Ukraine and Soviet Nuclear History
Ukraine’s scientists and nuclear infrastructure played a significant role in the development of the Soviet nuclear program, especially in its first stages. Nuclear physicists from the Ukrainian Institute for Physics and Technology (UIPhT)[i] participated in the creation of Soviet nuclear weapons. Recently declassified documents demonstrate that Ukrainian nuclear scientists were among the first in the USSR to propose the correct fundamental design for the atomic bomb.
The history of Ukraine’s public relationship with nuclear weapons provides an interesting case study on the influence of a country’s population on state nuclear policy. The Ukrainian people’s attitudes towards nuclear weapons were strongly influenced by official Soviet propaganda. Despite active participation in the nuclear arms race, Soviet government agencies organized anti-nuclear propaganda campaigns amongst the populace (including those who lived in Ukraine). This propaganda emphasized the necessity of prohibiting nuclear weapons. Archival documents included in this article demonstrate that there were many seminars and meetings which were organized with thousands of Ukrainians in order to persuade them of the necessity of prohibiting nuclear tests, and even nuclear weapons. This propaganda undoubtedly contributed to the skeptical attitude of the Ukrainian people towards nuclear weapons, which was demonstrated during the post-1991 independence of Ukraine. Understanding modern political opinions in Ukraine towards nuclear weapons, and their relation to contemporary calls for rearmament, requires recognition of the legacy of antinuclear propaganda from the Soviet era, as well as the legacy of Chernobyl.
The Chernobyl disaster of April 26, 1986 was a low point of Ukrainian nuclear history during the Soviet period. Many recently declassified documents on this disaster illuminate the real scale of the event, the process of its liquidation, and its consequences.
Understanding modern political opinions in Ukraine towards nuclear weapons, and their relation to contemporary calls for rearmament, requires recognition of the legacy of antinuclear propaganda from the Soviet era, as well as the legacy of Chernobyl.
Unfortunately most archival documents about the deployment of Soviet nuclear weapons on Ukrainian territory remain unavailable. Therefore, this research update concentrates only on three aspects of Ukrainian nuclear history during the Soviet time:
- the role of Ukraine at the beginning of the Soviet nuclear project
- the antinuclear propaganda campaign in Soviet Ukraine
- and some recent revelations about the Chernobyl disaster
The first part of the article describes Ukraine’s role in the early atomic program of the Soviet Union. The second part reveals the purposeful antinuclear propaganda campaign waged in Soviet Ukraine in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as the problem of the Chernobyl disaster. Both parts are based on analysis of archival documents, reproduced in English for the first time here. This article was done within the framework of the research project "The Nuclear History of Ukraine," which is supported by the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority.
I. Ukraine and the Beginnings of the Soviet Nuclear Project
During the pre-war era, Ukrainian scientists were working on the cutting edge of nuclear research in the Soviet Union. Through the 1920s and 1930s, the Ukrainian Institute for Physics and Technology (UIPhT) in Kharkov was preeminent in the field of nuclear physics in the Soviet Union. Established in 1928, the Institute started research in the field of nuclear physics almost immediately. In 1932, scientists of the institute were the first in the world to reproduce the experiments by British scientists on nuclear fission by fast protons. In 1940, two young nuclear scientists from the institute, V. Shpinel and V. Maslov, proposed the first valid scheme to produce a nuclear explosive. Unfortunately for the Soviets, this proposal was harshly criticized by V.Khlopin, P. Kapitsa, and A. Ioffe, who were then the leading Soviet experts in nuclear physics. As such, no real progress on the Soviet nuclear bomb began until after the end of WWII, and then mainly thanks to covert intelligence.
Declassified archival documents describing the leading role of the Ukrainian Institute for Physics and Technology during the first stages of the Soviet nuclear program are concentrated in Moscow-based Russian archives and in the archive of the Kharkov Institute for Physics and Technology. A large number of documents from these archives were published in two published collections:
- “Atomic Project of USSR,” 3 volumes (Moscow: 1998-2005).
