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Sputnik and the Start of the Space Age

The new book Red Moon Rising chronicles the early days of the Russian-American space race
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[Editor's Note: The following is the first chapter from Red Moon Rising, a new book from writer Matthew Brzezinski.]

One after another, the big ZIS limousines pulled away from the curb. Black and burly, their whitewall tires not yet soiled by slush, the armored behemoths glided gently through the snow--three-and-a-half-ton dancers in a synchronized automotive ballet.

From Central Committee headquarters on Staraya Square, the chrome-fendered procession headed east past Gorki Street and slipped under the shadow of one of the Gothic skyscrapers that Stalin had ordered built after the war. Seven of the sinister high-rises dominated the Moscow skyline, and they rose in stone layers like fifty-story wedding cakes decked in dark granite icing. On the Ring Road, another Stalinist creation, an eight-lane motorway that surrounded the city center in an asphalt moat, the dozen limousines and chase cars turned north, breezing past block after block of leviathan government buildings that heralded the new Moscow.

The old mercantile city had been branded with Stalin's indelible stamp; it was now a metropolis of bronze bas-reliefs of giant steelworkers with bulging forearms, of cast-iron tributes to collective farmers brandishing sixteen-foot scythes, of statues of Lenin six stories high. Monumental and monochromatic public works had risen on the trampled foundations of prerevolutionary pastel palaces. The gilded cathedrals of old were gone--ripped down or buried under layers of soot--and in their stead rose hulking cement fortresses whose towering porticos paid architectural tribute to the insignificance of the individual in the one-party state. Red banners hailing the Twentieth Party Congress draped the gray edifices, though the plenum had ended tumultuously two days before. glory to the workers, they proclaimed. peace to the proletariat. Beneath the propaganda placards, long lines of shoppers formed outside food stores, their breath steaming in the cold, while elderly women in fingerless gloves swept dirty snow from the sidewalks.

If Nikita Khrushchev noticed any incongruity between the lofty slogans and the harsh socialist reality of Moscow street-corner life, he said nothing to his driver, or to his son, Sergei, sitting beside him in the backseat. He had said more than enough at the Twentieth Congress, and although six weeks would pass before the Central Intelligence Agency got wind of his secret speech, the Americans would be just as stunned as the 1,500 shocked delegates who had heard him in the Great Kremlin Palace less than forty-eight hours earlier.

Father and son sat in silence, behind the ZIS's pleated curtains, watching the city stream drably past. Directly behind them, in the lane reserved exclusively for party high-ups, rode the three other Presidium members who had jointly ruled Russia since Stalin's death three years earlier: Nikolai Bulganin, Lazar Kaganovich, and Vyacheslav Molotov. Behind them, in descending order of importance, rode lesser officials in less imposing ZIMs and Pobedas: Dmitri Ustinov, the armaments minister; Aleksei Kirichenko, a new addition to the Presidium; and the usual entourage of KGB bodyguards and eager aides.

Khrushchev's car led the convoy, as befitting his new rank as first among equals in the Presidium, as the Politburo was then known. But the men in the rear were crowding his bumper, biding their time for an opportunity to overtake him. This Khrushchev knew, understood almost instinctively, from the survival skills he had honed during two treacherous decades in Stalin's inner circle. When the "boss" was alive, they had all vied for his favor, slid tomatoes onto each other's chairs in prank-filled drinking contests that lasted till dawn. Like sixty-year-old frat boys, they all laughed when Lavrenty Beria, the secret police chief and serial rapist, pinned little notes with the Russian word prick spelled in big Cyrillic letters on Khrushchev's unsuspecting back. But the day the boss died, the jokes ended and the plotting began. This Khrushchev also knew from personal experience, for it was he who had masterminded the coup against the psychopath Beria. Stalin's chief henchman and self-anointed successor had been dispatched with a bullet to the brain, and it was Khrushchev, the class clown of this murderous fraternity, who had unexpectedly emerged to fill the power vacuum.

The convoy sped north unimpeded by traffic, since so few Muscovites owned cars. A few rickety Moskviches, twenty-six-horsepower knockoffs of the 1938 Opel Kadett, quickly clattered out of the way, and soon Khrushchev and his retinue reached the new suburbs. These vast tracts of land around the capital were also being completely remade. The little wooden dachas and garden plots that supplemented the diet of city dwellers were being bulldozed in accordance with the latest Five Year Plan to allay the capital's dire housing shortage. In Moscow, divorced couples still often lived together in communal apartments with three other families. Government workers and newlyweds were housed in dormitories where toilets and kitchens were divvied up on a time-share basis. For those without blat--connections--the waiting list for new apartments could stretch into the decades. People got married while still in their teens just to get in line. The situation was much the same throughout the Soviet Union, and even more drastic in the western parts of the country, where entire cities had been reduced to rubble during the war.

