The Russian Revolution of 1917 promised to bring a new, scientific approach to governing Russia. Twenty years later, scientists were detained in Sharashki – technical prisons where they were forced to work on weapons of war.
One sunny afternoon in 1937, a young girl named Marksena Mikhailovna put on a puppet show for her friends. She was 13 years old. You can imagine her trying to corral the younger children into learning their lines, getting excited at the prospect of entertaining the audience. Yet, beneath the childish fun and games, there was a desperate sadness. Marksena was trying to distract herself. Her parents had been arrested by the NKVD – the secret police force of the Soviet Union – the previous day. No one knew why; no one could possibly say. In this kind of atmosphere, it was too risky to talk about.
Later, Marksena – whose story is documented in Orlando Figes’ book The Whisperers – would have to sell family furniture to pay for bread. Then her younger brothers would be taken away to Soviet orphanages, and she was unable to contact them. For the next fifty years, she would write to the authorities for information about her family. In the 1950s, they told her that her parents had both died of heart attacks – on the same day. In 1989, they finally told the truth: they had been shot by the NKVD almost immediately. She never found out why. Perhaps there was no reason at all. In the era of the Great Terror, the executioners had quotas to fill. They filled them with rumours – or just by pulling names out of a phone-book.
1937 was the peak year of the terror — so terrible that the man who oversaw the NKVD during this era, Nikolai Yezhov, would later be erased from history by the Soviets. The secret police often targeted intellectuals, considered “bourgeois specialists", who might harbour secret political views. Late in 1937, in the infamous Lubyanka prison, a group of these "specialist" scientists were waiting to be sentenced. Here, the holding cells had slanted floors. This made it easier to hose blood down the drains after torture or execution.
Lubyanka was where people were ‘disappeared’. Specialists detained here were expected to be exiled to Siberia, at best. That freezing, vast expanse of land was its own prison: it had long been a Tsarist dumping ground for political exiles, including Stalin. Facing down the barrel of years of hard labour in the Siberian gulags (prisons infamous for their inhumane conditions) the scientists and engineers came up with a deal.
It was ingenious and simple. They asked that they were spared hard labour and Siberia; and, in exchange, they would use their skills to deliver military weapons to the Soviet state. They came up with a list of projects, a schedule; they begged to be allowed to work somewhere warm. Lavrenti Beria, who would rise to become the sadistic but cunning head of the NKVD when Yezhov was ‘disappeared’, saw an opportunity. So, the sharaskha – the technical prison – was born.
The NKVD were not just the secret police: they were an entire shadow economy. Many Soviet construction projects were accomplished with slave labour from the gulags. The White Sea Canal and the vast mining city of Magnitogorsk in the mountains, stood as testament to the Bolshevik ability to reshape the earth – each concealing countless, nameless corpses. At least 12,000 died building the canal that bore Stalin’s name.
Now, with the sharashki, this prison economy would have its own R&D wing. This solved a great problem for the USSR. Everyone understood that technical development was crucial for the USSR to catch up to the capitalist countries, and later, to defeat Hitler. In a famous speech, Stalin lamented that the old Russia had been “beaten for her backwardness,” and painted a stark choice between rapid technological progress and total destruction.
But the old “bourgeois specialists” who had been educated before the revolution could not be trusted by the Bolsheviks. But because they had more experience than the fledgling generation of “red specialists”, the Soviets still needed them. The solution was simple: accuse the bourgeois specialists of being saboteurs, throw them in the sharashki, and force them to work on military weapons, industrial improvements, or anything else useful to the state.
For the experts, too, the choice was often obvious. Simon Ings’ marvellous book, Stalin and the Scientists, recounts Sharashka worker Leo Kopelev’s description of the recruitment process:
They’ll hit him in the face, the ass, the ribs – not to kill or maim, but so that he will feel pain and shame, so that he will know that he is no longer a human being but just a nothing and they can do whatever they want to him; and then, after all that, they will give him a magnanimous ten years in the Sharaskha.
You chase away the thought of freedom, of home; they only bring you depression and despair… In the Sharashki they address you by your name and patronymic, feed you decently, better than many eat on the outside; you work in warmth, sleep on a straw mattress with a sheet. No worries – just make sure you use your brain, think, invent, perfect, advance science and technology.
