The Communist Bomb

Stalin and the Bomb: The Soviet Union and Atomic Energy, 1939–1956

by David Holloway
Yale University Press, 464 pp., $30.00

The history of nuclear weapons is, as David Holloway writes,

at once fascinating and repulsive. It is an exciting tale of discovery and invention, but it tells of weapons that could destroy all life on earth. The history of nuclear weapons in the Soviet Union is doubly fascinating and doubly repellent. Its fascination is enhanced by the mystery in which it has been shrouded for so long. Its repulsiveness is magnified by the brutality of the Stalin regime for which the Soviet nuclear weapons were first created.

The official secrecy surrounding the bomb gave rise to many wild speculations. In 1945, when the Soviets were widely regarded as scientifically and technologically backward, many military people and politicians in the West were convinced that it would take them many years to make an atom bomb. Many scientists knew better, because they had met with Soviet scientists—or at least they did so up to 1937, when the increasing severity of the regime made international personal contact virtually impossible.

During the 1920s and early 1930s natural science made considerable progress in the USSR; this was largely owing to a few leading scientists, including the physicist Abram Ioffe, who founded the Physiotechnical Institute (now the Ioffe Institute) in Leningrad. He also took the initiative in starting similar institutes elsewhere, including a very successful one in Khar’kov. His pupils Iakov Frenkel’ and Nikolai Semenov did much to improve the study of theoretical and chemical physics in the USSR.

In the 1930s physics survived a strong attack by Marxist philosophers, who claimed that they and the Party could decide what was scientific truth. A similar attack led by Trofim Lysenko destroyed Soviet genetics and demoralized biologists. The difference, I believe, is explained by the presence among the physicists of men of great courage and energy, such as Frenkel’, Ioffe, and Igor’ Tamm, and by the absence among them of ambitious charlatans such as Lysenko. Starting in 1937, however, the purges affected scientists; many of the most promising scientists in all fields were arrested and some were shot or exiled. But physics survived.

Nuclear physics, however, was not very strong. After the discovery of the neutron in 1932, and Fermi’s use of it as a probe for nuclei, more Soviet physicists had turned to nuclear problems, but they were frustrated by the fast pace of discoveries in nuclear physics in the West and by delays in communication of scientific developments. Construction of a cyclotron started in the early Thirties but Holloway writes that it was “not until the end of 1940 that it went into normal operation.” The discovery of fission in 1938 by Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman, and its explanation by Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch in 1939, naturally attracted attention in the USSR, but those who tried to contribute to fission physics felt frustrated for the same reasons. An exception was the discovery of spontaneous fission by Georgii Flerov and his pupil Konstantin Petrzhak in 1940.

There was much speculation in …

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