New facts about Bronstein's posthumous life came to light after the Russian edition had appeared.
1. From the KGB-NKVD Archives
In summer 1990 Soviet authorities allowed Lydia Chukovskaya to look into her husband's inquisition file. Obviously she was aware that it was no more than a pile of paper sheets stuck together by NKVD/KGB officers—they had nothing to do with the true story of her husband's last months. Yet there was no other evidence. Not even a grave... The file opens with an arrest warrant issued on 1 August, 1937 and an order by the Kiev State Security department of 5 August that said: "M.P. Bronstein who is trying to escape arrest should be detained for an active involvement in
Arrested at night in
The people's Commissar of Ukraine for Internal
Affairs ordered: "We should arrest Bronstein Matvei Petrovich as a dangerous criminal and send him to
Out of the documents in the file, Bronstein himself indisputably wrote only one. It was a questionnaire of August 15. There is one genuine signature of his that confirmed the interrogation minutes of October 2 when he rejected all accusations heaped on him. We cannot recognized other signatures as his. At that time, the interrogators relied more on imagination than on what they could extract from their prisoners. Their zeal and ambitions rather than reality fed their imagination. We can clearly see this from another inquisition file—Lev Landau's file. (Authorities arrested him in April 1938.) The minutes of interrogation that Landau signed is a careless mixture of facts and stupid inventions. As one example an interrogator asked Landau whether he had told Bronstein about a leaflet they planned to distribute in April 1938. According to the document Landau answered that he had failed to tell Bronstein about it. In fact Landau knew that authorities had arrested his colleague long before April 1938.
The minutes of Bronstein's interrogations are
nothing more than his interrogator's flights of fantasy. According to one dated
October 9, Bronstein was a member of a "counterrevolutionary organization of
intelligentsia who wanted to topple Soviet power. They wanted to set up a new political
order that would allow intelligentsia to take part in state administration with
the other social groups according to the Western pattern." Bronstein was working
"to create a fascist state that would resist communism." Besides, according to
the same author, Bronstein "resolutely opposed applying materialist dialectics
to natural science". On December 2, at the next interrogation session,
interrogators charged him with supporting "individual terror against the leaders of the
Communist Party of the
On December 16, officials finished his inquisition.
According to the indictment signed on January
24, 1938 the NKVD "exposed and
liquidated a fascist terrorist organization that German intelligence had set up
in 1930-32. In 1933 it contacted the Trotsky-Zinoviev organization in
On February 18, 1938 the Military Judicial
Board of the Supreme Court of the
The same file contains pleads of his colleagues physicists and writers who tried to help him never suspecting that he was dead. Earlier like letters went into other files or into garbage can.
There are also documents of the period of Bronstein's rehabilitation including those about the investigators Georgi Karpov, Nikolai Lupandin, and their chief Yakov Shapiro. Shapiro met his death from a firing squad in 1939 during the "anti-Ezhov purge". In August 1938, Lupandin, a sadistic torturer, was exiled to the NKVD department of economic management as more suited to his lack of schooling. Poet Nikolai Zabolotsky who had a misfortune to meet him in his office shortly after Bronstein's execution described him at great length. In 1977, this worthy man retired on a privileged pension. Karpov made even a more spectacular career—he climbed up to the post of the Chairman of the Council of the Russian Orthodox Church Affairs at the USSR Council of Ministers. Authorities punished his "feats" of 1937 with a reprimand twenty years later.
The last page in the 90-page file was dated 1958: "L.K. Chukovskaya should be rewarded for the binocular taken away from her flat during the search on 1 August 1937."
2. The Last Days in the Cell
Late in 1990, after her Notes about Anna Akhmatova appeared Lydia Chukovskaya got a call from Boris Velikin, her contemporary. He had just read Chukovskaya's diary in which she described how she had first met the great Russian poet. Their roads crossed at the
At that point Velikin realized who was the man he had met in a prison cell in December 1937 that
remained engraved in his memory for the rest of his life. Velikin himself
was arrested on December 4 and brought to the prison in Shpalernaya. A workaholic from the Kirov Plant and a man
dedicated heart and soul to Soviet power he was shocked to find himself in a
cell designed for 16 and packed with more than a hundred. Few lucky ones slept
in canvass beds suspended from the ceiling; the rest slept on the floor, the
newcomers had to be satisfied with a place near the lavatory pan. Out of hundred
with whom he shared the cell Velikin remembered only three or four. One was an actor of the
After the prison in Shpalernaya, the NKVD sent Velikin to a concentration camp
I met him when he was 85, unbent by age and misfortunes. He had two books on metallurgy to his name and was still active as the Chief Expert of a ministry: he had just returned from an inspection trip to the Urals.
Why did he cherish the memory of a man who had shared a cell with him and a hundred of others for two months? Why did it never fade away after many years of terrible experience? He was struck by a remarkable concentration of intellect, rarefied culture, and high morality. Few of them felt like talking about crazy accusations, they tried to escape into the human world of work, poetry and cinema through lectures and quizzes. Matvei Bronstein, a physicist, earned applause with his lecture on the relativity theory—then still a mysterious subject. Besides, he proved able to answer any question in any field well beyond the scope of theoretical physics and knew more poetry by heart than anybody else in the cell. What struck Boris Velikin more was Bronstein's ability to penetrate deep into the essence of phenomena. This ability allowed Bronstein to explain to him, who was a professional metallurgist, the subtleties of the special steel technology. There was another man who shared Velikin's admiration—before the revolution he had improved the gun design but it was Bronstein who explained to him the genuine nature of his invention.
This was Bronstein's calling and profession—to explain the essence of things. Was he able to look deep into the social nightmare he was caught in? He never discussed his case; it seemed that he had no premonition of what was in store for him.
Was his the heaviest burden? Alexander Witt from
3. Subnuclear Physics and Matvei Bronstein
This happened in July 1991 in the ancient Sicilian city of
(...) [The participants] wanted to know more
about Bronstein. They heard a sad story about his life, work and tragic
death. They also heard about his
widow, Lydia Chukovskaya, who showed much civic courage and staunchness, about
her books and articles first published in the West, and her attempts to preserve
the memory her husband.
The impression was enormous—the school command decided to set up the Matvei Bronstein scholarship. He was the second Russian physicist to give his name to the Ettore Majorana center scholarship. The first was Andrei Sakharov.
In our country Bronstein's name remained a taboo for many decades. It cost Lydia Chukovskaya much effort to reissue in 1959 his Solar Matter, the masterpiece of literature about science for teenagers—fear was still deeply rooted in people's minds. In 1965 his second book for children The X Rays was published again; in 1990 his last book, The Inventors of Radiotelegraph, appeared—back in 1937 its first edition was destroyed.
Lydia Chukovskaya got the first scholarship named after her husband—the colorful document adorns a wall in her flat side by side with a portrait of her husband and photographs of other people who have become part of her life. These include Andrei Sakharov, Boris Pasternak, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Anna Akhmatova.
Let us hope that in Bronstein's homeland they will also establish a prize named after him that can mark achievements in two widely removed fields: in the theory of quantum gravity and popular science for children.