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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Slaves Who Built the Soviet Atomic Bomb

The recently published memoirs of former KGB general Pavel Sudoplatov caused something of a sensation because of his claims that Soviet intelligence received secret information about the atomic bomb from such famous scientists as Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi and Niels Bohr. The role played by espionage in the Soviet Union's swift acquisition of atomic weapons was, however, a secret only in Russia, where until recently the success of the uranium project was attributed exclusively to the talents of Soviet physicists and the organizational capabilities of the government. In the West, it was well known that the first Soviet uranium reactor and atomic bomb were almost exact copies of those already made and tested in America.

But the history of Soviet atomic and nuclear weapons suggests another, perhaps more important, factor which explains the speed with which the Soviet "atomic shield" was built: the use of millions of prisoners to mine the uranium and to build the research and industrial facilities for nuclear weapons. This topic remains so obscured that we are only just beginning to see fragments of the entire picture.

From 1945 to 1956, the 12 best known atomic towns were constructed, with their huge industrial power driven by a dozen large reactors and a multitude of smaller experimental reactors. There were also three radiochemical plants to produce plutonium, other plants to separate uranium isotopes, factories to produce the tritium used in hydrogen bombs, factories for the serial production of atomic bombs and warheads, three sites for testing atomic and nuclear weapons, a number of research institutes and numerous other related installations.

It is clear that millions of workers must have been used to accomplish this colossal task. In a country in which 27 million people had died during World War II, it was impossible to find such a huge number of qualified people. The inmates of the prewar camps -- primarily people imprisoned during collectivization and the Great Terror -- were incapable of constructing the atomic projects. They were already physically worn out and depleted by the high mortality rates in the camps.

Until the atomic camps were established, Soviet prison labor was used on relatively simple work: building canals, dams, logging, mining and building roads. But atomic installations require extremely skilled labor. The residential, scientific and industrial buildings constructed in the atomic towns between 1946 and 1955 can be distinguished from the buildings of the 1960s and 1970s by their high quality and design standards.

Only one group of prisoners in the Soviet Union was capable of constructing these installations so quickly and reliably. They were the ost-arbeiter -- Soviet citizens who had been deported by the occupying German army for forced labor, usually in the German military industrial complex. After the war, they were repatriated to the Soviet Union -- sometimes voluntarily, but more often under duress.

These millions of workers all had many years experience in the "German school" of forced labor and often were very highly qualified. There is precious little information about these workers. Estimates of their numbers range from 6 million to 8 million people. Moreover, according to German sources, there were 5,754,000 Soviet soldiers and officers who had been captured, many of whom had also been forced to work in military industries. Mortality, though, among the ost-arbeiter and the prisoners of war was very high. Of the 12 to 14 million ost-arbeiter and prisoners-of-war, only a little more than 7 million returned home. How did Stalin's administration cope with the huge numbers of survivors of German labor camps?

Surrendering into captivity and working in the enemy's defense industry were considered crimes by the Soviet government. As a result, all the people returning from the West were put immediately into sorting camps. A relatively small number of elderly people, women and children was sent to work on collective farms. Most of the repatriated civilians and prisoners-of-war, however, were sent to labor camps, primarily Special Assignment Camps.

The highly secret system of Special Assignment Camps was created within the general camp system especially for the atomic project and put under the direct authority of Stalin's secret police chief, Lavrenty Beria. The camps were so secret and so few witnesses survived them that they are not described in the books of Alexander Solzhenitsyn or other authors who have written about Stalin's repression. Special Assignment Camp prisoners still have been neither amnestied nor rehabilitated.

In 1949, Andrei Sakharov arrived at a secret atomic center -- now known as Arzamas-16 -- to begin work on the construction of the hydrogen bomb. He described it as a "symbiosis between an extremely modern scientific research institute, experimental factories, test sites and a large prison camp. The factories, test sites, roads and houses for the staff were built by prisoners who lived in barracks and were escorted to work by guard dogs."

