Igor Kurchatov is a Russian physicist who was the leader of the first Soviet atomic weapons program. Born in 1903 in Simsky Zavod, he completed his degree in physics at Crimea State University in only three years. He then worked as a research assistant at the faculty of Physics at the Polytechnic Institute in Baku and in 1925, moved to the Physico-Technical Institute where he studied radioactivity.
In 1932, Kurchatov shifted his field of study from ferroelectricity to nuclear physics, working with the team that producted the first Russian cyclotron. At the time, just years after Stalin's ascent to power, this change of interests was a dangerous one. While there was indeed a strong Soviet focus on scientific and technological discoveries, scientists were expected to produce developments that would be useful to the state, especially in the context of Stalin's Five Year Plan. In the early thirties, nuclear physics was still a highly theoretical science with very few practical applications in the foreseeable future.
By 1936, Kurchatov's work had won him acclaim in the international scientific community, but he had yet to make an impact in his own country. Despite this, he escaped the Great Purge unscathed unlike many of his scientist and engineer colleagues. In 1942, Kurchatov joined the war effort and directed his research towards technology to protect naval ships from magnetic mines.
That same year, Stalin received a report by the British MAUD Committee about the feasibility of nuclear weapons and appointed Kurchatov the head of a very modestly funded nuclear program. But After the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the scope and funding of Kurchatov's program increased dramatically as it jumped to the head of Stalin's priority list. And as resources increased, so did the pressure and potential consequences for Kurchatov, the programs' director. Perhaps because of this, he demanded that Soviet scientists check every bit of information that they received from the US and the UK via espionage efforts. Kurchatov was also known for vowing not to cut his beard until the project succeeded, a ritual he continued throughout his career.
On August 29, 1949, the first Soviet nuclear test was a success. Kurchatov was immediately relieved, believing (with good reason) that if the test had failed he would have been shot. He went on to work with Andrei Sakharov on designing the Russian hydrogen bomb, independent of stolen foreign research. However, after hearing of the severe effects of radiation on the fisherman on the Japanese boat, the Lucky Dragon, which had been too close to the US Castle BRAVO test , and the three Soviet fatalies during the atmospheric Semipalatinsk test, Kurchatov was forced to acknowledge that it was not only dangerous to use the weapons he created, but that they were also dangerous to test. He resigned from any supervisory roles in subsequent tests.
In February, 1960, Kurchatov died on a park bench from a blood clot in his brain while discussing nuclear research with Yuli Khariton.