4. Stalin decides to build the bomb

Truman had told Stalin at Potsdam on 24 July that the United States had a powerful new weapon, though he failed to specify what it was. ‘We guessed at once what he had in mind,’ said Foreign Minister Molotov some years later, and the general G. K. Zhukov claimed that Stalin had said, ‘we’ll have to have a talk with Kurchatov today about speeding up our work’. According to Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, Stalin now knew that he must try to enter the war against Japan before the Americans dropped the first of their bombs; in the event, of course, he did not quite make it. After Hiroshima, Stalin realized the strategic importance of the bomb. With the United States ambassador Averell Harriman and counselor George Kennan on 8 August, the dictator seemed sanguine, though he let the Americans know the significance of Soviet intervention in the Pacific War and hinted that atomic secrecy was unlikely to be permanent. Privately, Stalin brought together the Kremlin’s commissar (and commissariat) of munitions and Igor Kurchatov. ‘A single demand of you, comrades!’ he told the group. ‘Provide us with atomic weapons in the shortest possible time! You know Hiroshima has shaken the whole world. The balance [of power] has been destroyed! Provide the bomb—it will remove a great danger from us.’ To Kurchatov alone, Stalin said: ‘If a child doesn’t cry, the mother doesn’t know what he needs. Ask for whatever you like. You won’t be refused.’25

Under the gimlet eye of Beria, who treated his scientists with a bluntness Leslie Groves had fantasized about, the Soviet atomic-bomb project moved forward. Kurchatov’s student Igor Golovin wrote: ‘every institute capable of helping solve the atomic problem was called upon to mobilize its scientific resources and contribute under an integrated scientific plan.’ Golovin was caught up in the excitement; he came to admire Beria’s ‘administrative abilities’ (‘Meetings did not drag on for hours; everything was decided quickly’), and assumed that Beria’s use of slave laborers, pulled from four nearby prison camps, was simply necessary to build a bomb before the Americans saw fit to attack Moscow. Less enamored of the work conditions, Beria’s highhandedness, and what he considered a mistaken approach to bomb building, Peter Kapitsa resigned from the project, writing to Stalin, ‘there is much that is abnormal in the organization of the work on the atomic bomb’. And, Kapitsa felt, political leaders refused to trust their scientists. There was a good deal to this last criticism in particular, but Khariton and his colleagues, along with engineers and technicians who learned as they went on with the project, maintained morale sufficient to work at a rapid pace. Whatever his suspicions, Stalin made sure the project was fully funded and the scientists provided for. He had built for Kurchatov, on the forested grounds of his laboratory, a beautiful eight-room house with parquet floors and marble fireplaces.26

Groves wrote in the Saturday Evening Post in 1948 that the Soviets lacked the scientific know-how and ‘precision industry’ to keep up with the United States technologically. The Russians used ‘axle grease where we use fine lubricating oils. It is an oxcart-versus-automobile situation.’ Groves underestimated Soviet talent, resources, and resourcefulness. There was uranium in the Soviet Union—in Central Asia, the Ukraine, and eastern Siberia—and the Russians also demanded ore from Czech Jachymov and especially the German side of the Erzgebirge, extracted with prison labor. An experimental reactor, conceived by Khariton in 1943, went critical on Christmas night 1946, just over four years after Fermi’s pile had succeeded. (Beria, at the scene a few days later, was disappointed that high-speed clicking and jumping instrument needles offered the only evidence that the pile was working and asked to enter the reactor itself. Kurchatov may have been tempted, but he dissuaded Beria from going in.) A full production reactor came next. Uranium would be refined to plutonium at a site called Chelyabinsk-40, east of the Ural Mountains and about 15 miles from the village of Kyshtym. There the Soviets built a reactor called Annushka (‘Little Anna’), using for a reaction moderator graphite refined onsite, much of it a Lend Lease gift from the United States. There were mistakes, accidents, occasional fires, and alarming small explosions. Annushka was nevertheless ready to start in June 1948. Almost immediately, the aluminum cans surrounding the uranium slugs corroded and had to be replaced. Then the slugs themselves swelled so much they could not be discharged from the pile. Khariton had the canned slugs removed, rebored the slug channels in the reactor, then replaced the uranium in the machine. The glitch cost the Russians nearly six months.27

Chelyabinsk-40 was like Hanford. The Soviet Los Alamos was near a town called Sarov, roughly 400 kilometers east of Moscow but at the edge of a forest and fairly isolated. The site was named Arzamas-16 after a small city to the north; as Holloway notes, ‘it was also—inevitably—referred to as “Los Arzamas” ’. There experimenters replicated tasks that their Los Alamos counterparts had undertaken several years earlier. To Georgi Flerov, one of the co-discoverers of spontaneous fission in an experiment set up in a Moscow subway station in February 1940, fell Louis Slotin’s dangerous job: establishing the criticality of two plutonium hemispheres as they moved closer together. Scientists disagreed for a time over whether they had allowed for sufficient compression to produce implosion. The problems were solved, and by summer 1949 Kurchatov was ready to test his bomb. The Soviet Alamogordo was near the town of Semipalatinsk, in northeast Kazakhstan. It was steppe country, very hot in summer, and far away from prying eyes. The bomb was assembled at the foot of a 100-foot tower. Yuli Khariton nested the initiator between the plutonium hemispheres, then, at 2.00 in the morning of 29 August, the ‘article’, as the bomb was nicknamed, was carried up the tower in a freight elevator. At the top the bomb was armed, by Flerov among others. Kurchatov went off to the command post, Beria to an adjacent cabin to sleep. As with Trinity, it rained during the night, causing a brief delay in the test. As with Trinity, the weather improved a bit as dawn arrived. Kurchatov ordered the countdown. At 7.00 it reached zero. The steppe turned white with illumination; the shock wave struck the command center, breaking the glass. ‘It worked,’ said Kurchatov. Beria hugged and kissed him and Khariton. If the bomb had not worked, a scientist later recalled, ‘they would all have been shot’.28

The test bomb was the equivalent of 20 kilotons of TNT, roughly the same as the gadget had yielded at Alamogordo four years and one month earlier. Beria confirmed the shot’s success with an observer who had witnessed an American test several years earlier, then called Stalin with the news. Grumpy at having been awakened, Stalin told Beria that he already knew the result and hung up, once more inciting Beria to fury. The scientists responsible were secretly awarded high state honors, with the highest—Hero of Socialist Labor—going to those slated to be executed if the test shot had failed. The Soviets had entered the nuclear age.29

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