Category Archives: Soviet nuclear power

Presence is Dominance: The History of Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site and Russia’s Influence in Post-Soviet Space, by Sara O’Connor (University of California Irvine)

A Brief History of the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site (SNTS)

The Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site was built by Kazakh prisoners as commissioned by Joseph Stalin from 1947 to 1949 near a town formerly known as Alash kala[i] and presently as Semey. The SNTS was a vast eighteen thousand square kilometers and was the site of 456 known nuclear weapons tests between its opening and its closure in 1991. Prior to being the home of the most active Soviet nuclear test site, Alash kala and its neighboring city of Karaganda were the home of a burgeoning literary and academic scene due to its role as a destination for Soviet exiles. Dostoevsky’s literary career  started during his time in Semipalatinsk, and its people are featured in Crime and Punishment.  The area is also well known as a native land of Abay Kunanbay uly, father of modern Kazakh poetry.

The climate has a dramatic range between -40 degrees Celsius in the winter and can reach over one-hundred degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) in the summer. In the aftermath of the nuclear tests and the closure of the site, Russian scientists declared that they did not follow protocols to bury and protect nuclear material as they could not imagine that anyone would be in the area (Harrell & Hoffman, 2013). Yet it is difficult to imagine that the placement of this project which they wanted out of sight was coincidentally neighboring the village where political dissidents had been sent, and its remoteness circumspect as it has been determined that over 1.3 million people were impacted by the nuclear tests conducted at SNTS (Harrell & Hoffman, 2013).

Photograph from the first expedition of foreign interns to visit the sites at Kurchatov and Semey (2019) with the Center for International Security and Policy.  Photo credit: Oleg Butenko.

From the execution of the first test, the destructive impact of conducting a nuclear test was apparent. The town the Soviets  created as a test site was leveled and the live animals they brought there had all died or were burned and in shock (Kassenova, 2017). Between 1949 and 1963 with the implementation of the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, at least twenty-five tests were conducted on the ground and eighty-six in the air, with the last two occurring immediately prior to the treaty signing and in public recollection citizens were only evacuated for one test (Vakulchuk et al, 2014) and otherwise people were informed by radio, or in towns in which there were no radios civilians were informed by letter (Kassenova, 2017); however then like now, many could not afford to relocate or evacuate. From 1963 until the closure of the site in 1991, two hundred and one were conducted tests underground which led to the contamination of ground water and the alteration of the surface ground in the area, yielding an explosive energy release equivalent to more than four-hundred Hiroshima bombs (Vakulchuk et al, 2014)  and  the creation of a new lake known as “Atomic Lake” and to this day unknown consequences in the atmosphere (Kassenova, 2017).

The Soviet government commissioned secret reports on the health and welfare of those within the vicinity of blasts, however when the health of this population became a topic of public debate, the Soviets attributed illnesses and conditions to poor hygiene and diet. A Kazakh institute was founded to further investigate the symptoms and impacts of radiation exposure on the population, and eventually coined “Kainar Syndrome”, named for a village in Kazakhstan where the people had been exposed to radiation due to the tests conducted at SNTS and were deficient in Vitamin C (Atchabarov, 2015). The early symptoms of this syndrome are hemorrhaging of orifices and internal organs, changes in skin, mucus, hair, nails, and extreme fatigue (Vakulchuk et al, 2014). In a report commissioned published by the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, authors Vakulchuk, Gjerde, Belikhina and Apsalikov categorize the symptoms into acute and early effects (one to ten years post-tests), early-long term (ten to twenty years post-tests) and late long term (twenty or more years post-tests); the early effects most prominently were infant mortality, malformations of the face and nervous system in infants and a doubled rate of leukemia. The early to long term effects include more than thrice-fold increased mortality from cancer, chromosome aberrations which debilitate the body’s ability to fight disease, early onset cardiovascular disease and thrice-fold malformations at birth. The long term effects which are in some cases experienced presently are thrice-fold rates of lung, bronchial and breast cancer and decreased life expectancy (Vakulchuk et al, 2014). This report also included a study conducted by Japanese researchers in Kazakhstan from 2002 to 2004 based on studies they conducted in communities near Hiroshima, and their report concluded that more than ninety-percent of persons within two hundred kilometers felt impacted by the tests, they were told the tests were military not nuclear, and seventy-percent recognized the impact on their community’s health (Kawano and Ohtaki 2006). These issues continuously impact the mental health of the population who while suffering from current known ailments  continue to fear for the future unknown effects.