To remedy the housing shortage, Khrushchev had embarked on a massive national construction binge, which, like Stalin's oppressive overhaul of Moscow's downtown districts, was leaving its own unique architectural imprint on the city's outer rings. But the suburban building boom looked nothing like the Levittown planned communities sweeping across America, where the appetite for new homes seemed just as insatiable and the explosion of affordable automobiles was changing the way people lived. Outside Moscow, there were no ranch houses and ramblers with circular driveways branching off cul-de-sacs. There were no swimming pools in gated backyards; no children's playgrounds with baseball diamonds and swings. Instead, row after row after row of mind-numbingly identical five-story apartment buildings rose from the sandy soil, resembling the ill-conceived housing projects that would later blight America's ghettos. Large numbers--1 through 50, 51 through 75, and so on--were painted on the sides of the squat concrete structures, so that residents could tell them apart. Not a blade of grass grew in between the prefabricated buildings of this suburban wasteland, and there were no stores, shopping centers, or movie theaters. There were only bus stops that led to the nearest commuter train station and cranes leaning over the open pits of unfinished units.

Quantity, not quality, was the construction crews' rallying cry, and the "Khrushchevki," or Little Khrushchevs, as the dwarfish blocs quickly became known, howled when the winds blew in from the Urals. They suffered from shifting foundations and perennially creaky plumbing. Their gas lines exploded and their roofs leaked. But they met Kremlin quotas, and Khrushchev was immensely proud of them. Just the other month, he had taken Sergei on a tour of the cement factory that made their prefabricated parts.

On this day, Sergei was also accompanying his father on an inspection tour. The favorite of Khrushchev's four children, Sergei, at twenty-one, already stood a head taller than his dad, whom a French official once described as a "little man with fat paws." (Khrushchev himself poked fun at his diminutive stature, joking that he was as wide as he was tall.) Sergei had his mother's looks, blond hair and blue eyes. Nikita had darker, vaguely Asiatic features, though what little hair remained on the elder Khrushchev's head had long ago turned white, leaving only a narrow band to warm his bald pate. Unlike his father, whose loquacious, self-deprecating sense of humor made him a favorite at Stalin's court (and lulled his enemies into a false sense of superiority), Sergei was a serious, studious lad, on his way to fulfilling his father's dream of becoming an engineer. The elder Khrushchev had had only four years of formal schooling before beginning his apprenticeship, at the age of fourteen, as a metalworker in a prerevolutionary Ukrainian coal mine owned by a Welsh millionaire. "After a year or two of school, I had learnt how to count to thirty and my father decided that was enough," Nikita Khrushchev recalled in his memoirs. "He said that all I needed was to be able to count money, and I would never have more than thirty rubles to count anyway."

Khrushchev's lack of education was a sore point, a source of embarrassment and frustration--not only to him but to the party as well. The leaders of the revolution had been learned men: Trotsky, Bukharin, the lawyerly Lenin. Even Stalin had studied in a seminary before finding Marx. But in the Soviet version of upward mobility, the next generation of Communist Party functionaries had risen from the bottom of the proletariat, sons and daughters of the peasantry suddenly catapulted into the twentieth century, as Khrushchev himself conceded with remarkable candor. "We weren't gentlemen in the old-fashioned sense," he wrote in his memoir, recalling his wartime stay at the estate of a Polish nobleman. "It became impossible to enter the bathroom. Why? Because the people in our group didn't know how to use it properly. Instead of sitting on the toilet seat so that people could use it after them, they perched like eagles on top of the toilet and mucked up the place terribly. And after we put the bathroom out of commission, we set to work on the park grounds."

Throughout his late twenties and thirties, Khrushchev had struggled to better himself, attending the Rabfak high school equivalency programs offered to rising party functionaries and enrolling in special courses at the Stalin Industrial Academy for promising technocrats. But party business always interfered, and he never managed to finish any of them. "He could barely hold a pencil in his calloused hand," one of his teachers later told the biographer William Taubman. "She recalled his struggling to grasp a point of grammar and, when he at last understood it, smiling and shouting, 'I got it.'"

Sergei was thus on the cusp of fulfilling his father's unrealized dream. In a few months he would defend his master's thesis and become a full-fledged engineer. "My father felt this was the best, most honorable profession a man could have," he recalled fifty years later. "In technical matters, he was very creative and curious."

Khrushchev's passion for technology could at times lead to childlike bursts of enthusiasm, and whenever state business took him to a plant or research facility of technical interest, he brought Sergei. "He wanted me to see the theories I had been learning at university applied in practice," Sergei recalled. The two had recently gone to the Tupolev factory to inspect the first Soviet jet-engine passenger plane, and Nikita had boyishly rubbed his hands in glee at the prospect of impressing foreigners with it on his next trip abroad.

