Skip To Content
Race for the Superbomb | Article

Scientists and Mathematicians in the U.S.S.R

Igor Kurchatov

Igor Kurchatov, (1903 - 1960) 

Andrei Sakharov once described Igor Kurchatov as a man whose most pronounced trait was his fascination with "grand" science. The physicist who headed the Soviet nuclear program from 1943 until his death in 1960, was also remembered by the scientists who worked for him as a man with a robust sense of humor; a warm and loyal friend who took great care of his subordinates; and an extremely organized administrator. He was nicknamed "boroda" (the beard) by those who were close to him after he stopped shaving during the war--he said he would only get rid of the beard once the Germans were beaten. In fact, he never did. The shaggy facial hair made him look like an orthodox priest. 

Kurchatov was born in the southern Urals in January 1903, the son of a surveyor and a school teacher. In 1920 he entered Tauridian University. He graduated a year early, and wrote his first scientific paper on the radioactivity of snow. In 1925, he received an invitation from the distinguished physicist Abram Ioffe to join the staff of his institute in Leningrad. 

For the first few years of his professional life, Kurchatov devoted himself to the physics of dielectrics, a field of research which had immediate applications in industry. But in 1932, he and a number of other Soviet scientists were drawn to the new and exciting field of nuclear physics. An area of study that many mistakenly believed would only have practical uses in the very distant future. 

The international physics community in the 1930s was small and very closely connected. In the 1930s there were just a handful of institutions conducting ground-breaking research in nuclear physics. The Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University in England was one, Enrico Fermi's team at the University of Rome was another, and Kurchatov's team in Leningrad was a third. Their work was published in scientific journals and they kept track of each other's results. 

After the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, most nuclear scientists abandoned their research to work on the war effort. Laboratories and scientists were evacuated from Moscow and Leningrad to outlying areas. Kurchatov joined a group that was working on protecting ships from magnetic mines. However, within a year Soviet scientists noticed an alarming silence from the West about nuclear fission. The journals that had been abuzz just a couple of years earlier with the latest discoveries made no mention of nuclear research. Soviet scientists realized U.S. nuclear research had become secret and they concluded that could only mean the U.S. was trying to build an atomic bomb. 

In 1943, Kurchatov was chosen to head the Soviet Union's own secret nuclear program, a task he devoted the rest of his life to. Over the years, with the success of the project and greater awareness of the destructiveness of nuclear weapons, Kurchatov grew increasingly alarmed by the possibility of their use. In 1954 after the U.S. tested a 15 megaton bomb in the Pacific, Kurchatov and several other Soviet scientists wrote an article about the dangers of atomic war. "The rate of growth of atomic explosives is such," they warned, "that in just a few years the stockpile will be large enough to create conditions under which the existence of life on earth will be impossible. The explosion of around 100 hydrogen bombs could lead to this result." But it was witnessing the 1955 test of the first Soviet superbomb that was a turning point for Kurchatov. Both he and Sakharov began to feel a deep sense of responsibility for the consequences of their work. And they both began to argue against further testing. 

The success of the program did, however, give Kurchatov immense prestige in the Soviet Union especially within the political elite. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev wrote in his memoirs, "Such was our confidence in him that we let him go around by himself in England calling on physicists and visiting laboratories... It should go without saying that so remarkable a man, so great a scientist, and so devoted a patriot would deserve our complete trust and respect." 

In his last public appearance Kurchatov declared: "I am glad that I was born in Russia and have dedicated my life to Soviet atomic science. I deeply believe, and am firmly convinced, that our people and our government will use the achievements of that science solely for the good of mankind." 

Igor Y. Tamm, (1895 - 1971) 

In an essay on Igor Tamm, a Russian writer claims that the theoretical physicist belonged to an intelligentsia "convinced that the most important thing is to build something, to do something useful." He went on to add that, "Perhaps most important of all was [Tamm's] independent spirit in matters large and small, in life and in science." 

In many ways Tamm was an iconoclast. He was born in Vladivostok in 1895, the son of a city engineer. In 1913 his parents sent him to university in Scotland, hoping that this would keep him out of revolutionary politics. But the following year he returned to Russia and began studying at the University of Moscow. He joined the Menshevik party, opposed Russia's continued participation in World War I and in the turbulent years following the 1917 Russian Revolution, he was imprisoned both by the Bolsheviks and by the anti-Bolshevik forces. 

Despite the pressure to do so, Tamm never joined the Communist Party and after his brother was arrested and executed, he apparently kept a packed bag ready in case the secret police came for him, too. Physicist and human rights activist Andrei Sakharov says that throughout his life Tamm remained faithful to his youthful conviction that "a pure, undistorted socialism [is] the only means of resolving mankind's problems and ensuring general happiness." 