While some of the land used for the nuclear test site may be restored, large swaths are unlikely to be revitalized and the continuous impacts of the contamination of the Shagan river are unknown (Vakulchuk et al, 2014). Numerous academic and media sources have expressed surprise at the lack of barriers to entry in these contaminated spaces which are both unsafe and have been looted for the leftover metal.

The lake created in 1963 on the Polygon as a result of an explosion that used 20 tons of conventional explosives (an imitation of a nuclear explosion) Photo Credit: Oleg Butenko, retrieved from Voices on Central Asia, “Humans of the Polygon: Travel Notes from the Land of Abai. Karaul, Znamenka (Kokentau), Sarzhal” by Togzhan Kassenova, published 10/9/2016. 

In 1989, a movement since named the Nevada-Semipalatinsk movement in reference to the Nevada movement for denuclearization in the United States was launched by a Kazakh writer, Olzhas Suleimenov, in his national television announcement about leaks from the Semipalatinsk website (Cabasso, 2016). He called on Kazakhstanis to protest, and the following day it is reported that approximately one million people took to the streets in response. The Kazakhstani Soviet Socialist Republic government pled and negotiated for the closure of the site, and the USSR regime agreed to a slowing of testing limited to a few tests every few years (Vakulchuk et al, 2014). Upon the fall of the Soviet Union and Kazakhstan’s independence, the Kazakh president closed the site and cancelled the two tests planned in 1991. Since that time, Kazakhstan has led a charge for global denuclearization and has been recognized for its efforts on the global stage. However, independence and the closing of this site in no way represented an end to its destructive power and the undue influence of the Russian government in the site’s management and the nation’s governance.

The Cleanup of the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site and Remediation for the Effected

The closing of the site occurred in a pivotal moment for the new nation which became a nuclear free country and established with neighboring countries a nuclear free zone in Central Asia (Harrell & Hoffman, 2013). Kazakhstan returned the nuclear weapons to Russia; however, they did not have the resources to do so immediately, and so the Russian government de facto maintained nuclear sites in Kazakhstan until the weapons were repatriated in 1995. In addition to not having the resources to return or secure remaining materials, the Kazakh government did not have resources to care for the effected citizens. They created a program with the goal of providing assistance to the estimated 1.323 million persons within the vicinity of the site assigned “radiation passports” which have allowed them to access lump sums, high salaries, salary increases for government workers, additional paid leave, extended maternity leave, and free healthcare for the children of those effected. There are established judicial proceedings for those whose compensation does not meet their needs and thus far the cases have a 79.7% rate of success. However, the Kazakh government was not able to fulfill these obligations for years after they were made, and this compensation is not available to anyone who moved to the area after 1991 for the considerable industrial development here and in neighboring towns. Further, the site was not secured, and it is known that people have walked in and out of the area.

A faded radiation warning sign near a nuclear crater. Photo Credit: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “Semipalatinsk in Pictures”, by John Mecklin 10/9/2016. Photos Copyright Magdalena Stawkowski.

The Project Managing the Atom (within Harvard University’s Belfer Center) released an extensive report on the cleanup process detailing a tri-lateral deal between the U.S., Kazakhstan and Russia (eventually and reluctantly), funded almost entirely by the United States. The Kazakhstanis conducted the fieldwork, and the Russian counterparts were needed as the experts on the facility, however refused to participate unless the Kazakhstanis agreed to not discuss the level of destruction publicly. The Russian government refused to repatriate all materials recovered and thus they were encased in cement and remain buried in Kazakhstan; the site will never be fully restored to nature and the contract to secure the area was awarded to a Russian company [ii] who is now reaping economic benefit from the continued contamination and lack of security of Kazakh land.

