Libmonster ID: JP-457
Author(s) of the publication: V. GOLDMAN

This year one of our outstanding biologists, Alexander Neifakh (1926-1997), would have turned 75. Having finished his secondary, 10-year education in nine years, he volunteered to the front at 17 and saw service as antiaircraft gunner all through the Great Patriotic War. After demobilization as lance-corporal, in 1946 he enrolled in the department of Biology at Lomonosov Moscow State University with a major in embryology. He completed the course in two years instead of the regular five. Then Neifakh took a postgraduate course at the Severtsev Institute of Animal Morphology, USSR Academy of Sciences, at its division subsequently reorganized into what is now the Koltsov Institute of Biology of Development, Russian Academy of Sciences. In 1952 the young scientist defended his M. Sc. thesis, though this did not save him from persecution because of his Jewish nationality, something that unfortunately took place in the last years of the Stalin rule. Forced to give up his scientific pursuits, Neifakh had to lie low for two years; politics, alas, would spike his guns more than once in later life too.

Biology was his forte. Neifakh discovered what is called the morphogenetic function of cell nuclei, a discovery that gained universal recognition. This theory deals with changes in radiosensitivity of embryos at different stages of their early growth; Neifakh was the first to explain this phenomenon by interaction of the cell nucleus and cytoplasm (that was one of the subjects of his doctoral thesis which he defended in 1962). Later he detected a number of regularities in the synthesis of proteins and nucleic acids in the course of embryonic growth by studying the rate of fetal growth depending on temperature and genetic effects.

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Besides, Neifakh devoted much time and effort to popular science as well as social and political journalism.

Neifakh tells us himself about his work-he does it in a series of articles some of which have been included into his book Views. Ideas. Thoughts, off the press at Nauka Publishers in 2001. Here we give an abridged version of one of the materials in this book - namely, the text of his speech at a meeting of the Academic Council of the Koltsov Institute of Biology of Development, RAS, on his 70th birth anniversary In it the scientist looks back on his life path and ponders.


Truth, nothing but the truth, yet not the whole truth either. This is not a biography, much less a scientific biography, but sundry ideas that have come to my mind. I don't know, maybe it's not interesting. It's my first try at storytelling anyway.

My life is in three parts, as it is with all of you: science proper, then what is called private life, and public life or politics. This is common to all, though to a different extent. For me all that was in about equal proportion-not according to time, of course-but according to its significance in my mind and soul.

Now why do people turn to this or that: food, science, sex, arts or politics? Because they like it. A girl begged for an apple. She was told: "Say the magic word." She thought for a while and then cried: "I just want it!" Why do people want something? Our brain has a pleasure center, probably only one center; well, our goal is to excite this center in various ways, but people do this in different ways at different times. I have plunged into science, love or politics only because I wanted that. Even during the war, when it was real hard and frightful, I wanted it, I got a kick out of it. I was and still am a patriot, but this word is worked a good deal by every kind of scoundrels: what I wanted was to do my duty - fight on.


I'll be talking only about myself-I don't know how it is with other people. I cannot say that scientific interest was the most important thing in my life, that is to look into the nature of things - though, of course, I did have such an interest. Another incentive of scientific work is money and respect, maybe even fame. All this plays an important role. But not the main one. The main thing is, in my opinion, a kind of self-assertion, like it is in sports. I have made the grade, and I like it. Still better if you have an audience - listener or reader. But you get pleasure all the same even without them. I have authored probably 3-4 good works, which I like, though they were not appreciated on their merit. But here I would rather not run ahead of my story What's important is that they gave pleasure to me.

Never before has so much work been done in biology as today. When George Soros gave us for all science 100 min dollars for two years, this stimulated the development of biology. While the American NIH (National Institute of Health) alone, an institution similar to our Academy of Medical Sciences, has an annual budget of 10 bln dollars, that is a hundred times as much, and for one year at that! But I have a feeling per-

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haps I'm wrong here-that most of these works, I mean on molecular biology, are done "head-on" without much fantasy. I did not like experiments as such, though they can give some pleasure too, not even the results, but the very process of thinking over. Occasionally I carried out simple experiments and received supposedly simple results. However, after a good deal of thinking over, I suddenly came to nontrivial conclusions. That was the most thrilling part of the job. I don't know how it is with others, but Efroimson wrote that a great scientist differs from others not so much by his ability to think somewhat differently, but by his ability to think all the time. Sure, thinking did not take a long time with me, though now and then it might be weeks and weeks.

