Just before Halloween in 1961, the Soviet Union detonated the largest nuclear bomb the world has ever seen. The RDS-220, or Tsar Bomba, was a hydrogen bomb that exploded with the force of more than 50 million tons of TNT. To this day, it is the largest man-made explosion in the history of the world. Russia just declassified 40 minutes of previously unseen footage of the Tsar Bomba test and posted it on YouTube.
Russia’s Rosatom State Atomic Energy Corporation, the portion of the Kremlin that deals with all things nuclear, released the video on August 20 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Russia’s nuclear industry. The first 30 minutes of video is in Soviet propaganda style, like a newsreel describing the bomb's journey from construction to detonation.
At 26 feet long and almost 7 feet tall, Tsar Bomba was so large that a specially designed Tu-95V Soviet bomber had some of its fuel tanks and bomb bay doors removed to accommodate it. The bomber dropped Tsar Bomba off the coast of Severny Island near the Arctic Ocean. It exploded 4,000 meters above the ground.
The shock wave caught the Tu-95V even though it was 75 miles away. It dropped in the sky, but the pilot recovered and landed the plane safely. The shock wave of the blast was so powerful it prevented the resulting five mile wide fireball from touching the ground. The blast was visible from 620 miles away. The mushroom cloud climbed 42 miles into the air, seven times higher than Mount Everest. People in Norway and Finland reported feeling a blast that shattered windows.
The Tsar Bomba was an impractical and devastating weapon. It was also one of the final above ground nuclear tests. The United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963, which required tests to move underground.
The footage is a stark reminder of the madness of the Cold War and a sober reminder that we seem to have forgotten its lessons. New START, an Obama-era treaty that sets limits on the number of deployed nuclear weapons between Russia and the United States, will expire soon and it doesn’t look like it’ll be renewed. The United States has deployed small scale “tactical” nuclear weapons on its nuclear subs and Russia is working on a suite of new nuclear weapons.
The old nuclear threat is back. The Tsar Bomba footage is a reminder of what that means.