Nikolay Timofeev-Ressovsky - Career - in The USSR Again

In The USSR Again

The Battle of Berlin was one of the last major engagements of World War II. With a great majority of German scientific facilities in Berlin and its suburbs, this area was a major target of search teams (see Russian Alsos) sent into Germany by Russia to requisition equipment, materiel, and scientific personnel to aid the Soviet atomic bomb project. Haste was necessary, as the American military forces were rapidly approaching Berlin. Soviet troops broke the Berlin defense ring on 25 April 1945, and the Soviet Union announced the fall of Berlin on 2 May. The main search team, headed by Colonel General A. P. Zavenyagin, arrived in Berlin on 3 May; it included Colonel General V. A. Makhnjov, and nuclear physicists Yulij Borisovich Khariton, Isaak Konstantinovich Kikoin, and Lev Andreevich Artsimovich. Georgij Nikolaevich Flerov had arrived earlier, although Kikoin did not recall a vanguard group. Even the scientists were attired in the uniforms of NKVD officers. Targets on the top of their list were the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institut für Physik (KWIP, Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Physics), the University of Berlin, and the Technische Hochschule Berlin.

A search team soon rounded up Timofeev-Resovskij’s colleague Nikolaus Riehl. In early July, Riehl was flown to Russia to head up a group at Plant No. 12 in Ehlektrostal’ (Электросталь) for the production of metallic uranium within the Soviet atomic bomb project. Other colleagues of Timofeev-Resovskij, namely Born, Catsch, and Zimmer, were also sent to Russia to work with Riehl.

After the fall of Berlin, Timofeev-Resovskij was arrested by the Russians. However, Colonel General Zavenyagin recognized that Timofeev-Resovskij’s experience in radiobiology and genetic effects of radiation would be useful to the Soviet atomic bomb project and ordered his release. Timofeev-Resovskij became director of the KWIH facility in Berlin-Buch and was visited by Zavenyagin, and also by Igor’ Vasil’evich Kurchatov, chief scientist of the Soviet atomic bomb project. However, after being denounced by a visiting scientist in an Academy of Sciences delegation from Moscow, Timofeev-Resovskij was secretly re-arrested on 14 September by an element of the NKVD different from that under Zavenyagin.

Timofeev-Resovskij and Tsarapkin were sent back to Russia; both were incarcerated in the gulag – Timofeev-Resovskij received a ten-year sentence. On his way to the prison camp in Karaganda in northern Kazakhstan, one of the most terrible camps in the GULAG, Timofeev-Resovskij went through the Butyrskaya prison, the central transit prison in Moscow. It was there that he met Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Even in prison, Solzhenitsyn noted, Timofeev-Resovskij organized a scientific seminar. The harsh conditions of his transportation and incarceration in the labor camp contributed to a significant decline in Timofeev-Resovskij’s health, including the degradation of his vision brought on by malnutrition.

Frédéric Joliot-Curie, a Nobel Laureate in Chemistry and a leader in the French Resistance during the war, visited Moscow and pleaded with Lavrentij Beria, the head of the NKVD, that Timofeev-Resovskij should be found and given meaningful work. The argument did not fall on deaf ears, as Beria was also in charge of the Soviet atomic bomb project, and this was a top priority for Joseph Stalin. Eventually, Timofeev-Resovskij was found, treated for his ill health brought on by his incarceration in the GULAG, and was sent, in 1947, to work at Laboratory B in Sungul', which was a ShARAShKA. While he was still a prisoner, he headed up the biological division at the institute and was allowed to apply his prodigious scientific skills to the problems of the day. His wife Elena, after receipt of a letter in Timofeev-Resovskij’s hand, left Berlin in 1948, with their son Andrew, to join him in Sungul'. The house occupied by the three Timofeev-Resovskijs was every bit as nice as that planned for the German scientists working at the Sungul' institute.

Nikolaus Riehl, while in Ehlektrostal’, found out that Timofeev-Resovskij was in Sungul' and had vision problems brought on by the malnutrition he suffered in the GULAG. Riehl studied the effects of vitamins on vision and determined a course of treatment. He acquired the necessary vitamins and had Zavenyagin send them on to Timofeev-Resovskij, but the actions were to no avail, as the condition was not reversible.

After the detonation of the Russian uranium bomb, uranium production was going smoothly and Riehl’s oversight was no longer necessary at Plant No. 12. Riehl then went, in 1950, to head "Laboratory B", where he stayed until 1952. Laboratory B was responsible for the handling, treatment, and use of radioactive products generated in reactors, as well as radiation biology, dosimetry, and radiochemistry. Laboratory B, as a Sharashka and a facility in the Soviet atomic bomb project, was overseen by the 9th Chief Directorate of the NKVD (MVD after 1946).

Laboratory B was known under another cover name as Объект 0211 (Ob’ekt 0211, Object 0211), as well as Object B. (In 1955, Laboratory B was closed. Some of its personnel were transferred elsewhere, but most of them were assimilated into a new, second nuclear weapons institute, Scientific Research Institute-1011 (NII-1011), today known as the Russian Federal Nuclear Center All-Russian Scientific Research Institute of Technical Physics, RFYaTs–VNIITF.)

