Trouble at the Pulkovo Observatory

The following is taken from three sources: A I Eremeeva, Political Repression and Personality: The History of Political Repression Against Soviet Astronomers, Journal for the History of Astronomy (1995), 297-324; R A McCutcheon, The 1936-37 Purge of Soviet Astronomers, Slavic Review 50 (1) (1991), 100-117; and D Lynden-Bell and V Gurzadyan, Victor Amazaspovich Ambartsumian, Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 44 (1998), 23-34:

Alexandr Alexandrovich Ivanov was appointed Director of Pulkovo Observatory in 1919. Two years before that, in 1917, Anton D Drozd had been appointed as an observing assistant. He declared himself a Bolshevik and charged that scientific work at the observatory was not being carried out with sufficient energy. He also pointed to irregularities in the observatory's administration. [The Commissariat of Education] investigated these charges and found them to be groundless. Drozd left the observatory in disgrace at the end of 1920.

In 1930, Ivanov, seeing political interference coming, wisely steps down as Director of Pulkovo. In the following year Drozd, a Party man with no significant astronomical research, is appointed Director in his place. One astronomer later described Drozd as a near-maniac who conducted himself more like Pulkovo's conqueror than like its Director. Indeed, Drozd's main concern at Pulkovo, other than organising seminars on dialectical materialism, seemed to be exacting revenge from senior staff who had humiliated him ten years earlier. In 1932 Drozd invites Boris Petrovich Gerasimovich (1889-1937), a well-known astronomer mentioned in Arthur Eddington's The internal constitution of the stars, to leave Khar'kov to found a new department of 'astrophysics' at Pulkovo. A specialist in stellar evolution and galactic structure, Gerasimovich had spent several years at the Harvard College Observatory during the 1920s and was well-known in Europe and the United States.

Drozd dismisses the 42-year-old Gerasimovich in 1933 and immediately replaces him with the precocious 25-year-old Victor Ambartsumian. Gerasirnovich protests and a commission of the Science Office reinstates him and reprimands Ambartsumian for too readily stepping into his post. Shortly after, Drozd is dismissed as Director of Pulkovo. In the following year, 1934, Gerasimovich is appointed Director of Pulkovo. Gerasimovich had a difficult and explosive personality. Even his close friend Harlow Shapley, director of the Harvard College Observatory, once commented that Gerasimovich's "tendency to non-cooperativeness does not make him an extremely useful administrative help." He appoints an older man, Innokentii Andreevich Balanovskii (1885-), to head astrophysics over Ambartsumian. The very capable young bloods Ambartsumian, Dmitrii Ivanovich Eropkin (1908-1938) and Nikolai Alexandrovich Kozyrev (1908-1983) do not find favour with the new Director.

In 1935 Gerasimovich forces their leader, Ambartsumian, to leave the Observatory on the grounds that he cannot work with a staff member who undermines his authority. Ambartsumian and Eropkin write to the USSR Academy of Sciences objecting to Gerasimovich's running of the Observatory. Eropkin and Kosyrev are dismissed from the Observatory's staff by Gerasimovich.

On the night of 6-7 November 1936, six astronomers from the Pulkovo Observatory are arrested by the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (the NKVD): Innokentii Andreevich Balanovskii, Nikolai Vasil'evich Komendantov, Petr Ivanovich Iashnov, Vera Fedorovna Gaze, Naum Ilyich Idelson and Nikolai Alexandrovich Kozyrev. The arrests of Eropkin and the Deputy Director Nikolai Ivanovich Dneprovskii soon follow. All were sentenced to ten years in prison; two survived - Gaze was freed in 1940, Kozyrev after more than ten years in prison and exile.

On 28 January 1937 N I Favorskii, the Observatory's assistant director for administrative and budget matters, sent a denunciation of Gerasimovich to the vice-president of the USSR Academy of Sciences, G M Krzhizhanovskii (1872-1959). Favorskii accused Gerasimovich of "softness" toward the wives of the arrested astronomers. In addition, Favorskii accused Gerasimovich of insufficient zeal, at a meeting held at the Observatory that day, in supporting the sentence against Georgii L Piatakov (1890-1937) and others found guilty in the recently concluded trial of the Anti-Soviet Trotskyite Centre. Gerasimovich was later arrested on 28 June 1937, as was his wife. Grigory Abramovich Shajn and his wife Pelageya (both astronomers) look after the three year old daughter of the Gerasimovichs. They already had an adopted daughter, Vera, who married Ambartsumian in 1931. Gerasimovich is executed after the Supreme Soviet pronounces the sentence on 30 November 1937.

V E L'vov, a writer of popular science severely criticised Ambartsumian in an article and letters to the ideological-philosophical journal PZM. L'vov called Ambartsumian a "cleverly masked enemy of Marxism-Leninism" for his support of Georges Lemaître's "idealistic theory of the expanding universe." V K Morford, the new "Party" director at the Astronomical Institute criticised Ambartsumian in a similar vein.

Ambartsumian understood the fine line between philosophical and political accusations, and he undertook a fierce rebuttal to L'vov in letters to the editors of PZM and even Pravda. These unpublished letters, written in October and November 1938, are preserved in the Archive of the USSR Academy of Sciences and were uncovered only much later. The letters show that Ambartsumian was more than just indignant over L'vov's tendentious (and in fact illiterate) article - he was in fact in a state of panic. The letters also reveal new data about their author's possible role in the fate of Gerasimovich.

Ambartsumian wrote: "... L'vov asserts that Gerasimovich and I accept the possibility of an act of creation. [This is the manner in which Lemaître's theory was discussed in the Soviet Union at that time.] Is there no politics in this? Science is inseparable from politics."

Ambartsumian vociferously protested against having his name placed side-by-side with the name of "that most evil enemy of the people Gerasimovich by whom", he added, "I was forced out of Pulkovo Observatory after I had unmasked his disorganising role". In another letter Ambartsumian referred to the "sworn enemy of the Soviet people and Soviet science Gerasimovich, the former director of Pulkovo Observatory." Writing in the spirit of those times, not mincing words, he recalled that he had been in a long standing battle with Gerasimovich as a "peudo-scientist" and "disorganiser" of Soviet scientific argument and criticism. Ambartsumian properly criticised L'vov's tendentious philosophical arguments, but he continued to dissociate himself from Gerasimovich. He wrote: "Indeed, L'vov knows quite well that for many years I made numerous declarations to various organisations (e.g., the Leningrad Committee of the Communist Party) in which I asked that the Gerasimovich gang's disorganising role in Soviet science be investigated. ... I unmasked the true face of Gerasimovich. L'vov also knows that Gerasimovich's gang accused me of persecuting Gerasimovich, to which I always answered that mad dogs should be destroyed."

Last Updated November 2018