We Can Always Shoot Them Later — 2018 Podcast Transcript

“We can always shoot them later — Stalin, Soviet Science, and the Bomb” was first published in two episodes in March 2018. They can be downloaded: Part I and Part II

Hello, and welcome to Physical Attraction. Today, I’m going to present you with a special bonus episode that focuses on a particular group of physicists in history. Listeners might not know that before I started this show, I wrote and produced many episodes of a different show — one about autocrats and dictators throughout history. I still have those episodes somewhere, and, perhaps, someday when Physical Attraction is finished — or just for fun — I’ll release them. Two podcasts at once is far too much, even for me, so for now, they stay on the shelf.

But there is an amazing physics-y story that came up when I was looking at the life of Stalin. It concerns the scientists who were, essentially, press-ganged into making the atomic bomb. It’s fair to say that while Hitler and the Allies were both working on the atomic bomb, Stalin’s side of the project was lagging behind — that was, until the US dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Quickly, the dynamic changed from a common struggle against a now defeated Hitler and Imperial Japan, and moved into a cold war between the West and the USSR. But this was ridiculously unbalanced while only one side had nuclear weapons. So, because it’s fascinating and tangentially related to physics (or, at least, physicists), I adapted part of that script for these episodes; it really just scratches the surface of the history and the science of this fascinating and pivotal time in human history, but anyway, I hope you enjoy it.

Imagine being born in the late 1890s. Having endured two World Wars and a Great Depression, you might just be looking forward to retirement when the atomic bomb was dropped in 1945. This, of course, was precisely what happened to Stalin. Stalin likely knew that the US had finished the atomic bomb before he was told, and certainly before it was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but it didn’t change the fact that — for all the might of the Red Army — it meant the balance of power had shifted back towards the capitalist nations. His reaction when Truman informed him at the Potsdam conference — the follow-up to Yalta — belied his own annoyance that his scientists hadn’t got there in time. “A new bomb! Of extraordinary power! Probably decisive on the Japanese! What luck!” Stalin knew that the threat of nuclear war would prove a powerful bargaining chip. Of course, it was this that hung over the Cold War, and therefore most of geopolitics for the next fifty years. But it has to be remembered that during the Cold War, doctrines such as mutually assured destruction limited the impact that the threat of nuclear war could have diplomatically: it would be an apocalyptic scenario for both parties, so it was a less credible threat. Spheres of influence became the means by which nuclear states could defend the interests of (some of the) non-nuclear states. But this equality was not the case in the few years after the Second World War, where the US had nuclear weapons and the Soviets did not. Stalin was not willing to be held over a barrel and the Soviet efforts to develop their own bomb, which would have proved a useful tool in the Second World War, redoubled. It had started in 1943, but slowly, amidst rumours that the US were developing a bomb that might have been disinformation. It was an interesting side-project for the Soviets. It was now, in Stalin’s view, completely necessary for them to maintain their power.

As a physicist who knows a lot of physicists, the story of the bomb’s development is a fascinating one for me. The stereotypes for physicists as socially awkward and mildly obsessive are not universally true, but they’re true a statistically significant amount of the time. I have never fought in a war and cannot even begin to truly empathise with the soldiers who did so, because it’s so far from my realm of experience. To say I can do that is insulting to their memory. But a physicist obliged to sit at a desk and calculate the most effective way to kill millions of people — as those who worked out the best way of conducting firebombing raids to produce terrible firestorms like those the Allies caused in Dresden, Hamburg, and Tokyo — there’s just enough shared experience that it touches me all the more, to imagine what that might be like, knowing that the intellectual problem you were solving would lead to unimaginable destruction. The Soviet physicists who developed the atomic bomb had to contend with more than their own moral scruples. Frustrated with the slow progress with Molotov supervising the bomb’s development, Stalin put Beria in charge the day after Hiroshima, saying “Hiroshima has shaken the whole world; the balance has been destroyed; this cannot be.”

