Contrary to popular belief, the tale of the Soviet nuclear bomb began not with atomic spies like Klaus Fuchs and David Greenglass, who penetrated the Manhattan Project during World War II, but with a little-known radium mine in Central Asia discovered at the end of the 19th century. In those days, that edge of the Russian Empire was much like the American Southwest: a vast borderland where Russian entrepreneurs hoped to strike it rich by finding sources of precious metals, such as gold, silver, and copper.
In 1899 one of those mineral hunters, V. A. Spechev, located what he thought might be a promising copper mine at Tiuia-Muiun on the border of the Fergana Valley in present-day Kyrgyzstan. Hoping to find the moneymaking reddish-brown metal, he extracted a rock sample for testing, but it turned out that the sample (see figure 1) did not contain rich stores of copper. With his dreams of wealth dashed, Spechev soon let go of his connection to the find.
Over the next five years, though, Spechev’s sample gradually found its way into the hands of scientists at the St Petersburg Mining Institute, and they determined that it contained uranium. It then caught the eye of Khristofor Antunovich, a businessman and mining engineer. What attracted him to the sample was not the uranium itself but the radium that could be refined from it. That rare element was a decay product of uranium that Marie Curie and Pierre Curie had discovered in 1898. Mania for radium soon spread across Europe, and Antunovich saw a chance to strike it rich. In 1908 his company began mining operations at Tiuia-Muiun. It was Russia’s first radioactive-minerals mine.1
Under the czarist regime, entrepreneurs willing to invest private capital, engineers who developed technology, and scientists interested in experimenting with minerals informally cooperated in discovering and developing mines like Tiuia-Muiun. But when the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, seized power in 1917, they suppressed private enterprise. Gone were prospectors like Spechev, who hunted for wealth, and investors like Antunovich, who took a chance on a deposit in the name of profit. Moreover, the young nation was internationally isolated, which stifled the possibility for economic and consumer stimuli that drove mining in other nations. That shift hampered radioactive-mineral prospecting and production for decades.
Nevertheless, it did not disappear entirely. Although the Bolsheviks rejected capitalism, they were keen to support applied science. In part, their reasoning was pragmatic. They hoped that the products of applied science would help build their new state. It was also in line with their ideology, as the Soviet interpretation of Marxist theory emphasized applied science. Scientists reliant on the state thus stepped in to replace the earlier generation of independent prospectors and entrepreneurs who had driven the search for radioactive minerals.
Yet government support for applied science proved to be a mixed blessing for proponents of radiogeology, geochemistry, and mineralogy. Although it opened up new avenues of funding, it also meant that Soviet scientists, including Vladimir Vernadsky and his pupils Alexander Fersman and Vitaly Khlopin, had to lobby the government for funding and prospect for minerals on top of their usual research program. Not only were they faced with the task of studying radioactive minerals, but they also had to create demand for those materials and engineer their supply. It was a Gordian knot: They needed more minerals for further research but needed to do further research to locate more minerals. Eventually they also had to contend with Joseph Stalin’s purges and the Great Terror.
Vernadsky, Fersman, and Khlopin made modest progress in the face of those obstacles, but not enough to keep pace with other countries that were producing radioactive minerals. On the eve of the German invasion in June 1941, the Soviets had no significant infrastructure for extracting uranium ore, nor had they located any promising deposits of uranium. Although they made some headway on the uranium problem during the late stages of World War II, the Soviets ultimately entered the Cold War well behind the US in terms of prospecting for and extracting the radioactive element.
