Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kazakhstan found itself in possession of the world’s then-fourth largest nuclear weapons stockpile. By the end of 1995, the weapons were gone, repatriated to Russia in a de-nuclearization process carefully negotiated and carried out with the assistance of the United States. The weapons were gone but not forgotten. Forty-two years before Kazakhstan’s independence, the Soviet Union had begun testing nuclear weapons on a patch of steppe those in Moscow viewed as uninhabited.
In “Atomic Steppe,” a book 15 years in the making, Togzhan Kassenova tells the story of how Kazakhstan gave up the bomb. Kassenova, a senior fellow at the University at Albany, SUNY and a nonresident fellow of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, spoke to The Diplomat’s Catherine Putz about Kazakhstan’s denuclearization, the complexity of the process, and the lessons there for global denuclearization efforts.
The Soviet Union began nuclear testing in what is now Kazakhstan in 1949. What considerations went into the choice of location – Semipalatinsk – and, more importantly, what did Soviet authorities not take into account?
The Soviet government thought about practical things. Is it far enough from major transportation routes to prevent access of foreign spies but close enough to allow the movement of construction materials? Is there easy access to those materials – sand, water? They looked at geology, geography, topography. They wanted a relatively remote place.
But what is “remote” for Moscow is not “remote” for people who live in the region. The military planners talked about the chosen site as “uninhabited.” Again, this is relative. How is an area uninhabited if thousands of people live there [and] use the land for herding livestock? Not to mention a major city of Semipalatinsk, which was only 75 miles away from the site chosen. Granted they didn’t fully understand the potential impact, it is glaring that residents from the rural settlements, the city of Semipalatinsk, and other towns nearby were given little thought in those deliberations.
During the Soviet period, was there opposition to the testing?
I would remind readers that the nuclear testing program was shrouded in secrecy. So even if the government of Kazakhstan knew the Soviet military used it for nuclear tests, it wasn’t fully aware of the extent of what transpired at the Polygon. Yet, of course, the impact on locals’ health manifested itself early on, and it wasn’t a secret that whatever was happening at the Polygon wasn’t good for the people.
The record is spotty, but from what we know, on at least a few occasions, prominent Kazakh individuals attempted to attract attention to the suffering of local people. In 1957, a famous Kazakh writer and a native of the Semipalatinsk region, Mukhtar Auezov, talked about the Polygon at the anti-nuclear conference in Japan. In 1958, the local governor of the Semipalatinsk region Mukhametkali Suzhikov requested information from the specialized medical facility in Semipalatinsk established by the Soviet government to monitor (not treat) the health of local people. Based on the information he received about the alarming impact of ionizing radiation on locals’ health, Suzhikov sent a secret letter to the Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev and Kazakhstan’s leader Nikolai Beliaev. The Soviet government authorized insignificant financial and medical assistance to the region in response. Suzhikov quickly lost his job after, with many believing it as payback for raising the plight of locals. In 1962, another Semipalatinsk governor Mikhail Karpenko wrote to Kazakhstan’s leader Dinmukhamed Kunaev requesting help for the region and warning the republic’s leadership about popular discontent with the Polygon. It appears that the Kazakh leadership appointed by Moscow was powerless.
The real opposition to nuclear tests on all levels became possible only in the late 1980s.
In your reading of the memoirs of scientists and others involved in the testing program what stood out to you?
A few things. First, how little choice rank-and-file soldiers and officers had when the government sent them to the middle of the Kazakh steppe to build the Polygon. They didn’t even know where they were going until they reached their destination. Those first Polygon builders, including gulag prisoners sent by [Lavrentiy] Beria, faced grueling conditions. Many perished.
As for the scientists, it was interesting to observe how they were simultaneously celebrated as the ones working on the country’s most important national security project, but at the same time, their freedom was curtailed. Scientists were under the constant watch of Beria and his people, and later, after Beria’s fall, of the KGB. In my book, I wanted to give justice to the scientists who felt pride in their work and scientific achievements, who believed they were building their country’s necessary “nuclear shield,” even if the product of their work caused harm to people in the immediate vicinity. I would also add, Soviet scientists and test program participants did not do it in a vacuum. They were doing it as part of the Soviet effort not to fall behind the American nuclear weapons program.
Andrei Sakharov’s memoirs stood out as a microcosm of the complex dynamics. Sakharov created the world’s most powerful weapons – thermonuclear bombs. Yet, he struggled with the notion that his creation could cause so much harm. Sakharov eventually became one of the staunchest anti-nuclear proponents.
When the Soviet Union dissolved, what kinds of nuclear weapons, material, and infrastructure were in Kazakhstan at the time? What were the early discussions about the weapons like?
Kazakhstan’s nuclear inheritance included more than a thousand nuclear warheads, more than a hundred intercontinental ballistic missiles, dozens of heavy bombers capable of carrying nuclear bombs, and tons of nuclear material. In terms of the infrastructure, facilities that produced or stored nuclear material were especially consequential. In the bomb-making process, the production of nuclear material is the most technologically challenging component. You are one step away from a bomb if you have nuclear material.
I think it is helpful to separate weapons from nuclear material and the infrastructure. Kazakhstan did not have access to command and control of nuclear weapons, although the weapons were on its sovereign territory, and Kazakhstan’s decisions were crucial for the fate of those weapons. Kazakhstan was in full control of material and infrastructure that theoretically could have served as a solid foundation for an indigenous nuclear program if Kazakh leadership was ever interested. In that sense, Kazakhstan’s strategic decision to go nuclear-free was critical for international security.
