Kazakhstan ended nuclear testing on its soil even before gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. But the toll four decades of Soviet weapons testing took on the Kazakh public continues to this day.
For 40 years, from 1949 to 1989, the Soviet Union carried out no less than 456 nuclear tests at Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan. For the first 14 years, until the signing of the Atmospheric Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty in 1963, 116 of them were atmospheric tests. The people of the Semipalatinsk region eventually came to fear and loath the tests. But until the attainment of national independence in December 1991, the actual human and environmental costs were hidden from the Kazakh people.
Dr. Helen Caldicott of Australia, a leading nuclear disarmament proponent and founder of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning organization, “International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War,” wrote about the likely human cost of the Soviet tests in her book, “The New Nuclear Danger.”
“From 1949 to 1963 the testing of nuclear weapons at Semipalatinsk exposed over 1.5 million people to radiation. In fact, officials in the Commonwealth of Independent States now admit that millions have been injured or have died because of radioactive fall-out.”
The testing of atomic (nuclear) and even more powerful hydrogen (thermonuclear) bombs were covered in secrecy by the Soviet Union and were born in lies. Soviet secret police chief, nuclear testing leader and right hand man to Joseph Stalin, Lavrenty Beria, claimed at the beginning of testing that the 18,000 square kilometre steppe region where the bombs were tested was uninhabited. But it wasn’t.
The very first bomb test, called Operation First Lightning, was carried out in the early hours of August 29, 1949. The bomb was placed on top of a makeshift tower and detonated. A few weeks later high altitude weather balloons detected that significant radioactive fall-out from the test was being carried around the world in the atmospheric jet stream.
The tests continued but Beria failed to evacuate anyone from the nearby villages. The site was also only 40 miles west of the city of Kurchatov. The Soviet authorities went on to carry out another 115 more atmospheric nuclear tests in the Semipalatinsk region over the next 14 years.
Eighty-four year-old Anastasya Kiseleva lived in the village of Kanonerka at the time and the images of the nuclear mushroom clouds she saw remain unforgettable. “We all ran to the testing mushroom when it went up. We didn’t know what that was,” she said recently.
But Kiseleva soon saw firsthand the toll radiation fall-out from the test was taking.
After the early tests, “most of the women (in the village) couldn’t walk,” she said. “It affected their health, legs and arms.”
Today, after any nuclear accident, residents up to dozens of miles away are warned to stay indoors and close all windows. But after those first tests, Soviet officials gave the exact opposite and worst advice. “Soldiers alerted us about explosions. They passed along the street and told us, ‘Open your windows, and open your doors during the nuclear tests’,” Kiseleva said.
Kiseleva was one of the lucky ones, relatively speaking. But she too has paid a price. “We didn’t realize that in the future it can affect our health,” she said. “And in due course I lost my teeth very early and my legs are ill.”
Proskovya Koloskova was born in 1924. From 1951 to 1953 she lived in the village of Chaganay near the main testing site.
“The explosions took place quite often,” she said. “They gave a dull, rumbling sound from far away. Then a shock wave would follow. At first, we thought it was an earthquake. At home on the cupboards the dishes shook. I was 22 years old, still a young girl. Before the explosion started we went out to the streets and opened the doors and windows, we didn’t know any better. We never dreamed it would have such terrible consequences for us.”
Those consequences included heartbreak for Kiseleva. “In 1953, I gave birth to my son,” she said. “I think the nuclear tests destroyed his health. He died of kidney disease.”
Nina Kolesnikova, born in 1928, suffered a similar tragedy in her life. In August 1954, she lived in the city of Semipalatinsk, which was close to the test site. “The tests took place every week,” she said. “We didn’t imagine that the tests could bring us so many disasters.”
“After the tests, I gave birth to my son,” Kolesnikova said. “His birth was very difficult and my son was feeble … He always had very serious health problems. Eventually he fell victim to a nasty illness and I lost him in 2010 at the age of 54.”
“The nuclear tests affected my whole family,” Kolesnikova said. “All my life I have had problems with my health. My legs swell and I have had many other illnesses.”
The Soviet authorities, Kolesnikova said, showed limited and belated compassion to the victims of radiation fallout from the tests. “My husband and I never got any support from the Soviet government,” she said. “But they did at least pay some cash benefits to my son.”
Recalling all these events in her mid-80s, Kalesnokova came to a simple, clear conclusion about the future of nuclear bomb tests. “My opinion is that nuclear test sites around the world should all be closed earlier,” she said. “Better still, they should never be started.”
In the course of the early 1950s, the nuclear testing area was expanded to the region of the Chagan River and Chagan Lake. After atmospheric tests were banned in 1963, later tests took place underground in the Chagan region in Murzhik to the west and in the Degelen region to the south which had many porous boreholes and drift formations in its geological composition.
As a result, the Kazakh people were forced to cope with a generations-long dark heritage of suffering and horror from the Soviet nuclear tests.
They were finally ended just prior to independence by Kazakhstan’s first President Nursultan Nazarbayev who also led Kazakhstan to become the first nation to unilaterally eliminate its nuclear arsenal.
Today, the Kazakh people are still trying to ensure that the tragic suffering and losses of the victims of the nuclear tests were not paid in vain.
As victim Anastasya Kiseleva said, “God forbid that these things should ever be repeated! My lifelong wish and prayer remains, ‘That all future generation never have to know all that we have known’.”