In late 1945 and early 1946, a group of prominent Soviet scientists, including in particular the future Nobel Prize winner Pyotr Kapitsa, lobbied the government for the creation of a higher educational institution radically different from the type established in the Soviet system of higher education. Applicants, carefully selected by challenging examinations and personal interviews, would be taught by, and work together with, prominent scientists. Each student would follow a personalized curriculum created to match his or her particular areas of interest and specialization. This system would later become known as the Phystech System.
In a letter to Stalin in February 1946, Kapitsa argued for the need for such a school, which he tentatively called the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, to better maintain and develop the country's defense potential. The institute would follow the principles outlined above, and was supposed to be governed by a board of directors of the leading research institutes of the USSR Academy of Sciences. On March 10, 1946, the government issued a decree mandating the establishment of a "College of Physics and Technology" (Russian: Высшая физико-техническая школа).
For unknown reasons, the initial plan came to a halt in the summer of 1946. The exact circumstances are not documented, but the common assumption is that Kapitsa's refusal to participate in the atomic bomb project, and his disfavor with the government and communist party that followed, cast a shadow over an independent school based largely on his ideas. Instead, a new government decree was issued on November 25, 1946 establishing the new school as a Department of Physics and Technology within Moscow State University. November 25 is celebrated as the date of MIPT's founding.
The four oldest residence halls are across the street from the academic buildings.
Kapitsa foresaw that within a traditional educational institution, the new school would encounter bureaucratic obstacles, but even though Kapitsa's original plan to create the new school as an independent organization did not come to fruition exactly as envisioned, its most important principles survived intact. The new Department enjoyed considerable autonomy within Moscow State University. Its facilities were in Dolgoprudny (the two buildings it occupied are still part of the present day campus), away from the MSU campus. It had its own independent admissions and education system, different from the one centrally mandated for all other universities. It was headed by the MSU "vice rector for special issues"—a position created specifically to shield the department from the University management.
As Kapitsa expected, the special status of the new school with its different "rules of engagement" caused much consternation and resistance within the university. The immediate cult status that Phystech gained among talented young people, drawn by the challenge and romanticism of working on the forefront of science and technology, and on projects of "government importance," many of them classified, made it an untouchable rival of every other school in the country, including MSU's own Department of Physics. At the same time, the increasing disfavor of Kapitsa with the government (in 1950 he was essentially under house arrest), and anti-semitic repressions of the late 1940s made Phystech an easy target of intrigues and accusations of "elitism" and "rootless cosmopolitanism." In the summer of 1951, the Phystech department at MSU was shut down.
A group of academicians, backed by Air Force general Ivan Fedorovich Petrov, who was a Phystech supporter influential enough to secure Stalin's personal approval on the issue, succeeded in re-establishing Phystech as an independent institute. On September 17, 1951, a government decree re-established Phystech as the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology.
Apart from Kapitsa, other prominent scientists who taught at MIPT in the years that followed included Nobel prize winners Nikolay Semyonov, Lev Landau, Alexandr Prokhorov, Vitaly Ginzburg; and Academy of Sciences members Sergey Khristianovich, Mikhail Lavrentiev, Mstislav Keldysh, Sergey Korolyov, and Boris Rauschenbach. MIPT alumni include Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, the 2010 winners of the Nobel Prize for Physics.