Atomic Steppe
How Kazakhstan Gave Up the Bomb
Togzhan Kassenova



I AM KAZAKH, and the two main topics of this book—the Soviet nuclear tests in the Semipalatinsk region of Kazakhstan, and the nation’s early days of independence—are very personal to me. Despite living abroad since the age of nineteen, my ties to my homeland are deep. I treasure the memories of my youth, even those of such turbulent times as the collapse of the Soviet Union and the struggle of my newly independent country to find its place in the world. Kazakhs have a particular attachment to their place of birth, and I still call my hometown—Almaty—my first love. My heart skips a beat when my plane lands in Almaty, and I see the majestic Zailiiskii Alatau mountains that surround the city.

The family of my father lived in the city of Semipalatinsk, just 120 kilometers (seventy-five miles) from the nuclear test site. I was named Togzhan after a young girl loved by Abai, Kazakhstan’s most famous writer and himself a native of the Semipalatinsk region. My bond to the region also stems from my father’s life work. In the 1990s, as the head of the country’s first analytical institution (the Center for Strategic Studies, which later grew into the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies), he helped the Kazakh government make nuclear policy decisions. I chose the nuclear field as my profession because I understood how central the nuclear story was to Kazakhstan’s nation-building. I also wanted to follow in the footsteps of my father, who passed away too young.


The first part of this book is devoted to Kazakhstan’s experience with Soviet nuclear tests. For more than forty years, the Soviet military tested its nuclear bombs in the Kazakh steppe, with devastating consequences for the people and the environment. Archival documents and memoirs paint a picture of disregard by the Soviet government for local residents during the decades of testing. All the early documents that discuss the suitability of the site for nuclear tests focus on the geographic advantages of the site, describing the area as “uninhabited,” and giving little, if any, consideration for the local population.

Through the years, I met many people from the Semipalatinsk region. Some of them were small children when the nuclear tests took place. They told me how nobody warned them not to gaze at the nuclear mushrooms as they helped with herding cattle or collecting hay close to the Polygon, the Soviet term for a military testing site. These Kazakhs were innocent, kids who did not know why they encountered lambs with two heads or no limbs. What struck me in my conversations with them was how they longed for the pain of their families to be acknowledged, but, at the same time, they did not want to be portrayed just as victims. People from the Semipalatinsk region wish their land to be known for its history and culture, for the richness of its flora and fauna, and not only for the hardships they faced.

The Soviet government’s disregard for Kazakhs during the nuclear testing period fits a general pattern of careless long-term and short-term policies toward them during the era of Soviet rule. There were the political repressions of 1937–38, for example, when the Soviet government imprisoned and executed the Kazakh intelligentsia, and the bloody suppression of youth protests in Alma-Ata, then Kazakhstan’s capital, in 1986. But perhaps the most infamous episode of Soviet brutality was the collectivization of the 1930s. In this effort to “industrialize and modernize” Kazakhstan, Stalin’s government forced farmers and livestock breeders to live together in one place and to join “collectives” to supply meat and grain to a common state-controlled pot for national distribution. For Kazakhs, whose herds and livelihood depended on a nomadic lifestyle, being forced to become sedentary was a death sentence. Livestock numbers plummeted, and 1.5 million people died (1.3 million of them were ethnic Kazakhs).

Ethnic Kazakhs in rural areas near the testing site suffered the most from nuclear tests because of their use of land for livestock herding, but they were not the only victims of the Soviet nuclear program. The city of Semipalatinsk was home to a multiethnic community, including many ethnic Russians who settled there as the Russian Empire expanded. In Soviet times, Stalin chose Kazakhstan (and the rest of Central Asia) as the remote place to forcefully move political exiles and ethnic minorities—Koreans, Crimean Tatars, Chechens, and others—from the European part of the Soviet Union. In the 1950s, Nikita Khrushchev’s “Virgin Lands” campaign, an attempt to increase grain production in Kazakhstan, drew in youth from all Soviet republics. These voluntary and involuntary migrations contributed to Kazakhstan’s multiethnic fabric. All locals, no matter their ethnic background, suffered from the nuclear tests.