A little background on Beria. He was no scientist, but rather one of the more repugnant characters you come across, was Lavrenti Beria. No historian has anything nice to say about Beria, and with good reason. He was one of Stalin’s more brutal and murderous lieutenants, so intimately associated with the secret police and the NKVD, which he would eventually lead, that for a long time the excesses of Stalin’s purges and repression were actually laid at Beria’s feet. People were willing to believe that he was solely responsible for the mass executions that would comprise Stalin’s Great Terror. He was a sycophant: when he first visited Stalin’s dacha and first caught the eye of the Bolshevik tyrant, it’s said that Stalin was complaining about the shoddy state of the garden. Beria immediately grabbed an axe and cut down an offending tree, saying: “I’m just demonstrating to the master of the garden, Joseph Vissarionovich, that I can chop down any tree that offends him.” It’s as if he was offering to become Stalin’s enforcer against any imagined enemies. A consummate flatterer and toadier, Beria concealed a horrific personality beneath a loyalist, toadying exterior.

There is now a great deal of historical evidence that he abused his power as head of the NKVD to carry out a campaign of sexual assault against women. He would drive around the streets with fellow NKVD officers at night, selecting individuals to target. From Simon Montefiore’s excellent book, The Court of the Red Tsar:

“After dining, Beria would take the women into his soundproofed office and rape them. Beria’s bodyguards reported that their orders included handing each victim a flower bouquet as she left Beria’s house. The implication being that to accept made it consensual; refusal would mean arrest. In one incident his chief bodyguard, Sarkisov, reported that a woman who had been brought to Beria rejected his advances and ran out of his office; Sarkisov mistakenly handed her the flowers anyway prompting the enraged Beria to declare “Now it’s not a bouquet, it’s a wreath! May it rot on your grave!” The woman was arrested by the NKVD the next day.”

Some women, in desperation, were persuaded to accept his advances in the hope of freeing husbands or siblings who were detained by the NKVD. In one case, Beria promised to free the father and grandfather of a young actress, before raping her. The relatives in question had, in reality, been executed months earlier. Beria’s many crimes are still under investigation, with the handwritten list that he kept of his victims due for public release in 2028. There is strong anecdotal evidence that Stalin and other Politburo members knew about Beria’s actions, with Stalin even telephoning his daughter when she was left alone with Beria and telling her to leave immediately, and other Politburo members advising their daughters never to accept a lift from him. Everyone knew that Beria was a horrific torturer and Beria himself took great pleasure in the rumours of his own brutality. Such is the nature of the type of individual who can rise to great prominence and influence when loyalty and brutality are the main qualities the leader searches for. As Stalin’s regime became more and more bloodthirsty, he would rise to greater and greater prominence.

Stalin’s attitude towards science was paradoxical at times. He understood the necessity of technical innovation to keep up with the West, and was a strong supporter of scientific innovations despite rarely understanding them himself. After all — one of the key ideas behind Communism is that, eventually, the system works because you produce abundance for everybody. With the incentive to compete over limited resources gone, capitalism never starts to re-emerge. One of the ways you’re supposed to do that is through increased technology — there is a strain of techno-utopianism, that the machines would do all the labour of humans and provide benefit for everyone, rather than profits for a few.

Of course, Stalin’s approach to this technological revolution was… a very very forced one. Peasants were swept up into collective farms in a process called collectivization. The theory behind this makes some sense: if you have an individual peasant, working their own plot of land, producing food for their family and selling the excess to buy everything else they need… this model has a lot of problems. They can’t buy tractors by themselves, so mechanization is slow to take hold. At least in theory, everyone working together on collective farms would mean more efficiency, higher productivity, and better times for everyone. In reality, they implemented it in a brutal and frankly pretty stupid way — the peasants never bought into the idea, but were instead forced onto collective farms at gunpoint, often by fanatical volunteers from the cities. If someone comes to you and says: by the way, the farm, the land on which you’ve worked your whole life no longer belongs to you; it belongs to the government, and you have to uproot and move to this new farm and share everything you have with everyone else… this is an idea that rather requires you to buy into it. It was driven by a desire to use technology to improve productivity. The result was famine.

Another example is the city of Magnitogorsk. Built essentially by slave labour in the middle of the Ural mountains, where a sleepy mining town was converted into this vast industrial edifice in the course of a few years. Stalin, the man of steel, built a city of steel on top of this mountain that was rich in iron ore. The cost, however, belied the dreams of an industrial utopia. 250,000 labourers worked on Magnitogorsk; 10,000 of them died.

