Russia’s scandalous radiation legacy continues in East Kazakhstan , from Stalin’s era until now

text-from-the-archivesJosef Stalin’s nuclear legacy remains in East Kazakhstan, 9 October 2012   Stalin used the area as a nuclear test site and the local population have been paying a terrible price ever since. The plight of these people in East Kazakhstan has touched the heart of Scottish MEP Struan Stevenson, who has campaigned to bring their situation to wider 
recognition for 13 years. Now, in an exclusive article for 
The Scotsman, he argues Stalin’s actions could have devastating consequences in the future, too

My life changed on 9 September 1999. I had recently been elected a Member of the European Parliament and was drowning in work when an old friend called me and asked if I could spare just 15 minutes to meet a Kazakh academic, Dr Kamila Magzieva. I tried to explain that even 15 minutes was impossible, but my friend was insistent.

Dr Magzieva came from Semipalatinsk (now renamed Semey) in East Kazakhstan. Between 1949 and 1990, the Soviet Union used this region near the border with Siberia as a nuclear test site. The Polygon, as it was known, is the size of Wales yet what was happening there, namely 607 test nuclear explosions, was hidden from the world. But that wasn’t the worst. Dr Magzieva explained how the military scientists would wait until the wind was blowing in the direction of the remote Kazakh villages before detonating their nuclear devices and then KGB doctors would study the effects of nuclear radiation on the people who lived there.
The Soviet Union was using the 1.5 million population of the Polygon as human guinea pigs, exposing them to the equivalent of 20,000 Hiroshima bombs. And this was continuing under the noses of the international community even after the Chernobyl disaster of 1986.

I asked Dr Magzieva if I could visit East Kazakhstan and see the evidence for myself. A matter of weeks later I found myself in the remote village of Znamenka. But my reception was not what I had expected. Angry village elders surrounded me demanding to know if I was yet another disaster tourist from the West, come to stare at their plight, weep crocodile tears, promise to help, only never to be heard from again. I promised them that I would help, and asked them to tell me their experiences.
Elderly men and women explained how they were ordered to stack bedding and furniture against the doors and windows of their homes, then made to stand outside – away from the buildings – as the mushroom clouds of nuclear explosions rose just a few miles away.

Unsurprisingly, but still shockingly, the tests have left their mark on generations of people in the Polygon. Cancers run at five times the national average, birth defects are three times the national average. Virtually all children suffer from anaemia. Many of the younger men are impotent while young women are afraid to become pregnant because they know their child is likely to be ill, mentally damaged or physically deformed if they carry it to term.

Psychological disorders are rife and suicides are widespread, even among children. Seepage from underground nuclear tests has polluted watercourses and streams, farmland has been heavily irradiated and radioactive contamination has entered the food chain. The average life expectancy is only 52 years. In Scotland it is 75 years for men, and even that is considered one of the lowest in Europe and a national shame.

Before 1999 I had no idea of the situation in the Polygon. I have now visited Kazakhstan 15 times, more recently as the roving ambassador for the environment on behalf of the Kazakh Government who chaired the Organisation for Security & Cooperation in Europe in 2010. Sent to each of the five Central Asian Republics, I have discovered horror story after horror story, the legacy of the many environmental catastrophes wrought by the Soviets in the region which affect millions of people to this day….


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