Kurchatov, Igor

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Igor Kurchatov

Born January 8, 1903
Simskii Zavod,
Southern Ural Mountains, Russia
Died February 1960
St. Sarov (or Arzamas-16),
Russia, Soviet Union

Nuclear physicist and
developer of the Soviet atomic bomb

A brilliant nuclear physicist, Igor Kurchatov headed the development of the atomic bomb in the Soviet Union. Kurchatov's successful development of the bomb played an important role in Cold War politics. The Cold War was an intense political and economic rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union that lasted from 1945 to 1991. When the United States discovered by way of spy planes that the Soviet Union had detonated its first atomic bomb, it felt compelled to accelerate its own nuclear weapons program. Like his American counterpart, J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904–1967; see entry), Kurchatov in his later years stressed that atomic energy should only be used for peaceful purposes.

Early life

Igor Kurchatov was born on January 8, 1903, to Vassili and Maria Kurchatov in the southern Ural Mountains of Russia. He had an older sister, Antonina, and a younger brother, Boris. Vassili was a forester when Igor was born but soon became a highly respected land surveyor. Maria was a teacher. The couple settled in the Simsky Factory Township, where Vassili received state honors for his work and was designated a noble. This status allowed his three children to attend school.

When Kurchatov was nine years old, his family moved to Simferopol in Crimea, on the Black Sea. As a youngster, Kurchatov was enthralled with the beauty of both his native Urals and the mountains and sea of Crimea. He graduated with honors from the Simferopol public schools, and only three years later, in 1923, he graduated from Tavricheski (later Crimean) University. At the university, he studied mathematics and physics. Upon graduation, Kurchatov went to Petrograd for a short time to study shipbuilding, for he had once dreamed of a naval career. There, he wrote his first scientific paper; the subject was the radioactivity found in snow. Kurchatov then took a job at Pavlovsk Observatory and published his paper.

Career begins in Leningrad

In 1925, a renowned physicist, Abram Ioffe (1880–1960), invited Kurchatov to join his institute in Leningrad. The institute was the main Soviet center for nuclear physics, and Kurchatov quickly gained a reputation as a brilliant young scientist. There, he became reacquainted with Marina Sinelnikov, whom he had met before in Simferopol. They married on February 3, 1927.

By 1932, Kurchatov and several other Soviet scientists had decided to devote themselves to the study of nuclear physics. It was a new, fascinating field but not expected to yield any practical applications for decades. Kurchatov's Leningrad team built a cyclotron for studying the nucleus of an atom. (A cyclotron is a particle accelerator, or atom smasher, in which small particles are made to travel very fast and then collide with atoms, causing the atoms to break apart.) The scientists eagerly kept up with published nuclear physics research from Cavendish Laboratory in England, part of Cambridge University and long a gathering area for the world's top physicists. They also followed the work of Italian-born American physicist Enrico Fermi (1901–1954) and his team at the University of Rome in Italy. In 1938, German scientists successfully split the nucleus of the element uranium. This reaction, called nuclear fission, released tremendous amounts of energy and was the first step in developing an atomic bomb.

World War II (1939–45) began in Europe in 1939. When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Kurchatov and his Soviet research team halted their work. Kurchatov was assigned to Crimea to help protect the Soviet Black Sea Fleet from mines planted by the Germans. Within the next couple of years, Kurchatov and other Soviet scientists astutely noticed that the previously abundant publication of nuclear research in scientific journals had ceased. They soon presumed that this silence could mean only one thing: Other nuclear physicists must be secretly working on a bomb.

In fact, the United States had brought together a grouping of the world's best physicists, including American, English, and Canadian physicists and German physicists who had fled Nazi rule. In 1943, these scientists converged on the New Mexico desert at a newly established location known as Los Alamos. They were there to work on the top-secret Manhattan Project, the code name for America's atomic bomb development program. U.S. leaders feared that Germany would hold the world hostage if it developed the first atomic bomb. To prevent this, the U.S. government asked the scientists at Los Alamos to create an atomic bomb before the Germans could. At the time, no one realized that the world war had halted the Germans' bomb research.

All research at Los Alamos was done under a veil of secrecy. Nevertheless, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin (1879–1953; see entry) soon had reports about the Manhattan Project from Soviet spies. In late 1943, Stalin chose Kurchatov to lead the Soviet Union's own secret atomic bomb effort. A year and a half later, on July 16, 1945, the United States successfully tested an atomic bomb. On August 6 and August 9, the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, to finally end World War II.

Stalin ordered Kurchatov to push the Soviet atomic bomb "catch-up" project into high gear. He made clear the urgency of the project and demanded that Kurchatov develop a Soviet atomic bomb by 1948. The Soviets feared that if the Americans remained the only ones with an atomic bomb, they would force U.S. interests further into other countries— even the Soviet Union—and eventually dominate the world. Although Kurchatov was the scientific team leader, Stalin appointed Lavrenty Beria (1899–1953), leader of the dreaded Soviet secret police, the KGB, to organize and manage the Soviet bomb project. Beria further pressured Kurchatov to quickly develop and build the atomic bomb. With the brutal Stalin as his ultimate boss, Kurchatov was already under considerable pressure; Beria would hint to him that failure on the bomb project could mean a death sentence.

