]]]]]]]]]]]]]] VICTIMS OF STALIN'S A-BOMB [[[[[[[[[[[[[[[ By Mikhail Klochko (10/31/88) (Abridged from New Scientist, 23 June 1983, pp. 845-849) [Kindly uploaded by Freeman 10602PANC] Joseph Stalin's drive to build a Soviet atomic bomb may have cost more lives than those lost at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. A scientist who worked on the Soviet "Manhattan Project" tells the story of the forgotten victims. [The following appears as an insert on p. 847 of the article: Dr Mikhail Antonovich Klochko was born in the Ukraine, then part of the Russian Empire, in 1902. After graduating in 1925 from the Kiev Polytechnical Institute, he took part in research work there, and from 1930, at the Soviet Acadamey of Sciences in Leningrad (1930-34) and Moscow (1935-1961). ... The Canadian government granted Klochko political asylum in August 1961, and five years later he became a Canadian citizen. He has worked as a scientific consultant in Canada, and has published scientific papers as well as magazine articles about his life in the Soviet Union.] [Note by OP: I think Klochko unsoundly attributes every untimely death to the effects of radiation (some may be due to heavy-metals poisoning or poisoning by some other of the various agents used in the extraction and preparation of radioisotopes). He does not provide an estimate of expected deaths by age for such a sub-population, and is a little too free in his assumptions and those assertions prefaced with 'unquestionably'. I do not doubt that a number of people died because of radiation poisoning, but I think it likely that many also died because of exposure to poisonous chemicals. The important point of the article is that many died so that Stalin could have his bomb. Note: New Scientist is a potentially good magazine marred by a pronouncedly Left viewpoint (these days, what isn't?).] On 29 December 1962, many scientists, engineers and workers in the Soviet Union read with cynicism an article in Pravda about the toll of radiation-induced diseases among the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nearly 20 years after the atomic bombs dropped, Japanese people were still dying. But the people who had worked on Joseph Stalin's atom bomb project in the 1940s and 1950s already knew well the perils of radiation -- despite the heavy veil of secrecy surrounding the issue. "Why point the finger at Japan," many readers of the article must have thought, "when in the USSR itself countless people suffer from the same diseases and thousands have died from them." In the West, however, little was known about the hazards of the Soviet nuclear programme until the dissident scientist Dr Zhores Medvedev published in New Scientist (vol 72, p 264) an article about a nuclear disaster in the Urals in 1958. At a time when concern is mounting about the effects of the early American atomic tests, it is essential to bring the Soviet toll into the picture. This article is based upon my own observations of the work on the Soviet atomic bomb project, on conversations with friends and colleagues working on the project, and on material from the Soviet scientific literature. The literature not only gives some idea of the time when the Soviet Union began to take measures against radiation-induced illnesses, but also reveals some interesting facts in the biographies of scientists and some administrative workers who took part in the nuclear programme. Although Soviet biographies and obituaries never openly mention radiation sickness, the juxtaposition of certain facts, such as work on nuclear topics, a short life-span, a long, serious (unnamed) illness, may point to death by some disease associated with radiation. One problem with writing the story of the Soviet atomic bomb project is the practice by successive Soviet regimes of rewriting history. From 1946, the Soviet news media, together with both the general and scientific literature, tried in vain to prove that Russian atomic science was indigenous, and that the government had encouraged it before the Second World War. However, it was common knowledge in Leningrad that during the 1930s, the authorities looked with disdain upon scientists engaged in studying the atomic spectrum at the Optical Institute. The scientists were deprived of ration cards because their work had "no practical value." ... There can be no doubt that the large-scale development of Soviet atomic science and technology started only when Stalin heard about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. After that, work on the Soviet bomb began in frantic haste. Hundreds of research institutes, universities, technical colleges and industrial enterprises were involved, and the government began building special research institutes and pilot plants for the Soviet "Manhattan Project." One visible sign of this feverish activity was when the salaries of senior research workers trebled in April 1946. For example, my monthly salary as doctor of sciences and head of a laboratory in an academic institute sprang suddenly from 2000 to 6000 (old) roubles. To conceal the reason for the increase, it applied to all senior scientists, not just those working on the bomb. But the atomic scientists received secret bonuses and special privileges, such as cars and dachas (country houses). The scientists, however, derided these bonuses as the "carrot" that coexisted with