Commentary Magazine


The Medvedev Papers, by Zhores A. Medvedev; A Question of Madness, by Zhores A. Medvedev and Roy A. Medvedev

Dissent in the USSR

The Medvedev Papers.
by Zhores A. Medvedev.
Translated by Vera Rich. St. Martins. 470 pp. $11.95.

A Question of Madness.
by Zhores A. Medvedev and Roy A. Medvedev.
Translated by Ellen de Kadt. Knopf. 224 pp. $5.95.

The Medvedev brothers were born in 1925, the twin sons of a philosophy professor, a Communist party member who died in one of Stalin’s prison camps. Zhores is a biologist, a specialist in the genetics of aging. Roy is a historian. Marxists both, they are a long way from the radical critics of the Soviet regime described most often in articles in the Western press about Moscow dissidents. But they are unusual among Soviet Marxists in that they believe in the right of dissent.

Zhores first exercised that right by attacking Trofim Lysenko’s domination of Soviet biology—a domination that had succeeded in bringing Soviet agricultural progress to a halt for almost thirty years, and whose crippling effects on Soviet science are still felt, particularly in the field of molecular biology. Zhores’s book about the struggle against Lysenko was approved for publication by a special committee of Soviet scientists, but the project was dropped after the book was published in this country by Columbia University Press in 1969. In fact, none of the Medvedev books has ever been published in the Soviet Union; they circulate only in samizdat—“self-published,” typewritten copies.

For Zhores, the general case was that Lysenko’s homemade genetics and political rule of science would not have been possible if the Soviet Union had allowed free scientific contacts with the outside world. The particular case was that his own role in the struggle against Lysenko and the book he wrote about it became factors in his being repeatedly denied trips abroad that would, as he argues, have made him a better biologist, with consequent benefits to Soviet science. The combination of the general and the particular led him to study the whole problem of international scientific cooperation. The result was the ironically titled essay, “Fruitful Meetings Between Scientists of the World,” which makes up more than half of The Medvedev Papers.

In “Fruitful Meetings,” Medvedev tells how in the early 60’s he was prevented from accepting invitations to the fifth, sixth, and seventh international gerontological conferences. Then he was invited to spend a year in a gerontological laboratory at the National Institutes of Health near Washington, D.C. The Soviet authorities indicated that they might let him go if he agreed to serve as a KGB spy. Zhores was willing to report on any American attempts to seduce Soviet scientists, but he dropped his request for a passport when he discovered that the KGB was really interested in his friends at home—particularly Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s wife, a scientist whom Medvedev had backed for a post at his research institute. Zhores was later invited to deliver the annual Ciba Foundation lecture on aging in England in 1966. Once more he was denied permission to go abroad, and on the day he was to have given the lecture, he was digging potatoes as part of his laboratory’s annual harvest task.

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From these particulars, Medvedev goes on to discuss what international cooperation can do for science and what Soviet noncooperation does to damage Soviet science. On the first count, his belief that international contacts are not luxuries or rewards for deserving public servants, but essentials of true scientific progress, is apparent on every page. Unfortunately, he does not make a truly eloquent or persuasive argument for this view, which scientists from many countries share. On the second count, Medvedev draws a devastating sketch of needless backwardness and inept management in Soviet science. Among the data he cites is the estimate that 85 per cent of Soviet inventions in 1961 duplicated work already done in the Soviet Union or abroad, because the inventors were ignorant of their colleagues’ work. Similarly, untold funds were wasted when the Soviets insisted on building a more elaborate version of an American laboratory that was “obsolescent even before it [was] completed,” instead of sending a dozen scientists to work in the original lab while building something really new themselves. On the failure to close the gap between Soviet and Western biochemistry despite advances after the fall of Lysenko, Medvedev remarks: “In the principal direction of advance of these years, the deciphering of the genetic code, the determination of the quaternary and tertiary structure of proteins, and in the study of the sequence of amino acids in proteins and nucleotides in nucleic acids, that is, in work requiring first-class equipment, we were even further behind our American colleagues. Not one of the 64 codons of the genetic code was experimentally deciphered in the USSR.”

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In the second part of The Medvedev Papers, also ironically titled—“Secrecy of Correspondence Is Guaranteed by Law”—Zhores sketches the Kafkaesque world of Soviet postal censorship. The spirit of scientific inquiry forced him to note that strange things were happening to his personal correspondence with foreign scientists and to some of the scientific journals he was supposed to receive from abroad. He observed first of all that postal censors are classified by languages they can read, not by subject matter; that each has a number; and that this number is stamped on mail with one sign for “this is permitted” (a double angle) and another for “this is prohibited” (a hexagon). Zhores discovered that while some mail may have the “prohibited” sign and still reach secret files or privileged individuals, much mail never reaches its addressee and is presumably destroyed.

