Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum
On August 12, 1953 the Soviet Union detonated a thermonuclear (“hydrogen”) bomb at the Semipalatinsk test site in northern Kazakhstan. Work on the super-bomb had begun in 1946, three years before the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb. The project was organized by the First Chief Directorate under Lavrentii Beria, Minister of State Security (MGB). It was headed by Igor Kurchatov (1903-60), a physicist who had been appointed scientific director of the Soviet Union’s nuclear project in 1943. The design for the bomb was based on the “layer cake” concept developed by the physicist Andrei Sakharov (1921-89), according to which alternate layers of thermonuclear material and uranium-238 were placed in a fission bomb.
Unlike the first Soviet atomic bomb the development of which was hastened by espionage in the United States, the first Soviet hydrogen bomb was of an original design. In the spring of 1954, the United States tested its own two-stage super-bomb in the Pacific. This type of “deliverable” weapon was replicated by Soviet physicists and first tested on November 22, 1955.
A by-product of the Cold War, the Soviet nuclear arms program was given the highest priority by Stalin and was continued apace by his successors. Before Stalin’s death in March 1953, there had been three nuclear tests; between August 1953 and the end of 1955 there were sixteen including three thermonuclear explosions. In October 1953 Sakharov was elected to full membership of the Academy of Sciences at the age of thirty-two, and he, Kurchatov, and several other physicists were made Heroes of Socialist Labor. However, there was political fallout from the hydrogen bomb. In a speech of March 1954, Georgii Malenkov, chairman of the Council of Ministers, referred to the danger of “a new world war, which with modern weapons means the end of world civilization.” Raising this specter went beyond what Khrushchev and other party leaders were willing to acknowledge publicly, and even though he subsequently reverted to the standard line that nuclear aggression by the United States would lead to the “collapse of the capitalist social system,” Malenkov could not undo the damage to his own political career.