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Originally published in “Tuttoscienze” of “La Stampa”, 16 April 2003

From 1945 to 1991, the world had fought a war which never broke out: the Cold War. In those years, a significant proportion of scientific and technological production was absorbed by military and secret research, to the extent that, after 1991, the Americans and the international community tried to “reconvert” more than 40,000 former Soviet Union scientists and engineers with weapons-of-mass-destruction-related expertise. As for the United States, from ’45 to ’90, it set up a nuclear arsenal which numbered 70,000 warheads and bombs, although in 1956 and 1957 the American Army had requested 151,000 warheads as it estimated it could use 423 of them in a single day of battle, a busy day of course. Fifty years after the death of one of the Cold War icons, Joseph Stalin, we here interview the Russian theoretical physicist Roald Sagdeev, who is currently Distinguished Professor of Physics at the University of Maryland (USA).

Professor Sagdeev, after you graduated in physics at the university of Moscow in 1955, you entered the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy. What did you do there?

I was doing research in controlled thermonuclear fusion, which is one of the processes to produce energy. In those years, however, it was considered a “top secret” matter in the Soviet Union, and that probably was due to its relationship with uncontrolled thermonuclear fusion, which is the process at the basis of the H-bomb. However, two years after I arrived at the Institute, Khrushchev adhered to the “Atoms for Peace” initiative launched by the American president Eisenhower; then my research field was declassified and I found myself doing research “under the sun”.

Kurchatov was head of scientific research for Stalin’s nuclear weapons program and Stalin personally chose him as its leader. How did you avoid research on nuclear weapons?

Both thanks to some luck and to a very high level intervention: that of my mentor Lev Landau. They tried of course to recruit me and some of my colleagues, and we also were shipped to the secret nuclear weapons-labs, such as Arzamas-16, but I definitely did not want to do military research and Landau helped me.

That kind of research absorbed so many top-level brains. What about your mentor Landau and your friend Sakharov, who built the Russian H-bomb?

I had a lot of conversations with my mentors to understand their motivations more deeply. With regards to the first generation of nuclear physicists, such as Landau, who made the fundamental discoveries, we have to keep in mind that there was a war going on against Germany which for we Russians was absolutely devastating. By working on nuclear weapons, almost all of those physicists felt they could contribute to defending their nation from Germany during the war, and to establishing a strategic balance between East and West immediately after the war. Sakharov also remained convinced that working on the H-bomb for Stalin at that time, that is in the early ‘50s, was the right choice, as it was essential for national security. Landau was probably the only one of his generation for whom working on nuclear weapons was extremely painful, however Stalin was in power. For the younger generation of physicists, like me, the situation was different and atomic weapons work was a choice determined by patriotism, by intellectual fascination, but also by very material factors: the people who worked on them had better salaries and, most of all, could immediately find an apartment, which was unthinkable in big cities such as Moscow.

You did research at the highest levels in years that were, to say the least, difficult: from 1973 to 1988, you were the director of the Space Research Institute in Moscow, the “Soviet counter- altar” of NASA…

Our institute was doing basic research, it was not comparable to NASA. But this story came out in 1972: Nixon and Brezhnev, who had decided to start limiting the arms race, wanted a public demonstration of the détente in progress, and then they came out with the first USA-USSR joint space mission: the Apollo-Soyuz. However, the bulk of Soviet space activities was classified, as it was linked to the development of missiles. Therefore the Soviet government immediately understood that in order to cover their real activities, an institute was necessary to play a window-dressing role. They chose our institute, and all Soviet engineers working on Apollo-Soyuz came to meet the Americans at our institute, though in reality they did research in classified companies and institutions. Even when the Americans were brought to the Baikonur launch platform, where Gagarin was launched, the Soviet authorities came up with: “Oh yes, this is the institute’s platform, they control everything and they are our NASA”. We at the institute, the Soviet authorities and the Americans, played such an unforgettable act! The Americans had understood everything and we at the institute understood that they had understood!

You are joking , but in reality in the years you were the director you were head of several international space missions, such as that to study Halley’s comet. And you tried to make your institute an open research center, struggling against a science model which was not buried under secrecy and militarism. Was it possible to struggle in this way without running risks?

I tried to find allies, and I consciously played this card: since we were probably the only institute doing unclassified research, if we also had been absorbed by military research, the Soviet Union would not have had even a single civil space program. And this situation would have been so embarassing for our international image, that even in the KGB there were people who understood my position. Nonetheless, the struggle was hard as there was strong preassure both from outside, that is from the military-industrial complex, and from inside, because some scientists in our institute wanted to work on military research since it was more remunerative than open science. Some of my colleagues sent letters against me, they even complained to the KGB that I was boycotting “patriotic duties”. I even threw temper tantrums and resigned a couple of times, but my resignations were rejected.

As Gorbachev’s science adviser in space matters, you had a crucial role in keeping him from launching into the “Star Wars” project announced by Reagan in 1983. Although with big modifications, the American space shield is back in fashion. What do you think about the militarization of space?

There is a form of militarization which has already taken place and which I personally judge a “benign” one: powers such as the United States and Russia put into orbit military satellites for communication and detection of surprise missile launches. What has not already taken place is the putting into orbit of weapons, that is space platforms equipped with lasers, etc. that can hit and destroy other nations’ missiles and satellites. And if this kind of “malign” militarization happens, it will start a new unstoppable arms race. I am trying to stimulate a public debate on this issue.

Going towards the conclusion, in 1990 you married Susan Eisenhower, the grandaughter of the American president who was the first Commander of NATO. Did the KGB tell you that that marriage was really “not on”?

We did not have this kind of pressure. Of course we informed the Soviet authorities about our projects and they told us not to expect a standing ovation. Whereas during our wedding celebration the former American Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, raised his glass and said: “This marriage signifies the end of the Cold War and the beginning of global warming!”

In effect, with the end of the Gorbachev era the Cold War finished, the Soviet Union no longer exists, you live in America, and terror comes from biological weapons. Do you still speak about Russia to your students?

Sometimes I do, but the Americans are no longer interested in Russia as they were 20 years ago. Nevertheless, they are interested in Putin. My wife and I have just come back from Moscow where we had a conversation with Putin about the militarization of space. We are getting a lot of questions.