Skip to comments.Fallout - In Kazakhstan, the human wreckage of Soviet nuclear tests
Posted on 08/30/2002 11:19:41 AM PDT by gubamyster
August 30, 2002, 9:45 a.m.
By Robert Elegant, from the September 16, 2002, issue of National Review
Tears glint in the eyes of Melgis Metov, a tall Kazakh who was once a tough platoon leader in the Soviet army and later an instructor in physics. Melgis is now the mainstay of a small group of seriously ill "atomic soldiers" whose number is declining with tragic rapidity. Some 5,000 Kazakh troops served in the Semipalatinsk (now Semey) Polygon, an area of just over 7,000 square miles where the USSR developed its nuclear weapons. Some 40 atomic soldiers are still alive. But not for long. Radiation sicknesses are killing them.
The tears in Melgis's eyes are spontaneous and natural, quite consonant with the intense culture formed by the combination of the former nomads, the high-strung Kazakhs, and their former overlords, the emotional Russians. His given name is redolent of the Communist period: It is constructed from the initials of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Giosef Stalin. Melgis is a common name in Kazakhstan, a Central Asian republic roughly one-third the size of the U.S. It does not embarrass the veteran in his mid 50s, although he is now fiercely anti-Moscow.
Melgis Metov hates not just Communists, but Russians not only because of the deadly radiation to which the Red Army, well aware of the danger, deliberately exposed its own troops and tens of thousands of civilians, but also because Moscow to this day refuses to acknowledge the extent of the horror the Soviets wrought. Although the USSR collapsed more than a decade ago, the Russian government still conceals most of the vital records regarding the effects of nuclear testing.
For half a century, Moscow simply denied the existence of such documents and it still flatly refuses to offer any assistance to the Red Army veterans harrowed by radiation.
A VISIT TO THE INFERNO
For three strenuous days, I traveled around the Semey Polygon, and saw at close hand the devastating results of some 500 nuclear explosions. The U.S. conducted many similar tests, and some Kazakh experts say parts of Nevada are more heavily contaminated than the USSR's polygon; but they do not deny that the U.S. generally tried to shield soldiers and civilians from radiation. Moreover, the pioneer medical investigator Viktor Moshkevich wrote in a definitive report that "no territory in the world has suffered from radioactive, chemical, and bacteriological weapons as much as Kazakhstan"; he added that the Semey Polygon is "the most heavily contaminated place on earth."
I met scores of men and women, and spoke at length with victims sacrificed to Soviet fears and ambitions, as well as the unrestrained whims of scientists. I spoke with administrators, physicists, technicians, and researchers who were the cogs of the Soviet nuclear machinery. I also spoke with the highly competent professionals chiefly scientists, physicians, and statisticians who are now working to assess the full impact of four decades of atomic explosions, and to succor the tens of thousands who still suffer. Few of these dedicated workers receive as much as $100 a month not a living wage, even in Kazakhstan's remote northeast. Nor does Moscow provide any medical or research assistance, though Japan and the U.S. have contributed significantly, and other countries a mite: Sweden, $60,000.
From the first test in August 1949, what really mattered to Moscow was developing the most destructive weapons for defense or offense. The effect of radiation on exposed men, women, and children was a secondary interest. All the data collected were classified Top Secret to forestall protest or interference at home or abroad; some soldiers working close to ground zero learned of the dangers only through the revelations of Western intelligence.
I was forced to conclude that the USSR was, truly, an Evil Empire. Evil is the uniquely correct word because the terrible effects were themselves the Soviets' purpose. The horrors were not the unsought even if culpably foreseen, and even more culpably ignored consequence of another policy. The Soviets' unmistakable intent in the Semipalatinsk Polygon and other, smaller polygons was to subject hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians to massive radiation and then assay the effects, psychological and tactical as well as physical.
