AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXVIII, No. 2, Fall 1996


Opening a Closed World: Historiography of the Soviet Nuclear Weapons Project

by Igor Drovenikov

The historiography of the Soviet nuclear weapons project is hardly less interesting than its history. The creation of a historical record may serve as a kind of yardstick to measure the most profound changes in society and science in the former Soviet Union.

The earliest official comment concerning the making of Soviet nuclear weapons was sounded in a TASS statement of Sept. 25, 1949. The TASS message came almost a month after the testing of the first Soviet nuclear device, and two days after President Truman had expressed concern over that testing. TASS said its statement was meant to calm down "the widespread public anxiety"- anxiety caused by news about an immense construction campaign in the Soviet Union requiring the use of novel techniques of explosion. In a matter-of-fact fashion, TASS also reminded readers that there had long been no "secret" of the atomic bomb, referring to the USSR Foreign Minister Molotov's statement of November 6, 1947.

The most recent, and much more extended, comment upon the history of Soviet nuclear weapons was an International Symposium, "Science and Society: History of the Soviet Atomic Project (40s-50s)," held in Dubna (Moscow region, Russia), May 14-18, 1996. The symposium, featuring more than 200 scientists from Russia, the USA, Germany, Japan, and other countries, was organized by several Russian research centers (the Kurchatov Institute, the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research, and the Institute for the History of Science and Technology) in cooperation with such federal authorities as the Ministry for Nuclear Power, the Ministry of Science and Technological Policy, the Russian Academy of Sciences, and the Administration of Moscow. The titles of some of the sessions of the Symposium give an impression of its major issues: "Early Stage of the Soviet Atomic Project," "Development of Industrial Technologies," "Atomic and Thermonuclear Weapons," "Political and Social Aspects of the Project," "Ecology, Biology, and Safety Problems," etc. The Symposium materials (which included, for example, papers sent by Edward Teller and Iu. B. Khariton) are being prepared for publication. The meeting's overall atmosphere makes it obvious that we are witnessing a genuine disclosure of Soviet nuclear history.

This evidence is confirmed by dozens of historical articles published in various periodicals over the last five years; the founding in 1992 of public museums of nuclear weapons in both "nuclear capitals" of Russia (Arzamas-16 and Cheliabinsk-70); and, last but not least, Boris Yeltsin's unprecedented Decree no. 160 of February 17, 1995, prescribing the "Preparation of the Official Edition of Archival Documents on the History of the Making of Nuclear Weapons in the USSR." One could also note the emergence in Russia of the first detailed book-length accounts of scientific, technological, and social aspects of the Soviet Atomic Project (A. K. Kruglov, Kak sozdavalas' atomnaia promyshlennost' v SSSR [How the Soviet Atomic Industry Was Established]. Moscow: TsNIIAtominform, 1994, 380 pp.; V. I. Mikhailov (ed.), Sozdanie pervoi sovetskoi iadernoi bomby [The Making of the First Soviet Nuclear Bomb]. Moscow: Energoatomizdat, 1995, 448 pp.; E. A. Negin (ed.), Sovetskii atomnyi proekt. Konets atomnoi monopolii. Kak eto bylo... [The Soviet Atomic Project: The End of Atomic Monopoly. How It Came About...]. Nizhnii Novgorod - Arzamas-16: Nizhnii Novgorod Press, 1995, 208 pp.).

The end of the Cold War and the beginning of democratic reforms in Russia have opened new vistas for research and informational activities in the field of atomic history. The Dubna Symposium is symptomatic of remarkable developments. As Glenn T. Seaborg noted in his epistolary address to the Organizing Committee, "It was clear that these former 'enemies' were now friends as well as scientists."

Igor Drovenikov is at the Institute for History of Science and Technology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow.

Photograph taked during Dubna Symposium of Albert Ghiorso and Liya Sokhina.

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