“Special carts went around the barracks and asked, ‘Do you have any dead today?’ And everyday they took bodies,” Akhmetzyanov says of the winter of 1931. “Children died first of all, and the elderly.”

Stalin promoted science: but at the same time, his politics was constantly in the picture. Scientists had been caught up in the great terror along with the rest of the educational establishment; after all, they believe in an objective truth independent of the party. Class issues came into play as proletarian science was considered superior to bourgoise science; science, of course, is just science. After all, what makes a good scientific theory? First and foremost, it has to explain the facts, and preferably let you make predictions about what will happen in the future. Scientists also like mathematical evidence, and things that are philosophically reassuring. But take a theory like quantum mechanics. Here, we discover that you can’t have a totally deterministic view of the Universe. You can’t say precisely what position and momentum the subatomic particle has, like it’s a little billiard ball whizzing around through space. Instead, the best you can do is come up with a probability distribution. Your statement has gone from “I can measure this particle, and tell you exactly where it is and exactly how fast it’s going” to “There is some set of probabilities that the particle might be here, or over there, or moving this quickly, or moving this slowly…” It feels, philosophically, like a much weaker statement. And it challenges our philosophical assumptions that the Universe is nice, neat, orderly, and so on. Einstein hated this aspect of it, the probabilistic aspect, famously saying “God does not play dice with the Universe.” But quantum mechanics is accepted by physicists because it matches reality better than anything else. So you can’t even, if you’re being intellectually honest, judge a scientific theory on whether you like it or not, whether it’s elegant or not. You CERTAINLY can’t judge it on the background of the person who created it. That’s a terrible metric.

There’s an excellent book on this subject — Stalin and the Scientists, by Simon Ings.

“By the time Stalin died on 5 March 1953, the Soviet Union boasted the largest and best-funded scientific establishment in history,” Simon Ings writes in “Stalin and the Scientists.” “It was at once the glory and the laughingstock of the intellectual world.”

He talks about how The Bolsheviks, the original revolutionaries, viewed the ideology of Marxism as essentially scientific in its analysis of human progress, and science was always a vital part of their conception of the Soviet Union, which they trumpeted as the first state ever founded on “scientific” principles. But in many ways, Stalin’s and the USSR’s attitude to science is a perfect example of the nature of the whole Communist project; in the gap between the ideals, the propaganda, and the reality of things: there is terror, and oppression, and suffering, and a terrible, brutal waste.

In some cases, Stalin’s political influence was more direct: he championed the work of biologists who rejected natural selection and the theory of evolution. After all, its focus on the idea that the best traits were propagated by competition and survival of the fittest aren’t very Communist. Free-market capitalism is pretty Darwinian. These interventions led to a persecution of geneticists in the USSR that did serious damage. In the case of physics, there was less scope for politically incorrect baryons and mesons, but politics was never absent. Stalin didn’t want the scientists to be corrupted by outside influences; he championed theories developed by Russians and good Communists especially, sometimes without much consideration for scientific merit. The uneasy tension between copying the more advanced Western nuclear programme, and pioneering ‘Soviet science’, was never really resolved. Stalin’s political considerations would come ahead of the reality. Scientists were useful tools, but he had little time for their explanations of why access to, and building on, Western research was crucial. Yet with the bomb he deferred to their expertise often. “Leave the physicists in peace,” he’d say to Beria: “They’re doing their job. We can always shoot them later.”