the "stick" -- in the shape of Stalin's secret police. Thousands of scientists went to the concentration camps in the years between 1918 and 1945. Hundreds died there. ... IONKH is the Russian acronym for the Kurnakov Institute of General and Inorganic Chemistry of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. I worked there as head of a laboratory from 1934 to 1961. The institute was among hundreds of scientific establishments that were dragged into the nuclear field in 1945. We studied compounds of uranium, its isotopes and transuranic compounds. When transferred, together with many other academic institutions, from Leningrad to Moscow in 1934, IONKH was placed in the premises of a small institute which was closed down. In time, the premises became overcrowded and the sewage system became overloaded. Ventilation was also inadequate. When the work with the nuclear materials started, we introduced no precautionary measures such as screens or glove-boxes. Liquid radioactive wastes were poured into the general sewage system, which often overflowed and spilled on the floor, evaporating into the air. The faces and bodies of workers were exposed to radiation inhaled with the dust of nuclear materials. The results of such a blatant disregard for elementary safety measures were not long in appearing. An elderly woman who cleaned a hood where radioactive materials had been spilled died a few months after the start of nuclear research at IONKH. She was soon followed by the electrician, Mochalov, who had been repairing the hood ventilation. He had only recently returned from four years of war at the front lines only to die of radiation sickness. Meanwhile, the personnel of the First Department, the cell of the secret police in the institute, began to spread false rumours about how the two victims died. The agents claimed that the cleaner has died of a "woman's disease" and the electrician of sarcoma. However, the friends and relatives of the deceased knew very well the true reason. In addition to radiation-induced diseases, another plague affected our workers in the guise of a band of secret police officers. Brought into every institution or enterprise connected with the nuclear business to control the passes of every person entering or leaving, the guards spied on workers and denounced anyone who mentioned the harsh conditions of life or other heretical topics. As a result of such infamous activities of the guards, helped in their denunciations by the local First Department, two people were arrested at IONKH. One of them died in jail, the other disappeared without a trace. If an accident such as a fire took place in an institute, firefighters or medical helpers were not allowed into the building on the pretext that they did not have the proper passes. Such an occasion occurred at our neighbour, the Institute of Physical Chemistry. A young female worker was struck down by a high-tension current. Emergency first aid was called for, but the guards refused to allow the doctor to enter the building. While the guards were telephoning their superiors for the necessary permission, the girl died. The first casualties among research workers at IONKH occurred among scientists working on uranium compounds under Academician Ilya I. Chernyaev. Neither he, nor his assistants had worked on fissile materials before. This was the case in hundreds of other scientific installations, universities, and technical colleges mobilised in 1945-1946 for the bomb project. Belatedly, in 1947, IONKH organized a "control station" where people could check the degree of contamination of their bodies and equipment. The only visible result of the performance of the station was that its manager, the young and likeable Seryozha Starostin, fell ill and died in the academic hospital two weeks after he was admitted. As in the case of the electrician and the cleaner, the staff of the First Department began to spread rumours that Starostin had bled to death during an operation. The rumor-mongers almost guessed right: Starostin died from leukaemia. Starostin's untimely death was marked by a black frame around his name in a paper published posthumously. As a rule, junior scientists are seldom honoured by an obituary in a Soviet scientific magazine. However, three doctors of science at IONKH who died after exposure to radioactive materials were given the posthumous "honour". [Accounts of several deaths at ages 40-60 omitted.] One junior scientist, Makartseva, working under Dr I.I. Kornilow with white-hot uranium alloys, went blind (a possible effect of radiation). She was refused an invalid's pension, despite the fact that she was a member of the Communist Party, because her chief, also a member of the Pary, wanted to clear himself of blame. A senior scientist, Anna D. Gelman-Novikova also began to lose sight after working with compounds of trans-uranium elements. Our trade union, the head of which is always a member of the Party, did not pass a single resolution of protest or demand regarding the death of people at our institute and the contraction of radiation-induced diseases by others. Eventually, the matter assumed scandalous proportions and in 1947 the institute opened a medical post with one nurse. A doctor visited twice a week. All of those working at the institute had their blood analysed for signs of radiation. It turned out that more than half