MOSCOW — After decades in the shadows, the anonymous heroes who made the Soviet Union into a nuclear superpower are making a dramatic, and potentially menacing, entrance on the world stage.
The elite scientists who designed and perfected the nuclear arsenal that won the Soviet Union superpower status have been hidden away in top-secret institutes in closed cities for 40 years. To get their jobs, these scientists had to sign documents promising they would never leave the country, talk to foreigners or disclose their knowledge of the country's nuclear arms to anyone.
Now, articles by these same scientists appear frequently in the Russian press. They complain openly about the questionable security of their country's nuclear arsenal amid the current political and economic instability and ethnic warfare, and they threaten that if they do not receive better pay and living conditions, some among them will surely be tempted to build bombs for the world's tyrants.
The nuclear weapon makers of Russia have formed a union to lobby for their interests at home and abroad.
Recent attention and pledges of financial support from foreign politicians who are concerned about nuclear proliferation, including U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III, have helped give them courage to break the wall of silence.
"We who built a nuclear shield around the Soviet Union are nothing but slaves," said Boris M. Murashkin, the chairman of the new Union of Designers of Nuclear Warheads and a veteran atomic weapon scientist. "We created this whole nuclear program from nothing. We achieved superiority over America . . . and where has it gotten us?
"It is very difficult to consider yourself a human being when for many years you have been kept under crushing pressure," added Murashkin, who works at the central Russian city of Chelyabinsk 70, where much of the Soviet nuclear arsenal was designed. "In his time, (19th-Century Russian author Anton) Chekhov said, 'You've got to get rid of the slave inside you drop by drop.' We're just starting this process."
The Soviet nuclear program was cut back during the years of \o7 perestroika, \f7 when then-Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev was pursuing an arms control policy. But now, as Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin introduces arms reduction packages that would cut Russia's strategic arsenal more than 80%, nuclear weapons designers feel as if they are on the way to extinction. Gone is the challenge of achieving superiority over America by constantly developing more advanced weapons.
"This has been a terrible blow to us," said Alexander K. Kalugin, a senior nuclear physicist at the prestigious Kurchatov Institute in Moscow. "The future looks very bleak. There is a big excess of atomic scientists in the country. Most of us were involved in the military sphere, and now there are severe cutbacks."
Kalugin, Murashkin and other nuclear scientists who worked in the institutes that pioneered Soviet nuclear arms in the late 1950s and 1960s refer to a "romantic" atmosphere of secrecy and an aura of importance that surrounded their work in those days.
"I felt like a hero," recalled Kalugin. "We were educated to believe that we were making a nuclear shield for our country.
"It was very challenging work--real man's work," he added, flashing a wistful smile.
Murashkin remembers with pride how he felt when he went off to Chelyabinsk 70 in 1958, and then the elation he felt at the \o7 poligon\f7 (Russian for nuclear test site) as he witnessed the explosions of weapons he helped to create.
"It was the Cold War," he recalled. "We read in the newspapers about how America was getting ready to bomb us out of existence, and we wanted to be ready."
Murashkin, 57, who now carries a briefcase with a Los Alamos, N.M., logo and brags that his sunglasses and steel-tipped shoes were gifts he received at a Nevada test site, concedes that the time of fast development in his field and intense competition with America is past. But unlike Kalugin, he cannot accept that his work on nuclear warheads has come to an end.
As chairman of the Union of Designers of Nuclear Warheads, which was founded late in February, Murashkin feels it his responsibility to persuade the Russian government to give nuclear scientists the respect and funding they deserve.
He also hopes to ensure that the $400 million the U.S. Congress has earmarked to hasten the dismantling of the Soviet nuclear arsenal will go to keep himself and his colleagues gainfully employed, despite the fact that their government has declared its intention to radically slash its defense spending and nuclear arsenal.
Kalugin, however, doubts that the U.S. funds will keep many Soviet scientists working, because he thinks most of the money will have to be spent on containers to store the radioactive plutonium taken from the warheads. Russia makes no suitable containers, but American companies could provide them.