Nuclear Nostalgia—Legacy Soviet Weapons Systems in Kazakhstan Memory

Tristan Kenderdine


Atomic Steppe: How Kazakhstan Gave up the Bomb By Togzhan Kassenova, Stanford University Press, Redwood, CA. 2022, 384 pages, $95.00 (Hardback) $30.00 (Paperback) ISBN 978-1503628465


From the utilitarian necessity of superpower politics to the idealism of a new nation defining a path forwards free from nuclearization, this book navigates the multi-state history of the Soviet nuclear weapons program in modern Kazakhstan. Through more administrative history than security theory, Kassenova explores the bureaucratic necessity of maintaining the nuclear weapons program which remained an essential security calculation to the Soviet state, demonstrably harmed the people in Kazakhstan, and which ultimately faded from significance through the ineffectual transition from Soviet Socialist Republic to Republic of Kazakhstan.


The book is organized equally into the Soviet and independence periods, which perhaps does not do justice to how varied and eventful the Soviet period was compared with the largely uneventful, ineffectual independence remediation and renewal non-efforts. Kazakhstan’s nuclear story hinges on three pivots: the Stalinist testing period in the early 1950s, centered on the Polygon zone around Semipalatinsk, the 1980s détente period through which Kazakhstan, despite some limited local activism, was largely an observer, and the post-collapse independence period where the loose public security bureaucracy safeguarding warheads, missiles, bombers, nuclear material and nuclear safety apparatus all dematerialized nearly instantly, leaving a shaky state in nominal possession of a series of both political risks and potential security and biological catastrophes.


But it is the spaces in between are where the story is – the long monotony of Kazakhstan’s nuclear bureaucracy through the early 1960s to late 1980s, and then again the long governance stagnation of post-independence where thirty years later a dismal government apparatus still presides over Kazakhstan’s human, built, economic and natural geography, still largely untouched and poorly remediated since the withdrawal of the Soviet political power which had necessitated the human orchestration of live nuclear weapons power over this landscape.


While Kassenova’s geographic framing is at times nice, from the outset the reader is subject to willfully subjective depictions: when describing the idyllic rural Kazakh nomadic lifestyle the geography is beautiful golden summers and softly blanketed white winters with luscious springs and autumns of grass. When the Russians are depicted arriving to build the Polygon though, the frigid winter temperatures and the scorching long summers are a natural barrier to the outsider. Like much contemporary writing tainted by post-colonial discourse theory, the internal contradictions are openly leant into, within one paragraph Soviet Kazakhstan was at the same time a model of ethnic harmony, while the Zheltoksan movement embodied the ethnic enmity of Russians and Kazakhs. Such disjointed writing combined with endless repetition and constantly reintroducing concepts already covered detract from a history of a people and a place rarely told and deserving of both source-work and analysis of greater depth.


Ultimately though, most of this history is told from either the perspective of Moscow or Washington. There is much here from the United States perspective, particularly on the breakup of the Soviet Union and the beginnings of the decisions to separate the Soviet weapons systems as well as the possibility of the loss into black markets of enriched materials. The narrative falls into the trope of putting Kazakhstan second; second to the Soviet Union, and then second to the United States. The author refers to Soviet R-36Ms by the NATO designation SS-18s, indicative of a book supposedly centered on Soviet sources of Kazakhstan’s role in the Cold War weapons systems, but largely written from an American perspective. Only rarely do we get a glimpse of any Kazakh sources or agency, this book feels like it was written from Washington, not Almaty.


The book takes equal narrative guidance from Moscow as Washington though. Present is the consistently odd ability of Kazakhstan contemporary politics to tacitly accept the discourses that Moscow writes for Kazakhstan’s consumption, to the point of repeating falsehoods through post-soviet sarcasm. The unabashed whitewashing of Nazarbayev’s rise to power and subsequent regime is nauseating. Repeating the propaganda that Nazarbayev wins elections by staggering margins leaves the reader doubting the already confused argument that Nazarbayev in the late 1980s and early 1990s at the same time wanted to preserve the Soviet Union common market but also lead Kazakhstan to independence. The unconvincing connection between the Zheltoksan movement and the anti-nuclear movement shows Kazakhs obligingly happy to connect a Zheltoksan movement which empowered Nazarbayev with an independence movement at the collapse of the Soviet Union.


Kazakhstan’s people do have a culturally unique connection to and attitude towards nature. For a people who do not fit easily into a category of indigenous, colonized, collaborationist, or ethno-nationalist, greater explorations of Kazakh perspectives on nature, environment, ecology, biology, hydrology, and landscape would have been illuminating here. Kazakhstan’s people and Kazakh people both have stories and perspectives on the Soviet industrial built environment, the nuclear testing landscape, the nuclearization of a nomadic people’s energy needs, and participation in a global nuclear weapons system which threatened destruction of planetary-wide environmental systems and human geographies. Unfortunately there is a dearth of geographic perspectives here and the narrative falls back on tropes of Moscow-Washington Cold War politics.


The air throughout is not one of environmentalism, peace, or protection of people from a state, but rather one of Soviet nostalgia, for the respect and importance of having being part of a global superpower and the global weapons systems which enabled it. Kazakhstan has never been as important in the global system as during the Cold War. Yet the sticky institutional legacy remains, a self-importance that radiates the half-life of a political power long since decayed. There is more than a whiff of nostalgia here for a past which never existed, an imagining of a Kazakhstan as global superpower within the Soviet Union, not of a marginalized rural polity used in rank utilitarian terms by a Russian state machine, and then afterwards cast adrift on the ocean of international affairs with no real capacity for competence. Post-Soviet Kazakhstan remains a nation in denial, where imaginaries of a nuclear-armed Kazakhstan without the requisite technoindustrial apparatus to support a nuclear weapons program are as ephemeral as the origin myths of Kazakh statehood itself.


Tristan Kenderdine is Executive Editor at Hansa Press and Research Director at Future Risk

2 December 2022




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