Continued Occupation

In The Right to Maim, social theorist Jasbir Puar describes the purposeful debilitation of bodies through injury, malnourishment, deprivation and exclusion of those deemed expendable or undesirable by the perpetrators. For example, the state’s refusal to address and remedy the water crisis in Flint, Michigan which resulted in sickness in the population is a deliberate maiming of that population. In maiming bodies, and destroying the landscapes those bodies reside in (spacioside) perpetrators avoid the rancor that comes with killing while continuously weakening and controlling a population. Puar posits the following points worth consideration in understanding the SNTS: first, environmental toxins as the result of imperialism, and second, and de facto settler colonialism as an ongoing debilitation (2017). The environmental toxins released into the society and remaining in the Kazakh land have led to the ongoing debilitation of an entire region. The effects may continue to be experienced for generations to come. Securing the remnants of the Soviet nuclear project has led to an ongoing security contract in which Kazakhstan pays a Russian security contractor to secure and surveil the only secure portion [iii]of the site essentially paying the perpetrator of this catastrophe and inviting them to surveil their former territory. The Kazakhstanis have not publicly rebuked the Russian state for the creation of the site, nor in public record asked for financial assistance in handling the consequences of the nuclear tests.

Further, in the creation of the nuclear site and the use of prisoners as laborers, we see a revival of the activity that Marx ascribed to the early days of capitalism being implemented in the state conceived theoretically by Marx’s design. In Capital, Marx describes the criminalization of poverty as a mechanism to create a prisoner class available for labor in the post-Feudal era, the poverty which resulted from the shift from a Feudal economy to an industrial capitalist economy. In the case of the former USSR, under land collectivization plans the implementation of an authoritarian regime Kazakhs whom had previously owned land and subsisted through agriculture were stripped of their land and in their critique of this system became criminals ripe for exploitation. These prisoners constituted the labor that built the nuclear site many of whom died in the process (Kassenova, 2017). This exploitation continued as the laborers who remained, and those occupied the area as merchants and service providers of the scientists the USSR moved to the area were subjected to the effects of the nuclear blasts, and in the case of the one evacuation, were asked to stay behind (Kassenova, 2017). Semipalatinsk and the surrounding region were similarly turned into a laboratory as to those who maintained control, it also appeared remote and the outcomes of the test subject were not only of no import, but on occasion embodied a perceived enemy.

Heating Plant, Kurchatov, Kazakhstan Nadav Kander/Courtesy of Flowers Gallery.  Photo Credit: Business Insider, “These Are The Secret Sites Where The Soviet Union Exploded Atomic Bombs And Tested Radiation On Unsuspecting Russians” by Harrison Jacobs, 9/19/2014

Conclusion: Future

Kazakhstan finds itself at another pivotal moment. Their second president since  independence was appointed then elected and the legitimacy of the results are questioned. The first election and all of those thereafter in which Nazarbayev was on the ballot were not considered free or fair by the international community, but in those first moments he responded to the desires of protestors and of a movement. Nazarbayev closed the Semipalatinsk nuclear site, cancelled the two remaining tests, and positioned Kazakhstan as a force in geopolitics through leadership in denuclearization. It is one of the only known instances of public Kazakh rebuke of Russia since independence in no doubt enabled by the auspices of the revolutionary moment. Yet as Kazakhstan is on the precipice of another new era, the opportunity of the occasion is in danger of passing. Tokayev has come to power, a savvy politician who as interim president chose Russia as the destination of his first official visit. Now that his presidency is official, Tokayev has an opportunity to strengthen alliances with other partners, and open up opportunities for the future of the Kazakh people. Through elevating new equitable relationships he can project strength and a commitment to future prosperity.

Acknowledgements:

Dr. Meruert Makhmutova, Director of the Public Policy Research in Almaty and Jenna Sweeney Jones provided crucial revisions to this piece.

This work would not have been possible without the crucial feedback and support provided by Dr. Meruert Makhmutova, Director of the Public Policy Research in Almaty and Jenna Sweeney Jones. The author also wishes to express her gratitude for the photos kindly provided by Oleg Butenko.

