‘Turning Point: The Bomb And The Cold War’ Explained: Is Russia-Ukraine Conflict A Continuation Of The Cold War? 


Turning Point: The Bomb and the Cold War is a fascinating and brilliant documentary series on Netflix that puts a historical perspective on one of the most tense conflicts in the present world. The nine-part documentary traces the origin of nuclear weapons, takes us through the long and strenuous Cold War, and then finally arrives at Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. The show questions whether this present conflict can indeed be seen as a continuation of the Cold War, which officially ended after the fall of the USSR in 1991. Overall, Turning Point: The Bomb and the Cold War provides great detail and insight into world history and politics, making it a must-watch for those interested in documentaries of the sort.

How has nuclear warfare been a constant threat in world history?

The history of nuclear warfare began back in Berlin in 1938, when chemists Fritz Strassman and Otto Hahn, along with physicist Lise Meitner, first “split the atom,” discovering nuclear fission. Making sub-atomic neutrons pass through uranium led to a split in the atoms, the force of which is powerful enough to make a grain of sand jump up. As news of this exciting discovery spread across the Western world, American physicist Robert Oppenheimer first came up with the idea of making a bomb with nuclear fission at its core. This was perhaps a very logical use of the discovery, since the process of nuclear fission created a great amount of energy as output from very little input. The times were also such that physicists and scientists around the world had to think about military uses of their inventions. In 1939, Albert Einstein went on to write a letter to the erstwhile American president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, warning him of this newly discovered phenomenon and its violent potential, suggesting that the allied forces should develop such bombs before the Germans. 

In 1941, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the USA directly into WWII, and the development of nuclear bombs began as part of the Manhattan Project. The first test of the nuclear bomb took place in 1945 at the Trinity test site in New Mexico, as recently reminded in Christopher Nolan’s 2023 blockbuster film Oppenheimer. What the film and many other reports on the testing do not mention is the fact that the test site was not really far enough from human settlements, as there were almost 500,000 people living within the 150-mile radius of the place. Many of these people were directly and indirectly affected by the radiation, and their lives were altered forever. But these matters were too small for the authorities, in consideration of the war at hand, and the USA finally dropped the two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to devastating effect. The authorities and those who had ordered the attack were also shocked and grieved by the exact destruction to civilian life.

Although the US and USSR were on the same side during WWII, there was already enough tension between the two nations because of their respective powerful statures and also because of the vast contrast in political ideology. America was already the strongest proponent of capitalism, where private ownership and accumulation of wealth were the driving forces of society and the economy. On the other side, the Soviet Republic was the ideal communist state, led by Lenin and then Stalin’s strict socialist norms. The US government had a firm belief that these differences would become much more apparent as soon as the war was over, and because of this, they had made all attempts to keep the development of nuclear weapons a secret. As the bombing of Japan truly ended the world war, the rivalry between the two superpowers of the erstwhile world became very evident. Towards the beginning of WWII, the USSR had actually been an ally to Germany and Hitler, as a result of which they were given the countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to be made official parts of the republic. The land of Ukraine had also already been taken over under Stalin’s leadership. After the war, the USSR invaded the neighboring countries of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, forcibly turning them into communist states. The USA publicly objected to these invasive policies and named the USSR as the next big threat to the free world, thus beginning the Cold War in 1947. 

During the Cold War era, intelligence and spy networks became immensely important and powerful on both sides, with the formation of the CIA in America and the strengthening of the Soviet KGB. Although the planning of the American nuclear bombs had been kept a secret, the USSR did receive extensive designs and plans about the same through Klaus Fuchs. It was evident that the Soviets had also launched a massive nuclear weapon development program, which was officially confirmed in 1949 after the first Soviet atomic blast was tested. From then on, both countries lived in utmost fear that their enemy states would launch atom bombs on their lands, and the world was finally gripped by a nuclear warfare scare. The USSR also found communist allies in Mao Zedong’s China, and the world’s geopolitical landscape started changing throughout the years. While the USSR was making moves on the Western world through its invasion of Afghanistan, the USA carried out proxy wars and funded uprisings in various countries it wanted to control, like Iran and Nicaragua. 

The Cuban Missile Crisis was the first time that nuclear warfare seemed right at the doorstep, when the USSR placed missiles in Cuba ready to be fired at the USA as a response to the American step of deploying missiles in Turkey and Italy. It seemed certain that either would launch missiles first, turning the Cold War into a direct hostile attack, and that nuclear weapons would be used as well. The crisis was ultimately averted, but such tense moments did take place multiple times over history, ranging from when clouds were mistaken for enemy missiles to when certain actions taken by a country were misunderstood to be preparation for attacks. Ultimately, nuclear bombs have only been used twice in history, till now, with official efforts made and agreements signed between nations to avert nuclear warfare at all costs.

What led to the fall of the USSR, and what were its repercussions?

From a general perspective, the horrific nuclear accident at Chernobyl can be seen as a major turning point in the history of the USSR, as presented in The Bomb and the Cold War. The 1986 disaster had been officially acknowledged by the Soviet Republic, led at the time by the General Secretary of the Communist Party and also President Mikhail Gorbachev. Following the incident, Gorbachev launched the idea of glasnost, which essentially meant more transparency from the side of the Communist Party, to be provided to the masses. Since the USSR was already in a tremendous financial crisis, possibly because of its heavy spending on military and weapons development, the socialist structure could no longer prevail. Gorbachev launched the political reform known as perestroika, which opened up cooperative ownership of businesses and properties and eventually directly led to foreign investments. These decisions were perceived as against the principles and ideologies of the communist lifestyle by many, while the changing world also gave some the scope to attain their own wishes. Thus, in 1991, politician Boris Yeltsin resigned from the party and stood in the presidential election, calling for the formation of a new Russian federation. 

