The Project

Robert Conquest

  • Stalin and the Bomb by David Holloway
    Yale, 464 pp, £19.95, September 1994, ISBN 0 300 06056 4

That for forty years the world was far too near the brink of a nuclear holocaust is known to us all in a general way. Nor can we say that the huge armaments still in being may not yet threaten our future. We are only just pulling away from the abyss and there is still much need of cool and careful thought as well as full information about the nuclear issue and its origins. David Holloway explains that ‘the central theme of this book is the development of Soviet nuclear weapons.’ He has ‘tried to provide a coherent – though inevitably incomplete and provisional – analysis of Stalin’s nuclear policy’ in terms of ‘individual decisions taken in particular circumstances’. In this he has achieved a remarkable success.

Already as familiar as he could be with his subject when there was little to go on, Holloway was well prepared for the large amount of hitherto secret information – larger than most researchers expected – which has become available in the last few years. He has also spoken with survivors among the key Soviet scientists, both in Moscow and at the special centres for nuclear research in Siberia.

Stalin and the Bomb is a model of historical narrative, with a good grounding in the history of Soviet science since the Twenties. It traces the development of nuclear physics before and after the demands of weapons secrecy, from the earliest talk of the possibility of nuclear fission, through the Anglo-American programme, and the originally smallish-scale Soviet effort, to Stalin’s approval of a massively financed crash programme, with its progressive solution of intricate problems, and the final successes, first with the fission bomb, then with the ‘enhanced’ fission bomb, and in due course with the fusion bomb proper. Unlike Sakharov, whose splendid Memoirs contain several indigestible technical sections, Holloway has managed to present the often complex and subtle problems of nuclear science in a clear and – given a little effort – comprehensible fashion.

I was reminded of Lytton Strachey’s remark about Gibbon, that he had the luck to be dealing with a sum of material which could just be mastered by one competent mind. In his own, rather narrower field, Holloway deserves something of the same praise. He takes us through the insanity of the Terror of the late Thirties, when major research institutes were wrecked, and scientists jailed or executed. The case of the brilliant young physicist Matvei Bronstein, shot in February 1938, is particularly striking. Bronstein’s widow, Lydia Chukovskaya, no less courageous than her friend Anna Akhmatova, in the long run faced down Stalinism, and tells her husband’s fate in her story ‘Sofia Petrovna’. The manuscript, hidden for years by a series of friends, was published only in 1988: passages from it would merit inclusion in Holloway’s next edition. Holloway rightly notes that, although quantum theory was declared anti-Marxist in the ideological Forties, physicists were allowed, in the interests of getting results, to use its principles in their work (for similar reasons the anti-semitic wave of the late Forties and early Fifties hardly affected them). There was something of a parallel in Nazi Germany; though Jews were purged or expelled, the attempt by the extreme theorists of race to deny and suppress the results of ‘Jewish science’ failed. It is worth remembering, when one reads sentimental stuff about the exceptional pure-mindedness of scientists, that the leaders of the extreme anti-semitic trend, Lenard and Stark, were both Nobel Prize physicists.

Holloway, in general admirably balanced, is (as he admits) rather taken with the mores of the scientific community. In part, this is because in the USSR scientists were an island of comparative intellectual autonomy in a polluted ocean of low conformism. He offers portraits of the leading scientists and of their political bosses and examines the troubled relationship between them. The role of Beria, overlord of the Soviet nuclear project from 1946, is seen from the point of view of the scientists. This ‘terrifying’ figure (in Sakharov’s words) was, with all his faults, a great organiser, but his handling of his physicists was not always tactful, and his understanding of the material was, like Stalin’s, not always sound. It is interesting to learn that Kapitsa refused to co-operate in the programme, not for political reasons but because of a personal detestation for Beria. Holloway has much of interest to say about Kapitsa, and about other scientists of the period, from the ‘boasting and bragging’ Joffe to the ‘difficult’ Landau, whose loathing of the Soviet regime, vigorously expressed after Stalin’s death, is recorded in recently published secret police reports. For the scientific community included narks – and bureaucratic careerists – as well as men of good will trapped in the system. Igor Kurchatov, director of the nuclear weapons project, emerges as a remarkable man, who worked under great strain. His scientific reputation among his colleagues was much enhanced by the fact that it was often he alone who was briefed on espionage secrets, which he was then obliged to represent to them as intuitions of his own (‘why not let’s try ..?’). According to Sakharov, the Soviet scientist Viktor Davidenko liked Kurchatov, but saw him nevertheless as ‘first and foremost an operator, and what’s more an operator under Stalin – and he was like a fish in the water then.’ Sakharov thinks that this is an underestimate of Kurchatov’s good qualities; but it reminds us that such personalities are not easily categorised.

Soviet goals were achieved with the aid of a mass of slave labour, and safety precautions were minimal. Holloway details copious secret documentary evidence about the proto-Chernobyl catastrophe near Chelyabinsk in 1947. Zhores Medvedev has lately told us more in the Times Higher Education Supplement among other places, though the total number of fatalities among the eighty thousand-odd forced labourers, and the neighbouring population, is still unknown. Medvedev adds that Kurchatov could draft detainees from a special prison to work inside the reactor.

