Academician Anatoly Alexandrov's career was ruined with Chernobyl blast
Academician Anatoly Alexandrov would turn one hundred years on February 13th. When the first nuclear power plant was launched, when steam emerged coming out of the control pipe, he congratulated his friend Igor Kurchatov with a phrase that Russian people say to each other after taking a bath: “Easy Steam!” Academician Anatoly Alexandrov had to become the person, who would realize the dream of all nuclear scientists: “Let an atom be a worker, not a soldier.” Anatoly Alexandrov’s bust was not placed “in the hero’s homeland,” like it was always done in the Soviet Union. His bust was put close to the Leningrad nuclear power plant. He was too much preoccupied with the Chernobyl disaster until his dying day. That is probably why he asked to bury him on the Mitinsky graveyard, where a lot of Chernobyl victims were buried.
I met academician Anatoly Alexandrov in person twice. The first time it happened in the city of Sevastopol, at the naval academy. There is a small monument standing on the territory of the academy. The monument was unveiled in honor of those scientists, who helped to degauss military ships during the period of the Great Patriotic War. As a matter of fact, it is a monument to academician Anatoly Alexandrov. Then I was lucky to see the academician for the second time in my life – in 1984, in the city of Severodvinsk, at Sevmash Enterprise (it produces nuclear submarines in Russia). The academician visited the enterprise to celebrate 30 years since the start of nuclear cruisers construction. There is a monument near workshop 42 of Sevmash Enterprise: a worker holds a nuclear submarine in his hands. This is also a monument to Anatoly Alexandrov.
The would-be nuclear academician was born one hundred years ago, in Kiev, on February 13th, 1903. After the Great October Revolution of 1917 he worked as an electrician, he was not to going to become a scientist at all. This idea did not occur to him even after he became a teacher, like his father. Later, he became a correspondence student of the Kiev University, where he made his first scientific research. Abram Fedorovich Ioffe (an outstanding Russian physicist who founded and headed for many years one of the major physical schools of the former USSR) paid attention to student Alexandrov’s work. Ioffe offered him to move over to Leningrad in order to deal with non-conductor studies there. Alexandrov agreed. This eventually resulted in the birth of the new science in the 1930s – the polymer physics.
Aantoly Alexandrov was nicknamed the “marine academician” during the wartime, although he was just a professor at that period. He was in charge of protecting military ships from magnetic mines. Alexandrov used a method of his own for those works. No ship of the USSR Navy blew up on such a mine. Igor Kurchatov, another Soviet outstanding nuclear power scientist worked under Alexandrov's guidance at that period of time. They changed their roles soon: at the age of 43 Anatoly Alexandrov became Igor Kurchatov’s deputy for the so-called ”Nuclear Project.” Alexandrov’s word was a decisive one to create nuclear power emplacements for world’s first ever nuclear icebreakers - Lenin, Siberia and Russia - as well as for nuclear submarines. It was Alexandrov, who launched the world’s first ever nuclear power plant in the Russian city of Obninsk. Anatoly Alexandrov was awarded with nine Lenin orders, he was the four-times laureate of the State and Lenin Prize, the three-times Hero of the Socialist Labor. In addition to that, he had a lot of other orders and medals, including military ones.
Eza Kalyaeva, the first wife of Anatoly Alexandrov’s son, wrote in her memoirs: “Those awards were not simply awards. It was like this: either you get the Hero Star, or you will be shot. Either you get the Lenin Order, or you will be jailed for 25 years.” Even if it was an exaggeration, it was not a big one, indeed. In 1938 Anatoly Alexandrov stood up to defend his teacher, the founder of the Leningrad Physical Department, Abram Ioffe. The Soviet central press published an article, in which Ioffe was almost charged with subversive activities against the USSR. It was very dangerous to stand up for such a person as Abram Ioffe back in those years. Yet, Anatoly Alexandrov could not keep silent either. The verbatim account of his speech took 16 pages. It was a very important speech to make: the student managed to save his teacher's life.
In 1946 Academician Pyotr Kapitsa had problems with Lavrenty Beria, the head of the Soviet Internal Affairs department. As Alexandrov put it, “this intelligent man could not stand Beria’s boorishness any longer.” Kapitsa wrote a letter to Stalin. It probably saved his life at that moment. The academician was dismissed from his activities at the institute, although the Soviet government allowed him to live in a country-house on the outskirts of Moscow. Stalin and Beria decided to appoint Anatoly Alexandrov for the position of the institute’s director. This was rather depressing for the academician, for he did not want to be a strike-breaker. When Alexandrov was called to show up at Beria’s office to take the appointment order, the academician made up his mind to drink some vodka. He even spilled some on his clothes. When in the office, Alexandrov said that he could not agree to become the director of the institute, for he was an alcoholic. Lavrenty Beria simply handed over the signed paper to him and said that they knew it all about him, including his quick wit: how he spilled vodka on his clothes and how he washed his mouth with it as well. There was no way out: Alexandrov had to become the director.
Faina Petrova, a friend of the Alexandrovs family wrote in her book: “There was something strange and unusual about the Alexandrovs. First and foremost, it was their home life. There was almost no furniture at their home. There was not even a bed in some of their rooms. Anatoly Alexandrov was very undemanding when it came to food. He had eggs for breakfast throughout his entire life and he did not complain of that sameness. Once I entered his office without knocking on the door. I saw the academician standing there with two guests. He introduced those two men to me: they were submarine captains. There was no one else in the house at that moment. All I could see on the table was a bottle of vodka and two big cans of home-cooked stewed fruit drink. I offered to cook something, but Anatoly said that they were about to go.”
Anatoly Alexandrov, the president of the USSR Academy of Sciences turned 83 on April 26th, 1986. His wife died in the beginning of May of that year. He managed to go to Chernobyl only a month later after the catastrophe. His mind was pure, although it could be seen that his wife's death was an incredible loss for him. Everything was ruined in a second: the confidence in the nuclear power, the immaculate authority and respect in science. He realized that he would not manage to build anything new on the ruins of Chernobyl. He had to stand a lot of criticism and fake accusations. Everyone was trying to find a scapegoat for the Chernobyl disaster. It was believed that the Chernobyl reactor was a lot worse in comparison with European or American ones. Anatoly Alexandrov realized the point of the tragedy and his major mistake. He failed to make everyone at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant understand that it was a very dangerous object, which was capable of killing people’s confidence in the nuclear power. The reactor was a reliable one, although they should have worked at it. They shouldn’t have made any experiments. Academician did not manage to correct his mistake: he was too old. When he was buried in 1994, no governmental official of Russia came to bid him farewell.
Translated by Dmitry Sudakov