24 January 2024
By Aleksandr Podrabinek
Source: Radio Svoboda
Fear of nuclear war is virtually the main component of the West’s position on the war between Russia and Ukraine. Intervening in a serious way in the conflict on Ukraine’s side means provoking Russia to a possible nuclear response and all-out World War III. So thinks the West, and these concerns are not without grounds. Especially since the Kremlin is constantly hinting at this possibility. It’s another matter that tolerance for the aggressor leads even more reliably to the same result, but that’s a separate issue.
Possession of an atom bomb became the lead trump of Soviet foreign policy beginning in the mid-twentieth century, as soon as atomic weapons appeared first in the United States and then in the Soviet Union. Back then, Moscow did not brandish the atomic club as unconstrainedly as now, but everyone knew and thought about this weapon, and this allowed the Communists to carry out their expansion in every corner of the planet without worrying too much about the possibility of an appropriate response. Had the Soviet Union not had an atomic weapon, the world community would scarcely have reconciled so easily to the Soviets’ suppression of the revolution in Hungary in 1956, its occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and its aggression against Afghanistan in 1979.
But it did have it, and that decided everything.
It did not appear by accident, it was no gift of fate. It was invented by talented Soviet physicists with the help of espionage and stolen technology and by material resources in the United States, Great Britain, and the by then defeated Germany. These scientists are widely known. They were stars of the first magnitude in the scientific world.
Academician Pyotr Kapitsa, a Nobel Prize winner in physics and colleague of Ernest Rutherford, was a member of the Soviet government’s “atomic” Special Committee led by Lavrenty Beria. For his work, Kapitsa was named a Hero of Socialist Labor twice and awarded six Orders of Lenin.
In 1946, Academician Igor Tamm, a Soviet theoretical physicist and another Nobel laureate, was brought into the project to create the first Soviet atom bomb. Tamm’s group developed a number of principles that allowed for the creation of the first thermonuclear bomb, which was successfully tested on 12 August 1953.
Participating in the Soviet atomic project were Nobel Prize laureate in physics Lev Landau, Academician Lev Artsimovich, Yakov Zeldovich, Georgy Flerov, Vitaly Ginzburg, Professor Frank-Kamenetsky, and many other outstanding physicists of the day. Academicians Andrei Sakharov and Yuly Khariton were there at the beginning of the creation of the hydrogen bomb.
Academician Igor Kurchatov, a member of the technical council of the State Defence Committee’s Special Committee, directed the entire Soviet atomic project. Engaged in scientific research, he more than anyone had to have understood what kind of weapon they were creating and who it was intended for and why. The Soviet regime paid him generously for his assiduity. In 1949, for the creation of the atom bomb, Kurchatov was awarded the title Hero of Socialist Labor, given the Stalin Prize, had built for him at state expense and transferred to his full ownership a furnished private mansion and dacha, had presented to him and his wife free travel for life by rail, water, and air, had established a double salary for the entire period of his work in atomic energy, and was given a ZIS-110 automobile and a 500,000-ruble prize. (At that time, the average monthly salary in the country was 600 rubles.)
All the scientists who took part in creating the atomic weapon were constantly receiving medals, titles, prizes, apartments, automobiles, special rations, special healthcare, and many other fringe benefits out of reach of ordinary mortals. The regime was not stingy with its gifts when it came to a weapon it could use to blackmail the world.
What were these physicists thinking when they were creating a weapon for a totalitarian regime? Some were trying to stay out of “political issues” and to tackle “purely scientific problems.” Others came up with a theory of the balance of powers and believed that the atomic weapon should not be held in only one pair of hands, that is, the United States. (Indeed, is it fair when a policeman is armed and the criminal isn’t?) Still others frankly supported the Communist regime, joined the Soviet Communist Party, and made careers for themselves.
It cannot be said that all these physicists were blind adherents of the socialist order. In 1938, Lev Landau, anxious about socialism, edited a leaflet calling on people to join the “Antifascist Workers Party” to fight the Stalinist regime. In the leaflet, Stalin was called a fascist dictator and compared “in his rabid hatred for true socialism” to Hitler and Mussolini. For this, Landau spent a year in an NKVD prison and almost certainly would have lost his life had he not been freed thanks to Niels Bohr and the intervention of P.L. Kapitsa, who secured Landau’s release.
In 1955, all the above-listed scientists, except for Kurchatov, signed a collective letter to the Central Committee of the Communist Party (the so-called Letter of Three Hundred), calling for an end to the retrograde activities of Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences President Academician Lysenko. In 1966, Tamm, Artsimovich, Kapitsa, and Sakharov signed a letter from 25 figures in culture and the sciences to Communist Party General Secretary L.I. Brezhnev protesting Stalin’s rehabilitation. Some scientists demonstrated highly independent behavior, from Pyotr Kapitsa’s harsh letters to the authorities to Andrei Sakharov’s human rights activities. However, none of this makes up for the shameful fact that they put the most powerful modern weapon into the hands of the Communist tyranny.
And what do we have at the end of the day? Academician Lysenko and his retrograde theories are long forgotten. The political prisoners Academician Sakharov defended are long released from their prisons. The revival of Stalinism in its original form did not happen. None of the creators of the atom or hydrogen bomb are among the living. The Communist system has collapsed, leaving behind isolated pockets of totalitarian regimes. But the nuclear weapon created by the hands of Soviet physicists—who were talented and wonderfully educated, witty and intelligent, averse to politics and dismissive of honors—that weapon remains very much of the moment. As before, it threatens the entire world and shields the now new repressive regime from any outside influence. It is to these physicists that we should be “grateful” for the nuclear weapon that gave the Soviet regime a military advantage and has now untied the hands of the new Russian regime.
Scientific and technical progress have not stopped. Today new scientists and engineers—talented, intelligent, and educated—are creating or coopting new technologies, new types of weapons, and new military equipment. Like the Soviet physicists of the twentieth century, they aren’t tormented by questions of personal responsibility or the consequences of their scientific and engineering work. This may be connected in part with the fact that the nuclear physicists of the last century were glorified even by the Soviet liberal intelligentsia. Ecstatic accounts were written about them, and they were made heroes in books and films as bold, creative, and independent people. Their minor Fronde thrilled the cowed Soviet educated class.
Back then, they preferred not to think about their responsibility for strengthening the military might of a totalitarian regime. They aren’t thinking about that now, either.
Translated by Marian Schwartz