Hundreds of Soviet soldiers and officers were put through a hideous test in the Semipalatinsk nuclear range on September 10, 1956. A battalion of paratroopers (272 servicemen) was ordered to make a landing into the epicenter of a nuclear explosion produced by a 38 kiloton atomic bomb. The troops were dropped by parachute from helicopters right into the land caked by unimaginable temperatures, the land that had an air of invisible death lurking about. The paratroopers were wearing no protective clothing, just fatigues and boots. Their orders read: “Defend the breaches in the enemy defenses until our main forces are put into action.”
The Cold War was in full swing at the time. The Soviet paratroopers were supposed to prove their ability to fight the Americans regardless of circumstances, come nuclear hell or high water. The official objective of the exercises read as follows: “The use of a tactical airborne force following a nuclear strike… for the purpose of retaining the killing zone until the advancement of frontline troops in the course of offensive.” In other words, the military aimed to stage an experiment in order to find out how faraway from the epicenter of a blast the troops can be positioned, and how long it will take before the troops can be sent to that nuclear hell. And, more importantly, the brass wanted to know for how long the troops will be able to hold on until they receive a lethal dose of radiation. Back then, even the high-ranking military had no idea about the deadly consequences lying in store for those who happened to be in the explosion zone.
The generals in charge of the exercises could not care less for measures to minimize damage done to their soldiers’ health. First and foremost, they wanted to assess damage to be inflicted on the enemy once an exchange of nuclear strikes becomes a reality.
Trud obtained information relating to some of the records that had been filed under Top Secret for many years. Below is an excerpt from the memo filed by the Chief Marshall of Artillery Mitrofan Nedelin, the man in charge of the above military exercises, to Georgy Zhukov, the then defense minister of the Soviet Union: “Judging by the results of the use of an atomic bomb during the exercise, we can conclude that the key elements of the enemy defenses will be successfully suppressed, and thus good conditions will be created for enabling us to parachute troops following a nuclear strike. In terms of radiation levels during an explosion at 200-300 meters above the ground, troops can be parachuted from the helicopters into an area located 400-500 meters from the epicenter of the explosion (i.e. landing into the zone where the enemy capability has been effectively decimated) in 15-20 minutes following the detonation provided that a dose of radioactivity does not exceed 5 roentgens.”
These days it is practically impossible to measure the exact radiation dosage to which the paratroopers were exposed on that day. Needless to say, none of them was issued personal dosimeters. Experts believe a member of the unit must have received 50 roentgens at the very least. The quantity equals a yearly tolerable dose of radiation for one person. The majority of the servicemen undoubtedly succumbed to radiation sickness. All the records pertaining to the exercises were quickly labeled classified and put under lock and key, those who took part in the exercises were ordered to sign a statement forbidding them to divulge any information on the case for the next 25 years. Some of the documents were simply shredded.
Trud obtained some other records related to the horrendous experiment. There is a list of military units which took part in the military exercise. Alexander Cherednik, head of information department of the Russian Airborne Troops, has been keen on the history of paratrooper units for many years. He shows us a two-page document he came across by accident a few years ago.
“The soldiers and officers of the 2nd Battalion of the 345th Regiment of the 105th Airborne Division were parachuted into the epicenter of the explosion on that day. Aside from the personnel mentioned above, a company of field engineers, a platoon of 57 mm guns and a squad of chemical protection also made a landing. A few other units of the division were used as well during the exercises,” says Cherednik.
A “little psychological warm-up” was conducted prior to the main part of the exercises so that the paratroopers could get used to the atomic war realities. Two atomic bombs were detonated at a distance yet in sight of the paratroopers on August 24, and September 2. A hydrogen bomb went off on August 30. Finally, on September 10, the soldiers of the 2nd Battalion launched an attack in what was later dubbed the “death range” by servicemen stationed in the vicinity.
A long-range bomber Tu-16 dropped a bomb, which detonated at 270 meters above the ground. Forty three minutes later the paratroopers were parachuted from 27 Mi-4 helicopters into the area located 650 meters from epicenter of the blast. Having taken the position on the line in accordance with their orders, the troops stopped a mere dozen meters away from the epicenter. They were given a retreat order 2 hours later.
