If Louis XIV could say “L’état, c’est moi” (“I am the state”) of seventeenth-and early-eighteenth-century France, Joseph Stalin could have said the same of the Soviet Union he created. Vladimir Lenin may have founded the Soviet state, but Stalin shaped it into what it became subsequent to Lenin’s death in 1924. Stalin was, after Adolf Hitler, the second great monster of the twentieth century. He cared not a whit for human life, nor did the suffering of the Soviet people ever trouble him. To enforce collectivization of agriculture, he deliberately provoked a famine in Ukraine in 1932–33 that starved millions. The lives of human beings had to him the same value as those of laboratory rats in the historic experiment he was presiding over to build socialism, which would one day transmogrify itself into Communism. (To Stalin, however, there was nothing tentative about his revolutionary society. He believed that he was bringing a new reality to fruition.) The fate of individuals did not matter; the fate of the experiment was everything. He had his best boyhood friend shot. He and Molotov, his closest collaborator after Beria, once signed death warrant lists for 3,187 people and then went to watch Western movies in his private theater in the Kremlin, a favorite nightly relaxation for the Soviet dictator. Yet while the outcome of the experiment provided a rationale for Stalin to justify whatever he wanted to do, his character and personality were the real determinants of his conduct.
Until he adopted a Party pseudonym (Stalin means “man of steel”) during his revolutionary youth, he was Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, born in 1879 in the then czarist province of Georgia in the Caucasus. A diminutive figure, slim and just five feet, four inches, he had a withered left arm from a childhood injury and a pockmarked face from smallpox. His eyes were hazel, with a dash of yellow that seemed to glint when he was angry. There was nothing diminutive or withered about the man himself. He had a remarkable talent for organizing and manipulating people and bureaucracies and he was a cunning actor with two pronounced traits—suspicion virtually to the point of clinical paranoia and cruelty to the point of sadism. He once remarked that the most pleasant experience a man could have was to lead an enemy into a trap, arrange his doom, and then sleep soundly that night.
In his mind, he and his needs and the Soviet state and its needs were inseparable. Whatever might threaten his security also threatened the security of the Soviet state and therefore amounted to counterrevolution and treason. Whatever he wished to accomplish, the Soviet state needed to accomplish and thus was justifiable in the national interest. No one knows the precise number of his victims. The most authoritative source, Dimitri Volkogonov, a former Red Army general turned historian, had unrestricted access to the Soviet archives while they were still secret and published a biography of Stalin in 1989. He estimated that Stalin’s forced transformation of Russian agriculture from private into collective and state-owned farms from 1929 to 1933 cost 8.5 to 9 million peasant lives. Another 19.5 to 22 million persons were arrested for various offenses, real and contrived, between then and his death in 1953. Of these, Volkogonov estimated that more than a third, approximately 6.5 to 7.3 million human beings, were sentenced to death or perished in the slave labor camps of the Gulag.
Leon Trotsky’s support within the Soviet Communist Party was virtually nil by the time Stalin exiled him, initially to Turkey, in 1929, but Stalin continued to see “Trotskyist conspirators” and “Trotskyist plots” everywhere and tens of thousands paid with their lives for his obsession. It was a favorite charge during the Great Purge of 1937–38, when 4.5 to 5.5 million people were arrested. He even had the NKVD search the civil war archives for the names of anyone who had served under or been associated with Trotsky when he was Bolshevik commissar for military affairs and chairman of the Supreme War Council. Everyone named was tracked down and arrested and shot. In subsequent years when some of the mass graves were exhumed, the skulls all bore the trademark of the NKVD—a bullet hole in the back of the head.
