In 1916, there was a huge uprising when the tsar attempted to conscript young Kazakh men for forced labor to supply the war efforts in World War I. The revolt was harshly put down. Thousands are believed to have died. Over 300,000 Kazakhs were forced to flee their homeland, mostly to China and Mongolia. More fled during the Bolshevik Revolution and the period of forced collectivization.

During the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the Kazakhs tried to wrestle themselves free form Soviet control. Alash Orda (Horde of Alash) — pro-democratic, secular party named after a legendary founder of the Kazakh people — was founded by Kazakhs and Kyrgyz nationalists and intellectual in 1905. It established an autonomous government that endured through the Russian Civil War but lasted less than two years (1918-20) before surrendering to the Bolshevik authorities.

The Bolsheviks gained control of Kazakhstan in 1920 and then sought to preserve Russian control under a new political system. Many members of Alash Orda were executed or sent to labor camps. Their leader, a prince and descendant of Genghis Khan named Ali Khan Bukeykhanov, survived but was executed during the Stalinist purges in the 1930s. Meanwhile thousands of Kazakhs died in the chaos and fighting during the Russian civil war. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

The Kyrgyz Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was set up in 1920 and was renamed the Kazakh Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in 1925 when the Kazakhs were differentiated officially from the Kyrgyz. (The Russian Empire recognized the ethnic difference between the two groups; it called them both "Kyrgyz" to avoid confusion between the terms "Kazakh" and "Cossack.")

The Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) was officially proclaimed and added the Soviet Union in 1936. Before that southern Kazakhstan was part of the Turkestan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR), which included the other future Central Asia republics and northern Kazakhstan was a separate ASSR. In 1925 the autonomous republic's original capital, Orenburg, was reincorporated into Russian territory. Almaty (called Alma-Ata during the Soviet period), a provincial city in the far southeast, became the new capital.

Soviet Rule in the Kazakh SSR

In the Soviet era Kazakhstan was known as the Kazakh SSR. Of the five Central Asian republics, Kazakhstan played the most important industrial role in the Soviet system because of the abundant coal and oil deposits in the northern sector of the republic, closest to Russia. Kazakhstan was also deemed remote enough by Soviet rulers to test hundreds of nuclear bombs and lock up dissidents. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

During the Soviet period, Kazakhs were placed in visible political positions with little power while Russians controlled the government behind the scenes and managed the important mines and industrial enterprises. Most factory workers were Russian while most farm workers were Kazakhs.Before World War II, 2000 large-scale industrial enterprises were established, and regulations for nomads and semi-nomads were implemented and live stock raising and agriculture were improved. *

Under Soviet rule, Kazakhstan was transformed from a country of nomadic herders into an agricultural, industrial republic. The experiences of the Kazakhs had made many parallels with other Soviet republics. High culture emerged and was supported. Education and health care were improved and brought to many areas for the first time. Literacy and life spands increased dramatically. At the same time there were forced collectivization, famines and epidemics. Kazakhstan was treated as a backwater—a place to test nuclear weapons and conduct experiments with killer biological agents.

Collectivization and Mass Starvation in the Kazakh Republic

From 1929 to 1934, during the period when Soviet leader Joseph V. Stalin was trying to collectivize agriculture, Kazakhstan endured repeated famines because peasants had slaughtered their livestock in protest against Soviet agricultural policy. In that period, at least 1.5 million Kazakhs and 80 percent of the republic's livestock died. Thousands more Kazakhs tried to escape to China, although most starved in the attempt. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Under Stalin’s policy of de-nomadization and collectivization, nomadic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz were forced to settle down and turn their animals over to the state. The Kazakhs resisted. Many people chose to slaughter their animals rather than give them to the state. In some cases guerrillas fighting against the Communists killed the animals.

The populations of entire villages perished—hundreds of thousands of families. Many of those that survived left everything behind, their homes, their animals, and fled to Siberia and elsewhere in Central Asia and the Soviet Union. An estimated 1 million people made their way to China, Mongolia, Afghanistan and other places.

Between 1929 and 1932, it is estimated 1.75 million to 2.5 million people died (including 40 to 50 percent of Kazakhs in Kazakhstan) of malnutrition and starvation as a result of the loss of animals. President Nazarbaev told the Washington Post, “It was terrible. My father saw with his own eyes and told me...You’d walk along a path and see corpses everywhere.” Millions of Kazakhs fled to China and Afghanistan to avoid starvation.

