Medvedev Exposes the Kyshtym Explosion

Zhores Medvedev, Two decades of dissidence (1976)


Biologist Zhores Medvedev disclosed the occurrence of the explosion in Kyshtym in an article published in the West that discussed the emerging independent role of scientists in Soviet society. Khrushchev’s speech to the 20th Party Congress in 1956 forced scientists, among others, to reappraise their role within society. Some of the scientific elite then linked up with the rank and file to form a unique and highly significant part of the dissident movement.

Original Source: New Scientist, 4 November 1976, pp. 264-267.

The repression of scientists and intellectuals during Stalin’s time could create the impression that dissidence was widespread among them. However, this was not the case. There were different reasons for repression. Some were persecuted for their political views, others were victims of the struggle with pseudo-scientific trends, but many were repressed for purely random reasons.

Stalin was an anti-intellectual in many of his actions. He often supported badly educated or just primitive people, considering them to ·be “great” scientists because they had declared their intention of carrying out some extraordinary achievement. Sometimes this support was justified and the achievements of these unknown pioneers were later recognised throughout the world. Examples include D. Papanin’s successful expedition to the North Pole, and V. Chkalov’s first transarctic flight from the USSR to America.

But very often Stalin’s anti-intellectual support was given to semi-educated pseudoscientists like T. D. Lysenko and O. Lepeshinskaya. Such scientists then tried to establish a dominating position through ideological pressure and by using the apparatus of terror. It was just this cruelty and the terror of the state machine which made organised dissidence in science impossible.

Individual cases of dissent among scientists were possible. One example was the direct refusal of academician Peter Kapitza to participate in research related to the atomic bomb — an action which cost him his position and job, but not his life. This kind of dissent was very risky, not only from the point of view of the individual’s scientific position, but from that of his life and freedom as well.

Khrushchev’s bold denunciation of the Stalin terror in 1956, and his rudimentary attempts to establish some legal justice in the country, gradually stimulated a better intellectual climate, including the scientific. Representative groups of the scientific community began to oppose some aspects of government and party policy. But the inertia of fear aborted many such attempts. The scientific opposition did, however, play an important part in changing developments that had already been approved by the party. Cybernetics was not the only useful science rehabilitated after Stalin’s death. Many other new technologies, previously suppressed, now struggled to the surface with the help of political pressure. Khrushchev’s initial measures in support of science, encouraging scientific exchange with the West and developing new science centres, together with his policy of “destalinisation” and the rehabilitation of political prisoners, won enthusiastic support among scientists. During this period ‘(1953-57) he was even sensitive to demands about Lysenko. In 1956 ·Lysenko was dismissed from his position as president of the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences of the USSR. He was reinstated in 1961 when Lysenko sided with Khrushchev in his quarrel with agricultural experts and scientists.

Khrushchev also abolished the annual “Stalin Prizes” which had been awarded for the best achievements in science and technology. He introduced the “Lenin Prizes in their stead. These were to be awarded once every two years, there would be fewer of them, and they would involve less money. This reform was, however, not very significant.

Khrushchev’s real conflict with the scientific community began to be felt after 1958-59 when the “anti-party” opposition had -been eliminated and he had become the “de facto” dictator of the Soviet Union. In accordance with the long-standing tradition of the communist movement, this meant that he now wanted to be thought of not only as a political leader-the first secretary of the party-but also as a “super scientist” who knew all the answers.

Opposition to Lysenko

An important centre of scientific and political opposition arose in the agricultural and biological sciences around the Lysenko issue. Hundreds of scientists-not only biologists, but chemists, physicists and others-united against Lysenko and against Khrushchev’s support of Lysenko. This struggle was reflected in many official meetings and countless speeches by Khrushchev, where he attacked those scientists who opposed the “fruitful and revolutionary Michurin-Lysenko biology”.