Here are two examples. Many years ago, when I was a little over thirty, while working on loach embryos, I discovered an X-ray radiation dose which killed cell nuclei without damaging the cytoplasm. But I did not know yet what to do with this result, like Kipling's elephant calf did not know what to do with his trunk. The first thing that an embryologist does in such cases is studying the effect at various stages of development. Sensitivity to the reaction first increases - the longer sgrowth after irradiation. Then radiosensitivity decreases dramatically - the longer the irradiation, the longer the normal development. Mid-blastula (6 h) is the most sensitive stage at such an approach. It might seem rather simple to somebody, but it took me two or three weeks to realize: in the first 6 hours, that is before mid-blastula, no matter when nuclei were killed (and the dose was what it was), embryonic growth was arrested at the late blastula stage - 9 hours and, consequently, the growth up to this stage was predetermined already in oogenesis, and no nuclear (embryonic gene) function was required any longer. But then everything changes: the inactivation of nuclei with a lag of 10-15 min, starting from the stage of 7 h, allows the growth to continue for extra hours, and in a mere 2 h of nuclei functioning the whole gastrulation is guaranteed. Consequently, the functions of all nuclei and embryonic genes start at the mid-blastula stage. Up until this work no one knew about the phenomenon. But then many people in our country got busy with this model. They showed that it is here that mitotic activity decreases and RNA synthesis starts, one that controls protein synthesis at the beginning of gastrulation. I think it was due to Olga Stroyeva that this phenomenon was called thus: the beginning of the morphogenetic function of nuclei. I promulgated all these data abroad, and had them published in English language journals. Nevertheless, 15 years later an analogous work was performed in America on frog, and no reference was made to us in the publication - the phenomenon was called Mid-Blastula Transition.

This name is mentioned in the literature. Moreover, 2 years ago this work was repeated on fish, and again, no reference was made to me, but to the work of my girl student. As for the frog, I am not sure that the authors knew about my works, but with the fish it is beyond doubt so. But this is another problem - that of justice. I am proud that my ceaseless

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efforts resulted in such an extraordinary solution for that time.

One more example of sweet reminiscences. I was fifty at that time. I worked with Olga Klyachko. Early loach embryo consists of the embryo proper - blastula cells (we call it a cap) and a big yolk sac. Lactate dehydrogenase (LDG) is a typical soluble enzyme, i.e. it remains in the cytosol after homogenization, on top of the centrifugal test tube. Nevertheless, like other similar soluble enzymes, in the early growth stage it is collected in the small cap, 80 percent of it, that is in a proportion of 4:1, and its concentration in the cap is 24 times as much as in the yolk. Why? We began by injecting more and more of the foreign LDG into fish roe and observed how it spread between the cap and yolk. At first this enzyme grew faster in the cap but then much faster in the yolk. I remember I thought hard to explain the puzzle. At last I found the answer. Not long before a 1.5 LDG dose, the ratio was sustained as usual at 4:1, and then the LDG excess was spread proportionally in the cap and yolk volumes, that is at 1:6. Hence the conclusion: there was something in the cap to bind LDG and make it insoluble, and something responsible for the formation of complexes. Their capacity is small, and if more LDG is added, their capacity is exhausted and then the injected enzyme becomes really soluble and is spread in proportion to free volumes. There was also another interesting moment - we wanted to prove that these complexes did really exist. We mounted the cap homogenate on a sucrose substrate, turned it over and... nothing happened, that is the LDG remained on top, as it should. It became clear to me that the bonding force, or affinity constant, in LDG is very high, so small wonder that 20 percent of the enzyme stays in the yolk. Obviously, when we make homogenate, these complexes dissociate in the solution and in a large volume of the test tube. Then, in order to shift equilibrium toward them, we added a LDG solution to the sucrose and obtained large, that is high-molecular complexes. I don't know to what extent such an approach was original at that time, but it was ours anyway and I, like the frog-traveler, could not but shout: I thought it up! It is for such rare moments that I love the science I have been in for fifty years.

Now about work assessment. In my opinion, science is unjust by and large, or rather, it is often unjust. A classical example: Gregor Mendel, the founder of genetics, had died long before he got recognition. Moreover, we may say that he did not play any role in the development of science - because de Vries, or someone else, would have done the same thing anyway and the theory would have been called Devnesism, not Mendelism, then. My co-author, Hartle, studied Mendel's works and even manuscripts to find out whether Mendel understood what he had done, and concluded that he did. I think he had better not understand it. Well, to learn that no one needs your discovery, leave science and die as Father Superior of a monastery? How about it? I am not trying to compare my works with Mendel's, and I don't feel my works are not needed. But to tell the truth, much of my work done during all these years was passed over unnoticed, and I am to blame above all for that.