The appointment of Beria, who was a good and fanatically energetic organizer but is of course most famous for brutality, would send shivers down your spine as a physicist. It sent a signal to them: get this work done, or die. “You’re a good worker,”, he’d say, “but a spell in the Gulag would make you even better.” The scientists and technicians — tens of thousands of them working on the project — were essentially his prisoners. Beria himself knew that if the project failed, he was just as much at risk of execution as anyone else. Stalin was willing to provide them with all of the economic resources they could need, but time was not something he was willing to compromise on: you think of that famous speech where he lamented being “beaten for backwardness.” The Soviet attempt to build the atomic bomb would be run just as all Soviet projects were; a dramatic, revolutionary struggle to hastily achieve the goal by any means necessary, with the threat of terror lurking in the background. It was a nuclear physics Five-Year-Plan, but they didn’t have five years. Many of the scientists who worked were prisoners in sharaska, which were technical expert gulags where the inmates were obliged to perform intellectual work; a lot of them had their work published anonymously or credited to more politically correct scientists. They were “locked up behind barbed wire in secret cities”. There were some brilliant physicists in the Soviet Union — Sakharov, Kaptisa, Kurchatov, and Landau all worked on the bomb, and many of them did the work out of intellectual curiosity, a sense of duty, or even for the philosophical reason that a nuclear balance might prevent war. In a strange way, they’re almost a mirror image of the US scientists who worked on the atomic bomb project. Men like Oppenheimer, Bethe, and even Einstein who worked on the bomb: they weren’t necessarily radical patriots; they had no love of war. But they had this intense mix of feelings about what they were doing. On one level, it was an incredible scientific challenge — and a highly important one. The physicists in the USSR and the US knew that the rewards of success would be great, and no expense would be spared to help them; and they were collaborating with some of the finest minds in the country, working towards a common goal. When Oppenheimer succeeded in developing the first nuclear bomb, there were mixed emotions. Physicist Isidor Rabi noticed Oppenheimer’s reaction after the bomb was a success. “I’ll never forget his walk; I’ll never forget the way he stepped out of the car … his walk was like High Noon … this kind of strut. He had done it.” At the same time, he famously remembered the line from Hindu scripture “I am become death, destroyer of worlds.” And there is an account of a meeting between Oppenheimer and US President Harry Truman, after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Oppenheimer said that he was upset, that he felt he had “blood on his hands.” Truman, who perhaps felt the real guilt and responsibility for ordering the bombings that killed hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, later said “I don’t want to see that son-of-a-bitch in this office ever again.”

There was this mix of the fear and the excitement of the technical breakthroughs that they were making. As an abstract physics and engineering problem, it presents a wonderful intellectual challenge: and perhaps many of the scientists could justify their views by considering that they had no choice but to develop the bomb. In the US, they were concerned the Nazis or Soviets would get one first; in the USSR, after 1945, they were concerned that the US would use its atomic supremacy to dominate the world. Yet — the physicists I know would have chafed under the rule of someone who knew nothing about physics, demanding unreasonable progress and making thinly veiled threats.

NEXT EPISODE I will get into some of the specific scientists and their stories in the process of developing the Soviet bomb. We’ll talk a little more about how nuclear weapons actually work (nothing classified), and what it was like to work on this project.

Thanks for listening etc.

Part II

Hello, and welcome to Physical Attraction. Today, I’m going to present you with the second part of special episode that focuses on Science in the USSR, and specifically, the Soviet project to make the Atomic bomb. a particular group of physicists in history. This is partially adapated from some writing and research I did for another podcast, about autocratic dictators… I have thirteen episodes on the life of Stalin on my hard drive, and they’ll see the light of day someday. This really just scratches the surface of the history and the science of this fascinating and pivotal time, but anyway, I hope you enjoy it.

The scale of the Soviet attempts to develop the bomb can’t be underestimated. They built entire closed cities for the research. The Russian suffix -grad was used to name cities then; Leningrad was the city of Lenin (now St Petersburg again) and Stalingrad was the city of Stalin. These cities were nicknamed “Atomgrads” and they operated under the utmost secrecy. Many of them still exist under new names.

One of the things they did was steal secrets through spying and espionage. They interviewed the famous physicist Niels Bohr, who was a giant figure in the development of quantum mechanics and helped to develop the model of the atom that we now use. Bohr didn’t really tell them all that much that wasn’t publicly known, likely sceptical of the Soviets — and the particular military secrets may have been unknown to him as well. One of the key facts that they were able to discover through espionage was the amount of nuclear material required for a critical chain reaction to occur. You may remember from the TEOTWAWKI nuclear episodes that one of the major risks in early nuclear weapons testing was during an experiment called ‘tickling the dragon’s tail’, where brave scientists attempted to determine the precise level at which a critical chain reaction would occur by… essentially… twiddling screwdrivers in lumps of plutonium. Several scientists were killed in undertaking these experiments in the US. You can however make too much of a deal out of the espionage, and the stealing of secrets. The basic physics was out there — specific aspects of the design were classified and kept secret. Many scholars seem to suggest that without the stolen secrets, it might have delayed the Soviets by a year or two — but it seems clear to me that they would have got there in the end. There were some of the finest minds of the 20th century working on it.

