"Nevada-Semipalatinsk" The Soviet Union's Anti-Nuclear Movement an Interview with Almaz Estekov

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"Nevada-Semipalatinsk" - The Soviet Union's Anti-Nuclear Movement an Interview with Almaz Estekov

What were the origins of the Soviet anti-nuclear group " Nevada-Semipalatinsk" ? Did the catastrophe at Chernobyl serve as a motivation for the people of Kazakhstan to stop the dangerous nuclear testing being conducted at the Semipalatinsk nuclear' weapons test site?
Chernobyl occurred in the spring of 1986. At this time there was no and-nuclear movement in Kazakhstan. We were just leaving a period of stagnation, [the stock Soviet phrase for the Brezhnev era - ed.] and people did not have any information about the consequences of nuclear tests. When Gorbachev came to power and started the policy of glasnost, the central Soviet newspapers began to give that information.

On a given day, underground nuclear tests were made at the test site near Semipalatinsk. The bombs that were exploded ranged from 75 to 100 kilotons.

Recent nuclear tests at Semipalatinsk were conducted underground. Weren't there above-ground tests as well?
The Semipalatinsk test facility began conducting nuclear tests on August 29, 1949. From August 29, 1949 until 1963, all nuclear tests were conducted above ground.
The hazardous radioactive clouds that resulted from these atomic tests must have affected the people living around the area. What were the effects of such testing on nearby inhabitants?

Since 1949, our hospitals have been filled because the total number of people suffering from different diseases grew by five or six times after each test. Nothing was published in the papers about this. In the Semipalatinsk oblast, the total number of people suffering from oncological diseases - from cancer - after each test was five times greater than in any other region in the Soviet Union.

In 1953 there was the first test of the Soviet hydrogen bomb. This was an above-ground test. Academician Andrei Sakharov was the main scientist who worked on this project. He was called " the father of the Soviet H-Bomb." Later he talked to the representatives of the " Nevada-Semipalatinsk" movement of his involvement.

The case of which I am now going to speak has been witnessed by two people in Kazakhstan who are still alive and remember. These witnesses also have evidence to verify their story:

All the people from the neighborhoods and villages around Semipalatinsk were evacuated, except for 40 people in one village. One witness was a five-year-old boy, the other was a fifty-year-old man. These 40 people were selected according to a wide range of ages. The Soviet military did this to study the effects of nuclear testing on humans. The soldiers told them that there was going to be an earthquake and they must stay outside of their homes. So they stood outside and when the bomb was detonated, they really thought it was an earthquake. They didn't understand what was really happening.

Two hours after the bomb exploded, a special military detail was dispatched to the village. Ten officers dressed in protective clothing came to interview the villagers. During their first meeting, they gave every man a glass of vodka and everyone 50 rubles. The men drank the vodka and put the rubles in their pockets but did not understand that they were human guinea pigs. The physicians observed these people for the next 10 to 15 years to see how they were affected and which of the villagers died.

How did they observe these people? In a special laboratory in Moscow? In Kazakhstan?
When some of these people went to a local physician who was assigned to them, he immediately called Moscow and special military doctors were sent to examine them. The military doctors observed these people on a regular basis. After 15 years, only two of the 40 villagers survived, the rest died basically from the effects of the nuclear testing.

Can you describe the area around the nuclear test site? How populated is it, and how did the nuclear testing affect these areas?

More than one million people live in the Semipalatinsk oblast. In the neighboring oblast, Karaganda, there lived roughly two million people because this area was rich in minerals and coal. These districts were the most industrialized in Kazakhstan. Besides, a central meat-packing plant and factory for all of the Soviet Union is located in Semipalatinsk. The entire country received meat from this plant, and it was contaminated with radiation.

In the early days of atomic testing, this region was particularly hard-hit because not only was it affected by Soviet nuclear-test clouds, but also by the Chinese when they tested their atomic bombs just across the border.

With regard to underground testing, there were two gases which leaked from the test site. The Soviet military called these " noble gases," and they were the only gases not contained by the underground nuclear testing. When there were comments in the official Soviet press, the military said that there were no harmful effects from the gases. Yet, the gases escaped and affected this region immensely.
Could you discuss the origins of the " Nevada-SemipaIatinsk" anti-nuclear movement?