The context of the Cold War, in its various phases, is well developed. Holloway writes that Stalin ‘used the Cold War to enhance repression at home’. True: but it might also be said that the Cold War and repression at home were equal elements of a general Stalinist assault on non-Stalinist policies, ideas and aspirations everywhere. Holloway concludes, after careful consideration, that there was no prospect of persuading Stalin to accept any restraint at all in the Soviet development of the fusion bomb, whether or not the Americans declared a ban or a moratorium on their own work. He maintains that the intelligence obtained on American research merely gave Moscow the bomb two or three years before their own efforts could have produced it; in other words, that Stalin had the bomb in 1949, rather than in 1951 or 1952 – very dangerous years. Stalin, fortunately, was not quite so deranged as Mao, who argued a few years later that thermonuclear war would only kill half the world’s inhabitants, but that imperialism would perish in the process and the lost population would soon be replaced.

Though clear on the importance of Soviet intelligence in the development of Stalin’s bomb, Holloway is less concerned with the Soviet espionage operation as such. He develops in some detail the contribution made by Fuchs. He also makes it clear that Greenglass was more useful than is usually thought. And he notes that Soviet penetration of the Radiation Laboratory at Berkeley was at least as important as that of Los Alamos and other operations (and that at least two Soviet agents active at Los Alamos have never been identified). He is perhaps less clear that Moscow intelligence could not accept Fuchs’s reports – or anyone’s – without confirmation: every source, even when it repeated others, was valuable. Sudoplatov’s Special Tasks was published as Holloway’s work went to press, and he has included a brief dismissal of it in his Introduction, but the points on which he appears to rely are unconvincing. He argues that Sudoplatov’s account of the successes of Soviet atomic espionage contains muddles, mistakes and misunderstandings, but this is usual in memoirs – and less conspicuous in Sudoplatov’s than in Khrushchev’s, which he cites freely.

Holloway has argued elsewhere that a memorandum of Kurchatov’s in July 1943 shows he did not know of the success of the first nuclear reactor in Chicago in December 1942. In Stalin and the Bomb, however, he merely says that ‘it is not apparent from the memorandum whether Kurchatov knew in July 1943 about Fermi’s success in achieving a self-sustaining chain reaction in a uranium graphite pile in Chicago the previous December’ – a much more restrained formulation. But then it was extremely improbable that Soviet espionage, which was already providing Moscow with a great deal of detail, would not have learnt of the Chicago success until six or seven months later. This was not recondite technical information but a single easily conveyed fact, and one which was certainly well known in the nuclear physics community. Sudoplatov’s memoirs have stirred up a great deal of hostility, mainly by implying that some prominent scientists in the US had consciously leaked material to the Soviets. Sudoplatov is confused, and self-contradictory, on the point, but this does not deny the scientists’ status as sources of information (though there is much more yet to be told).

Holloway is not to blame for the fact that a top secret report to Stalin on the meetings of Soviet representatives with Niels Bohr in November 1945 had not been made public before Stalin and the Bomb was completed. The fact that these Copenhagen meetings took place was never concealed, but what was discussed was only known in a hazy and unsatisfactory way, as being about nuclear problems. In the book, Bohr’s discretion is vaguely asserted, though without any persuasive source. The Kremlin document shows that he answered a series of prepared questions, many of them in a general way, but that on two points at least he was noted by Kurchatov to have been helpful. One of them even required the assembly of a special Soviet research team. The riposte to the Kremlin document is ironic: the critics who knocked Sudoplatov’s memoirs as ‘undocumented’ base their case on other undocumented memoirs – one of them edited in the Security Ministry. Sudoplatov misremembered or misunderstood some details. He was much portrayed as a fantasist by Holloway and others for saying that Bohr had illustrated an argument by pointing to a drawing. In the document it is a graph. It is then argued that Bohr told little that was not already in the published Smyth Report, which was available in Russian well before this November meeting. But if so, how little? And could the Soviets trust the Report without confirmation? And this is not to speak of the admittedly ‘helpful’ points noted above. Sudoplatov’s account of the affair is, in fact, confirmed in essentials, if muddled in detail; as his opponents in Moscow have had to concede.

Holloway’s comparative weakness on this side of the question can also be seen in his brief comments on Robert Oppenheimer. Here, however, he does not use the available primary documents; the known and admitted facts of the Oppenheimer-Eltenton affair are much more complex, and far more damaging to Oppenheimer’s credibility than Holloway allows. This aspect of the matter would warrant less criticism if Yale University Press had not made Holloway’s off-the-cuff remarks (elsewhere) on Sudoplatov a major part of its publicity material about this book. They have done it a disservice. Nonetheless, these flaws are peripheral to Holloway’s main achievement. He has made an indispensable contribution to our knowledge of the modern world.