Sakharov also describes a failed uprising during which about 50 former soldiers escaped from the prison camp. It took three divisions of Interior Ministry troops to surround and destroy them. "After this uprising, the composition of the prisoners working at the installation changed," Sakharov writes. "Those who were serving long sentences and had nothing to lose were removed and replaced by people serving shorter sentences. But the authorities still had a problem: what to do with released prisoners who knew the location of these highly secret installations. They resolved the problem in a simple, merciless and completely illegal way: They sent released prisoners to permanent exile in Magadan where they would be unable to tell anyone anything."

We now know that the first Soviet atomic and thermonuclear bombs were constructed at Arzamas-16. However, the plutonium charges for the bombs were produced at a secret center near Kyshtym, later known as Chelyabinsk-40. This center included underground industrial uranium-graphite reactors, a radiochemical plant for separating plutonium and storage facilities for concentrated radioactive waste. A small town was built 10 kilometers to the west of the industrial zone. The prison camps were situated to the southeast. In the 1970s, the CIA released documents which described Chelyabinsk-40 as "a large atomic plant and a workers' settlement ... established during the period from 1945 to 1948. In this area in 1956 there were about 25,000 soldiers of General Vlasov, who had collaborated with the Germans. These men were considered prisoners and were organized into labor battalions. In addition, about 60,000 Soviet convicts were employed in the project."

In 1957, there was an explosion at a nuclear waste storage tank at Chelyabinsk-40 which, according to a secret report made public in 1993, released about 20 million curies of radioactive material, about the same as was released in 1986 when a reactor exploded at Chernobyl. According to the report, "the residential areas of military construction units and prison camps were in the contaminated zone."

Another Interior Ministry report dated Oct. 19, 1957 reported that 1007 military personnel were subjected to radiation -- in some cases of doses higher than 50 Roentgens -- and required hospitalization. In 1993, the newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta discovered that the Interior Ministry had evacuated people living in villages 10 to 15 kilometers north of the explosion within 12 days. "The prisoners were shaved, given fresh clothes and 'quick marched' off to trucks. They were not allowed to take anything with them," the paper reported.

In the late 1980s, people who had been harmed by the Kyshtym radioactive accident began to demand the same social benefits and financial compensation to which those who had suffered from the Chernobyl accident were entitled. In 1991, a law was adopted granting equal rights to all who had suffered from radiation accidents. In the Chelyabinsk region, this law was applied first to the 23,000 people who had been evacuated from severely contaminated areas. Investigating the fate of the victims of that accident, Rossiiskaya Gazeta noted with surprise that "among the hundreds of victims who applied to the Supreme Soviet there was not a single former prisoner. Nothing is known about their fate or about their health. Yet they must have suffered the worst contamination."

There is a special medical register that lists 659,282 people who took part in the decontamination of the 30-kilometer exclusion zone around the reactor which exploded at Chernobyl. These people, known as the "liquidators," receive regular financial compensation, social benefits and medical aid. There is no register of the liquidators of the equally devastating 1957 Chelyabinsk-40 accident.

Between 1949 and 1951, a parallel system of scientific and industrial atomic centers began to be created with better protection from pre-emptive air strikes. These enterprises were built deep underground, embedded under mountain rocks. The main centers of this system were the atomic towns of Tomsk-7 and Krasnoyarsk-26. In vast tunnels, far more extensive than the Moscow metro, five uranium-graphite reactors were built, as well as radiochemical plutonium plants, uranium enrichment plants and many other systems.

Prison labor was used to prepare uranium deposits for mining and to build roads, communications systems, purification and enrichment plants and mining towns. The locations of these uranium towns were top secret and protection zones were constructed around them. It was only in 1991 that the government revealed that 14 uranium deposits had been developed since 1947.

There are hundreds of published and unpublished research works and memoirs about the Soviet prison camps. None of them, however, deal with the Special Assignment Camps. Nor are there any memoirs about the German labor and prisoner-of-war camps. It seems likely now that they will never be written. The riddle of the last secret of the Soviet atomic bomb will have to be gradually pieced together by historians.

Zhores Medvedev is a physicist and author of "Soviet Science," "Nuclear Disaster in the Urals," and "The Legacy of Chernobyl." He contributed this article to The Moscow Times.