Soviets Carve up Central Asia

Although the peoples of Central Asia—Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kyrgyz, Turkmen and Kazakhs—have a long history the republics that became Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrzgzstan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan were created in the 1920s as the equivalent of American states with no plan for them ever to be independent countries. The Tajiks were given their own republic but it lacked Bukhara and Samarkand, cities with mostly Tajik populations that traditionally had been Tajik cultural and business centers.

Stalin, serving as people's commissar of nationalities, divided up Central Asia into the current republics in 1924 as part of a divide and rule strategy to thwart any attempt at a pan-Turkic or pan-Islamic revolt against the Soviet Union. Borders were not established along ethnic or geographical lines but along lines mostly likely to suppress dissent. Ethnic groups were divided and placed in neighboring republics rather than into a single nation. Russians were pushed to move in the area.

Before that time there were no real borders in Central Asia. People were grouped together by religion, loyalty to a certain leaders, language in a way that was always changing and never clearly defined. There was no sense of nationhood and even ethnicity. Under the Soviets, ethnicity became defined as rigidly as the borders and many groups were provided with a history, culture and tradition that conformed to Soviet ideology.

Divisions of Ethnic Groups in the Soviet Union

The ethnic mix and configuration of some the ethnic republics in the Soviet Union was odd and unnatural. The strange ethnic make up of some of the ethnic republics was primarily the work of Joseph Stalin, when he served as the People's Commissar of Nationalities under Lenin in the 1920s , to suit the needs of the state not the people. In some cases traditional rivals were placed together in the same state and major population centers for one group were divided into different states. Some of the most creative gerrymandering was done where Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan meet (See Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan).

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: “The Soviet authorities attempted to shape ethnic identities throughout the USSR, and in Central Asia there were particular difficulties as most people here did not see their primary identities at the ethnic or national level. As part of the Soviet process, languages were standardised, traditions codified, pre-existing sub-ethnic identities (for example, tribe or city) were suppressed (for instance, by being removed as an option in the official census), privileges were granted or denied based on ethnic identity, and many people found that they were outside the borders of their titular republic (for example, ethnic Uzbeks inside Tajikistan). Despite the continuing rhetoric that the divisions between nationalities (that is, ethnic groups) would eventually disappear and give way to a unified people, ethnic identities continued to be strongly promoted in the Soviet republics... There were, however, also divisions within the ethnic groups.For Tajiks, there was the reality that ethnic Tajiks from different regions had obvious differences in dialect and in many other aspects of their culture.” [Source: “Tajikistan” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013]

The borders of the ethnic homelands and republics were gerrymandered to suit the divide-and-rule policy of Moscow. Stalin’s idea was to group rival ethnic group into the same states rather than give them their own state so they would be too occupied bickering among themselves to unite against Moscow and threaten the Soviet state and in turn require a strong Soviet military presence to keep the peace. One Russian newspaper editor told National Geographic, “It wasn’t just divide and conquer. It was divide, conquer and tie up in trouble.”

As Lenin’s commissar in charge of national minorities, Stalin created “autonomous regions” of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 1922, as part of the divide to conquer strategy he also employed in Central Asia, where he grouped Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in artificial enclaves. One objective was to create a situation in which if the Soviet republics were ever able to break the grip of Soviet rule they would experience a wave of ethnic violence. One Georgian historian called the autonomous regions “time bombs set to detonate if Georgia became independent.” Indeed that is what happened when Georgia became independent in 1991. It also happened the Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Volga Tartars, Germans and Cossacks, among others, have lobbied through history for the creation of ethnic states within the Russian empire. One American State Department official told the New York Times, “If you are Russian and you look at the map, what you see is that most of the country isn’t yours. The psychological consequences are enormous. It’s as if American had honored all the Indian treaties and everything from the Mississippi to the Pacific was an Indian reservation.”

Mass Deportations of Ethnic Groups

A number ethnic groups deemed untrustworthy by Stalin were sent to Central Asia — particularly Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan — before, during and after World War II. These groups included Germans, Poles, Balts, Koreans, Ingush, Chechens, Meskheti Turks, Kalmyks and Tatars. Many died on the journey to Kazakhstan. Others died not long after they arrived. Some of those that survived continued to live in Kazakhstan. Others returned to their homelands when they got the chance.

In the 1930s, a number of ethnic groups, including the Greeks, Tatars, Koreans and Volga Germans were suddenly evacuated from their homes and sent into exile in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Siberia. Some were imprisoned and executed as “enemies of the people.” More than 1.5 million people were deported to Siberia and Central Asia.

