#16 - JRL 7061
February 12-18, 2003
Scientist as Official
The Russian physicists who created the A-bomb and the H-bomb and the atomic energy program under the Soviet regime were a galaxy of colorful and brilliant men including figures such as Andrei Sakharov, who would later become an active dissident, or Lev Landau who became anti-Stalinist much earlier but not openly. Anatoly Alexandrov, whose 100th anniversary we mark on February 13, belonged to this galaxy, was the father of the Soviet Union's atomic energy program and, for better or for worse, rose to the top of the scientific bureaucracy.
Anatoly Alexandrov was born in Tarashchi, Kiev Province, in 1903 to the family of a school teacher. Having received his secondary education in a Czarist school, Anatoly began to work as a school teacher himself, then took a correspondence course at Kiev University. He graduated from the university in 1930. His research paper drew the attention of prominent physicist Ioffe, who invited him to come to Leningrad and devote himself to the study of the physics of polymers. Thus, Alexandrov was involved in the elite science of physics. His career began slowly at first, but then gathered momentum. Alexandrov produced works on electrical and mechanical properties of polymers.
During the Second World War, leading Soviet physicists were directed to work on practical technical problems of naval mines. The scientists achieved excellent results, but the naval war between Germany and the Soviet Union played a subsidiary role in the outcome of the overall war.
However, momentous tasks lay ahead for the men who, for the time being, were involved in technical matters which their intellectual abilities far transcended. In 1943, Stalin ordered secret police chief Lavrenty Beria to create a project to develop a Soviet atomic bomb. The academic head of the project was Igor Kurchatov. Anatoly Alexandrov was his deputy. The Soviet atomic bomb was tested in August 1949, breaking the monopoly of the United States in this field.
Yet it was Alexandrov's dream for the atom to be used for peaceful purposes. He played a decisive part in developing reactors for the first nuclear-powered icebreakers for use in the Arctic Ocean, and also the nuclear submarines which would eventually make up the backbone of the Russian nuclear missile carrying naval forces.
In 1953 Alexandrov became a full member of the Academy of Sciences. By then he had already received four Stalin prizes. The next year he was awarded the title of Hero of Socialist Labor. Despite the fact that Alexandrov had reached the top of the scientific hierarchy, he must have sighed a deep sigh of relief when Stalin died in 1953.
In the years of the Thaw and Brezhnev's rule Alexandrov's ascent continued, although it might have seemed that he had reached the limit. In 1960 he became head of the Kurchatov Nuclear Energy Institute. The time came for Alexandrov to finally become a member of the ruling Communist Party in 1962. His party career also proceeded rapidly: in 1966 he became a member of the Central Committee.
In 1975 Alexandrov became the President of the Academy of Sciences, a post he would hold for eleven years. More honors and awards followed. Soviet officials were notorious for awarding each other and themselves various titles and medals.
There seemed to be no clouds on the horizon of the scientist's life. But 1986 turned out to be a tragic year in Alexandrov's life. His wife died that year, and Alexandrov did not have time to recover from his grief, when, in the morning of April 26, the Chernobyl accident began. Alexandrov arrived at the scene of the accident a month later. Although the scientist kept his cool, he was obviously devastated by what had happened. Faith in the nuclear industry was shattered. Various accusations, some fair others unreasonable, were levelled against Alexandrov.
It is believed that Alexandrov's mistake was not in the design of the reactor, but in his failure to explain in clear enough terms to those who worked at the atomic power plant that they were confronted by an extremely dangerous enterprise, the operation of which warranted the greatest caution and did not tolerate experiments. Unfortunately, the Soviet atomic power industry was short of facilities for experiments, and the engineers and scientists at Chernobyl in effect carried out dangerous experiments. However that may be, it was too late for Alexandrov to correct his mistakes, and the Chernobyl accident was one of the reasons why perestroika was launched by Gorbachev.
In 1986 the ageing Alexandrov left the post of the Academy president. Although in 1991 he was routinely transferred from the Soviet Academy of Sciences to the Russian Academy of Sciences it was clear that he would never reach the level he had achieved on the eve of Chernobyl.
When Alexandrov died several years later, despite all his distinctions, the funeral was not attended by any of the top officials of the time. He himself had requested to be buried at Mitino, a secondary cemetery where the victims of Chernobyl had been laid to rest. According to Soviet rules, a bust of the scientist should have been set up at his birthplace; instead it was erected at Sosnovy Bor, the site of the Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant, linking the scientist forever with one of his dangerous creations.
The career of Anatoly Alexandrov mirrored the rise and fall of the Soviet regime, to which he was inextricably bound. Although the scientist was not known to have been particularly active in persecuting dissidents in science, as far as we know, neither did he ever undertake any considerable effort to protect anyone from the regime.