The earliest detonation of a Soviet atomic bomb, codenamed First Lightning, occurred at the Semipalatinsk Test Site on August 29, 1949, barely four years after the horrors at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. During the remainder of the Cold War, the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Polygon, an area covering 18,500 square kilometers on the steppe of northeast Kazakhstan, was the center of the Soviets’ secret testing program. In all, over four hundred atmospheric and underground nuclear detonations were carried out there over a period of forty years.
Locals were used as guinea pigs to test the effects of radiation on human populations. Doctor Nailya Chaizhunusova from the Scientific Research Institute of Radiation, Medicine, and Ecology tells me, “The army experimented on civilians. They would move people close to the test sites, leave a hundred people in the village, give a test group 200 grams of vodka to drink, and monitor their health after they detonated a nuclear weapon.” The military prohibited doctors from attributing the sharp rise in illnesses and deaths from cancer, leukemia, and radiation exposure in the region to the nuclear tests.