectacular career--he climbed up to the post of the Chairman of the Council of the Russian Orthodox Church Affairs at the USSR Council of Ministers. His "feats" of 1937 were punished with a reprimand twenty years later [4].

The last page in the 90-page file was dated 1958:
"L.K. Chukovskaya should be rewarded for the binocular taken away from her flat during the search on 1 August 1937."

2. The Last Days in the Cell

Late in 1990, after her Notes about Anna Akhmatova appeared Lydia Chukovskaya got a call from Boris Velikin, her contemporary. He had just read Chukovskaya's diary in which she described how she had first met the great Russian poet. Their roads crossed at the Leningrad prison where Akhmatova regularly came to enquire about her son and Chukovskaya about her husband.

"... It was in February 1938. I leaned over to look into the wooden embrasure in the Shpalernaya Street and said: `Bronstein. Matvei Petrovich'. A deep bass answered from somewhere above: `Taken away'. The man whose face I could not see pushed back with his elbow and fat stomach my hand clutching the money." [5]

At that point Velikin realized who was the man he had met in a prison cell in December 1937 that remained engraved in his memory for the rest of his life.

Velikin himself was arrested on 4 December and brought to the prison in Shpalernaya. A workaholic from the Kirov Plant and a man dedicated heart and soul to Soviet power he was shocked to find himself in a cell designed for 16 and packed with more than a hundred. Few lucky ones slept in canvass beds suspended from the ceiling; the rest slept on the floor, the newcomers had to be satisfied with a place near the lavatory pan.

Out of hundred with whom he shared the cell Velikin remembered only three or four: an actor of the Moscow Art Theatre who was to play Stalin ten years later; director of the Scientists' Club who could talk about cinema for hours; a railwayman who remained alive thanks to a misprint. Matvei Petrovich stood aside in his memory.

After the prison in Shpalernaya Velikin was sent to a concentration camp on the Kolyma where he worked in a mine. He had to pull mine carts underground. All the time he was aware of life draining out of him. Several times he thought he was dying--he survived by a sheer miracle. He worked on a construction site in Magadan and spent years in Norilsk where he stayed until 1956.[6]

I met him when he was 85, unbent by age and misfortunes: he had two books on metallurgy to his name and was still active as the Chief Expert of a ministry: he had just returned from a inspection trip to the Urals.

Why did he cherish the memory of a man who had shared a cell with him and a hundred of others for two months? Why did it never fade away after many years of terrible experience? He was struck by a remarkable concentration of intellect, ramified culture and high morality.

Few of them felt like talking about crazy accusations, they tried to escape into the human world of work, poetry and cinema through lectures and quizzes. Matvei Bronstein earned applause with his lecture on the relativity theory-- yet a mysterious subject at that time. It was to be expected: after all he was a physicist. Besides, he proved able to answer any question in any field well beyond the scope of theoretical physics and knew more poetry by heart than anybody else in the cell. What struck Boris Velikin more was Bronstein's ability to penetrate deep into the essence of phenomena. This ability allowed Bronstein to explain to him, who was a professional metallurgist, the subtleties of the special steel technology. There was another man who shared Velikin's admiration--before the revolution he had improved the gun design but it was Bronstein who explained to him the genuine nature of his invention.

This was Bronstein's calling and profession--to explain the essence of things.

Was he able to look deep into the social nightmare he was caught in? He never discussed his case; it seemed that he had no premonition of what was in store for him.

Was his the heaviest burden? Alexander Witt from Moscow and Semen Shubin from Sverdlovsk, two talented young physicists, were arrested at the same time [7]. They were sentenced to five and eight years of forced labor respectively--both died in the winter of 1938 on the Kolyma. As if this fate was not cruel enough they had to live through being transported there together with criminals and through many other hair-raising experience described by those who were lucky to survive.

3. Subnuclear Physics, Matvei Bronstein and Ettore Majorana

This happened in July 1991 in the ancient Sicilian city of Erice during the 29th International School of Subnuclear Physics conducted by the Ettore Majorana Center for Scientific Culture. It discussed "Physics at the Highest Energy and Luminosity: to Understand the Origin of Mass".

Even before it was opened the spirit of history permeating the proceedings. The school was sponsored by the World Federation of Scientists and the World Laboratory jointly with the Galileo Galilei Foundation and was dedicated to the 400th anniversary of the first great discovery of modern science: 1591-1991. Author: Galileo Galilei. Its formula was quoted on the school's poster mi = mg. Translated into the language of contemporary physics it means the principle of equivalence.

The school's program suggested that the history of physics was nothing more than a mere decoration designed to amuse the subnuclear physicists.

