Radiation warning sign in front of Duga, a Soviet over-the-horizon (OTH) radar system as part of the Sovietic anti-ballistic missile early-warning network, Chernobyl. Image credit: Anton_Ivanov / Shutterstock

Historian Paul Josephson’s new book Nuclear Russia: The Atom in Russian Politics and Culture (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2023) explores the place of atomic science in Russia and post-Soviet nations. In this interview with Public Seminar political reporter Anastasia Shteinert, Josephson explains why Russia should be considered to be a nuclear terrorist threat in Ukraine, how Chernobyl sped up the collapse of the Soviet Union, and when Russian president Vladimir Putin became obsessed with nuclear warfare. 

Anastasia Shteinert: Your book examines how heavily Russia relies on its nuclear industry—both peaceful atoms and weapons. Would Russia play an extremely different role in the world if it didn’t have such nuclear strength? 

Paul Josephson: If you look at Russian, Soviet, and post-Soviet history, beginning from the time of Peter the Great, state-sponsored science and technology have been crucial to leaders’ mindsets. It seems incomprehensible to imagine Russia without a tremendous foundation of science and technology for such projects, particularly military ones. It’s also not surprising that the Soviet Union, which included what is now Ukraine and Russia, has been the world leader in nuclear physics since the 1930s. 

Although many Cold War scholars argue that the Soviet Union was late developing nuclear weapons, I argue that there was a very strong foundation of personnel, equipment, and ideas before the atomic bomb project was developed during World War II. Stalin may have been late in recognizing the importance of nuclear weapons, but from August of 1945, he understood it was the future.

So, sooner or later, without espionage, the USSR would have succeeded in developing these weapons. 

Shteinert: The nuclear industry plays a huge role in contemporary Russian economics and politics. But in the early 2000s, like Stalin before 1945, Putin didn’t pay as much attention to the atom. What changed? 

Josephson: Putin was created in and by the KGB. So, he still sees the world as a set of forces and counterforces in which he must be prepared for all possible “attacks.” But in the post-Soviet period, until the Russian economy recovered through oil and gas development in 2005–2006, he couldn’t be fully prepared. During that time, Russia offered significant cooperation in nuclear cleanup, which permitted Norwegian, American, and other specialists to work with Russian specialists on Russian soil. 

Following the economic recovery, the state then pushed ahead, both with the space and nuclear programs. That said, Putin’s rhetoric about the importance of nuclear weapons and “don’t cross the red line” warnings, which emerged in 2015–2019, were probably always there in his KGB–trained head. 

Shteinert: In your book, you argue that Putin has always thought about NATO and America as aggressive, but not defensive. And you seem to think that United States nuclear programs were always more defensive, a response to Russia or, let’s say, China. Do you believe that?

Josephson: I feel that the world’s powers, including both the United States and the former Soviet Union, spent far too much energy on the production of nuclear weapons. Currently, both countries could destroy all life on Earth. There have always been more than enough warheads to make a first strike—too costly for any country to carry out. This is the notion of mutually assured destruction, which dominated U.S. nuclear strategy. 

But to separate nuclear policy from other aspects of the NATO alliance, I think that Putin and the Russian foreign policy leadership misstate the aggressiveness of NATO, and they rewrite history. There has been no effort on the part of NATO to invade or attack Russia. It’s frustrating for Western observers to see this constant rhetoric about an impending Western attack, especially when Russia is the nation carrying out attacks on Ukraine.

It is true that the Europeans and Americans are supplying tanks to Ukraine. But this clearly would not be the case had Russia not invaded Ukraine a year ago and carried out the war. So, it’s a constant rewriting of history and a return to World War II thinking. 

Shteinert: The history of World War II became a huge national myth in Russia. In a different way, some people believe that Putin’s rhetoric about nuclear weapons might also be mythical: they doubt that Putin’s nukes work properly. Do we know if he is capable of a successful nuclear attack on Ukraine or the West? 

Josephson: Russia certainly has enough—several thousand—nuclear warheads and enough missiles to launch an attack on the United States, or Canada, or the European nations. Putin has mentioned several times that if the West crosses some red line and Russia must be protected, he will use nuclear weapons. But it’s also the case that, after such an attack, the response would be catastrophic: Russia would no longer exist as a state.

Shteinert: In the book, you mentioned that the Chernobyl catastrophe speeded up the collapse of the Soviet Union. You also explained that Chernobyl spiked protests in the Soviet republics. Did the notorious secrecy surrounding this event contradict Gorbachev’s glasnost [openness] policy?  

Josephson: Chernobyl occurred at a time when the public was beginning to question the Soviet system generally, a system which was functioning poorly in getting goods to consumers. The government was wasteful, it was environmentally unsafe. The Soviet development model itself was an environmental fraud and the entire Soviet economic mindset was built on falsehoods. People learned that it was safer to be a worker in the West, and citizens came to understand that the state had lied to them about workplace safety.

The Chernobyl disaster was probably the most fatal mistake the Soviet government made. It was a crucial event for hastening glasnost and perestroika because it made the government look dangerously incompetent. The leadership was late in understanding what had happened, and then late in being honest about explaining what had happened.

Shteinert: Which Soviet republics protested after Chernobyl?

Josephson: The Baltic states, especially Lithuania, were furious, both about the accident and the lies, and they then also remembered that Stalin had used the Red Army to incorporate them into the Soviet Union. They had always wanted to be independent states, and looked more to Europe than they did to the USSR. 

I think Gorbachev himself realized that Chernobyl was a crucial event. In general, people came to see Chernobyl and nuclear power as being a Russian colonial enterprise: the Kremlin was putting a dirty industry inside their borders. So, this internal colonialism, or internal imperialism, became a very important narrative for questioning the Soviet state during the Gorbachev years. 