Radium under the Bolsheviks
A famous geochemist, mineralogist, and radiogeologist, Vernadsky was a towering figure in Russian and Soviet science during the first half of the 20th century. Minerals and the processes of Earth fascinated him, and he was a relentless spokesman for the significance of the emerging field of radiogeology.2 During World War I, in 1915, he started the Commission for the Study of Natural Productive Forces (KEPS), in part to mobilize science for the war effort. Designed with an eye toward mineral exploration and prospecting, KEPS attracted the attention of the Bolshevik government that emerged after the 1917 revolution. Unlike the czarist regime, under which science focused largely on theory, the Bolsheviks foregrounded science’s practical applications and supported lines of scientific inquiry that could lead to economic and technological advances. They quickly began funding KEPS, and in 1918 Fersman, a trailblazing geochemist, was named chairman of the commission’s radium division.
Fersman had set out to study mineralogy as a student in 1901 but, finding it painfully boring, changed his field to chemistry. He went to Moscow in 1903, started training under Vernadsky, and quickly became one of Vernadsky’s favorite pupils (see figure 2). Fersman had a sharp scientific mind and a prolific pen. In the first half of the 20th century, he became another tireless advocate for radioactive-mineral research. Under Fersman, KEPS’s radium division continued to work on mineral exploration during the tumult of the Russian Civil War, which lasted until 1921. But the searches that Vernadsky and Fersman carried out during that time did not produce any radioactive-mineral findings of practical significance. Tiuia-Muiun remained the only worthwhile radioactive-mineral deposit then known to exist in the fledgling Soviet Union.
Ironically, the domestic turmoil of the civil war allowed Soviet radium research to flourish because it gave scientists unprecedented access to radioactive materials. Before World War I, Russian scientists had little to no opportunity to study uranium and radium mined at Tiuia-Muiun because it was shipped outside the country’s borders for processing and sale. In the postwar period, however, Western governments took a hostile stance toward the new Bolshevik leadership. Moreover, the war devastated the German economy, which was once the market for Russian ores. Furthermore, the commercial class to which Antunovich belonged—the one that had sent uranium ore abroad—largely disappeared after the Bolsheviks targeted its members as bourgeois enemies of the people. Thus Tiuia-Muiun’s ore became available to scientists, who had government support to study it.
It was not long before the increased state funding began to pay off. By the end of 1921, radiochemistry pioneer Khlopin managed to successfully isolate radium from the uranium that had been abandoned in Petrograd—as Saint Petersburg was renamed in 1914—during the war years. Only 31 years old at the time, Khlopin had worked with Vernadsky since 1915 and had years of experience with radioactive products. He was one of the few radiochemistry specialists in the Soviet Union. Perhaps spurred by Khlopin’s breakthrough, the Bolshevik government authorized the founding of the State Radium Institute (now the V. G. Khlopin Radium Institute) in January 1922, with Vernadsky as director and Khlopin as his deputy.
Yet the new government also brought added responsibilities and pressures for scientists. In the Soviet Union’s state-run economy, most forms of private entrepreneurship were banned. That meant scientists had to take up the task of hunting for promising deposits of radioactive minerals. And because of the Soviet Union’s isolation, they had to do so without the help of foreign investment and technology or international markets. Efforts at finding radioactive-mineral deposits became focused solely within the Soviet scientific community.
In 1923, after the Radium Institute and the Soviet state deemed it favorable for commercial exploitation, production at Tiuia-Muiun resumed (see figure 3). Yet the amount of radium extracted from it remained small. Tiuia-Muiun’s ore was low-to-medium grade, containing 0.14–4.52% uranium oxide. Because the ratio of radium to uranium in nature is typically 1:3 000 000, the mine produced merely 1 gram of radium for every 250–300 tons of uranium ore mined. From 1923 to 1936, miners extracted 5000 tons of ore from Tiuia-Muiun—about 17–20 grams of radium.