Timofeev-Resovskij headed the radiobiology department at Laboratory B, and another political prisoner from the Gulag, S. A. Voznesenskij, headed the radiochemistry department. In Timofeev-Resovskij’s department, Born, Catsch, and Zimmer were able to conduct work similar to that which they had done in Germany, and all three became section heads in the department. Tsarapkin, Timofeev-Resovskij’s long-time colleague was also at Laboratory B.

Before being rejoined in the Soviet Union, Zimmer, Timofeev-Resovskij, and Riehl had collaborated on the biological effects of ionizing radiation. Also, Zimmer and Timofeev-Resovskij had put together a manuscript which was a comprehensive summary of their work and that of others on radiation-induced gene mutation and related areas; the book, Das Trefferprinzip in der Biologie, was published in Germany while they were in the Soviet Union. In 1948, due to Lysenkoism, there were grave consequences for the institute in Sungul' in general and for Zimmer and Timofeev-Resovskij in particular. The book was put on a forbidden list and the laboratory was not allowed to conduct research on its topics.

In 1955, Laboratory B was merged into the newly created second nuclear weapons design institute Nauchno-Issledovatel’skij Institut-1011 (NII-1011). During the merger, the radiopathology section of S. A. Voznesenskij’s radiochemistry department was transferred to Combine No. 817 (Ozersk), and Timofeev-Resovskij and 16 members of his department were transferred to the Ural Branch of the USSR Academy of Sciences, in Sverdlovsk (now Ekaterinburg). After discharge from the Sharashka, Timofeev-Resovskij visited Moscow, Leningrad, and Kiev. In these locations, he was able to visit physicists Peter Kapitsa, Lev Landau, and Igor’ Tamm, the biologist M. V. Volkenstein, and the mathematician A. A. Lapunov. In Sverdlovsk, Timofeev-Resovskij organized and became the head of the Department of Radiobiology of the Ural Branch of the Academy of Sciences. He also founded an experimental station and summer school at the nearby Lake Miassovo. The experimental station conducted radiological research on radiation and population genetics. This summer school contributed to keeping classical genetics alive during the period of Lysenkoism, which officially ended in 1964.

In 1964, Timofeev-Resovskij organized and became the head of the Department of Radiobiology and Genetics, at the Institute of Medical Radiology of the USSR Academy of Medical Sciences, in Obninsk, Kaluga District. In the department, Timofeev-Resovskij supervised and headed the Laboratory of Radiation Genetics and the Laboratory of Radiation Ecology. There were two other laboratories in the department, the Laboratory of Cellular Radiobiology, headed by V. I. Korogodin, and the Laboratory of Molecular Radiobiology, headed by Zhores Medvedev. The first group in the USSR to study Arabidopsis thaliana was established by Timofeev-Resovskij during his time in Obninsk. Two well known figures in genetics started their research and received their degrees at Obninsk under Timofeev-Resovskij. One was Nikolai Bochkov, director of the Institute of Medical Genetics, in Moscow; the other was Vladimir Ivanov, head of the Laboratory of Experimental Genetics at the same institute. While in Obninsk, Timofeev-Resovskij wrote two books (published in 1968 and 1969 – see the book list below) and more than 60 papers on population genetics, radiation biology, and evolution. His wife Helena assisted him by providing her eyes to compensate for his lost vision, taking dictation, and editing his papers.

In 1968, even though Lysenkoism was officially over, its supporters were able to block Timofeev-Resovskij’s nomination to the Soviet Academy of Sciences. In 1969, they used their influence to pressure him into retirement from Institute of Medical Radiaology, whereupon Timofeev-Resovskij became a consultant to the Institute of Medical-Biological Problems and of Developmental Biology, in Moscow. As a consultant for the institute, he studied space medicine and continued his research on genetics. He also served as a consultant to the Institute of Developmental Problems, in Moscow, as well as Moscow State University. With several of his students, he also wrote his last book, Introduction to Molecular Radiobiology: Physico-Chemical Foundations, which was published in 1981.

Timofeev-Resovskij was a non-rehabilitated ex-prisoner and was therefore not allowed to leave the Soviet Union. He was, however, able to meet foreign colleagues who came to Russia. In 1969, a short time before receipt of his Nobel Prize, Max Delbrück traveled to the Soviet Union and unofficially met with Timofeev-Resovskij. In addition to once again seeing his colleague Timofeev-Resovskij, Delbrück hoped to appeal to the Soviet authorities to mitigate his colleague’s harsh living conditions; however, he was not given an opportunity to bring his request to the attention of the authorities. Timofeev-Resovskij, also met with foreign colleagues attending conferences, such as at the Second Meeting of the Vavilov Society of Genetics and Selection (Moscow, 1972) and at the 14th International Congress of Genetics (Moscow, 1978).

Timofeev-Resovskij’s lifelong companion and scientific research partner, Helena, died on 29 April 1973 At this time, their son, Andrew, was a physics professor at the University of Sverdlovsk (now Ekaterinburg).

Timofeev-Ressovsky died in Obninsk, in a hospital room of the Institute of Medical Radiology (IMR) on 28 March 1981.

A minor planet 3238 Timresovia discovered by Soviet astronomer Nikolai Stepanovich Chernykh in 1975 is named after him.

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