Although, for reasons I explain below, hard numbers are difficult to find, the nuclear tests imposed a high human cost, with more than a million people in Kazakhstan harmed in some way by them. Some had to move, ejected from the lands appropriated by the Soviet military. Many others lived in areas exposed to radioactive contamination, causing thousands of them to get sick from radiation and thousands more to die from it.

But the human toll of the nuclear tests was not all; the tests exacted a huge price on the environment, too. I will never forget the first time I saw the former nuclear test site, during a helicopter flyover in June of 2015. To observe that enormous piece of land, entirely and artificially flat, with the tracks of heavy trucks forever tattooed into the ground and the carcasses of cement structures littering the site, was a stark reminder of the abuse this land took. The steppe’s animals, such as the saiga antelope and the wild sheep known in English as argali and in Kazakh as arkhar, with their wondrous curved horns, suffered greatly. Their habitat was overtaken during the forty years of nuclear tests, and it was only years after the last nuclear test that they returned to the area.

However, while the cruelty of some Soviet policies and choices shocked me, I did not want to paint the Soviet leaders as a bunch of villains hurting people and the environment for no reason. The Soviets were rushing to equalize their power with the Americans, who already possessed nuclear bombs. Both countries found themselves locked in an arms race, each believing its nuclear program necessary for its survival.

In addition, although I started my research mostly concerned about the people of Kazakhstan, I quickly realized there were other victims of the Soviet nuclear program. The builders of the Polygon, many of them Soviet prisoners or rank-and-file soldiers, worked in horrible conditions. Many of them perished. The Soviet nuclear scientists and other military personnel at the site faced many hardships as well, especially in the early years of the program when housing conditions were poor and families not allowed. Eventually, their living conditions improved, and their lives could even be described as privileged, with special foods and consumer goods that were unavailable to other citizens, but they always lived under the watchful eye of the KGB and were never entirely free. I also did not want to skirt over the fact that most scientists and military who participated in the nuclear testing program made sacrifices for the cause they believed in—helping their country protect itself. Many rightfully felt pride in the scientific and military breakthroughs.

In my quest to tell the story truthfully, I relied on documentary sources as much as possible. I wanted to see the data for myself, read the memoirs of scientists and military officials who created and tested the bombs, find contemporaneous records of the experiences of people who lived near the testing grounds, and search through all the available archival material for clues. How much and how soon did the Soviet government understand the human harm of nuclear tests? What did the local government in Kazakhstan know? Most importantly, what did the people who lived through the tests experience?

The hardest question to answer was this: What was the full impact of the nuclear tests on the people and the environment during the nuclear tests and many years after? Three decades after the last nuclear explosion at the Semipalatinsk nuclear testing site, I cannot provide the reader with a complete answer. The secrecy surrounding the entire Soviet nuclear program meant that whatever data the Soviet military collected was classified. Nuclear weapons remain today at the core of Russia’s national security, and for that reason sensitive information related to the Soviet/Russian nuclear program is still mostly out of reach. In the archives in Kazakhstan, I came across requests from Kazakhstan to Russia to provide the data that could help understand the health impact of nuclear tests on its people. I did not find responses.

Adding to these research difficulties are the contradictions among the different narratives over the human consequences of the nuclear tests. What the military medics said differed from what the clinical data suggested. But because the clinical data remain incomplete, it is hard to give exact answers; I can only provide the reader with the different, conflicting versions of what was happening in the Kazakh steppe. The concluding chapter of the book summarizes some of the more recent studies, which, while limited in scope, afford at least a glimpse of the long-lasting effect of nuclear tests on the people of Kazakhstan.

My research into the testing period wasn’t all dark. It was wonderful to learn about people of integrity and courage both in Russia and in Kazakhstan. Some of Russia’s most prominent scientists—Andrei Sakharov and Evgenii Velikhov, to name two—became opponents of Soviet nuclear tests. In Kazakhstan, I was moved by writers, scientists, and political leaders—such as Mukhtar Auezov, a famous writer and a native of the Semipalatinsk region, who first talked about the Semipalatinsk Polygon at an international conference in Japan in 1957; Dr. Bahiia Atchabarov, who led clinical studies of test victims in the 1950s; and local governors of Semipalatinsk, such as Mukhametkali Suzhikov in the 1950s, Mikhail Karpenko in the 1960s, and Keshrim Boztaev in the 1980s—who were among those who publicly questioned the tests. And, of course, above all, I was in awe of the millions of regular people of Kazakhstan who, in the 1980s, led by the writer Olzhas Suleimenov, launched the antinuclear movement called Nevada-Semipalatinsk. These people brought to an end nuclear testing in Kazakhstan.

