Igor Kurchatov

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Igor Kurchatov
Игорь Курчатов
Kurchatov Poststamp.jpg
Born12 January 1903[1]
Died7 February 1960(1960-02-07) (aged 57)[1]
CitizenshipSoviet Union
Alma materCrimea State University
Physico-Technical Institute
Ioffe Institute
Known forSoviet atomic bomb project
AwardsHero of Socialist Labor (1949,1951,1954)
Scientific career
FieldsNuclear physics
InstitutionsPhysico-Technical Institute
Doctoral advisorAbram Ioffe
InfluencedGeorgy Flyorov, Konstantin Petrzhak

Igor Vasilyevich Kurchatov (Russian: Игорь Васильевич Курчатов; 12 January 1903 – 7 February 1960), was a Soviet nuclear physicist who is widely known as the director of the Soviet atomic bomb project. Along with Georgy Flyorov and Andrei Sakharov, Kurchatov is known as the "father of the Soviet atomic bomb" and later "the father of the Soviet nuclear missile" for his directorial role in a clandestine Soviet nuclear program formed during World War II in the wake of the Soviet discovery of the Western Allied efforts to develop nuclear weapons. After nine years of covert development, as well as Soviet spies successfully infiltrating the Manhattan Project, the Soviet Union successfully tested its first nuclear weapon, codenamed First Lightning, at the Semipalatinsk Test Range in 1949. In 1954 he was awarded the USSR State Prize in physics.

From 1940 onward, Kurchatov worked on and contributed to the advancement of the nuclear weapons program, and later advocated for the peaceful development of nuclear technology. In 1950, Kurchatov contributed in the development of the hydrogen bomb with Sakharov, who originated this development as Sakharov's Third Idea. Other projects completed under Kurchatov included the installation and the development of Soviet Union's first particle accelerator, the Cyclotron; inauguration and establishment in Obninsk of the Obninsk Nuclear Power Plant, the world's first nuclear power plant; and the completion and launching of the Lenin, the first nuclear-powered surface vessel under his leadership in 1959.


Kurchatov was born in Simsky Zavod, Ufa Governorate (now the town of Sim, Chelyabinsk Oblast), the elder son and second of three children of Vasili Alekseevich Kurchatov, a surveyor and former forester's assistant, and Mariya Vasilevna Ostroumova, daughter of the parish priest at Sim.[2][1] He was of Russian ethnicity.[3] After completing Simferopol gymnasium №1, he enrolled at the Physics department of the Crimea State University, earning his doctorate degree in Physics there, under the supervision of Abram Ioffe. Kurchatov also studied at the Polytechnical Institute in Petrograd where he earned his degrees in naval engineering.[1]

After studying Physics and Naval engineering, Kurchatov was a research assistant at the faculty of Physics of the Ioffe Physico-Technical Institute in Baku.[4] Later he researched under Ioffe at the Physico-Technical Institute on various problems connected with radioactivity. After working in a variety of research laboratories and the Azerbaijan Polytechnic Institute in Baku for a year, he came to the Leningrad Institute for Physics and Technology (the Russian abbreviation of this institution is LFTI) in 1925.[4] Kurchatov's talent for experimenting and organization was recognized there. His early work was consumed with physics of crystals like dielectric and ferroelectric materials.[4] One of his important results was the discovery of ferroelectric properties of Seignette salt. This discovery earned a degree of doctor of physics and mathematics for him. He was awarded this degree without a dissertation in 1934.[4] In 1932, he received funding for his own nuclear science research team, which built the Soviet Union's first cyclotron particle accelerator in 1939.

Kurchatov married Marina Sinelnikova in 1927. They did not have children.[5]

Academic research[edit]

Between 1931 and 1934 he worked in the Physical department of the Radium Institute (Leningrad) which was headed by Vitaly Khlopin [ru]. Kurchatov's position there was a senior scientist and he took part in the creation of Europe's first cyclotron.

Then, until 1943, he worked at the Ioffe Institute with Anatoly Petrovich Alexandrov. By November 1941, they had devised a method of demagnetizing ships to protect them from German mines, which was in active use until the end of World War II and thereafter.[6][7][8] Kurchatov's laboratory separated from the Ioffe Institute and moved to Moscow in 1943 to work on the Soviet atomic bomb project.

