Semipalatinsk: The Most Nuked Place on Earth


Out on the vast plains of the Kazakh steppe
lies a place with an eerie secret. Covering an 18,500 square km stretch of wilderness,
it looks to all intents and purposes like just another swathe of endless grassland. Yet this quiet exterior hides a sinister past. During the years of the Soviet Union, this
area was strictly off-limits.Those who could get close enough witnessed blinding flashes,
watched in awe as mushroom clouds expanded across the sky. This place’s name was the Semipalatinsk
test site, also known as the Polygon. Today, we know it as the most-nuked place
on Earth. Selected in 1947 by notorious NKVD head Lavrentiy
Beria, the Polygon saw the detonation of the first Soviet atom bomb, and the first air-tested
hydrogen bomb. Over the course of 40 years, a quarter of
all nuclear tests in history took place here, irradiating the empty landscape. In today’s video, we’re peeking inside
the shadowy world of Soviet nuclear testing… and meeting the people still living with its
consequences. Building a Bomb
On August 12, 1953, residents in the Kazakh city of Semipalatinsk were going about their
business when they saw a burning flash of light. At the time, this wasn’t that unusual. Atomic tests had been taking place out on
the plains 150km west of their city for the best part of four years. Although Soviet radio broadcasts always tried
to pass off the shaking as earthquakes, locals had long suspected something more dramatic
was happening. So an unexpected flash of light in the sky
wasn’t news. What was new was what came next. A loud bom, like a thunderclap magnified,
swept across the city. In its wake came a shockwave that shattered
windows, lifted people off their feet. As the entire city shook, panicked locals
struggled to figure out what the hell had just happened. They had no way of knowing it, but over at
the Polygon, Soviet scientists had just detonated their first thermonuclear device. In the hours to come, thick, black dust would
fall across Semipalatinsk, drifting on the winds from the test site. No-one would tell the city’s hundreds of
thousands of residents, but that black dust was going to doom them all. The Soviet atomic project had begun in earnest
nearly 8 years earlier, on August 6, 1945. That day, the world had watched in awe as
the United States detonated its new superweapon over the Japanese city of Hiroshima, turning
70,000 human beings to ash in the blink of an eye. In the aftermath, Stalin had ordered his right
hand man, the sadistic NKVD head Lavrentiy Beria, to force Soviet scientists on a crash
course in nuclear physics. By 1947, Beria’s team were well on their
way to building a functioning atom bomb. They just needed somewhere to test it. It’s at this point that Semipalatinsk’s
fate was sealed. A remote city in a remote republic, Semipalatinsk
had been drawn into the Soviet Union along with the rest of Kazakhstan following a brief
period of independence after the Revolution. Hugely underpopulated, the steppe surrounding
Semipalatinsk was perfect for secret weapons testing. Lavrentiy Beria confidently informed Stalin
not a single soul lived there. There was just one little problem with this. Beria was lying. Although the Kazakh steppe beyond Semipalatinsk
was devoid of cities, it wasn’t empty. There were villages, like Znamenka. Nomadic peoples who wandered the plain, grazing
animals. In short, there was life out there, life that
would suffer if Moscow just started exploding atom bombs. No-one knows for sure if Beria was misinformed,
or if he knew about these people and simply didn’t care. If you’ve watched our video on Beria at
our sister channel, Biographics, you’ll probably guess the most-likely answer. Over the next year, the Polygon was constructed
using slave labor from Kazakhstan’s vast network of gulags. The prisoners built not just the site itself,
but also fake buildings so the effect of a nuclear blast could be measured. By fall of 1948, Beria’s scientists had
their first production reactor online and ready. Before a year had passed, they would have
a working bomb. On August 29, 1949, people in Semipalatinsk
saw the first distant flash, heard the first distant rumble. Don’t worry about it, the local Party told
them, it’s just an earthquake. But it wasn’t “just an earthquake”. It was an atomic explosion, the Soviet’s
first successful test of a 22 kiloton bomb. Little did Semipalatinsk’s residents know
it, but there would be hundreds more to come. When the Wind Blows
The detonation of the first Soviet atom bomb was revealed to the world thanks to radiation. A US weather monitoring craft crossing between
Japan and Alaska detected high levels in the atmosphere that could have only come from
a bomb. On September 23, 1949, US President Harry
Truman informed the world of the test. It was shocking news, news that would spark
a global nuclear arms race. For the oblivious civilians living near the