I used the archival documents to the best of my ability. Even if my topic is still sensitive, for which reason not all records are available, I still got a sense of how no consequential action (or inaction) remains hidden forever. Contemporaneous documents, even if sometimes written in an obfuscated way to muddy the real facts, provide good hints at decision-makers’ motivations, courage, or lack thereof if studied closely and cross-checked against other sources. Interviews with a wide range of participants provided rich material and added a human touch to my writing, but I was always aware that how we remember things tricks us all, and individual memories might not fully reflect reality. To the extent possible, I tried to use multiple sources to minimize inaccuracies.


The second part of my book is devoted to the first years of Kazakhstan’s independence. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Kazakhstan found itself with a daunting inheritance it had not sought—more than a thousand Soviet nuclear weapons. That legacy would have made Kazakhstan the world’s fourth largest nuclear power, but, after complex and high-stakes negotiations with the United States, Russia, and others, it decided to spurn that option and instead become nuclear-free.

I tell the story of this journey by again relying on primary documents found in the archives—memos, cables, and policy papers as well as interviews with the diplomats, officials, and experts who were active participants in the relevant events. As a scholar, not bound by political correctness or government narrative, I have written a story which might appear messy but is, I hope, more nuanced and more accurate than would be a glossy celebration of US-Kazakhstan achievements in diplomatic denuclearization.

As with the first part of the book, the second part presented research issues. Sifting through archival documents felt like a treasure hunt. It was interesting to see how Kazakhs and Americans interpreted the same events, how each side prepared for negotiations, and what they thought about each other.

Time presented a different challenge in the research. If you talk today to Kazakh and American participants in those 1990s events, they describe them with warm nostalgia and mutual respect. The passage of time has allowed them to zoom in on the good, important moments and perceive history as a neat progression of wise decisions and laudable cooperation, all leading to a culmination of which they are rightfully proud: a nuclear-free Kazakhstan. This rosy narrative would suggest that the Kazakh leadership immediately knew what to do with its nuclear arsenal (give it up) and that the United States never worried about Kazakhstan’s inclinations.

But the primary documents—the diplomatic cables, internal memos, and media interviews from the early 1990s—tell a more complicated story. According to those contemporaneous records, for the decision-makers from the United States and Kazakhstan, the nuclear negotiations were shot through with uncertainty, anxiety, and apprehension.

These worries make sense. Kazakhstan was then a brand-new country. Its leaders were understandably anxious about its future. Whether to give up nuclear weapons and the nuclear infrastructure and how to do it in a way that would help, not detract, from the country’s security, were not easily answerable questions, especially as two of Kazakhstan’s neighbors, Russia and China, were nuclear powers. Similarly, on the US side, understanding Kazakhstan’s intentions was not a given in the beginning. There was no certainty about what Kazakhstan would do.

As a scholar, I wanted this book to reflect as accurately as possible the complexities of that period. But I also believe that, in the end, those complexities render the eventual achievements even more impressive. A young country whose leaders were not allowed to make any significant decisions of their own under Soviet rule made life-changing decisions that benefited a new nation diplomatically, economically, and in terms of security. Kazakhstan, poor and in crisis, negotiated with the world’s superpower on an almost equal footing. As for the United States, it achieved its main objective of assuring the removal of Soviet nuclear weapons from Kazakhstan, and it did so through thoughtful and skillful diplomacy. Specifically, the United States offered Kazakhstan what it needed most—support for its sovereignty and security, the financial and technical means to help dismantle weapons infrastructure and secure vulnerable nuclear material, and direct foreign investment and political and economic assistance.


Like the story of the nuclear tests and of Kazakhstan’s early years of independence, my own Kazakh heritage is nuanced, both in its effect on me and on my preparation of this book.