- “Laboratory No. 1 and Atomic Project of USSR. Documents and Materials. 1938-1956,” edited by scientists from the Kharkov Institute for Physics and Technology, A. Dovbnya, Y. Ranyuk, O. Shevchenko (Kharkov, Ukraine:2008).
Examples from these collections are described below.
Document 1. Letter from People’s Commissariat of Power Plants and Electrical Industry[ii]to the Council of People’s Commissars[iii]of USSR “On the Organization of the Research Activities on the Nuclear Atom” No. NE-107, March 7, 1939
This document was signed by Mikhail Pervukhin, the Soviet people’s commissar[iv] of power plants and electrical industry. In this letter, the Soviet minister proposed to concentrate nuclear research at the Ukrainian Institute for Physics and Technology and to move nuclear scientists from Leningrad Institute for Physics and Technology in Kharkov, as the institute there was a very good base for the study of nuclear physics. Pervukhin stated in this letter that establishing a large nuclear center in Kharkov would be the most rational and cost effective option. Had this proposal been realized, Kharkov could have become a center for nuclear physics research on the scale of Moscow or Sarov. In any case, this letter from the people’s commissar recognized the prominent role of the Ukrainian Institute for Physics and Technology in Soviet nuclear science.
In addition, Pervukhin proposed to provide a modern cyclotron to the Ukrainian Institute for Physics and Technology (UIPhT). This proposal was considered by the deputy director of the State Plan of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialistic Republic, V. Skulsky, as shown in the documents below:
Document 2a. Letter from the State Plan of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialistic Republic to the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, ‘About the Rationality of the Cyclotron Construction in UIPhT,’ February 22, 1940
Document 2b. Letter from the Director of the Institute of Physical Problems Petr Kapitsa to the State Plan of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialistic Republic, ‘About the Cyclotron of the Ukrainian Institute of Physics and Technology,' February 28, 1940
The first letter (document 2a) informed the Soviet Academy of Sciences that UIPhT had asked the government of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic to allocate 75 thousand rubles for the design of a cyclotron, and 1.5 million rubles for its construction. The State Plan asked advice on the necessity of building this cyclotron.
The response by academician Petr Kapitsa to this letter (document 2b) was very critical. Kapitsa wrote that “during the last several years UIPhT built a number of research installations, but did not finish them. However, it started to build new installations. Such activities at UIPhT cannot be considered as normal.”
Thus Petr Kapitsa did not endorse the construction of a cyclotron at UIPhT, and this was one of the reasons why the institute did not become one of the major nuclear research centers of the USSR, despite the high caliber of the scientists working there.
Document 3а. Claim for an Invention from V. Maslov and V. Shpinel, ‘About Using Uranium as an Explosive and Toxic Agent,’ October 17, 1940. Secret[v]
In this letter, two nuclear scientists from UIPhT described a design concept for a nuclear bomb. These two Ukrainian physicists were the first Soviet scientists to recognize the bombmaking potential of nuclear fission. Of course, because of the secrecy surrounding the Manhattan Project, they did not know about similar breakthroughs by Western scientists made at approximately the same time.
The Kharkov scientists also proposed concrete steps to develop a nuclear weapon. Documents 3b and 3c below demonstrate that the Ukrainian physicists understood how to produce weapons grade uranium and developed concrete technical proposals to achieve this goal through uranium enrichment by centrifuge.