Kurchatov set about his task with great enthusiasm, a bit out of fear but also out of a sense of patriotic duty to the Soviet Union, which had been devastated by German attacks in World War II. Both Kurchatov and Beria had exceptional organizational skills. While Kurchatov planned the design and construction of the bomb, Beria mobilized thousands of workers. Most of the workers were prisoners from the vast system of Soviet labor prison camps known as the Gulag. They would mine uranium (one of the raw materials needed for atomic bomb manufacture), build a nuclear reactor, and build facilities for bomb production.

A supersecret atomic weapons laboratory, where the Soviets' first plutonium bomb would take shape, was developed in the spring of 1946 in the small town of Sarov, about 250 miles (402 kilometers) east of Moscow. Together, the laboratory and the new community it spawned were named Arzamas-16. Thanks to Kurchatov's sense of humor, Arzamas-16 soon got the nickname "Los Arzamas," a pun on Los Alamos, the U.S. atomic bomb laboratory. The original town name, Sarov, dropped off the map, and the Soviet scientists went about their work in total secrecy. They were paid well, and Stalin put no budget restraints on the project.

Kurchatov and his team benefited from information about the U.S. Manhattan Project. Spies such as Klaus Fuchs (1911–1988), David Greenglass (1922–), and Theodore Hall (1925–1999), all of whom worked at Los Alamos, funneled detailed plans to Beria's KGB between 1943 and 1945. Fuchs, a physicist, was a refugee from Germany who also happened to be a communist. He first worked on the bomb in England, then ended up on the Los Alamos team. The United States tested its plutonium-type atomic bomb in July 1945; only weeks before that, Fuchs had sent detailed descriptions of the bomb to the Soviets. Beria turned the U.S. secrets over to Kurchatov. Historians agree that this information helped speed up the successful development of the Soviet atomic bomb by one to two years. Nevertheless, Kurchatov still had to recheck all the information and re-create the bomb with Soviet minds and hands.

By November 1946, Kurchatov was building a full-scale plutonium reactor, and on December 25 he and his fellow scientists produced a nuclear chain reaction, the first step to building an atomic bomb. It was also the first nuclear chain reaction produced in Europe or Asia. Two and a half years later, after more intensive work and a series of technical delays, Kurchatov and his team were ready to test a plutonium atomic bomb. They gathered in the early-morning light on August 29, 1949, at the Semipalatinsk Test Site by the Irtysh River in northeastern Kazakhstan. The trial test was dubbed "First Lightning." Beria was present for the test; he was highly skeptical that it would be a success. Kurchatov and his team knew that failure might mean they would be shot. But the team delivered. At precisely 7 a.m., the 100-foot (30.5-meter) tower holding the bomb exploded in an awesome fire-ball. Those watching erupted in relief and celebration.

A few days later, a U.S. Air Force B-29 on a weather mission over the North Pacific detected a very high radioactivity count in the atmosphere. From this information, U.S. scientists realized that the Soviets had detonated a plutonium atomic bomb. U.S. president Harry S. Truman (1884–1972; served 1945–53; see entry) delivered the news to a shocked America on September 23, 1949. The United States had thought it was ahead in the Cold War weapons race; now it was clear that the Soviets had caught up.

Kurchatov, the man

Kurchatov was an individual who had a broad range of interests and an enthusiasm that was contagious. From the early 1940s on, he sported a long shaggy beard. He and his wife, Marina, were a devoted couple who lived together happily for thirty-three years. For the last fourteen years of Kurchatov's life, they lived in a two-story house built for them in a piney woods area close to the main laboratory at Arzamas-16. To reach the lab from his house, Kurchatov followed a zigzag path through the woods. His home was called the "Forester's Cabin." It had eight spacious rooms, including a large library with over thirty-five hundred books, a second library-billiards room, Kurchatov's personal study, and a hothouse where Marina grew exotic plants of many types.

Many paintings, showing a fine appreciation of art, adorned the walls of the Forester's Cabin. Some favorites were watercolors of Crimea in different seasons. (The Kurchatovs had both grown up in Crimea, and they vacationed there as often as they could. There, Igor loved to climb to the top of Mount Ai-Nikola to watch the sunrise and hear the birds sing.) The Kurchatovs loved to entertain in their home, inviting Igor's scientific team, as well as other friends and guests, to visit them. Among their many friends were scientists from around the world. In 1947, on New Year's Eve, the Kurchatovs opened their home to Igor's entire laboratory staff for a night of laughing and dancing. Even on ordinary days, music was often heard coming from the Kurchatov home. Marina played the piano, and Igor played the balalaika (a triangular Eastern European stringed instrument) and mandolin. The Kurchatovs had a large collection of recordings by many artists, including Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Brahms, and Mozart.

Kurchatov enjoyed the gardens around his home. He often met with his team of scientists at an outdoor table surrounded by jasmine and lilac bushes. There, they worked over problems, and Kurchatov would give them their work instructions for the next month. Only a few hours after they had returned to work, he would walk through the woods to the laboratory to see how much they had accomplished.

