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From Victim to Advocate: Kazakhstan’s Nuclear History

Kazakhstan, which is known for its nomadic past, is currently establishing polo. Only recently the Presidential Professional Sport Club “Astana” was founded, offering a comprehensive program of activities, among them polo. The Kazakhstan Polo Federation is planning to open at least six more regional polo clubs and schools.

But Kazakhstan its nomadic past is not the only part of the country’s history, it also has a nuclear history. The 18,500 square kilometers Semipalatinsk Test Site in Eastern Kazakhstan was Moscow’s main nuclear testing ground for decades. More than 450 nuclear tests were conducted over 40 years, casting nuclear fallout across a huge swathe of the Kazakh steppe. However the country, adjacent to the Caspian Sea, does not submit to the role of a victim, but rather is active in fighting for a nuclear weapons-free world.

By Michelle Witte

The vast blue skies of Kazakhstan form the backdrop for a complex cloud landscape—small, skittering puffs that disappear across the steppe, massive piles of storm clouds that water the grasses, and, for 40 years, towering, man-made mushroom clouds that brought neither rain nor shade, only suffering to the land and the people.

Few people living in the countryside surrounding the town of Semipalatinsk were likely to have any clear idea of what nuclear weapons were when the Soviet Union carried out its first test at the secret Semipalatinsk Test Site on August 1, 1949. But after 40 years of explosions, 116 of them aboveground, they saw the results. The human toll of the 456 explosions that took place there is written on the bodies of East Kazakhstan’s people in missing limbs, deformations, and countless other health problems, not only in those who witnessed the tests, but in their children and grandchildren.

But if Kazakhstan has suffered disproportionately from effects of nuclear weapons, it has also taken it upon itself to contribute more than wealthier and more populous nations to ending the scourge of nuclear testing and the spread of nuclear weapons in general.

In 1989, before the fall of the Soviet Union, before achieving independence, Kazakhstan refused to stand for any more testing—on its territory or anywhere else. The Nevada-Semipalatinsk movement called for an end to tests in Kazakhstan and stood in solidarity with anti-nuclear movements calling for an end to testing in Nevada as well. The movement, founded by Kazakh writer Olzhas Suleimenov, was the first anti-nuclear movement in the Soviet Union, and drew global attention to the horrors of nuclear weapons testing.

According to UNESCO’s Memory of the World Documentary Heritage Register, “Nevada-Semipalatinsk played a positive role in the understanding by the general public of the necessity to fight against nuclear threats. It gained wide support throughout whole world and became a real historical factor in finding solutions to global ecological problems.”

The movement contributed to the official closure of the Semipalatinsk test site by Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev in 1991. But closing the site was simple compared to what faced the new nation in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse. Independent Kazakhstan had not only inherited the consequences of nuclear testing, but also many of the poisonous bombs themselves—a deployable arsenal bigger than that of the U.K. and France combined. In 1992 Kazakhstan became the first country in history to voluntarily scrap its entire nuclear arsenal. This, of course, was a long-term process and one that required the cooperation of former Cold War adversaries the United States and Russia.

Kazakhstan, through long, hard and often secret work, rid itself of the weapons that wreaked so much damage on its territory, but nuclear testing remains a possibility around the world. The ATOM Project, an education and online petition campaign initiated by President Nazarbayev, is one of the country’s latest efforts to reduce the global threat of nuclear weapons. The project aims to increase awareness of the risk of nuclear weapons and takes as its first step a petition to world leaders to bring the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) into full force immediately. The petition has been signed by nearly 80,000 people in 10 languages so far.

ATOM Project Ambassador, Kazakh artist Karipbek Kuyukov, tours the world with the project, displaying his work and talking about Kazakhstan’s nuclear weapons history. Kuyukov knows the consequences of nuclear weapons testing personally. The artist from Semey was born without arms. His parents would sometimes watch the above ground explosions from their village, not knowing the consequences it would have on their health and that of their children.

Kuyukov is a veteran nuclear-testing opponent. As a young man, he joined the Nevada-Semipalatinsk movement, standing up to the powers that had used his body as a testing ground. Decades of activism in Kazakhstan and around the wold have culminated in his work for the ATOM Project. People must be reminded of the past, he says; as the world hurtles forward, we must learn from our mistakes.

“Kazakhstan was one of the first countries to give up nuclear weapons and chose a policy of peace and considers it a responsibility to encourage others to do the same. As long as there is a danger of nuclear war, while the world has even one nuclear warhead, we, as victims, will continue to cry out, ‘Don’t allow the possibility of nuclear war! Destroy the nukes!’”

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