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A Soviet cruise missile warhead photographed on the glasnost tour July 5, 1989 aboard the Slava, a Soviet warship [Photo courtesy Thomas Cochran, Natural Resources Defense Council]

The Glasnost tours:
Breaking Down Soviet Military Secrecy

The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy
(Doubleday, 2009)

By David E. Hoffman

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David E. Hoffman

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Washington, D.C., April 29, 2010 - Previously unpublished documents from inside the Kremlin shed new light on how Soviet and American scientists breached the walls of Soviet military secrecy in the final years of the Cold War.

The documents were first disclosed in a new book by by David E. Hoffman, The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy. The book was awarded the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction. The documents are being posted today in English translation by the National Security Archive.

The documents and the book show how a progressive Soviet physicist, Yevgeny Velikhov, challenged the Soviet military and security system, throwing open the doors of glasnost with a series of unprecedented tours of top-secret weapons sites. Velikhov took American scientists, experts and journalists on these tours just as Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was accelerating his drive to slow the arms race.

These glasnost tours punctured some of the myths and legends of both sides. They showed that the Reagan administration had exaggerated Soviet capabilities and also that the Soviet military machine was not as technologically advanced as had been thought.

The book is based in part on thousands of pages of documents obtained by Hoffman detailing key decisions about the Soviet military-industrial complex and arms control in the 1980s. The documents were collected by Vitaly Katayev, a professional staff member of the Central Committee, and are now deposited at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. The book is also based on extensive documentation of the final years of the Cold War in the collection of the National Security Archive.


Glasnost Tour No. 1: Semipalatinsk, 1986

In his first year in power, 1985, Gorbachev imposed a unilateral moratorium on Soviet nuclear tests, but Reagan refused to go along, citing doubts about verification. By the spring of 1986, Gorbachev was under pressure to resume testing. Velikhov backed the moratorium, and arranged to bring a team led by Thomas Cochran of the Natural Resources Defense Council to the closed Soviet testing site at Semipalatinsk. The goal was to help demonstrate the feasibility of seismic verification, thus supporting the rationale for the testing moratorium.

Velikhov pushed hard to persuade Gorbachev and the military to allow the experiment. The military was strongly against it.

The team began to set up the first station on July 9. It was an amazing moment, a toe into a closed zone, accomplished by an environmental group, not by the United States government. And it demonstrated that scientists could, on their own, break through the Cold War secrecy and mistrust.

Document 1 and Document 2 - This is the Central Committee’s formal instruction giving permission for the experiment, and ordering the propaganda department to exploit it. Also, the agreement between Velikhov and Cochran which, to satisfy the military, stipulated that the monitors would be turned off if testing resumed.
[Source: Hoover Institution Library and Archives, Katayev collection]


Velikhov Request to the Central Committee, 1987

In Washington, both the Defense Department under Caspar Weinberger, and the CIA under William Casey, were deeply skeptical of Gorbachev. The Pentagon published a glossy annual booklet, Soviet Military Power, a propaganda piece designed to help boost congressional support for Reagan’s military spending. The fourth edition, published in April, 1985, contained the claim that the Soviets had “two ground-based lasers that are capable of attacking satellites in various orbits.” Deputy CIA Director Robert Gates renewed the allegations in a speech in San Francisco in November, 1986. 

Document 3 - In Soviet Military Power, the Pentagon included an artists’ conception, a black-and-white pencil sketch, showing what purported to be the Saryshagan proving ground. A building with a dome on top was shown firing a white laser beam into the heavens.
[Source: Soviet Military Power, 1985]

In fact, the long, expensive search to build laser weapons against targets in space had, up to this point, totally fizzled. The Soviets had not given up hope, but the glossy Pentagon booklet took old failures and hyped them into new threats.

Document 4 - In this memo, dated February 7, 1987, Velikhov writes to the Central Committee defense department proposing to challenge the misleading American statements about Soviet laser weapons. Velikhov suggested: what if Gorbachev himself announced at an upcoming conference that the Soviet Union would open up the top secret test facility at Sary Shagan that was so often at the center of American propaganda? What if the Americans were invited to see for themselves that Gates and Soviet Military Power were wrong?
[Source: Hoover Institution Library and Archives, Katayev collection]
Document 5 - This document is the Central Committee staff report on Velikhov’s idea, which immediately commanded the attention of top security and defense officials, including Lev Zaikov, the Politburo member for the military-industrial complex; Chief of the General Staff Sergei Akhromeyev; and the head of the KGB, Viktor Chebrikov. The staff report dumped cold water on Velikhov’s idea, saying the American visitors would quickly realize the Soviet equipment was really quite old. The only thing to hide at Sary Shagan was the painful truth: Soviet technology was way behind.
[Source: Hoover Institution Library and Archives, Katayev collection]

Document 6 - On February 12, 1987, the Central Committee answered Velikhov: Proposal rejected. No Americans could see the secret test range.
[Source: Hoover Institution Library and Archives, Katayev collection]


Glasnost Tour No. 2: The Krasnoyarsk Radar, 1987

Yevgeny Velikhov (second from left) leads a group to visit the Krasnoyarsk Radar site, 1987 [Photo courtesy Thomas Cochran, Natural Resources Defense Council]

With small steps, those around Gorbachev began slowly to reverse the secrecy and deceit so deeply woven into the hypermilitarized Soviet system. The new thinking—honest, but still cautious—was evident in the detailed reference papers that Vitaly Katayev prepared for his superiors in the Central Committee defense department. Katayev deputy head of the department.

