BOOK REVIEW / Fear and loathing in the Soviet nuclear cellar: Stalin and the bomb: The Soviet Union and Atomic Energy 1939-1956: by David Holloway, Yale pounds 19.95

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The Independent Culture
THIS WAS a book we did not expect to read. Indeed the author acknowledges at the outset that it is a book he did not expect to write, at least not in the impressive and satisfying form in which it now appears.

The early years of Soviet nuclear weapons development were so secret for so long that it was almost possible to forget that the exploits of Oppenheimer, Fermi, Teller and the rest in the United States must have had a mirror image on the other side of the iron curtain. Now, thanks to the fall of communism, we can see that image, and it is a remarkable discovery.

Professor Holloway has assembled a great wealth of material, both documentary and oral, of a quality he can only have dreamed of when he began his research. As a result, he has been able to answer a long list of questions which have hung over this field for decades. How did the Soviets manage to make the atomic bomb by 1949?

When did they begin? How much did they learn through espionage? Where did such a country, at such a time, find all the good scientists it needed? How did they crack the secret of the hydrogen bomb?

Holloway begins in the nuclear prehistory, and we meet the physicists of the Twenties and Thirties as they share in the international excitement of an innocent age of atomic discovery. At the same time they are forming a relationship with the communist system, trying to persuade the authorities that their research is not an abstract waste of money; trying to maintain their links with foreign scientists; and, eventually, trying to dodge Stalin's purges.

By the time war comes they are as alert as anyone to the possibility that nuclear fission might have military applications. But from here, their progress resembles the German experience more than the British or the American. They were concerned that others might be at work; they struggled to press ahead with research; they lacked organisation and official backing; by 1944 they were making some headway, but they were far behind.

What the Soviet Union had, which Germany did not, was first-rate intelligence on the much faster progress being made in the United States. John Cairncross, Klaus Fuchs, Donald Maclean, Alan Nunn May and others were providing what amounted to a running commentary on the Manhattan Project. Why was this not exploited? Holloway offers several explanations, of which the most appealing comes from the testimony of a former KGB officer: it seems that Lavrenti Beria, Stalin's chief henchman, believed the whole nuclear story might be a Western trick, designed to persuade Moscow to waste its scarce resources. 'If this is disinformation, I'll put you all in the cellar,' he once told an intelligence adviser.

After Hiroshima, the Kremlin had no excuse for further doubt and Stalin himself was determined that the United States should not be able to bully him with nuclear threats, however veiled.

Thus the Soviet bomb project began in earnest and a ghastly contrast emerges between the pampered scientists, who were given every available luxury while they worked, and the armies of people taken from the labour camps to build reactors and other factories.

If you came from the gulag and were fortunate enough to survive the terrible conditions at the nuclear sites, you were then transported to some Siberian oblivion lest you breathe a word of what you saw.

Such methods helped the Soviet Union make the atomic bomb in roughly the time it had taken the Americans, and no less rapidly they went on to make the hydrogen bomb.

Any notion that the arms race might have been halted if the United States had held back from developing the H-bomb - an argument put forward then and since by liberals in the American science and defence establishments - is shown to be hollow. Soviet research was advancing under its own momentum.

Yet Holloway permits no crude Cold War thinking. This was not some monolithic, mindless enterprise, driven by a psychopathic dictator. The scientists are patriots whose country, having just survived a terrible war, does appear vulnerable without the bomb.

Reading their story here it is possible to understand why they acted as they did, even if it is difficult to feel quite so warmly towards them as the author plainly does. It is only fair to add that there is evidence to suggest that if they had failed, the scientists might themselves have experienced a taste of the labour camps.

The book ranges widely over diplomacy and military policy, summarising the issues with great lucidity. It is also faithful to its title, for Stalin is a constant, looming presence. Yet its originality and its narrative thread lie in the story of the scientists and their weapons. Here at last is Moscow's Manhattan Project: a story, and a book, worth waiting for.

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