Shteinert: In your book, you discuss the Russian occupation of the Zaporizhzhia and the decommissioned Chernobyl nuclear power plants as possible nuclear disasters. You called these actions “state-sponsored nuclear terrorism.” Has anything like this happened before?

Josephson: So, what do we mean by terrorism? The five original nuclear nations don’t really have clean hands when it comes to proliferation and state use of nuclear weapons. Is North Korea a nuclear terrorist for developing nuclear weapons? Or does it make sense considering North Korea’s isolation and its fear that the U.S. or South Korea will attack at any time? 

But in the case of Ukraine, when troops invade and attack nuclear facilities to use them in the cause of war, that is clearly state-sponsored, state-carried out, and thus, state-functioning nuclear terrorism. We use the term state-sponsored terrorism widely in the West. People have used it against Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. Today, Russia has become the first in the world in developing the peaceful atom—and the first to weaponize the peaceful atom.

Shteinert: Russia has always been pretty secretive about its nuclear projects and emergencies. Is that a beneficial strategy? 

Josephson: Obviously, no nation wishes to allow technologies with clear military applications to be widely available. But it’s really shocking that a number of scientists are now being arrested in Russia, accused of espionage for sharing already published materials. It’s like the 1930s to me, when people were accused of espionage and state crimes for talking about cutting-edge science. 

They arrested scientist Dmitry Kolker when he had advanced stomach cancer, and then he died in custody. There’s so much of this going on. I have a hard time keeping up with similar cases. Am I in the Soviet Union again?

I can’t imagine these arrests will help Russian specialists to feel more comfortable about pushing the envelope when it comes to innovation.

Shteinert: When I worked as a reporter in Russia and talked to people from Rosatom [a Russian state corporation that specializes in nuclear projects], I constantly triple-checked the security status of information I shared with the public. Today, any transfer of information can be counted as treason. How does that affect nuclear commerce with other countries?

Josephson: That’s another thing that will hurt Russia, since it is the largest exporter of peaceful nuclear technologies in the world. It’s building reactors in India. It has projects in Turkey. Before the war, it also had a station under contract in Finland. So, it has a lot of stations, and a lot of business, around the world. But I imagine there will be a rapid halt in the next few years. Many countries will not want to be engaged with the Russian nuclear enterprise when Russia has used energy for international political purposes and would certainly intensify with nuclear power.

Shteinert: Should the nuclear industry be privatized, or can it only function as state-owned companies like Rosatom? 

Josephson: Military technologies are always in state hands. But if you look at the evolution of the nuclear industry in Europe, the United States, or Korea, the government may have sponsored the initial stages of research, but private utilities and construction companies are licensed by the state to build and operate the stations. It’s like many other technologies where we have state regulation and state subsidies, and the private sector is best situated to do the work.

Shteinert: Is nuclear energy green? There are huge debates about this. 

Josephson: It will be interesting to see what will happen next with the so-called green nuclear revolution that is supposed to occur. Many people worry about climate change and believe that nuclear power doesn’t produce greenhouse gasses. “Here’s a great alternative,” they say. But I think that the cost of nuclear power plant construction—not to mention the pollution and radioactive waste—makes it unlikely that nuclear energy will solve the world’s energy problems. 

Shteinert: But nuclear energy can probably be a good transitional option before we switch to greener technologies that do not impose risks of the energy crises. Even windmills still damage the environment. 

Josephson: Yes, birds get killed by windmills. But if you look at how many animals are killed in the pursuit of nuclear power, the wind is still far greener. The nuclear industry imposes more environmental risks, and we should also keep in mind that it takes 10 or 15 years to build a reactor.

Shteinert: How did you do your research for Nuclear Russia

Josephson: I’m a historian. I prefer to work with archival materials, government documents, and newspapers than to do interviews, although I’ve done them. I don’t know how many times I went to Russia and Ukraine—maybe 30 or 35 times for a total of three or three and a half years. I’ve lived in Ukraine. I’ve worked in scientific research institutes in Russia as well. I’ve visited a number of nuclear power stations. I’ve been inside closed facilities with permission. More recently, for this book in particular, I did a lot of the spadework, digging up things in the past, because I’ve been working on nuclear topics since the 1980s.

Shteinert: Is there public information online? 

Josephson: I used online materials mostly in the last stages of the research. They’re widely available if you know how to search, and many primary source documents are available through the Rosatom electronic library. The presidential [Kremlin] website is very good for things like that, for photographs, and so on. There’s enough out there to write a well-reasoned piece based on primary sources. 

Shteinert: Since the war in Ukraine started, it has probably become almost impossible for Western researchers to go to Russia and explore a topic like this. 

Josephson: It would probably be impossible. I had an affiliation with Tomsk State University and, before that, with MEPhI [Moscow Engineering Physics Institute]. As politics were changing, they would not renew our contracts at MEPhI. That was some years ago. 

But I made a personal choice. In light of the attack on Ukraine, I resigned immediately from Tomsk. I would never go back or try to do research there. And I think in the new security state, I would also probably be seen as some kind of threat, even though I’m just a historian. I have no intention—I’m sorry to say—of going back to Russia, although I’ll miss my colleagues. I think it’s unsafe now.

Click here to read an excerpt from Nuclear Russia: The Atom in Russian Politics and Culture, courtesy of Paul Josephson and Bloomsbury Publishing.

Paul Josephson is Professor of History at Colby College. 

Anastasia Shteinert is a political reporter and MA Candidate in Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism at The New School for Social Research.