On Wednesday afternoon, Staff Writers Linus Glenhaber and Simon Panfilio attended a virtual seminar held by Columbia’s Harriman Institute.

Columbia’s Harriman Institute is dedicated to Russian, Eurasian, and East European studies, and this past Wednesday, they held a virtual event with scholar and PhD Togzhan Kassenova to discuss her upcoming book, Atomic Steppe: How Kazakhstan Gave Up The Bomb. Institute director Alexander Cooley hosted Kassenova to discuss her research into (and the book she subsequently wrote about) a rarely-told facet of post-Cold War eastern Europe: how Kazakhstan was faced with becoming a global nuclear power following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and chose to denuclearize instead.

Dr. Kassenova began by speaking about the history of nuclear programs in Kazakhstan. After the devastation of America’s nuclear weapons during World War II, Joseph Stalin chose to focus as much energy as possible on developing a nuclear weapon. He chose to center these efforts in Kazakhstan, which had a profound impact on the area: suddenly, thousands of people moved in from Russia, reshaping the area in ways that were disastrous to those already living there. There was little infrastructure before, and suddenly it was being co-opted and re-tooled to support these nuclear initiatives. Much of this new infrastructure also destroyed the environment that was already there. Soviet documents described how the land was “uninhabited,” which was not true: rather, they were lands used for livestock and settlements which were then forced to relocate. As this program came from above, there was no local agency in any decision made. From the beginning, the history of nuclearization in Kazakhstan is a brutal one.

When the USSR collapsed and Kazakhstan was left with the nuclear infrastructure and arsenal put in place by decades of Soviet development, they faced the opposite problem: instead of having no say in the position of nuclear technology, suddenly there was the possibility that it would be placed in charge of one. These problems were only added on top of countless other issues, such as economic crises and not even having a currency of their own. As the story goes– Dr. Kassenova described it as a story of “early ‘90s idealism”– Kazakhstan chose to give up these nuclear weapons by themselves, as a show of goodwill in the world that they were ready to do the right thing. As she went on to describe, however, this was not the entire truth. When the Soviet Union was dissolved, there were four countries that had access to its nuclear weapons: Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine. When deciding to give up these weapons, then, Kazakhstan was always aware of what Ukraine and Belarus were doing. As Dr. Kassenova found, it was important for Kazakhstan to not give up any advantages (or  weapons) before ensuring that Ukraine also gave up its inherited nuclear arsenal, a reminder of the stark tension that persisted past the ceremonial end of the Cold War.

Dr. Kassenova talked at length about the significance of activism in Kazakhstan’s denuclearization process, particularly the Nevada Semipalatinsk anti-nuclear movement. She spoke about the uptick in mobilization opportunities for social movements under General Secretary Gorbachev in the latter days of the USSR, with the Nevada Semipalatinsk movement forming in 1989 in response to clandestine underground nuclear tests at a development site near Semipalatinsk (what is now Semey). “For two years,” Dr. Kassenova said, “this movement— thousands of people, millions, reflecting all of Kazakhstan, very multiethnic, with different professions and backgrounds—  …[put] a lot of pressure both on Moscow but also on Almaty (Kazakhstan’s capital at the time)”. This movement was inspired and emboldened by anti-nuclear activists around the world, particularly in Japan, Russia, and the United States– they derived their name from the group of American peace activists protesting at the Nevada nuclear test site. “For activists from Kazakhstan, it was very important to feel affinity and camaraderie with peace activists in the US,” Dr. Kassenova said. “The relationship between [activists across the world] was very close and mutually inspiring.”

In her book, Dr. Kassenova emphasized the Nevada Semipalatinsk movement’s fundamental contributions to the denuclearization of Kazakhstan as a whole, and argued on behalf of its inclusion in mainstream depictions of the history of the nuclear arms race.. “Like a butterfly effect, once Kazakhstan shut down the testing sites, the Soviet Union announced a moratorium on nuclear testing, and the ground was prepared for a global ban on nuclear tests,” she said. “It’s very important for the record of history to record both the role of the movement, the role of the local governors, the Semipalatans, and at the level of Almaty and the leader Nazarbayev.”

This spoke to a major theme of the Atomic Steppe book launch: the relevance of Kazakhstan’s denuclearization to global history. Kazakhstan sat at a key juncture in the Soviet Union’s nuclear development program at an even more critical period in the USSR’s history, and the actions taken not only by the Nevada Semipalatinsk protestors but by the government of Kazakhstan, before and after the USSR’s dissolution, had tremendous influence on the political identity of the entire region. Kazakhstan was at the heart of this complex and intense nuclear arms race and the delicate denuclearization processes that have been playing out for decades, and Dr. Kassenova made it a point to highlight how the country’s importance goes so overlooked despite all this.

The event wrapped up with Dr. Kassenova answering questions submitted by audience members. One viewer asked about current President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s recently-stated plan to build a nuclear power plant to support Kazakhstan’s strained power grid, setting up an interesting contrast with the nuclear abstinence that has defined Kazakhstan’s history.  Dr. Kassenova drew connections not only with Kazakhstan’s prevailing anti-nuclear sentiment, but with the government’s issues with corruption scandals, namely a failed light rail construction project that failed due to government construction; Kassenova specifically described the unfinished light rail, located in Kazakhstan’s capital Nur-Sultan, as a “monument” to government corruption.

This corruption, along with the historically anti-nuclear sentiment of Kazakhstan, looms large in the minds of the citizens after President Tokayev recently declared his intent to build a nuclear power plant. Dr. Kassenova noted that “Kazakhstan’s past definitely informs and influences public perception of nuclear [energy] today… The population is definitely anti-nuclear, and in terms of security, it’s very important that the government realizes that issues such as corruption are very relevant for projects like that”. Kazakhstan’s denuclearization narrative occupies a critical space in the country’s post-Soviet identity, and this is an identity that remains ever-changing even today.

While conveying the story told in Atomic Steppe, Dr. Kassenova spoke to the human element of the nuclear arms race in ways that are often overlooked and left out of the historical lens. She spoke at length about the other side of the arms race– not in the dichotomy of the US and the USSR, but in the dichotomy of the dominant nuclear powers and the smaller groups living in their shadow, being actively puppeted to serve the powers’ needs.

Dr. Kassenova spoke to the human cost of the nuclear development program in Kazakhstan– the disruption of the natural environment, as well as to the locals and natives whose state of life was a mere afterthought. She conjured up a picture we don’t often see in our reflection on the Cold War: a post-Soviet satellite state regaining its autonomy by rejecting the industrial complex that was forced onto it. We often think of the Cold War and the arms race in terms of how it played out historically, but we don’t consider the smaller factors that influenced what could have happened– such as a group of activists fighting to end a cycle of existential threat, or a newly-independent government working to avoid getting sucked into the nuclear . Dr. Kassenova spoke of the modern connections that have flared to life in the energy source identity crisis gripping the world. She told a vivid story that carries more importance than we know, and brought an unexpected infusion of humanity into one of the most unsettling facets of modern history.

A link to a recording of the event can be found here. The book is available for preorder here.

Zoom screenshot via Simon Panfilio