Lev Shubnikov

Book review: ‘The Life, Science and Times of Lev Vasilevich Shubnikov’

Image credit: Springer

The story of a pioneering Soviet scientist who fell victim to a Stalinist purge.

‘The Life, Science and Times of Lev Vasilevich Shubnikov: Pioneer of Soviet Cryogenics’  (paperback edition published by Springer in March, £88, ISBN 9783319720982) is a hugely impressive book that has a strong personal connotation for me. The best part of it is devoted to the Kharkov Physico-Technical Institute - also known as the the Ukrainian Physico-Technical Institute or UFTI - of which Lev Shubnikov was one of the founders and where my father, Vladimir Alexandrovich, worked as a senior research fellow from the early 1950s up to his untimely death in 1982.

The Institute, where the nucleus was split for the first time in 1932 and type-II superconductivity was experimentally discovered, is still located in the suburban village of Piatykhatky where it was founded in October 1928. As a child, I was a frequent visitor there: for New Year dos organised annually for the scientists’ kids, or simply to visit my Dad of an evening. It was there that I remember seeing a giant first-generation computer, proudly demonstrated to me by my father in 1961 or 1962.

Among the world-famous scientists who worked at the Institute was Lev Davidovich Landau (1908-1968), ‘Dau’ to his colleagues, and winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics – a legendary figure who recently found himself in the centre of the monumental DAU Project that will see 700 hours of movies and TV serials by Russian director Ylya Khrzhanovsky released in the near future. The bulk of the filming took place at a specially constructed life-size model of the original UFTI campus.

Author LJ Reinders calls Shubnikov the ‘pioneer of Soviet cryogenics’. Having returned to the USSR from Leiden in the Netherlands, where he had worked in Wander Johannes de Haas’s cryogenic laboratory between 1926 and 1930 and co-discovered the Shubnikov-de Haas effect – a macroscopic manifestation of the quantum-mechanical nature of matter - he established in Kharkov, then the capital of Ukraine, the Soviet Union’s first ever low-temperature laboratory. With time, this laboratory evolved into a separate Institute of Low Temperature Physics that still functions in Kharkov, or Kharkiv as the city has been called since Ukraine gained its independence.

Shubnikov’s extraordinarily full and creative life was tragically cut short in 1937. For those even distantly familiar with the Soviet Union’s blood-soaked history that could mean only one thing: like many other prominent Soviet scientists, writers, artists, military commanders and other intellectuals, he fell victim to Stalinist purges. In Shubnikov’s case, it meant that, alongside several other colleagues (including Lev Landau) he was arrested on trumped-up charges of belonging to a non-existent Trotskyite organisation, proved guilty by a hastily arranged and thoroughly falsified troika trial and executed. The acclaimed scientist had only just turned 37.

Reinders’ thoroughly researched and richly documented book includes numerous ‘protocols of interrogation’ in which the accused, including Shubnikov, tormented by the NKVD blackmail and torture, resort to desperate self-vilification and absurd ‘confessions’ – a heartbreaking read.

Today, Shubnikov’s good scientific name has been restored and there is even a Shubnikov Prize awarded by the Russian Academy of Sciences. Yet the book ends on a cautionary and troubling note: “The story is not fully over yet. The documents and other material seized in the search of Shubnikov’s apartment at the time of his arrest have still not been returned.”

It turns out that the FSB, the successor of the NKVD and the KGB, is still keeping the documents under lock and key in its archives. Until all of them are made public, Shubnikov and his purged colleagues cannot be regarded as fully rehabilitated and the sheer tragedy of their crudely interrupted lives will go on.

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