Polygon, though, it only meant one thing. Yet more tests. Over the next few years, loud booms, bright
flashes of light, and mysterious mushroom clouds became a regular fixture of life in
Semipalatinsk. While those in the city itself were 150km
away from these tests, those who lived out on the plain were both closer and less educated. They would stand outdoors in their villages,
wondering at the lights. When gray dust fell, they thought nothing
of breathing it in. Yet even those who were living relatively
far away weren’t safe. Whether through accident or design, and you
can probably guess our opinion, Beria had selected a test site that was swept all year
round by powerful winds. Those winds carried radiation not just across
Kazakhstan, but into Russia, too. All in all, it’s estimated around 1.5 million
people in the Soviet Union were repeatedly exposed to radiation from the Polygon. Sometimes, the effects were dramatic. Take the blast we opened our story with, the
thermonuclear explosion of August, 1953. Although not the biggest detonation conducted
at the Polygon – that would come two years later, when the USSR tested its first hydrogen
bomb – it was likely the most dangerous. That day, the prevailing winds sent all the
unleashed radiation sweeping over Semipalatinsk. While the damage is hard to quantify, the
huge uptick in cancers and children born with deformities that happened not long after is
thought attributable to this bomb. But the detonation with the most immediate
consequences came in August, 1956. That month, the Polygon tested a dirty bomb
with a small yield, but designed to spread radiation far and wide. On the day the bomb detonated, the winds were
extremely high. Over 400km away, 600 people in the industrial
city of Ust-Kamenogorsk came down with acute radiation sickness. All 600 were spirited away into Party-run
hospitals. No records remain to indicate if any of them
survived. That same year, the Soviets set up their first
secret lab to monitor the effects of radiation around Semipalatinsk. This being the USSR, they did it in utmost
secrecy. The lab was named Anti-Brucellosis Dispensary
Number 4, after a disease that infects cattle. While people were treated for their radiation
exposure there, they were never told what was wrong with them. By 1963, when the ban on above ground nuclear
testing came in, over 110 devices had been detonated at the Polygon. Already, at least 10,000 people had shown
signs of being affected by radiation. But testing at the Polygon didn’t end with
the ban in ‘63. It simply moved underground. In the Shadow of the Mushroom Cloud
OK, so it’s time to take a little detour away from Semipalatinsk and tackle a question
you may have. One that likely runs along the lines of:
“Gee, this sure sounds bad. But, on the other hand, didn’t the US also
test above ground nukes near civilians?” The short answer is, yes, they did. But there was a qualitative difference, as
we’re hopefully about to see. If the bombs going off at the Polygon were
the epitome of Soviet-style secrecy and denial, those the US tested were a parody of the capitalist
dream. The detonations took place at the Nevada Test
Site, far out in the desert. Just as residents of Semipalatinsk got used
to seeing distant mushroom clouds, so too were the American tests visible from Las Vegas. But while the powers in Semipalatinsk tried
to pretend nothing was going on, the elite in Las Vegas responded with ker-ching! Throughout the 1950s, hotels in Sin City held
atomic parties, where you could drive out into the desert and watch as a mushroom cloud
rose above the horizon. Hotels advertized rooms with windows facing
the blasts. Events were held where holidaymakers drank
‘atomic cocktails’ and cheered the detonations. It was big business. And, best of all, it was safe! Unlike the Soviets, who didn’t care which
way the wind blew, the Americans had top meteorologists who could tell them with 100 percent accuracy
where any radiation might fall. Or so they thought. While the atomic parties were held in Las
Vegas, it was residents of places like St. George, Utah, who were typically closer to
the tests. For residents of this rural Mormon town, watching
the bombs go off was something you did to unwind on a Friday evening; a big, patriotic
spectacle that doubled as a cheap night out. Unfortunately, it was also something that
could leave you very sick. In 1953, a series of 11 detonations took place
at the Nevada Test Site. In the aftermath, a film of gray dust blew
into St George. The government assured citizens that it was
perfectly safe, that they should quit worrying. So people went to work in it. Sent their children out to play. It wasn’t until the early 1960s that people
noticed the spike in cancer rates in St George. Today, those that suffered the effects of
American nuclear testing are known as the Downwinders. Although it was their illnesses that led to