of the institute's staff, about 250 people, suffered from some degree of disease associated with radiation. Among them, more than 100 were serious cases. Even some workers not engaged in nuclear research were ill, because the entire institute was contaminated. [Accounts of several deaths at ages 40-62 omitted.] The journal Uspekhi Fizicheskikh Nauk (Advances in Physics) between 1951 and 1981 published obituaries of more than 20 nuclear physicists, most of whom died before the age of 60. Those who managed to live a little longer died "after a long serious illness". [Accounts of several deaths at ages 40-62 omitted.] Five years earlier, Academician Pyotr I. Lukirsky, who was working in the Radium Institute, died at the age of 60. The obituaries give the names of more than 10 other nuclear physicists who died between 40 and 60 years of age. Others are remembered only by a black frame around their names in the title of a posthumous scientific paper. But most of the younger scientists, who did not live long enough to obtain a doctor's degree, died of radiation-induced diseases without winning an obituary. Among the many hundreds of research establishments involved in the nuclear bomb project from the end of August 1945 were almost all of the Soviet Union's universities and technical colleges, scientific institutes and laboratories. In addition, the government built several special nuclear establishments which were constructed between 1946 and 1960. Among them was the so-called Devyatka (Institute Number Nine) which housed work on the chemistry of fissionable materials and headed from 1946 to 1953 by Orest Y. Zvyagintsev, one of our directors of sciences. Several workers of the institute died at a comparatively young age. Some of their names, such as that of Boris N. Sudarikov, who died in his fifties, appear in the literature in a black frame. Some students who graduated from Moscow University and started their work at IONKH, died from acute radiation sickness. The number of all the people mentioned by name in the preceding sections and scores of other scientists who died from the effects of radiation and whose names can be found in literature, represents only the tip of the iceberg. The number of technical personnel afflicted is even greater. After scientists designed the Soviet atomic bomb, hundreds of thousands of engineers and workers had to realise the project. The path from the uranium mines to the test grounds is paved with corpses. During the first decade of the bomb's development (1946-1955), inmates of Soviet concentration camps did the lion's share of that work. The camps neglected even the most elementary safety arrangements. Radiation sickness was a complementary mishap to the many accidents in mines and on the production line. Each test of the bomb threatened not only the engineers but the population of the surrounding areas as well. Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his Gulag Archipelago lists many projects built and manned by prisoners. To this list must be added the installation at Norilsk, built by camp inmates. The inmates were working on mining and dressing uranium ores when I visited that city with Academician I. Chernyaev in 1946. He consulted the administration on methods of separating uranium in the so-called "Macaroni factory" -- a euphemism for the uranium ore dressing mill. Scientists in the West detected many tests and explosions of the Soviet atomic bombs. Fallout was often observed beyond the borders of the USSR, for example in April 1956, when the fallout reached China. The numbers of the fallout victims (as well as of many others) were kept a strict secret in the USSR. And only recently, in 1976, has Dr Zhores Medvedev revealed the tragic catastrophe that occurred in 1958 as a result of a fire or explosion at the site of a nuclear waste disposal plant in the Southern Urals. The fallout covered a large area; tens of thousands of people were affected and hundreds of them died. Studies of the hazards connected with the atomic bomb and with the nuclear industry in the Soviet Union raise two important issues: Why did so many deaths occur? And how did the Soviets succeed in concealing a major disaster until 1977 when Medvedev's article appeared? At the beginning of the atomic bomb project in August 1945, Stalin set Soviet atomic scientists the task of making the bomb in the shortest time, at any cost. To achieve that goal, authorities spared neither material expenses nor human lives. Our IONKH was not unusual in its total absence of safety measures at the start of nuclear research. Other establishments that started that work in 1945-1946 shared the same attitude. Certainly, nobody attempted to raise his voice against Stalin's directive. According to Medvedev, even in 1951 (two years after the first Soviet explosion), workers dealing with radioactive isotopes knew nothing of their dangerous effects. During the first decade of the bomb project, 1945-1955, even the words "radiation sickness" were taboo. The journal Gigiena i Sanitaria (Hygiene and Sanitation) did not print a single article about the hazards of radiation before 1955. In November 1955 (more than two years after Stalin's death) an article appeared on a conference on the problem of ionising radiation, which took place in Moscow in July 1955. The author said the conference was the first in the country. Radiation