The sharashki were a stunning success. The brainpower of the inmates — concentrated by the threat of punishment — produced some incredible results. An NKVD report gleefully listed twenty of the prisoners’ weapons projects that had come to fruition; twelve made it into mass production, an extraordinarily high percentage. One of these 'successes' was the Soviet bomber Pe-2, one of the best ground attack aircraft of the war: more than 11,000 of which were produced. Physicist and radio engineer Leon Theremin, who created the eponymous haunting electronic instrument, produced an eavesdropping device simply known as The Thing. Concealed in a gift for the US ambassador, this device secretly transmitted audio from the embassy to Beria (the head of the NKVD) for years.
Nowhere was the triumph and tragedy of the coercive Soviet approach to science more apparent than in the development of the atomic bomb. The Soviets had a fledgling bomb project prior to 1945, but after Hiroshima and Nagasaki shook the world, the project was accelerated. Beria was put in personal control: his menacing presence kept the physicists focused on their work. Even Stalin once asked him to tone it down a little. “Leave the physicists in peace, Beria,” he would say. “We can always shoot them later.”
The atomic project was vast in scale, with tens of thousands of scientists and engineers locked up behind barbed wire. Entire secret cities, sometimes called Atomgrads, were constructed to house the nuclear technicians, or to process uranium: many still stand today. No expense was spared, but everyone — Beria included — knew that the cost of failure was likely to be death.
There were some brilliant physicists in the Soviet Union — Andrei Sakharov, Igor Kurchatov, and future Nobel Laureates Pyotr Kapitsa and Lev Landau. All worked on the bomb. Landau had been arrested for owning an anti-Soviet pamphlet. Kapitsa, who was favoured by the government, intervened to save him. He came up with the outline for his famous series of textbooks, still the gold standard for theoretical physics today, in an NKVD prison. Sakharov — who designed the implosion unit that was necessary for the hydrogen bomb — later defected from the Soviet Union and became an outspoken critic of the regime.
As well as fear, many of them did the work out of intellectual curiosity or a sense of duty. After all, they had the opportunity to collaborate with the finest scientific minds in the country, on a project of urgent, international importance and immense scientific interest. They had virtually unlimited funding; the rewards of success would be wealth, fame, and fortune. How many scientists could turn that down?
Many scientists at the time also recognised that an atomic monopoly may be even more dangerous than an atomic duopoly. In the US upper echelons, hawks were whispering that perhaps it might be better to deal with the USSR before they got nuclear weapons. The Soviet scientists were not alone in thinking the world would be safer with a Russian bomb. At Los Alamos, the heart of the US bomb project, scientists regularly remarked that it would be safer if the USSR and the US could cooperatively control atomic technology, rather than remain unequal rivals. The only man who was oddly silent in these debates was Klaus Fuchs; but he was secretly passing data to the Soviet atomic bomb project.
The specialists detained in the sharashki were mostly released during the 1950s, when Beria was denounced for treason and executed by Khrushchev. Many of the professional links made between inmates formed the foundation of Soviet industrial and technical development on the outside. In many cases, the transition between the sharashki economy and the post-Stalin world was as simple as allowing workers to go home at the end of the day.
Assessing the legacy of science in the Soviet Union is difficult. The stunning achievements, the intellectual brilliance, the talent and industriousness: they are always overshadowed by the brutality, the suffering, the misery. Scientists were in a paradoxical position. They were revered in the abstract, symbolic of modernity and progress, the shining Soviet future. In person, they were corralled, mistrusted, and persecuted.
The Bolsheviks had utter faith in science and technology to solve every problem — a faith many share today. They believed the Communist paradise of abundance would arise when machines did the labour of people, as we do today. They believed, above all, in a rational Universe: one that could be improved and bent to human will. To do this, they saw no better way than to break the will of individuals. In the end, it seems almost impossible to decouple the triumph from the tragedy. Science in the Soviet Union serves, instead, as a bitter reminder. A reminder of what can happen when we separate the ideal of human progress from the mess of humanity.
Edited by Nathan Mifsud and Diana Crow