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The Polygon    cover image

The Polygon 2014

Highly Recommended

Distributed by The Video Project, PO Box 411376, San Francisco, CA 94141-1376; 800-475-2638
Produced by Kimberley Hawryluk and Adam Schomer
Directed by Kimberley Hawryluk and Adam Schomer
DVD, color, 55 min.

General Adult
Nuclear Weapons, Soviet Union, Russia, History, Radiation, Cold War

Date Entered: 06/11/2015

Reviewed by Andrew Jenks, California State University, Long Beach

Under the cover of secrecy, and inspired by the national security dilemmas of the Cold War, the Soviets found an isolated place deep in present-day Kazakhstan to test their nuclear bombs. The site, known as Semipalatinsk, complemented another secret site in the vastness of Kazakhstan, known as Baikonur, which tested and launched the rockets that could carry weapons of mass destruction to any point on earth. The same construction teams built facilities at both sites in the late 1940s and early 1950s, living in tents and train cars and hastily building barracks, laboratories, and staging centers. But the real zone of destruction was the Polygon itself, subjected to more than 450 nuclear bomb detonations from 1949-1991 – more than one hundred of which were above ground. Known as the “Polygon,” the area in the northeastern section of Kazakhstan was sacrificed to provide security against a possible US invasion and nuclear attack. The locals at first took pride in contributing to the massive effort that would make the Soviet Union an equal to the United States and prevent the sort of destruction (nearly 30 million dead in the Soviet Union) that occurred during World War II and the defeat of the Nazis. This moving and disturbing documentary retells the story of those experiments and of the human guinea pigs unwittingly subjected to damaging and lethal dosages of radiation.

The Soviet gulag prison administration, responsible for managing the Soviet nuclear program at its inception, operated the site, which was roughly the size of New Jersey. The use of involuntary prison labor, combined with the complete veil of secrecy that enveloped Soviet weapons testing, encouraged extreme disregard for the human and environmental costs of nuclear weapons testing. Fallout from the first successful Soviet bomb test in 1949 fell on villages that were not evacuated, setting the tone for practices that would continue until the site was closed, along with the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1989. According to one European Parliament investigator of the site in the 1990s, KGB doctors, following the example of Nazi doctors, waited for the winds to turn toward the villages and then approved the blasts so that they could study the effects of radiation on the villagers.

If the account told here is primarily presented as a Soviet tale, it also reflects a broader story about the victims and sacrifices of nuclear testing. Obsessed with national security and power, France (in Algeria), Great Britain (in the Australian outback), the United States (in the Bikini Atoll and on Navajo lands), and China (in the desert expanse of its northwest) all tested weapons with little concern for potential victims and long-term environmental impacts. Communist or capitalist, developing country or developed, nuclear powers all viewed sparsely populated areas, usually populated by people deemed indigenous or “backwards,” as ideal staging grounds for nuclear testing. Weapons testing would turn supposedly wasted and unusable land into a productive sector of the economy; and the locals would be able to participate in helping their nations expand their power. Of course, it helped national security regimes that the people in these affected regions were also relatively powerless and voiceless.

The documentary focuses on the residents near the testing grounds in present day Kazakhstan. The images are not for the squeamish: horrific birth defects, widespread cancers, heartbreaking stories of illness, hopelessness, and suicide. A former official of the Soviet Ministry of Health, who participated in a secret conference in Moscow devoted to the devastating health impacts of the blasts on the local population and environment, noted that his group’s recommendations to terminate the tests, because of evidence of widespread damage to the health of the population, were rejected in 1960 and further health studies ended. The Ministry of Health was no match for the Ministry of Defense and Secret Police – especially given the veil of total secrecy over the entire operation.

Perhaps even more insidious than the above ground testing was the shift to underground testing, following the 1963 partial nuclear test-ban treaty created by the nuclear powers at that time because of concerns about radiation in the atmosphere. The radiation from underground explosions was never contained and has made its way into the streams and rivers flowing out of the mountains and from there into the mighty Irtysh River, which flows into the Arctic Sea and beyond.

If there is a positive benefit from this story, it is that Kazakhstan has used victimization by nuclear testing as a platform for promoting opposition to nuclear weapons. Kazakhstan’s current president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, was in 1989 the leader of the Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan. He successfully confronted Mikhail Gorbachev, then the Soviet leader, about the disastrous situation at the Polygon. Gorbachev agreed to stop the testing. When Kazakhstan became an independent country, Nazarbayev had all nuclear missiles and infrastructure removed from the newly independent country, setting a precedent for disarmament rare in the world. After nearly two decades, and with the help of the United States and the European Union (though not Russia) the government has begun to finance more medical care and facilities, and to conduct more systematic analysis of cancer and mortality in the affected regions, all of which has confirmed the ongoing impact of radiation.

Still, government approaches, as this documentary illustrates, are largely confined to dealing with victims in the past. Any question of ongoing radiation impacts tends to be dismissed by officials as “radiation phobia,” and thus not real or deserving of further attention. It is a typical response globally by nuclear experts and governments – that ignorance of science leads people, and those who supposedly benefit from victimization payouts, to exaggerate dangers. In the view of some Kazakh state officials, the danger is less radiation than the panic and hysteria that comes from “radiation phobia.” The solution, then, is to ramp up a propaganda campaign to convince people that they are really not sick.

Meanwhile, economic depression has exacerbated the radiation problem. When the site was abandoned, plutonium and other fissile materials remained on site, stoking fears that terrorists might scavenge the vast testing site for sufficient material and equipment to build their own bombs. Due to the massive unemployment caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union, desperate Kazakhs entered the Polygon in the 1990s and scavenged and resold scrap metal and other contaminated items – thus exposing themselves to radiation and inadvertently spreading the exposure outside the area (the scrap metal from Polygon, according to one of the scavengers, eventually made its way to China). Fortunately, an international team of experts in the 1990s cleaned up the area enough to prevent weapons proliferation but not enough to spare the 200,000 residents who live within 45 kilometers of the site, and the environment, lasting and profound damage. Victims did receive some compensation from the government of Kazakhstan—a paltry one-time payment of $250—and only for victims who were born before 1969 (thus excluding those who continue to be exposed to radiation, and whose DNA was damaged due to the radiation exposure of their parents and grandparents). Kazakhstan, it should be noted, is not a poor nation, boasting the world’s fifth largest oil reserves. How this tale will end is unclear, but based on the material in the documentary, and on how radiation victims have generally been ignored, it seems unlikely that the inhabitants of the “Polygon” will experience a happy, Hollywood ending.