Document 3b. Technical Proposal of F. Lange, V. Maslov, and V. Shpinel, ‘Fission of Uranium Isotopes Using Method of Coriolis Acceleration’. September 1940. Secret[vi]
Document 3c. Claim for an Invention from F.Lange and V.Maslov, ‘Thermocirculation centrifuge’ January 1941
This centrifuge proposal received positive assessments from the leading Soviet academicians in Moscow. However, they criticized the idea of using Uranium for military applications, because they did not believe that it is possible to create nuclear fission in real-world conditions. Of course, they did not know then about successful nuclear developments in the United States and the United Kingdom. The Soviet National Committee of Defense received these skeptical assessments in 1941 and decided not to develop a military nuclear program. The documents received by the Soviet National Committee of Defense are included below:
Document 4a. The National Institute of Chemical Studies of Soviet National Committee of Defense Findings on the UIPhT Fellows Request for Invention Sent to The Agency of Military Chemical Defense.[vii]February 1941. Secret
Document 4b. Conclusion of Radium Institute of Academy of Sciences on Invention of UIPhT Fellows Sent to Agency of Military Chemical Defense April 17, 1940. Secret
The Kharkov scientists understood that the Moscow academicians referred very skeptically to their idea of using Uranium for military objectives. Therefore, Victor Maslov made one final attempt to persuade the Soviet leadership to start a military nuclear program. He sent the following letter to People’s Commissar of Defense Marshal Timoshenko:
Document 5. Letter from V.A. Maslov to the People’s Commissar of Defence of USSR “About the Necessity to Organize Activities in the Use of Atomic Energy for Military Purposes.” February 1941.
However, this letter was also given to Moscow academicians who criticized the Maslov’s idea and persuaded Marshal Timoshenko not to start a military nuclear program. Shortly after that, the German invasion of the Soviet Union began. UIPhT was evacuated to Central Asia, and many of its fellows—including Victor Maslov—were killed during the war. Thus, until the end of the war, there were few possibilities to introduce Maslov’s ideas on nuclear bombs into practical development.
Ukrainian historian Antoly Dovbnya speculates that the lack of success of Maslov’s ideas was due in part to Maslov sending his proposal to Timoshenko and the Academy of Science, rather than Lavrenty Beria, the director of the KGB and later head of the Soviet atomic project. Had this been the case, the Soviet atomic program could have begun much earlier, as Beria better understood the potential military significance of nuclear fission.[viii]
The German invasion of the Soviet Union and the skeptical assessments of the UIPhT scientists’ ideas by bureaucrats in Moscow prevented Kharkov from emerging as a center of Soviet nuclear development—instead, the major physics and weapons labs were ultimately concentrated in Russia. Despite this, scientists from Kharkov would play a significant role in the first stages of the Soviet program:
Document 6a. Decree No. 2352 cc of State Committee of Defence September 28, 1942. Top secret.
This declassified document has become famous, as it marks the official start of the Soviet atomic project aimed at producing a nuclear bomb. The second point of this important document orders the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences to organize the development of an installation project for Uranium enrichment. Lange, a scientist from UIPhT, was appointed as head of this project because of his previous work on the theoretical aspects of Uranium enrichment described in documents 3B and 3C.
This decree demonstrates the important role of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences and the fellows of the Ukrainian Institute for Physics and Technology in producing the first Soviet nuclear bombs. Their role is underscored further in a 1943 report to Molotov:
Document 6b. Report of Secretariat of Council of People’s Commissars of USSR to V.M. Molotov, ‘About the Implementing of Decree No. 2352 cc of State Committee of Defence’ February 1943.
This report informs Molotov in point 5 that the installation project for a Uranium enrichment centrifuge facility was prepared by F. Lange and his colleagues in December 1942. The installation itself was planned to be constructed outside in Ukraine in Kazan.
Document 6c. Note of I.Kurchatov for M. Pervukhin, ‘About Necessity to Demobilize V.M. Kelman’ April 1, 1943. Top secret.
In this document Igor Kurchatov, the “father” of the first Soviet nuclear bomb, asks the chief of the Soviet ministry of energy Mikhail Pervukhin to help to demobilize the Ukrainian physicist Veniamin Kelman, who was a fellow of UIPhT before the war. In this note, Kurchatov writes about the high quality of this Ukrainian nuclear scientist and about his importance for the development of the Soviet nuclear program. This document once again demonstrates that Ukraine played a significant role in the Soviet military nuclear program.