Sakharov, who often clashed with Beria, later became an outspoken critic of the regime and a human rights activist. He was a brilliant young scientist who wrote, long after the war:
“After more than forty years, we have had no third world war, and the balance of nuclear terror … may have helped to prevent one. But I am not at all sure of this; back then, in those long-gone years, the question didn’t even arise. What most troubles me now is the instability of the balance, the extreme peril of the current situation, the appalling waste of the arms race … Each of us has a responsibility to think about this in global terms, with tolerance, trust, and candor, free from ideological dogmatism, parochial interests, or national egotism.”

It has to be remembered that when the nuclear age was first ushered in, it was a quite incredible moment for history. Out of what was then abstract, theoretical physics seemed to come this enormous, ungodly power — harnessing the forces inside the atom, a much more mystical concept then than it was now. The introduction of any new piece of technology brings with it this tension — between the benefits, and the possible destructive applications. Maybe artificial intelligence, in our modern era, is an equivalent development; for every individual who says it’s brilliant and will change the world for the better, there are skeptics who see it being used for our destruction. Sakharov was one of the two Russian scientists who designed the tokamak, which has been the major design for a nuclear fusion reactor.
They knew that nuclear fusion represented a near-boundless supply of energy that could be harnessed for the benefit of the whole human race. Sadly, the tokamak proved much more difficult to build in reality — they’re still trying to build them today. But it’s clear that Sakharov knew that his genius, and physics in general, could be used for good as well as evil. The science is neutral. It’s the people who exploit it.

Yet Sakharov was also instrumental in constructing the most explosive bomb that was ever detonated. Tsar Bomba, tested by the Soviets in the 1950s, was the largest hydrogen bomb ever built in terms of explosive yield.

So we are a physics show — let’s explain a little of the physics of nuclear bombs. A-bombs, atomic bombs, or fission bombs work in the following way. You have a big bunch of Uranium or Plutonium; I’ll just talk about Uranium for now. Uranium has two isotopes — U-238, which is pretty stable, and U-235, which is pretty unstable. If a nucleus of U-235 gets hit by a neutron, it can trigger nuclear fission — the nucleus is unstable, and it splits apart, releasing neutrons and energy.

So consider that you have a whole lump of this stuff. Now a nucleus of U-235 spontaneously splits apart (which can happen). Some of the neutrons produced will escape the lump entirely; others will hit U-238; and some more will hit U-235 nuclei, causing them to split. So you can imagine a situation, where you have highly enriched Uranium with lots of U-235, where you can have each nuclear fission on average releasing one neutron that is absorbed by a 235, and causes that nucleus to split. In other words, each fission causes another fission, and the rate of fission is constant. That’s how nuclear power plants work. But, if your sample is too enriched — or if it’s big enough that not enough neutrons escape — you can instead have more than one neutron causing another fission. Which means, at first, you might have ten reactions a second, but soon enough, you’ll have hundreds, thousands, millions, billions, releasing colossal amounts of energy in a nuclear explosion.

Typically a nuclear fission weapon triggers such a chain reaction by explosively compressing a big lump of uranium or plutonium. This is the cause of many of the nuclear accidents and concerns that you had in our TEOTWAWKI specials about nuclear weapons: they actually have very sensitive explosives inside them which, in the early days at least, could be detonated by dropping the bombs on the ground — and, if the plutonium cores were installed, this would cause a huge chain reaction. So the essential goal of the nuclear weapons design is to try to find a way to release as much energy in as short a time as possible — before the core blows itself apart, when, obviously, the reactions stop occurring because the nuclei of the radioactive elements are spread far and wide across the countryside. The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were fission bombs.

