Closing a Soviet Test Site
Most of my grown-up life I have lived as a housewife in the US farmland surrounding Saint Paul, Indiana, where I made a home for my husband and reared my six children. Politics was foreign land to me, of international relations I had no idea. In 1991 I suddenly was at the opposite end of the world, in Kazakhstan, celebrating the closing of a nuclear test site. How did I get there?
|1) The changes in my life had begun in 1983. On the 8th of August my husband died. Two weeks later the last of my five children left for university and their autumn term. Thus, in two weeks time I went from a husband and five children at home – to nobody! Some change, I was suddenly alone! ||1) ||2) After getting my children settled in college I moved back home to my birthplace to live with my parents in New Jersey, in my old bedroom where I grew up. For a couple of years I walked the beach every morning, watching the sun rise and searching my soul with one big question: What was I going to do with the second half of my life? ||2) ||3) At my 50th birthday dinner I announced to my bewildered children that I was going to move to a university town to learn everything I could about international relations and peacemaking. I had decided to make my contribution to a better world and had, in fact, already gone to knock at doors in Princeton, asking how I could learn something about international affairs. The university’s office of registration recommended a talk with Professor Richard Falk, who said Princeton was the place to learn what I needed to know! ||3) ||4) So I packed my suitcase to go to Princeton as a student and make up for some of all that knowledge that an early marriage had stopped me from getting. Like hundreds and thousands of others I would have loved to do something useful for the world, - if I had only been well educated, famous, rich and influential. Fortunately I confided to a Russian visitor, Dr. Elaina Ershova, how I felt embarrassed and that I would not be taken seriously without diplomas. She told me that the world is full of academic writing and talking, and badly needs those who are willing to do the work - communicate, mobilize and involve people in action.||4) ||5) Three years later, in 1990, I had volunteered to help Parliamentarians For Global Action during a meeting in Washington on a nuclear testing moratorium and there met Olzhas Suleimenov, a People’s Deputy who represented Kazakhstan in the Supreme Soviet in Moscow. We soon became wonderful comrades, and he invited me to bring a delegation of American citizens to Kazakhstan. ||5) ||6) I shall never forget our arrival at the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Testsite. After hours through endless desert land the bus stopped. When we looked out our window we saw about 7,000 Kazakh nomads standing in the noonday desert sun – waiting to celebrate the closing of their nuclear test site with the first Americans they had ever seen. We spent the whole afternoon and evening with them, enjoying their speeches and songs, sharing their national meal, and dancing in the desert sand as the sun fell behind the horizon. Strong personal bonds were tied.||6) ||7) Out of this type of experience grew the creation of World Citizen Diplomats. Since its start in 1992, we have made 6 more trips into Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, and Uzbekistan, building dialogue with the people of a remote and foreign land. We also created the Peace 2000 Caravan, and now international delegations of men and women from many nations are traveling around the world to build dialogue and break down stereotypes and the misconceptions people have of one another.||7) ||8) One of the people who have traveled with us as a citizen diplomat is Yuri Kuidin of Kazakhstan, a professional photographer, who used his camera to educate people about the deadly legacy of nuclear testing. In cooperation with him, I have written the following story of how his people managed to close the Semipalatinsk test site in 1991. It is a true example of “People Power” – in the ailing, but at the time still, Soviet Union!||8) ||9) Kazakhstan was the second largest republic of the Soviet Union, a state of mainly nomadic people, traveling with their sheep along the vast steps of this central Asian nation, located to the south of Russia. The former Soviet Union had chosen the enormous and sparsely inhabited territories of the Kazakh people as testing ground. Here, during 40 years, from 1949 to 1989, the Soviet Union performed more than 400 nuclear tests, spread all over the country, first above ground, then underground. But even the underground tests vented lots of radiation into the air. ||9) ||10) Almost everyone on earth has heard about the Chernobyl nuclear accident, and the terrible radiation problems experienced by people in the Ukraine and Belarus because of this one accident. It poisoned the air and land, killed and ruined the health of millions of people. The problems will continue to haunt people for a long time.