In 1963 a number of scientists challenged Khrushchev’s unrealistic 70 to 80 per cent annual growth target for the chemical fertiliser industry. Their open letter had some effect and the “chemicalisation” programme was modified.

Awareness of environmental problems also started around the 1960s, scientific groups often pointing out the environmental dangers of industrial projects. In some cases the government made concessions, but more often it was reluctant to alter its industrial plans.

Even Khrushchev’s reasonable attempt to reorganise the Academy of Sciences in 1960, by hiving off the numerous industrial, technological and agricultural research institutes, was strongly opposed. Members of the Academy and the Academy Praesidium refused to cooperate with the government. It took more than a year to settle the dispute. When it became clear that it was impossible to carry out the reform simply, the government decided to go ahead without the Academy’s cooperation. The president of the Academy, A. N. Nesmejanov, was forced to resign.

Khrushchev’s conflict with the scientific community contributed to his downfall in 1964. Some episodes in this conflict — such as his closure of the Moscow Timiriazev Agricultural Academy, his support for Lysenko’s pseudoscience, and his attempt to reorganise the Soviet Academy of Sciences into a Committee of Science in 1964 — were mentioned by Suslov, in his report to the Party Plenum, as among the reasons for Khrushchev’s dismissal.

Two tragic episodes exposed the explosive relations between Khrushchev and the scientific community, and were of particular importance. They strained Khrushchev’s relations with two groups of very influential scientists. Both these groups — the nuclear physicists and the spacecraft and rocketry technologists — were the elite of the elite. They were also essential for the country’s strength — probably more essential than Khrushchev himself.

It was suppressed geneticists who originally started the conflict with the nuclear physicists. In 1955-56 they made a number of attempts to arouse the physicists to the genetic dangers of radioactivity. This underground propaganda, which emphasised the dangers of radiation and the need for classical genetics to control it, was rather successful. By 1956 several hundred signatures had been collected on an appeal calling for the restoration of genetics and radiation genetics in particular. The tsar of the nuclear physicists, Igor Kurchatov, handed this appeal in person to Khrushchev. Khrushchev was furious, but he could not touch Kurchatov, who had too strong a backing. Finally Khrushchev made some small concessions, including the removal of Lysenko from the presidency of the Agricultural Academy, though he returned to favour later.

A tragic catastrophe occurred in 1958, which made nuclear physicists extremely sensitive to the radiobiological and genetics issue. The catastrophe itself could have been foreseen. For many years nuclear reactor waste had been buried in a deserted area not more than a few dozen miles from the Urals town of Blagoveshensk. The waste was not buried very deep. Nuclear scientists had often warned about the dangers involved in this primitive method of waste disposal, but nobody took their views seriously. The alternative of drowning the containers in the very deep waters of the Pacific or Indian Oceans had been rejected as too expensive and protracted. Dispersing the highly radioactive materials over other parts of the country was also considered unnecessary. The large nuclear industry, concentrated in the Urals, just continued to bury its waste in the same way it had done since the beginning of the atomic race. Suddenly there was an enormous explosion, like a violent volcano. The nuclear reactions had led to overheating in the underground burial grounds. The explosion poured radioactive dust and materials high up into the sky. It was just the wrong weather for such a tragedy. Strong winds blew the radioactive clouds hundreds of miles away. It was difficult to gauge the extent of the disaster immediately, and no evacuation plan was put into operation right away. Many villages and towns were only ordered to evacuate when the symptoms of radiation sickness were already quite apparent. Tens of thousands of people were affected, hundreds dying, though the real figures have never been made public. The large area where the accident happened is still considered dangerous and is closed to the public. A number of biological stations have been built on the edge of this — the largest gamma field in the world — in order to study the radioactive damage done to plants and animals.

