Stalin and the Bomb by David Holloway - Modern European Intellectual History 12
(The Soviet Union and Atomic Energy, 1939-1956)
Science was seen in Russia, by both its friends and its enemies as a progressive and democratic force. But even after it was assimilated into Russian culture, it was mistrusted by many because it was seen as embodying Western values. We have already seen the influence of the Bolshevik revolution on biology with Lysenko and physics was also at risk of being politicized. It was saved from that fate because Lenin understood that science and technology were essential for defense and economic security (“it is necessary to master the highest technology or be crushed”).
The first 30 years of the 20th century saw a rising interest in nuclear physics in the West, reaching a peak in the early 30s with the realization of the possibility of fission and the consequent release of energy. Soviet scientists followed the advances in nuclear physics as well as participating in them, although they were hampered in their research by not always having access to the best equipment. The State wanted science that would benefit the people, pure research was harder to justify. Although in the West the notion that nuclear fission could be used to create an extremely powerful bomb was being discussed at this time, in the Soviet Union the primary interest was in the possibilities for power generation. Physicists in the Soviet Union did not grow concerned about the possibility of the atomic bomb until work in the US, Britain and Germany was already underway.
In 1942, a review of journals by Flerov revealed that articles on fission were no longer appearing and that the scientists doing the research on fission were not publishing on other research. From “the dogs that do not bark” he determined that research on fission had gone secret in the US, which meant that the Americans were trying to build an atomic bomb. He wrote to several people, including Stalin. There was no response. An ongoing concern in the Soviet Union, however, was the supply of uranium, needed for power plants as well as for bombs and over the years there were attempts by physicists to get the state to organize the search for sources of uranium, with varying degrees of success.
Stalin, it seems did not really understand the significance of the bomb, even when he knew that the Americans possessed one. (The Soviets had details of the Manhattan project as well as the Maud Commission’s report). It was not until the US dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima that Stalin took a real interest in it, and only then did the Soviet Union begin a concerted effort to build one of their own. The detailed intelligence that they obtained was not shown to all the scientists working on the project however, it was only shown to Kurchatov, who was in charge. He then used this knowledge to help guide the work. The Soviet Union exploded their first atomic bomb on August 29, 1949. It had taken them only a little longer to develop than it took the US to develop theirs.
It is important to remember that the relationship between politics and science was not an easy one in the Soviet Union. Stalin distrusted the scientists, probably because he could not really understand what they were doing, and it is extremely likely that had the test on August 29th been a failure the scientists in charge would have been taken out and shot.
Stalin perceived the US foreign policy as being one of Atomic Blackmail. After WWII, when the US was the only nation that had the bomb, he expected them to use it to establish an hegemony over the world. This was something that the Soviet Union must, at all costs, resist. The only people who feared the atomic bomb were those who had “weak nerves.” This led to a war of nerves and of atomic brinkmanship, especially once the Soviet Union had their own bomb. They didn’t want to give in to the US in international affairs, because that would make them look weak, but at the same time they didn’t want to provoke a war. Stalin, however, believed that another war was inevitable so long as capitalism survived in the world. WWI had heralded the Bolshevik revolution, WWII the rise of the Soviet Union, WWIII would crush capitalism forever.
After WWII, Stalin invested heavily in other military technology besides nuclear weapons, including jet engines, radar and missile technology, the size of the military also increased markedly. Immediately after building the atomic bomb, the Soviet physicists were set to work on the hydrogen bomb. In this effort they did not duplicate the work being done in the US, but rather developed the technology on their own. They tested their hydrogen bomb on August 8, 1953. Under Stalin’s leadership the command economy, combined with the large defense industry and large military establishment set the Soviet Union on a path of militarized development from which it was unable to escape, even after Stalin’s death.
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