References

  1. Atchabarov A. (2015) “Kainar Syndrome: History of the First Epidemiological Case-control Study of the Effect of Radiation and Malnutrition.” Central Asian journal of global health, 4(1), 221. doi:10.5195/cajgh.2015.221
  2. Bahng, A. (2017) Migrant Futures: Decolonizing Speculation in Financial Times. Durham, North Carolina:  Duke University Press. Chapter: Salt Fish Futures: The Irradiated Transpacific and the Financialization of the Human Genome Project
  3. Cabasso, J. (August, 2016). The Enduring Legacy of the Nevada-Semipalatinsk Movement. Western States Legal Foundation. International Conference: Building a Nuclear-Weapon-Free World: Astana, Kazakhstan.
  4. Guillory, S. (Host) (2019, October 27) The Radioactive Mutants of Semipalatinsk. [Audio Podcast]. Retrieved from: https://srbpodcast.org/2019/10/27/the-radioactive-mutants-of-semipalatinsk/
  5. Harrell, E. & Hoffman, D.E. (2013) Plutonium Mountain: Inside the 17-year mission to secure a dangerous legacy of Soviet nuclear testing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Kennedy School, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
  6. Kassenova, T. (2017) “Banning nuclear testing: lessons from the Semipalatinsk nuclear testing site.” The Nonproliferation Review, 23:3-4, 329-344.
  7. Marx, K. (1887) Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I, Book One: The Process of Production of Capital. Progress Publishers, Moscow, USSR.
  8. Olcott, M. B. (2011) “Kazakhstan’s Soviet Legacy.” Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International peace.
  9. Puar, J. (2017) The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability. Durham: Duke University Press.
  10. Sisavath, D. (October, 2018) Global Costs of War: Military Waste Material in Post- Conflict Spaces. Presentation at the University of California, Irvine by invitation of the Global Studies Department.
  11. Vakulchuk, R., Gjerde, K., Belikhina, T., and Apsalikov, K. (2014) Semipalatinsk nuclear testing: the humanitarian consequences. (Report No. 1). Oslo, Norway. Norwegian Institute of International Affairs.
  12. Scott, J.C. (1999) Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Endnotes

[i] Alash kala was the capital of the autonomous state Alash autonomy, governed by Alash Orda who allied themselves with the Bolsheviks. The unrecognized existed from 1917 to 1918 in Karaganda and Semey on the territory of the current Republic of Kazakhstan.

[ii] Eben Harrell and David E. Hoffman, “Plutonium mountain: Inside the 17-year mission to secure a dangerous legacy of Soviet nuclear testing,” (Cambridge, Mass.: The Project on Managing the Atom, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University, August 2013).

[iii] Only one-fifth of the site is secured, the rest is open and accessible by the public. (SRB interview with Magdalena Stawkowski https://soundcloud.com/srbpodcast/nf02)

 

The Unyielding First Secretary, translated by Balzhan Suzhikova (KIMEP)

Editor’s introduction:

This special blog post, translated and shared with us by Kazakhstani Fulbright Scholar and Associate Director at KIMEP University Balzhan Suzhikova, outlines the experience of her grandfather Mukhamedgali Alenovich Suzhikov as a Soviet party leader in the Republic of Kazakhstan.[i] The original version of this article in Russian  was published in Novaya Gazeta on 24.07.2019, and was written by Professors Abdijalel Bakir (Doctor of Political Science) and Sagymbay Kozybayev (President of the Academy of Journalism of Kazakhstan), who also detail their efforts to recover archival and newspaper records to support Suzhikov’s own writings and interviews in order to offer this historical biographical perspective.

Suzhikov’s story centers on two primary themes.  The first of these takes place in the context of the history of ongoing Soviet nuclear testing in the Semipalatinsk region of Kazakhstan.  As First Secretary of that region’s party committee, Suzhikov bore witness to the physical damage, pathological radiation effects on health and ecology, and military displacements there; while many others stayed silent in the face of military and KGB authority, Suzhikov chose to report a warning.  The second major theme is the subsequent dismissal of Suzhikov from his post, which was speciously blamed on his failure to meet agricultural quotas, and the State’s public characterization of Suzhikov as a troublesome ‘nationalist.’  Such testimonies serve to rhetorically counteract assumptions (or accusations) of complicity.  But further, this biographical narrative also sheds light on how the very category of ‘nationalist’ is historically structured as oppositional or problematic within the communist party structure itself (a genealogical precursor of the anti-nuclear (ethnic, ecological) nationalisms of the early post-Soviet period) and thus informs well then broader critical studies of power, and governance in (post) Soviet Central Asia,[ii] as well as the historical and ethnographic contexts of the nuclear history and legacy in Kazakhstan.

