Kazakhstan’s Stepnogorsk: Portrait of a former Soviet closed town
In the years before independence, Stepnogorsk had become a key node in Moscow’s biological weapons program and uranium industry. Now it is one of many Kazakh provincial towns framed by its Soviet legacy.
Natalya Telezhinskaya, a regional historian, always suspected that there was something different about the tightly guarded factory that officially made fertilizer 10 kilometers outside her hometown of Stepnogorsk.
She and many other locals even suspected that it manufactured biological weapons.
“But it wasn’t until the Americans started getting involved that we knew more about the anthrax that was produced there,” Telezhinskaya said.
Established as a city in 1964, Stepnogorsk lies less than 200 kilometers by road north of Kazakhstan’s capital Astana and wears its Soviet legacy heavily.
Until 1995, the town did not appear on any publicly available maps.
The town’s status as a closed town (ZATO) was a product of its role as a key supplier for the Soviet nuclear industry, as well as the more internationally taboo activities that took place at the Stepnogorsk Scientific and Experimental Production Base (SNOPB).
Yet despite this status, people could enter and leave the town itself without complications.
And the fact that Stepnogorsk fueled two secretive Soviet power structures – the Ministry of Medium Machine Building and the Main Department for Microbiological Industry – allowed it privileges unavailable elsewhere.
"Being overseen by Moscow directly meant good supply lines. We always had meat, butter, and so on, and via the talon system we could buy imported goods. In other cities, even large ones, the situation with food was much worse," Telezhinskaya told Eurasianet.
The deadliest anthrax in the world
The full details of what went on at the secret facility might never have become public knowledge were it not for the microbiologist assigned to head it up by Biopreparat, the company that oversaw the Soviet biological weapons program.
After defecting to the United States in the 1992 and divulging the full extent of the program to the CIA, Kanatzhan Alibekov (now Ken Alibek) penned in 1999 a memoir titled “Biohazard: The Chilling True Story of the Largest Covert Biological Weapons Program in the World – Told from the Inside by the Man Who Ran It.”
In one chapter, Alibek explains how a low-level facility under the company’s control became from 1982 one of Biopreparat’s most treasured assets after a lethal anthrax leak in the Russian city of Sverdlovsk in 1979 killed scores and stopped production there.
“An intelligence officer pulled the decree from a red folder tied with a string, placed it gravely on a desk, and stood behind me while I read.
He would only let me see the sections that corresponded to my duties,” recalled Alibek.
“I already knew the gist of the order: We were to transform our sleepy facility in northern Kazakhstan into a munitions plant that would eventually replace Sverdlovsk. Anthrax 836, first discovered in Kirov in 1953, was our best candidate to become what we called a “battle strain” – one that was reproducible in large quantities, of high virulence, and transportable. […] My job at Stepnogorsk was, in effect, to create the world’s most efficient assembly line for the mass production of weaponized anthrax.”
In this, Alibek and his colleagues were wildly successful, with the facility boasting an annual production capacity of 300 tons of bomb-ready anthrax that was as much as three times as powerful as the strain produced in Sverdlovsk.
“It would take only five kilograms of the Anthrax 836 developed at the Kazakhstan base to infect half the people living in a square kilometer of territory,” Alibek wrote of the product tested both on the premises and in open air conditions at Vozrozhdeniya Island in the Aral Sea.
SNOPB was closed in 1992, with an American inspection team visiting the site on independent Kazakhstan’s invitation in 1995 and affirming that it was inactive.
By that time, it was widely believed, former Soviet officials had already sent vital infrastructure and weaponry from the plant to all corners of Russia.
Talks between Washington and Kazakhstan on dismantling the site ran in parallel to negotiations on Kazakhstan’s handover of nuclear weapons; by the end of the 1990s, these had achieved their aim. Kazakhstan’s government got several million dollars but expressed disappointment that pledged foreign investments to convert the site for peaceful, commercial purposes ultimately came to nothing.