Hydrogen bombs work in a slightly different way. These are what are called H-bombs, or thermonuclear weapons. The main source of energy for these bombs is actually nuclear fusion. Remember that heavy elements can release energy by splitting apart, but light elements can release FAR MORE energy by being fused together — but this requires a lot of energy input in order to work. So in thermonuclear weapons, there is a primary fission bomb that releases a vast amount of energy and X-rays. But this then compresses a different fuel — a light element like lithium, or an isotope of hydrogen like deuterium. So you have two stages — first, the conventional explosives compress the fission fuel. Then, the fission explosion compresses the fusion fuel. So you have way more compression and you have a more energetic reaction. The result is that hydrogen bombs are much more powerful. The first H-bomb was about 1,000x as powerful as the first A-bomb. Sakharov’s bomb was even more powerful.

Sakharov realised that in order to cause the explosion of one side of the fuel to symmetrically compress the fusion fuel, a mirror could be used to reflect the radiation. The details had not been officially declassified in Russia when Sakharov was writing his memoirs, but in the Teller-Ulam design, soft X-rays emitted by the fission bomb were focused onto a cylinder of lithium deuteride to compress it symmetrically. This is called radiation implosion. The Teller-Ulam design also had a secondary fission device inside the fusion cylinder to assist with the compression of the fusion fuel and generate neutrons to convert some of the lithium to tritium, producing a mixture of deuterium and tritium.[11][12] Sakharov’s idea was first tested as RDS-37 in 1955. A larger variation of the same design which Sakharov worked on was the 50 Mt Tsar Bomba of October 1961, which was the most powerful nuclear device ever detonated.

Tsar Bomba — which in Russian does mean Emperor Bomb — could be seen from a thousand kilometres away. Its mushroom cloud rose 64 kilometers straight up in the air. And a village that was 55km away was completely destroyed — this is the equivalent, for Brits, of a bomb dropped on Big Ben obliterating Gatwick airport; or for you Americans, if you dropped it on Manhattan, it would destroy half of Long Island. There are tools online that let you draw a 55km radius on maps, so feel free to do this for your own city.

It was a fifty megaton bomb. The Hiroshima bomb was around 15 kilotons, so this bomb is around 3,000x as powerful. And, in all honestly, Tsar Bomba is basically overkill. No one has really tried to develop a bigger single nuclear weapon than this, because it’s simply not necessary. If you have a bomb of around 800 kilotons, which is about a megaton — it obliterates everything in a nine-mile radius. That is Manhattan. That is London. Go and draw a nine mile radius on the city of your choice. Sakharov’s bomb is overkill.

And yet this man, whose genius helped to develop the most powerful bomb ever detonated, later became an outspoken critic of the regime who won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Sakharov later described that it took “years” for him to “understand how much substitution, deceit, and lack of correspondence with reality there was” in the Soviet ideals. “At first I thought, despite everything that I saw with my own eyes, that the Soviet State was a breakthrough into the future, a kind of prototype for all countries”. Then he came, in his words, to “the theory of symmetry: all governments and regimes to a first approximation are bad, all peoples are oppressed, and all are threatened by common dangers.”

Other physicists, like Landau, were persecuted by the regime. He was one of these towering, isolated geniuses that you tend to find in science on occasion; almost otherworldly figures that I think mystify the rest of us. I read a great article on him in Scientific American which used the phrase “detached from the humdrum of everyday existence”, which is like… the physics dream, tbh. Most of his major theoretical work was in the theory that’s called condensed-matter physics: which is less sexy than astrophysics but in some ways far more important, as it tries to explain complex phenomena like magnetism, superconductivity, and just generally the vast array of different states that matter can have. Having your four forces of gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces — it’s all very well to have these nice theoretical equations, but actually working out how STUFF behaves is in many ways far more complex. It’s said that when he ran that Landau school in Kharkov, his entrance exam — referred to as the “Theoretical Minimum” — was only ever passed by 43 students across nearly three decades. And that’s the minimum! Landau is likely famous amongst physicists, especially students, for his epic series of physics textbooks — which are simply called Landau and Lifshitz. They are not easy reading, but across ten volumes and thousands of pages, they illuminate in incredible depth and detail many aspects and problems in theoretical physics. Some of the most difficult and rewarding things I ever learned in physics — including a stunning proof of, basically, Newton’s laws from the fact that space is the same in all directions — came from these books. In some ways, Landaushitz, as well as being just an awe-inspiring body of work, is a perfect representation of the contradictory Soviet attitude towards science. Landau and Lifshitz were awarded the Lenin prize in the 1960s for the works, but it’s said that Landau came up with most of the actual content while he was languishing in an NKVD jail cell in the 1930s.