sickness and its manifestations was mentioned in several reports of the conference, and diagnosis and prevention were discussed. Participants stressed the need for further work on the problem of ionising radiation. From that time, articles on the problem appeared not only in that journal, but also in reference books. To counter the claim of some Western sources that the Soviet Union showed no interest in radiation-induced diseases, an article on radiological problems, written by a Soviet professor, appeared in an American journal. A peculiarity of that article is the absence of references to the works it mentions. ... Morbidity and mass deaths suffered by people in the USSR from radiation-associated diseases came to be such a frequent phenomenon in the 1960s that articles about it appeared even in the general press. An article by Professor A. Lebedinsky, a member of the Academy of Medical Sciences (The Struggle Against Radiation Sickness, Pravda 18 August 1964) states directly that "radiation sickness is a consequence of accidents occurring during the operation of an atomic reactor. Several such cases, however, have unfortunately occurred in physical laboratories". To have been completely correct, the phrase should have included the words "tens of thousands" immediately following the word "several" and close with the words "atomic factories and test grounds". But how did the Soviet authorities keep secret the scale of the disaster? The answer is quite simple: because of the peculiarities of Soviet censorship. To have a clear idea of Stalin's censorship one must be acquainted with a book issued in the late 1940s under the title An Enumeration of Information Prohibited for Publication in the News Media. After the infamous "secrecy decrees" of 1947, I had to read that book inside the premises of the First Department, being nominated (among three other IONKH scientists) as a censor of papers to be published by our workers. Among many hundreds of items the book cited as prohibited were: epidemics; accidents in mines, factories and testing grounds; transport crashes of various kinds; and any natural disaster in the USSR, earthquakes included. Any statistics, local or central, were prohibited. So why should the Soviet news media publish the statistics (or even separate cases) of radiation fatalities, even if the number exceeds tens of thousands? The press allowed far greater catastrophes, for example, the famine caused by the forced collectivisation of 1932-33, when about 5 million people in the Ukraine and more than one million in Kazakhstan starved to death, to pass in silence. Only comparing the figures of two censuses, of 1926 and 1939, one can reveal the decrease in the number of Ukrainians and Kazakhs, despite the increase of the country's population during these years. So long as no official data are published about Soviet victims of radiation, we can make only rough approximations of the number of deaths in each of the main three groups: scientists; technicians and workers; and people living in the bomb-test areas. There were 162 500 scientists in the USSR in 1950, of whom about 60 percent, some 97 000, specialised in physical, chemical and technological sciences. Perhaps half of them, about 48 000, took part in the nuclear business in such a manner that they could have been exposed to dangerous radiation. If we apply to this figure the casualty rates at IONKH, where out of 80 scientists, five died and out of 20 technicians, two died, the rate would be between 5 and 10 percent. Taking the average figure of 7.5 percent, we have about 3600 scientists who died during the first years of their work and another 44 900 who suffered from some disease associated with radiation. These are conservative figures. Kurchatov's deputy, I.N. Colovin, wrote that "many thousands of persons were solving the atomic problem in those years (1945-1960) in plants, institutes and test grounds", and that fewer and fewer participants of the atomic project remain alive. On the other hand, one of my close friends, a high ranking scientists, told me after one of his trips to the atomic plant in the southern trans-Ural region: "You cannot imagine the colossal death rate among the scientists and technical personnel there. Each time I visit the plant I find that the cemetery here [sic] has doubled in size." Assuming that no less than 1 million workers and engineers took part in the whole process of preparing the bomb, from mining the uranium ore to making the bomb itself, and that between 5 and 10 percent died as a result, we come to an estimate of 50 to 100 000 fatalities. This gives a number that compares with the deaths at Hiroshima. As to the tests of the bomb, besides fatalities on the ground among those who organized these tests and studied their results, there were groups of Soviet people who had the misfortune to live in areas affected by fallout. Medvedev has reported that tens of thousands of people were affected by an explosion at one nuclear waste site. Also there is no doubt that each test explosion caused suffering and death to thousands of people. From these figures, I estimate that the number of deaths from the development of the Soviet atomic bomb exceeds those of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.
Return to the ground floor of this tower
Return to the Main Courtyard
Return to Fort Freedom's home page