His suspicion extended to those closest to him. A trick to test their loyalty was to have a member of their family arrested. His factotum was a man named Alexander Poskrebyshev, who worked twelve to fourteen hours a day bringing Stalin documents to read or sign, summoning visitors, and relaying the boss’s orders. Stalin gave Beria permission to arrest Poskrebyshev’s wife on a charge of Nazi espionage. When the anguished husband several times protested his wife’s innocence and pleaded with Stalin to free her, Stalin invariably answered: “It doesn’t depend on me. I can do nothing. Only the NKVD can sort it out.” The NKVD did sort it out. The woman was held in prison for three years and then shot, undoubtedly with Stalin’s consent. All the while, before and afterward, Poskrebyshev continued bringing Stalin his documents. Excessive protest would have condemned him and the rest of his family, and in an example of the bizarre thinking that can develop in a society as twisted as this one was, Poskrebyshev remained personally loyal to Stalin. When Molotov fell out of favor in subsequent years and Stalin replaced him as foreign minister with Andrei Vyshinsky, he arrested Molotov’s wife, Polina, for “Zionist connections.” (She had Jewish ancestry.) Molotov loved his wife, but at the Politburo meeting where Stalin put the matter of her arrest to a vote, Molotov also voted for it.
It was Stalin’s pathological suspicion that his military leaders were plotting against him that was largely responsible as well for the immense losses in the opening months of the German invasion in 1941, including 3 million Red Army officers and men taken prisoner. The purge began in May 1937 with the arrest and subsequent execution on trumped-up accusations of Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, a pioneering exponent of armored warfare and deep, penetrating maneuver. Tukhachevsky was probably the most talented and resourceful officer in the Red Army, with a sterling record of personal courage and battlefield leadership during the civil war. Stalin then proceeded, in effect, to wipe out the entire command structure of his army. Thousands of officers, the best of the corps, were murdered. Most members of the senior War Council were purged, as were all of the commanders of the military districts, 90 percent of their deputies and chiefs of staffs, 80 percent of the corps and division commanders, and 90 percent of their chiefs of staff and staff officers. Marshal Kliment Voroshilov, an incompetent toady whom Stalin made his defense commissar, reported at the end of November 1938 that the Red Army had been “cleansed of more than 40,000 men.” (Many of the lower-ranking officers were sent to slave labor camps rather than being shot.) The purge and its impact encouraged the Germans in their planning for the invasion. “The Red Army is leaderless,” Colonel General Franz Halder, the German army’s chief of staff, declared at a secret conference in December 1940. A rational ruler would have hesitated to decapitate his army when he faced a potential opponent like Hitler, but in Stalin’s sick imagination these men threatened him and therefore they threatened the state.
As a result, when, despite Stalin’s concluding of the infamous Non-Aggression Pact with Hitler in 1939 in a futile attempt to avoid war, the führer’s armored divisions burst across the Soviet frontier in the opening thrust of Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941, the Red Army was commanded by men too young or too inexperienced to know how to handle their units in combat. Seventy-five percent of all officers had held their current assignments for less than a year. Stalin also made the catastrophe worse by placing many of his forces, including aviation units, relatively close to the frontier, where planes were caught on the ground by the Luftwaffe and troops quickly overrun, rather than availing himself of the Soviet Union’s depths to hold them farther back until the main lines of the German advance could be identified and powerful and well-organized counterattacks launched. Miraculously, enough talented men like Georgi Zhukov, who was to become the leading Soviet marshal of the Second World War, survived the purge, and Stalin, after additional costly blunders, finally understood the mortal danger in which he stood and had the sense to listen to them. They were able to buy time with those vast Russian spaces and gradually reconstitute an officer corps that, along with the extraordinary courage and fortitude of the ordinary soldier of the Red Army, first halted and then broke the back of the Wehrmacht and drove the Germans all the way to Berlin.
None of this is to say that tens of millions of ordinary Soviet citizens did not follow Stalin enthusiastically. His crimes went unrecognized and the relentless propaganda of the regime constantly extolled the magnificent leadership and genius of Comrade Stalin. Faith in the dream of “building socialism” was also still vibrant in Stalin’s time and expressed itself in the 1930s in such herculean projects as the creation of the new steel center at Magnitogorsk, deep in the Urals east of Moscow, which proved indispensable during the Second World War in providing the material for the guns and tanks that defeated the Germans. Ironically, the war could not have been won without the program of heavy industry Stalin had fostered in a backward Russia. The war further enhanced his prestige with the Soviet public. The actor in him reached out cleverly to arouse the wellspring of patriotism for “Mother Russia,” whose very existence was threatened by the Germans. His calamitous errors were hidden, and he made certain that he, rather than his generals, received credit for the victories. By 1945 he was widely regarded as a superhuman savior who had led the Russian people to triumph and safety through the most perilous ordeal in their history.
