Renowned dissident Yuri Orlov, professor emeritus, dies at 96

Internationally renowned physicist, human rights champion and Soviet-era dissident Yuri Orlov, professor emeritus of physics in the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S), died Sept. 27 in Ithaca. He was 96.

For his strong anti-Soviet political activity, Orlov spent nearly a decade in KGB prison, labor camp, and Siberian exile, during which time he gained international attention and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1986, after what he would call his “detour through the Gulag,” he was stripped of his Soviet citizenship and deported to the US. He arrived at Cornell a few months later. 

He worked for more than 20 years in the Laboratory of Nuclear Studies before being appointed professor of physics and government in 2008.

“Yuri Orlov was a brilliant physicist with an extraordinary intuition,” said David Rubin, Boyce D. McDaniel Professor of Physics in A&S. “He was a human rights activist who embodied the spirit of scientific freedom, open discussion and international cooperation that has proved enormously valuable to accelerator science and technology, and perhaps world peace.”


Three people talking
Yuri Orlov in November 2005 during a reception in his honor after he was named the first recipient of the Andrei Sakharov Prize. Cornell University File Photo

Born Aug. 13, 1924, Orlov graduated from high school at age 23, after spending six years in the Red Army, first as a factory worker making tanks and then as an artillery officer in World War II. He received the equivalent of a B.Sc from the Physical-Technical Institute in Moscow in 1952. He earned his first doctorate from the Yerevan Physics Institute in Armenia in 1958 and his second from the Budker Institute of Nuclear Physics in Novosibirsk, Siberia, in 1963.

Orlov first confronted Soviet authority in 1956 when he gave a pro-democracy speech at the Institute for Theoretical and Experimental Physics. The Politburo responded by having him fired from his institute job and banned from scientific work in Moscow.

He spent the next 16 years in Armenia, at the Yerevan Physics Institute, where he designed an electron-synchrotron, became head of a laboratory and a professor, and was elected to the Armenian Academy of Sciences.

When he returned to Moscow, Orlov joined the dissident movement. He became a founding member of the Soviet chapter of Amnesty International and then founded the Moscow Helsinki Group to monitor Soviet compliance with the Helsinki Accords. The group became one of the most influential human rights groups in Russia and the model for many similar groups inside and outside the Soviet Union.

Nine months after his dissident work began, Orlov was arrested in 1977 for “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda.” After months of interrogation in a KGB prison, followed by a three-day show trial, he was sentenced to a hard-labor camp. In 1984, he was released and exiled to Siberia.

“During his career in the Soviet Union, Yuri developed groundbreaking and pioneering theoretical work on particle motion in accelerators … including the application of Hamiltonian analysis of particle motion, rules on quantum radiation damping and excitation, and the development of spin resonances and of quantum depolarization of electron beams,” said Georg Hoffstaetter, professor of physics in A&S. “All this work is still highly relevant in modern particle accelerators, like the 2.4 mile long Electron Ion Collider that the U.S. is building on Long Island.

“It is amazing to me how Yuri could make such seminal contributions while severely restricted by his government due to his human rights efforts. He even wrote scientific work on little paper snippets to be smuggled out of his labor camp,” Hoffstaetter noted.

Orlov’s physics research in the U.S. included work at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), where he helped develop the idea of ion “shaking,” with consequent doubling of the number of accumulated anti-protons. He also worked on an alternative design for the proposed B-factory at Cornell, a physics megaproject to explore the origins of matter.

He participated in measuring the magnetic dipole moment of the muon at Brookhaven National Laboratory, as well as doing theoretical work on systematic errors for proposals to measure the electric dipole moment of the proton, electron and deuteron. He also published papers on quantum and classical indeterminism.

He continued his human rights work from the U.S., campaigning for Soviet, Russian and Chinese political prisoners and advising advised human rights organizations in Russia. His 90th birthday was honored by a Voice of America documentary, an online tribute from the National Security Archive at George Washington University, and an online party in Moscow attended by members of 30 Russian human rights organizations, hosted by the Russian Federation and the Moscow Helsinki Group.

At age 90, Orlov still taught an undergraduate human rights seminar and a graduate physics seminar, making him one of America’s oldest active faculty members. He retired in 2015.

He continued his research after retirement, beginning theoretical work in cosmology, in addition to continuing work on theoretical issues related to the next generation measurement of the muon (g-2) and other elementary particles.

Orlov authored or co-authored more than 240 scientific papers and technical reports. He also wrote a memoir, “Dangerous Thoughts: Memoirs of a Russian Life” (1991).

His many honors included the American Physical Society Nicholson Medal and the first American Physical Society Andrei Sakharov Prize, in 2006, as well as the Carter-Menil Human Rights Prize. He was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the American Physical Society. Shortly before his death, he was awarded the American Physical Society’s 2021 Wilson Prize, a prestigious award in the field of particle accelerator physics.

Orlov is survived by his wife, Sidney Orlov; sons Dmitry, Aleksander and Lev in Moscow; eight grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Read the story in the Cornell Chronicle.

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