During World War II, the Volga Germans and Caucasus ethnic groups such as the Chechens and Ingush were rounded up a transported in cattle cars to new "homelands" in Siberia and Central Asia. After Stalin died some were allowed to return. The mass deportation and, arguably, genocide against twenty nationalities—including the Chechens, Crimean Tatars, and the Volga Germans—during World War II is called the “war on cosmopolitans.

Fearing them as potential spies and traitors, Stalin rounded up all the ethnic Germans in 1941 and deported them to Siberia and Central Asia. Nearly 900,00 0 people were deported. They rounded up a transported in cattle cars. Some died on the way there. Thousands died in labor camps and coal mines. The mass deportation and, arguably, genocide, against twenty nationalities—including the Chechens, Crimean Tatars, and the Volga Germans—during World War II is called the “war on cosmopolitans.

The Germans were only able leave the places they were exiled to in 1955 and 1956, after Stalin died. In the meantime their homes and land were taken over by Russians. Without an autonomous region they were unable to organize politically and were unable to do much to improve there situation.

As for the Greeks, initially they prospered under Soviet rule. Greek schools, newspapers and culture flourished in places where there were large numbers of Greeks. The number of Greek schools rose from 33 in 1924 to 140 in 1938. There a was political drive to create an autonomous Greek territory. Things changed in 1930s, when Stalin included the Greeks among the groups that were persecuted and deported. Greek schools were shut down. Publications in Greek were banned and much of the Greek population was suddenly evacuated from their homes and sent into exile in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Siberia. Many were imprisoned and executed as “enemies of the people.” In 1949, Stalin exiled tens of thousands of Pontic Greeks in Crimea and the Caucasus.

See Germans, Koreans, Chechens, Under Minorities

Repression in Soviet Kazakhstan

The Soviets attempted to stamp out Kazakh culture. Kazakh books were burned, intellectuals were sent to gulags, leaders were executed and nomads and farmers were collectivized. The Russification program was successful. Many Kazakhs learned to speak Russian better than Kazakh.

During the Stalinist purges of the 1930s, people who resisted collectivization were executed or sent to labor camps. Some have argued that the intentions of this was to wipe out the "backward" ethic groups in Central Asia. More people died or fled and the population of Kazakhstan dropped by two million. The population later was able to come back as result of a high birth rate among Kazakhs and the return of Kazakhs from places like China.

Gulags and communities for exiles, like those in Siberia, were set up in northern Kazakhstan. Among the dissidents and intellectuals sent there in the 1950s was Alexandyr Solzhenitsyn. The residents of Kazakhstan also suffered from the ill effect of nuclear testing and neglect of the environment. See Nuclear Testing and the Environment, Baikonur cosmodrome.

During his imprisonment at the camp in the town of Ekibastuz in Kazakhstan, Solzhenitsyn worked as a miner, bricklayer, and foundry foreman. His experiences at Ekibastuz formed the basis for the book “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.” One of his fellow political prisoners, Ion Moraru, remembers that Solzhenitsyn spent some of his time at Ekibastuz writing. While there Solzhenitsyn had a tumor removed. His cancer was not diagnosed at the time. [Source: Wikipedia]

In March 1953, after his sentence ended, Solzhenitsyn was sent to internal exile for life at Kok-Terek in the northeastern region of Kazakhstan, very close to the current border with Russia, as was common for political prisoners. His undiagnosed cancer spread until, by the end of the year, he was close to death. In 1954, he was permitted to be treated in a hospital in Tashkent, where his tumor went into remission. His experiences there became the basis of his novel Cancer Ward and also found an echo in the short story "The Right Hand." It was during this decade of imprisonment and exile that Solzhenitsyn abandoned Marxism and developed the philosophical and religious positions of his later life.

See Germans Under Minorities

World War II and Industrial Development in the Kazakh Republic

Within the centrally controlled structure of the Soviet system, Kazakhstan played a vital industrial and agricultural role; the vast coal deposits discovered in Kazakhstani territory in the twentieth century promised to replace the depleted fuel reserves in the European territories of the union. The vast distances between the European industrial centers and coal fields in Kazakhstan presented a formidable problem that was only partially solved by Soviet efforts to industrialize Central Asia. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

During the 1930s, industrialization began in Kazakhstan. During War II, factories were moved to Kazakhstan to get them out harms way. Industrialization continued after war. Large numbers of Russians are other Slavs moved to Kazakhstan to work in the factories and mines. These endeavors left a mixed legacy: a population that includes nearly as many Russians as Kazakhs; the presence of a dominating class of Russian technocrats, who are necessary to economic progress but ethnically unassimilated; and a well-developed energy industry, based mainly on coal and oil, whose efficiency is inhibited by major infrastructural deficiencies.