Tiuia-Muiun did not remain the only radium mine in the Soviet Union for long. The state geological institution, the Geological Committee, continued to look for other radioactive deposits by analyzing rock samples that amateur and professional geologists had collected over the years. In 1925 the committee members found a highly radioactive sample in a museum’s rock collection. Tracing that sample back to its origin, they located the Taboshar deposit (now Istiklol) in 1927 in what is now northern Tajikistan. Taboshar remained the richest-known source of uranium in the Soviet Union for decades, but like Tiuia-Muiun, its ore was low grade. Thus radium remained extraordinarily difficult and expensive to extract at both Soviet deposits. With little economic incentive to continue production, the Taboshar mine was shut down in 1929. Only Tiuia-Muiun continued operating, producing small amounts of ore.3
Radioactive minerals under Stalin
Vernadsky was instrumental in keeping alive the moribund efforts to find raw radioactive materials. After a stay in France, where he toyed with the idea of permanently emigrating from the Soviet Union, he returned to his native land in the late 1920s and continued to look for radium. Although he made a few discoveries that excited scientists, the authorities did not deem them worthy of expensive full-scale extraction operations because the finds were low grade and contained radium that was difficult to process. The chief reason for their exploitation remained purely scientific study, which was a hard sell to a government focused on applied science and its economic benefits.
Nevertheless, scientific study of those deposits continued, albeit extremely slowly. Operations at Tiuia-Muiun tapered off in the late 1920s, no new mines began operation in the 1930s, and in 1936 Tiuia-Muiun shut down entirely after miners hit groundwater. The only exception was at the Ukhta oil field in the north-central Komi Republic, where oil drilling uncovered salt water that contained radium (see figure 4). Because its connection to oil production made costs manageable, Ukhta became the Soviet Union’s main source of the radioactive element.
But a dearth of radioactive-mineral discoveries and a lack of funds to exploit the few that were found frustrated ambitions among mineralogists, geologists, and physicists in the 1930s. Inadequate knowledge and scarce material for experimental work stymied Vernadsky and his colleagues. Additionally, a practical application that would justify radium’s extraction cost continued to elude its promoters.
Graver problems threatened the scientific community. Following Lenin’s death in 1924, a protracted power struggle among the Soviet elite broke out, from which Stalin emerged triumphant in 1927. The scientific world quickly felt the effects of his rule. Between 1927 and 1931, the Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Union faced restructuring, an influx of party loyalists, and an expunging of czarist-era scientists. Further purges followed, reaching their apex with the Great Terror of the late 1930s. Experimental work, which a lack of material already constrained, was further impeded when one of its chief patrons in the government, Sergo Ordzhonikidze, killed himself in 1937. Following his death, mass arrests eviscerated his commissariat, which had supported nuclear research.
Fortunately for Vernadsky, he and his field of study escaped the worst, but some young scientists with whom he worked were arrested. Deeply disturbed by those arrests, Vernadsky distanced himself from his students in an effort to protect them from the purges. His detachment inhibited intellectual exchange and undoubtedly also hampered efforts at raw-materials prospecting.4
From radium to uranium
As Soviet scientists coped with a wretched domestic situation in the 1930s, trouble began to flare up abroad. In the dying days of summer 1939, World War II began in Europe when Germany invaded Poland. The war initially was disastrous for the worldwide radium market, as it closed off international trade and diverted resources to wartime economies. Exchange in the radioactive element effectively ground to a halt. But the conflict subsequently introduced new opportunities when several of the warring parties turned their attention to the military application of nuclear fission. Uranium, once the waste product of radium production, now became the primary material that those interested in radioactive minerals sought.
Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner, and Fritz Straßmann discovered fission in 1938, and many physicists around the world quickly realized that it could be weaponized. In the US, Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard sounded the alarm about the military application of fission in an August 1939 letter to President Franklin Roosevelt. The letter, which eventually sparked the Manhattan Project, warned that Nazi Germany had access to uranium and might build an atomic weapon. Yet there was no contemporary equivalent to the Einstein–Szilard letter in the Soviet Union.
