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Absolutely You are Joking, Comrade Beria!

Absolutely You are Joking, Comrade Beria!

2024-02-06 06:10:27

In my recent article on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Tsar Bomba test, I relied very closely on Russian sources that had been digitized by Rosatom, the Russian nuclear company. For no matter cause, Rosatom has been dedicating an impressive amount of resources to Soviet nuclear historical past, radically reworking what is definitely out there to students exterior of Russia. The terribly helpful collection of (curated, redacted) archival paperwork, Atomniy Projekt SSSR (Atomic Mission of the Soviet Union), for instance, went practically in a single day from being one thing solely existed in full in a handful of libraries in america (I used to be proud to make it possible for the Niels Bohr Library on the American Institute of Physics has a whole set), to being simply accessible via the Rosatom Digital Library.

However I’m not right here to speak in regards to the stuff that’s helpful to students. I’m right here to speak about their part on “Atomic Fun” from the Soviet atomic bomb venture. This can be a assortment of, as they put it, “humorous tales.”

A very silly adaptation of the classic cover of Richard Feynman's "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!", except it's about Comrade Beria, a terrible guy.

I couldn’t assist myself. Sure, that is a parody — sure, it’s a joke that cuts each methods.

It’s an odd idea. It’s onerous to think about the Division of Power creating an “Atomic Enjoyable” exhibit. It’s not that there wouldn’t be issues to say — the historical past of the US nuclear program includes some amusing tales. Take into consideration Feynman’s Los Alamos antics, sneaking via fences and (ho ho!) cracking safes with categorized paperwork in them. Take into consideration Niels Bohr sending a letter to British scientists after the Nazis occupied Denmark, telling them he was okay, and asking them to ahead the message to MAUD RAY KENT. The British thought it was an anagram for RAYDUM TAKEN — radium taken! The Nazis are undoubtedly constructing a bomb! They named their very own secret bomb effort the MAUD Committee after this sage warning! However (ho ho!) it turned out that Bohr was simply attempting to ship a hopeful message to the previous governess of his kids, Maud Ray, who lived within the county of Kent. Whoops!

The issue is, in fact, that such levity will get undercut by a) the horrific accounts of what occurred to the Japanese victims of the atomic bombs, b) different disturbing legacies of people who find themselves rightly categorized as victims of the US nuclear complicated (downwinders, uncovered plant staff, the Marshallese, and so on.), and c) a reminder that we’re having some laughs within the service of the constructing of weapons of mass destruction and there’s one thing inherently problematic about that. 

We are able to make some jokes in regards to the Manhattan Mission and nuclear testing, however they should be a bit askew from precise historical past and actuality. Supply: XKCD, clearly.

However possibly Russia is completely different. Possibly they’ve simply bought a deeper sense of pathos, and a way of shared victimhood. The Soviet atomic bombs had been constructed beneath Stalin. Lavrenty Beria, one of the fearsome figures in Soviet historical past, ran this system. Pressured GULAG labor was used for the venture, beneath horrendous circumstances. The entire thing is simply so darkish that possibly, maybe, you will get away with a bit humor — possibly it’s a crucial factor. Possibly it’s a Freudian launch of stress: you must typically chuckle, as a rustic and a tradition, so that you don’t simply cry.

Or possibly it’s a part of the “Stalin wasn’t so bad” nationalist revisionism that has been constructing in Putin’s Twenty first-century Russian Federation. I don’t know.

Both manner, I discover it fascinating. 

Let’s begin with my favourite story from the web site, “They usually didn’t get shot,” which occurs to be the very first one I learn once I first discovered the positioning a while again. Word that that is my very own interpretive translation from the Russian.

They didn’t get shot

The top of the nuclear venture, Lavrenty Beria, arrived within the Urals, at a brand new facility beneath building. It was a chilly autumn; there was nothing on the new web site however mud, and driving there required going off-road. There was no housing, aside from barracks. Prisoners had been nonetheless onerous at work laying the foundations.

The engineers waited, frightened of the famously harsh NKVD chief. Beria, in his trademark black leather-based coat, emerged from the automotive and grabbed his decrease again in ache, having been bounced round by the tough floor. The engineers went chilly because the thought raced via their minds: “He’ll ship us to the Gulag!

The distinguished visitor was assigned to one of the best barrack for his in a single day keep. As quickly as Beria lay down, the mattress he was on collapsed beneath him! The engineers had been petrified: “Somebody’s getting shot!” 