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First, we should not take it hard, we ought to remember Pasternak's words: "The objective of creative work is self-dedication and not hullabaloo about it, not success...". I have already said that respect and the like is pleasant, but only if you really have done something important. The process of inventing is what matters most to me.

Second, it is hard to be objective in assessing your own work. For example, Olga Klyachko and I once separated major proteins from minor ones in embryo through immuno-precipitation and showed that these proteins are transformed in the course of embryonic growth. I was pleased very much, but not the public. How did you separate them? What kind of rabbits did you have? Better if it were done with RNAs and not proteins, and so on. They might be right, but I was sorry. And again Pasternak can soothe us: "Between defeat and victory you should see no difference."

And finally, I am convinced that science has its own rules of the game which make you popularize your own works-in public speeches, through publications in prestige journals; you should know how to present your work, otherwise you will never get what you deserve and science will never learn about your work. Once I wrote an article in which I predicted a non-overlapping code. At that time Belozersky* put the lid on my article-DNA was his monopoly. But in a few months Gamov published an article on the same subject.

I remember I was surprised to learn the young Spirin** paid so much attention to these problems - he might be right after all. What matter, Spirin! Remember how annoyed was the great Darwin, when he learned that Wallace's invention was no worse than his, while that silly Wallace patiently waited for Darwin to publish his work first. It would be different now. Wallace wouldn't wait and we would get Wallacism, not Darwinism.

I might as well recall that after 1968, when I was expelled from the party and was barred from visiting other countries, I couldn't participate in international projects. But these are slim arguments, sure. On the whole I think I had good luck. They did not lock me up, thought they could. I was at grass for two years only. I always did what I wanted. I always had good superiors. I had no teachers, and I would rather have none. Science excited my center of pleasure well enough. I'd rather not say I served science in good faith, but it certainly served me.


Such things are not discussed at the Academic Council but I would rather not skip the subject which took up a third of my life, though it had nothing to do with science proper. But don't be afraid, I am not going to give you "all the lowdown", there will be only some considerations in this connection, which I think are important. Scientists, as all other people, are divided into two categories in their relations with the opposite sex, polygams and monogams. I don't believe this is determined by moral principles or upbringing. I think this

* A. N. Belozersky, a biochemist. Academician since 1962. - Ed .

** A. S. Spirin, a molecular biologist, Academician since 1970. - Ed.

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is much determined by temperament, or simply by hormones, that is by genetics-what we inherit from our parents. But moral principles and honesty also play a considerable role. There is a lot of examples when outstanding scientists led a decent and measured life. But there are just as many examples to the contrary.

As for me, I always remained true to myself, though tried to behave better. I am not sure I always made the grade. It's not up to me to judge, though. However, I am happy I could maintain very good relations with my children and even with their mothers. Why am I telling you all this? Because some people, among them my friends, think that as a scientist I could have done more had I been less engrossed in private life. But I beg to differ here.

I'll repeat what I've said at the beginning: I, like all other people, have lived and live only to excite my center of pleasure. I did this as I could and wanted, and obviously couldn't do it otherwise. Could I have accomplished more had I not followed my wishes and confined myself to science alone? Well, I cannot tell. What could the results be? What if I had written 250 articles instead of 200? And, as the pinnacle of wishful dreams, elected corresponding member to some big academy?

Thus I will not and cannot be different. I don't regret anything in my private life, though I would like to apologize to those whom I might have offended, wittingly or unwittingly. From the standpoint of Christian morality I have sinned, of course, and my elder son, who is a clergyman, censures me, though we love each other. But from the standpoint of biblical morality, that is the Old Testament which should be closer to me, my sins are not so bad.


Problems of politics and social organization and my participation in it have preoccupied me all my life, and now even more than ever before. There was a time when I was ready to sacrifice science and my dear life in the service to my country, in the cause of its freedom. This was in 1968. In 1943 I refused to make use of the reserved quota for those exempt from active service and went to the front where I refused to take any indulgences (officers' school, work at the medical unit, and so forth). I wanted to fight on and fought on till the end of the war as gunman - I wanted to shoot at fascists. Even now I am ready to shoot them, if necessary, in Moscow streets. In 1948, when all Arab states attacked the young Israel, I went to the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee and offered my services as a volunteer artillery-man to be sent to that war. I was refused; the Anti-Fascist Committee was soon arrested and shot. I and people like me were not arrested because the lists had been destroyed. If Zyuganov comes, he will restore those lists. By that time I began to understand almost everything. Almost, because I understood everything in relation to Stalin, but not Lenin yet and Communism in general. Nevertheless, in 1952 I applied for party membership.