Kurchatov had great energy, and his thought processes were exceptionally clear, organized, and focused on the task at hand. He taught students and colleagues to ignore clutter and irrelevant details and go straight to the main point. As noted on the Russian Research Centre Kurchatov Institute's Web site, a former colleague recalls him saying: "Always do the main thing both in your life and in your work. Otherwise the irrelevant, no matter how important it might be, will easily fill up your entire life, consume all your energy and prevent you from getting to the roots." Always kind and helpful, Kurchatov enjoyed developing strong bonds with students and fellow scientists. They in turn displayed a great deal of loyalty toward him. Kurchatov remained humane and natural and had a great sense of humor. He was also highly patriotic and devoted to his Soviet homeland.


After his success in developing the Soviet atomic bomb, Kurchatov gained great status and respect within the Soviet Union. But realizing the bomb's enormous destructive power, Kurchatov constantly stressed that atomic energy should be used for peaceful purposes, to benefit humans.

However, the nuclear arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States only accelerated. Scientists in both countries began work on a thermonuclear bomb, also known as the hydrogen bomb or H-bomb, which was far more powerful than the atomic bomb (A-bomb). The United States tested its first H-bomb on November 1, 1952; the Soviets tested their H-bomb on August 12, 1953. The Soviets had again evened the race with the United States, and Kurchatov acknowledged that Andrey Sakharov (1921–1989; see entry), the chief Soviet H-bomb designer, had enormously helped Russia. Nevertheless, the overwhelming power of the nuclear bombs caused Kurchatov to question the ongoing expansion of nuclear weapons. He withdrew from supervising nuclear testing in 1956.

Meanwhile, Stalin had died in March 1953, and Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971; see entry) had risen to the top leadership position in the Soviet Union. In February 1956, Khrushchev invited Kurchatov to speak before the Twentieth Party Congress, otherwise noted for when Khrushchev gave his famous "Crimes of Stalin" speech, in which he denounced the behavior of his predecessor. At the meeting, Kurchatov strongly urged scientists worldwide to work together for civilian uses of nuclear energy. He specifically included American scientists but said that the United States must accept an offer that the Soviets made to ban all nuclear weapons.

In April 1956, Kurchatov traveled with Khrushchev to Great Britain. Khrushchev had so much confidence that Kurchatov would not divulge secrets or attempt to defect that he allowed Kurchatov to go by himself to Britain's laboratories and visit with British physicists. As noted on The American Experience: Race for the Superbomb Web site, Khrushchev commented, "It should go without saying that so remarkable a man, so great a scientist, and so devoted a patriot would deserve our complete trust and respect."

In Britain, Kurchatov spoke before an audience of international scientists at the Harwell nuclear center. For the first time in history, the world heard a description of Soviet nuclear research. Kurchatov called for international cooperation, asking all nations to declassify their nuclear projects, build confidence and understanding of each other, and use nuclear energy in the service of peace. For his dedication to the peace effort, the World Peace Council awarded him the Joliot-Curie Medal in 1959, an award that made Kurchatov extremely proud.

Health problems would soon end Kurchatov's life. In 1958, Kurchatov had a growth removed near his collarbone. He died in February 1960.

For More Information


Glynn, Patrick. Closing Pandora's Box: Arms Races, Arms Control, and the History of the Cold War. New York: Basic Books, 1992.

Herken, Gregg. The Winning Weapon: The Atomic Bomb and the Cold War, 1945–1950. New York: Knopf, 1980.

Isaacs, Jeremy, and Taylor Downing. Cold War: An Illustrated History, 1945–1991. Boston: Little, Brown, 1998.

Morris, Charles R. Iron Destinies, Lost Opportunities: The Arms Race between the USA and the USSR, 1945–1987. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.

Web Sites

Oregon Public Broadcasting. "Citizen Kurchatov: Stalin's Bomb Maker." Cold War I.http://www.opb.org/lmd/coldwar/citizenk (accessed on September 9, 2003).

Public Broadcasting Service. "Race for the Superbomb." American Experience.http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/bomb/peopleevents/pandeAMEX59.html (accessed on September 9, 2003).

Russian Research Centre Kurchatov Institute.http://www.kiae.ru/index.html (accessed on September 9, 2003).

Russian Research Centre Kurchatov Institute

The Russian Research Centre Kurchatov Institute was founded by Igor Kurchatov in December 1943 at Arzamas-16, several hundred miles east of Moscow. Originally called Laboratory No. 2 of the USSR Academy of Science, the research center underwent several name changes during the Cold War: In 1949, it was called the Laboratory of Measuring Instruments of the USSR Academy of Science; in 1956, it became the Institute of Atomic Energy; and in 1960, it was renamed the I. V. Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy. The center took its present name in 1991.

Originally, in the early 1940s, about one hundred scientists worked at the laboratory on the top-secret Soviet atomic bomb project. In January 2002, approximately fifty-three hundred workers were actively pursuing scientific research at the Kurchatov Institute. International scientific meetings are routinely held at the

institute. Igor Kurchatov's home at Arzamas-16, known as the "Forester's Cabin," is preserved as a museum in the institute's gardens.