Charles Day’s editorial “Physics and human rights” (Physics Today, March 2018, page 8) raises an important question of whether we should limit collaboration with scientists from countries that violate their citizens’ human rights. My own experience of living in the Soviet Union supports the editor’s viewpoint that collaboration is almost always virtuous.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, Soviet researchers were rarely allowed to travel to international conferences abroad—even when that travel was fully paid for by the event organizers. We were often not allowed to submit papers for publication in international journals. I myself was summoned by the KGB and threatened with jail time for sending my mathematical papers abroad. Even access to international journals held in Soviet libraries was often limited. For example, several issues of the Notices of the American Mathematical Society were not available to us without special KGB permission, because in addition to mathematics they also discussed violations of scientists’ human rights worldwide. Those issues never made it to the mailboxes of individual subscribers like me, and the ones delivered to the libraries were placed in special restricted-access sections.

After I complained to the American Mathematical Society (AMS) about missing issues, it started sending them to me by registered mail with return receipt, so I was probably the only person in the Soviet Union—and definitely the only one in St Petersburg—who received those forbidden issues. Of course, I gladly shared them with my colleagues.

Although the forbidden issues included pieces about how the Soviet Union often violated the human rights of scientists, the proposed responses to punish the leadership shocked many of us in the Soviet science community. Several AMS contributing writers suggested decreasing international collaboration, in particular expelling all Soviet scientists from the AMS and ceasing to send us their publications. So on the one hand, the KGB was stealing some of our publications, and on the other hand, our own colleagues were now proposing, in effect, further oppression by depriving us of the publications altogether.

Luckily for us, saner voices prevailed in the AMS. So here is my plea: Before proposing any action to combat human-rights violations, please consider how it will affect the very scientists whose rights are being violated.

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