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Race for the Superbomb | Article

Russian Politicians, Officials and Administrators

Lavrentii Beria, (1899 - 1953) 

Lavrentii Beria was one of the cruelest leaders in a regime known for its brutality. He first reached a position of power by working his way up the police organization in the Soviet republic of Georgia. In 1938, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin summoned him to Moscow to work as the deputy to the chief of the Soviet secret police (NKVD). Within months the chief had disappeared and Beria had replaced him. During the purges of the 1930s, many Soviet leaders issued lists of people they wanted arrested and shot, but Beria may have been the only one who personally got involved in torturing his victims. His cruelty also included rape. He was known to have teenage girls picked off the streets and delivered to his office. 

Beria's control of the police made him an extremely effective if ruthless administrator. As one of his colleagues remembered, an order from Beria was a matter of life and death. So it's an indication of the importance Stalin gave to the Soviet atomic bomb program that he appointed Beria to head it on August 7, 1945, the day after the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. 

Beria was incredibly suspicious of just about everyone. He distrusted both the espionage information collected by his intelligence network and also what the Soviet scientists working on the bomb project told him. A few days after his scientists started up their first reactor, Beria came to see the machine in operation. But even with the galvanometer running off the scale, Beria was totally unimpressed. "Is that all?" he wanted to know. He then asked to approach the reactor. When Kurchatov told him that was too dangerous, Beria's distrust increased. 

After the Soviet scientists succeeded in testing their first atomic device in August 1949, a secret decree granted honors to the leaders of the project. In deciding who was to receive which award, Beria is said to have adopted a simple principle: Those who would have been shot had the bomb been a failure were to become Heroes of Socialist Labor; those who would have received maximum prison terms were to be given the less prestigious award, the Order of Lenin. 

After Stalin died in March 1953, a power struggle broke out in Moscow. Several Soviet leaders were worried that Beria was hoping to become as powerful as Stalin had been. And so in July of that year, Nikita Khrushchev arranged to have him arrested, denouncing him as an agent of international imperialism. Beria was tried in secret and found guilty. A Soviet general executed him in his underground cell, and according to a witness Beria crawled on his knees begging for mercy. 

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Stalin and Beria

Joseph Stalin, (1879 - 1953) 

Soviet leader Joseph Stalin first heard officially from the Americans about their atomic bomb at the Potsdam Conference on July 24, 1945. President Truman told him that we have, "a new weapon of unusual destructive force." Truman didn't specifically call it an atomic bomb, and Stalin didn't ask for further details. Witnesses say the Soviet leader merely nodded his head. It's not clear whether Stalin failed to understand what Truman was talking about or whether he didn't want to reveal the backwardness of the Soviet bomb project. 

In any event, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 6th made the disparity between the Soviet and American programs plain. A British journalist in Moscow wrote: "the news [of Hiroshima] had an acutely depressing effect on everybody. It was clearly realized that this was a New Fact in the world's power politics, that the bomb constituted a threat to Russia." Within weeks, Stalin issued a decree that made the development of the atomic bomb a top priority. 

The Soviet leader was prepared to allocate huge resources to the nuclear program at a time when his country lay in ruins. "If a child does not cry," he told Igor Kurchatov, the scientific director of the project, "the mother doesn't understand what he needs. Ask for anything you like. You will not be turned down." His order deflected economic assistance from a population that desperately needed it. At least 26 million Soviet citizens had been killed during the war, another 25 million were homeless and the major industrial cities had been flattened by the fighting. 

By 1945, Stalin had already established himself as a brutal tyrant capable of inflicting terrible suffering on the Soviet people. Within five years of Lenin's death in 1924, Stalin had managed to firmly entrench himself in the role of indisputable ruler of the Soviet Union. His brutality was unremitting. In the late twenties, when agricultural production didn't meet expectations, he expropriated grain from peasants causing a widespread famine. In the 1930s, he launched a reign of political terror that led to purges, arrests, deportations and executions. And he stage-managed show trials of his former political rivals who were put to death. All told, thousands of party, industrial, and military leaders disappeared during his "Great Terror." 

During the immediate post-war years, Stalin was determined not to allow the U.S. monopoly of the atomic bomb to influence the course of international affairs. If anything the Americans' possession of the weapon, made Stalin more obdurate. In September 1946 he told a British journalist that "Atomic bombs are meant to frighten those with weak nerves." He went on to concede that the bomb did, of course, create a threat, but he warned, "monopoly ownership of the atomic bomb cannot last for long." And he was right, it didn't. On August 29, 1949, at least a year before the American scientists expected, the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb. 

In the last years of Stalin's life, he once more gave way to his excessive paranoia. On one occasion he even said, "I'm finished. I trust no one, not even myself." In January 1953, he instigated the arrest of many Moscow doctors, most of whom were Jewish, on charges that they had committed medical assassinations. The so-called doctor's plot seemed to be the beginning of a new reign of terror. But Stalin's unexpected death in March averted the return to the terror of the '30s. 

Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971) 

Nikita Khrushchev began his working life as child in the coal mines. He joined the Communist party in 1918 and fought with the Red Army during the civil war. In the 1920s Khrushchev began his rapid rise to power and by the time Joseph Stalin died in March 1953, he was secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. By 1958 he had outmaneuvered his political rivals becoming the Soviet Premier. From his very first full briefing on nuclear weapons in September of 1953, Khrushchev clearly understood the special terror of the hydrogen bomb. "When I was appointed First Secretary of the Central Committee and learned all the facts of nuclear power I couldn't sleep for several days," he confessed. "Then I became convinced that we could never possibly use these weapons, and when I realized that I was able to sleep again." At the Twentieth Party Congress in February 1956, two months after the successful test of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, Khrushchev formally broke with Stalin's revolutionary tenet that a new world war was inevitable. "Either peaceful coexistence or the most destructive war in history," he declared, "there is no third way." 

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