Today, though, was a special outing for Sergei. Ever since the ZIS had picked him up outside class at the Moscow Institute of Power Engineering that morning, he had been giddy with anticipation. "You see, I was studying to become a rocket scientist, a guidance systems expert to be precise," he noted. And today his father was taking him to NII-88, the USSR's top-secret rocket research facility.

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The design bureaus of NII-88 were discreetly tucked away outside Moscow, where too many foreigners with prying eyes roamed the streets. To get there, then as today, visitors took the main road to Yaroslavl. Khrushchev's motorcade, with the other Presidium members in tow, turned onto what is now called the M8 highway, and the cranes and suburban construction sites soon gave way to the countryside. The transition came abruptly, like crossing some imaginary threshold between the twentieth and eighteenth centuries. Roads turned to mud, settlements into ramshackle villages. Wooden farmhouses and huts with thatched roofs leaned at crazy angles. Most had no electricity or running water. Their inhabitants had few teeth. They walked around half dazed, as if in slow motion, swaddled in rags, filthy peacoats, and sleeveless jackets made from the hides of farm animals. The herds of cattle were scrawny and clumped with manure. Skinny chickens scampered underfoot.

Though the Communist Party viewed the backward peasants with undisguised contempt for both ideological and practical reasons (stemming from perennially poor harvests), Khrushchev had always felt comfortable in the countryside. He had made agriculture his bailiwick under Stalin, and he had grown up in similar circumstances, tending sheep as a young boy in the tiny farming community of Kalinovka, near Kursk. "Every villager dreamed of owning a pair of boots," he recalled. "We children were lucky if we had a decent pair of shoes. We wiped our noses on our sleeves and kept our trousers up with a piece of string."

But the massive farms that the Presidium held in such low regard played another critical role besides putting food on Soviet tables. The endless expanses they covered provided Russia with its main line of defense. It was these snow-covered fields, stretching thousands of miles, that had defeated Hitler and Napoleon. Like frozen deserts that thawed into impassable bogs, they had protected Moscow from all its Western enemies. Armies could advance over the plains, but invariably their supply lines would grow thin, the winter would set in, and rural Russia would ravage the invaders. The steppe had always afforded Moscow the ultimate victory. Until now. Now, in the nuclear and jet age, distance and climate no longer provided a natural limit to foreign depredations. And to Khrushchev, that seemed precisely what the latest U.S. military doctrine aimed to do.

Khrushchev was unsettled by the rise to power of the Republican Party, after more than two decades of Democratic rule. The Republicans represented the American capitalist class, and their electoral battle cry had been hard-line anticommunism. To the Soviets, the emergence of the rich, Russophobe Republicans signaled the arrival of a more combative and ideological adversary in Washington, personified by John Foster Dulles, the dour and deeply religious secretary of state, a man who dressed and talked like a clergyman and yet managed to make millions during the Great Depression. The USSR, Dulles declared, could never be appeased, because "the Soviets sought not a place in the sun, but the sun itself." His opinion was codified by the National Intelligence Estimate of September 15, 1954, which stated, "Soviet leaders probably envision: (a) the elimination of every world power center capable of competing with the USSR; (b) the spread of communism to all parts of the world; and (c) Soviet domination over all other communist regimes."

With growing alarm, the Soviets watched as Dulles purged the State Department of suspected liberals. Veteran foreign service officers who had accurately predicted Communist gains in Asia were sacked for not displaying "positive loyalty," while foreign allies were warned that they too had better toe the new hard line or be faced with an "agonizing re-appraisal" of U.S. assistance. Dulles's playboy brother Allen, whose hedonism was matched only by his hatred of communism, was put in charge of the Central Intelligence Agency, which rapidly ballooned from an obscure bureaucratic outpost with 350 employees to an aggressive frontline agency with thousands of operatives intent on undermining Soviet power.

John Foster Dulles lurked dangerously behind the kind, grandfatherly facade of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, whom the Soviets knew to be ill with a heart condition and increasingly detached from day-to-day affairs of state. It was the unelected and standoffish lawyer, not the popular war hero, who thus dictated U.S. policy. America's moral duty, Dulles declared, was not merely to stop the spread of communism but to "liberate captive peoples" all over the world. The Eisenhower administration, Dulles pledged, would "roll back" Communist advances in Europe and Asia and send the Soviets packing. What's more, he continued, the United States would no longer bother with small local conflicts like Korea to keep communism in check. Henceforth it would prepare for "total war," a phrase coined by Admiral Arthur Radford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and wage an "instant, tremendous, and devastating" nuclear attack on the Soviet Union itself. Only a doctrine of "massive retaliation" promised "to create sufficient fear in the enemy to deter aggression." The strategy, Dulles noted, "will depend primarily on a great capacity to retaliate instantly by means and at places of our choosing."

