bomb test: thousands are thought to have died
FOR Lydia Lebedeva, a 17- year-old student at a catering college in the provincial town of Orenburg in 1954, it seemed a privilege to be chosen by a Communist party commission to serve high-ranking military officers at a top-secret nuclear test range. Nobody told her she would be taking part in one of the largest experiments to be conducted on human beings.
Lebedeva, now 64, was among 45,000 people - mainly Soviet soldiers - who were deliberately exposed to radiation from a bomb twice as powerful as the one the Americans dropped on Hiroshima nine years earlier.
Thousands are believed to have died: some in the immediate aftermath, others months or years later. The pilot who dropped the bomb succumbed to leukaemia; his co-pilot to bone cancer. Many of the survivors went on to have children with a variety of disabilities.
For decades, the fate of those who were present that day at the Totskoye test range was covered up. Nearly half a century later, Lebedeva is one of only a few hundred veterans who have lived to tell the tale.
At 9.33am on September 14, 1954, a Tu-4 bomber dropped a 40,000-ton weapon from 25,000ft. The bomb exploded 1,200ft above the range. The blast was witnessed by Marshal Georgi Zhukov, Stalin's most senior second world war commander, from the safety of an underground nuclear bunker.
Moments later Zhukov ordered 600 tanks, 600 armoured personnel carriers and 320 planes towards the epicentre to stage a mock battle. It was designed to test the performance of hardware and soldiers alike in a nuclear war. Hundreds of cattle, sheep and pigs were tethered within the blast area.
"The scene was apocalyptic," recalled Anatoly Korsunov, who drove one of the tanks and says he has suffered from poor health ever since. "The steppe was burning - everything had been scorched.
"Most people had gas masks, but we kept having to take them off because of the intense heat. The landscape was littered with burning tanks, wrecked planes and melted anti-aircraft guns. The air was filled with thick, acrid smoke and the awful cries of animals, blinded and burnt."
Like other military personnel, Korsunov was never told how much radiation he received. "It was a state secret," he said. "I asked a technician who was measuring it with a detector. 'Normal, average,' was his answer. It was only later that I began to feel the effects: dizzy spells, shivers, aches in my spine, internal bleeding, high blood pressure."
Civilians such as Lebedeva and the 200 other women caterers like her fared little better. Hours before the explosion they were warned a bomb was going to be detonated and ordered into a pit three miles from the epicentre.
"They gave me only a blanket to cover myself with," she said. "I was terrified.
"There were two signals, then the blast. First a blinding, intense flash, then an explosion so powerful that I was knocked over.
"I went deaf, the earth shook violently, I was struck by a powerful wave. The light and heat were intense and I could not breathe. It felt as if I were being buried alive. Then a huge mushroom cloud rose into the sky. Everything went black."
She and her fellow kitchen staff lived in the area for two months. Only 20 remain alive.
Formerly a strong, healthy girl, Lebedeva began to feel ill soon after the test. She has suffered from leukaemia and has had a throat tumour removed.
Her first child, Lena, born eight years after the test, was unable to walk, talk, sit up or feed herself when she died aged 12. Lebedeva's son, now 36, was also born handicapped.
Like all the other survivors, Lebedeva was forbidden to tell doctors the likely cause of her ill-health for fear of being denounced to the KGB. It was not until the early 1990s that the Russian government first acknowledged the nuclear test. An archive of medical records burnt down a few years ago.
"I was told I stood a chance to get some compensation if I could prove I was very sick in the first five years after the explosion," Lebedeva said. "But when I tried to get my medical records, I was told all documents up to 1976 were missing.
"It's the same for all the other survivors. The truth is that the state hopes the few of us left will die off quickly."
There are no official figures to show how many of the 45,000 sent to Totskoye died as a result of the test.
Tamara Zlotnikova, a former member of the Russian parliament who is helping survivors fight for compensation, believes the toll was enormous. "Even today, the incidence of some cancers in Orenburg, a city 130 miles from the range,is double that of people who suffered in Chernobyl," she said.
"A study carried out by the health ministry on cities with the worst health problems puts Orenburg second out of 88. Thousands died.
"These people were used as guinea pigs, tested, and then left to die slowly of cancer. The state does not want their tragedy to be recognised, because it would cost money. Nobody wants to know."