Stalin and the Bomb: The Soviet Union and Atomic Energy, 1939-1956

6 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0300066647
ISBN-10: 0300066643
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Tracing the development of nuclear power in Stalinist Russia, Holloway examines such topics as the role of espionage and the relationships between scientists and politicians.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press (March 27, 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300066643
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300066647
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #798,550 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Luc REYNAERT on September 8, 2004
Format: Paperback
D. Holloway tells us outstandingly and very detailed the gripping story of the development of nuclear weapons in the Soviet Union. He shows us that the SU success was the result of the effort of Russian scientists with I.V. Kurchatov in a crucial role, although some data were obtained via spying (Klaus Fuchs).

The nuclear weapons building combined the best (scientists, engineers) and the worst of the SU, with prisoners working in appalling conditions (no protection) and real nuclear exercises with soldiers as guinea pigs.

D. Holloway analyzes also pregnantly the hostile ideological environment for scientists. The regime's fundamental logic remained political. The politicians had the right to define what was science and pseudoscience. In the name of dialectical materialism whole scientific disciplines (e.g. genetics) were destroyed (the Lyssenko case).

Physics also came under attack. Beria asked Kurchatov if it was true that quantum mechanics and relativity theory were idealist, antimaterialist. Kurchatov replied that if relativity theory and qm were rejected, the bomb would be rejected too. Stalin's ultimate answer was:' Leave them in peace, we can shoot them later!' (p. 204)

This 'pseudoscientific' debate was held within a bureaucratic framework. Scientists were well paid and the party bureaucrats and ideologues were jealous and wanted to take their place, even if they were incompetent. Beria left physics unhampered because he needed the bomb. In that sense, physics remained a small element of civil society in a totalitarian state. But if the scientists had failed, they would certainly have received a neckshot.

The impact of nuclear weapons on international political relations is also outstandingly explained.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By R. Albin TOP 1000 REVIEWER on June 19, 2010
Format: Paperback
This well written book is an insightful look at the onset of the Cold War and the role of nuclear weapons. It is based on significant research in Soviet archives and interviews with some of the important Soviet figures. Since access to Soviet archives have become more restricted in recent years, Holloway's book continues to be a major source of information about early Soviet nuclear policy. Holloway pursues 3 closely related themes. The first is the history of the Soviet nuclear weapons program, set very well in the context of the historical development of the Soviet physics community. The second is the relationship between the Soviet physics community and the Soviet state, and in particular how Soviet physicists attempted to balance the norms of science as a transnational phenomenon and the demands of the state. The third, and the one of broadest interest, is how nuclear weapons affected Soviet foreign policy.

Holloway presents a nice, concise history of Soviet nuclear physics, providing significant information about a number of the important figures. The key point is that by mid-30s, there was a vigorous Soviet physics community with a number of strong international ties and contributing significantly to research in nuclear physics. From this very impressive group would come the personnel who developed the Soviet nuclear weapons program. Holloway writes sensitively about the difficulties inherent in the position of scientists in a totalitarian state, particularly as Soviet society became more closed with the rise of Stalin. The impressive intellectual power of the Soviet physics community, clearly supported by equivalent intellectual power in crucial related areas in chemistry and engineering, made the Soviet nuclear program possible.
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Format: Paperback
Except for one astonishing, unbelievable and unexplainable omission, David Holloway’s “Stalin and the Bomb” is a remarkably full account of the first nuclear arms race.

At times, it has the page-turning appeal of a howdunit — we know the reds got the bomb, but which were the turning points, which the key decisions, which the intelligence coups, which the lucky breaks?

There really never were any atomic secrets to steal. Competent physicists everywhere all drew the same conclusions immediately when fission was discovered in 1938. Russia, somewhat surprisingly, had plenty of competent physicists.

The first chapters rehearse the history, how a country where most people couldn’t sign their names managed to have a substantial physics intelligentsia; and how the bleeding, hungry early USSR found the resources to keep training physicists. Many were revolutionary soldiers before being sent to physics institutes or engineering schools. Holloway does not say so, but few would have been educated under the tsar. Whatever else it did, the revolution tapped Russia’s best resources: brains.

In 1940, Russia was in a position to start building an atomic bomb. It had sufficient industrial and intellectual resources, but no uranium.

Until 1938, the radioactive element of interest was radium. The West got its radium from pitchblende ores in Czechoslovakia and Congo; uranium was a nearly useless by-product. Russia got its radium from deep brine, with no uranium. No systematic search for uranium deposits was made until 1944.

More seriously, there was no political commitment to a bomb. Holloway concludes that Stalin and Molotov did not really believe a bomb could work.
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