Citizen Kurchatov was a nuclear physicist who was enlisted by Josef Stalin to make the Soviet Union’s first atomic bomb. He worked on the project during arguably the most dangerous time to be a scientist in the Soviet Union and somehow managed to keep himself and his team alive under Stalin’s demanding regime. In fact, his work for Stalin lasted longer than Stalin’s rule.
Citizen (Igor) Kurchatov was born in the southern Ural Mountains in January of 1903. At the time Igor was born, Russia was still Russia and it was still ruled by the Royal Family, namely the Romanovs. Kurchatov was 11-years-old when Tsar Nicholas decided to fight Germany in World War I. This decision, among others, changed the history of Russia. Rebellion was already brewing and those who did not believe in the war thought it was time to overthrow the Romanovs.
Roughly three years later (1917), Nicholas was deposed. Shortly after, Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks took control of Russia and transformed it into the Soviet Union. They also removed Russia from the war. Igor took no part in this revolution or the war. In fact, he was still a school age boy when this was occurring. Nonetheless, this coup would shape the rest of Igor Kurchatov’s young life, along with his decision to study physics. He began attending Crimea State University in 1920. It took him only three years to earn his degree in physics. He went on to study shipbuilding and do research at the Pavlovsk Observatory while he attended the Polytechnic Institute in Petrograd.
While Igor was stepping into his role as a research physicist, Josef Stalin was dumping the country’s funds into technological and scientific projects that did little to help his starving people. Not that starving people were ever a concern of Josef Stalin. His main concern was seeing to it that all of the scientists and workers who were working under him were making progress. Working under the tyrannical rule of Josef Stalin was a choice between success, labor camps (gulags) or death. Kurchatov’s next career choice insured that he would be one of the scientists struggling to make things happen for Stalin. Igor Kurchatov decided to focus on nuclear physics and he quickly made a name for himself in the field.
In 1938, the race for the world’s first atomic bomb began with the splitting of a uranium nucleus. Oddly, Stalin did not focus his thirst for technological advantage on creating this bomb. He did not really believe it was happening, at first. The United States, England and Japan started atomic bomb projects as soon as possible, while Stalin pondered the idea. He was not bothered by their arms race because he had a (seemingly tenuous) treaty with Germany.
In 1941, the German Army launched Operation Barbarossa – a surprise invasion of the Soviet Union. Stalin was now in the thick of World War II. Initially, he continued to ignore the race for the atomic bomb. The brilliant young Citizen Kurchatov worked on naval defense and armor projects, while Stalin considered the possibility of starting a nuclear weapon’s project. Eventually, he decided to start on a small scale, just in case. After some deliberation, Kurchatov was put in charge of the project. He assembled a team and began testing research that the Soviets had stolen from England.
Citizen Kurchatov had roughly 100 researchers on his project in its infancy. The United States had hundreds of thousands of researchers working on nuclear weapons research. Kurchatov needed more funding, so he wrote to the Soviet chief of security, a formidable man by the name of Lavrenti Beria. In doing so, Citizen Kurchatov went past his superior to the top, but he knew he needed Beria’s help. He could not make the weapons without more funding and he knew the pressure would come down from Stalin fast when another country beat them to the bomb. He was right.
While Kurchatov was trying to get more funding, the Allies defeated Hitler’s army. The Soviet Union basked in the glory of victory and Kurchatov’s project remained under funded until the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945. As a result, Kurchatov got a meeting with Josef Stalin himself, who told him that he needed to produce an atomic bomb in three years – an astoundingly short amount of time – and that he would have everything he needed to do it. Kurchatov took the extra funding and ran with it. Soon, he had a massive project underway that included mines, reactors and an entire city of laboratories and scientist living quarters.
Kurchatov and his army of new army of researchers worked under the watchful eye of Beria, who was very threatening. Stalin had to tell him, “Leave the physicists alone. We can always shoot them later.” Luckily, Kurchatov was a productive man. On August 29, 1949, he tested the Soviet Union’s first atomic bomb. Kurchatov and three of his teammates were given the Stalin Prize for their achievement. Now, the race was on for the first hydrogen bomb.
The U.S. detonated the world’s first hydrogen bomb on October 31, 1952. Stalin died a few months later and Khrushchev began to take control. Beria was sentenced to death for supposed crimes and Kurchatov simply continued his work. He tested a hydrogen bomb on August 12, 1953 and it worked. His next test was in November of 1955. This test resulted in the deaths of three people when a building collapsed from the force of the bomb. Kurchatov refused to supervise a test again. From the on, he turned the bulk of his efforts to less dangerous uses of nuclear energy.
A few months after the bomb incident, Khrushchev took his pet scientist to England to speak with scientists there and see research centers in England. Upon their return, Kurchatov had a stroke, which was followed by another one in 1957. He died roughly three years later of an aneurism. He was buried in the Wall of Kremlin.
Citizen Kurchatov, retrieved 11/5/10, pbs.org/opb/citizenk/index.html