the 1963 ban on above ground testing, the US government refused to accept responsibility. So far, you might be thinking, so Soviet. But there is a difference. The Downwinders were able to speak out about
their experiences, to campaign for recognition without worrying about getting carted off
to the gulag. In 1990, their pressure ultimately led to
Congress passing the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, establishing a fund for sick Downwinders. By 2015, it had distributed over $2 billion. What happened to the Downwinders is undoubtedly
shameful. But there’s a reason Semipalatinsk test
site is notorious today, why it’s more worthy of a video than the Nevada Test Site. And that’s the poisonous mix of secrecy,
denial, and desire of the Soviet Union to test radiation on its own citizens. Oh, and regarding compensation. Those living today with the effects of the
Polygon’s tests do get money from the Kazakh government. It amounts to 12 dollars a month. A Land of Death
In 1965, a great rumble announced the USSR’s latest, short-lived testing phase at the Polygon. Way, way out in the remotest reaches of the
site, an underground detonation had diverted the course of a river. But this wasn’t just some accidental by-product
of an atomic test. The Soviets were experimenting with the idea
of using nuclear weapons in construction projects. Right, so you know how some firms involved
with mining or whatever will use explosive devices to move earth? The USSR planned to do that with nuclear weapons. The 1965 test was a proof of concept, designed
to show how one well-placed nuke could divert a river and create a whole new lake. Luckily, the rest of the world quickly found
out about this harebrained scheme and were all like: “Uh, no.” But the traces of that 1965 test still remain,
out on the endless plains of Kazakhstan. Today it’s called Atomic Lake. Stretching over 500m, with a maximum depth
of 80m, Atomic Lake – real name Lake Chagan – looks almost inviting from the outside,
with its pristine blue water. In fact, you probably could swim in it without
coming to any harm. The water itself is not especially dangerous. It’s the shoreline you have to watch out
for, where pockets of radiation still remain from that long ago blast. Impressive as it is, though, Atomic Lake is
just one sight in the remains of the Semipalatinsk test site. Why don’t we have a look at some of the
others? If you were to travel to the Polygon – and
Kazakhstan does intermittently allow tours – the surviving areas would be divided into
“stuff you can see without your flesh melting off” and “everything else.” Into this latter category would fall Test
Site 4A, where dirty bombs were tested. Radiation there is still between 100 and 400
times normal, so visiting isn’t a great idea. The former category, though, would contain
some of Semipalatinsk’s most haunting areas. Take the Geese. Sadly not actual, radioactive geese, but a
series of concrete walls jutting out the ground. Looking like gigantic shark fins, they were
deigned to measure the effects of atomic bombs on buildings, but now look like the half-buried
ruins of some ancient civilization. Other areas on the “I want to visit, plus
it won’t kill me” list might be a fake underground metro station the Soviets supposedly
built. We say “supposedly” because, in our research
for this video, we didn’t come across anyone who’d actually visited it, but plenty of
people did assure us it’s really there. The last thing you might do as a hypothetical
visitor to the Semipalatinsk test site is simply wander around with a geiger counter,
looking for radiation. Lots of websites like to claim that the Polygon
is doused in radiation, that the ground there has radiation levels 100 times normal. But radiation doesn’t work like that. Rather than lying in an even blanket across
the earth, it tends to wind up in a series of dangerous hotspots, surrounded by tracts
of land where the radiation levels are normal. If you’ve ever been to Chernobyl, you may
have seen something similar, with certain areas being absolutely fine, while others
are absolutely no-go. Speaking of Chernobyl, it’s time we got
back to the history of Semipalatinsk. Because this one-time Soviet test site is
a nuclear test site no longer, and there’s a good reason for this. It’s time for us to witness the collapse
of the USSR’s entire nuclear program. The Meltdown
In terms of juicy historical irony, you’d be hard pressed to find a statement more dripping
with juice than that made by Vitaliy Sklyarov in February, 1986. The Minister for Power in Soviet-ruled Ukraine,
Sklyarov used a speech that month to declare: “The odds of a meltdown (at a Soviet nuclear
plant) are one in 10,000 years.” Exactly two months later, the Chernobyl reactor
exploded in a haze of radiation and finely-tuned irony. The Chernobyl disaster is worthy of a video
all on its own – and we’ve actually got one, again over at our sister channel Biographics