To the stunned Soviets, who did not yet have the effective capacity to launch any sort of surprise attack on the United States (as Dulles well knew), the massive retaliation doctrine was perceived as little more than a massive intimidation tactic. "We shall never be the aggressor," Eisenhower had reassured the Russians at a summit meeting in Geneva in 1955, but Khrushchev had no guarantees of that. The only way for Khrushchev to guarantee Soviet security was to develop his own massive retaliation capabilities. But he lagged far behind his American rivals.

Nuclear weapons production in America had been ramped up to an industrial, assembly-line scale under the Eisenhower administration. By 1955 the United States had amassed 2,280 atomic and thermonuclear bombs, a tenfold increase from 1951, representing an arsenal nearly twenty times greater than the Soviet stockpile. (As Dulles's doctrine evolved, the number of warheads would jump to 3,500 by late 1957, double to 7,000 by 1959, hit 12,305 by 1961, and top 23,000 two years later.) Meanwhile, billions of dollars were being poured into an armada of heavy long-range bombers to deliver the nuclear payloads. By 1956 the air force bomber fleet had almost doubled in size, and the Strategic Air Command kept a third of its 1,200 B-47 long-range bombers on the runway at all times, fueled and loaded with their nuclear cargo. Curtis LeMay, the cigar-chomping SAC commander, seemed to be on a personal mission to instill fear in Russian hearts. In January 1956, LeMay scrambled almost all his bombers in a simulated nuclear attack. In another exercise, Operation Powerhouse, his planes flew nearly one thousand simultaneous sorties from more than thirty bases around the world to intimidate Moscow. In a few weeks, he would launch yet another exercise called Operation Home Run--reconnaissance versions of his B-47 Stratojets would fly from Thule, Greenland, over the North Pole, and into Siberia to probe for gaps in Soviet radar defenses. The mission would culminate with a squadron of the metallic silver RB-47s, their undersides painted white to reflect the flash of a nuclear blast, flying in attack formation in broad daylight several hundred miles into Soviet territory. The Soviets would have no way of knowing that the bombers were not armed, or that an attack was not imminent. And that would be the point of the exercise: to expose the USSR's defenselessness against a polar attack and to drive home the message that the United States could strike Russia at will. "With a bit of luck, we could have started World War III," LeMay would later reminisce ruefully.

At times LeMay's antics even scared the CIA. "Soviet leaders may have become convinced that the US actually has intentions of military aggression in the near future," warned an ad hoc committee of CIA, State Department, and military intelligence agency representatives. "Recent events may have somewhat strengthened Soviet conviction in this respect."

From their American bases in Greenland, Norway, Germany, Turkey, Britain, Italy, Morocco, Pakistan, Korea, Japan, and Alaska, B-47s could reach just about any target in the Soviet Union, furthering LeMay's well-publicized goal of obliterating 118 of the 134 largest population and industrial centers in the USSR. (LeMay calculated that 77 million casualties could be expected, including 60 million dead.) And he was about to get an even bigger bomber, the intercontinental B-52 Stratofortress, which was just entering into service. The giant plane could carry 70,000 pounds of thermonuclear ordnance over a distance of 8,800 miles at a speed of more than 500 miles an hour. With the B-52, the Americans no longer even needed their staging bases in Europe and Asia to attack Russia. They could do it from the comfort of home without missing more than a meal.

Most distressing for Khrushchev, he had no way of striking back. The biggest Soviet bomber in service, the Tupolev Tu4, was an aging knockoff of the propeller-driven Boeing B-29 with a 2,900-mile range and no midair refueling capacity. It could not effectively reach U.S. soil. The Tu4 would either run out of gas as it approached the American eastern seaboard or crash in the coastal states of New England. In either scenario, planes and pilots would be lost on one-way suicide missions. Unfortunately for the Kremlin, the early prototypes for a pair of bigger bombers, the Mya-4 Bison and Tu95 Bear, which were designed to hit targets deep in U.S. territory, seemed to display similarly suicidal tendencies. Their test flights had been plagued by crashes, and it would be years before they were operational in significant numbers.

The bottom line was that the United States could stage a multipronged attack on the USSR from dozens of points across the globe, while the Soviet Union was hemmed in from all sides and could not retaliate. It was this strategic imbalance, and the urgent need to redress it with an effective retaliatory capability of their own, that drove Khrushchev and the other Presidium members through the windswept countryside on February 27, 1956, to visit the secret missile laboratories of NII-88.

Copyright © 2007 by Matthew Brzezinski. All rights reserved

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