Stalin used the area as a nuclear test site and the local population have been paying a terrible price ever since. The plight of these people in East Kazakhstan has touched the heart of Scottish MEP Struan Stevenson, who has campaigned to bring their situation to wider recognition for 13 years. Now, in an exclusive article for The Scotsman, he argues Stalin’s actions could have devastating consequences in the future, too
My life changed on 9 September 1999. I had recently been elected a Member of the European Parliament and was drowning in work when an old friend called me and asked if I could spare just 15 minutes to meet a Kazakh academic, Dr Kamila Magzieva. I tried to explain that even 15 minutes was impossible, but my friend was insistent.
Dr Magzieva came from Semipalatinsk (now renamed Semey) in East Kazakhstan. Between 1949 and 1990, the Soviet Union used this region near the border with Siberia as a nuclear test site. The Polygon, as it was known, is the size of Wales yet what was happening there, namely 607 test nuclear explosions, was hidden from the world. But that wasn’t the worst. Dr Magzieva explained how the military scientists would wait until the wind was blowing in the direction of the remote Kazakh villages before detonating their nuclear devices and then KGB doctors would study the effects of nuclear radiation on the people who lived there.
The Soviet Union was using the 1.5 million population of the Polygon as human guinea pigs, exposing them to the equivalent of 20,000 Hiroshima bombs. And this was continuing under the noses of the international community even after the Chernobyl disaster of 1986.
I asked Dr Magzieva if I could visit East Kazakhstan and see the evidence for myself. A matter of weeks later I found myself in the remote village of Znamenka. But my reception was not what I had expected. Angry village elders surrounded me demanding to know if I was yet another disaster tourist from the West, come to stare at their plight, weep crocodile tears, promise to help, only never to be heard from again. I promised them that I would help, and asked them to tell me their experiences.
Elderly men and women explained how they were ordered to stack bedding and furniture against the doors and windows of their homes, then made to stand outside – away from the buildings – as the mushroom clouds of nuclear explosions rose just a few miles away.
Unsurprisingly, but still shockingly, the tests have left their mark on generations of people in the Polygon. Cancers run at five times the national average, birth defects are three times the national average. Virtually all children suffer from anaemia. Many of the younger men are impotent while young women are afraid to become pregnant because they know their child is likely to be ill, mentally damaged or physically deformed if they carry it to term.
Psychological disorders are rife and suicides are widespread, even among children. Seepage from underground nuclear tests has polluted watercourses and streams, farmland has been heavily irradiated and radioactive contamination has entered the food chain. The average life expectancy is only 52 years. In Scotland it is 75 years for men, and even that is considered one of the lowest in Europe and a national shame.
Before 1999 I had no idea of the situation in the Polygon. I have now visited Kazakhstan 15 times, more recently as the roving ambassador for the environment on behalf of the Kazakh Government who chaired the Organisation for Security & Cooperation in Europe in 2010. Sent to each of the five Central Asian Republics, I have discovered horror story after horror story, the legacy of the many environmental catastrophes wrought by the Soviets in the region which affect millions of people to this day.
To give you just one example of the scale of these catastrophes, in 1960 in the seaport of Muynak on the Aral Sea, fishing boats landed 30,000 tonnes of fish a year. Then one morning the tide went out and didn’t come back in. The water in Muynak harbour, which had been 20 metres deep, simply vanished taking with it the livelihoods of thousands of fishermen, fish processors and port workers. Today, you have to travel more than 100 miles from Muynak to reach the sea, and rotting hulks of fishing vessels litter the desiccated seabed.
But this was no natural disaster. In order to clothe the vast Soviet military forces, the Kremlin planned to grow cotton in Uzbekistan. Tens of thousands of slave labourers were forced to dig canals and irrigation channels by hand to divert water from the two large rivers which feed the Aral Sea – the Amu Darya and Syr Darya. Even then, the Kremlin didn’t leave the area alone. One of the small islands in the middle of the Aral Sea was used as the primary testing ground for its secret biological weapons programme, experimenting with a range of genetically modified and weaponised pathogens such as anthrax, plague, typhus and smallpox. But as the waters of the Aral Sea retreated further and further the island – Vozrozhdenie, or Resurrection Island – grew steadily in size until in 2001 it actually became connected to the mainland. There are now real fears that some of these lethal pathogens could escape to the mainland via infected rodents, looters or even terrorists.
It was over 20 years after the end of atomic testing in the Polygon that the world began to take notice, but Stalin’s legacy may yet have an impact that could threaten future generations across the globe. The mining of uranium to manufacture the atomic weapons tested in the Polygon has left a staggering 812 million tonnes of highly radioactive uranium tailings (waste byproduct). They lie in dilapidated dumps in four of the five Central Asian republics, posing not just an imminent threat to the environment but a potential flashpoint for violence and conflict.
The most dangerous radioactive waste storage sites are concentrated in the “Ferghana radioactive belt”, home to over ten million people in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Flash floods have on several occasions threatened to inundate some of these dumps, which would spread lethal radioactive pollution far and wide. The Ferghana Valley is not only one of the most polluted areas on Earth it is also one of the poorest. Continuing misuse of water resources could become a potential source of intra and even inter-state conflict between the upstream and downstream nations in the zone, in what is a seething hotbed for Islamic fundamentalism.
Stalin’s brutal collectivisation programme and rapid industrialisation of the USSR has created an atomic lake, an imploded mountain, a disappearing sea, a top-secret biological weapons-testing site, hundreds of millions of tonnes of radioactive waste, contaminated food, deformed babies and widespread illness and death. But his lasting legacy could well be regional or even international conflict.
• Readers of The Scotsman can purchase Stalin’s Legacy: The Soviet War on Nature by Struan Stevenson, published by Birlinn (RRP £20), at the special price of £15 (including free p&p in the UK), ISBN 9781780270906. Please call Booksource on 0845 370 0067 and quote reference SM912. Stevenson’s previous book Crying Forever raised around £62,000 all of which was donated via Mercy Corps to children’s hospitals and oncology hospitals in the Polygon.