Suggested readings:

Johnston, Barbara R., ed. 2007.   Half-Lives and Half-Truths: Confronting the Radioactive Legacies of the Cold War.  School for Advanced Research Press.

Kassenova, Togzhan. 2017. “Banning nuclear testing: lessons from the Semipalatinsk nuclear testing site” in The Nonproliferation Review 23(3-4): 329-344.

Stawkowski, Magdalena E. 2016. “I am a Radioactive Mutant”: Emerging Biological Subjectivities at the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site” in American Ethnologist 43(1):144-157.

2017 “Life on an Atomic Collective: The Post-Soviet Retreat of the State in Rural Kazakhstan” in Études Rurales 200(2):196-219.

***

A cry from the heart about the dire consequences of nuclear explosions at the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site was first heard sixty years ago.  At that time, M. A. Suzhikov wrote a secret letter to N.S. Khrushchev, First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party, and to N.I. Belyaev, First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan. Most of our compatriots do not know about this document, even the leaders of the well-known as the “Nevada – Semey” movement do not mention it.

M.A. Suzhikov in 1938 – Chairman of the Volodarsky District Executive Committee of the Astrakhan Region (all photographs used with the permission of B. Suzhikova).

In 1947, the Soviet Government turned the ancient Kazakh land into a nuclear test field. And the first to raise the alarm was Mukhamedgali Alenovich Suzhikov, who in 1959 was elected First Secretary of the Semipalatinsk regional party committee. One morning, Suzhikov came to work and could not believe his eyes: in the building of the regional committee there was not a single window left – all of them were broken. Employees of the regional committee, in contrast to the newly appointed First Secretary, knew the reason and spoke secretly about it: this was the result of another nuclear weapons test.

Suzhikov later received strictly secret results (available to him as to the member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan) of a study by radiologist Saim Balmukhanov, on the effect of radiation on the human body. So he met with the scholar, who told him about such diseases as leukemia and cancerous tumors that were rapidly spreading among the population of the Abay, Makanchy and Urdzhar districts.

M.A. Suzhikov with participants and delegates from the Volodarsky district of the Stalingrad region to the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition, Moscow 1939.

Decades later, S. Balmukhanov, a member of Academy of Sciences, said in his article entitled “My View of the Nuclear Test Site” that when this meeting took place at the Semipalatinsk regional party office, a representative from the nuclear test site had given Suzhikov outdated information, indicating that the main cause of symptoms and syndromes identified in patients was vitamin deficiency.  The most complex types of brucellosis and tuberculosis in the local population were also explained in this way, thereby ruling out the effects of nuclear testing.

However, Suzhikov did not accept this conclusion. He traveled personally to all areas of the region and thoroughly studied this problem, which revealed a very troublesome picture.  Subsequently, a scientific expedition was organized by Balmukhanov to study the effect of nuclear tests on the local population was able to find out that the radioactivity of air and food in the settlements of Sarzhal, Kaynar, and Karauyl was significantly higher than base levels elsewhere in the country (compared to the Shubartau district and the village of Aktogay in Karaganda region). Then it became known about the excess contamination of all meat and dairy products from the Semipalatinsk region. Suzhikov supported this expedition and created a special commission at the Academy of Sciences, but unfortunately, under pressure from above, the expedition was soon dissolved.

“The more I learn about the situation, the more my internal anxiety increases. Not only were hundreds of people in the region exposed to excessive radiation, but the products of one of the country’s largest Semipalatinsk meat processing plants, including children’s hematogen, are sold throughout the country in infected state,” – these words of Mukhamedgali Suzhikov are recalled in the article “A Bomb for the Third World War,” published in “Kazakhstanskaya Pravda” on July 20, 1991.