||10) ||11) In Kazakhstan testing was conducted over a 40-year period and only very slowly the genocidal nature of these nuclear tests began to dawn on the citizens of the Semipalatinsk Region. As the years passed, the people there began to witness changes in their health, as birth defects, leukemia and other forms of cancer, and many new diseases never heard of before began to appear and to increase rapidly.||11) ||12) Olzhas Suleimenov, a Kazakh poet, elected as a Peoples Deputy started to witness the suffering of the local people. He became more and more concerned as he saw an increasing rate of cancer, and informed his colleagues in the Supreme Soviet at the Kremlin that the nuclear testing resulted in serious health problems in his region. No one paid any attention to him. The region was far away from the Kremlin and very few of the People Deputies had any knowledge of radiation diseases. ||12) ||13) In February 1989, as a direct result of two underground tests at the Semipalatinsk test site, clouds containing huge amounts of radioactive gases passed over the inhabited areas. A military pilot at a base not far from the test site informed Olzhas that all the dosimeters in the town showed very high levels of radiation. These dosimeters had been installed in the kindergartens and schools for the children of the military officers, and the pilot was very concerned about the future health of his children.||13) ||14) All criticism and questions regarding the tests were strictly taboo and the citizens were afraid to talk, since it could lead to arrest by the secret police. Olzhas nevertheless decided to make an appeal to his people, and the opportunity came later in the month when he was invited to appear on TV to speak about the culture of Kazakhstan and to read his poetry.||14) ||15) Speaking in a direct transmission, Olzhas then laid his prepared speech aside, and looking straight into the camera, told his people that it was time for them to rise up and speak out against the terrible crime that was being committed to them and their land. The tests were not harmless, as they had been told for many years. The cold war was over, why continue testing when there was no enemy any longer? He said that the best way for the Soviet to prove to the world that the Cold War was indeed over was to stop testing and start reductions of the nuclear arsenals. ||15) ||16) Olzhas told the viewers that American peace activists were pushing to close the Nevada test site, and the people of Kazakhstan should start the process; “If we close our test site, then Nevada and others would stop also.” No one in the Kremlin would pay attention to him, Olzhas said, so it was up to the citizens themselves to do something. In conclusion he invited the viewers to come to his office at the Writers Union the next day at 10 a.m., and promised to help them organize a peoples movement against the nuclear tests!||16) ||17) The next day, a cold February 28, 1989, Olzhas soon found his office a bit on the small side. More than 5,000 showed up, so they had to stand outside the building with Olzhas speaking from a second floor balcony.||17) ||18) That day they organized a peoples’ movement, naming it the “Nevada-Semipalatinsk Anti-Nuclear Movement” to connect with the nuclear resisters in the US. Olzhas wrote an appeal to the government of the USSR and during the first few weeks over two million citizens of Kazakhstan signed this appeal. Peaceful demonstrations were held in the streets of cities, towns and villages throughout Kazakhstan. Soon there were thousands and thousands of people peacefully protesting the nuclear genocide! As a result of these actions of protest, eleven of the eighteen tests planned for that year were stopped. After the next explosion on October 19, 1989, 130,000 miners declared that they would go on an unlimited strike if the tests continued.||18) ||19) Olzhas came out in the Supreme Soviet session with a decisive demand to stop the functioning of the nuclear testing site. In November the Supreme Soviet adopted a resolution binding the government to discuss the issue to close the Semipalatinsk test site. Less than eight months after the formation of the anti-nuclear movement, President Gorbachev announced the first moratorium ending testing at the Semipalatinsk Test Site. It had become the world’s first test site to be permanently closed by democratic discussion and decision! In August 1991, President Nazarbayev made a formal statement that no one would ever test another weapon in the territory of Kazakhstan, a true triumph for the citizens of the country. ||19) ||20) They had set a courageous example for the whole world – in particular citizens of the other four nuclear powers – to see and follow. They had dared to speak out and march in the streets, – even when the communist system was still in place. They didn’t throw stones, or break windows, or raid stores, or rape women and children, or kill anyone! They just peacefully demonstrated until the testing site was closed!||20)|