Geopolitics

At Former Soviet Nuclear Test Site, “Best Not To Take Souvenirs”

Hundreds of atomic bombs were detonated at the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site in eastern Kazakhstan during the Soviet regime. Scientists are now conducting research on the site, which was shuttered 25 years ago, to evaluate how radiation affected the reg

At the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site, aka the Polygon
At the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site, aka the Polygon
Nataliya Nehlebova

THE POLYGON â€" At first, it’s hard to tell where the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site begins as the scorched steppe stretches to the horizon. But turning onto a dusty road signals that we’ve reached the site, also known as the Polygon. Fallen telegraph poles lie on yellowed grass. You can see broken pillars and bridges torn in half. Concrete pillars mark the borders of the Polygon, which at 18,500 square kilometers is more than half the size of Belgium.

Inside the Polygon, strange four-story constructions, called gusaki, or "geese", loom like dark giants. They do resemble colossal birds, with their long, charred necks stretched toward the sky. They were built in the 1950s to house nuclear equipment and armored long-range cameras that were capable of filming explosions at seven frames per second.

These "geese" buildings, with scorched walls, tumbleweed and narrow arrow slits, look onto the explosion site. Small, shiny pearl-like rocks that appear transparent in the sun lie on the short, stiff grass that surrounds these structures. These rocks are called kharitonchiki, after Yulii Khariton, the chief designer of the Soviet atomic bomb, even if no one really knows what these rocks consist of. Scientists believe they could have formed during the explosions when quartz settled on plutonium, smelted, and later fell to the ground as black droplets.

"It’s best not to gather souvenirs, they’re radioactive," says Andrey Panitsky, head of the ecosystems department at the Institute of Radiation Safety and Ecology.

To study the effects of a nuclear explosion, extensive infrastructure had been built around the bombs: houses, military tanks, planes, ships. There’s even a metro station underground. Sheep and dogs used to be tethered while the bombs were tested. At the Polygon museum, you can see the flattened brown organs of these animals preserved in formaldehyde next to information stands about ruptures and bleeding. You can even press the very button that launched the first bombs. A phone next to the command post at the Polygon has a direct line to the Kremlin.

Dog's brain in formaldehyde on display at the Polygon museum â€" Photo: Ben Dalton

Petrovich, my driver, races through the former test site to the epicenter of the blasts. The soldier accompanying us hands out masks and tells us to wear three pairs of shoe covers. "They tear quickly," he explains, "and we don’t have anything else."

"Actually, it’s not dangerous to be here … the main thing is not to inhale radioactive dust and not to transport it on clothing," says Panitsky.

As soon as we pass the "forbidden zone" signs, the radiation dosimeter starts rapidly beeping and flashing "danger". Numbers shoot across the monitor: 100, 200, 300, 700, 800. The safety limit is 30. Nearby, we see a small muddy pond that was the site of the first Soviet atomic bomb explosion.

"Beautiful" mushroom clouds

Petrovich, in flip-flops and no mask, leans on the bus and lights a cigarette.

"Why are you without a mask?" I ask.

"I’ve seen this radiation," he answers, while digging his toes into the dust. "I’ve lived here my entire life, 66 years." For the last 20 of those years, Petrovich worked as a driver at the Polygon.

"As boys we eagerly awaited these explosions. A car would drive by, and a loudspeaker warned everyone not to leave the house and to cover the windows with pillows, and we all ran to our secret lookout places. I climbed onto the roof of a shed, covered myself with old clothes and watched the mushroom. It was beautiful. Very beautiful. And at the top, most importantly, it spins, spins. Why does it spin? I don’t know. Then you wait for the wave." He closes his eyes and takes a deep breath, smiling.

Kurchatov city, the center of the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site â€" Photo: RIAN Archives

The blast waves were warm, suffocating, and strong. Some of the clay and brick houses collapsed. The military later rebuilt them from stone in order to be sturdier. People learned to adapt. They would watch the blast destroy a house they built and would wait for the military to rebuild them a new home. Windows were frequently shattered and were replaced as well.