Document 7 - This document is a December 24, 1986, memo by Katayev carefully dissecting the points in the speech by Gates, the deputy CIA director, in San Francisco the previous month. One of those points was the U.S. allegation that the Krasnoyarsk radar was a treaty violation. Katayev candidly acknowledges that the radar was a violation of the ABM treaty.
[Source: Hoover Institution Library and Archives, Katayev collection]

Document 8 - “The Krasnoyarsk Radar: Closing the Final Gap in Coverage for Ballistic Missile Early Warning,” CIA, Directorate of Intelligence, June 19, 1986, released in part. An internal CIA report at the time accurately reported the purpose of the radar (to close a gap in the early warning system) and the reason it was located in the wrong place (near transportation and to save money.) But this report was only declassified in 2000.
[Source: CIA, declassified]

In early September, 1987, Velikhov struck another hammer blow against Soviet military secrecy. He won permission to take a group of members of Congress, Cochran, and some journalists to see the Krasnoyarsk radar.  Velikhov was attempting exactly the kind of glasnost gamble the Central Committee had ruled against in February. What was most remarkable was that the congressmen got an eye-witness look at a top-secret site. The team took over 1,000 photographs and made an hour of video, and no one tried to interfere. Velikhov’s openness undercut both the American propaganda and the Soviet lie.

On October 23, 1987 Gorbachev told Secretary of State George Shultz that there would be a one-year moratorium on construction. Shultz replied that the United States would accept nothing short of dismantlement.

Document 9 - This memo, dated Nov. 21, 1987, signed by the “Big Five” ministers  who handled Soviet military and arms control policy, suggests that Moscow should continue to attempt to press the United States for some concessions in exchange for action on the radar.
[Source: Katayev collection, Hoover Institution]

Measuring radiation from a Soviet cruise missile aboard the Slava [Photos courtesy Thomas Cochran, Natural Resources Defense Council]
The Americans visit Sary Shagan, 1989 [Photo courtesy Thomas Cochran, Natural Resources Defense Council]

Velikhov’s campaign for openness paid one of its most surprising dividends in 1989 when the Soviet leadership finally admitted that the Krasnoyarsk radar was a violation of the ABM treaty. Shevardnadze made the acknowledgement in a speech to the Soviet legislature, saying, “It took some time for the leadership of the country to get acquainted with the whole truth and the history about the station.” This was a dubious claim, since Shevardnadze had signed the Big Five document two years before.


Glasnost tour No. 3 – Black Sea Experiment, and Sary Shagan, 1989

In July, 1989, Velikhov brought a group of American scientists, led by Cochran, to the Black Sea to conduct a verification experiment involving a Soviet cruise missile, armed with a nuclear warhead, on a Navy ship. It was rare for Americans to get so close to a Soviet warhead. The point was to determine if radiation detectors could spot the presence or absence of a nuclear warhead. Velikhov wanted to pierce the veil of secrecy, in hopes it would reduce the danger of the arms race.

On a sunny July 5, 1989, the Americans, joined by a group of Soviet scientists, lugged their radiation detectors aboard the Slava, a 610-foot Soviet cruiser at Yalta on the Black Sea. At that moment, the ship held a single SS-N-12 nuclear-armed cruise missile, NATO code-named “Sandbox,” stored in the forward, exterior, starboard launcher. The Soviets were so nervous about the visit that they had rehearsed it for weeks. They feared the Americans might learn too much about the design of the warhead. In one extraordinary glasnost moment, the hatch was opened and the Americans took photographs of the dark, menacing tip of the cruise missile, lurking just inside the cover.

No sooner were the scientists back in Moscow on July 7 than Velikhov bundled them off to the airport to see another secret installation. They flew 850 miles east to Chelyabinsk-40, near the town of Kyshtym, a nuclear complex built in Stalin’s day, where reactors had churned out plutonium for nuclear weapons. The complex was top-secret, but when Velikhov appeared at the gates, they swung open. The last stop on Velikhov’s glasnost tour was the most daring, the one he had first suggested to the Central Committee, and which they had rejected: the Sary Shagan laser test site. This was the facility that was subject of the ominous illustration in Soviet Military Power showing a beam shooting straight up into the heavens.

The Soviet leadership knew the claims were untrue, but had been embarrassed to admit it. Velikhov brought the Americans to see for themselves on July 8.

Frank Von Hippel, a physicist at Princeton University, quickly realized the U.S. claims had been vastly exaggerated. “It was sort of a relic,” he said of the lasers he saw there, which were the equivalent of industrial lasers, easily purchased in the West. There was no sign of the war machine the Reagan administration had conjured up. “These guys had been abandoned, a backwater of the military-industrial complex. It was from an earlier time. It was really pitiful.” The one “computer” consisted of transistor boards wired together — built before the personal computer. “They had been trying to see whether they could get a reflection off a satellite,” he recalled. “They never succeeded.”


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