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It is now important to me to see the light and assess the degree of my fault. Was I bent on career? Yes! My chief at that time, Vassily Popov, told me: "Sasha, if you, with your 'fifth point', that is the Jewish nationality, want to stay on in the laboratory, go ahead and join the party." By the way, neither at that time nor later was I allowed to stay at the Institute - the only post-graduate out of 7: it was only after Stalin's death, in 1954, that I got an opportunity to work there. At the same time Seva Brodsky also got the job there, and since then we have been working in our institute for 42 years. There was also another, more serious argument. I was told: "Let there be more honest people from among our Institute in the Party." But now I understand my decision was wrong. In part I make up for it by my present repentance, in part by the fact that in 1968 I was expelled from the party for my stand on Czechoslovakia. But only in part do I atone for my guilt.

Now let me tell you this. All of us now are assailed by misfortunes which are a penalty for the freedom we have obtained. Freedom of speech, freedom of movement. The freedom which we'll certainly lose if Zyuganov comes to power. But the charge for freedom is too great: poverty for the majority of people, though not all, production slump, destruction of science, corruption and crime, war in Chechnya. Was there no other and easier way to get freedom? What are these sufferings for? I believe it couldn't be otherwise. In this country everything has happened the way it should have, it is only natural. But do we deserve this? Yes! We do. This is our retribution for eulogizing Stalin, for putting up with his regime for 70 years. But we are not innocent victims-neither Lenin, nor Stalin, neither Yezhov nor Beria could have done anything had we not been a herd of cowardly rams following them. Why Blacks had to be brought to America as slaves for colonists? Why were not local Indians made slaves? Because it is impossible to make slaves of Indians, they would rather die.

That's why they were killed and Blacks made slaves.

We are guilty of having allowed Stalin and others to stay in power. The same as the Germans are guilty of Hitler and Nazis being in power. The difference is in the denazification which took place in Germany after the war; the Germans are conscious of their common guilt even now. While we, instead of recognizing it, keep Communist leaders in all major posts. So, we have reasons to feel repentant and have nobody to blame for that, but ourselves. You'll say: Stalin is not us, he is those who were then. But what about the shootings in Novocherkassk and suppression of the uprising in Budapest under Khrushchev - is it not us again? And Czechoslovakia? Afghanistan, where we lost 15,000 and killed a million? And Chechnya - who is guilty? Grachev? It is our guilt, it is my personal guilt, it is no less than yours.

That is my point of view - only mine, and I am not trying to thrust it on anybody. But I wanted to speak

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about my place in politics. In 1968 I lost not only my party membership card, but also the possibility to lecture at the University, though I was good at it, and I could have students. I could have visited foreign countries for more than 20 years, when I was young, as it is better to maintain close ties with Western science. I feel sorry for all that, but I am not sorry for my speech against the occupation of Czechoslovakia. I would not be myself if did not speak up. Why didn't I become a dissident at that time with my views and expressed my discontent at the institute? Because I was afraid of jail and exile? Yes, in a way. But this is not the main point. The main thing was that I saw I wasn't good enough for politics unlike my great friend Sergei Kovalev. I attended meetings of dissidents, I tried to do something, but failed. I had to give up science instead but I could not. I was and am now ashamed of this before Kovalev and other members of the Helsinki Group, to which I had been invited. All of them arrested. But still I do not regret my choice. That must have been the right choice then. I am grateful to B. Astaurov, T. Turpaev and N. Khrushchev* (then secretary of the party organization), who supported me, though probably it would have been easier for them to get rid of me.

And last. We have a very bad president. It is difficult to imagine anyone worse than Yeltsin. I can talk about this openly, though it was outright impossible before him, and maybe, it will be so after him. But I am afraid we have no choice: either the worst president or a return to Bolshevism, or to be more exact, to open fascism, as national communism is nothing else but fascism.

I am afraid I'm turning the Academic Council into a meeting. But I am dealing with the problems that worry me. If you expected anything else, I am sorry I have disappointed you. I have been in biology for 50 years and over 45 years, including the post-graduate course, at this very Institute. I remember most of the time spent here with satisfaction, though, it might have been better for me and for biology had I worked at some other institute or even in another country. But I thought and think now only of my center of pleasure, and in this sense I don't need any other institute. A research institute is not only a building and administration-it is everyone who works there. Thank you for that.

* Geneticist, physiologist, specialist in development biology, respectively; academicians. - Ed.



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