Within the morning, it was found {that a} prisoner had stolen Beria’s black leather-based coat. The engineers had been horrified: “He’ll shoot everybody!”

However in the long run, Beria didn’t shoot anybody. After returning to Moscow, he issued orders to offer the employees of the power with higher meals and despatched them new furnishings. The top.

Humor is typically described as subverted expectations, so I assume it really works out: all of us thought had been going to be imprisoned or executed by one of the terrifying males within the Soviet Union — who imprisoned hundreds of thousands and had 1000’s shot within the head (and we received’t even convey up the rapes) — however as an alternative, we weren’t! Hilarious!

Many of the tales usually are not fairly this on-the-nose in regards to the circumstances of the Soviet nuclear complicated; they fall into the style of “scientists are intelligent, besides after they’re not, and each of these could be humorous,” which actually is the Feynman-style method, even when the Russian humorousness is a bit completely different. However there are additionally a number of ones that, in their very own manner, take the terror-absurdist scenario of working for Stalin and attempt to flip it into one thing amusing. An instance:

Lifeless flies

Each night, the younger nuclear engineers at Arzamas-16 (KB-11) who labored with radioactive substances needed to hand over their laboratory to the commandant of the army guard. However one night time, the commandant was unusually late, leaving them ready for hours. To amuse themselves, the engineers caught and killed flies, and piled up them by the window. 

– “What’s this?” the commandant requested sternly, after he lastly arrived.

– “Flies,” the engineers replied.

– “They’re useless..!?” the commandant requested.

— “Sure, they died… from radiation…” the engineers ad-libbed.

The commandant instantly vanished. He would by no means come to the laboratory personally once more, as an alternative sending assistants. 

The premise of the humor is identical as these in Feynman’s tales about Los Alamos, which I discover attention-grabbing: dumb army flacks versus intelligent and bored scientists. Nevertheless it’s bought a way more sinister undertone while you transpose it to the land of Mayak and Chernobyl. 

Right here’s one other one, which is a twist on basic “misunderstanding” jokes:

Deadlines for everybody

A bunch of engineers arrived on the building of a secret facility. On the gate they had been greeted by a stern main who had a placard behind him which learn: 

        Consider these vital strains
        Working onerous shortens your time 

“What occurred?” the fearful engineers requested. “Did the federal government lower the deadlines for the venture?” 

“The poster just isn’t for you,” the foremost consoled them, “however for the prisoners working right here.”

Ah, the engineers misunderstood a message that was meant for the jail labor power, not them! A basic Soviet-era mistake!

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I’m torn between discovering these kinds of issues to be exceedingly weird and albeit offensive, versus being impressed that the Russian nuclear company is keen to be so… clear (?) in regards to the insane scenario of the Soviet nuclear program. 

Among the tales are extra within the line of “hooray for Soviet scientists” style, which I discover rather a lot much less attention-grabbing. There’s one about Yuri Trutnev visiting Los Alamos within the Nineteen Nineties and having a picnic with American scientists. All of a sudden, a snake emerges from beneath a stone, and everybody backs away aside from Trutnev, who steps ahead and spits on its head, and is then celebrated because the “hero of the day.” Ho, hum.

And there are a pair “scientist says one thing considerably amusing” tales, akin to one who, after a briefing on some form of “good,” self-aiming supply system, remarks, “If the bomb turns into too good, possibly it received’t need to fall out of the airplane!” OK. I assume.

However let’s go away with one which manages to be one in every of these “revealing” jokes, however isn’t fairly as dismal because the others:

Data assortment

Uranium mining within the USSR was extremely categorized. Even high-ranking officers from the Soviet nuclear ministry didn’t know the main points of it. As soon as, one in every of these leaders acquired an American delegation. 

– “The place do you mine your uranium?” one of many company requested.

– “In all places! We have now a big nation!” the Soviet chief replied. 

The People approached a big map of the USSR: “In response to our satellite tv for pc intelligence, you do it right here, right here, and right here.”

– “Properly, your intelligence is confused,” the chief defined, and ultimately noticed the delegation off. However after they’d left, he rubbed his palms collectively gleefully: “Lastly, I, too, know the place the uranium is mined!”

Who says you’ll be able to’t have a bit clear, atomic humor on the expense of Soviet secrecy?

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Quotation: Alex Wellerstein, “Absolutely You’re Joking, Comrade Beria!,” Restricted Information: The Nuclear Secrecy Weblog, November 19, 2021, accessed February 8, 2024,

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