T. Kassenova: Atomic Steppe. How Kazakhstan Gave Up the Bomb

Atomic Steppe. How Kazakhstan Gave Up the Bomb

Kassenova, Togzhan
384 S.
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Robin Möser, Leipzig

Over the last years, nuclear history scholarship expanded to cover new ground by going beyond a discussion of the most obvious cases such as the US, Russia, France and the UK. Recent monographs on Brazil, Ghana, Sweden, Pakistan and Ukraine, for example, have filled in key gaps. A welcome edition in this corpus is Toghzan Kassenova’s “Atomic Steppe: How Kazakhstan Gave Up the Bomb”. It is the first complete treatise of Kazakhstan’s unique experience with nuclear weapons. Ten rich chapters engagingly detail Kazakhstan’s nuclear history and deliver the reader with new and pertinent insights. Kassenova, well-known among nuclear historians for her work covering Kazakhstan and Brazil, gives access not merely to new documents, but offers new lenses and interpretations. Moreover, she conducted numerous oral history interviews with former key actors and included twenty contemporary pictures that complement the volume well.

In this deeply personal account, Kassenova deals with two overarching issues that separate the volume into two parts. The book’s first half scrutinises how Soviets established a test site in the allegedly unpopulated Kazakh Steppe. The place of these atmospheric and underground tests, known as “the Polygon”, is located 120km away from the city of Semipalatinsk in the Northeast of Kazakhstan, home to more than 100.000 inhabitants. It was here that the Soviet military eagerly tested nuclear weapons for forty years starting in 1949. To assess the harm of these deadly weapons in urban contexts, they even built an entire miniature city, including buildings, a highway, a subway tunnel and an underground subway station. Often, they also tethered several hundreds of animals across the area. According to the author, in the four decades of nuclear testing, the area experienced more than 450 nuclear tests with severe implications on Kazakh people and the environment. The population took in radiation through contaminated water, meat, milk, and through breathing, which led to an increased number of diseases and a rise in cancer rates. All the time Soviet officials knew about the high radiation levels people living adjacent to the Polygon were exposed to, but they continuously denied it having any effect on their health. Instead, Moscow cited the region’s poor sanitary and socio-economic conditions as the source of widespread illnesses. Yet, in the second half of the 1980s, overlapping with Gorbachev’s reform process in the USSR, Kassenova carves out how the Kazakh anti-nuclear movement became a formidable political force even establishing international ties to demand the cessation of atomic tests on its soil. These efforts were ultimately successful, when in 1991 the first President of independent Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, closed down the Polygon.

Exactly at this critical juncture, Atomic Steppe’s second part commences. Upon the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, newly independent Kazakhstan “inherited” the fourth largest nuclear weapons arsenal in the world, a critical nuclear infrastructure that allowed it to enrich uranium and produce plutonium, not to mention the tons of sensitive nuclear material left behind by the departing Russian military. This setup gave rise to US-concerns that these capabilities might end up in the wrong hands and the international community anxiously watched to see what newly independent Kazakh leaders would do with the thousands of nuclear weapons left on their territory. Would Kazakh leaders try to retain these weapons? Thankfully, they did not and instead adhered to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) as a non-nuclear weapons state in December 1993. In a detailed narrative Kassenova unveils how, following intense negotiations between Kazakh, US and Russian leaders, Kazakhstan relinquished the nuclear arsenal and a sizeable amount of weapons grade uranium.

Moreover, the reader is served with new and pertinent information about how under the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program (CTR) the remaining Kazakh highly enriched uranium was airlifted to the US (dubbed Project Sapphire), and research reactors converted to the use of low enriched uranium. The closing chapters guide the reader into the present and highlight Kazakhstan’s advanced peaceful nuclear program and the sad legacy of the region’s four decades of nuclear weapon tests. To this day, the local population deals with consequences for and impacts on health and life expectancy. If there is but one thing to take away from Kassenova’s smoothly readable book, it is stark accounts of devastating long-term effects nuclear tests have on humans and environment.

The main achievement of the author’s meticulous analysis is an elegant reconstruction of how the Kazakh government managed to skilfully exploit US proliferation fears to advance its own agenda. This included obtaining security guarantees from Washington and other states as well as attracting foreign direct investment to kick-start the country’s nascent economy. Kazakh leaders were fully aware that clinging to the nuclear weapons they inherited from the Soviet Union risked becoming a nuclear pariah – not unlike South Africa during Apartheid and North Korea today. Yet, and this is striking, the political leadership of this young state did use global fears relating to the sizeable number of nuclear weapons in Kazakh possession to its advantage. Driving a hard bargain with Washington included a focus on maximum financial and security-related benefits in return for denuclearization, which they finally obtained.

However, somewhat stashed away in the middle of the book is what I perceive as a key finding, namely that “pronuclear” voices were absent in Kazakhstan. Kassenova underlines that there were at no point organized political interest groups that sought “to convince the Kazakh leadership to keep Soviet nuclear weapons […]” (p. 136). Nor did the military play a role in the decision not to pursue a nuclear weapons option. At this point, a Kazakh military simply did not exist as an autonomous entity in the newly independent state. These two factors, I believe, could have been spelled out more clearly, as it sets apart Kazakhstan from other states in possession of nuclear weapons. Moreover, Kassenova did not succeed in securing an interview with one of the central actors in her story: long-time Kazakh President Nazarbayev. Although deplorable, this this does not reduce the book’s strengths and importance, as she pieced together the views of his advisors and political associates and reverted to declassified archival material.

In conclusion, the book at hand offers an authoritative account of interlocked local and global encounters that had a bearing on decisions taken by Kazakh leaders in the early 1990s. Scholarly and skilfully it navigates focal aspects of Kazakhstan’s diplomatic and environmental history — with more acumen than any other publication I know. It will be of great help to scholars focusing on Cold War and environmental history, foreign policy, US non-proliferation efforts and nuclear diplomacy in general. In all of this, the author, based on access to newly unearthed archival sources, strikingly highlights Kazakh agency, clearly showing that they skilfully dragged out and delayed international discussions to obtain security guarantees from the US in return for abandoning the nuclear warheads on their territory. The result is a balanced account that shows how Kazakhstan has chosen to forgo a more conflict-prone path and adhere to global non-proliferation norms. The story told through a decisively “Kazakh perspective”, is a welcome addition shining light on a hitherto underexplored dimension and its impact on the global nuclear order.

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