In Stalin's bomb lab, dreams of preservation

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Behind a thicket of weeds and broken window panes, one of the former Soviet Union's dark secrets is the laboratory where captured German scientists worked to build an atomic bomb for Josef Stalin.

The Sukhumi Institute still exists, in a state of limbo. Limping along under semi-siege in Abkhazia, a breakaway region of Georgia whose existence the rest of the world does not recognize, its Cold War past has been all but forgotten.

Once, around 250 German specialists lived here with their families and built centrifuges to separate uranium isotopes. Now a money-making sideline for the few scientists who keep the institute's research going is designing household heaters.

Deputy director Vladimir Kunitsky does have ambitious hopes for the institute, which was nearly wrecked by the separatist war that engulfed this region on the shores of the Black Sea after the Soviet Union collapsed.

He would like to turn part of the former bomb laboratory into a sanatorium, combining cutting-edge treatments using radioactive sources and a beautiful location a short walk from the Black Sea.

"We are preserving some kind of potential," he said in his bare office, where the paint is peeling off the walls.

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