Science, world politics, and human rights
Scientists respond to mistreatment of fellow scientists and political intrusions into world science as controversy rises over proper role of scientific societies
…Despite the considerable number of Soviet scientists who have emigrated, it is by all accounts much harder for scientists than nonscientists to obtain exit visas. “At least every second scientist who applies for an emigration visa is refused,” at least initially, notes Mark Azbel, a former refusenik leader who reached Israel last year. “For example, I don’t know a single physicist with an advanced degree who applied and was not refused. The more education, the lower the chances.”
Beleaguered Soviet scientists include (from left) refuseniks Irina Brailovsky (threatened by officials along with her husband Victor, scientific seminar leader), Joseph Begun (jailed for “parasitism”), and Aleksandr Lerner (called a CIA agent along with Scharansky by Soviet press), and human rights leader Yuri Orlov (jailed for the past year without formal charge or trial).
In most cases, when a scientist applies for a visa, he is dismissed from his job, cut off from laboratory, library, and lecture hall, ostracized by colleagues and students, and prevented from publishing his work. His telephone is disconnected, his mail is impeded, his apartment may be bugged and put under surveillance, and he and his family are subjected to various kinds of harassment. He, in fact, becomes a “nonperson,” with even mention of his name eliminated from scientific journals and books. And “all this is in a situation of constant threats and pressure,” emphasizes Azbel, who waited five years for an exit visa. “And you never know when the threats will become reality.”
In short, the refusenik scientist enters a state of limbo for an unknown time. And if he cannot find approved work in the state-run economy, he becomes liable to trial and imprisonment on charges of “parasitism” (having no visible means of support).
Indeed, protests concerning one such case are currently being organized by the Committee of Concerned Scientists (CCS), that of Dr. Joseph Begun, an electronics engineer and mathematician, who has been sentenced to two years for “parasitism.” CCS is also actively pursuing, among others, the cases of cyberneticists Aleksandr Lerner, Grigory Goldstein, and Victor and Irina Brailovsky, physicists Vladimir Kislik and Naum Meiman, microbiologist Oleg Milshtein, and molecular biologist Vladimir Raiz. The American Association for the Advancement of Science also has taken up the cases of Begun, Lerner, Kislik, Meiman, and others. ACS has repeatedly protested treatment of noted physical chemist Veniamin G. Levich, and is studying the case of refusenik chemist Galina Shmelyova. And the Federation of American Scientists has organized campaigns for Soviet scientists, among them dissidents Kovalev and Tverdokhlebov.
Besides lower chances of being allowed to emigrate and a longer wait, “scientists are in the worst position” of refuseniks from another, point of view, Azbel stresses. “It is very easy to become dequalified.” Indeed, he says, “everything is done to destroy their scientific effectiveness.” And, recalls Stone from his Moscow visit, “They were all quietly dying as scientists and it was frightening. In a few years, they won’t be able to do scientific work.”
Polymer chemist Hershel Markovitz of U.S. (left) lectures to seminar in Moscow of scientists refused emigration visas, including (foreground, from left) Victor Brailovsky, Veniamin Levich, and Mark Azbel (Azbel is now in Israel).
To maintain as much scientific viability as they can, the refuseniks have therefore organized regular weekly seminars in Moscow and other cities, where they present for discussion their own (necessarily theoretical) research and hear lectures on world developments from visiting western scientists. About 200 foreign scientists have visited the largest and most active group, an interdisciplinary Seminar on Collective Phenomena held in Moscow in private apartments on Sundays since 1972. For example, Dr. Hershel Markovitz of Carnegie-Mellon University gave several lectures on polymer chemistry. Azbel led this seminar, and Victor Brailovsky is the current leader.
Azbel and other former refuseniks stress how vital the seminars are to the refuseniks for both science and morale. And they urge scientists who visit the U.S.S.R. to attend seminars: “It really helps.”
-Richard J. Seltzer