There are no documented accounts of those who took part in the events. By all appearances, the aforementioned policy of secrecy applied to the records relating to the case is to blame. The recollections put down by the former sergeant of the airborne battalion Boris Kokhanov make the only exception. Here is an excerpt of his account: “The alarm went off at 4 a.m. We made a formation, checked equipment and ammo. We handed our personal documents to the company’s sergeant major as if were heading for some combat operation. The choppers arrived soon. Then we heard a blast. A shock wave swept by. I wasn’t afraid, rather curious. We climbed into the choppers. We were told to don the gasmasks while in mid air. We made a landing in total darkness. I remember a wall of dust encircling the place. We managed to orient ourselves by the signal flares, and soon reached a more visible area. We moved forward for another kilometer until we took the defense line. Then we started firing all of our weapons. A group of generals headed by Marshall Nedelin, who was in charge of the exercises, inspected our position. After that we were sent to a deactivation station where they took way our field fatigues. We were issued the new clothing. The very next day the commanders gave us a lecture of sorts, telling us that the exercises were of crucial importance for the defense capability of our country.”
Boris Kokhanov’s recollections are penned in a large backhand on two pages of a student’s note book. He sent them over to the headquarters of the Russian Airborne Troops several years ago. By sending his letter to the military, Kokhanov actually requested them to dispatch him copies of the official records, which could have confirmed that the veteran paratrooper was, in fact, present in the “death range” on that day. In other words, he was seeking to find some documented evidence to get himself a raise to his pension. You know, any allowances for poor health and advanced age would be more than welcome. However, he got no help whatsoever from the military. As it turned out, the airborne headquarters has never kept an archive of its own. Kokhanov is not the only one who is affected by this deplorable situation. It is practically impossible to find the names of those who were sent to the nuclear hell fifty years from now. Moreover, a spokesperson for the Central Archives of the Ministry of Defense claims that the above institution has never kept the lists of personnel of the 2nd Battalion of the 345th Airborne Regiment as of 1945. According to the same official, there are no records with regard to the 129th Helicopter Regiment of the Soviet Air Force, which transported the landing party to the site. The same applies to the names of a crew which manned the R-104 radio station of the 703rd Communications Battalion. The above case of mysterious disappearances is yet another sign of the Soviet-style secrecy that still seems to be firmly in place in the Russian military.
We are leafing through another document. This time it is an order for the 105th division of the Soviet Airborne Troops dated July 28, 1956. The order reads: “On the preparations of the units for the upcoming exercises.” We should give the military planners of that era their due: they list painstakingly every little piece of equipment that could come in handy during the maneuvers. However, we see no mentioning with regard to protective wear or equipment used against the effects of weapons of mass destruction. The gasmasks are mentioned yet they were part of standard issue of the military personnel.
According to yet another order, a number of servicemen were given “incentives” for good service. The incentives include letters of thanks and valuable presents awarded to six commissioned officers and a lance corporal; 17 soldiers and sergeants were given a 10-day leave of absence; 14 servicemen were promoted to the next rank, and 113 servicemen were given letters of thanks. Given the consequences of the experiment that cost a few years of life to many of its participants, the list of “incentives” does not look impressive at all.
The exercises in the Semipalatinsk range involving the combat use of atomic weapons were the second of a kind conducted in the USSR. It was the last time when the military used live nuclear ammo. Two years before the events in the Semipalatisk range, the Soviets dropped a 40 kiloton bomb in the Totsk range located in the Orenburg region on September 14, 1954. The bomb was officially given a code name Tatianka – a diminutive of the Russian female name Tatiana. An equally frivolous code name – Snezhok (a “snowball” in English) was used for dubbing the exercises. About 45 thousand troops, more than 300 warplanes, 600 tanks, more than 500 guns were involved in the exercises. A single set of underwear was the only “protective wear” the servicemen were told to use to protect themselves against radiation during the exercises. Neither military personnel nor local residents were taken for medical examination after the exercises due to strictest secrecy of the latter. The records for the period from 1954 through 1980, which were kept in the archives of a local hospital in Totsk, are notavailable. The records must have been destroyed on purpose.
For the record: the USSR was not the only country that conducted deadly experiments on its own soldiers. It is obvious that in the 1950s neither the military nor scientists could have envisaged the perils of the nuclear weapons to the full. The United States Army carried out eight military exercises involving the use of nuclear bombs. The records relating to the results and consequences of those exercises are still classified.
Some reference information courtesy of Trud
The Semipalatinsk range was built in 1948. The first atomic bomb was tested there on August 29, 1949. The last nuclear charge was detonated on location on October 19, 1989. A total of 456 ground, air and underground nuclear tests were conducted in the Semipalatisnk range during the above period. President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayaev officially shut down the range on August 29, 1991.
Translated by Guerman Grachev