"When the underground explosions began it was just as interesting. Just like drinking vodka. The earth moves in waves. Like water. The further away from the blast, the bigger the waves," says Petrovich.

The Polygon is home to an atomic lake. In 1965, an underground explosion at the confluence of two major rivers, Chagan and Aschisu, created a crater 100 meters deep with a diameter of 400 meters. The objective of the blast was to test whether it was possible to create artificial water reservoirs with nuclear weapons. The water in the atomic lake is clear, with algae deep below.

"The water is not contaminated … but the shore is. The important thing is not to sunbathe on the beach, but we can still swim. You get up on a rock, one that you know is clean, carefully undress and swim," says Andrey Panitsky. The lake used to be full of fish. Although the chemical strontium began to gather in the bones of the fish as a result of the tests, the flesh remained edible and the lake was overfished by Polygon employees.

The diagnosis

It is still unclear as to how many people were affected by nuclear testing at the site. The classified statistics, kept by the Soviets, disappeared in the 1990s. People learned about radiation through their own experience of health problems like cancer, circulatory diseases, nervous system disorders, and developmental disabilities. And early death. In one village near the site, child mortality increased five-fold in the first year after testing began, and 396 people died while the Polygon was operational. Current research estimates that up to 220,000 individuals have been affected by the facility but the data on soldiers and staff â€" who were in closer proximity â€" remains unknown.

The affected territory is believed to be 304,000 square kilometers and the residents born there before 1991, which accounts for about 1.3 million people, received a one-time payment, a pay raise and 10 additional vacation days.

"They were paid because they could potentially be affected by radiation," says Vladimir Kashirsky, head of analytical research at the institute of radiation safety. "This does not mean that the Polygon directly affected the health of all of these people. We conducted extensive research in collaboration with Japanese experts. More than 20,000 personal files were collected. We analyzed diseases, compared with the health of people outside the affected zone. There is no data confirming that nuclear testing influenced the increase of oncological diseases."

Nevertheless, from the test site to the borders of the Polygon stretch two radioactive "fingers" 100 kilometers long and 15 kilometers wide. The main danger is posed by underground waterways, which carry nuclear residue left behind by underground explosions. Although they appear crystal clear, these waterways conceal levels of radioactive tritium that exceed the norm by 150 times. The highest concentration can be found in the areas where the water surfaces like in the Chagan river, which is the only source of water for many villages close to the Polygon.

Radioactivity warnings near the Polygon â€" Photo: Ben Dalton

Eastern Kazakhstan has the highest rates of cancer in the country. But this is not linked to the Polygon as much as it is to the extensive uranium mining industry that’s prevalent in the region.

The last underground test was carried out in 1989. The Polygon was shut down in 1991 by Nursultan Nazarbaev, the first and current president of Kazakhstan. The effects of radiation was not a major concern at the time. Nuclear waste was dumped into trenches and covered with soil. Contaminated metals were left behind. Since then, scavenging to sell these metals became popular, further subjecting locals to radiation.

The battle against theft began in 1997, when the Kazakh and U.S. governments realized that the facilities contained enough nuclear waste to make dirty bombs. In 2010, Russia joined the decontamination efforts. The country sealed tunnels and wells, dug trenches to protect local fauna, removed radioactive objects and cleared nuclear waste dumps.

Panitsky's team, whose research has been under review by the International Atomic Energy Agency, plans to conclude the analysis of the entire territory by 2021. A main focus of the research now is to determine whether the land can be used for agriculture. "Over 90% of the analyzed area, about 7,000 square kilometers, is suitable for safe living and agriculture," says Panitsky. "We believe that practically the entire territory of the Polygon can be transferred back into economic circulation, with the exception of certain areas, which will remain contaminated for more than 100,000 years."

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire


According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA

Unsplash/@nemo23


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council


Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire


The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

Unsplash/@hkblind


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke


During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press


Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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