Another of the USSR's modern experiments took place in an "uninhabited" area of the northeastern steppe, near the city of Semipalatinsk, now know by the Kazakh name Semey. In 1949, the first of over 400 nuclear weapons tests exploded over the Semipalatinsk Test Site. There are estimates that over 200,000 people, mainly Kazakh nomads living in the fallout areas, died from radiation-related illnesses in the four decades of above- and underground nuclear testing from 1949-1989.
The following piece of oral history was written by former Peace Corps volunteer Ian Woodward, who lived and taught in Pavlodar during his PC tenure. You can read this story and more of Ian's experiences and observations in Kazakhstan on his blog stuck on the 45th parallel.
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the year is 1955 and you are vika, a six year old girl living in makaieen, kazakhstan, a small town of 15,000 people on the eastern edge of the vast kazakh steppe. makaieen is the only world you have ever known. your first trip to the big city, pavlodar, is still a year and a five hour car trip away. when you are not in school you play outside with other children from the neighborhood. from time to time you walk with your friends to the edge of town and peer into the distance.
in every direction from makaieen all that can be seen is steppe. no hills. no trees. no buildings. only brush. a flat endless brush. the view into the steppe from makaieen is the same no matter which direction you are looking. the sun rising and setting provide the only perspective against an endless horizon.
one day you are playing with your friends near the broken swings outside your government provided apartment. it is early, around 8:00 in the morning. the air has the spring freshness in it that comes from a morning with a light dew. all of a sudden you stop playing and gather with your friends to look out into the steppe. something has happened, something is different.
a gigantic cloud is growing, apparently from the ground. it is huge, easily the largest thing you have ever seen. its colors are on the edges of color. where orange becomes red and where blue becomes violet. they are vivid, bright, and captivating. you cannot take your eyes from it, it is amazing. it is beautiful.
the cloud, in the shape of a mushroom you have now realized, grows in size until it stands many kilometers into the air. it doesn't move, there is no wind. it also doesn't dissipate. it just stays there, as if it is waiting for you to go along with your day.
after some time you comply and begin to play again with your friends, but all the while sneaking glances over your shoulder at this giant beautiful mushroom cloud standing over your small town.
a few weeks later all of the residents of makaieen are gathered in the main square. they have set up bleachers for the older citizens to sit, and the rest stand around waiting for something to happen. finally a man comes to the podium under a 35 foot statue of lenin and says that today the citizens are makaieen are going to serve the motherland. the people of makaieen will be witness to the might and power of mother russia. you, the people of makaieen, have the rare opportunity not only to bear witness but to show your strength to our comrades in moscow. this man, a member of the local communist party leadership, directs your attention to the steppe and the distance.
you don't know what is going to happen, so you grip your mothers hand with a little extra strength. "vikoninka oo spakoisya" (vikoninka, don't be scared) your mother whispers into your ear.
just then an explosion rips through the silence and you feel the earth beneath you shake. another cloud begins to form on the horizon and the town realizes that it is witnessing an above ground testing of an atomic bomb.
fast forward to 2005. your name is still vika and you live in a 7th floor apartment in a nice section of pavlodar. after preparing dinner for your house-bound mother you sit down to enjoy a meal in front of the evening news. the president of kazakhstan appears on the screen and part of a speech given earlier in the day is being shown. the president is talking about the nuclear testing that occurred in the area of the steppe that stretches from semi-polatinsk to makaieen. he mentions that over a period of 50 years there were 456 nuclear tests. most below ground, but many above.
you haven't thought of those days in your childhood for quite some time, but the images come flooding back. the giant cloud remains as vivid in your mind as it was that spring day. the colors just as vibrant and beautiful.
the president finishes his remarks by saying that people who lived in the area of the tests will be receiving a payment from the government. the amount will vary depending on how many years you lived in the area, and in which towns.
you, vika, open the paper the next day to read the news. you want to know how much your health is worth to your government. after some careful checking, and a search of your house for the seven required documents, and a trip down to the local offices you know the answer. your bravery, and the possibility of diseases yet to come is being rewarded with a check.....
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Read more about the Soviet nuclear testing and continuing social, environmental and health concerns:
Profile and interview with Kaisha Atakhanova, Kazakhstani biologist specializing in the the genetic effects of nuclear radiation and 2005 Winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize.
"Life Under a Nuclear Cloud". Rosemary Righter in The Times (UK), 8/1/2002.
"Cold War Legacy." Sabrina Tavernise in The New York Times, 5/19/2002.