By this time, the USSR had suffered major setbacks on the geopolitical front as well, the most significant development being the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. This resulted in the loss of Soviet power in Germany, and similar losses of communism had also been suffered in countries like Poland. Gradually, other nation-states that had been forcefully made a part of the USSR began their own movements for independence, and there was hardly anything that Gorbachev could do by this time. Finally, after Boris Yeltsin won the election and became the president of the country, he announced that the Russian Federation would be free of Soviet rule as well, thus making the USSR fall truly from the inside. The erstwhile US president, George W. Bush Sr., officially announced the end of the Cold War and the victory of the USA in the long-drawn indirect conflict. 

However, the eradication of communism and the switch to capitalism was not very smooth for the Russian Federation, quite naturally so, since the state was still in extreme economic turmoil. The independence of nation-states like Ukraine had also created pressure on the government for quite some time, and Yeltsin’s rule until 1999 was mostly spent in comparative insignificance for the country. Things stirred up once again when Yeltsin himself named a successor to his post as President of Russia, and the individual he chose was Vladimir Putin.

How did Putin rise to political power?

Vladimir Putin had always had a close connection with the Soviet government, as he was an active member of the Soviet intelligence unit, the KGB. Putin’s specialty was counter-intelligence, meaning that he was responsible for ensuring that those inside the KGB were not betraying their roles and protocols. Always driven by a charge of nationalism and service to the country that had historically defeated the Nazis, Putin was absolutely shocked and dismayed during the fall of the Berlin Wall. At the time, the members of the Soviet Party, including Gorbachev, took no measure to stop the loss of East Berlin, which the young KGB agent could not believe. It is stated that he wanted to do something for the Russian Federation ever since then, and after the dissolution of the USSR, he came closer to politics as an advisor and aide to the mayor of Leningrad, Anatoly Sobchak. Making use of his managerial and communicative skills, Putin rose through the ranks of the political ladder to be spotted and then recommended by Yeltsin as the next leader of Russia.

Although Putin’s role was initially of a temporary nature, he soon won the presidential elections in 2000 and served as the leader of Russia until 2008. Since the laws at the time did not allow a candidate to contest the elections for more than two consecutive terms, he had to step away in 2008, placing his fellow party member, Dmitry Medvedev, in the role. Four years later, Putin once again fought and won the presidential elections in 2012, following which he changed the country’s laws, allowing him to remain the president of Russia until now. Ever since Putin’s rise to power and the image of Russia changing to that of a ruthless and stern nation, the Western nations, particularly the US, have once again started to monitor the developments very closely.

Putin’s rise to power and his political ways have not been perceived well in most other parts of the world, as they involve allegations of widespread corruption, violations of human rights, and even attempts to assassinate political rivals and critics. In fact, Putin’s biggest critic, who launched a long movement to uncover the lies and gross corruption associated with his term, Alexei Navalny, has recently been declared to have died in prison in February 2024. Although The Bomb and the Cold War understandably misses out on this development, since the matter is too recent, it does feature experts sharing opinions of Putin’s reliance on Russian oligarchs and the very real possibility that Vladimir Putin might just be the world’s richest individual, in an unofficial way.

Can the Russia-Ukraine conflict be seen as a continuation of the Cold War?

The importance of power and the show of it have been stressed by Vladimir Putin ever since his presidential term began. His harshness towards those against his beloved nation is almost similar to that towards his personal critics, and it has even been found that Putin orchestrated false bombings across the country only to create an opportunity to invade Chechnya. The idea of nationalism and citizens identifying as ethnic Russians also came into play in 2014, when the president led an annexation of parts of Ukraine, including Crimea. At the time, many pro-Russian movements began in these parts of Ukraine, demanding that they reunify with Russia, and Putin made use of this opportunity to flex his political muscles. Some experts in The Bomb and the Cold War also see Putin’s stress on nationalism and the idea of a unified Russia as parts of his attempts to impress and win over Russian nationalists with power and wealth. Finally, in 2022, Russia launched a full-scale invasion into Ukraine, claiming the land to be their own, and the conflict is still ongoing, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy leading a staunch defense against the invaders.

By its end, Turning Point: The Bomb and the Cold War does suggest that this modern conflict can very well be seen as a continuation of the Cold War, with only the participants having changed slightly. Russia is still a self-sufficient nation with nuclear weapons at its disposal, along with other weapons of mass destruction as well. The American alliance has increased in number through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization adding new members, with Sweden becoming the newest member only a few days ago. While the techniques of warfare and the motives for it have changed over the years, the tension between the West and the East, as differentiated in geopolitics, still continues to exist, with the threat of nuclear warfare still as real and alarming as ever before. 

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Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya keeps an avid interest in all sorts of films, history, sports, videogames and everything related to New Media. Holding a Master of Arts degree in Film Studies, he is currently working as a teacher of Film Studies at a private school and also remotely as a Research Assistant and Translator on a postdoctoral project at UdK Berlin.

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