Prize in honor of a Jewish scientist and dissident will help his university in Ukraine

Iryna Kolodna and Ambassador of Ukraine to Israel Yevhen Korniychuk. Photo: Shimon Briman

The Mark Azbel Prize has been inaugurated in Israel to support young theoretical physicists at Kharkiv National University. Mark Azbel (1932–2020) was an outstanding physicist and dissident. He graduated from Kharkiv University and organized scientists to resist the Soviet totalitarian regime, later becoming a professor at Tel Aviv University.

Iryna Kolodna, the scientist's widow, has shared the details of her private initiative to establish an award in memory of her husband with the Ambassador of Ukraine to Israel Yevhen Korniychuk. Initially, she will allocate USD 25,000 (USD 5,000 annually over five years) for the annual Mark Azbel Prize, whose recipients will be selected from among young physicists at Kharkiv National University.

"I'm sure that Mark would do just that. He would send aid to Kharkiv University, where he studied and started his scientific career. The university is going through tough times together with Kharkiv and all of Ukraine due to Russia's aggression," Kolodna told the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter (UJE).

Ambassador of Ukraine to Israel Yevhen Korniychuk said at the meeting with Kolodna: "I thank you from the bottom of my heart for this wonderful initiative. Ukraine badly needs any kind of help. I am sure that Kharkiv will overcome all the difficulties of the war and will remain the flagship of Ukrainian science. I hope that other patrons will follow your example, strengthening humanitarian, scientific, and human ties between Israel and Ukraine."

Kharkiv National University's Rector Tetiana Kahanovska and its Academic Council fully supported the establishment of the Mark Azbel Prize.

Professor Ruslan Vovk, dean of the university's Faculty of Physics, has said in a conversation with UJE: "Mark Azbel's scientific discoveries were worthy of the Nobel Prize. The faculty remembers Azbel and appreciates his contribution to the development of science, so we named a classroom next to the theoretical physics department in his honor. The Mark Azbel Prize will help young scientists pursue promising research at our university."

Mark Azbel's birthday and Israel's Independence Day — May 12-14 — are under consideration as a possible award date.

Azbel spent one of the best periods of his life in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, where his passion for physics blossomed, and he achieved his first scientific successes and academic recognition.

Azbel was born into a family of doctors. His father and mother graduated from the Kharkiv Medical Institute before WWII. His family returned from evacuation to Kharkiv, where he studied at school No. 36. In 1948, Azbel enrolled in Kharkiv State University to study physics. After graduating in 1953, he taught mathematics at an evening school in Kharkiv and pursued research.

In Kharkiv, 23-year-old Azbel predicted cyclotron resonance in metals (Azbel-Kaner resonance). He defended his doctoral thesis in 1955 under the guidance of Ilya Lifshitz, a professor at the time and an academician later, and began working at the Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology.

When 26-year-old Azbel defended his postdoctoral dissertation (1958), Lev Landau, a Nobel Prize winner in physics, commented: “The dissertation candidate has only one drawback, but he will get rid of it without our help. This is youth."

Azbel turned down an invitation to work on new types of Soviet nuclear weapons and became a section chair at the Institute for Theoretical Physics in Moscow. However, after he applied for emigration from the USSR in 1972, he was immediately fired from all his offices and refused exit permission.

Azbel refused to put up with the arbitrariness of the Soviet authorities and launched a struggle against the regime. For the first time in the USSR, he created a permanent international scientific seminar for scientists who were denied permission to emigrate.

In April 1974, KGB head Yuri Andropov reported to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union about a plan to disrupt Azbel's seminar, dubbed "a provocative Zionist action" by the KGB. Azbel's "subversive event" involved not only Soviet refuseniks but also prominent scientists from around the world, including five Nobel laureates in physics.

Starting from 1973, Azbel gave lectures on physics to Tel Aviv University students over the phone. In 1977, the KGB finally allowed him to emigrate, and he was appointed Professor of the Department of Theoretical Physics at Tel Aviv University. Azbel received the Israeli Landau Prize (1989) and the German Meitner-Humboldt Award (2001) for outstanding achievements in solid-state physics.

Left: Mark Azbel as a a graduate of Kharkiv University in 1953. Right: Professor Mark Azbel in Israel (2003). Photos from the personal archive of Iryna Kolodna.

The establishment of the Azbel Prize is similar to the help that Professor Roald Hoffmann, a Nobel laureate in chemistry, provides to his hometown of Zolochiv in Ukraine. Rescued by a Ukrainian family during the Holocaust, Hoffman returns the favor to Ukraine. Azbel overcame all the difficulties of Soviet antisemitism, and now his name returns to the city and university of his youth as a prize to support local young scientists.

Azbel said in an interview in Israel: "Even at the age of sixteen, as I was nearing high-school graduation [in Kharkiv], I firmly knew I hated that system, party, government, and leader. So, after receiving an invitation to work for Kurchatov [in Moscow], I decided I didn't want to give that government weapons. It was one of the smartest things I did in my life."

Mark Azbel on the graduation album page of the Faculty of Physics of Kharkiv State University, 1953. Photo from the personal archive of Iryna Kolodna.
Student Mark Azbel and professor Ilya Livshits in classes at Kharkiv State University. Photo from the personal archive of Iryna Kolodna.
Academician Andrei Sakharov and Dr. Mark Azbel at an underground scientific seminar in 1976. Photo from the personal archive of Iryna Kolodna.
A friendly cartoon from 1958 after defending his doctoral dissertation: Lev Landau and Ilya Livshits are holding the globe on which Mark Azbel is standing. Photo from the personal archive of Iryna Kolodna

Text: Shimon Briman (Israel).