Professor Grigori Tokaty

Rocket scientist who denounced the Stalinist regime

Grigori Alexandrovich Tokaev (Grigori Tokaty), aeronautical engineer: born Stavtordt, Russia 13 October 1909; Head of Aeronautics Laboratory, Zhukovsky Academy 1938-41, Deputy Head of Research Department 1941, Lecturer in Aerodynamics and Aircraft Design 1941-45; Acting Professor of Aviation, Moscow Engineering Institute 1939-45; Reader in Aeronautics and Astronautics, Department of Aeronautics and Space Technology, Northampton College of Advanced Technology (later City University) 1960-61, Head of Department 1961-75, Professor 1967-75 (Emeritus); married 1936 Aza Baev (died 2003; one daughter); died Cheam, Surrey 23 November 2003.

From 1967 until 1975 Grigori Tokaty was Professor in the Department of Aeronautics and Space Technology at City University in London, but in his earlier life, known as Grigori Tokaev, he had been a casualty of the Russian revolution, a man who was torn between his love for the small, downtrodden Caucasian state that was his homeland, his support for Communism, his enthusiasm for scientific advancement, and his hatred of the oppressive Stalinist regime.

Hot-blooded and outspoken, Tokaev repeatedly kicked his heels against a system in which the Soviet leadership, the secret police and the Communist Party machine demanded unquestioning loyalty and acquiescence, where informers and sycophants ruled supreme.

Despite numerous threats and denunciations, Tokaev's abilities as a public speaker and scientist enabled him to be one of those trusted by the Kremlin with state secrets. Yet, at the very moment that his stature reached its zenith, his links with the underground opposition threatened to destroy both his career and his life. So it was that, at the age of 38, Lt-Col Tokaev and his family fled to the West, where he became an enthusiastic critic of the regime that he had left behind.

Grigori Alexandrovich Tokaev was born in Ossetia, a small state in the North Caucasus region of Russia, in 1909. His father died when he was nine years old, leaving his mother to struggle to bring up her five children by working on a smallholding. The young Tokaev was prevented from attending school by the bitter civil war that followed the overthrow in 1917 of the tsar, and he later described his education as "scenes of bloodshed, degradation, violence and rage".

With the success of the Communists under Lenin, Tokaev was determined to educate himself and raise his status as a servant of the Party. The "unquestioning young fanatic" became a leading light in the Comsomol (the Communist Youth League) and the local trade union, and went to the Mining Academy in Leningrad on a union-sponsored scholarship. His first years away from home were marked by physical hardship and altercations with authority, contrasting with a rising profile in the Comsomol and contacts with members of a secret underground opposition. He finished his education at the Workers' Faculty of the Moscow Higher Technical College. Despite a Party reprimand for eating left-over bread, he graduated in 1932 and was sent to the prestigious Zhukovsky Academy of the Soviet Air Force.

During his period of training as an engineering officer, Tokaev witnessed the ruthless purges of "counter-revolutionaries". He, himself, was fortunate to survive a trial after he was reported for recounting an uncomplimentary story about the Soviet leadership to some Academy colleagues.

Finally, after five years of study, Tokaev graduated as an All-Union prize-winner, and was subsequently appointed research engineer in 1937 in the Academy's Laboratory of Aerodynamics. Within a year, he had risen to become head of the laboratory, where he supervised the construction of new facilities to investigate high-speed flight.

After receiving his doctorate in technical sciences in 1941, he continued to lecture at the Zhukovsky Academy while simultaneously working as Acting Head of the Department of Aviation at the Moscow Engineering Institute. One of his tasks was to study the possibility of developing a medium-range winged rocket, but when Hitler's armies invaded the Soviet Union and rapidly overran the Soviet front-line forces, the Academy's staff were evacuated to Sverdlovsk in the Urals.

Tokaev returned to Moscow during the Nazi siege, and later flew in bombing raids over Stalingrad, using American bombers delivered through lend-lease. By the end of the Second World War, and now promoted to lieutenant-colonel, he had become a leading Party representative and academic at the Zhukovsky Academy (now back in Moscow) and the Moscow Engineering Institute.

In June 1945, he was sent to Berlin in order to serve on the Soviet Control Commission, working directly under Marshals Georgi Zhukov and Vasily Sokolovsky. As such, he gained access to top-secret communications between the General Staff and the Kremlin.

Seven months later, as the scientific adviser on aircraft and jet propulsion to Zhukov's staff, he led a team devoted to gathering information about the Germans' jet aircraft and V-2 missile programmes. In April 1947, he was summoned to the Kremlin, where he was asked to evaluate a rocket-powered bomber that had been designed for the Nazis by the German scientist Eugen Sänger and had the potential to attack the United States.

Despite his alarm at the suggestion that the Soviet Union was seeking a means of attacking its American ally, Tokaev was assigned to a state commission for the development of long-range rockets. His concern heightened when it became clear that the intelligence service was determined to kidnap Sänger and other leading German scientists who were living in western Europe. However, it was largely through Tokaev's efforts that Professor Kurt Tank, designer of the Focke-Wulf aircraft, was detained and enlisted in the Soviet cause.

Tokaev's disillusionment with the Stalinist regime, his dismay at the treatment of his fellow officers and scientists, and fear of arrest by the security services led him to establish contact with British intelligence. Despite constant surveillance by the NKVD (a forerunner of the KGB), he and his family crossed into the British sector of Berlin and applied for asylum - the only Soviet official to defect to Britain between 1945 and 1963.

On his arrival in Britain in November 1947, Tokaev was given a false identity and carefully protected by the secret services during his lengthy debriefing, since there was strong evidence to suggest that Soviet agents had been assigned to assassinate him. Now using the Ossetian version of his surname, Tokaty, he subsequently drafted a manuscript with a full account of his defection, but the interest of author, publisher and Hollywood studios waned when large sections of the text were censored by the British authorities. The unpublished tale still awaits resurrection.

Although Tokaty brought with him valuable information regarding Soviet military secrets, the intelligence community and the burgeoning rocket programme, much of his time was spent in denouncing the Stalinist regime and assisting the Information Research Department (IRD), a top-secret group within the Foreign Office, to disseminate anti-Communist propaganda.

His IRD-inspired literary output included three articles for the Sunday Express in January 1949, in which he asserted, "Stalin and the Politburo are working hard and on an enormous scale to perfect long-range rockets and long-range air power . . . They are moreover, equipped to wage biological warfare." Although his outspoken comments enraged pro-Communists, Tokaty vigorously defended himself, causing a sensation when he successfully sued the publishers of the magazine Russia Today for attacking the veracity of one of his articles.

A similar message supporting the Cold War policies of the West was delivered in his several books. Stalin Means War (1951) disclosed the Soviet dictator's plan for world domination. This was followed by Betrayal of an Ideal (1954), a personalised account of Stalin's purges, and Comrade X (1956), in which he described his role in the Soviet underground opposition.

Meanwhile, Tokaty began a new career in Britain as an authority on aeronautics and rocketry. From 1953 onwards he began to lecture at Imperial College, London and Cranfield College of Aeronautics, and he was eventually appointed Head of the Department of Aeronautics and Space Technology at the Northampton College of Advanced Technology, later to become City University.

During the 1960s he was invited to the United States to assist with their Apollo lunar programme, and he subsequently wrote seven books on rocketry and spaceship design. He retired from City University in 1975, but continued to work as a visiting professor in Jordan, Iran, Turkey and Nigeria.

Peter Bond

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