SEMIPALATINSK, Kazakhstan—An hour’s drive down a rutted dirt track in eastern Kazakhstan is an expanse of steppe as big as Belgium, 50 miles from the nearest town. It’s called the Polygon. The land here is treeless and quiet, tawny grass from horizon to horizon, dotted with purple thistles and yellow wildflowers. At its center, a shallow depression is filled with thicker, greener grass. Above it, swallows flit in a breeze that smells of sage. This is what a nuclear wasteland looks like. It looks like Wyoming.
Yuriy Strilchuk, head of training for the National Nuclear Centre of Kazakhstan, is clutching a beeping Geiger counter. He won’t let a group of American journalists off the bus without two shower caps over our shoes and masks on our faces. Strilchuk, a sturdy man with a long goatee and ponytail, first came to this place in 1990 as a Soviet soldier. Now he comes as a tour guide to a nuclear apocalypse. He steps off the bus with plastic on his loafers but no mask on his face, and takes his position before the dimple in the earth.
This is ground zero for the Soviet nuclear program. On Aug. 29, 1949, the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb in this spot, a 22.4 kiloton explosion codenamed “First Lightning,” that launched the nuclear arms race. Four years later, the same earth shook with the Moscow’s first thermonuclear bomb—a 400 kiloton explosion 26 times more powerful than the bomb the United States dropped on Hiroshima.
Looking out from the epicenter of these blasts, you can still see remnants of structures the Soviets built to test the power of these explosions. To the right are the crumpled remains of a bridge. To the left are fortified bunkers and barracks that had been filled with dogs, pigs, and goats to approximate the effects a blast would have on soldiers. In a line in both directions, 10 four-story concrete buildings rise from the Earth like the moai of Easter Island. These structures were filled with sensors to measure the explosions. Strilchuk calls them “geese,” because from a distance that’s what they look like: giant goose necks craning up from the grass, facing the place where man played God.
From 1949 to 1989, the Soviet Union conducted 456 nuclear tests here, 116 of them above-ground. (Surface testing was eventually banned in 1963.) Strilchuk recounts this history dispassionately. But after fielding questions, he reveals a twinge of patriotism.
“The Soviet Union had to do this,” he says. “The United States was the possible enemy of the Soviet Union. The buildup of nuclear weapons on one side led to the buildup on the other side.”
He bends to pick three obsidian-like pebbles from the ground, soil chunks that lifted into the air in a mushroom cloud and metamorphosed into glass by the ferocious power of splitting atoms. “Drops of melted earth,” Strilchuk says.
He shouldn’t be touching them. In addition to our shoe protection and face masks, he told us not to touch the ground. We are supposed to keep our skin covered and breathe through our noses. But he shrugs off the danger for himself. “I’ll wash my hands afterwards,” he says. “Don’t worry about me.”
We don’t linger. As we file back into the bus, a man in camouflage pants removes our booties with gloved hands. I drop my pen getting in. Strilchuk stoops down to pick it up. “Is this your pen?” he asks. “Say goodbye.”
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the newly independent Kazakhstan inherited the fourth-largest nuclear arsenal in the world. It also acquired the radioactive legacy of four decades of nuclear testing. President Nursultan Nazarbayev, in power from the beginning, decided to dismantle the warheads to make nonproliferation a defining characteristic of his new country’s identity. The radioactive contamination, however, has been harder to undo.