Fort Russ E-book: Kurchatov – The Father of the Soviet Nuclear Bomb. Part 6. Famine Years at Crimean University


September 3, 2015

Peter Astashenkov: “Kurchatov”

Published by “Molodaya Gvardiya”, 1968

Translated by Kristina Rus for Fort Russ

To read Parts 1-5, please click on the tag “Kurchatov” above. This book comes out in short installments, check back soon for more!



Igor Kurchatov (middle) with university comrades: Poroikov (left) and Lyakhnitsky  

Auditorium – Life

In the famine years

Igor Kurchatov, entering the university, chose mathematics department of the Physics and Mathematics school. There were nineteen of them in the group. The oldest was Ivan Poroikov – delegated to the University from the public organizations of the city of Kherson. He was the only  married one. His wife, Anna, at night copied notes of the lectures almost verbatim written by one of the students, who was friends with Igor Kurchatov, – Riznichenko. During breaks friends sharpened him at least five pencils. Such attention to notes is easy to explain – because there was a shortage of textbooks.

 To have the strength to learn, it was necessary to take care of the food. Igor refused no work. In the summer of 1920 Igor and Vladimir Lutsenko’s brother Mstislav started working at the construction of a railway Bakhchisarai – Bishuisk coal mines.

In 1921, Igor had the opportunity to work as a councilor at an orphanage, as a cargo truck dispatcher, and even as a security guard at the cinema “Lotus”. By day, he listens to lectures at the university, in the evening, while the NEP [NEP – New economic policy of Lenin] public is enjoying the movies, he is preparing for exams. And at night he replaced a ticket collector Anna Poroikov, the wife of a school friend, in “Lotus” and, sitting at the counter of the snack bar, stays one on one with… the rats.

Already a renowned scientist, Kurchatov, meeting with Poroikov family, often recalled this period of their lives and presenting Anna to his comrades jokingly said:

– I was her shift replacement at the cinema “Lotus”… it is not clear why the rats have chosen this rather dark room, what did they like there, especially at night?

 Trying to sleep under a furious romp of hungry rats, he with special pleasure recalled the days he spent with friends at one of the suburban orchards, where he also worked as a security guard. Security guards were allowed to eat cabbage and beets.

Recalled the most unpleasant and bitter for Igor – the disappointment in his friend. Once, when Igor was left alone at the orchard, he was visited by a former classmate Andrievsky. Struck up a friendly conversation. Igor shared with a friend his meager daily ration of food. Then showed the vegetable garden, irrigation pump installed at the well, the orchard.

 In the evening Andrievsky was going to leave. Igor walked him out and took a walk around the garden. Suddenly he heard from somewhere behind the hut a slight tinkle of metal. Walked around a shrub, and, startled, stopped: from the well, crouching, ran Andrievsky with something round and heavy under his arm.

A few jumps and Igor was at the well. Near the engine nuts were lying on the ground. The generator was gone.

Shocked by the treachery of his friend, Igor chased after him. It was getting dark, in the distance he could see a figure running away.

 Andrievsky, apparently feeling that he could not escape with a heavy load, threw the generator and ran faster. Igor was close and heard something fall. He found the generator, carried it back and installed on the engine.

Came Vladimir Lutsenko, who guarded the garden together with Igor, but that day having gone to the city. Igor didn’t want to sleep, was reluctant to answer questions, and only said:

– He who is able to betray a comrade, is capable of anything…

And these words sounded so uncompromising and contemptuous that Lutsenko remembered it for the rest of his life.

 …Once Igor and  Vladimir Lutsenko sawed wood at the mill that belonged to the local rich man, chunky, short-legged little man with the owl eyes. Glancing at the hired sawyers, he clapped his chubby hands, smirked and said:

- Advertisement -

– Uh, yeah I know you, my son Lera went to school with you!

– And we don’t know him,- said Igor. His face oozed a glow through the tan skin and his serious black eyes expressed such contempt that the owner of the mill was startled.

 And when his son approached learning they are former classmates, they pointedly did not offer to shake hands. The proletarian pride, as they later said, did not allow them to do so.

…These were difficult years. In Crimea it was very bad with food, with clothes. Ivan Poroikov, who later became a professor of a Highway Institute in Moscow, recalled how, as a member of the student committee of the Crimean University, he procured for Igor a set of … underwear from the Foundation for the needy, which caused Igor great joy.