Two major reasons were behind the Soviet Union’s delayed response to the discovery of fission. The first was geopolitical. Unlike the US, the Soviet Union did not officially consider Germany to be a threat because the two countries had recently signed the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, a nonaggression agreement. Second, the Soviet scientific community, including Vernadsky, did not view research into possible applications of nuclear fission as a short-term priority. He and other Soviet scientists instead saw such work as a long-term goal, and even then, not all believed that the main benefit would be its military application.5
Vernadsky, however, still believed research into nuclear physics and radioactive minerals was important. With the discovery of nuclear fission, he could finally make a strong case about the practical applications and economic benefit of such work. Seizing the opportunity, Vernadsky, with the help of Khlopin and Fersman, began writing appeals to the Academy of Sciences and high-level government officials in 1940. They highlighted the specter of German and US dominance in the field of nuclear technology and presciently emphasized the importance of studying radioactive minerals so that the Soviet Union would be ready if applications of nuclear fission were discovered.6
Along with making recommendations as to how to encourage work on atomic energy, the troika of scientists made a case for stockpiling raw materials needed for that research. To that end, they outlined uranium prospecting plans in the Fergana Valley and Central Asia. Although the plans were ambitious, the choice to limit prospecting solely to that area was practical and risk-averse—and thus indicative of the scientists’ precarious and difficult situation. Unfortunately for Soviet nuclear prospects, difficult-to-extract and low-grade ores speckled the region.
The Commission on the Uranium Problem
In 1940 World War II had not yet reached Soviet soil. Although work on nuclear research had increased, it did not have priority over other scientific questions. The same was true for the quest for uranium that accompanied it. Nevertheless, the Academy of Sciences recognized that such work could be important in the long term, and in an effort to coordinate work on all aspects of nuclear research and uranium prospecting, it established the Commission on the Uranium Problem. Vernadsky, then 77, declined to head the commission because of his age, so Khlopin was put in charge (see figure 5).
Khlopin, Fersman, Vernadsky, and the commission’s chemists and geologists devoted considerable attention to locating uranium deposits, but many obstacles stood in their way. The biggest problem was their inauspicious prospects. Almost all known Soviet uranium deposits were in the Fergana region, dotted across what is now Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, and they mostly contained low-grade and scattered ores that were expensive to extract. The Soviet radioactive-mineral industry had yet to break free from the region Spechev discovered four decades earlier.
Beyond the absence of rich sources of uranium, the Uranium Commission also lacked funding. It cost an enormous amount to extract low-grade ores: 500 rubles to produce 1 ton of uranium. That was 10 times as expensive as it was to extract any other metal. To justify that cost to the Soviet state, which was still interested largely in applied research, Khlopin and the commission sought yet again to find a use for the ore outside of pure science.
Yet they again faced a paradoxical situation. To produce enough uranium for experimentation, they needed to find a practical application for the ore, but to find that application, the commission needed more uranium for research. Their roles as both prospectors and experimental researchers hamstrung them. Vernadsky and his colleagues had little choice but to work with what they had—a meager 1.5 tons of uranium by the end of 1940—and to expedite research into a practical application as best they could.
Lack of organization also dogged uranium prospecting efforts. Different groups across the Soviet Union worked on studying and producing uranium, but they barely communicated with one another. To address the problem, the Uranium Commission in fall 1940 created a subcommission, with Fersman as its head, to direct all raw-materials activity. It succeeded in bringing organization to the effort, but Fersman and its members made only minor progress prospecting for uranium. Bureaucratic setbacks persistently hindered efforts. Moreover, the government continued to show little interest in pursuing known uranium deposits like those at the Taboshar mine. Although the mine began producing ore in 1934, its status was officially downgraded in 1941 in what Vernadsky called “unintentional sabotage” of uranium work. As late as 18 June 1941, Vernadsky lamented in his diary that uranium remained a niche scientific concern in the Soviet Union.7
Uranium and World War II
Four days later, on 22 June, a disruption far greater than onerous bureaucracy interrupted Soviet uranium mining endeavors when Germany invaded the Soviet Union. As the Germans marched across Soviet soil, the military situation was far too desperate for Soviet scientists to spare any thoughts for seemingly inconsequential long-term goals like nuclear fission and uranium prospecting. The Academy of Sciences resolved to dedicate all its resources to the war effort, the work of the Uranium Commission came to a standstill, and most scientists halted work on the uranium problem.
