Stirrings of Religion in the Soviet H-bomb Lab
The brain-drain of Russian scientists to the West in recent years has had consequences for historians of Russian science too. Occupied with writing a biography of Andrei Sakharov, I discovered that many of his colleagues and friends were to be found in the United States. Most of them arrived as elderly family members following their children, but in any event five university classmates of Sakharov now live in the US. The AIP Center for History of Physics helped me to launch my oral history program in Russia back in 1991, and five years later I was happy to get another grant-in-aid to do Russian history in America.
On a visit to Charleston, South Carolina, I interviewed a particularly interesting colleague of Sakharov, Dr. Matest Agrest. The two physicists met in 1950 at the Installation, a small monastery town in the Volga region, which was expunged from Soviet maps for half a century after 1946. This was where a special laboratory created a hydrogen bomb.
I wanted to corroborate something in Sakharovs memoirs, just a few sentences but intriguing ones: The mathematics group was headed by Matest Agrest, a disabled war veteran and a businesslike, if rather eccentric, person. I was a regular visitor at the cottage his large family occupied. Agrests father, a tall, striking old man, reminded me of the Jews in Rembrandts paintings. They were both deeply religious. Agrest was before long forced to quit the Installation, because he allegedly had relatives living in Israel. At the time, we all, including myself, saw this as a sufficient reason for dismissal. All I could do for him was to let him and his family use my empty Moscow apartment until he found other employment....
Talking with Dr. Agrest in 1996, I discovered that some dramatic tales lurked behind this paragraph. It was a most abrupt turn on his tortuous life path when he was ordered to leave the
Installation in 24 hours. Agrest had no idea of his supposed relatives in Israel, the officials never bothered to explain the reason for the order, and it was a disaster for his family, with elderly parents and four children including a newborn. So Sakharov came as an angel when he offered a shelter for the Agrests. Since then Agrest has cherished a note Sakharov handed him in 1950 with the Moscow address (this note may be seen above, and at the Web exhibit on Sakharov I wrote for the Center).
The most probable reason for the expulsion order was that Agrest had recently had his newborn son circumcised according to Judaic law. Agrest was a religious Jew who had graduated from a Yeshiva in Ukraine before he entered the mathematical department of Leningrad University. Agrest didnt announce the bris, but pediatric care was mandatory in the USSR, and the very first physical exam of the baby revealed the fact, which seemed most curious in the militantly atheistic Soviet society, and all the more so under the special KGB security regime at the Installation. It looked like a revolt against the triumphant ideology of state atheism.
Besides Sakharov, his teacher Igor Tamm and Nikolai Bogolyubov went to speak to the administration on his behalf. They only managed to extend 24 hours to a week. I was especially surprised to hear how warmly Agrest mentioned the name of Bogolyubov. This prominent mathematician had a reputation of excessive loyalty to the Soviet authorities, and the absence of Jews among his disciples was eloquent (by contrast to the norm in Soviet physics and mathematics). Only after the collapse of the Soviet Union did evidence emerged that Bogolyubov was an Orthodox Christian, the son of an Orthodox theologian and priest.
An accident had already helped Agrest uncover the unusual background
of his colleague. One day Agrest went to Bogolyubovs home to discuss
their mathematical affairs. When Agrest came near a partly open door he
heard the sounds of a radio broadcast and was astonished to realize it
was in Hebrew! Bogolyubov had learned some Hebrew as part of his Christian
education at home. The Judaist and the Orthodox Christian had discovered
something in common, so important that they established a kind of secret
seminar at the top-secret nuclear lab to discuss the philosophy of theology.
Neither Sakharov nor Tamm were invited to the seminar, since they both
appeared to be complete atheists.