In 1932, George Gamow and Lev Mysovskii submitted a draft for consideration by the Academic Council of Radium Institute, which was approved by the Soviet government. Khlopin, under the guidance and direct participation of Igor Kurchatov, Lev Mysovskii and George Gamow, installed Europe's first cyclotron particle accelerator. Installation was finished in 1937, and research began to take place on 21 September 1939.[9][10]

Kurchatov and his apprentice Georgy Flyorov discovered the basic ideas of the uranium chain reaction and the nuclear reactor concept in 1939. In 1942, Kurchatov declared: "At breaking up of kernels in a kilogram of uranium, the energy released must be equal to the explosion of 20,000 tons of trotyl."

Atomic bomb project[edit]

In 1941, Nazi Germany commenced a large-scale military offensive against the Soviet Union under the codename Operation Barbarossa. Meanwhile, Kurchatov was leading research in nuclear physics and was widely known in the Soviet Academy of Sciences for his wide research. Because of the war against Germany and her allies, the Soviet Union did not undertake any serious initiative to start scientific research into nuclear weapons until 1942. In April 1942, Georgii Flerov, who would later become a key figure in the nuclear program, addressed a secret letter to Joseph Stalin that pointed out that nothing had been published in physics journals by Americans, British or even Germans on nuclear fission since the year of its discovery, 1939, and that many of the most prominent physicists in Allied countries seemed indeed not to be publishing at all. That academic silence was highly suspicious, and Flerov urged Stalin to launch the program with immediate effect, as he believed that other nations were already secretly advancing their programmes. In 1943, the NKVD obtained a copy of a secret British report by the MAUD Committee concerning the feasibility of atomic weapons, which led Stalin to order the commencement of a Soviet nuclear programme (albeit with very limited resources).

Stalin turned to the Soviet Academy of Sciences to find the best administrator to lead the program and so the Soviet Academy of Sciences chose Kurchatov for his wide experience in nuclear physics. Ioffe recommended Kurchatov to Vyacheslav Molotov, who advised Stalin to appoint Kurchatov as the formal director of the nascent Soviet nuclear programme and the development of Soviet nuclear weapons began in the 1940s. Kurchatov switched his research first to protecting shipping from magnetic mines and later to tank armour and finally to nuclear physics.

During its formative years, the Soviet atomic bomb project remained a relatively low priority until information from the spy Klaus Fuchs and later the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki goaded Stalin into action. Stalin ordered Kurchatov to produce a bomb by 1948 and put the ruthless Lavrenty Beria in direct command of the project. The project took over the town of Sarov in the Gorki Oblast (now Nizhny Novgorod Oblast), on the Volga, and renamed it Arzamas-16. The team (which included other prominent Soviet nuclear scientists such as Julii Borisovich Khariton and Yakov Borisovich Zel'dovich) was assisted by public disclosures made by the US government as well as by further information supplied by Fuchs. However, Kurchatov and Beria feared that the intelligence was disinformation and so insisted for the scientists retest everything themselves. Beria, in particular, would use the intelligence as a third-party check on the conclusions of the teams of scientists.

First lightning[edit]

On 29 August 1949, Kurchatov's team successfully detonated its initial test device First Lightning (a plutonium implosion bomb) at the Semipalatinsk Test Site. Kurchatov later remarked that his main feeling at the time to be one of relief.

In the wake of the successful detonation of the first American fusion device, codenamed Ivy Mike in 1952, Stalin ordered Soviet scientists to build a comparable device, a program that was launched in 1953. The directors of the project were Vitaly Ginzburg and Andrei Sakharov who originated this project as Sakharov's Third Idea. Kurchatov contributed some of the calculations necessary for the Soviet Union's first hydrogen bomb. Unlike Ginzburg, Sakharov and Yakov Zel'dovich, Kurchatov was involved only in small-scale calculations, applying the basic nuclear weapons principles used in the smaller nuclear weapons that were developed under his directorship. In 1953, the Soviet Union detonated its first thermonuclear device, codename Joe 4. While other scientists, such as Ginzburg, Zel'dovich and Sakharov earned renown, Kurchatov's contribution was diminished.

Other projects[edit]

In the late 1950s, Kurchatov advocated against nuclear weapons tests. Among the projects completed under Kurchatov's leadership was the first cyclotron in Moscow (1949), the first atomic reactor in Europe (1946), the first nuclear power plant in the world (1954), the icebreaker Lenin, the world's first nuclear-powered surface ship, and the first nuclear-powered civilian vessel (1959).