Today, several industrial companies with warehouses occupy the former SNOPB complex, making access difficult.
Journalist Maksym Ponomarev, who visited the site when he was working for a newspaper a decade ago, said that security remains tight.
"But we were able to photograph some bunkers that surrounded a [disused] helipad,” Ponomarev said. “It was clearly quite an epic project.”
Long, long legacies
Although the end of the biological weapons facility spared Stepnogorsk a disaster like the one that occurred in Sverdlovsk, the communist period left its mark on the town in other ways.
Aesthetically, the town has seen little change in independence, gaining its first new residential building only in 2019.
Providing heat and electricity for oversize government buildings and the town’s industries has meanwhile exacted a toll on the Stepnogorsk power station.
Commissioned in 1966, the plant is estimated to be at least 80 percent outdated, and while failures have not yet led to a shutdown like the one in Ekibastuz last year, winters can still be uncomfortably cold.
In February, making his first visit to Stepnogorsk since he became president in 2019, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev ordered the government to take urgent measures to fix the power station, where a fire broke out earlier this year.
“There is a kind of haplessness in this situation on the part of everyone involved: the owners, the city government, the operators,” Tokayev complained of the situation at the plant which is known to host at least one cryptomining facility.
Other infrastructure in Stepnogorsk has faded from view completely.
An airport that once provided quick connections with Astana now only serves airplanes involved in mosquito-spraying missions.
The city’s main bus station for intercity journeys did not survive the pandemic.
There is a train though – the delightfully bright ER22 Electric Train, built in Soviet Latvia in the 1960s or ‘70s. This retro attraction still draws curious visitors to Stepnogorsk, while serving the needs of residents who live and work in the industrial zones outside the city.
Kazakhstan is at present the world’s largest uranium producer, and Stepnogorsk stood at the very beginning of this industry.
The Tselinny Gorno-Khimicheskii Kombinat (TGK) uranium processing plant at Stepnogorsk was built in the second half of the 1950s, serving five mines in the surrounding region and remaining the city’s main employer through the Soviet period.
Today it has become the Stepnogorsk Mining and Chemical Combine LLP (SGKhK), owned by Russian billionaire Vasily Anisimov and Kazakh businessman Yakov Klebanov, the son of oligarch Alexander Klebanov.
While thousands still work at uranium mines in the region, tailings dams remain a major environmental threat.
Begetting civil society
Lately, activists have been raising concerns that blasting at open-cast gold mines in the region could trigger a rupture with serious consequences.
“I have said many times, the dam at the Manybai uranium mine is vulnerable to jolts. If it breaks, the economic damage will be great and the environmental damage many times greater,” environmental activist Grigory Vingerter told Eurasianet.
Three decades on from the collapse of the Soviet Union, civil society is getting stronger in Stepnogorsk, today a city of around 45,000 people plus subordinate settlements.
This was evidenced in a case that Eurasianet covered in 2021.
Earlier that year, without consulting residents, companies linked to the daughter of Kazakhstan’s former president Nursultan Nazarbayev, Aliya Nazarbayeva, had agreed among themselves to dispatch several hundred tons of Soviet-era chemical waste to the city from the shores of Lake Balkhash.
Enraged that their town was once more being dumped on without any sort of consultation, a small but determined group of residents that included this author staged rallies demanding that the waste be removed and that the plant intended to incinerate the waste be built nowhere near Stepnogorsk.
After a standoff, authorities intervened, accepting the demands and promising residents that the waste would be relocated by August 2022. That deadline has since been put back.
“I ask you to approach the situation with a little understanding, because we are of course a little bit behind [schedule],” the then-deputy environment minister Zulfiya Suleimenova told residents during a meeting in the town last year.
Suleimenova, who is now minister, said during a February press appearance that she expects the removal to go ahead “before the end of 2023.”
Artyem Sochnev is a writer based in Stepnogorsk, Kazakhstan.