Kazakhstan played a critical role in World War II by providing coal, oil and strategic metals for the war effort and supplied the armed forces with food. Around 1.2 million citizens of the Kazakh Republic were drafted to fight in World War II. Of these 96,638 received medals.

Non-Kazakhs Arrive in Kazakhstan and Outnumber Kazakhs

Industrialization in Central Asia continued after World War II. Factories opened up during the war helped spur industrial development after the war was over. Large numbers of Russians are other Slavs moved to Kazakhstan to work in the factories and mines. By 1959, Russians made up 43 percent of the population of Kazakhstan and Kazakhs made up only 29 percent.

The proportion of ethnic Kazakhs in the Kazakh SSR fell from 95 percent to 30 percent between 1900 and 1991 as a result of Russian and Soviet intrusions. Some Kazakhs died. Many fled. Russians, other Slavs and other ethnic groups from the Soviet Union arrived in several waves: From the 1930s they came to work in factories; during the 1930s, 40s and 1950s they were victims of Stalinist purges and repression: in the 1950s and 60s they came as part of the Virgin Lands campaign.

Kazakhstan suffered from waves of large-scale implantation of Russians and other Soviet ethnic groups, including industrialization before, during and after World War II, the Virgin Lands project of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (in power 1953–64) in the 1950s, and the relocation of Soviet industry to Kazakhstan in the 1960s and 1970s. Soviet leader Joseph V. Stalin (in power 1927–53) also forcibly resettled other ethnic groups in Kazakhstan. Soviet agricultural policy was especially harmful to indigenous people and their economy. [Source: Library of Congress, December, 2006 **]

Many European Soviet citizens and much of Russia's industry were relocated to Kazakhstan during World War II, when Nazi armies threatened to capture all the European industrial centers of the Soviet Union. More than 1 million Russians and Ukrainian and other ethnic groups migrated to Kazakhstan to get out of harms way. Groups of Crimean Tatars, Germans, and Muslims from the North Caucasus region were deported to Kazakhstan during the war because it was feared that they would collaborate with the enemy. In the meantime 1.2 million citizens of Kazakhstan were drafted to fight in World War II. Kazakhs became a minority in their own homeland and even their language began ro die out.

1959, riots and insurrections broke out at a steel mill in Temirtau among workers greatly dissatisfied with the poor working and living conditions and the interruptions in supply of water, food, goods, tools — the result of numerous mistakes committed by the administration. Clashes took their toll. Sixteen workers were killed, 27 were wounded and about 70 arrested and convicted. Twenty-eight police were 28 wounded.

Many more non-Kazakhs arrived in the years 1953-65, during the so-called Virgin Lands campaign of Soviet premier Nikita S. Khrushchev (in office 1956-64). Under that program, huge tracts of Kazakh grazing land were put to the plow for the cultivation of wheat and other cereal grains. By 1959, Russians made up 43 percent of the population of Kazakhstan and Kazakhs made up only 29 percent. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Still more settlers came in the late 1960s and 1970s, when the government paid handsome bonuses to workers participating in a program to relocate Soviet industry close to the extensive coal, gas, and oil deposits of Central Asia. One consequence of the decimation of the nomadic Kazakh population and the in-migration of non-Kazakhs was that by the 1970s Kazakhstan was the only Soviet republic in which the eponymous nationality was a minority in its own republic.

Virgin Lands Campaign

In the 1950s and 60s, large numbers Russians arrived in Central Asia, particularly Kazakhstan, as part of the Virgin Lands campaign , whose aim was to boost the Soviet Union's grain supply by bringing vast tracts of Central Asia under cultivation. The 1950s and 60s also ushered in the intensive development of the Syr-Darya and Amu-Darya rivers — mostly in Uzbekistan — for irrigation for cotton, which caused the demise of the Aral Sea. See the Aral Sea.

The Virgin Lands program was a largely unsuccessful program to convert the grazing land in the steppe to agricultural land for growing wheat. The aim of campaign was to boost Soviet grain production to a level above that of the United State and provide the Soviet Union with a safety net in case the grain crop in Ukraine failed.