However, the leading position of Ukraine in the Soviet nuclear physics community was largely lost during the Second World War. The German occupation of Ukraine caused the principal military nuclear facilities of the USSR to instead be developed in Russia, and many Ukrainian physicists were conscripted for the war effort, or arrested and killed during the mass repressions of the 1930s.
After the war, the Ukrainian nuclear physics community concentrated on the peaceful, rather than military applications of nuclear physics. UIPhT’s nuclear activities focused on thermonuclear fusion for peaceful energy purposes, as well as other issues related to nuclear energy and nuclear research. The research activities of UIPhT were concentrated at Laboratory No. 1, which was established at the institute in 1946. The following document illustrates some of the core activities underway at UIPhT:
Document 7. The List of Sectors (the Structure) of Laboratory No.1 in Ukrainian Institute of Physics and Technology in Kharkov
Despite the peaceful direction of UIPhT’s nuclear research, some fellows who later came to UIPhT knew some secrets related to producing a hydrogen bomb. One such fellow was Oleg Lavrentiev. The following document demonstrates that during his research he discovered classified information regarding to the basic design for producing thermonuclear weapons.
Document 8. Review of Andrei Sakharov about Oleg Lavrentiev’s Paper January 3, 1951. Top Secret
In this document the “father” of the Soviet thermonuclear bombs gives his assessments of Lavrentiev’s ideas, which Lavrentiev expressed in his letters to the Soviet leadership. Actually, Sakharov was familiar with all of these ideas before reading Lavrentiev’s paper, as he worked in this direction for several years in the Soviet atomic project. Yet it is interesting that Lavrentiev came to these ideas independently. He had not participated in the atomic project and was then an unknown Soviet army sergeant without higher education. However, based on reading physics textbooks and on his natural talents, Lavrentiev managed to come upon some secrets of the Soviet thermonuclear program. In addition, he proposed some new ideas on using thermonuclear fission toward peaceful goals. These ideas he expressed in several letters which he sent to high-ranking Soviet officials. After some bureaucratic delay, these letters were received by Sakharov who assessed them positively, and then Soviet officials paid attention to the young and very talented physicist. Beria, then a powerful figure in the nuclear establishment, gave a push to support Lavrentiev. Yet after Beria’s death in 1953, it was difficult for Lavrentiev to build a prominent career, as his association with Beria proved politically toxic. In addition, he refused to complete his PhD studies in Moscow and transferred to work in UIPhT, where he had fewer career prospects. However, there he was able to continue his research in thermonuclear fission and was satisfied by his work. In this way, UIPhT received a scientist with the knowledge to build a nuclear bomb, although he never participated in such development.
While the war and German occupation meant that the core effort to develop an atomic bomb would take place in Russia, rather than Ukraine, Ukrainian scientists like F. Lange were involved in the Soviet nuclear complex and had a hand in its success.
Thus, Ukraine had a leading position in Soviet nuclear physics in the 1920s and 1930s. But because of the war, the nuclear centers of the USSR moved to Russia. However, Ukrainian physicists (F. Lange, V. Kelman, etc.) continued to play a very significant role in the Soviet atomic project, especially during its earliest stages. Prior to the German invasion, Ukraine and UIPhT was home to some of the top physicists working on nuclear science in the entire Soviet Union. While the war and German occupation meant that the core effort to develop an atomic bomb would take place in Russia, rather than Ukraine, Ukrainian scientists like F. Lange were involved in the Soviet nuclear complex and had a hand in its success.
II.Antinuclear Propaganda Campaign in Soviet Ukraine and Chernobyl Disaster
Soviet propaganda to prohibit nuclear weapons essentially contradicted the actual efforts of the USSR. However it can be supposed that this propaganda still had a positive impact on the Ukrainian population, which today sees the prospect of Ukraine obtaining nuclear weapons rather skeptically. It seems that the achievements and mistakes of Soviet antinuclear propaganda efforts could hold lessons for today’s efforts to persuade the Ukrainian politicians and people that the possession of nuclear weapons would hinder their national interests.
