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Vladislav Zubok on: Stalin's Use of Soviet Resources to Build the Bomb
Q: Within days of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing, Stalin puts the Soviet effort to build an atomic weapon on a new basis; he makes it a national priority. How did he go about building an enterprise like that on the shoulders of this, this devastated country?

VZ: Well, he knew the country was devastated, because he had several sources to learn about it. First of all, he saw Stalingrad with his own eyes when he returned from Teheran. He saw some devastation. But also there was a commission to calculate the damage inflicted by the Germans. So he knew figures. The figures were horrendous. And that's why he did not come quickly to a... with a structure of the project. He thought about it for several days. We know from several sources about it -- he discussed it.

First of all, he wanted to put it under [Viacheslav] Molotov, a Chairman of, First Deputy Chairman of Council of Ministers. Well, no, Molotov was probably too busy with other things. It needs to be the first priority. Then [Lavrentii] Beria offered him, let's put it under the NKVD. NKVD ran the gulag system, had hundreds of thousands of slave labor, terror, intimidation -- efficiency. But even that proved to be too little for Stalin. And he said, well yes, it should be Beria, but it should be also [Georgii] Malenkov, because Malenkov is in charge of all Party cadres, he should be there for the whole Party plus the NKVD. So he knew it would be difficult. But he did it anyway.

And it's amazing, because he didn't even wait for, for a year, for instance, to let the country to lick its wounds just a little bit. He rushed immediately into this project. And we know that whole regions in the Urals and Siberia were left without electricity for weeks. Electricity was cut off. It was this -- recollections of one participant of the project -- there was haggling and shouting matches among ministers and secretaries of certain regions of the country about resources, because there were no resources. To take resources for the atomic project meant to leave people starving, freezing. And that's what Stalin did. That's what Stalin did. Because the winter of '46-'47 was a terrible winter. And winter of '45-'46 was also a horrible winter. So we know that about two million people at least died of famine in Ukraine. Hundreds of thousands of people died of malnutrition in other parts of the country. We have documents about it.

So it was a choice in -- it was not a choice, it was something imposed by Stalin's ruthless will upon a country that was in agony. And to justify this, you needed to, you needed people who believed that there was no other way, there was no choice. And again, surprisingly, he found those people. [Igor] Kurchatov and other physicists did believe that the only way for Russia to counter American threat or to counter Hiroshima threat was to build their own atomic bomb as soon as possible. Every year counted.

That leads us back to the question of mentality and psychology, and the impact of the Second World War. For physicists who worked in the Kurchatov project who -- some of them did not fight on the fronts, some of them, very young people, were recalled from the fronts, but they had that patriotic, warlike mentality anyway. For them the war did not end. Suddenly Hiroshima ended the postwar triumphant euphoric period and introduced a new pre-war period for them. And Stalin of course encouraged it very much. Stalin wanted them to think this way and offered them unlimited opportunities, unlimited resources.

But what helped more I believe, it was the total isolation of the project from the rest of Soviet economy, from the very beginning it was set -- put on a totally separate footing. The State Planning Committee, the GOS Plan, State Bank -- they had special open-ended accounts for the atomic project. That means that the people from the atomic project could call anytime, ask for any resources, unlimited resources, in a country that, as you said, was still, was in deep economic crisis, profound economic crisis. And those people were isolated from everything else, they believed they were fulfilling their patriotic duty. And they were inebriated with the sense of, with the potential of this task. And the fact that most of them were extremely young people -- late '20s, '30s -- who did, finally did something on an unheard of scale, colossal scale. That was collective inebriation, collective hypnosis if you like of the atomic project, that allowed them to work day and night. So I mean, they sacrificed their health and their lives themselves. It's, it's pointless to talk about their living in luxury while the rest of the country died of famine. No, they, they worked as enthusiasts without sparing themselves.

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