Witness - Silent bombs

Silent bombs for the Motherland

Residents of a remote part of Kazakhstan still suffer the fallout from Soviet nuclear tests.

The Atomic Lake was created during the “first peaceful use of a nuclear device” 

Filmmaker Gerald Sperling spent five years making his documentary on the fallout from the Soviet Union’s nuclear testing in Kazakhstan.

In the following account, he describes the making of Silent Bombs: All for the Motherland.

I was sitting in my office in Saskatchewan, Canada one day some five years ago when I received a call from an old friend who knew that I spoke Russian.

He wanted me to spend some time with a delegation which included the Kazakhstani ambassador and his entourage.

I obliged and while chatting with the ambassador, I mentioned that the production company I work for specialises in international documentaries.

“Why not make a film about Kazakhstan?” the ambassador asked.

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I had lived in the former Soviet Union as a graduate student in the 1960s and had travelled extensively across Central Asia, but I had never been to Kazakhstan and knew very little about it.

This was before Borat so I did not even have a gross misrepresentation of the country to rely on.

After some hesitation, I tentatively asked the ambassador: “About what?”

He handed me a book called The Epicentre of Peace by Nursultan Nazarbayev, the president of Kazakhstan. I flipped through the pages, noting the horrific pictures of deformed children and mushroom clouds.

The ambassador told me that between 1949 and 1989, some 500 nuclear devices had been exploded in northeast Kazakhstan and that the population was still living with the consequences.

I knew that the Soviet space programme had been based in Kazakhstan, but I had no idea about the nuclear testing.

Nazarbayev’s book described what had taken place in the country and as soon as I finished reading it I knew that I had to make a film about it.

The Polygon

 A new town with a population devoted to nuclear research was built next to the Polygon 

The tests took place in a remote area to the west of the town of Semey (formerly called Semipalatinsk) which has come to be known as the Polygon.

When I first travelled there, I was struck by two things: just how much the countryside with its rolling hills and flatlands resembled southwest Saskatchewan and how little wildlife there was around.

Of course, I came to discover that the long term presence of radioactive materials had affected the area’s wildlife, for while the contamination on the surface of the land has virtually disappeared, it remains just inches below.

During the time we spent in nearby villages, we met the locals and heard their stories of generations affected by cancer, anaemia, schizophrenia and dementia.

We were struck by the candour of these people, their courage, their fatalism and, strangely, their optimism.

During the five visits we made to the region over five years, we lived in the villages, often sleeping on the floors of cold houses with no running water, we learnt about the daily lives of the villagers and we became familiar with the rhythms of this remote and challenging society.

Our cameras captured the sights and sounds of the villages – the horse races, the dances, the feasts and celebrations. But we also met the doctors who are treating the victims and the scientists who are studying the effects of the massive radioactive contamination in the area.

We spoke with Dr. Saim Balmukhanov, one of the first of the Soviet era scientists to have investigated the health conditions of the villagers in 1957, and Dr. Boris Gusev, who as a young army doctor in the early 1960s had seen the effects on Soviet soldiers of exposure to radiation.


There were also those who denied that the tests that had taken place in the Polygon had anything to do with the conditions being encountered by the villagers.

A spokesman for the museum in Kurchatov, a town on the edge of the Polygon that had been built especially for the 30,000 people engaged in the Soviet nuclear programme there, boasted that he regularly swam in the Atomic Lake, the body of water created during the “first peaceful use of a nuclear device” – that is a huge underground explosion.

The radioactive materials have long since settled at the bottom of the lake, hundreds of metres below the surface, so the water itself is safe. But when we told him that the shores of the lake, as well as the land surrounding it, was still dangerously radioactive, his response was vague.

Then there was the Russian scientist at an institute in St. Petersburg who dismissed the claims of the Polygon villagers, telling us: “They would not complain about their ailments if they had roads and houses like you have in Canada.”

Their story

About 200,000 villagers living close to the test site were exposed to high levels of radiation

When making the film, we chose to let the villagers tell their own story – the women who bore witness to the early deaths of six, seven or even eight of their children, the men who have seen their livelihoods raising and tending livestock destroyed by nuclear poisoning and the former soldiers whose lives have been shortened by their experiences in the Polygon.

Those who were alive when the tests were being conducted say they were told to hide their heads beneath blankets but many watched anyway.

In those early years, little was explained to the villagers about what was going on, largely because the Soviet authorities themselves did not fully understand the effects of the radiation.

As they came to learn more, however, they realised that by studying the effects on those exposed they could better understand the dangers of nuclear contamination. As one scientist told us, the villagers were not treated, they were studied.

During filming we observed doctors like Erbol Ibraimov, the director of an orphanage in Semey who patiently and lovingly cares for children with malformations such as hydrocephalus (large swollen heads), and interviewed Melgis Metov, the so-called “Atomic Soldier”.

Metov was exposed to radiation in the 1980s and now fights tirelessly for recognition of the plight of all those Soviet soldiers who were exposed like “laboratory rabbits” to radiation as they served the “Motherland” during the worst days of the cold war.

Ten generations

The government of Kazakhstan banned nuclear weapons as one of its first acts after independence in 1991.

Small pensions are now provided to the victims, but the Russian government assumes no responsibility for the Kazakhstani victims.

Because this happened in a backward part of Central Asia, because the superpowers had other fish to fry and because the international journalistic community has not focused on the issue, this has long been ignored.

But this film is not simply an account of something bad that happened in a neglected corner of the world.

Kazakhstan’s experience reveals that the fallout from nuclear explosions can be suffered by ten generations or more and I hope that those who are blithe about nuclear proliferation will now understand just what it means to allow any nation to test and store nuclear weapons.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.