These Are The Secret Sites Where The Soviet Union Exploded Atomic Bombs And Tested Radiation On Unsuspecting Russians

The Cold War and nuclear arms race may never have erupted into a full-blown nuclear war, but it still resulted in destruction and irreparable damage to the environment.

Nuclear testing, primarily at sites in the former Soviet Union, left behind a trail of radiation, chemical debris, and poisoned citizens. The locations, many of which were in Kazakhstan, were some of the most secret and well-guarded locations in the Soviet Union, until its collapse in 1991.

While researching a project on large Russian cities, photographer Nadav Kander discovered some of the testing sites on Google Earth. Fascinated by their secrecy, Kander set out to find what was left. There wasn’t much. Most had been destroyed after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Kander shared a number of the photos with us here, but you can see the rest on display at the Flowers Gallery in London. “Dust,” a book of the photographs, will be released on October 31st.

Kurchatov in Eastern Kazakhstan used to be the center of operations for the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site. It was a “closed city,” meaning no one could enter or exit the city without proper authorization.

Kurchatov III (technical area), Kazakhstan 2011

Nadav Kander/Courtesy of Flowers Gallery
Technical Area, Kurchatov, Kazakhstan

Kurchatov was also a “science” city, built by gulag labour and named after the Russian physicist tasked with producing the atomic bomb. At its heyday, the population was over 20,000, composed of scientists, engineers, physicists, military personnel and those who worked at the nuclear facilities. It was one of the most secretive places in the Soviet Union.

Graveyard near Kurchatov, Kazakhstan,2011Nadav Kander/Courtesy of Flowers GalleryGraveyard near Kurchatov, Kazakhstan

The Semipalatinsk Test Site, also know as “The Polygon,” was the primary testing site for Soviet nuclear weapons. Located near Kurchatov, the Soviet Union conducted 456 nuclear tests in the area from 1949 to 1989, with little regard for radiation exposure to citizens.

The Polygon Nuclear Test Site I (After The Event), Kazakhstan 2011Nadav Kander/Courtesy of Flowers GalleryPolygon Nuclear Test Site, Kazakhstan

The Soviet Union never informed nearby citizens of the nuclear tests or their potential exposure. Instead, scientists secretly observed the effects of radiation on people in the area. To this day, the area near the Polygon has one of the highest occurrences of cancer in the world.

Though the site was closed in 1992, large amounts of radioactive material were left behind, virtually unguarded. Over the course of 17 years, Kazakh, Russian, and American scientists completed a $US150 million operation to secure the material.

Kurchatov V (Heating Plant), Kazakhstan 2011Nadav Kander/Courtesy of Flowers GalleryHeating Plant, Kurchatov, Kazakhstan

Lake Chagan, also called Atomic Lake, is a lake created by the Chagan underground nuclear test in 1965. The water from the lake comes from the Chagan River. It is still radioactive.

The Polygon Nuclear Test Site X, (Atomic Lake), Kazakhstan 2011Nadav Kander/Courtesy of Flowers GalleryAtomic Lake, Polygon Nuclear Test Site X, Kazakhstan

Moscow 10, now known as Priozersk, Kazakhstan, was founded in 1953 as a secret military base to test and develop the Soviet missile defence system. It was occupied by the Soviet military.

Priozersk is still closed to the public and continues to be leased by the Russian military. The military uses it as a testing site to improve anti-ballistic and anti-aircraft defence systems.

Priozersk II, (Tulip in Bloom), Kazakhstan 2011Nadav Kander/Courtesy of Flowers GalleryTulip in Bloom, Priozersk, Kazakhstan

Some of Russia’s greatest academics, engineers, and physicists lived in Priozersk. Most of the military buildings in the town have been leveled to hide its secret past.

The Aral Sea used to be one of the four largest lakes in the world. Over the course of 50 years, it has shrunk to a tenth of its size, thanks to a number of Soviet irrigation projects that diverted water from the area.

The Aral Sea Diptych (Sea Bed), Kazakhstan 2011Nadav Kander/Courtesy of Flowers GalleryAral Sea Diptych, Kazakhstan

One of the islands in the Aral Sea was the site of a Russian chemical weapons factory, adding to the toxicity of the area.

The Aral Sea I (Officers Housing), Kazakhstan 2011Nadav Kander/Courtesy of Flowers GalleryOfficers Housing, The Aral Sea, Kazakhstan

Water from the sea was diverted for the cultivation of cotton and other crops. The project was a failure, however, as much of the water was swallowed by the desert, leaving behind a dusty plane full of salt and toxic chemicals. Many Soviet projects have left a devastating legacy on the landscape, just like this one.

The Aral Sea III (Fishing Trawler), Kazakhstan 2011Nadav Kander/Courtesy of Flowers GalleryFishing Trawler, Aral Sea, Kazakhstan

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