Atomic Steppe tells the untold true story of how the obscure country of Kazakhstan said no to the most powerful weapons in human history. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the marginalized Central Asian republic suddenly found itself with the world's fourth largest nuclear arsenal on its territory. Would it give up these fire-ready weapons—or try to become a Central Asian North Korea?

This book takes us inside Kazakhstan's extraordinary and little-known nuclear history from the Soviet period to the present. For Soviet officials, Kazakhstan's steppe was not an ecological marvel or beloved homeland, but an empty patch of dirt ideal for nuclear testing. Two-headed lambs were just the beginning of the resulting public health disaster for Kazakhstan—compounded, when the Soviet Union collapsed, by the daunting burden of becoming an overnight nuclear power.

Togzhan Kassenova
Kassenova is a nonresident fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment.
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Equipped with intimate personal perspective and untapped archival resources, Togzhan Kassenova introduces us to the engineers turned diplomats, villagers turned activists, and scientists turned pacifists who worked toward disarmament. With thousands of nuclear weapons still present around the world, the story of how Kazakhs gave up their nuclear inheritance holds urgent lessons for global security.

Reviews for this publication

Atomic Steppe is the untold story of how Kazakhstan rid itself of nuclear weapons—a remarkable accomplishment for a new nation. Togzhan Kassenova documents this momentous tale with depth, rigor, and skill. A revelatory, authoritative account of how the nuclear arms race went backwards, for once, making the world safer.”
—David E. Hoffman, author of The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy

“Togzhan Kassenova’s moving Atomic Steppe offers one of the first complete English-language accounts of the devastating but little-known nuclear history of Kazakhstan. The author successfully blends meticulous research with her own family’s personal experience.”
—Sarah Cameron, author of The Hungry Steppe: Famine, Violence, and the Making of Soviet Kazakhstan

“In this wonderful book, Togzhan Kassenova provides an intimate account of Kazakhstan’s nuclear history and an acute analysis of how it handled its post-Soviet nuclear inheritance. Atomic Steppe is a deeply researched and profoundly affecting book, which everyone concerned about the nuclear state of the world should read.”
—David J. Holloway, author of Stalin and the Bomb: The Soviet Union and Atomic Energy, 1939-1956

“With the sweeping and inspiring Atomic Steppe, Togzhan Kassenova has unearthed insights new even to those of us who had front-row seats to Kazakhstan’s nuclear saga, telling a story both accurate and humane. Anyone interested in Eurasia or in health, environmental, and nuclear challenges should read this engrossing book.”
—William Courtney, former US Ambassador to Kazakhstan

Book Excerpt

Excerpted from Atomic Steppe: How Kazakhstan Gave Up the Bomb by Togzhan Kassenova, published by Stanford University Press, ©2022 by Togzhan Kassenova. All Rights Reserved.

I am Kazakh, and the two main topics of this book—the Soviet nuclear tests in the Semipalatinsk region of Kazakhstan, and the nation’s early days of independence—are very personal to me. Despite living abroad since the age of nineteen, my ties to my homeland are deep. I treasure the memories of my youth, even those of such turbulent times as the collapse of the Soviet Union and the struggle of my newly independent country to find its place in the world. Kazakhs have a particular attachment to their place of birth, and I still call my hometown—Almaty—my first love. My heart skips a beat when my plane lands in Almaty, and I see the majestic Zailiiskii Alatau mountains that surround the city.

The family of my father lived in the city of Semipalatinsk, just 120 kilometers (seventy-five miles) from the nuclear test site. I was named Togzhan after a young girl loved by Abai, Kazakhstan’s most famous writer and himself a native of the Semipalatinsk region. My bond to the region also stems from my father’s life work. In the 1990s, as the head of the country’s first analytical institution (the Center for Strategic Studies, which later grew into the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies), he helped the Kazakh government make nuclear policy decisions. I chose the nuclear field as my profession because I understood how central the nuclear story was to Kazakhstan’s nation-building. I also wanted to follow in the footsteps of my father, who passed away too young, in studying nuclear policies and the consequences of our collective nuclear legacies.

Nuclear Testing

The first part of this book is devoted to Kazakhstan’s experience with Soviet nuclear tests. For more than forty years, the Soviet military tested its nuclear bombs in the Kazakh steppe, with devastating consequences for the people and the environment. Archival documents and memoirs paint a picture of disregard by the Soviet government for local residents during the decades of testing. All the early documents that discuss the suitability of the site for nuclear tests focus on the geographic advantages of the site, describing the area as “uninhabited,” and giving little, if any, consideration for the local population.

Through the years, I met many people from the Semipalatinsk region. Some of them were small children when the nuclear tests took place. They told me how nobody warned them not to gaze at the nuclear mushrooms as they helped with herding cattle or collecting hay close to the Polygon, the Soviet term for a military testing site. These Kazakhs were innocent, kids who did not know why they encountered lambs with two heads or no limbs. What struck me in my conversations with them was how they longed for the pain of their families to be acknowledged, but, at the same time, they did not want to be portrayed just as victims. People from the Semipalatinsk region wish their land to be known for its history and culture, for the richness of its flora and fauna, and not only for the hardships they faced.