Indeed, what's quantum chromodynamics, 200 TeV and the string vacua, the puzzling abbreviations LEP and FNAL to Galilei or what's he to them?

In fact, only the titles of the first and the last lecture sounded understandable for Galilei's contemporaries: "The Problem of the Mass: from Galilei to Higgs" read by Lev Okun from Russia and "The Origins of the Mass" read by Higgs himself.

It was Okun who stirred an interest in Bronstein.

The very title of his lecture suggested that he should employ a strong optical device to see the subject, that is, the cGh-object-lens described in detail in the book above. This means to investigate the structure of theoretical physics with the help of three fundamental constants: c, the velocity of light, G, the gravitational constant and h, the Planck constant. This allows to introduce the three-dimensional cGh-system of coordinates into the "physical theories space" and to contemplate its past, present and even future.

In May 1991 in Moscow at the first Sakharov Conference Lev Okun spoke about the results of such contemplation and mentioned Matvei Bronstein as the man who had introduced this idea back in the thirties [8]. Few of the participants knew the name of this theoretician and children's writer--his life proved to be too short.

Bronstein was also the first to probe into quantizing gravity and to combine the elementary particles physics with cosmology. In fact, these were the steps towards the so far unconquered cGh summit and subnuclear physics of the future.

Lev Okun had no intention to mention Bronstein's name (little known in the West) in Erice yet the audience fascinated with the simple and profound cGh approach wanted to know more about its author. They heard a sad story about his life, work and tragic death and about his widow Lydia Chukovskaya who exhibited a lot of civic courage and staunchness, about her books and articles first published in the West and her attempts to preserve the memory her husband.

The impression was enormous--the school command decided to set up the Matvei Bronstein scholarship. He was the second Russian physicist to give his name to the Ettore Majorana center scholarship. The first was Andrei Sakharov.

It is impossible to pass over that Ettore Majorana and Matvei Bronstein both were born in 1906 and died in 1938, both had no graves. This parallel is rather superficial: being enigmatically indifferent to life and steeped in pessimism gifted Italian choose to take his own life. In March 1938 he boarded a ship and no one saw him again. In what abyss did he disappear? It is unknown.

Matvei Bronstein brimming with life and creative plans perished in a different abyss.

Majorana's mysterious disappearance dealt a heavy blow to his colleagues and friends who did their best to heal the gaping wound with developing his ideas and writing about him [9]. They gave his name to the Center of Theoretical Physics.

In our country Bronstein's name remained a taboo for many decades. It cost Lydia Chukovskaya a lot of efforts to reissue in 1959 his Solar Matter, the masterpiece of literature about science for teenagers, -- fear was still deeply rooted in people's minds. In 1965 his second book for children The X Rays was published again; in 1990 his last book, The Inventors of Radiotelegraph, appeared--back in 1937 its first edition was destroyed.

Lydia Chukovskaya got the first scholarship named after her husband--the colorful document adorns a wall in her flat side by side with a portrait of her husband and photographs of other people who have become part of her life: Andrei Sakharov, Boris Pasternak, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Anna Akhmatova...

Let us hope that in Bronstein's homeland they will also establish a prize named after him that can mark achievements in two widely removed fields: in the theory of quantum gravity and popular science for children.

Additional Bibliography for the English Edition

1. Gorelik G.E., "My Anti-Soviet Activity..." (A Year in Landau's Life), Priroda, 1991, No. 11, pp. 93-104.

2. Zabolotsky N., A Story of My Imprisonment, Daugava, 1988, No. 3, pp. 107-115.

3. Lunin E., The Great Soul, The Leningrad Panorama, 1988, No. 5, pp. 24-38.

4. Rehabilitation. Political Processes of the 30s-50s, Moscow, Politizdat, 1991, p. 80.

5. Chukovskaya L., Notes about Anna Akhmatova, Book 1, 1938-1941, Moscow, 1989.

6. Velikin B.A., Interviews of January 29, 1991 and March 7, 1991.

7. Gorelik G.E., They Had No Time to Become Academicians, Priroda, 1990, No. 1, 123-128; Repressed Science, Leningrad, Nauka Publishers, 1990, pp. 333-349.

8. Okun L.B., The Fundamental Physical Constants, Uspekhi fizicheskikh nauk, 1991, Vol. 161, No. 9, pp. 177-194.

9. Amaldi E., La vita e l'opera di Ettore Majorana, Rome. 1966.

10. Bronstein M.P., The Solar Matter. The X Rays. Inventors of Radiotelegraph, Moscow, Nauka, 1990 (The Kvant Library series, Issue 80.)

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