He was there because he owned a pamphlet containing a rare denunciation of Stalin. It was produced by a group called the Antifascist Worker’s Party — funny how these words go around and come back around again, isn’t it… It said:

“Comrades! The great cause of the October revolution has been evilly betrayed…. Millions of innocent people are thrown in prison, and no one knows when his own turn will be…. Don’t you see, comrades, that Stalin’s clique accomplished a fascist coup! Socialism remains only on the pages of the newspapers that are terminally wrapped in lies. Stalin, with his rabid hatred of genuine socialism, has become like Hitler and Mussolini. To save his power Stalin destroys the country and makes it an easy prey for the beastly German fascism….”

Merely having a copy of that pamphlet — which, it was obvious to anyone who saw through the socialist propaganda of the Soviet Union, was terribly true — was enough to ensure his arrest and torture. Like so many others in the Soviet era, Landau was forced to sign a confession to being a counterrevolutionary. And he might have died there. He would not have been the only intelligent person to be cruelly snuffed out by the NKVD.

But he had a friend on the outside — Kapitsa — a scientist who was on favourable terms with the government and frequently wrote letters to the Kremlin. Quoting from the Scientific American article written by Gennady Gorelik: “After two years of carnage, Stalin had achieved his purpose — to destroy all rivals, real and imaginary. Sensing an opportunity, Kapitsa wrote to Prime Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, saying that he had just made a discovery “in the most puzzling field of the modern physics” and that no theorist other than Landau could explain it. And on the eve of May Day, 1939, after a year of imprisonment, Landau was freed on bail. In a few months, he had explained Kapitsa’s superfluidity using sound waves, or phonons, and a new excitation called a roton. It earned both of them a Nobel Prize a few decades later.”

Landau’s genius was coerced into working on the bomb project, but he never liked it, and even swore about other physicists who tried to expand it. He rejoiced when Stalin died, saying that he was no longer afraid of him and would no longer work on the bomb. Again quoting from that wonderful Gorelik article: “An obvious question remains. Given that Landau was reluctant to work on the bomb, how is it that his contributions were so substantial? Khalatnikov, who became the director of the Landau Institute for Theoretical Physics, created in 1965, offered me an answer: Landau was simply unable to do a shoddy piece of work.”

I think focusing on the lives and biographies of these physicists shows us a fascinating intersection between science and politics, and the personal lives of the people concerned. Many of them got into science for idealistic reasons. Nuclear physics itself had then, and still has now, the potential secrets to unlocking vast sources of energy: how this energy is used is a human decision. They might have also thought, as we can see that Sakharov probably did, that nuclear fusion was just a few decades away. And the scientists wanted to modernise the Soviet Union, as Stalin did, but with different methods, and different motives. In the same way, the legacy of Soviet science — which brought a great many technological advances and had a great many fascinating but hidden figures — is complex.

For example, when the Soviet Union fell, people pretty much made careers out of translating physics papers from the original Russian. Countless times discoveries were made in the West that were actually anticipated by obscure Soviet scientists from decades before — but because of that country’s isolationism and lack of scientific collaboration, people simply didn’t know what was being done. Ideally, science should transcend politics. But inevitably, when governments control access to the funding, they are inextricably linked. Without the Communists, science in the USSR would doubtless not have had the emphasis that it did, and perhaps we’d be much further behind. But without the repressive nature of their government — if there had been more collaboration — perhaps we would have achieved much more than we have at present. Nowhere is this tension between science and politics more obvious than in the Soviet bomb project.

You can read what scientists have to say about that work, and many of them report deeply mixed feelings — there was a community spirit, they were working on a fascinating and vital project that ended in world-changing success and rich financial reward, but they were threatened and deprived of their liberty. The heartlessness of the Soviet system and the expendability of its people was on display in the atomic programme, too, but the physicists were protected by their intellects, or how they were seen. The quiet efforts of the physicists locked away in their secret city would produce remarkable success. By 1949, they had detonated a nuclear bomb. The rest of the twentieth century would unfold in the shadow of nuclear war. We’re still living in it now.

Thanks for listening etc.




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