After the effects of Chernobyl on Ukraine and Byelorussia began to be realized, Kazakh intellectuals began to think about the effects of the Semipalatinsk tests on their own people. I was deeply angered by these Soviet imperialistic policies. And, being a Kazakh dissident, I joined Olzhas Suleimenov, who was head of the Kazakh Writers' Union and a member of the USSR Supreme Soviet, when he started the " Nevada-Semipalatinsk" anti-nuclear movement. The movement's efforts originally focused on a comparison of the situation in Kazakhstan with the effects people had experienced after Chernobyl; and they saw many similarities. The number of children suffering from cancer was higher in the region than in all other regions of the Soviet Union. Kazakh physicians came to Semipalatinsk and found that about 200 people would come to them with the same disease.

There was a second region which was located between the Soviet and Chinese test ranges. Because of its location, the cancer rate was slightly less than in Semipalatinsk.

Our movement began from an unusual source. One military colonel contacted Olzhas Suleimenov after one of the nuclear tests in February 1989. Military officials located in Kurchatov, a small town near the test site, would schedule a test when the prevailing winds would blow the radioactive " noble gases" away from their base. But they did not care whether the wind went to Ust-Kamenogorsk or to Semipalatinsk. This military town was kept totally secret. Even the Prime Minister of Kazakhstan did not know of this town. The colonel said that a full military alert had once been in effect at the base: during one test, the wind unexpectedly shifted and blew the radioactive clouds in the opposite direction - right over the military base. The colonel told Suleimenov that he was an honest man and could now say that these clouds were not " noble gases," but that they seriously affected people. The military realized this only when the tests affected the soldiers as well.

Two days later Suleimenov went on live Soviet television, ostensibly to read some of his poetry. He then put the book aside and told the audience that the poetry could wait because there was a problem which was of much more importance to us. He spoke of the information the colonel had told him, and called for all the people to come to the square where the Writers' Union was located. The KGB and the government were shocked by Suleimenov's speech. Immediately, a great crowd of people gathered at the square.

How did the " Nevada-Semipalatinsk" movement develop after this demonstration?
I immediately called the American Embassy and spoke to Rosemary Foster, the secretary for political affairs. She familiarized Ambassador Matlock with the details. I also announced that we had called the movement " Nevada-Semipalatinsk." We added the name " Nevada" because we wanted to stop nuclear testing there as well since 90 percent of nuclear testing was conducted at these two sites. The movement declared that if the Soviets closed the test site in Semipalatinsk, then the American side should also close its own test site. Our movement acknowledges that there are 57,000 nuclear bombs in the world totaling 18,000 megatons. During the entire course of World War II, only the equivalent of three megatons of bombs were used.

I was responsible for the anti-nuclear and anti-military demonstrations in Moscow. In October 1989,1 organized 300 Soviet students to surround the Central Military Staff Headquarters in Moscow. We blocked the access of Soviet generals to the building. Our petition was handed over to the head of the military staff. In 1989, we started ten protests, the most significant of which was a huge demonstration next to the test site. It was the first time that the generals in charge of the test site met representatives of our movement. On May 24-27, 1990 Kazakh and-nuclear groups met an American delegation headed by a representative from Physicians for a Worid Without Nuclear Bombs. This organization had a chance to see the nuclear-test site in Semipalatinsk. Soon afterwards, the delegation and Olzhas Suleimenov met with Gorbachev and Shevardnadze.

The problem was that the Americans did not want to close their nuclear-test facilities in Nevada. Nuclear tests were profitable for the state of Nevada because jobs were created from this activity. Our movement's activities ceased just after the August putsch, when Gorbachev and his new Defense Minister announced that there would be no more nuclear tests conducted in Semipalatinsk. Now we are directing the many resources of this organization toward helping the people of Kazakhstan who were affected by this testing, especially the children born with many genetic defects as a result of the testing.

Editor's Note

An organization has been recently established to help children around the Semipalatinsk area who suffer from birth defects and other radiation-related Illnesses resulting from the effects of tests conducted at the nuclear-test site. Donations, which are tax-deductible, may be sent to: Peace Child, P.O. Box 1484. Princeton. New Jersey 08542.

Almaz Estekov is president of the Association for a Democratic Turkestan in Washington. D.C. He was interviewed by USCSAR Executive Director Gerard Janco, with Dimitri Starostin serving as interpreter.

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