In January 1949 Kurchatov had been involved in a serious accident which became a catastrophe at Chelyabinsk-40 in which it is possible that even more people died than at Chernobyl.[11] In an effort to save the uranium load and reduce losses in the production of plutonium, Kurchatov was the first to step into the central hall of the damaged reactor full of radioactive gases.[12]

Kurchatov's health sharply declined in his last years. He suffered a stroke in 1954 and died in Moscow of a cardiac embolism on 7 February 1960 aged 57. He was cremated and his ashes were buried in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis on Red Square.

Legacy and honors[edit]

Kurchatov on a 2003 stamp of Russia.
Monument to Kurchatov at the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site's Central Staff office.

During the A-bomb programme, Kurchatov swore he would not cut his beard until the program succeeded, and he continued to wear a large beard (often cut into eccentric styles) for the remainder of his life, earning him the nickname "The Beard". Two towns bear his name: Kurchatov Township, the headquarters of the STS, and Kurchatov near Kursk (the site of a nuclear power station), the Kurchatov Institute is named in his honour, and bears a large monument dedicated to him at the entrance. The crater Kurchatov on the Moon and the asteroid 2352 Kurchatov are also named after him. Many of his students also enjoyed distinguished careers, among them Andrei Sakharov, Viktor Adamsky, Yuri Babayev, Yuri Trutnev and Yuri Smirnov [ru].

For his part in establishing the Soviet nuclear program, in accordance with state decree 627-258, Kurchatov was awarded the title of Hero of Socialist Labor, the Stalin Prize First Class, the sum of 500,000 rubles (besides the earlier results of (50%) premium in the amount of 500,000 rubles) and a ZIS-110 car, a private house and cottage furnished by the state, a doubling of his salary and "the right (for life for him and his wife) to free travel by rail, water and air transport in the USSR". In all, he was:

  • Member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences (elected in 1943)[1]
  • Three times Hero of Socialist Labor (1949, 1951, 1954)[1]
  • Awarded five Orders of Lenin
  • Awarded two Orders of the Red Banner
  • Awarded the following medals: "For Victory over Germany", "For the defense of Sevastopol"
  • Four times recipient of the Stalin Prize (1942, 1949, 1951, 1954)
  • Recipient of the Lenin Prize (1957).

Kurchatov was buried in the Kremlin Wall in Moscow, a burial place reserved for top Soviet officials. In 1960 his institute was renamed to the I.V. Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy, and in 1991 to the Russian Research Centre Kurchatov Institute. The Kurchatov Medal was established by the Academy of Sciences for outstanding work in nuclear physics.[1] In the Transfermium Wars element naming controversy, the USSR's proposed name for element 104 was "kurchatovium", Ku, in honor of Kurchatov. Element 104 is now known as rutherfordium.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Igor Vasilyevich Kurchatov. Encyclopaedia Britannica
  2. ^ Dictionary of World Biography, volume VIII- The 20th Century, Go-N, ed. Frank N. Magill, Routledge, p. 2039
  3. ^ Курчатов Игорь Васильевич. warheroes.ru
  4. ^ a b c d Gaponov, Yu. V. (2003). "Igor' Vasil'Evich Kurchatov: The Scientist And Doer (January 12, 1903 – February 7, 1960)" (PDF). Physics of Atomic Nuclei. 66 (1): 3–7. Bibcode:2003PAN....66....1G. doi:10.1134/1.1540651. S2CID 119603044.
  5. ^ Josephson, Paul R. (10 June 2005). Red Atom: Russia's Nuclear Power Program from Stalin to Today (1st ed.). University of Pittsburgh Press. p. 13. ISBN 0822958813. Retrieved 12 May 2019.
  6. ^ Aleksandrov, A. P. (1983). "Годы с Курчатовым". Nauka i Zhizn. 2.
  7. ^ Koptev, Yu. I. (2008) "Виза безопасности". St. Petersburg. Изд-во Политехнического Университета. (in Russian)
  8. ^ Regel, V. R. (1975). "Размагничивание кораблей в годы Великой Отечественной войны". Priroda. 4.
  9. ^ Radium Institute named Vitaly Khlopin Archived 26 April 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  10. ^ Radium Institute named Vitaly Khlopin. Chronology Archived 26 April 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  11. ^ Medvedev, Zhores. Stalin and the Atomic Gulag (PDF). pp. 11–14.
  12. ^ Medvedev, Zhores A.; Medvedev, Roy Aleksandrovich (2003). The Unknown Stalin. I.B.Tauris. pp. 163, 165. ISBN 978-1-86064-768-0.

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