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'Left To Die As Guinea Pigs': Tatar Village Struggles On, 60 Years After Nuclear Catastrophe

An explosion at a Soviet nuclear plant 1,400 kilometers east of Moscow remains the world's third-largest nuclear disaster, after Chernobyl and Fukushima. At the time, in 1957, it was the worst ever. Sixty years on, nearby Tatar villagers are still struggling for official recognition of their plight. (RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service)

The sign says "Danger Zone." An explosion on September 29, 1957, contaminated an area of 23,000 square kilometers and exposed more than 270,000 people to significant levels of radiation.  
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The sign says "Danger Zone." An explosion on September 29, 1957, contaminated an area of 23,000 square kilometers and exposed more than 270,000 people to significant levels of radiation.
 

The village of Karabolka is 30 kilometers from the Mayak nuclear plant, where the explosion occurred. For decades afterwards, it did not appear on maps, only reappearing 20 years ago. But life there continued.
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The village of Karabolka is 30 kilometers from the Mayak nuclear plant, where the explosion occurred. For decades afterwards, it did not appear on maps, only reappearing 20 years ago. But life there continued.

Gulshara Ismagilova has lived in Karabolka all her life. She is campaigning for official recognition for the suffering of the villagers. Rates of cancer and genetic abnormalities here are significantly higher than the national average. "We are all handicapped here," she says.  
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Gulshara Ismagilova has lived in Karabolka all her life. She is campaigning for official recognition for the suffering of the villagers. Rates of cancer and genetic abnormalities here are significantly higher than the national average. "We are all handicapped here," she says.




 

These are Ismagilova's relatives who have died over the last 60 years. It includes an aunt, her mother, and her brother, who all died of cancer. Ismagilova herself has liver cancer.
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These are Ismagilova's relatives who have died over the last 60 years. It includes an aunt, her mother, and her brother, who all died of cancer. Ismagilova herself has liver cancer.

In 1957, the village had about 4,000 residents; in 2010, just 423. The village had two distinct parts: a mostly Tatar part, which was not evacuated, and a mostly Russian part, which was. Some locals say they were used in an experiment on the effects of radiation.  
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In 1957, the village had about 4,000 residents; in 2010, just 423. The village had two distinct parts: a mostly Tatar part, which was not evacuated, and a mostly Russian part, which was. Some locals say they were used in an experiment on the effects of radiation.

 

The village has eight cemeteries. Seven of them are a resting place for residents who died of cancer. Children here are often born with cancer and die before reaching adulthood.
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The village has eight cemeteries. Seven of them are a resting place for residents who died of cancer. Children here are often born with cancer and die before reaching adulthood.

Only Muslims are buried here. Following their beliefs, some relatives prevent autopsies being performed. This can prevent some deaths being classified as cancer-related.
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Only Muslims are buried here. Following their beliefs, some relatives prevent autopsies being performed. This can prevent some deaths being classified as cancer-related.

A pile of coffins at the ready. Families usually bury their dead by noon of the day following their death. "People don't know what to eat and how to survive," Ismagilova says. "They have been left here to die as guinea pigs."
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A pile of coffins at the ready. Families usually bury their dead by noon of the day following their death. "People don't know what to eat and how to survive," Ismagilova says. "They have been left here to die as guinea pigs."

This house has a pile of firewood outside. In the 1990s, local people were warned that wood stored radiation and should not be used for burning. But the village was not connected to a gas supply until 2016.
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This house has a pile of firewood outside. In the 1990s, local people were warned that wood stored radiation and should not be used for burning. But the village was not connected to a gas supply until 2016.

A water pump outside a house. "The authorities prohibited drinking water from local wells but couldn’t arrange supplies of clean water. A couple of months later, they took samples and said the local water was good enough to drink," says Ismagilova.
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A water pump outside a house. "The authorities prohibited drinking water from local wells but couldn’t arrange supplies of clean water. A couple of months later, they took samples and said the local water was good enough to drink," says Ismagilova.

A Greenpeace report 10 years ago said the Mayak site was "one of the most radioactive places on Earth." It added that thousands of people in surrounding towns and villages still lived on contaminated land.
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A Greenpeace report 10 years ago said the Mayak site was "one of the most radioactive places on Earth." It added that thousands of people in surrounding towns and villages still lived on contaminated land.

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