Soviet scientists and engineers who worked on the USSR’s first atomic bomb were prohibited from driving service cars, according to a 1948 order declassified by Russia’s Rosatom company.
“Prohibit all employees of First Main Directorate driving service cars regardless of their position or presence of driving license,” reads the order signed by Boris Vannikov, the head of the First Main Directorate.
The First Main Directorate under the Council of Ministers of the USSR was a government agency tasked with the atomic project and should not be confused with similarly-codenamed First Main Directorate of Committee of State Security (PGU-KGB), which was responsible for foreign intelligence. For a certain period, the First Main Directorate constituted a separate branch of industry.
Vannikov’s order also strictly prohibited the engineers’ drivers from handing over control of the vehicle, regardless of the employee’s position or presence of driver’s license, under the fear of legal repercussions.
Nuclear engineers at the time were also prohibited from flying in aircraft. Instead, they were provided with a personal train car, the declassified documents note.
The harsh ban came in the wake of service car crashes that happened on separate instances to two employees of the so-called Laboratory No. 2. One scientist, Igor Panasyuk, who had no driving license, sustained heavy injuries. Deputy Director of the Laboratory No. 2, Lev Artsimovich, avoided injury “by mere coincidence” after also trying to drive a car instead of his driver, reads the protocol of Special Committee under Council of Ministers, which was led at the time by Lavrentiy Beria, Joseph Stalin’s secret police chief and a member of Communist Party Politburo.
The fact that Beriya’s Special Committee was tasked with investigating car crashes indicates how serious the Soviet Union took the security of their nuclear scientists.
The secretive Laboratory No. 2 is today called the National Research Center ‘Kurchatov Institute’ and is now one of the leading research centres in the world and the largest interdisciplinary laboratory in Russia. The declassified order is a part of a bundle of documents declassified by Rosatom ahead of the 75th anniversary of Russia’s atomic industry. Facsimiles of declassified documents relevant to the creation and early years of the USSR atomic industry are uploaded to the website dedicated to history of Rosatom.