In Soviet Ukraine, antinuclear propaganda was organized by the Ukrainian Republican Committee of Peace Protection. This authority attracted thousands of laboring men, collective farmers, and members of the Communist Party.
Document 9. Events of Ukrainian Republican Committee of Peace Protection Devoted to the Issue of Stopping Nuclear Tests and the Prevention of Nuclear War July 11, 1957
This document lists events which the Committee planned to hold during November 1957 in order to agitate against nuclear testing and nuclear war. For example, on 25 November 1957, the Committee planned to organize a meeting of medical scientists in Kiev; on 23 November it planned to hold a meeting of scientists in Lvov city; on 20–25 November it planned to hold a meeting of workers of the Odessa seaport, etc.
Document 10. Information about Conducting in Ukraine This Month’s Campaign of Joint Actions of the People against Nuclear Weapon and for the Universal Prohibition of Nuclear Tests Forever and Ever 1958
This document describes the monthly antinuclear campaign which was held in Ukraine during September–October 1958. During this campaign, a number of mass meetings were organized. During these meetings, people listened to lectures by scientists about the damage caused by nuclear tests and the danger of nuclear war. The lecturers tried to persuade the audience that only Western states were responsible for conducting nuclear tests and for the nuclear arms race. According to them, the Soviet Union was forced to develop its nuclear capabilities to protect socialistic countries, despite the fact that the Soviets supported the idea of prohibiting nuclear weapons.
Document 11. The letter from worker of Donetsk metallurgy plant Nikolai Bychkov to Ukrainian Republican Committee of Peace Protection, Donetsk, September 13, 1963.
This letter is just one example of numerous similar letters which were sent to Kiev on the occasion of the signing of the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) in 1963. In these letters, Ukrainian teachers, workers, and collective farmers wrote about their happiness because of the partial prohibition of nuclear tests. At the same time, these letters condemned China, whose relations with the USSR had deteriorated and which was preparing its first atmospheric nuclear test which broke the PTBT regime.
Ukraine has a long history of anti-nuclear activism that predated even Chernobyl. It seems the Soviet Authorities fostered anti-nuclear propaganda for their own political gain. However, the documents reproduced here also demonstrate that the dangers of the nuclear arms race was a real concern of the people in Soviet Ukraine. We could also say that the antinuclear public mood—which strengthened after the Chernobyl disaster and influenced the Ukrainian decision to give up nuclear weapons after the fall of the Soviet Union—emerged in 1950s in part due to the propaganda campaign described above.
The anti-nuclear public mood strengthened after the Chernobyl disaster. Information about the true scale of the Chernobyl disaster was classified by the Soviet government. However, during the 1990s and 2000s, independent Ukraine declassified part of the archival documents on this issue. Some documents are still classified. However, those documents which are already available provide interesting details of the Chernobyl nuclear accident resolution and clean up.
It is necessary to mention documents which prove that the Chernobyl power plant was built in violation of the safety standards. The RBMK reactors at Chernobyl were used to produce plutonium for the Soviet weapons program, and their use in peaceful nuclear energy was risky. However, the Soviet authorities decided not to dismantle these unsafe reactors and use them at Chernobyl NPP [Nuclear Power Plant]. So the decommissioning of the other units meant that Ukraine no longer had an active indigenous capacity to produce weapons grade plutonium.
The declassified document below demonstrates the deficiencies in the construction of the Chernobyl NPP and shows that the Soviet government knew about these deficiencies before the accident.
Document 12a. Andropov Letter, Shortcomings in the Construction of the Chernobyl Atomic Power Station, February 21, 1979
In this document, then KGB Chief Yuri Andropov expresses his concerns regarding deficiency in Chernobyl NPP’s construction which “might lead to failures and accidents.”
