In the village of Znamenka in northeastern Kazakhstan, adults have vivid memories of nuclear explosions rocking the steppe.
“We saw mushroom clouds — big and terrifying ones,” recalled Galina Tornoshenko, 67, shaking her head at the traumatic memory and gesturing upward at the clear blue sky. “I was small at the time, but I remember it well.”
Tornoshenko was born in Soviet-ruled Kazakhstan in 1949, the year the Soviet Union shocked the world with its first atomic test. That blast was detonated at a new, top-secret nuclear testing ground near the city of Semipalatinsk, which was founded amid the start of the US-Soviet arms race. At the time, the Stalin-ruled Soviet Union was striving to catch up to US nuclear capabilities — and Semipalatinsk, the 18,000-square-kilometer nuclear test site that staged that first atomic explosion, was crucial to these ambitions.
Over the next 40 years, 456 blasts were detonated there, releasing energy 2,500 times that of the first atomic weapon dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. The tests turned swaths of Kazakhstan into a toxic wasteland and ravaged the health of locals, who were, in effect, human guinea pigs.
On August 29, Kazakhstan marks a quarter of a century since the Semipalatinsk testing ground, commonly referred to by the Russian term “polygon,” was closed by order of Nursultan Nazarbayev. At the time, Nazarbayev was the Communist boss of the then-Soviet republic. Since 1991, he has served as Kazakhstan’s president.
The site was mothballed in 1991, the year of the Soviet Union’s collapse. But for the people still suffering from the fallout, the atomic legacy is living on. Now renamed Semey, Semipalatinsk lies 120 kilometers east of the former ground zero, which is marked by a poignant monument in a city park depicting a woman nursing a child under an exploding mushroom cloud.
In a small apartment on the outskirts of Semey, Mayra Zhumageldina is massaging her daughter’s twisted limbs. “If you don’t do massage, they freeze up,” Zhumageldina told EurasiaNet.org, smiling down fondly at her disabled daughter. “I took a special massage course to do this.”
Zhannur Zhumageldina, 25, was born in the village of Olzhabay, 200 kilometers from the polygon, the year after it closed and three years after it conducted its last explosion.
At 15 months old, she was diagnosed with microcephaly, a rare neurological condition in which the head is abnormally small, impeding brain development, and scoliosis, curvature of the spine. Both conditions were caused by radiation exposure. Her diagnosis came as a bolt from the blue to her mother, pregnant at the time with her second child, a son who was born healthy.
“I didn’t even know the polygon existed until Zhannur was 15 months old,” said Zhumageldina, a single mother who cares full-time for her severely disabled daughter, who cannot walk or talk. “I was in shock.”
Across the city, in a cramped apartment in another drab suburb, Berik Syzdykov whiles away his days listening to music videos and strumming on his dombra, a traditional stringed instrument. Syzdykov, 37, was born blind and with severe facial deformities in Znamenka, the village where adults remember mushroom clouds exploding on the horizon.
“Once, there was a big explosion,” said his 73-year-old mother Zina Syzdykova, leaning back and closing her eyes. “It was the winter of 1979 and I was pregnant. Two months later, Berik was born like this.”
“Polygon,” she said with a shrug. “We didn’t know anything about it… When Berik was born, I cried and cried, but how would I know what was wrong with him?”
The polygon’s existence was classified, but by the late 1980s, it had become an open secret to many living around it. Opposition to the explosions — by then conducted only underground — started to swell and gained momentum under the glasnost (openness) campaign initiated by then-Communist Party leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
In February 1989, a grassroots anti-nuclear movement called Nevada-Semipalatinsk sprang up, galvanizing public opinion through protests that led to a moratorium on testing. In 1991, the site was mothballed, after staging two-thirds of tests in the Soviet Union’s entire atomic bomb program. The Kremlin, which had created the polygon, washed its hands of it after the collapse of the Soviet regime.
Over four decades, nuclear tests at Semipalatinsk affected 1.5 million Kazakhstanis in some form, Nazarbayev has asserted. Due to poor record-keeping and Soviet official secrecy, it is still not known precisely how many people received dangerous doses of radiation, Togzhan Kassenova of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Nuclear Policy Program told EurasiaNet.org. Data cited in one Kazakh-Japanese study suggests a quarter of a million people may have received elevated doses.
Dr. Zhaxybay Zhumadilov, a scientist from Astana’s Nazarbayev University who has researched the impact of the tests with experts from Hiroshima University, says studies have detected among area residents heightened levels of leukemia and cancer of the breast, colon, esophagus, liver, lung and thyroid. They have also revealed higher levels of cardiovascular and blood diseases, chromosomal aberrations and congenital anomalies.
Determining exposure and drawing meaningful conclusions is complicated, because “for years, what happened at the Semipalatinsk test site, [and] its effects on human health and the environment, were treated as classified information,” Zhumadilov told EurasiaNet.org. There is no international analogy for such “repeated acute external and long-term internal chronic exposure.”
Scant regard was given to public protection when the tests were carried out. “The soldiers would come and cover us with felt,” Mendibay Umirkhanov, who grew up in a village called Sarapan in the 1960s, told EurasiaNet.org. “Then they carried out explosions.”
Today, the former polygon hosts Kazakhstan’s civilian nuclear industry in the town of Kurchatov (formerly a closed town codenamed Semipalatinsk-21). Nazarbayev, who gave up the world’s fourth-largest atomic weapons arsenal, inherited from the Soviet Union in 1991, now is an anti-nuclear weapons campaigner, winning international plaudits for harnessing what Kassenova describes as Kazakhstan’s “moral authority” to promote global nuclear security.
At home, the Semipalatinsk victims grapple with the consequences of the tests a quarter of a century on. Lump sum compensation paid out in the 1990s, mostly amounting to a few hundred dollars, is long since spent. Many sufferers now must make due on social welfare payments.
Showing files of records of her dogged – mostly futile – approaches to officialdom and charities for assistance, Zhumageldina counts herself lucky to have state-subsidized housing costing just $8 for her one-room apartment, from the $150 in monthly welfare that the family lives on. She notes that it took her 19 years of lobbying to get the state-subsidized apartment
The state provides free medical care for the test victims: Zhumageldina’s daughter has recently undergone treatment in Astana to alleviate her condition, for which there is no cure. Still, Zhumageldina strikes an upbeat note. “Zhannur means everything to me,” she said with a gentle smile, flicking through an album showing photos of her disabled daughter growing up. “Everyone said I should abandon her – the doctors, my husband, my mother-in-law. … I said no. I’m going to look after her.”
Syzdykov received financial support from the government and an Irish charity for multiple operations in Kazakhstan and Europe, but still this man robbed of his sight by the Semipalatinsk tests dreams of seeing what the world looks like.
“If I could see, it would be good,” he said. “If not, there’s no need for any more surgery.”
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.
Joanna Lillis is a journalist based in Almaty and author of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.