– but its effect across the USSR was like a whole additional explosion. Thanks to new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s
policy of glasnost, or openness, word of the Chernobyl disaster actually made it to ordinary
people. Faced with the horrors Soviet nuclear policy
could unleash, they began to protest. In Semipalatinsk, those protests would detonate
like a hydrogen bomb. On February 12, 1989, a botched underground
test at the Polygon accidentally released a huge amount of radioactive gas into the
atmosphere. Two weeks later, the Kzakh poet, Olzhas Suleimenov,
was meant to do a reading on live TV, but instead called for mass anti-nuclear demonstrations. By spring, a huge protest movement had formed
in Kazakhstan. It called itself Nevada-Semipalatinsk, an
attempt to show solidarity with the Downwinders in America. Before long, Nevada-Semipalatinsk was a mass
Kazakh movement. It even gained the backing of the newly-installed
local leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Then, on October 19, the Soviets detonated
a double test device at the Polygon. It would be the last nuclear test ever conducted
in Kazakhstan. News of the test caused tens of thousands
of protestors to flood the republic’s streets. One million signed a petition demanding an
end to nuclear testing. Sensing rebellion on the winds, Moscow caved. On October 21, 1989, all testing was halted
at Semipalatinsk test site. By August, 1991, the Polygon had been officially
closed down. Not four months later, Kazakhstan declared
independence from the Soviet Union. At the time of its final test, the Polygon
had detonated 456 nuclear weapons, more than any other site on Earth. Over 25 percent of all nukes ever detonated
had gone off within its confines. But where things like nuclear weapons are
concerned, the story never ends simply with the dispersal of the mushroom clouds. For the residents of Semipalatinsk, the final
act is yet to come. Sacrificed for What? In late 1991, when it became clear that Kazakhstan
was on the verge of joining all the other republics leaving the USSR, Moscow sent officials
to the recently-closed Polygon. There, the men collected all the documents
they could find and destroyed them. They even took the decades of medical records
from Anti-Brucellosis Dispensary Number 4. Then they got on a train back to Russia and
vanished into history. With them went any hope of the world ever
understanding what really happened at Semipalatinsk test site. Fast forward to today, and what was in those
missing records remains a live topic in Kazakhstan. The towns and villages surrounding the Polygon
are rife with cancers, congenital diseases, and birth defects. In Semipalatinsk, one in twenty children are
said to be born with deformities. On the ground, people are angry. They blame the vanished Soviets for condemning
them to a life in Hell. But without those documents, they can never
be sure. While researching this video, we came across
articles in science journals like Nature which suggest the tests must have had some impact
on local health, but caution against blaming radiation for every problem afflicting Semipalatinsk
– since 2007 now known as Semey. It’s worth remembering that a large number
of those who died after working on the Chernobyl cleanup became sick not because of radiation
exposure, but because they were so sure they would get sick that they simply stopped taking
care of themselves. It’s possible something similar happened
in Semey. Then again, it’s also possible that we simply
don’t know the extent of Soviet weapons testing, or what other ghoulish surprises
the long-dead Lavrentiy Beria cooked up for the locals. Whatever the truth, life around Semey is grim
for those worst affected. With little government support and not much
of a social safety net, they cling on at the margins of society, the victims of a policy
decided decades ago in a country they’re no longer a part of. As for the Polygon itself, it’s mostly returned
to nature. Seeing it today, you’d be hard pressed to
differentiate it from the rest of the endless, undulating steppe that surrounds it. But there is a difference. It’s sometimes said that places where horrifying
events happen retain their own special atmosphere, an invisible layer of horror that can never
be scrubbed off. Usually, people are talking about places like
Auschwitz or Ground Zero, places of great cruelty. At the Semipalatinsk test site, though, that
invisible layer is very much real. The pockets of radiation that soak the earth
across the gigantic site can’t be seen, touched, or tasted by visitors. Yet they remain, hidden evidence of the atrocities
carried out here. For better or for worse, the Polygon will
always carry these traces of its past. Invisible reminders of the time when the Soviet
Union tested its deadliest weapons on its own people.

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