Medvedev’s description of his struggle to make the censors and the postal authorities live up to Soviet law would be humorous—some of the authorities seemed not to know of the censors’ function—if it were not so macabre. He succeeded in finding the telephone number of the censor who read most of his mail and called him to complain of items being “lost.” “With a faint note of respect,” Zhores writes, “he categorically denied any possibility of anything being lost in my mail. ‘Your name, Comrade Medvedev, is on our checklist.’ (He gave this word a special emphasis.) ‘Everything which comes for you is sorted at once and sent on to its destination. No losses are possible, we can answer for that.’” Zhores adds, “To what destination it is sent, he did not say.”

The humor and modesty of such recountings, and the testimony of those who know him, suggest that. Zhores Medvedev is an urbane spirit as well as a patient and persistent scientist. Unfortunately, The Medvedev Papers is written in a stuffy style, like an oil slick through which the dolphins of anecdote must continually break. This is partly the fault of an unnecessarily turgid translation by Vera Rich, but Medvedev is probably to blame, too. Serious discussion of matters of state and science can make the most urbane citizen sound stuffy in the Soviet Union.

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A Question of Madness is both easier to read and more compelling. It is the story of Zhores’s forcible confinement in a psychiatric hospital because of the authorities’ interest in his books on Lysenko and scientific cooperation and in his friendship with Solzhenitsyn. It was written as a journal hurrying to keep pace with events, so it has the force of a documentary novel, and it is well-translated by Ellen de Kadt. In alternate, chronological chapters, Zhores tells what happened to him in the hospital and Roy tells the story of efforts to get him out, which succeeded when some of the biggest names in Soviet science testified to his sanity.

Local party and secret-police officials apparently moved against Zhores as part of a campaign against ideologically “unreliable” scientists in Obninsk, a city of many scientific establishments. Some of the higher authorities in Moscow backed the Obninsk authorities, but others—perhaps including the headquarters of the KGB—did not. This may explain Medvedev’s ultimate release, for when the central authorities are of a single mind and are determined to put political offenders into psychiatric facilities, they do so. Testimony from such dissident-inmates as Pyotr Grigorenko and Vladimir Bukovsky has shown the perversions of science that are enacted in order to accomplish this aim, and A Question of Madness deals with these aspects too in a relatively cool final analysis.

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Soviet psychiatric incompetence was demonstrated in the first place when a local doctor claimed he was justified in trying to hospitalize Zhores after a twenty-minute conversation, ostensibly about his son, in the office of the mayor of Obninsk. Incompetence was demonstrated continuously, right up to the point when G. Morozov, a Moscow expert, told some of the best-known Soviet scientists that Zhores was a schizophrenic because he wrote books about political subjects although he was a biologist by profession. The book mentions this incident but omits the reply of academicians Pyotr Kapitsa and Vladimir Engelgardt, who suggested that Morozov be awarded a Lenin prize for discovering something new in psycho-pathology—the “Leonardo da Vinci” syndrome. Zhores notes later that two famous individuals “suffered” much more than he did from this syndrome. It would take a Soviet reader three seconds to realize he is describing Stalin and Khrushchev.

A. V. Snezhnevsky, chief psychiatrist of the USSR Ministry of Health, and secretary of the Academy of Medical Sciences, was very upset by the public protests of Medvedev’s friends, which were reported by Western correspondents in Moscow and broadcast back to millions of Soviet listeners by the BBC, the Voice of America, and Radio Liberty. He thought the protests might persuade thousands of mentally-ill citizens not to go to Soviet psychiatrists. He also warned Andrei Sakharov, the nuclear physicist and human-rights champion, about “obsessive reformist delusions.” “I found it comic,” Roy Medvedev quotes Sakharov as saying, “but of course I know it’s not very funny for people who land up in a mental hospital after being diagnosed like that.”

The book reports that Snezhnevsky feared the Medvedev case would become the occasion for recriminations against Soviet psychiatry at the world psychiatric congress in Mexico City in December 1971. In the event, he need have had no worries; the Congress did nothing. But A Question of Madness apparently reinforced those fears: in October, Izvestia published a long article asserting that Soviet psychiatry was esteemed everywhere and denying that mentally healthy people were detained in psychiatric hospitals because of their dissident activities. Such denials are very rare, since the accusations they deny have never been made in official media.

The most magnificent words in the book come from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who broke his usual silence on individual cases to write an open letter. He describes Zhores as “a man with a brilliant, subtle and precise mind and a warm heart. . . . Because of the very diversity of his talents, he is charged with being abnormal, a ‘split personality.’ His very sensitivity to injustice, to stupidity, is presented as a ‘morbid deviation,’ ‘poor adaptation to the social environment.’ Apparently, to harbor thoughts other than those which are prescribed means that you are abnormal. . . .” In his letter Solzhenitsyn sums up everything that has to be said, finally, about the Soviet manner of dealing with dissidence:

It has become fashionable, this way of settling accounts, with no pretense at seeking out guilt, when it is too shameful to state the real reason. . . . It is time to understand that the imprisonment of sane persons in madhouses because they have minds of their own is spiritual murder, a variation on the gas chambers and even more cruel. . . . Like the gas chambers, these crimes will never be forgotten, and those involved will be condemned for all time, during their life and after their death, without benefit of moratorium.

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