Winner of the 2023 Marshall D. Shulman Book Prize, sponsored by the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES).
Winner of the 2022 Choice Award for Outstanding Academic Title, sponsored by the American Library Association.
Atomic Steppe tells the untold true story of how the obscure country of Kazakhstan said no to the most powerful weapons in human history. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the marginalized Central Asian republic suddenly found itself with the world's fourth largest nuclear arsenal on its territory. Would it give up these fire-ready weapons—or try to become a Central Asian North Korea?
This book takes us inside Kazakhstan's extraordinary and little-known nuclear history from the Soviet period to the present. For Soviet officials, Kazakhstan's steppe was not an ecological marvel or beloved homeland, but an empty patch of dirt ideal for nuclear testing. Two-headed lambs were just the beginning of the resulting public health disaster for Kazakhstan—compounded, when the Soviet Union collapsed, by the daunting burden of becoming an overnight nuclear power.
Equipped with intimate personal perspective and untapped archival resources, Togzhan Kassenova introduces us to the engineers turned diplomats, villagers turned activists, and scientists turned pacifists who worked toward disarmament. With thousands of nuclear weapons still present around the world, the story of how Kazakhs gave up their nuclear inheritance holds urgent lessons for global security.
About the author
Togzhan Kassenova is senior fellow at the University at Albany, SUNY and a nonresident fellow of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"Atomic Steppe is the untold story of how Kazakhstan rid itself of nuclear weapons—a remarkable accomplishment for a new nation. Togzhan Kassenova documents this momentous tale with depth, rigor, and skill. A revelatory, authoritative account of how the nuclear arms race went backwards, for once, making the world safer."
—David E. Hoffman, author of The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy
"Togzhan Kassenova's moving Atomic Steppe offers one of the first complete English-language accounts of the devastating but little-known nuclear history of Kazakhstan. The author successfully blends meticulous research with her own family's personal experience."
—Sarah Cameron, author of The Hungry Steppe: Famine, Violence, and the Making of Soviet Kazakhstan
"In this wonderful book, Togzhan Kassenova provides an intimate account of Kazakhstan's nuclear history and an acute analysis of how it handled its post-Soviet nuclear inheritance. Atomic Steppe is a deeply researched and profoundly affecting book, which everyone concerned about the nuclear state of the world should read."
—David J. Holloway, author of Stalin and the Bomb: The Soviet Union and Atomic Energy, 1939-1956
"With the sweeping and inspiring Atomic Steppe, Togzhan Kassenova has unearthed insights new even to those of us who had front-row seats to Kazakhstan's nuclear saga, telling a story both accurate and humane. Anyone interested in Eurasia or in health, environmental, and nuclear challenges should read this engrossing book."
—William Courtney, former US Ambassador to Kazakhstan
"Togzhan Kassenova's remarkable Atomic Steppe offers both a scholarly and a deeply personal view of the damage that more than seventy years of nuclear testing have caused to the soil and the people of this region."
—Michael D. Gordin, New York Review of Books
"The beauty and magic of this brutalized landscape cannot be erased. Togzhan's book introduces us to the indomitable strength of itspeople, including those victimized by nuclear testing. They and we are in her debt."
—Michael Krepon, Arms Control Wonk
"Togzhan Kassenova's review of 70 years of Kazakhstan's history in Atomic Steppe is the definitive study of that country's nuclear inheritance and its associated internal politics and international diplomacy."
—Laura Kennedy, Foreign Service Journal
"Kassenova's masterpiece not only outlines the importance of patience, empathy and deftness in diplomacy, but also helps to recalculate the costs of nuclearization. By compellingly telling Kazakhstan's nuclear story, the author warns against ignoring the most important stakeholders of the nuclear non-proliferation regime: people."
—Rabia Akhtar, International Affairs
"Atomic Steppe is a book of two halves that have been fused together to create a perfect whole. The first half describes the legacy of Kazakhstan's Soviet nuclear weapon tests. Conversely, the second part explores Kazakhstan's subsequent independence and the rugged pathway towards its emergence as a nuclear-free state in the early 1990s It is completely unique, an absolute must read, and it will become an atomic classic of our time."
—Becky Alexis-Martin, The Spokesman
"Atomic Steppe has much to inspire in future scholarship. By decentering the narrative from the United States and USSR and focusing on the Kazakh perspective, Kassenova brings attention to stories that have been overshadowed or ignored. In detailing the diplomatic interactions between the US and Kazakhstan, and the rise of the anti-nuclear movement in Kazakhstan, Kassenova clearly demonstrates that the Kazakhs were active agents, rather than passive bystanders, in shaping their future."
—Erin Chávez, H-Sci-Med-Tech
"Atomic Steppe is a new classic in the field that contains essential lessons for future efforts to rid the world of nuclear weapons and address the human toll of nuclear testing."
—Daryl G. Kimball, Arms Control Today
"Atomic Steppe is a well-informed, well-written, and necessary read for anyone eager to learn about the devastating effects of nuclear weapons, a topic that has become even more relevant now that Putin has invaded Ukraine and has threatened to use nuclear weapons in the region."
—Magdalena E. Stawkowski, The Nonproliferation Review
"Using Kazakh and American archival sources, Kassenova skillfully analyzes the intricacies of Kazakhstan's transformation into a nonnuclear-weapon state after inheriting 104 nuclear missiles when the Soviet Union collapsed... this excellent book makes an important contribution to the literature on nuclear arms control and disarmament. Highly recommended."
—M. E. Carranza, CHOICE
"This book would make anyone closer to understanding why nuclear world is not far-fetched and overtheorized, because Atomic Steppe is not only about politics or even a nuclear bomb, it is, most importantly, about people."
—Pirnavskaia Kseniia, The Korean Journal for the History of Science
"The story told through a decisively 'Kazakh perspective', is a welcome addition shining light on a hitherto underexplored dimension and its impact on the global nuclear order."
—Robin Möser, Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists
"The book is so much more than the title suggests. Through a historical lens, Dr Kassenova explores the fault lines in relations between Russia, Central Asian states, other former Soviet republics and the West. It is a thrilling account of one of the most significant geopolitical events in history: Kazakhstan abandoning its nuclear capacity in pursuit of peace and stability. The book is the culmination of more than a decade of painstaking research by the author, whose own father was one of the architects of Kazakhstan's nuclear policy."
—Afzal Amin, OCA Magazine
"Using both Kazakh and American archival resources and personal interviews, Kassenova tells the story of Kazakhstan's checkered past in a factual and even-handed manner. Her book is well-written, concise, and informative—and an important addition to recent scholarship that has come out about the history of Soviet Kazakhstan and the Soviet nuclear program."
—Michael G. Stefany, The Russian Review
"Atomic Steppe is highly recommended to scholars interested in the history of nuclear programs, Soviet and post-Soviet spaces, and, specifically, the Soviet legacy in Central Asia. Policy makers will also find the volume noteworthy, especially for its penetration of the intricate decision-making process at the highest levels of governance."
—Garret J. McDonald, Isis: A Journal of the History of Science Society
"Kassenova delivers a powerful and important work on the history and consequences of nuclear testing in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic and Kazakhstan."
—Michael S. Coffey, The Journal of Slavic Military Studies
"Atomic Steppe reflects on what we can know about these consequences, and what we may never know, which in itself highlights the tragic consequences of this nuclear legacy [of Soviet nuclear tests].... Atomic Steppe may serve as the most authoritative account for many years to come."
—Målfrid Braut-Hegghammer, Survival