Soldiers and junior officers equipped with no protective gear except goggles and rubber gloves, which were useless, otherwise wearing only shirts and trousers, were ordered to ground zero to read instruments an hour or two after an explosion. Only when the nuclear warhead of a straying missile went off close by were troops hustled away. A mobile shower-truck, hardly a common amenity of the Red Army, allowed them to wash off contamination. They were then ordered to resume the clothes they had been wearing. Quasi-independent physicians allowed to survey the health hazards in the polygon were bludgeoned by the KGB into silence, thus ensuring that nothing would be done to help the victims.
The Soviets understood from the outset that atomic explosions in the atmosphere no more than a hundred feet above ground posed especially fearsome health risks. When Field Marshal Grigori Zhukov ordered 45,000 troops to engage in war games less than an hour after a nuclear explosion overhead, he watched the maneuvers from a lead-lined tank. As revealingly, a museum opened in 1950 for young officers displayed full knowledge of the risks of radiation. Also: the splattered lungs and livers of dogs, sheep, and cows; rock powdered or twisted into grotesque shapes; and models of the tunnels dug into hills for the underground explosions to which the Soviets were limited by international agreement in 1962.
Foreseeing no end to their macabre festival, the Soviets did not anticipate the theft of very valuable, though radioactive, copper cables from the actual tunnels since the end of testing in 1989 nor its widespread reuse. They say in Semey that the nearby Chinese barter cheap clothing for that copper and make it into jewelry for export.
The U.S. is financing a hundred-million-dollar endeavor in cooperation with the fitful Kazakh authorities to roll back such nuclear aftereffects. Yet blocked-off tunnels are no more proof against robbers than Egyptian pyramids against tomb raiders.
The Soviets thus deliberately exposed soldiers and civilians to unchecked radiation in part because the apparatchiks running the show could not be bothered with precautions, but primarily because they were curious as to the effects of prolonged exposure on human beings. They were not concerned to treat the consequent maladies; they merely wanted to record them in secret. Kazakh doctors were not allowed to make a diagnosis of radiation sickness. They were instructed to attribute the fourfold increase in diseases to the poor Kazakh diet.
That grisly nuclear endeavor finally ended in 1989, and has been followed by a continuing effort to mitigate its effects. My investigation started at the Oncology Center in Semey, which treats a growing number of increasingly acute cancer cases each year. In 2000, they numbered 2,400; this year the number will exceed 3,200. Informed specialists estimate that the region endures double the worldwide cancer rate and that half its people have suffered damage to their reproductive cells, which means their offspring are likely to be afflicted by genetic complaints.
The Oncology Center is spread out over old buildings in various stages of dilapidation. Mobile vans donated by Japan go out to find and diagnose patients needing urgent treatment. In an ill-equipped theater, the center's doctors perform operations that would be impressive even in the U.S. or the U.K. all on a total budget of $600,000 a year. The equipment, generally, is antique. A 1957 Soviet device to treat skin cancer looks like an ancient electric chair, better fitted to kill than cure. The best thing the outside world could do would be to donate modern therapeutic equipment; just $10 or $15 million would provide enormous benefits.
A surgeon in his late 30s shyly introduces a 51-year-old peasant woman in worn clothing. A few weeks ago he removed three-quarters of her pancreas and reconstructed her esophagus. Next week she will go home to grown children whom the surgeon had to badger into allowing the procedure.
The children of those directly exposed, the second generation, oddly enough suffer less than do the third and fourth generations: The latter groups display ever more severe malformation and illness owing to radiation-induced mutation in the chromosomes in the sperm and ova. Leukemia is common among the very young; as is suicide, among adolescents who learn they are impotent or barren. Some infants suffer melanoma a virulent, often fatal skin cancer otherwise unknown among Kazakhs and never found anywhere else in the world in such young children. Others are born with major bone deformation, some without arms and legs. The "jelly babies" have virtually no bones at all.
Cancer is but the most prevalent disease. Other common maladies affect hearts, arteries, endocrine glands, and the blood. Monstrosities abound in a local pathological museum fetuses with two heads or none at all, and animal carcasses hardly recognizable as potential living beings.
