Michael KreponAtomic Steppe

Verse of the week:

“Restrained pulse of moaning steppe —

With waves of pain and grief.

The drops of rain? Crushing seas?

Those are mothers’ trembling tears.

Here’s a place of whispering spell —

Abai. Earth’s bleeding chest.

Death’s stealing lives — time multiplies.

Submission never justifies.”

— Alimzhan Akmetov [Abai is a revered Kazakh poet]

This is a rich moment for nonproliferation studies. The classic literature we have relied upon to teach this field hasn’t been refreshed for a while. We have now been gifted with four new case studies and Vipin Narang’s latest book pulling together cases into a useful typology. I’ll get to Vipin’s book, Seeking the Bomb, later.

The books by Mariana Budjeryn, Inheriting the Bomb: The Collapse of the USSR and the Nuclear Disarmament of Ukraine, and by Yuri Kostenko, Ukraine’s Nuclear Disarmament: A History, couldn’t be more timely. Mansoor Ahmed has employed familial ties, primary source material, and interviews to provide us with a far more nuanced history of Pakistan’s nuclear program in Pakistan’s Pathway to the Bomb: Ambitions, Politics, and Rivalries.

My focus here is on Togzhan Kassenova’s impressive achievement, Atomic Steppe: How Kazakhstan Gave Up the Bomb. First, a disclaimer: Togzhan and I share the same publisher, but this has no bearing on my admiration for her and for her book. In her native language, “Togzhan” translates into “full, satisfied soul.” This book marks an important milestone on her journey.

Atomic Steppe is not an easy read. The Soviet Union tested nuclear weapons without much regard for those living, farming, and ranching nearby its test site at Semipalatinsk or downwind from it. Thousands of Kazakhs suffered the consequences. Togzhan gives voice to their story.

The first test at Semipalatinsk was the worst – a twenty-two kiloton atmospheric burst – until the first thermonuclear test, a 400-kiloton bruiser, spreading radiation 250 miles downwind from the test site. In all, the Soviets conducted over 450 tests with almost eighteen megatons worth of explosive yield on Kazakh territory.

Thanks to Togzhan’s diligence and field work, we have a far better sense of just how punishing Soviet test practices at Semipalatinsk (or the “Polygon”) were. Her first-person accounts, pictures, and archival research tell stories of heartbreak, perseverance, popular resistance, and achievement.

The heart of the book, at least for me, was how testing stopped, and then how Kazakh leader Nursultan Nazarbayev, supported by a small coterie of advisers – including Togzhan’s father, who ran an organization devoted to security studies – decided to renounce Kazakhstan’s sudden nuclear inheritance after the Soviet Union dissolved.

The story and cast of characters that Togzhan presents — Stalin, Beria, Kurchatov, Khariton, and Sakharov, among others — are no less compelling than tales from Los Alamos. Los Alamos was, however, a rustic, comfortable retreat compared to the primitive living conditions at the Polygon.

The groundswell of opposition to testing at Semipalatinsk was abetted by the political reforms undertaken by Mikhail Gorbachev. As Togzhan writes, “Three powerful factors – the unprecedented publicizing of test information, the opportunity to act that Gorbachev’s reforms allowed, and the rising Kazakh self-awakening – converged and brought the rising Kazakh nation to its tipping point.”

Local resistance was led by Olzhas Suleimenov, who felt a kinship with anti-nuclear protesters in the West. The outpouring of resistance to testing that Suleimenov led became known within Kazakhstan as the Nevada-Semipalatinsk movement. Western anti-nuclear activists visited Kazakhstan, marching together under the banner of a Native American offering a peace pipe to a Kazakh elder. As in the United States, the Russian nuclear enclave resisted a moratorium on testing. One more test was needed. One more test was always needed. The test on February 28, 1989 became a political flashpoint.

Degelen Mountain – an area surrounded by farms and livestock — shook yet again. (For the very first commercial satellite images of Degelen Mountain and its surrounding farmland, see Commercial Observation Satellites and International Security.) Once again, venting happened. A sudden wind shift carried the radioactive debris cloud over military encampments and civilian areas. This time around, because of glasnost, Soviet military claims that everything went perfectly as planned were publicly corrected. There would be ten more Soviet tests, but the writing was now on the wall. Nazarbayev led the charge to stop testing.

On August 29, 1991 – the forty-second anniversary of the first test at Semipalatinsk and ten days after the coup that failed to remove Gorbachev from power – Nazarbayev signed a decree closing the test site. Four months later, the Soviet Union dissolved and Nazarbayev became the first President of a newly independent country. He wasn’t inclined to keep his country’s nuclear inheritance, but he also wasn’t inclined to give it back without gaining something of value in return.

Several factors were paramount, in Togzhan’s assessment. Public sentiment was strongly antinuclear, and there was no domestic pro-nuclear enclave, as its members returned to Russia. Moreover, Kazakh authorities didn’t retain physical control over these weapons and were unable to launch or maintain them. Russian security forces didn’t even allow them access to key nuclear sites for the first two years of independence. Kazakhstan’s new government wanted to become a member in good standing with the international community, and the country desperately needed direct foreign investment, beginning with Chevron.

What followed was a two-year “courtship” during which Nazarbayev and his principal adviser, Tulegen Zhukeev, played hard to get and U.S. officials provided the incentives required for Nazarbayev to choose what he was already inclined to do – to make Kazakhstan a model non-nuclear-weapon state. These chapters are enriched by wonderful detail. As is the backstory to Project Sapphire, the removal of twenty bombs’ worth of highly enriched uranium from the Ulba Metallurgical Plant.

All this seems rather pre-ordained with the benefit of hindsight, but it was very difficult work for U.S. officials. The standouts in Togzhan’s account include James Baker, who ordered ambassadors nominated to serve in newly independent post-Soviet states to reach their posts as soon as possible and not to await Senate confirmation; Al Gore and Strobe Talbott, who reclaimed promises made during the George H.W. Bush administration; Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, who made funding for cooperative threat reduction programs possible; the first U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan, William Courtney, a tenacious and knowing diplomat; Andy Webber, the point person for threat reduction at the U.S. Embassy; and Sig Hecker, whose policy entrepreneurship helped clean up Semipalatinsk.

Semipalatinsk has been renamed; it is now Semey. But cleaning up the past is hard and never ending. The country as well as the global nuclear order are at inflection points.

Backsliding beckons on the political front. Kazakhstan has already lost ground. Political unrest has been met with force. Like its neighboring “Stans,” Kazakhstan has gravitated back into Moscow’s stifling orbit. If past again becomes prologue, renewed freedom requires breathing space from Russia.

As for Kazakhstan’s nuclear future, this course is firmly set. Time does not heal all wounds from the Soviet testing program. Painful history does, however, provide constant reminder that there is no going back. As do the living witnesses whose stories Togzhan amplifies.

The beauty and magic of this brutalized landscape cannot be erased. Togzhan’s book introduces us to the indomitable strength of its people, including those victimized by nuclear testing. They and we are in her debt.


  1. Laura Holgate (History)

    You’re not the first to make this ironic typo, but it’s worth fixing….

    “…Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, who made funding for cooperative treat reduction programs possible…”

    A lovely review, and a good reminder for me to reorder the book, which apparently did not follow me to Vienna!!

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Corrected this. Congrats, Laura—