Vitaly L. Ginzburg


Interview, December 2003

Interview with the 2003 Nobel Laureate in Physics, Vitaly L. Ginzburg, 9 December 2003. The interviewer is Joanna Rose, science writer.

Professor Ginzburg shares some memories from his life during the war, talks about his work with the hydrogen bomb project (4:43), and the conditions for scientists in Russia (6:18).

Interview transcript

Professor Ginzburg, welcome to the Nobel e-Museum. We are very happy to have you here. You have a very long career in science behind you, I would say, so my first question would be what is your most exciting memory of life in science?

Vitaly Ginzburg: It is difficult to answer because it is many exciting stories. A lot of things, especially I would like to stress how the life of anybody – I’m no exception – is something like a very small boat on the sea. I give here a lot of examples of how my boat can turn around. For instance, one example. During the war we … I am from 1940 working in the Lebedev Physical Institute of Science of USSR, it was Soviet Union and now Russia, so forty-three years I worked in the same institute. During the war we were in evacuation in Kazan. Kazan at that time was not on the river Volga but five or six kilometres from Volga, afterwards they made a dam and now Kazan … It is not important.

The water came.

In any case of course during the war the conditions were extremely bad. All our institute had gone to the river. We had to take food from the cargo ship so I worked quite effectively. But next day blood came from my mouth. I was sent to a special hospital and they found it is some vessel was possibly [makes bursting action with hand]. I was sent to a hospital, and they made an examination. They came to the conclusion that something, some vessel broke, but they also came to the conclusion that I had in younger days tuberculosis, or something like this. I was put on their account. It is the first part of the story.

The second part of the story is at this time it was assumed to voluntarily put you on the list of air descent troops. It is death 100%. I of course signed also. I never tried not to go to the army, simply I wasn’t taken. I haven’t done anything but because I was on their list in this hospital I wasn’t taken. Everybody was killed. During the same thing, not connected with war, but connected with Stalinist regime, was during the 1940s, I was discriminated, and I was accused that I had leaked something of bourgeois nature. I was not assumed as a professor. My wife was at the same time in exile etc, so I had to be destroyed. I’m Jew, also, it was very hard anti Semitism in Russia at this moment. At this moment the authorities asked our group to work on hydrogen bomb. I was put in this group and I proposed something important. We both, Sakharov and myself, and this saved me in this case.

Do you regret this, that you worked with the hydrogen bomb?

Vitaly Ginzburg: I do not regret because it is very amusing because … First, we understood nothing. We suppose, we don’t understand the Stalinist bandit and suppose that all the harsh thing is connected, not closely connected with the regime, even I. My wife was in exile at this moment, in prison before. And nevertheless I suppose that this bandit is not so bad that somebody else make his atrocities. The other question … and we don’t understood … [Only] now I understand that Stalin, if he have a bomb first he can destroy all mankind. I was admitted to work in this project in the beginning when it was an open problem. Possible to do. Then Sakharov and I proposed how to do. In 1950 Sakharov was sent to the so called Sarov, Arzamas-16, the place where the bomb was built. But I was, because I was not good enough, have not sent there. In fact after this I have absolutely no connection with this military. I never seen the bomb, never seen the explosion, never seen anything.

There is one sentence in your memories which is very interesting. You wrote, “We were prisoners of the system.”

Vitaly Ginzburg: Sorry?

You wrote, “We were prisoners of the system, but we were happy.” What did you mean?

Vitaly Ginzburg: Happy? This is strange. I wouldn’t say we were happy. The fact is that … Where you read this? The prisoner of system and happy. I don’t remember this. Of course, you see every person somehow adapt to the situation. We were happy. Many people were starving. Many people were wounded. Many people were killed. We were happy in the sense that we can do work which we like with the exception of this military work as I mentioned to you. Also, for my part I have absolutely nothing to do with armament etc, because I was not allowed to go to the real military centre. I also work at physics. Without this I have something to eat, I have very bad flat and not starving. It was possibly enough to be happy.

And very exciting work.

Vitaly Ginzburg: In some sense yes. And of course science. You have no time – I have a good story about why Soviet scientists were so active. Do you know this story?


Vitaly Ginzburg: You see, in 1956 after the end of the Cold War, the first time a large group of very good scientists came to Russia. One of them was a well-known physicist but I dislike him so I wouldn’t tell his name, but in this case he was partly correct. He wrote in one journal abroad that why they are so active? They live in poor conditions, they have very poor conditions. Why are they so active? And what is his diagnosis? They have nothing else. He was correct in the sense that the work was for us everything, even narcotic, even everything. But for a long time I saw that he is correct, but now I see that he is not quite correct. Because now the conditions in Russia in any case for scientists is much better, in the sense that the condition materially is better and also you can leave the country, you can go – there are many shortcomings, I wouldn’t defend the present-day situation in Russia, but in any case it is incomparable. And there are no such enthusiasms. What is the answer? The answer is that it was very prestigious to be a physicist and to work actively. Poor biologists was in very bad conditions due to this Lysenko. But physicists were so to say soil of the earth. I wouldn’t say that it has really influenced me. I don’t think about this and I cannot say that it was important for me personally. But to the whole people and now – what is now the situation? Good physicists in Russia – if you do not live abroad – receive a salary which is lower than the maid in a restaurant. It is not prestigious. I wouldn’t say that it is so important, but it is the fact that we now see no such enthusiasm from your generation than in our time. We have no other way to go, no other, you understand possibly?

Yes, I understand.

Vitaly Ginzburg: Now it is much better. But if he is good he can go abroad. For instance my granddaughter also lives in Princeton and have a PhD in Princeton and it is not the case that she is against Russia but simply she wouldn’t have, if she would come back to Russia in spite of her PhD, her husband’s PhD, they cannot live in separate house with two cars etc.

Thank you very much Dr Ginzburg. The time is over.

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