The irradiated population was distributed over many clinics. But no one really knew how to treat the different stages of radiation sickness, how to measure the radiation dose received by the patient, how to predict what the effects would be both for the patients and their offspring. Radiation genetics and radiology could have provided the answer, but neither of them was available. There was no laboratory in the whole of the country which could make a routine investigation of chromosome aberrations — the most evident result of radiation exposure; marrow stocks did not exist; there was no chemical protection against radiation exposure available for immediate distribution.diss.scientistsMany towns and villages, where the radioactive level was moderate or high, but not lethal, were not evacuated. The observation medical teams established in them were not well prepared for serious tests.

All this greatly shocked the nuclear scientists, and their opposition to Khrushchev’s anti-genetic stand became too strong to resist. The government was forced to legalise classical genetics, at least for radiology, radiobiology, and medicine. Lysenko’s only remaining power base was agriculture.

The nuclear physicists were now well aware of the real dangers of nuclear explosions. They were no longer just an obedient group of experts. Their strong opposition to government policy contributed considerably to the final agreement to end atmospheric tests of nuclear devices.

The other line of resistance developed in space research after 1959. Khrushchev’s misuse of space research to boost Soviet political prestige led to an irreparable catastrophe. The space and military experts then started to resist political pressures and wanted a significant role in the decision-making process.

In October of 1960 Khrushchev decided to head the Soviet delegation to the General Assembly meeting of the United Nations. He and some other heads of East European countries were to make the trip on the ship “Baltika”. Always obsessed with the idea of showing the Americans Soviet superiority in at least some areas of technology, Khrushchev issued a directive that a Soviet rocket to the Moon should be launched to coincide with the time of the Baltika’s docking in New York. It would be some kind of space “salyut” for the arrival of such an important communist group to the United States.

Lunar rocket blows up

The elite of Soviet rocket technology was, of course, at the “cosmodrome”. However, when the start was ordered and the button was pressed the ignition did not work. According to the safety regulations, any inspection could only take place after the fuel had been removed. This was a long process and would mean postponing the whole spectacle. Marshal Nedelin, who was in charge and under an obligation to fulfil the ambitious order, irresponsibly decided to investigate the fault immediately. The special ladders and platforms were moved to the rocket and dozens of engineers and experts started to explore the different parts of the multi-rocket system. Suddenly the ignition started to work. The rocket fell because it was blocked by the ladders. All the men and women in the area were killed. They were some of the best representatives of Soviet space technology.

This tragedy was not the only event to make the space technologists aware of the dangers of political “salyuts”. The government’s attempt to hide the real story — the official press referred to Nedelin’s death as being due to a plane crash! — meant that the tragic death of many prominent scientists and technical experts passed without even short obituaries. The duplicate rocket was later launched and declared a great achievement. But this would not heal the wounds of those who had lost their relatives, friends and colleagues.

These are just a few examples that show how Khrushchev began to lose the confidence of Soviet scientists. They also show that the dissent started not only among the rank and file, but also at the level of the highest scientific elite. The culmination of this conflict was a special Party Plenum held in June 1963, to discuss the ideology and ideological orientation in science, literature and art. This Plenum was ominously reminiscent of the notorious decisions taken by Stalin and A. Zhdanov on the superiority of ideology and its relevance to all aspects of science, literature and art. Their decisions had initiated the repressive measures against intellectuals in 1946. However, the conflict between Khrushchev and the top ranking scientific elite not only contributed a lot of fuel to the anti-Khrushchev move, made by the Party Praesidium in October 1964, it also created a unique situation. where the highest scientific support became available for political dissidents, who had never belonged to the elite.

Political dissidents within the scientific community were usually at the lower levels of the scientific hierarchy. The young students and junior scientists, not the privileged academicians, tried to explore some political alternatives and ideas during the post-war period. Their fate under Stalin was usually tragic. During Khrushchev’s time, the first wave of arrests among young scientists and student dissident groups came after the military intervention in Hungary in October 1956. These arrests are not well known, because the rehabilitation of millions of victims of the Stalin terror was under way at the same time. When millions were being released, the hundreds of new arrests could easily pass unnoticed.