At a session of the Supreme Council of the USSR in May 1959, M. Suzhikov specifically met with R. Malinovsky, who served as both the USSR Minister of Defense, and the Marshal of the Soviet Union. Suzhikov told the Minister that residents of the Abyraly and May districts were forced to leave their homes, being ousted by military personnel.  At the same time, those displaced did not receive any assistance from the military forces, and had to face severe problems on their own, being left without a place to live. Malinovsky was also informed about the results of Balmukhanov’s expedition. The military dictatorship was so strong that even though Suzhikov was the First Secretary of the party’s regional committee (of the territory where the nuclear training ground was located), was forced to ask for permission of the Minister of Defense to visit that training ground and to familiarize himself with the activities there.

After some time, the military commander directly involved in testing the nuclear bomb at the test site, arrived to Semipalatinsk, and Suzhikov accompanied him to the city of Kurchatov – the center of the nuclear test site. Suzhikov, together with a representative of the military-industrial complex, visited the storage site of the weapon referred to only as “The Product,” and he spoke to scientists and to officers there. Unfortunately, his questions were answered under the strict control of the military commander. But even with the highest level of secrecy, something became clear to the head of the region.

Upon his return from the training ground, Suzhikov gathered the members of the regional committee bureau, and informed them about the results of the expedition with Balmukhanov, as well as about the results of the meeting with Marshal Malinovsky, and explained what he saw at the training ground. It turned out that the members of the bureau of the regional party committee knew about the social situation of people evicted from their homes.  They also knew about a large number of cases of leukemia and other oncological diseases, and about an increase of the number of babies being born underdeveloped and with pathologies. However, several members of the party’s regional committee (including the second secretary of the regional committee and the chairman of the regional executive committee) said they would not intervene in these matters: “These are not our problems – the KGB and the military elite are in charge of this area. For us, the case is hidden under the heading “Top Secret,” let the big bosses decide for themselves.”[iii]

M.A.Suzhikov, Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party (bottom row 3rd from left), pictured with Zhumabay Shayakhmetov, First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, Kazakhstan  (1st row in the center); collective photo of delegates to the congress in 1951.

As a result, the unyielding Suzhikov sent a secret letter, titled “On the dire consequences of testing nuclear and thermonuclear weapons at the Semipalatinsk test site” to N.S. Khrushchev – the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the CPSU and to N.I. Belyaev – the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan. Only after this letter did the Council of Ministers of the USSR adopt a secret resolution aimed at providing financial and medical assistance to the population of the Semipalatinsk region, even if for quite an insignificant sum. This was the first state act on social rehabilitation and assistance to citizens of the region in ten years from the moment of starting the nuclear tests at the test site.

We searched for this secret letter for a long time, yet we could not find it in the republican archives. We sent a request to the directors of the Russian State Socio-Political Archive and of the Russian State Archive of Contemporary History. But we only received answers about absence of such a letter.

When one of the authors of this article, Abdijalel Bakir, was in Moscow in 2009, the head of the department of the Russian State Archive of Contemporary History told him: “Perhaps these documents are kept under the “Secret” mark in the Presidential Archive. This is not in our hands”. Thus, so far there is no hope of finding this letter. But its existence was mentioned by Balmukhanov – his words were referred to in the “A Bomb for the Third World War”, as well as in the “Ana Tili (The Native Tongue)” newspaper in an interview with Suzhikov entitled “Why I wrote a letter to Khrushchev” dated August 23, 2001.

Unfortunately, back then the top heads both in Moscow and in Alma-Ata perceived this letter sent to Khrushchev and Balyaev extremely negatively, which subsequently affected M.A. Suzhikov’s career. These affects could already be seen by 1959: when Semipalatinsk region reached top levels in producing and selling meat and other agricultural products, Suzhikov’s merits were marked only with a medal, although other regional officials were awarded orders of various degrees. (Usually, for such achievements, the First secretary of the regional party organization received at least an Order of the Red Banner of Labor.)

Of course, Suzhikov knew that this very letter to Khrushchev about the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site could decide his fate, but he could not remain silent, could not help doing something about what he had seen, and knowing the situation of the local population.  However as a result of this action, both Moscow and Alma-Ata were waiting for an opportunity to remove the stubborn First Secretary of the regional party committee from his position.

M.A. Suzhikov discusses with architects their diarama plans to build a publishing center in then Alma-Ata, 1968.  

M.A. Suzhikov, the Chairman of the State Committee of the KazSSR for print media, hosts foreign guests in 1968. 