Under dramatic Virgin Lands campaign in the mid-1950s, Khrushchev opened vast tracts of land to farming in the northern part of the Kazak Republic and neighboring areas of the Russian Republic. These new farmlands turned out to be susceptible to droughts, but in some years they produced excellent harvests. Later innovations by Khrushchev, however, proved counterproductive. His plans for growing corn and increasing meat and dairy production failed miserably, and his reorganization of collective farms into larger units produced confusion in the countryside. Future Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev began his political career in Dnipropetrovsk in eastern Ukraine. He made a name for himself by making the Virgin Land campaign look better on paper than it really was.

In the 1950s, some 640,000 migrant workers arrived in Kazakhstan, 1.8 million hectares of steppe—60 percent of Kazakhstan’s newly opened land—was plowed and hundreds of collective farms were established. The program helped Kazakhstan produce 20 percent of the Soviet Union’s grain and helped make Kazakhstan the third largest grain producer in the Soviet Union behind Russia and Ukraine. In 1956, Kazakhstan produces 16.38 million kilograms of bread, more than the 11 preceding years combined.

Problems with the Virgin Lands Campaign

The Virgin Lands program was ultimately a failure due to strange ideas about agriculture that resulted in the fertile topsoil being blown away and destroyed by erosion and loss of pastures land of animal herding, the traditional occupation of many Kazakhs. In the ends there were serious reductions of the number of livestock and wild animals and lakes and rivers dried up. As part of the plan land was irrigated with water from the Syr-Darya and Siberian rivers as far away as the Ob River. There were plans to reverse the course of Siberian rivers and build canals with nuclear bombs but fortunately these plans were dropped.

Formally arid grassland yielded wheat but after a while the top soil was exposed and literally blew away in the wind. The land is some areas under intense irrigation became contaminated by salt and fertilizer chemicals. One participant in the program told National Geographic, “We didn’t have enough machinery. We’d start harvesting in August and quit when the snow came, then try to pick up the rest next spring.” Storage was a problem. Sometimes we just piled the grain on the fields.”

After Khrushchev was ousted in 1964. The campaign lost its biggest supporter and the scheme was largely abandoned and millions of acres of farmland was allowed to become grassland once again.

Russians Who Participated in the Virgin Lands Campaign

Khrushchev's primary domestic concerns were improving agriculture and creating enough housing to meet demand. Great tomes on agriculture were written in his name. The problems of Soviet agriculture had earlier attracted the attention of the collective leadership, which introduced important innovations in this area of the Soviet economy. The state encouraged peasants to grow more on their private plots, increased payments for crops grown on collective farms, and invested more heavily in agriculture. [Source: Library of Congress *]

More people, mostly Russians, arrived in Central Asia, mostly Kazakhstanm in the 1950s as part of the Virgin Lands program. Thousands of Russians, Ukrainians and Belarussians arrived by train in Kazakhstan to participate in the Virgin Lands program. Asia One Russia woman told the New York Times, “All young, unmarried people were urged to help. They said, ‘Build a new young city. Build Communism,’ and we were all volunteers. We were happy then, in the 60s. Imagine at 22, I was appointed a chief engineer! We had to set up a radio station, and there was nobody old from whom to learn.”

A Russia man told the New York Times, “Its got a voucher to come, which was very prestigious for a young man at the time. We had a lot of romanticism and patriotism in us, but nothing else besides our clothes. We arrived December 15 and I’ll remember that day all my life. It was so cold, and all I wanted was to get back on the train or go anywhere to get warm.

One Russian man told National Geographic, “It seemed that if we only did a little bit more, and a little bit more, we would find ourselves in paradise. We thought we were bringing the future to this country.” He then added, “The system gave us hope, but then the system vanished. And the people say now, ‘Why did you come here? You spoiled our pastures. We had a lot of sheep. Now we have no place to herd them.”

Atom Bombs in Kazakhstan

The residents of Kazakhstan also suffered from the ill effect of nuclear testing and neglect of the environment. The Soviet Union became the world’s second nuclear power after the United States when it detonated its first atomic bomb, "Joe 1," in Kazakhstan in August 1949, four years after the Hiroshima bomb exploded. The bomb was a copy of the Fat Man bomb. United States "sniffer" planes picked up fallout from the test. The design for the bomb was stolen from the U.S. by the German-born spy Klaus Fuchs.

