Moment Caught On Film Becomes Historic Photo

A moment in history: In 1992, LANL Director Siegfried Hecker and VNIIEF Scientific Director Yuli Khariton shake hands on an airfield in Russia. Photograph by Vladimir Shmakov

Vladimir Shmakov, photographer of the historic photograph. Courtesy photo.

By SHARON SNYDER
Los Alamos Historical Society

In 2018, Russian scientist Vladimir Shmakov walked past the doors of the library for the Physics and Mathematics department at the Russian Federal Nuclear Center for Technical Physics (VNIITF). A display of new books caught his attention. It included a two-volume set of Doomed to Cooperate, and on the cover was a photograph he took in 1992.

“I was pleasantly surprised to see a photograph that I took in Sarov almost a quarter of a century ago,” Shmakov said.

Doomed to Cooperate was published in 2016 by Bathtub Row Press, the publishing wing of the Los Alamos Historical Society. Shmakov had no idea that one of his photographs had been used for the cover until he saw it in that library display.

A business trip to the Russian Federal Nuclear Institute for Experimental Physics (VNIIEF) had put Shmakov at the right place and time to capture a photo of Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Siegfried Hecker and VNIIEF’s Scientific Director Yuli B. Khariton as they were about to shake hands on a Russian airfield in 1992. He knew that directors of the U.S. nuclear laboratories were visiting VNIIEF, so when he saw a group of men on the airfield, recognized Khariton, and saw an official photographer setting up a tripod, he took out his own camera and snapped the historic photo. The film Shmakov shot that day was later loaned to VNIITF to produce a gift album to the American visitors.

The Lab-to-Lab era that saw collaborative, even friendly exchanges of Russian and American scientists between their national laboratories made it possible for such an opportunity to occur for Shmakov. In the mid-1980s, the two countries began to improve relations. Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev introduced glasnost, an openness that allowed cooperation. In 1988, Reagan and Gorbachev met at the Reykjavik Summit, and joint verification experiments began regarding the Threshold Test Ban Treaty. Then, in late 1991, Dan Stillman and Krik Krikorian became the first American scientists from a U.S. nuclear weapons lab to visit Arzamas-16 and Chelyabinsk-70, today known as Sarov (VNIIEF) and Snezhinsk (VNIITF). They brought home to Los Alamos a list of areas for possible collaboration.

Then, in December 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, and collaboration took on a more serious role of developing a plan for stockpile stewardship. In February 1992, Vladimir Belugin and Vladimir Nechai, directors of the Russian labs, visited Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories. Later the same month, the directors of those labs, Siegfried Hecker and John Nuckolls, travelled to VNIIEF and VNIITF. It was during that visit to Russia that Hecker and Khariton were photographed. It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. If that is true, this is such a picture. It is a historic image that represents a time when two countries shared expertise and friendship to the benefit of both. The Lab-to-Lab experience changed with time and governments, but it offers hope for what future cooperation might bring to the world.

In reflecting on his photograph, Shmakov said, “Even back at the time, I considered this frame to be the best shot of the entire film. In my view, the dynamics and the very figures in this photo perfectly reflect the meaning and title of the book. I am very pleased that these amateur photos attracted attention when composing the story of those distant events.”

For more about the Lab-to-Lab experience or Vladimir Shmakov’s remembrance of the photographic event, go to https://lab2lab.stanford.edu/ or https://lab2lab.stanford.edu/book/story-cover-photo.

Doomed to Cooperate is available in the Los Alamos History Museum shop, and the title can be ordered through the historical society’s website (https://www.losalamoshistory.org).