Warming to life in the hot zone

That people should be moved out of a former nuclear test site seemed a no-brainer. But spending time with those affected led two researchers to revise their views. David Mould reports

January 12, 2012

By temperament and academic training, Magda Stawkowski does not rush to judge. She’s a PhD student in medical anthropology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, schooled in the classics - Margaret Mead and Bronislaw Malinowski. She knows that first impressions of a place, community or culture can be misleading - even downright wrong.

Yet when she and Robert Kopack, a master’s student in geography at Michigan State University, arrived in a remote village in northeastern Kazakhstan in August 2010 to study how people live near a former nuclear test site, they fell into that trap.

Cattle, horses, sheep and people move freely throughout the Polygon region, where for 40 years the Soviet Union conducted above- and below-ground nuclear tests. “Nothing is marked - you may be in a very radioactive area and not know it,” says Stawkowski.

“I thought there’s no way people should be living there,” says Kopack. “They should get out, right now.”

Stawkowski and Kopack considered getting out themselves after they took Geiger counter readings in their temporary accommodation. “It was scary,” says Kopack. “I said, ‘We don’t have to stay. There’s a nuclear test site here.’ But that view changed, oh my God, so fast.”

“It’s a beautiful place,” says Stawkowski. “Yes, life is tough, especially in winter. But the people are kings of their own domain, they’re self-sufficient. Some people want to move them. I’d be the first to say that’s a crazy idea - it’s not a solution. In the city, they’re dead, they don’t have the skills. Make their lives better where they are. It’s a very simple thing.”

The journey that Stawkowski and Kopack made from doubt to the conviction that the people of the village should be left alone to control their own lives raises issues that many field researchers face.

The Soviet Union conducted above-ground nuclear tests in the 18,000km2 Polygon region from 1949 until 1963, when above-ground testing was banned. Official figures claim that 116 tests were conducted in this period, but the number could be higher because some controlled explosions were not classified as tests. From 1963 to 1989, a further 295 devices were detonated in mountain tunnels, according to a 2010 study by Kazakhstan’s Institute of Radiation Security and Ecology.

In Soviet times, the region was a closed zone, guarded by 20,000 troops. Villagers did not know that they were living in a test site. “People couldn’t enter or leave - this place wasn’t even on the map,” says Stawkowski. Many died or suffered from radiation-induced diseases.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, an economically strapped Kazakhstan was left to guard and clean up the Polygon and deal with the long-term health effects of nuclear testing.

Today, although some tunnels have been sealed and detectors installed on others to try to discourage scrap metal scavengers, the open areas of steppe are largely unguarded. Barbed-wire fences have rusted. Signs marking radioactive areas have faded or been stolen. People swim and fish in water-filled nuclear craters.

“The Polygon has been fully open, ever since it was closed,” says Stawkowski. “It’s astonishing how unprotected, how unmarked the site is. You don’t know if you’re in the test site or out of it.”

Villagers drive through the Polygon to the cities of Kurchatov, Semey, Pavlodar and Karaganda. Alternative routes to the west, outside the nuclear test zone, add many hours to travel time. In summer, drivers stop on the dusty road to change flat tyres; in spring, they push their cars out of the mud.

“People simply accept that they are living near a nuclear test site and get on with their lives,” says Stawkowski. “There’s still a belief that a shot of vodka will protect you from radiation. If you drive through the Polygon, you take a bottle of vodka in the car.”

With or without vodka, it’s almost 400km from the industrial and coal-mining centre of Karaganda, Kazakhstan’s fourth largest city, to the village. On a good day, it’s a six-hour journey; when the weather is bad, it can take up to 15 hours. After 330km on the main highway, a 60km gravel road branches northeast into the Polygon.

“It’s an awful road,” says Kopack. “The whole car shakes. After almost every trip, we had to tighten up the screws in the car.”

“Robert changed at least 30 flat tyres,” says Stawkowski. “We used inner tubes so that the tyres wouldn’t fall apart. We carried a spare but on one trip we had two flats. We just pumped up the tyre and kept driving until we had to pump it up again.”

The final km is on a dirt track, euphemistically called a steppe road. There are few landmarks on the steppe and, as tracks intersect, it’s easy to get lost. “You just have to go by memory,” says Kopack. “We got used to it - by the end we could drive at night.”

The road is closed by snow from late December to late March, leaving the village isolated. Spring rains make driving hazardous. “On our first trip this year in April, we got stuck in the mud, all the way up to the bottom of the car,” says Stawkowski. “We ended up sleeping in the steppe. We did not walk at night because there are wolves in the region. In the morning, we walked to the village to find someone to pull the car out. It was April Fool’s Day. Did you know they celebrate that in Kazakhstan?”

Stawkowski didn’t set out to do her dissertation on a village in the Polygon. When she first came to Kazakhstan in 2007, she was planning research on the Polish diaspora - descendants of Poles deported to the region by Stalin in the 1930s. She had a personal stake in the history. “My family is from Poland, and they were deported to Siberia in that period,” she explains.

As she travelled north from Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, to Polish villages, she heard a “passing comment” about the Polygon and decided to investigate. The next year, she returned, rented a car, travelled through the region and decided to change her research topic.

“As a medical anthropologist, I study illness in its social and cultural contexts,” she says. “How do people perceive illness? How do they heal themselves? How do they assess risk?”

She learned about the village from a 1999 study on the effects of radiation from nuclear tests on health and the environment. “The health study was done by doctors [from Karaganda State Medical University], and they compiled data by handing out surveys. The survey had questions such as ‘Do women smoke?’ ‘No.’ ‘Do women drink?’ ‘No.’ Women don’t do anything. They are totally healthy. The reality is that if you’re there long enough, you realise that the surveys are completely meaningless.”

