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Excerpt: 'The Gun' by C.J. Chivers

Outside an Institute Known by a Codeword, Nadezhda, on the Steppe in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic

The atomic bomb rested on a tower 100 feet above the ground. Known as RDS-1, it was shaped like a huge metal teardrop with rivets and bolts along its sides. Everything had been prepared. Inside its shell was a uranium and plutonium charge equal to about 20 kilotons of TNT, making it a rough equivalent to the weapon the United States had used to destroy Nagasaki four years before. In the hours after midnight the scientists had departed, and now, shortly before dawn on Aug. 29, 1949, they gathered at their instruments in a control bunker more than six miles away, where they were watched by Lavrenty Beria, chief of Stalin's secret police. Detonation was set for 6 a.m. The Soviet Union was moments from entering the atomic age - ending the American monopoly in atomic arms, securing the Kremlin's status atop a global superpower, and giving the Cold War its sense of doomsday menace. This was a decade after the purges, two decades after the brutalities of collectivization, and in a postwar period in which German prisoners of war were used as forced labor and captured Soviet soldiers returned from German camps had been interrogated, incarcerated, and, sometimes, put to death. Beria's methods of pursuing Stalin's will were well-known. The lead physicist, Igor V. Kurchatov, and his team were anxious. If the bomb did not work, some of these scientists expected to be shot.

The test range, on an arid basin northwest of Semipalatinsk, a frontier city where Russians had been sent to exile since czarist times, was a methodically assembled period piece. Soviet soldiers and laborers had built it at a pace a dictator could muster. The anticipated detonation site had been divided into sectors. Within each, work cadres had erected structures and placed objects in common military and civilian use: a railway bridge, buildings of various dimensions and design, automobiles, concrete bunkers, aircraft, artillery pieces, armored vehicles, tanks. Live animals had been tethered throughout, some unprotected and others within buildings or vehicles, to determine how an atomic explosion's shock wave, heat, and radiation might affect live tissue at various distances and in various states of exposure and protection. Pigs had been selected because their hides were thought to resemble human skin; rabbits because their eyes were thought to be like those of a man. Horses were used because they could be fitted with gas masks. Looming over the scene were reinforced concrete towers, each nearly 40 feet high and anchored on foundations sunk deep into the ground. The towers, containing instruments and cameras, had been lined with lead plates and connected with subterranean cables. Never before had Soviet physicists had such an opportunity. They did not intend to waste it. It was not enough that RDS-1 explode. The Soviet scientists planned to measure its effects on the buildings, equipment, and animals ringed round. All of this work had been cloaked in the strictest secrecy that Beria could organize. Kurchatov's research center, roughly an hour's bouncing drive away over a dirt road, was on no maps. It had its own postal code, which often changed. One code name was Nadezhda, the Russian word for hope.

And now it was time.

There was an enormous white flash, then an extended bright glow. A sky-splitting roar and blast rushed outward, blowing asunder buildings, twisting the bridge, buckling bunkers as it blew through. In the first instant the soil near the tower had been liquefied, becoming a molten syrup that shot through the air, coating flat surfaces and the ground in a searing, radioactive caramel. As the wave whooshed through the nearest sectors, tank barrels and artillery pieces bent like reeds. Farther out, animals were roasted; then farther, they were singed. Farther still, they were bombarded with radiation that would erupt into burns that would kill them later, as the scientists documented their declines. The blast wave took a half minute to sweep over the steppe to the command bunker, which shuddered. When the rumbling subsided, Beria, Kurchatov, and his team stepped outside and looked at a steep-sided mushroom cloud, sucking up smoke, soil, and debris as it rose. Timber and dust spun high overhead. Success.

Inside Factory No. 74 of the Izhevsk Machine, Engineering, and Motor Plant Complex, in the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic

As diplomatic cables about the atomic explosion moved from embassies in Moscow to Western capitals, about eleven hundred miles to the west of the test site, in a Russian industrial city in the Ural range, another of Stalin's secret military projects was gaining momentum. Within the dark brick walls of a set of immense factories, a product was being prepared for mass production. Teams of engineers, armorers, and factory supervisors were fine-tuning its design. Communist Party leaders insisted that these factories were engaged in the manufacture of automobiles. But this product was neither a vehicle nor any of its parts. It was a weapon: a strange-looking rifle, deviating from the classic forms.