Although I started my research mostly concerned about the people of Kazakhstan, I quickly realized there were other victims of the Soviet nuclear program. The builders of the Polygon, many of them Soviet prisoners or rank-and-file soldiers, worked in horrible conditions. Many of them perished. The Soviet nuclear scientists and other military personnel at the site faced many hardships as well, especially in the early years of the program when housing conditions were poor and families not allowed. Eventually, their living conditions improved, and their lives could even be described as privileged, with special foods and consumer goods that were unavailable to other citizens, but they always lived under the watchful eye of the KGB and were never entirely free. I also did not want to skirt over the fact that most scientists and military who participated in the nuclear testing program made sacrifices for the cause they believed in—helping their country protect itself. Many rightfully felt pride in the scientific and military breakthroughs.

In my quest to tell the story truthfully, I relied on documentary sources as much as possible. I wanted to see the data for myself, read the memoirs of scientists and military officials who created and tested the bombs, find contemporaneous records of the experiences of people who lived near the testing grounds, and search through all the available archival material for clues. How much and how soon did the Soviet government understand the human harm of nuclear tests? What did the local government in Kazakhstan know? Most importantly, what did the people who lived through the tests experience?

The hardest question to answer was this: What was the full impact of the nuclear tests on the people and the environment during the nuclear tests and many years after? Three decades after the last nuclear explosion at the Semipalatinsk nuclear testing site, I cannot provide the reader with a complete answer. The secrecy surrounding the entire Soviet nuclear program meant that whatever data the Soviet military collected was classified. Nuclear weapons remain today at the core of Russia’s national security, and for that reason sensitive information related to the Soviet/Russian nuclear program is still mostly out of reach.

Nuclear Negotiations

The second part of my book is devoted to the first years of Kazakhstan’s independence. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Kazakhstan found itself with a daunting inheritance it had not sought—more than a thousand Soviet nuclear weapons. That legacy would have made Kazakhstan the world’s fourth largest nuclear power, but, after complex and high-stakes negotiations with the United States, Russia, and others, it decided to spurn that option and instead become nuclear-free.

I tell the story of this journey by again relying on primary documents found in the archives—memos, cables, and policy papers as well as interviews with the diplomats, officials, and experts who were active participants in the relevant events. As a scholar, not bound by political correctness or government narrative, I have written a story which might appear messy but is, I hope, more nuanced and more accurate than would be a glossy celebration of US-Kazakhstan achievements in diplomatic denuclearization.

As a scholar, I wanted this book to reflect as accurately as possible the complexities of that period. But I also believe that, in the end, those complexities render the eventual achievements even more impressive. A young country whose leaders were not allowed to make any significant decisions of their own under Soviet rule made life-changing decisions that benefited a new nation diplomatically, economically, and in terms of security. Kazakhstan, poor and in crisis, negotiated with the world’s superpower on an almost equal footing. As for the United States, it achieved its main objective of assuring the removal of Soviet nuclear weapons from Kazakhstan, and it did so through thoughtful and skillful diplomacy. Specifically, the United States offered Kazakhstan what it needed most—support for its sovereignty and security, the financial and technical means to help dismantle weapons infrastructure and secure vulnerable nuclear material, and direct foreign investment and political and economic assistance.

A Kazakh, A Scholar

Like the story of the nuclear tests and of Kazakhstan’s early years of independence, my own Kazakh heritage is nuanced, both in its effect on me and on my preparation of this book.

“Aren’t you happy Kazakhstan got rid of those nasty Russian colonizers?” was the most frequent question I got when I started living and studying abroad. Fellow graduate students from Western countries, informed by textbooks written by Western scholars who never lived in the region, assumed the only emotion people in Central Asia could feel about the Soviet collapse was joy. The truth was way more complicated.

My Kazakh heritage afforded clear advantages in my familiarity with my nation’s history, geography, culture, and language, and my access to my father’s papers. But that heritage also posed dangers, particularly in the area of potential bias and undue exaggeration. The scholar in me wanted to tell my country’s story as fully and objectively as I could. But because I am a Kazakh and because my father was a major figure in Kazakh nuclear policymaking, this journey wasn’t without a struggle.

On an emotional level, the hardest part of research and writing concerned the Soviet nuclear tests. As someone who grew up in Kazakhstan, I knew about the history of the tests and the endless victims. But visiting the former nuclear test site and reading contemporaneous documents about the period elevated my understanding of the tragedy to a new level. On more than one occasion, my blood boiled when I came across particularly cruel or tragic material.

Meeting Kazakh victims of the Soviet tests or reading about their experiences proved especially hard. Those were my people—the people who looked like me, who shared my culture and affinity for the land, people who did nothing wrong but ended up paying the price for the Soviet “nuclear shield.” The stories of these people are heartbreaking and continue to haunt me. But I have tried my best to research and report this story with scholarly discipline and impartiality.

Please read this book with an understanding of both my heritage and the emotions it engenders, and of my desire as a scholar to write a book that is as objective and comprehensive as possible. It took me more than a decade to research and write this work; I hope you find it to be a full and fair treatment of the issues discussed. My hope is that it is a worthy tribute to my father and those who, like him, navigated the complexities of building a new state, and to the people of Semipalatinsk, who paid the price for Soviet nuclear might.