How the Atomic Age was Imagined in the Soviet Union

1956 concept of a Soviet nuclear generating station.

First of all, a very big apology for being away from this blog and neglecting it for so very long. My primary duties as a sports and outdoors journalist have required a great deal of travel and doing the scope and quality of research I ideally hope to provide for this blog has not been very pragmatic while on the road, much less so when rock climbing and such. But the worth of this blog, and of all efforts to cover nuclear history and the furtherance of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes is very important to me. We have both today and throughout the history of American atomic innovation so many brave, brilliant scientists, engineers, workers, and administrators who have provided us with the technology and varied applications of that technology we enjoy today, that I wish to do my small part as a journalist to continue this tradition of progress. 

Today, however, it is not the American tradition of nuclear technology I am going to write about but the Soviet once. Our greatest competition in the nuclear field—and the very reason for the Cold War and thus much of how atomic technology was foreseen and developed—was of course the Soviet Union. Much of my journalistic career has spanned various topics germane to the USSR, Russia, and Eastern Europe—I’ve covered both military and civil aviation in Russia, general politics, and now cover soccer in this region. As I read Russian and Serbo-Croatian fluently, I’m privy to a lot going on in these areas that is reported in their media and also spend a lot of time with historical documents from the Soviet period as these provide unique and sometimes astounding insight into how Russia under Stalin and beyond saw their future—including their atomic future. 

The Soviets in the 1950s imagined nuclear power fully replacing traditional forms of generation of electricity. 

Something that has to be made clear first off is that the view in both the USA and USSR in the 1950s of nuclear power was so very different from our climate today. Yes, these two superpowers feared each other and feared nuclear war, of course. Bomb shelters were built and there were drills in elementary schools even of how to duck and cover in the event of a bombing. The preceding decade saw the worst war the world had ever known and the detonation of the first two nuclear weapons ever used in an active conflict. It was a scary time but also an optimistic one, and the fear was squarely regarding the threat of the USSR (or, for them, of the US) and not nuclear technology itself. Indeed, atomic technology was trusted, it was lauded: the leading scientists of the time extolled how atomic energy could change nearly every facet of society for the better. We know in America of course of the Atoms for Peace program and its optimism, but in the USSR there was likewise a sentiment of using atomic power and science for the good of society. Indeed, the Communism of the USSR was superbly suited to the advantages presented by nuclear power: the USSR was vast in geography beyond compare—a land where the sun never set, with much of its eastern frontier very remote and sparse in population. Everything of a commercial nature in the first half-century of the USSR was centrally planned, mostly by Gosplan which was an organization in Moscow that determined how many of virtually everything—from ladies’ summer dresses to camping lanterns to spades—would be produced and sold. Gosplan and other agencies also were tasked with determining how electrical power and other utilities would be provided for each municipality. In the US in contrast, this would be a local issue but it was a national one in the USSR and while such central planning brought forth many of the problems which eventually lead to the downfall of the Soviet Union, it also did have some advantages. 

Nuclear power was very appealing because it could be administered from the conception of reactors to the design of power plants to the actual construction of the same and then their daily oversight from a central location instead of at the local or oblast (equal to state) level. Even better, nuclear power solved the largest single obstacle to providing power and heat in remote regions: the means to convey fuel—coal, for example—to generating stations in these far-off and often very cold places. With nuclear, the “fires” of furnaces would never go out. What is more, atomic technology would be the solution to powering the USSR’s submarine fleet, to providing energy to remote lighthouse beacons in the Arctic via radioisotope thermoelectric generators, and even in theory to fuel the next generation of Soviet long-range bombers. 

Concept of an atomic locomotive.

Americans, too, dreamed of atomic everything—atomic airliners as well as military planes were considered and the technology to actualize this dream was pursued to a great degree, but even atomic automobiles were a far-off goal. In the Soviet Union, it was atomic trains instead. The concept was simple: as technology advanced reactors would be small enough and shielding strong enough to allow for nuclear-powered most everything. Even nuclear appliances were considered as a valid possibility in the future. 

For Americans and Soviets alike however, the real worth of nuclear power was seen as the ability nuclear might have for space exploration, the top goal of the two superpowers in the 1950s and 1960s other than fending each other off and avoiding war.  The rockets being tested at the time were seen as only a stepping stone towards space travel, and the near future being one of atomic power, which, of course, in some ways did come to pass and in other ways is still being investigated. 

An early 1950s nuclear-powered icebreaker.

Overall, the Soviets made the most-varied use of nuclear technologies of any nation in history, though their safety record was not always so impressive. Their icebreakers, essential to the shipping lanes of the Arctic, are nuclear-powered providing these ships with durable, constant, and reliable power despite their mobility and harsh environment. In the 1950s, the icebreakers were one of the first concepts of applying nuclear power to solve a civil problem aside from the generation of electricity and they’re still operating today. I will probably cover them in greater detail in the future, but for now they’re both a fascinating application of nuclear and also a great emblem of civil nuclear applications on a broad scale. The USSR also developed the most-diverse efforts in producing isotopes, with the Avangard Plant in Sarov and reactor facilities which catered to it offering the most versatile array of isotope production options available, even now. 

There are many aspects of life in the Soviet Union, especially in the years from Stalin up to Andropov, that are appalling, but the nation’s emphasis on nuclear is an area where its best scientific minds and planners came together to attempt to improve life for their people with an eye to solving many problems unique and specific to such a massive nation—an empire, if you will. 

Journalist and national security expert Matthew M. Aid has written a really good primer to the Soviet-era nuclear research and production facilities and while I certainly intend to write more about it myself, his blog is a great place to start and can be found here:

The illustrations used in today’s blog post are taken from a book on Soviet nuclear technology from 1956.