OUT FROM GROUND ZERO
The countryside reflects the havoc, I learned as I drove 200 miles over rutted, potholed Soviet-built military roads. My destination was the severely afflicted village of Sarjal, whose people like those of only one other community were actually evacuated before one extremely powerful blast; they were returned after ten days. Usually, the people of Sarjal were simply told to refrain from lighting their iron cooking stoves, lest the fire flare back into the house. They were also warned to stay outside when an explosion was scheduled, since it might topple their house.
Radiation? Not a word of warning about that, from Soviet sources.
The rolling steppe is crisscrossed by pylons and poles that carry the electricity the Soviets introduced throughout their empire. Otherwise the bare earth is lightly tufted with shrubs. An occasional tree still stands, a survivor of the ruthless quest for firewood. Herds of horses, cattle, and sheep, all meant for meat, graze on the sparse grass, shepherded by picturesque Kazakh cowboys astride squat ponies.
Contamination by radiation? Of course, but what is one to do? Crops grow on plots deep seeded with radioactive particles. Drinking water, too, is contaminated, though the level is not immediately harmful. But after long use . . .
Battered villages beside the roads are all but empty, though loudspeakers blare discordantly in some half-obliterated squares. Most of the sharp-edged concrete huts are not only deserted, but falling down. In one village a severely wounded veteran of the Red Army's advance on Berlin, who is in his late 80s, lives with his aged wife. Incapable of rising from his ramshackle chair without help, he is unable to leave the village of which his family are virtually the only settled inhabitants.
Their former neighbors, once collective farmers, are looking for work elsewhere. Any hope of earning even a meager living at home vanished when the bosses, all former Communist party officials, sold the farms' machinery and immediately decamped.
Still some distance from the blast center, sited to escape the prevailing winds that have carried nuclear particles, stands Kurchatov, a luxurious town built for the scientists and generals who conceived, created, and directed the atomic program. In these broad, seamlessly paved streets cavorted Andrei Sakharov, later a stern critic of the regime, to celebrate in 1953 the success of his 400-kiloton hydrogen bomb, Moscow's first thermonuclear device.
Named for one of the USSR's leading nuclear scientists, Igor Kurchatov, whose massive statue dominates its elaborate buildings, the town is now occupied by the National Nuclear Center of Kazakhstan. The director, Dr. Shamil T. Tukhvatulin, who has been associated with the nuclear enterprise for decades, warns that the entire area is "like a minefield. Seventeen percent is heavily contaminated, [and] you never know where you'll come across a hot spot."
One hot spot is well known. In its center a round lake shines blue-green amid deformed, dun-colored hills speckled with patches of battered red rock that stretch tens of miles across the relatively unsettled region that was tormented by 124 tests. The world's only nuclear lake was created in January 1965 by a 140-kiloton explosion, equivalent to 140,000 tons of TNT, at the bottom of a shaft more than 100 yards deep. It spewed radioactive debris, as did dozens of other open-shaft tests in the vicinity that were not strictly "atmospheric" and therefore not in open violation of the international agreement that banned tests above ground. The rough circle of battered hills cast up around the lake is more than 300 feet high in places. "The Americans tried to do the same thing in Nevada," Tukhvatulin says with unconcealed satisfaction. "But their lake is dry."
Oddly enough, the water itself is not contaminated, and the bold swim in it. But radiation is up to a thousand times normal on the shore around it, which is seamed and cratered.
A small green lizard emerges from under a rock normal, as far as we can see. Such are the vagaries of radiation effects, which are imperfectly understood even today; continuing research is vitally important.
A Geiger counter chatters frantically when held close to a rock. Whatever the nonchalance of our guides, we do not linger.
Robert Elegant is the author of many books, including Pacific Destiny and Dynasty.
Among the standard attributes of all commie elites are their personal cowardice and utter contempt for all others. So it is from Dzerzhinski to Stalin to the Great Stainmaker.
And your point is - - ? That is to say, exactly which parts of Mr. Elegant's story do you deem false? The real urban legend is that the old soviet union was anything other than a cabal of murderous commie vermin. Walter Duranty, Lincoln Steffens, Lillian Hellman, and their ilk are dead or walking dead. And their soulmates in our media and so-called groves of academe have got a difficult problem these days. Something called the internet, where the truth will always prevail.
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