Stalin was proud of the command economy he had created, whereby resources could be channeled into projects he deemed of priority, regardless of deprivation elsewhere. He wanted the bomb as quickly as possible, not because he was worried about any immediate threat of war—relations were only starting to become strained—but because he was concerned that Truman and Byrnes, through their atomic diplomacy, might succeed in imposing a postwar settlement inimical to Soviet interests. Stalin understood the political implications of the atomic bomb. As long as the United States held a monopoly, the bomb gave America an aura of unique technological and military prowess. Once the Soviet Union had its own bomb, that aura would be broken, and Stalin would achieve what amounted to strategic parity with Washington. Kurchatov told Beria, and thus Stalin too, as the information would certainly have been relayed by Beria to his master, that the task would take approximately two and a half years. A plutonium-type bomb was to be tested by January 1, 1948. Kurchatov and the fellow nuclear physicist he had selected as his deputy, Iulii Khariton, a slim, scholarly man who had experimented with nuclear fission prior to the war and whose talent Kurchatov admired, decided that copying the Nagasaki plutonium bomb was the shortest and most certain route. (With perhaps one or two exceptions, they were the only scientists involved who were permitted to read the intelligence information from Fuchs and Hall, and apparently from Koval as well. The other physicists and engineers thought that Kurchatov and Khariton were coming up with these ideas.)
Peter Kapitsa, then the best known internationally of the Soviet physicists, objected. Kapitsa had done research at that home of genius, the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University, for thirteen years until he made the mistake of coming back to the Soviet Union for a visit in 1934 and Stalin blocked his return to England. He was to win the Nobel Prize for physics in 1978. Kapitsa was also privy to the intelligence information as a member of the supervisory Special Committee on the Atomic Bomb chaired by Beria. In letters to Stalin, he argued that mimicking the Americans would place too great a burden on the war-ravaged Soviet economy. Soviet physicists were perfectly capable of coming up with their own, cheaper bomb design and also of building it more quickly. Stalin did not trust his own physicists to better what their American counterparts had already achieved, he was not certain the path Kapitsa was proposing would be faster, and he did not give a damn about the expense.
In a January 1946 meeting with Kurchatov in the Kremlin, Stalin gave the back of his hand to Kapitsa’s argument. “It was not worth engaging in small-scale work,” he said, according to Kurchatov’s notes, “but necessary to conduct the work broadly, with Russian scope.” Speed was all that mattered. “It was not necessary to seek cheaper paths,” Stalin emphasized. He also held out to the nuclear physicists and engineers the carrot of privileged living that he accorded those who were particularly useful to him. For a nation that supposedly celebrated the equality of its citizens, Stalin’s Soviet Union had always been a society riven with inequality. Food, medical care, apartment space, clothing, and luxuries like imported goods were apportioned according to one’s rank and position in the Party and the regime. The NKVD was especially pampered, with higher salaries, the best housing, and special shops and canteens. Now Stalin was proposing, if it succeeded, to similarly reward the nuclear weapons community. “Our state has suffered very much,” he said to Kurchatov, “yet it is surely possible to ensure that several thousand people can live very well, and several thousand people better than very well, with their own dachas, so that they can relax, and with their own cars.” But there was peril in this promise of privileges, because the beneficent emperor who awarded them was also a hangman who rewarded failure with death. In this lay the second explanation for copying the American bomb. Kurchatov and Khariton knew that if they and their colleagues performed the task of copying well, the bomb they produced would go off. If they struck out on their own and sought a different design and it fizzled, the senior physicists and engineers involved would be shot.