Stawkowski recognised that the best way to understand how people in a nuclear test zone view their health was to live among them - to do interviews, collect medical histories and observe how they lived and worked.

Villages in Kazakhstan, as in other countries, are closely knit communities, where strangers are often regarded with suspicion. A colleague in Karaganda put Stawkowski in contact with the akima (mayor) of the village, who agreed to make introductions. It wasn’t easy. Why would two educated Westerners want to live there for four months?

“I explained what I could [about my research],” says Stawkowski. “For about a month, everyone thought we were spies and didn’t want to talk to us. You have to establish rapport, and that takes time and willingness to participate and become part of the daily life of the village.”

In the Soviet era, the village had a population of about 400. It was a multinational community - Kazakhs, Russians, Ukrainians, Volga Germans, Poles and Tatars. It was part of a sovkhoz (state farm), which produced grain and raised livestock. Since 1991, the village has declined steadily as people have left to seek jobs in the cities; today, it has only about 50 inhabitants, almost all Kazakh. Organised agriculture has been replaced by pastoralism, with herds of cattle, sheep and horses grazing freely on the steppe. Many farm buildings are in ruins.

Stawkowski and Kopack moved into half of one abandoned house with a stove and a few furnishings. Some locals had taken up in the other half, and they often shared meals. They joined in the work. Kopack did chabaning (herding) and helped slaughter animals; Stawkowski cooked and helped neighbours with chores. They painted the house, chopped wood and collected animal dung for fuel.

In winter, animals are kept in barns beside houses and fed with hay that is stored in stacks on the roofs. “We put up huge stacks of hay,” says Kopack. “There was a lot of physical labour.”

In Soviet times, villagers in the Polygon were routinely submitted to medical tests to determine the effects of radiation. Results were sent off to laboratories in Moscow, and the people tested were never told about their conditions. Many developed cancer and blood diseases, miscarriages and stillbirths were common, and some children were born with mental and physical disabilities. Overcoming suspicion about researchers was difficult.

“They think people lie to them,” says Stawkowski. “[Researchers] come in and take their blood without giving a reason, and they get no results. That’s been a consistent pattern - they are used for someone else’s needs. That was my biggest concern - not to exploit a population that is vulnerable. We didn’t lie to them.”

The 1999 medical study compared the health of people in the village with people in a similar village near Karaganda (outside the Polygon). Chemical analysis of meat and milk products, bone, and animal and human waste revealed significantly higher levels of five radioactive elements, including the highly toxic caesium-137 and strontium-90 in the Polygon village.

“Some scientists argue that these people are not hygienic enough, that they live in squalor,” says Stawkowski. “I say, ‘Bullshit, look at any other villages in Kazakhstan.’ People live the same way and they don’t die as quickly.”

Stawkowski and Kopack had seen the data from the 1999 survey, but they decided that the health risk to themselves was outweighed by the issue of trust. “We ate the meat, we drank the milk,” says Kopack. “What are you going to do? Make these people feel as if there’s something wrong with them? Not eat their food? Wear a mask around them?”

“At the beginning, I was worried about radiation,” says Stawkowski. “Now it doesn’t matter, you just don’t think about it. Actually, I spent most of my research not even talking about radiation.

“People believe they are sick from radiation,” she says, “but they accept it. Life is hard, anything can kill you - that’s their attitude. They have accepted a very difficult life, and they are survivors.”

The future of the Polygon is the topic of a growing public debate in Kazakhstan. Foreign mining companies already operate in the region, exploiting reserves of gold, copper, manganese and coal. In 2010, the director of Kazakhstan’s National Nuclear Center, Kairat Kadyrzhanov, proposed a 10-year programme to open up the region for commercial agriculture, primarily livestock raising. He claimed that only 5 per cent of the region is heavily contaminated. Environmental groups dispute the NNC’s findings and want a panel of independent international scientific experts to investigate. Local authorities have proposed moving people from villages to regional centres, where jobs and services are better.

Stawkowski hopes the needs of the villagers will not be ignored in the political and scientific debate. “As an anthropologist, I try to avoid being political,” she says, “but in this situation you can’t avoid being political.”

The Polygon region is significant to the history of the Kazakh people. In the Tsarist era, the village was a mail stop on the route to Karaganda where riders changed horses. The writer and poet Abai, whose works are required reading in Kazakhstani schools and whose statue stands in hundreds of city and town squares all over the country, was born in a village in the region and travelled through it; other famous artists, writers and political leaders had their roots there. Some families have lived in the region for seven generations, and their ancestors are buried there.

“The people have a strong relationship to the land,” says Kopack, who plans to use geographic information system techniques to draw maps with overlapping layers showing indigenous names, radiation zones and grazing areas. “Families have been living here for 150 years, and they talk about the landscape in specific ways. They have names for mountains, caves and rivers, names that help them avoid getting lost, even in the winter. These names mean something - a name may signify a type of face, such as a wrinkled morning face.”

Villagers told Stawkowski that if they were moved, they would lose their connection to the land, family and community. Instead, they said, they wanted a doctor in the village, access to social services, better roads and assistance in developing livestock raising.

“It’s a beautiful place,” says Stawkowski. “It’s not just the flat steppe. There are hills and valleys, lakes with wildlife. People feel free and they live their own way without the laws that apply in the city. There’s no police. The social fabric is the structure that holds the community together.”

When Stawkowski and Kopack prepared to leave, villagers gathered at their house to wish them well. “It was very emotional,” says Kopack. “I didn’t feel that way when we left the US for a year.”

A research journey that had begun with doubt ended with conviction. “You become so much like the people that you lose your sense of who you think you are,” says Stawkowski.

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