This story is part of Road Trip 2019, profiles of the troublemakers and trailblazers who are designing our future.
I spent more than five years as a reporter in Los Alamos, New Mexico, birthplace of the atomic bomb, home to a major national laboratory, and the 18,000-person town where I grew up. I covered everything from President Bill Clinton visiting the lab to mostly harmless radioactive cat poop triggering radiation alarms at the county landfill. But the story that made the biggest impression on me took place thousands of miles away, in Russia.
In May 1995 I was part of a seven-person civilian delegation that traveled to Los Alamos sister city Sarov, about 230 miles east of Moscow. It’s the home of the institute where Russia developed its first atomic bomb. Our visit was timed to coincide with a 50th anniversary celebration of the end of the Great Patriotic War, aka World War II, which for the Russians ended when the Germans capitulated in May 1945.
It was a sobering visit — the economic devastation; the Soviet-era microphones bugging away in our hotel; the angry and impoverished veterans; and the daunting quantities of vodka, champagne and cognac that accompanied us during a weeklong series of banquets. I spoke with Viktor Adamsky, one of the designers of the biggest nuclear bomb of all time, the 50-megaton Tsar Bomba, which was more powerful than all the bombs dropped in World War II.
I’m remembering it now because I’ve recently interviewed Siegfried Hecker, former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory and a key leader of the US-Russian lab collaboration that led to my trip.
Back when US-Russian relations were thawing
During the time of my trip, relations between Russia and the United States were warming, but now they’re cooling once again. That troubles Hecker — even though he spent much of his career designing the nuclear weapons the US aimed at the then-USSR.
It troubles me, as well. I grew up during the Cold War, and I’m not eager to introduce my children to concepts like nuclear winter and megadeath. And even as treaties between the US and Russia fizzle out and the two countries rev up another arms race, worries are piling up about the nuclear weapons capabilities of Iran and North Korea, too.
But Hecker stresses the similarities between the US and Russia — “They’re so much like us,” he says — and what was most interesting on my 1995 trip was the cultural connection between Los Alamos and Sarov. There was a clear kinship between the cities’ researchers — a curious camaraderie given that those very researchers designed the warheads perched atop ICBMs aimed at each other.
Each city benefited from its government’s largesse during the Cold War. “When I first came here, I thought it was a paradise. Such food!” one Sarov man told me. Meanwhile, Los Alamos received a federal funding boost for its schools and its police and fire departments. Each city suffered when government funding dropped with the end of the Cold War. Both cities teem with elite researchers who play important military roles and are curious about what makes the universe tick. Both cities have nuclear weapons museums showing off the hulking casings of early bombs.
Even the names of the cities had a parallel. When I visited, Sarov still went by its Cold War name of Arzamas-16 — a bit of geographic misdirection to make it look like it was part of a nothing-special city that actually is 30 miles northeast. During World War II, mail for Manhattan Project researchers in Los Alamos was addressed to P.O. Box 1663 in Santa Fe, about the same distance away from Los Alamos as Arzamas is from Sarov.
My trip was an outgrowth of the US-Russia nuclear collaboration undertaken by Hecker and his colleagues after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The effort, funded by the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, saw US and Russian scientists working on joint research and helping to get a grip on the vast quantities of Soviet-era nuclear weapons materials.
I understood the political appeal of the program. For would-be terrorists or countries aspiring to join the nuclear weapons club, the hardest step is obtaining potent plutonium or weapons-grade uranium. Paying Russians to better control those materials — and to discourage scientists from looking for new jobs elsewhere — made sense for US foreign policy.
But seeing Sarov firsthand showed me the human side of the program’s benefits.
After the economic crisis that accompanied the demise of the USSR, Sarov residents had to grow potatoes in their window flower boxes and turn their countryside dachas into small farms. A typical scientist’s salary at the time was about $80 per month, as the ruble collapsed in value. Hardest hit by the end of the Cold War were elderly World War II veterans thrust back onto the job market after their pensions became worthless. The security fence around Sarov came to be enjoyed as a way to keep away the outsiders who’d had it even worse.
Like Hecker, I visited Russians in their homes. After attending the World War II memorial around which our visit centered, I slipped off with some journalists from Sarov’s City Courier newspaper. They introduced me to their children, spoke of using surreptitious “samizdat” publications to disseminate information in the Soviet years, taught me how to spell my name in Cyrillic (Стѳфѳн Шѳнкланд), and told me how they cobbled together rafts for weeks-long descents of Siberian rivers. One gave me a present symbolic of US-Russian cooperation: a massive hand-cranked drill, made in Massachusetts but given to Russians in World War II and used during the German siege of Leningrad.
In short, they showed me they were human.
I feel a more personal connection to Russia myself, too. In 1995, I met Boris Nemtsov, a reform-minded politician who then led the nearby Nizhny Novgorod (named Gorky in the Soviet era) region and earned a Ph.D. in physics. Among his policies was a “meter by meter” privatization push that let people gradually buy their apartments from the state. The discussion felt a lot more forward-looking than seeing Lenin’s waxy corpse in Moscow’s Red Square.
Nemtsov rose to become a national reform leader, willing to speak out against President Vladimir Putin. But in 2015, Nemtsov was assassinated on a bridge in Moscow. I felt it more closely than an “ordinary” episode of political violence.
And I felt the same tie when five Sarov scientists were killed in a Russian missile test explosion this month.
Hecker has a lot more of those connections. He’s friends with plenty of Russians and sees their cultural values as very similar to ours. And he’s keeping his communication links alive even though the US-Russia lab-to-lab collaboration project he helped begin is now all but dead. He’ll take his 57th trip to Russia in November.
The two countries can move past sticking points like NATO’s eastward expansion and Russia’s military action in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine, Hecker says. Today’s nationalistic fervor might make it hard to defrost the relationship, but seeing the world from the other side’s perspective will help, he says.
“There is absolutely no need for Russia and the US to be adversaries and enemies,” Hecker tells me. “Absolutely none.”