Russia’s Forgotten Nuclear Disaster

Secrets, Cover-Ups and the Radioactive Legacy of Mayak

Map of the East Urals Radioactive Trace (EURT): area contaminated by the Kyshtym disaster. Wikicommons CC BY 2.0.

It was a warm fall day on September 29, 1957, not much unlike any other in the deep Russian interior. Residents in the Chelyabinsk oblast cared for their crops of wheat and potatoes, others herded cattle. Women hung out their family’s clothes to dry as the winds picked up before the sun descended. In the distance, along the ridge in the southern sky, streams of dark colors began to appear. The town paper would speculate that the natural polar lights were responsible for the odd aura along the horizon. But there was a problem: the strange hues were not where the Northern Lights typically appeared. Those lights appeared north, not south of Chelyabinsk—plus, the Northern Lights were shades of blue and green, not gray and black. Something was off, but there was no panic in Chelyabinsk. In the Southern Urals, where Chelyabinsk was located, the local strain of late-1950s culture was not unlike that in the rural farming communities of the American Midwest: people were hard-working, church-going, family-oriented, patriotic, and tough. Their lives, however, were about to change forever.

Government workers descended on the small towns in and around Chelyabinsk, twenty of which were soon evacuated. Around ten thousand people, mostly peasants, were forced out, leaving their pets and possessions behind. Farmers were instructed to slaughter their cows, destroy fertile farmland, and kill off their crops. Their livelihoods and way of life were destroyed, and no reason was given as to why they had to take such drastic measures so quickly.

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JOSHUA FRANK is the managing editor of CounterPunch. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Atomic Days: The Untold Story of the Most Toxic Place in America, published by Haymarket Books. He can be reached at You can troll him on Twitter @joshua__frank.

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