MOSCOW (Reuters) - Vitaly Ginzburg, a Russian physicist who survived Stalin’s purges by working on the Soviet atomic bomb project and later won the Nobel Prize for physics, died in Moscow late on Sunday after a long illness. He was 93.
Ginzburg won the 2003 Nobel physics prize for developing the theory behind superconductors, materials which allow electricity to pass without resistance at very low temperatures. He shared the prize with British-American Anthony Leggett and Russian-born U.S. scientist Alexei Abrikosov.
But Ginzburg’s career as a Soviet scientist almost ended when he took as his second wife a woman arrested in 1944 and sentenced to three years in labor camps for supposedly plotting against Stalin’s life. State anti-Semitism was flourishing and an attack on Ginzburg was published in a journal.
“I can only guess what fate awaited me in this situation at this time,” Ginzburg wrote in an autobiographical article written for the Nobel prize committee. “I think that it would have cost me dear but I was saved by the hydrogen bomb.”
Ginzburg wrote that he worked together with fellow Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov — later a famous dissident — on the Soviet H-bomb project and said they developed the two key ideas which made it possible to create the device.
But in 1951, Ginzburg was dismissed from the atom bomb project as Stalin led a fresh campaign of anti-Semitism which aimed to blame Jews for the Soviet Union’s problems and exile them into labor camps.
“It was a tremendous luck that the Great Leader did not have enough time to carry out what he had planned to do and died, or was killed, on 5th March 1953,” Ginzburg wrote in the article.
He said he and his second wife Nina Yermakova had celebrated the day of Stalin’s death ever since as a “great festival.”
Ginzburg was active in public life after the demise of the Soviet Union, signing letters and giving interviews hitting out at official indifference to fundamental science in modern Russia. He attacked the Kremlin’s growing links with the Orthodox church and urged Western Europe to stop then-President Vladimir Putin returning to “a totalitarian past.”
“We hope that the governments of democratic countries will do all they can to prevent Russia sliding into the totalitarian past and the establishment of a dictatorial regime dangerous for Russia and for all international society,” said the appeal he signed in November 2005.
In May 2007 Ginzburg said in an interview that the pursuit of science in Putin’s Russia was driven by profit alone and that government interference today was in some ways worse than under Stalin.
“Of course, in Stalin’s times the Academy was under the control of the central committee of the Communist Party,” Ginzburg told Britain’s Sunday Telegraph newspaper.
“But in those days you could come up with an idea and create — that’s how we put the first Sputnik satellite into space. Now the government thinks science must bring only income and profit, which is absurd.”
A convinced atheist and secular Jew, Ginzburg was among Russian scientists who signed an open letter to Putin in July 2007 warning that the Orthodox church’s growing influence in Russia threatened to erode the separation of church and state and upset other officially recognized religions.
Ginzburg was born in Moscow on October 4, 1916 to a doctor mother who died of typhoid in 1920 and an engineer father. Ginzburg’s first marriage was to a fellow student, Olga Zamsha, in 1937. The couple divorced nine years later after having a daughter, who also became a physicist.
Briefly summing up his long and eventful life in a television interview, Ginzburg said with a smile: “If I believed in God, I would start every morning by saying, ‘Thank you, My Lord, for making me a theoretical physicist.’
Reporting by Dmitry Solovyov and Michael Stott; Editing by Jon Boyle