Such an opportunity appeared due to unrest in Temirtau, where the construction of a Kazakhstani “Magnetic Mountain” began.[iv] Thousands of people were brought there from all over the country – convicts and the parolees. They were put in arduous conditions, not only having not enough food, but even craving for drinking water. Unrest and riots began in the city, for one whole week Temirtau was in the hands of the rebels who robbed all the shops, restaurants, and food stores.

The tragedy of Temirtau was discussed in 1960 behind the closed doors at a special plenary session of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan “On the State of the Construction of Karaganda Metallurgical Plant”. M. Suzhikov, speaking at the plenum, sharply criticized the bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan for not having political foresight in resolving the fundamental issues of construction, and for considering the secondary problems before the priority ones.

The next day, urgent information “regarding nationalism” of the First Secretary of Semipalatinsk regional committee reached Moscow. A week later, instructors of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, arriving expeditiously, called the “nationalist” to account, and visited all of his previous work places in Aktobe and Kyzyl-Orda regions. Their audit lasted for three months, and as a result, not even a single fact that could have served as grounds for public accusation or for the removal of Suzhikov was revealed. In all the places the inspectors visited, people spoke warmly about Suzhikov and about the results of his work. For instance, while working during the post-war years in Aktobe, Suzhikov, seeing how the whole region was starving, immediately wrote a letter to Moscow asking for food aid, and managed to get it, thus saving many people. And in Kyzyl-Orda region, Suzhikov resolved cadre issues, thus stimulating the development of regional economy and culture.

Instructors from Moscow and the leaders in Alma-Ata discussed the issue endlessly, but could not find any violations in Suzhikov’s work. They had no choice but to accuse him of non-fulfillment of socialist obligations in agriculture.

Indeed, both the summer of 1959 and the winter of 1960 were unfavorable in this sense. Hot weather in summer prevented the districts to ensure the compete preparation of hay for the winter. As a result, a large loss of cattle occurred. It would have been even larger in scale if Suzhikov had not taken action in time. He constantly met with herders, brought in the needed professionals, helped the population, making every possible use of all the internal capabilities of the region. But despite all his efforts, the increase in livestock at the time of the audit was lower than was planned.  All these facts were taken into account during the audits; however, there were still no sufficient reasons for dismissing Suzhikov from his post.

M.A. Suzhikov, Chairman of the State Committee of the KazSSR for print media in 1970.

Then, the “Pravda” newspaper – the main press organ of the Central Committee of the CPSU, published an article titled “Words Do Not Match Actions,”[v] which was a kind of sentence in Suzhikov’s life and track record. Much of what was published about him was untrue. But there could be no turning back. During those years, if the article was published in “Pravda” no one could refute it. This was a reality of communist party discipline.

Subsequently, at the meeting of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan held on August 27, 1960, after considering the letter “On unsatisfactory work of the party committee of Semipalatinsk region in increasing agricultural production, as well as in fulfilling the socialist obligations undertaken by collective and state farms of the region for 1960” and after reviewing letters from the staff of the apparatus the Central Committee of the CPSU on this issue, Suzhikov was dismissed from the post of First Secretary of the regional committee of Semipalatinsk region for ‘significant violations and deficiencies in agricultural management.’

It should be noted that unsatisfactory assessment of Suzhikov’s work of fulfilling socialist obligations was far-fetched. Literally three months later, the republican and regional newspapers reported the early fulfillment of socialist obligations by the Semipalatinsk region, the grounds for this being in fact set by the leadership of Suzhikov.

In fact, Mukhamedgali Alenovich Suzhikov was sacked from the position of the regional head not for his “sins” of not fulfilling the socialist obligations, but because he was courageous enough to be the first to openly oppose the high-handedness and unaccountability of leaders of the central bodies of Soviet Union as when creating the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site and conducting nuclear tests on it, or as when conducting the construction of the Karaganda Metallurgical Plant. The opinion of local population, its social well-being, and lifestyle were not taken into account in state level decision making.  Suzhikov was worried least of all about his own personal well-being; rather, he put the interests of people of Saryarka and Abai’s native land above all, therefore the cliché of a “nationalist” was attached to him.