“Aren’t you happy Kazakhstan got rid of those nasty Russian colonizers?” was the most frequent question I got when I started living and studying abroad. Fellow graduate students from Western countries, informed by textbooks written by Western scholars who never lived in the region, assumed the only emotion people in Central Asia could feel about the Soviet collapse was joy. The truth was way more complicated.

My childhood, lived under Soviet rule, could not have been happier. My parents loved each other, and they loved us, their two daughters. Our parents’ circle included people in politics, history, arts, and literature. They would regularly host interesting people for dinners. We never sat at the “kids’ table.” Our parents often struggled financially, just like most of the Soviet intelligentsia, but we never felt deprived. I felt safe, loved, and happy.

I also distinctly remember feeling pride for the Soviet Union. Usually, it was during international sports events that I felt it most strongly. Soviet teams winning dozens of gold medals in the Olympics. Soviet gymnasts dazzling world audiences. And my favorite of all—Soviet figure skaters—performing incredible pirouettes on ice. My heart skipped a bit when I heard that triumphant Soviet hymn:

The unbreakable union of free republics

Great Russia united forever.

Long may it live, created by the will of the people

United, mighty Soviet Union!

But there were also things that did not make sense, things that were part of living in a Soviet state. In elementary school, the teachers told us that we were expected to love Grandpa Lenin more than anyone else. “Mum, is it okay that I love Dad more than I love Lenin?” a six-year-old me asked, seeking reassurance. “Absolutely,” my mother responded. She, forever a nonconformist, never joined the Communist Party even though it was expected of all university professors.

The fact that Kazakhs were second-class citizens in their own republic or that non-Slavic ethnicities were considered inferior to Russians was also something I could not fully grasp until much later. As a little girl, I internalized Soviet standards of beauty. Female beauty was someone blonde with blue eyes, not Asian with almond-shaped eyes, like me. I even disliked my name—Togzhan. An unusual Kazakh name did not sound feminine enough in Russian because it did not end with a vowel. It was only as a young adult that I embraced my name, which can be translated from Kazakh as “full, satisfied soul.”

The Soviet system officially prided itself on interethnic harmony, but the reality was very different. In the Soviet republics, most top positions—in governing bodies or big industrial facilities—were awarded to ethnic Russians. The deputies would often be the representatives of local ethnicity.

Local culture and language were also relegated to second place, after Russian. In my home city of Almaty, there were only a handful of schools that allowed teaching in Kazakh. There was no Kazakh language heard on the streets of Almaty or other big cities. One had to travel deep into the rural countryside to hear Kazakh. As a child, I was oblivious to how the Soviet state suppressed Kazakh identity.

In terms of this book, my Kazakh heritage afforded clear advantages in my familiarity with my nation’s history, geography, culture, and language, and my access to my father’s papers. But that heritage also posed dangers, particularly in the area of potential bias and undue exaggeration. The scholar in me wanted to tell my country’s story as fully and objectively as I could. But because I am a Kazakh and because my father was a major figure in Kazakh nuclear policymaking, this journey wasn’t without a struggle.

On an emotional level, the hardest part of research and writing concerned the Soviet nuclear tests. As someone who grew up in Kazakhstan, I knew about the history of the tests and the endless victims. But visiting the former nuclear test site and reading contemporaneous documents about the period elevated my understanding of the tragedy to a new level. On more than one occasion, my blood boiled when I came across particularly cruel or tragic material.

Meeting Kazakh victims of the Soviet tests or reading about their experiences proved especially hard. Those were my people—the people who looked like me, who shared my culture and affinity for the land, people who did nothing wrong but ended up paying the price for the Soviet “nuclear shield.” The stories of these people are heartbreaking and continue to haunt me. But I have tried my best to research and report this story with scholarly discipline and impartiality.

Please read this book with an understanding of both my heritage and the emotions it engenders, and of my desire as a scholar to write a book that is as objective and comprehensive as possible. It took me more than a decade to research and write this work; I hope you find it to be a full and fair treatment of the issues discussed. My hope is that it is a worthy tribute to my father and those who, like him, navigated the complexities of building a new state, and to the people of Semipalatinsk, who paid the price for Soviet nuclear might.