As of 1995, the U.S. had conducted 1,030 nuclear tests, Russia (the Soviet Union) 715, France 209, Britain 45, China 43, and India 1. Kurchatov, a city in northeaster Kazakhstan, was an important center of the Soviet nuclear industry. Designed and tested here were everything from some of the world's most powerful H-bombs to tiny nuclear reactors intended to power the Soviet mission to Mars. The city was so top secret it didn't appear on any maps. [Source: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, March 1993 ♠]

Not far from Kurchatov the Soviets built an entire town with five story buildings, military bunkers and bridges. The put cars, tanks and planes on the streets; brought in sheep and dogs. And then blew it all up on August 29, 1949. No one was warned about the explosion beforehand including Kazakh villagers who lived 60 miles downwind.♠

Hundreds of nuclear blasts were set off at the site. People used to go to them as if they were a were a fireworks display. One person who did this told National Geographic, “They didn’t say anything about radiation.” Some 80 percent f the 1.5 million people who lived downwind from the testing area had weakened immune systems. Cancer and birth defect rates were also very high.

Semipalatinsk Test Site

Semipalatinsk Test Site (150 kilometres west of Semey), is located East Kazakhstan region. Covering 18,000 square kilometers, it is under the jurisdiction of the National Nuclear Center of the Republic of Kazakhstan. Between 1949 and 1989, 468 500 nuclear devices were detonated here, two third of all nuclear explosions in Soviet Union. It was closed in 1991. [Source: Nuclear Threat Initiative]

There were four major testing areas at the site, along with two research reactors, supported from then closed city of Kurchatov. A total of 116 atmospheric nuclear weapons tests took place at the ‘Experiential Field,’ either detonated on towers or dropped from aircraft. After the Limited Test Ban Treaty entered into force in 1963, the Soviet Union carried out 340 underground nuclear tests in caves or boreholes at all four sites.Semipalatinsk also was the location of 9 of the Soviet Union’s peaceful nuclear explosions. This program intended to use nuclear devices to create artificial lakes, aid in mining and other large scale infrastructure projects.

The first Soviet nuclear explosion occurred 50 kilometers southwest of Kurchatov city in August 1949. It was the first time nuclear weapon made in Soviet Union was tested at what became Semipalatinsk Test Site. To evaluate destruction of the explosions a lot of different technology was concentrated there and different buildings and structures were constructed. Many of the buildings or their remains are still there. Touring the site is possible. Despite the high radiation levels, it is said, short visits are not dangerous for health if basic safety and hygiene regulations are complied with such as wearing surgical boots and a mask and being accompanied by a guide. Taking metal units from the territory is prohibited.

Biological Weapons Testing at Vozrozhdeniye Island

A top-secret facility on Vozrozhdeniye Island in the Aral Sea was the world’s largest biological weapons testing ground and was one of the primary testing grounds for Russia's biological weapons using anthrax and other diseases. The island contains pens that held thousand of animals—rabbits, guinea pigs, monkeys, sheep, donkeys, mice, hamsters, horses and baboons—that were used in testing. Around 1,500 people lived there at its height. [Source: Christopher Pala, New York Times Magazine, January 12, 2002]

Gennadi Lepyoshkin, a scientist who worked at Vozrozhdeniye told the New York Times, “About one-third of our work was on weapons, like anthrax, plague and others bacteria, and two thirds on matters like testing vaccines or clothing or how long microorganisms would survive in the soil....The atmosphere was friendly, people were earning good money and we were provided with everything.” The workers used to sunbathe, dance and hunt ducks in their free time.

Much the testing involved giving disease-causing agents to animals. Lepyoshkin told the New York Times, “We used monkeys, about 200 to 300 each year. Our staff would take them out to the range”—25 kilometers from the town—“and they would put them in cages next to devises that the measured the concentration of germs in the air. Then after they were exposed, they would be taken to the labs, where we would test the labs, where we would test their blood and monitor the development of a disease in them. They would die within weeks, and we would perform autopsies..” The testing was usually only done in the summer when temperatures sore to 120 degrees F to prevent the spread of the pathogens.

Lepyoshkin said, “There was always danger, but we never had an accidents. He recalled on incident in which a woman dropped a petri dish containing anthrax. She tried to hide her mistake but her accident was discovered. Here punishment: she was docked some money on her paycheck. “No one got sick,” Lepyoshkin said.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated April 2016

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