The truth, though late, ultimately triumphed. When Suzhikov passed away in 1999 at the age of 89, the Government of the Republic of Kazakhstan noted his merits: “During the Great Patriotic War, Suzhikov organized the construction of defensive structures and formed fighter battalions from militias in the Stalingrad Region. After the war, M.A. Suzhikov worked as the secretary of the regional party committee in the regions of Astrakhan and Kostanai, as the first secretary of the regional party committee in Aktobe, Kyzylorda, and Semipalatinsk, and was elected secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan. For many years, he also led the State Press Committee of the Republic. Working in such positions of responsibility, he was able to clearly express his active citizenship, and the mastery of a skilled organizer. He made a huge contribution to the development of culture and economy of Kazakhstan” (Kazakhstanskaya Pravda, 14 August 1999).

After 60 years, at the initiative of the local leadership, the secondary school in Kyzylorda region was named after Muhamedgali Alenovich Suzhikov.”

In 2017 a school was named in Suzhikov’s honor and a new monument erected.

The granddaughters of Suzhikov Balzhan and Sherin, as well as his neice Almira, at the opening of his monument at the school in Kyzylorda in 2017.

[i] Биография Сужикова М.А. (Ашимбаев Д. Р. Кто есть кто в Казахстане. Биографическая энциклопедия. Алматы, 2008)

Член ВКП(б) с 1932 г. В 1929 г. окончил педагогические курсы при Народном комиссариате просвещения РСФСР, в 1948 г. — Высшую школу партийных организаторов при ЦК ВКП(б), Высшую партийную школу при ЦК ВКП(б).

  • 1929—1938 гг. — заведующий школой колхозной молодёжи, директор Володарского рабочего факультета Астраханского рыбного техникума,
  • 1938—1943 гг. — председатель исполнительного комитета Володарского районного Совета (Астраханский округ),
  • 1943 г. — секретарь Астраханского окружного комитета ВКП(б),
  • 1944—1945 гг. — заместитель секретаря Астраханского областного комитета ВКП(б) по животноводству,
  • 1948—1949 гг. — секретарь Актюбинского областного комитета КП(б) Казахстана по кадрам,
  • 1949—1950 гг. — секретарь Актюбинского областного комитета КП(б) Казахстана,
  • 1950—1951 гг. — первый секретарь Актюбинского областного комитета КП(б) Казахстана,
  • 1951—1954 гг. — секретарь ЦК КП(б) — КП Казахстана,
  • 1954—1958 гг. — первый секретарь Кзыл-Ординского областного комитета КП Казахстана,
  • 1958—1960 гг. — первый секретарь Семипалатинского областного комитета КП Казахстана,
  • 1960—1963 гг. — заместитель председателя Комиссии государственного-советского контроля СМ Казахской ССР,
  • 1963—1965 гг. — председатель казахского республиканского комитета Профсоюза работников культуры,
  • 1965—1967 гг. — секретарь Кустанайского областного комитета КП Казахстана,
  • 1967—1971 гг. — председатель Государственного комитета СМ Казахской ССР по печати.

Награждён орденом Трудового Красного Знамени, двумя орденами «Знак Почёта».

[ii] Recent collections of critical studies of governance in (post) Soviet Central Asia include:

Isaacs, Rico and Abel Polese. 2015.  “Between ‘imagined’ and ‘real’ nation-building: identity and nationhood in post-Soviet Central Asia” in Nationalities Papers 43(3): 371-382.

Kassymbekova, Botakoz. 2017.  “Understanding Stalinism in, from, and of Central Asia: beyond failure, peripherality, and otherness” in Central Asian Survey 36(1): 1-18.

[iii] Л. Вайдман, политический обозреватель «Казахстанской правды»  «Казахстанская правда» 20 июля 1991 г. Статья « Бомба для третьей мировой»

[iv] Kotkin, Stephen.  1997.  Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization. University of California Press.

For a recent overview of the place of Central Asia in Science and Technology Studies, please see:

Van der Straeten, Jonas.  Borderlands of Industrial Modernity Explorations into the History of Technology in Central Asia, 1850–2000

[v] Editor’s note:  the editor and translator were unable to locate the precise date of this article’s publication.