Staunton, February 4 – There are few subjects more obscured by secrecy and myth than the Soviet Union’s production of its own atomic bomb not only for the usual reasons of national security but because of the roles Soviet spies, Stalin’s secret police chief Lavrenty Beria, and Jews and Soviet political prisoners played in this effort.
That makes a lengthy article entitled “The Atomic Bomb was a Soviet Invention” by Russian military journalist Andrey Yevdokimov in the last two issues of the influential Voyennno-Promyshlenny Kuryer especially intriguing (vpk-news.ru/articles/54893 and vpk-news.ru/articles/55031).
The journalist begins by bluntly stating that “the atomic bomb was invented in 1940 by staffers of the Kharkov Physical-Technical Institute in the laboratory of the outstanding scholar Aleksandr Leypunsky” and then focusing on the intriguing career of that scholar from the 1920s to his death in 1972.
Even Leypunsky’s family members knew little about what he did in this sphere, Yevdokimov says; but he eventually learned that not only Aleksandr Leypunsky but his brothers and sister were involved in work on atomic weapons. But about the scholar’s work in the Ministry of Internal Affairs almost no one now alive knows much, the journalist continues.
And yet that work may be among his most important. “In 1945, Leypunsky for about three months was in Germany” where he wore the uniform of an NKVD colonel, oversaw the shipping to the USSR of German nuclear facilities, and helped to identify German scholars who could be brought to the Soviet Union to work on nuclear weapons.
Leypunsky was born in Grodno Oblast in 1903 into a large Jewish family, in whicih three of the five children became prominent physicists. In addition to his natural brothers and sisters, he was surrounded by four adopted children, one of whom emigrated to the US and with whom Leypunsky maintained contact until 1935 after which that became too dangerous.
Leypunsky made a name for himself as a nuclear physicist early on. In 1931, only a few months after the atom was split at Cavendish, he and his colleagues in Kharkov achieved the same feat. Stalin decorated him for that; and in 2002, a monument in memory of this event was set up in Kharkov.
But he fell afoul of the authorities and was arrested twice, the first in the mid-1920s for unknown reasons and the second time in May 1938 as a German and English spy, a charge that seemed plausible at the time given his contacts with scholars among those two nationalities, Yevdokimov says.
It is an open question, the journalist continues, as to who recruited whom, the Germans and the English Leypunsky or Leypunsky Germans and Englishmen. The record suggests that the latter was far more likely although during the war his Kharkov laboratory was protected by a German who had been his colleague earlier.
Some Soviet and Russian historians accept the official version that Levpunsky was a spy and was freed only because of the mass liberation after the death of Beria. But others argue the opposite, pointing to the fact that he played a major role in recruiting Petr Kapitsa and encouraging him to return to the Soviet Union.
If that is the case, Yevdokimov says, “Leypunsky was a real agent of [Soviet] foreing intelligence. So that his liberation could have been the result of interference by the intelligence organs. He was arrested by one NKVD structure but needed by another. Now such disagreements are called a war of the Kremlin towers.”
However that may be, by 1940, Leypunsky was working on atomic issues and at the end of that year was one of a team of Soviet scholars who in advance of the Americans came up with the design an atomic bomb in which ordinary explosives would be used to create a critical mass of uranium and set off a nuclear explosion.
Leypunsky was not listed among the inventors, however. They were respectively Friedrich Lange, Victor Maslow, and Vladimir Shpinel. “The ethnic composition of the group of inventors is curious: a German, a Russian and a Jew. The fate of two of them was tragic.” Levpunsky’s was less so, but he too was Jewish.
By the time of the German invasion, he was working in Ufa and helped to develop the system of secure telephones known as “Vodoker” and described in detail in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novel First Circle. But by early 1942, Leypunsky had been called away to Moscow for other work supposedly because the organs were suspicious of him.
The chekists had reason enough for that, Yevdokimov says. Leypunsky had more than one “mark of Cain.” He was Jewish, he had relatives abroad, he had been tried and sentenced, and he had been expelled from the communist party. That would have been enough in those times to have him shot.
But that didn’t happen, likely because in March 1942, Beria sent Stalin a report about the possibility of actually building an atomic weapon, and the Kremlin leader ordered work on that to proceed at full speed. Academician Kurchatov said he wanted Leypunsky; and as a result, all his “marks of Cain” meant nothing.
He went to work in Moscow, then in 1945, he went to Germany; and by 1946, Leypunsky had been restored to party membership and appointed to senior positions in the interior ministry from which he helped supervise the atomic and hydrogen bomb projects under the direction of Beria.
In 1949, he gave up these official positions and went to work as a scholar at Obninsk where he remained until his death in 1972.