Given the nature of Stalin’s state, it was logical as well that he appoint Lavrenti Beria head of the committee to oversee the building of his atomic bomb. Stalin had installed Beria, a fellow Georgian whom he had spotted during a trip to the Caucasus in 1931, as head of the NKVD in 1938 when he removed and had shot its previous chief, Nikolai Yezhov, who had carried out most of the Great Purge for him. A round-faced, balding man who wore a pince-nez, Beria was a sadist who sometimes personally tortured and shot his and Stalin’s victims and had a penchant for young women that Stalin let him indulge. When he spotted a woman he wanted, he would send his aide to fetch her in one of the dreaded black limousines the NKVD employed to transport its victims to the Lubyanka. The number on which he forced himself ultimately ran into the hundreds. If the young woman refused him, the consequences for her and her family were invariably hideous. At the same time, he was a shrewd and effective administrator who handled a wide variety of projects for Stalin, assuming, correctly, that fear would energize everyone involved. Beria was Stalin’s closest collaborator, with privileged access to him, and the NKVD was the keystone in the bureaucratic structure Stalin had fashioned. It secured his position through its ubiquitous network of surveillance and terror and also controlled one of the important economic resources of his state—the millions of prison laborers.
Hundreds of thousands of these labor camp inmates, called zeks in Russian slang, were now marshaled to create the atomic industry necessary for the bomb. They worked under a number of Beria’s subordinates who had, over the years, become construction managers. Iakov Rappoport, the man charged with laying out the roads and erecting the buildings for the first large-scale reactor and separation plant to produce plutonium at a secret site called Cheliabinsk-40, because it was located in the Urals northwest of the industrial city of Cheliabinsk, was an NKVD major general. Rappoport had received his initial construction management experience in the early 1930s helping to supervise the creation of the White Sea Canal, a horrendously brutal project in which tens of thousands of prison laborers had died. At Cheliabinsk-40, he was assigned 70,000 zeks.
Arzamas-16, the Soviet equivalent of Los Alamos where the bomb would actually be put together under the direction of Iulii Khariton, was also built by prison labor in the village of Sarov, about 250 miles east of Moscow. The site was chosen because it was isolated and on the edge of a large and beautiful forest reserve that allowed for expansion. (It drew its secret name from the city of Arzamas, about forty miles to the north.) The churches and living quarters of an Orthodox monastery closed by the Communists in the 1920s were still standing in the village. The monastery had been a famous one, dedicated to Saint Serafim of Sarov, who had been renowned for his asceticism and concern for the poor. The first laboratories were set up in the cells where the monks had once dwelt, while the prisoners built new laboratories and houses for the physicists and engineers and other technicians. Prison laborers were part of the social landscape of the Soviet Union and the privileged scientists had to get accustomed to seeing them every day. Lev Al’tshuler, a physicist who arrived at Arzamas-16 at the end of 1946, described the sight in an interview published more than forty years later, which David Holloway quotes in Stalin and the Bomb: “The columns of prisoners passing through the settlement in the morning on their way to work and returning to the zones [prison camps] in the evening were a reality that hit you in the eyes. Lermontov’s lines came to mind, about ‘a land of slaves, a land of masters.’”
More, an estimated 80,000 to 120,000, were consigned to the new uranium mines opened in Soviet Central Asia. Little is known of the conditions in those mines, but they were apparently appalling. Those who died were buried in communal graves. Some idea of the conditions can be obtained from those that were observed in the Soviet occupation zone in East Germany, where by 1950 the Russians had 150,000 to 200,000 conscripted German laborers toiling in newly opened uranium mines. Safety measures in these mines were non ex is tent, there was no medical care, and the workers were housed in primitive barracks surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by NKVD troops. In what may have been the cruelest twist of all, there are no memoirs of the Soviet prison laborers whose bodies built the atomic industry, because only a few were released at the end of the penal labor terms to which they had originally been sentenced. To preserve the secrecy of the various installations of the atomic complex, once construction was completed Stalin had them shipped to the Gulag’s worst camps, the gold mines of Kolyma in the Far East, where they died.