These young dissidents had been brought into existence by the new policy of “destalinisation”. However, they wanted more serious reforms in society. They were stunned by the details of the Stalin terror; they wanted a more complete investigation and the punishment of those others who had also been guilty of such crimes. In 1956- 57, there were few such dissidents, and they were isolated from almost all groups in society — from workers and peasants because of the lack of any means of communication; from higher sections of the intelligentsia, because of the latter’s privileged ” elite” position and their satisfaction with the half-measures of Khrushchev’s regime toward liberalisation. Too many of the intellectual elite of 1956-60 were still famous from Stalin’s time.

The situation changed around 1962-63. A certain cooperation grew up between the democratic political opposition and the scientific elite opposition group.

By then the prestige of the numerous state orders, the signs of political recognition, the ‘titles, prizes, degrees and even high positions — were all tremendously eroded and devalued. The question naturally arose — what had one done to receive the title Hero of Socialist Labour? Was it for the development of a good new variety of wheat, or a new version of the nuclear bomb, or had one overfulfilled the construction programme for a hydroelectric dam being built by slave labour from the prison camps? The same questions could be asked about prizes and degrees. As a rule the most decorated scientists came from the Lysenko camp, with himself well in the lead — nine orders of Lenin, Hero of Socialist Labour, several Stalin Prizes, full membership of three academies (USSR, Ukraine and Agricultural), member of the Academy Praesidium, director of the Institute of Genetics and of the Gorky Leninskie Experimental Station, Deputy of the Supreme Soviet, etc.

The devaluation of the scientiific hierarchical pyramid made closer contacts between the younger politically active groups and the more honest representatives of the “elite” much easier. In many cases the high ranking “elite” scientists were themselves looking for such contact. Right up to 1957-58 the politically orientated younger dissidents would have considered any kind of friendly relations with such scientific celebrities as academicians I. Tamm, P. L. Kapitza, A. D. Sakharov, N. N. Semenov, V. A. Engelhardt, I. L. Knunianz and A. I. Berg, as quite unthinkable. But by 1962-64 links had started to appear. Not only did cooperation and friendship between the two generations become possible, but the older and more privileged group gave direct support to the political dissent of their younger colleagues. They gave financial aid to help organise the samizdat network; they sometimes made facilities available for safeguarding and reproducing samizdat works; they also strongly encouraged and defended those in trouble. In a few cases, members of the highest scientific elite became outspoken political dissidents themselves — the case of Andrei Sakharov is one of the best known examples.

The cooperation between prominent scientists and political dissidents became especially evident in 1966-67. Many joint statements were prepared and sent as high as the 23rd Party Congress. These opposed the then current attempts to rehabilitate Stalin and also protested against some of the ·political trials. The government was not yet ready to deal with this kind of dissent. The spring of 1968 was not only the famous “Prague spring”. it was also the honeymoon· of intellectual dissent in the USSR. Many hoped that this was the beginning of real democratisation. However, the tragic events of August 1968 changed the situation dramatically within the Soviet Union as well. The group of young activists, who tried to demonstrate in Red Square, was arrested. Special measures to suppress dissident activity in science became official policy. The previously more-or-less united movement of politically minded scientists started to split up under this pressure into several trends, each with its own methods and own programmes of reform.

The whole phenomenon of dissent in the USSR became well publicised in the West at this time. But this does not mean that the West properly understood the complexity of the situation. Publicity was mostly centred around some prominent figures — the western “press” publicity is always individually orientated. However. the main streams of the widespread but moderate dissent among scientists and technological experts remained unseen. It was nevertheless, influential. The new policy of detente was, to a significant extent, the result of internal pressure from these scientific and technological groups. They made it clear that the development of the Soviet Union as an advanced power was not possible in isolation or with its science divided ideologically into “socialist” and “bourgeois” sections. But this complex and contradictory chapter in the history of Soviet science needs special consideration.

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