About a year later, based on warnings from a physicist on the home front and intelligence from agents in the West, the Soviets began to consider the military application of nuclear fission. In late 1942 the Battle of Stalingrad waned and relieved pressure on Soviet forces. That shift, along with the acquired intelligence, prompted Stalin to pursue the bomb project seriously in the fall of 1942, and work on the task began.8 But lack of access to uranium was still a serious constraint. To address the problem, the uranium search was put under the direction of the wartime State Defense Committee, a state organ of extraordinary power with Stalin at its helm. The committee ordered the reopening of the Taboshar mine and conducted a large-scale search for the element in 1943 and 1944. But there were no new discoveries, and the Soviet Union continued to face uranium shortages.
Later in 1944, a new force stepped in to shore up production: the Soviet secret police, or NKVD. Its leader, the infamously brutal Lavrentiy Beria, successfully argued that those in charge of the uranium search had been ineffective in locating the coveted element. As a result, the State Defense Committee granted the NKVD control of all existing uranium mines. Under Beria, the NKVD ran the Soviet gulag system. It forced prisoners in its labor camps to work in uranium mines and mills that formerly employed ordinary workers.9
Yet the NKVD’s harsh tactics could not force Earth to reveal rich stores of uranium. In spring 1945, as the war with Germany drew to a close, the NKVD counted only 430 tons of available ore—much less than the US had on hand at that time. As the contours of the Cold War came into focus, the Soviets’ uranium stores were dismal.
Lack of access to uranium stalled the progress of the Soviet bomb program in the first few years after the war, but not for long. At the end of World War II, the Soviet Union extended its sphere of influence into Eastern and Central Europe and obtained a windfall of uranium from substantial deposits located in Czechoslovakia and the Soviet occupation zone of Germany. The influx of uranium fueled the Soviet nuclear bomb project. But even though those deposits eased Soviet uranium scarcity, they were not ideal because their location on the front lines of the Cold War in Europe made them strategically vulnerable. Moreover, by the 1950s, signs of unrest in those client states made Soviet dependence on their uranium even more problematic.10
Vernadsky was not a part of the wartime uranium search effort. Without him, the project lacked its chief raw-materials authority and booster. He died in January 1945. Fersman, his staunch ally in the uranium crusade, was nearly 20 years younger than Vernadsky, but he was already exhausted. He died only four months after his mentor, in May 1945, at age 61. Khlopin’s life and work had also depleted him. He worked on the Soviet bomb project for five years until his death at 60 in 1950.
For decades the three scientists drove the search for radioactive minerals. Their task was herculean, the stresses were enormous, and their achievements were often limited. But the scientists had successfully kept the industry and the study of radioactive minerals alive for years, thereby ensuring that a foundation of knowledge and expertise existed when the Soviets began to pursue the bomb during World War II. Nevertheless, the Soviet decision to place scientists in charge of prospecting not only took an immense toll on the scientists themselves but also put the Soviet Union at a strategic disadvantage during the early Cold War.
The Soviet Union did not find what Vernadsky called for—a rich, secure source of domestic uranium—until the 1963 discovery of an extensive deposit in the Transbaikal region of Siberia. Industrial exploitation of that deposit commenced when the Priargunsky mines began operating in 1968, and only with that uranium source would the Soviet Union reach nuclear weapons parity with the US in the 1970s.
Robynne Mellor is a historian of science and the cofounder of Sunmount Consulting, a historical research company based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She received her PhD in environmental history in 2018 from Georgetown University, where she wrote her dissertation on the global history of uranium mining.