Kazakhstan’s decision to give up nuclear inheritance was not immediate but came relatively early on. Kazakh leadership recognized that everything that Kazakhstan hoped to achieve as a new state would be out of reach if it tried to hold on to nuclear weapons. Kazakhstan needed access to foreign direct investment, global markets, international institutions, technology. All that would not be accessible if Kazakhstan tried to push its way into a nuclear club.
The voluntary denuclearization of Kazakhstan is often simplified into the story of an unmitigated diplomatic success on the part of the United States and Kazakhstan. What does that simplified narrative get right, and what’s missing?
The narrative that we know gets the fundamental things right – Kazakhstan made the right decision by choosing a non-nuclear path, and the United States played a decisive role in making both the decision and its implementation possible.
I do think that the accepted narrative is too linear and simplistic.
On the Kazakh side, the nuclear story has been skewed toward portraying Kazakhstan’s nuclear policy as a one-man show, with the one man being Kazakhstan’s first president, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Nazarbayev, of course, was the ultimate decision-maker, and Nazarbayev of the early 1990s was a formidable figure – a shrewd politician who maneuvered well between Russia and the United States. But he wasn’t acting alone. Just to give one example, one of the key roles in those early nuclear negotiations belongs to the former State Counselor Tulegen Zhukeev. Yet, you will hardly hear any references to him in the official discourse on nuclear diplomacy because everything in Kazakhstan has historically been Nazarbayev-centric and because Zhukeev eventually left the government and became a prominent opposition figure.
This centering around Nazarbayev is not limited to the nuclear field. When it comes to many aspects of Kazakhstan’s state-building, we hear little about prominent figures other than Nazarbayev. For example, how many people outside of Kazakhstan (and within Kazakhstan) remember Kazakhstan’s first and only Vice President Erik Assanbayev, a person who played a critical role in the early stages of Kazakhstan’s nation-building? With the recent events in Kazakhstan, however, I worry that we will go to another extreme – by denying Nazarbayev his achievements, especially those of the early 1990s.
Getting back to the nuclear theme and the importance of recording history with nuance, especially on the question of the closure of the Semipalatinsk Test Site, we must not forget the role of Kazakhstan’s public anti-nuclear movement led by Olzhas Suleimenov, of all the regular citizens, who were the ones marching and rallying, and who made it possible for the Kazakh government to act and shut down the nuclear test site.
As for the U.S.-Kazakh denuclearization diplomacy, of course, it was successful. Each side met its objectives. Yet how they got there wasn’t easy or linear, and for me, it was fascinating to track those ups and downs, moments of tension and apprehension. As a scholar working on policy-relevant topics, I loved delving into how Kazakhstan and the United States navigated nuclear issues. Studying these complexities made me appreciate the final result even more.
Do you think Kazakhstan’s nuclear experience, from testing to disarmament, holds lessons for ongoing global denuclearization efforts?
Absolutely! There are so many. Let me mention a few. The main lesson that I draw from it all – when all is said and done, nuclear weapons programs are a tremendous waste of talent, scientific effort, and resources. I could finally fully appreciate the scale of the Semipalatinsk Polygon and the abuse the land took when I found myself on a helicopter overfly. It is really something to see from above the territory stretching for miles and miles, with signs of former military activity (e.g., parts of the infrastructure, flattened land, etc.). People and the environment pay too high a price for nuclear arsenals.
Yet, there are also positive lessons. Kazakhstan’s case shows that countries can see nuclear programs as a liability for their security rather than a benefit. The early calculations and decisions of the Kazakh leadership to choose a non-nuclear path and enter the international community on good terms and with full access to investment, markets, and institutions, laid the foundation for Kazakhstan’s statehood. Kazakhstan’s case shows that we shouldn’t take as a given that nuclear weapons automatically mean more security.
The fact that both Kazakhstan and the United States got what they were after shows the power of diplomacy and international engagement.
On a practical level, Kazakh, American, and Russian scientists and technical experts obtained unique experience in cooperative threat reduction work – dismantlement of infrastructure, securing nuclear material, engaging former weapons scientists in peaceful work, and there are many lessons learned on dos and don’ts in implementing this kind of work on the ground. This experience can benefit similar work in other parts of the world.
I know this was a very personal book for you — you were born in Kazakhstan, your father was involved in Kazakh nuclear policymaking. Can you describe some of what it was like to chase down such a detailed, difficult story and try to bring it, in all its complexity, to the world?
It was thrilling and difficult. I felt privileged to have such a strong connection to the story I was trying to tell, but this proximity created challenges. At times, it was hard to tread the line between being a scholar and being a Kazakh, especially when describing such painful parts of history as the suffering from the Soviet nuclear tests. I had to maintain scholarly objectivity while dealing with undeniable emotions of anger for what my fellow countrymen and women went through.
The fact that my father, as a foreign policy adviser, played an important part in the Kazakh policymaking process provided a unique lens as I was exposed to those debates from an early age. I felt responsible for doing my part and recording this critical period of Kazakhstan’s history.
The hardest part was the length of the period the book covered – from the 1940s to nowadays. I understood my limitations – I did not live through half of the period I described, it was simply impossible to corroborate every little part of the story, and not all archival documents were available. Still, I knew that I did everything I could, and that was why it took me 15 years! I know it is only the beginning, and I hope scholars who come after me will add more nuance to this complex story.