Soviet Union -- Politics and government

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Video conference

Interview with Roald Sagdeev, professor of physics emeritus at the University of Maryland. He recounts his family’s ethnic Tatar heritage, his childhood in Kazan, and his family’s experience during World War II. Sagdeev describes his physics education at Moscow State University, and how he felt regarding the larger issues of physics and Soviet national security – especially during his time in Sarov, which was the equivalent of Los Alamos National Lab for nuclear weapons research. He discusses his work on radiation transport in stellar atmospheres, his subsequent research at the Kurchatov Institute, and his graduate research in controlled nucleosynthesis under the direction of Lev Landau. Sagdeev describes this time as the origins of his expertise in plasma physics and he explains the work he was doing at a classified site in Siberia. He explains how major Cold War events including the Cuban Missile Crisis and nuclear diplomacy affected his career and his moral satisfaction in not contributing to weapons science. Sagdeev discusses his work at the Institute of Physics of High Temperatures, and his developing interests in astrophysics, and he explains his subsequent tenure at the Space Research Institute of the Academy of Sciences, and why the American moon landing demonstrated that Russia had ceded its dominance in the Space Race. He explains why manned space missions were always more politicized than unmanned missions and describes the political value of the Soviet-US Soyuz-Apollo test project as an opportunity for “hand shaking in space.” Sagdeev discusses his experiences advising Gorbachev on disarmament negotiations, and he shares his perspective on SDI and why it was actually the Pershing missile system that contributed more to the Soviet collapse than U.S. defense spending under Reagan. He describes witnessing the end of the Cold War as watching a movie in slow motion, and he explains how he met Susan Eisenhower and the circumstances leading to his move to the United States, where he joined the faculty at the University of Maryland and served as an adviser to NASA. Sagdeev explains his current interests in intergalactic shock waves and he shares his ideas on the newly formed U.S. Space Force and the weaponizing of space. At the end of the interview, Sagdeev shares that if he could start his career all over again, he would focus on neuroscience.