At a glance, the new rifle was in many ways peculiar, an oddity, a reason to furrow brows and shake heads. Its components were simple, inelegant, and by Western standards, of seemingly workmanlike craftsmanship. The impression it created was the puzzling embodiment of a firearm compromise, a blend of design choices no existing Western army was willing yet to make. It was midsized in important measures - shorter than the infantry rifles it would displace but longer than the submachine guns that had been in service for thirty years. It fired a medium-powered cartridge, not powerful enough for long-range sniping duty, but with adequate energy to strike lethally and cause terrible wounds within the ranges at which almost all combat occurs. The weapon was not merely a middleweight. It was a breakthrough arm. It could be fired automatically, and at a rate like those of the machine guns that already had changed the way wars were fought. It could be fired on single fire, like a rifle of yore. None of the Soviet Union's Cold War opponents had managed to conceive of, much less produce, a firearm of such firepower at such compact size. And this new weapon had other useful traits. It had little recoil compared to most rifles of its time. It was so reliable, even when soaked in bog water and coated with sand, that its Soviet testers had trouble making it jam. And its design was a testament to simplicity, so much so that its basic operation might be grasped within minutes, and Soviet teachers would soon learn that it could be disassembled and reassembled by Slavic schoolboys in less than thirty seconds flat. Together these traits meant that once this weapon was distributed, the small-statured, the mechanically disinclined, the dimwitted, and the untrained might be able to wield, with little difficulty or instruction, a lightweight automatic rifle that could push out blistering fire for the lengths of two or three football fields. For the purpose for which it was designed - as a device that allowed ordinary men to kill other men without extensive training or undue complications - this was an eminently well-conceived tool.

The Army of the Soviet Union had given its new firearm a name: the AK-47. While Soviet physicists had been teasing out the secrets of the atom, the army's Main Artillery Department had selected the AK-47 in a secret competition soon after the end of the Great Patriotic War, as the Soviet Union called their war against Hitler's Germany. The acronym abbreviated two Russian words, Avtomat Kalashnikova, the automatic by Kalashnikov, a nod to Senior Sergeant Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov, a 29-year-old former tank commander to whom the army and the Communist Party formally attributed the weapon's design. The number was shorthand for 1947, the year a technical bureau in Kovrov, a city east of Moscow with its own hidden arms plants, had finished the prototypes. In the time since, factories in Izhevsk had been tooled up to produce it. Within 25 years it would be the most abundant firearm the world had known.

During this time, the American intelligence community would fixate, understandably and properly, on the Soviet Union's nuclear programs. The activities in Izhevsk would be missed. As the mushroom cloud towered over the Kazakh steppe, no one noticed the arrival of Stalin's new firearm. No one would pay much mind as these rifle plants, and others across the Eastern bloc and in nations aligned with the Soviet Union or the socialist ideal, would ship off their automatic rifles by the untold millions during the years ahead. And no one would have predicted, as the world worried over nuclear war, that these rifles, with their cartridges of reduced size, would become the most lethal instrument of the Cold War. Unlike the nuclear arsenals and the infrastructure that would rise around them - the warheads, the mobile launchers, the strategic bombers and submarines - an automatic rifle was a weapon that could actually be used. And none of the Cold War's seemingly infinite and fantastic array of killing tools could more readily slip from state control. In this way, 1949 became the year of a mismatched but fated pair, RDS-1 and the AK-47, whose descendants were to work in consonance and shape the conflicts ahead. The nuclear umbrella froze borders in place and discouraged all-out war between the conventional armies stacked in Europe, helping to create conditions in which the Kalashnikov percolated from continent to continent, nation to nation, group to group, man to man, maturing as its numbers grew and its reputation spread into the age's dominant tool for violence in conflict zones. At first the distribution was piecemeal and incremental; gradually, it became almost unchecked. By the early 1960s, after the Cuban Missile Crisis had startled its participants and as the war in Vietnam was expanding and quickening, the Kremlin and the White House comprehended that their mutual nuclear arsenals had made total war unwinnable. Small wars and proxies would be the means through which the Cold War would be fought.

The Kalashnikov Era had arrived.

We are living in it still.

From "The Gun" by C.J. Chivers. Copyright © 2010 by C.J. Chivers. Excerpted with permission by Simon & Schuster.

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