[In 1979] KGB Chief Yuri Andropov expresses his concerns regarding deficiency in Chernobyl NPP’s construction which “might lead to failures and accidents.”
Andropov’s conclusion can be supported by the following recently translated document:
Document 12b. Report of KGB’s Governance about the Emergency Stop of Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Unit No.1 on 9 September 1982
This document describes an emergency stop of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant unit in 1982. Unfortunately, this and other reports on the accident did not lead to corrections in the reactor’s design. Furthermore, most experts and even governmental officials did not know about this accident, as information about it remained classified for many years.
Document 13a. The KGB’s Report on Explosion and Fire at Chernobyl NPP [Nuclear Power Plant] This document describes the chronology of the disaster and describes its first victims.
Document 13b. Urgent Report, Accident at Chernobyl Atomic Power Station, April 26, 1986. Secret.
This document also contains information about the explosion just after disaster. This report was sent directly to Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Document 14. KGB’s Report about Operational Disorder in Organizing Activities Aimed at Liquidation of the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster. August 28, 1986. Secret
This document describes the deficiencies in the liquidation of the Chernobyl disaster’s consequences. These deficiencies could have led to new victims because the security rules for handling dangerous radioactive materials were inadequate.
Ukraine played a significant role in the Soviet nuclear program development. Before the Second World War, many of the best Soviet nuclear physicists worked in Ukraine. However, during this period the capacity of Ukrainian nuclear research capabilities was underestimated by the Soviet government—Soviet leaders did not recognize the significance of proposals by Kharkov physicists regarding the producing of nuclear weapons. The rejection of Victor Maslov’s suggestions was a historic mistake for the Soviet Union. Had the Soviets began their weapons program in earnest prior to the Second World War, one could speculate that the Soviet Union might have been able to create nuclear weapons almost simultaneously with the United States.
After WWII, Ukraine continued to play a significant role in the Soviet civilian nuclear industry. While the Ukrainian institute of Physics in Kharkiv did not actively participate in the production of Soviet nuclear weapons, many Ukrainian physicists were part of the efforts underway in Russia.
The Chernobyl disaster was particularly important point in Soviet nuclear history. Declassified documents indicate that the design deficiencies that led to the disaster were known to Soviet authorities, and could have been corrected.
The legacy of the Chernobyl disaster was one of the reasons that the Ukrainian people supported independent Ukraine’s rejection of nuclear weapons. The antinuclear propaganda conducted in Ukraine starting in the 1950s later influenced the decision for independent Ukraine to give up its arsenal of Soviet nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, since the beginning of the contemporary conflict with Russia, many Ukrainians support the revival of Ukraine’s nuclear status. The history of Soviet antinuclear propaganda and the associated legacy of antinuclear activism by the Ukrainian people could be put into service to persuade today’s Ukrainian populace that reviving its nuclear status would hinder Ukraine’s national interests.
[i] Today this institute has the title National Research Center “Kharkov Institute of Physics and Technology” (NRC KhIPhT).
[ii] A Russian abbreviation of the title of this governmental authority is NKEP, which will be used hereinafter.
[iii] “Council of People’s Commissars” was the title of the Soviet government. A Russian abbreviation of this title is SNK.
[iv] This corresponded to minister.
[v] This label was written by V. Maslov himself, not by governmental authorities which did not understand then the sensitivity of ideas which were proposed in the letter.
[vi] This label was handwritten after completing of the document.
[vii] The real title of the document is: “Conclusion on Proposal of Maslov and Shpinel “Research of Uranium as an Explosive and Toxicant Agent.”
[viii] Laboratory No. 1 and Atomic project of USSR. Documents and Materials. 1938 – 1956. Kharkov, Ukraine. Edited by A. Dovbnya, Y. Ranyuk, O. Shevchenko. P. 4.
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