Tamm joined the faculty at Moscow University in 1922 and from 1930 to 1941 he headed the department of theoretical physics. In 1934, he set up the theoretical division of the Physics Institute of the Academy of Sciences, which he headed until he died in 1971. In 1948, Igor Kurchatov, the head of the Soviet nuclear program, asked Tamm to put together a team of scientists to check calculations that other scientists had already completed on the feasibility of a hydrogen bomb. Tamm selected his most talented students, including Sakharov and Vitalii Ginzburg to work on the project. Sakharov rejected the existing H-bomb design, coming up with a new concept that he dubbed the "Layer Cake." 

Shortly afterwards, Tamm, Sakharov and other members of the team were sent to continue their work at Arzamas, the secret weapons laboratory. It was during those years that Sakharov and Tamm developed a very close professional and personal relationship. Sakharov would later say that "Igor Tamm played the largest role in my life," adding that Tamm was the only scientist to influence his opinions on social issues. Following the successful test of the "Layer Cake" in 1953, Tamm was awarded a Hero of Socialist Labor star and the Stalin Prize. Shortly afterwards, he asked to be sent back to Moscow. 

In 1958, Tamm was a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize for physics for the discovery of what is called the Cherenkov effect. He continued working in theoretical physics into the late '60s even as his health declined rapidly. At the end of his life he was granted the Academy of Sciences top honor, the Lomonosov medal. He was too sick to give the traditional lecture at the award ceremony, so an emotional Sakharov read it for him.

Andrei Sakharov

Andrei Sakharov, (1921 - 1989) 

Andrei Sakharov is often called the "father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb," but most people know him as one of the twentieth century's most ardent and unrelenting champions of human rights and freedoms. It was for his work as an outspoken dissident to the Soviet regime that the Nobel Committee awarded him the Peace Prize in 1975. The citation called him "the conscience of mankind" saying that he "has fought not only against the abuse of power and violations of human dignity in all its forms, but has in equal vigor fought for the ideal of a state founded on the principle of justice for all." The Soviet authorities denied him permission to go to Norway to receive his award. 

Sakharov was born on May 21, 1921, the son of a physics teacher. He remembers that: "From childhood, I lived in an atmosphere of decency, mutual help and tact, respect for work, and for the mastery of one's profession." In 1938 he enrolled in the physics department of Moscow University where he was quickly recognized to be an outstanding student. He was exempted from military service during World War II and instead worked at a munitions factory. 

In his memoirs, Sakharov remembers first hearing of nuclear fission just before the war from his father who had attended a lecture on the subject. But he hadn't given the issue much thought until he heard of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. "On my way to the bakery I stopped to glance at a newspaper and discovered President Truman's announcement... I was so stunned that my legs practically gave way. There could be no doubt that my fate and the fate of many others, perhaps of the entire world, had changed overnight. Something new and awesome had entered our lives, a product of the greatest of the sciences, of the discipline I revered." 

Sakharov was himself recruited to work on the Soviet nuclear weapons program in June 1948 by his professor Igor Tamm. Later he wrote, "no one asked whether or not I wanted to take part in such work. I had no real choice in the matter, but the concentration, total absorption and energy that I brought to the task were my own." In a matter of months, the young physics graduate student came up with a totally new idea for an H-bomb design, one that he would call the "Layer Cake." 

His work on the nuclear program ultimately led Sakharov down the road toward dissent. Following the test of the first Soviet superbomb in 1955, Sakharov became increasingly disturbed by the consequences of his work: "When you see all of this yourself, something in you changes," he wrote. "When you see the burned birds who are withering on the scorched steppe, when you see how the shock wave blows away buildings like houses of cards, when you feel the reek of splintered bricks, when you sense melted glass, you immediately think of times of war... All of this triggers an irrational yet very strong emotional impact. How not to start thinking of one's responsibility at this point?" 

In 1957 his concern about the biological hazards of nuclear testing inspired him to write an article about the effects of low-level radiation. In it he concluded that, the detonation of a one-megaton bomb would create 10,000 human casualties. "Halting the tests," he wrote, "will directly save the lives of hundreds of thousands of people." Over the next ten years he became more and more concerned with civic issues. And in 1968, while still working on the Soviet nuclear weapons program, Sakharov wrote an essay that would thrust him into the international spotlight. 

"Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom", attacked the Soviet political system. In it Sakharov argued for a "democratic, pluralistic society free of intolerance and dogmatism, a humanitarian society which would care for the Earth and its future." A copy of the article was smuggled out of the Soviet Union and published in the New York Times. By the end of 1969 more than 18 million copies of the essay were in circulation worldwide. 

Following the publication of "Reflections", Sakharov was fired from the weapons program. He became an increasingly vocal advocate of human rights and when he denounced the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan, the Soviet authorities were quick to respond, banishing him to internal exile in Gorkii in January 1980. His long years of isolation finally ended in December 1986, when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev invited Sakharov to return to Moscow. 

Sakharov worked tirelessly to promote democracy in the Soviet Union until the very last day of his life. He was elected to the Congress of People's Deputies and appointed a member of the commission responsible for drafting a new Soviet constitution. On the day he died, December 14, 1989, he made a plea before the Soviet Congress for political pluralism and a market economy. Later that evening his wife and fellow dissident Elena Bonner found him dead in his study. 

Support Provided by: Learn More