 Vladimir Lutsenko, who now works in a part-time Leningrad Polytechnic Institute, talked about how he and Igor managed to acquire shoes. The Red Army soldiers who stationed at their house, somehow scored a bull and gave the skin to the students. They somehow prepped it and sew themselves some “postoli” – coarse shoes, manufactured from a single piece of leather, strapped with a strap at the top.

But worries about clothes, about food did not stop Kurchatov and his comrades from pursuing the main thing in their lives. There were no more attentive listeners at the auditorium, more earnest experimenters in the lab, than them. At home Igor spent a long time with notes by the weak light of the oscillating kerosene lamp. Got up from his book with blackened eyebrows and eyelashes.

Courses at the university were read at a very high level.
Here taught professors Koshlyakov, Vishnievsky, Tikhomandritsky, Usaty, Cordish, Ogloblin, Voronets, Frank. The first rector was doctor V. I. Vernadsky, then doctor A. A. Baikov. Their lectures attracted the most people.

Often came from Petrograd doctor A. F. Ioffe, one of the founders of the national school of physicists.

 Reading the lecture, Abram Fedorovich Ioffe looked carefully at the audience. But hardly he thought that among them is one of his future closest and most beloved students, the one whom he will call worthy to carry the chief scientific burden of the century. And this future titan of science, very young, with almost a childish face, literally could not stop staring at the blackboard with formulas and calculations, written by the hand of Ioffe himself!..

Out of professors on the university staff, especially loved by the youth was Semyon Nikolayevich Usa; not only a great lecturer, but man, all too in tune with young people, able to spark their interest in scientific ideas, to awaken the hidden strength and capabilities. Igor was happy, when, with the help of a favorite professor he got a job as a laboratory assistant at the department of physics! Along with him, Kirill Sinelnikov and Boris Lyakhnitsky also started working there.

All the students in their group studied so hard that the battered professors from the capital just marveled. With the power of their quest for knowledge they rose above the everyday troubles.

Igor loved to imagine himself using imaginary machines, controlling unknown devices. About this he  dreamed in reality and in his dreams…

The duties of a laboratory assistant Igor began earnestly. If he started preparing an experiment or demonstration for a lecture – didn’t leave until he finishes. With depressing scarcity of resources the university lab assistants were expected to show a lot of ingenuity so that everything which was supposed to explode during the lecture, to deviate, disintegrate, really exploded, deviated, fell apart!

With the hands of Igor and other student-assistants under the guidance of professors literally from “tin cans” and all sorts of waste materials the physics lab of the university was equipped. There performed the most complex experiments and demonstrations, including transmission of signals over a distance. It was received through a coherer, a device used by radio inventor, A. S. Popov.

The joint work as assistants brought Igor and Kirill Sinelnikov close together.

Kyrill and his sister Marina came to Simferopol due to tragic family circumstances: their father, a doctor from Pavlograd – died in 1919 from typhus, and his mother became ill with tuberculosis and had to be transported to Crimea [for the better climate].

She died in 1920, and Kyrill and Marina were left alone in an unfamiliar city. Stayed in a room with a dirt floor. Marina worked first at the consumer society, then at the People’s Commissariat of Labor of Republic of Crimea at the department, as it was then called, “of labor duty”, and Kyrill went to university.

Once Kyrill took Igor’s notes. To get it back, Igor had to stop by Sinelnikov home and pick it up from Marina. This is how he met his future wife.

Soon for her birthday Marina asked Kyrill to invite Igor. He didn’t come – was shy.

But the relationship did not stop. Igor’s mother, returning sometimes from a city bazaar, dropped off purchases at Sinelnikov’s, saying:

– Garik [Igor] will come pick it up, it’s hard to carry uphill.

And Igor, as always, somewhat embarrassed, stopped by, talked about the news, took the purchases.

Families became close. Kyrill and Igor together sawed winter firewood, dug up the vegetable garden in the spring, planted cabbage, carrots, cucumbers…

Working in construction, at cargo transportation, in an orphanage, in the laboratory, Igor learned the “science” of life. So in his youth, the main learning auditorium of student Kurchatov was life!

Subscribe to our newsletter
Sign up here to get the latest news, updates and special offers delivered directly to your inbox.