Political Repression Against Soviet Astronomers in the 1930s

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Session 1 -- Astronomy and the State
Oral presentation, Tuesday, January 11, 9:00-5:00, Salons A & B Room (Crystal City Marriott)

[1.03] Political Repression Against Soviet Astronomers in the 1930s

A. I. Eremmeva (Shternberg State Astronomical Institute, Moscow)

The Soviet government's repression of the Russian intelligentsia in the late 1930s had a devastating effect on astronomy. This period was marked by the strengthening of a rigid ideology in society and a growing atmosphere of suspicion, fear, and spy mania. Under these conditions the international nature of astronomy--in particular the need for foreign contacts--became the excuse for accusations of "wrecking" against astronomers. The fate of individual astronomers and institutions depended greatly, however, on local circumstances.

For example, the general political repression of the 1930s began in Leningrad at a time when Pulkovo Observatory director B. P. Gerasimovich was engaged in a sharp conflict with a small group of junior staff led by V. A. Ambartsumian. In addition, the very first arrest of a Leningrad astronomer--namely the arrest of B. V. Numerov--appears to have initiated a cascading series of arrests that spread like an avalanche through the close-knit com- munity of Leningrad astronomers. These two factors led to the devastating ruin of Pulkovo.

Completely different circumstances saved GAISh. This was a com- paratively young institute whose junior staff had spent its formative years at GAISh rather than joining the staff from out- side (as had been the case at Pulkovo). Thus the GAISh staff had a greater degree of homogeneity and solidarity, and this, in turn, may explain why the ideological department at GAISh (the "partburo") conducted itself in a manner that differed sharply from that of the "partburo" at Pulkovo. Thanks to these circum- stances not even one arrest occurred at GAISh.

The directors of Pulkovo and GAISh came from very similar back- grounds, but the different conditions at Pulkovo and GAISh led to dramatic differences in their fates: execution for B. P. Gerasimovich in 1937 and "only" the persecution of GAISh director V. G. Fesenkov. The persecution of V. G. Fesenkov included his dismissal from the post of chairman of the Astronomical Council in 1937 and his removal as director of GAISh in 1939.

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