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In his speech to the two houses of the State Duma on Friday 30 September, President Putin said the United States was the only country in the world that has used atomic weapons. This statement was not quite true. On 14 September 1954, the Soviet leadership carried out a top secret test in the South Urals that involved dropping a nuclear bomb then ordering tens of thousands of troops to enter the area of the explosion. The Totskoye nuclear exercise, as it is known, remained classified until the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Post-1991 some information has been released but many records were destroyed and the full facts will probably never be known. This article offers an account of the events of that day. It is published against the current background of a Kremlin leadership insinuating the use of nuclear weapons in the war in Ukraine.
Exercise Snezhok (‘Snowball’ or ‘Light Snow’) – preparatory stages
Through the long, hot summer of 1954, Russian army units were observed arriving at a small railway station at Totskoye,1 Orenburg Oblast in the South Urals. The anonymous location was halfway between the cities of Samara and Orenburg, both roughly 150 kilometres distant. The border with the Kazakhstan Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) was 100 kilometres to the south. During the war, this remote location had been used as a camp for Polish prisoners.
‘None of the arrivals, even the command of the military units, had any idea why they were here,’ a veteran later recalled, ‘Our echelon was met at every station by women and children. Handing us sour cream and eggs, the women lamented: ‘Darlings, I suppose you are going to fight in China.’ The most-repeated rumour was that the Korean War had restarted. At the time, the Soviet Union was a state akin to North Korea today where the regime exercised total control over all information.2 Stalin had only passed away the previous year. The shadow of his terror still hung over Russia.
Totsky training area stretched 42 kilometres from north to south but was narrower east to west. In the centre was an old oak grove planted by Peter I surrounded by mixed forest. There were several villages 5-6 kilometres from the centre of the training area.3 A number of small settlements were located further afield. Totskoye railway station was eight kilometres to the south.
In total, 45,000 troops from three divisions were deployed to Totsky. Preparations for the exercise lasted almost three months. By the end of the summer, a gigantic battlefield had been recreated with tens of thousands of kilometres of trenches, and anti-tank ditches, and hundreds of pillboxes, bunkers, and dugouts. ‘Every gram of earth was dug with great difficulty. It was clay in gravel.’ Roughly 500 trenches were constructed with hardened dugout shelters using logs from local forests. The most forward posts, just over one kilometre from the epicentre4 had underground, prefabricated, pipe-shaped atomic shelters. These proved durable unlike the log shelters, some of which collapsed or ignited. The intent was to replicate a battlefield in West Germany which the area roughly resembled (it was first proposed to run the exercise in Kasputin Yar, a desert region).
‘Western’ (NATO) forces were played by 270th Rifle Division.5 This was the only local formation and soldiers were familiar with the area. ‘Eastern’ (Soviet) forces were played by 50th Guards Rifle Division6 (which ended the war in Berlin but was later re-based in Brest in modern day Belorussia), and 12th Mechanised Division,7 which was normally stationed near Moscow. Soldiers from 50th Guards Rifle Division were closest to the nuclear detonation.
‘Western’ forces straddled the Kizerik River (the locations are all readily identifiable today on Google Maps). The two ‘Eastern’ divisions were near a creek about 3 miles to the east. The target zone was roughly 2 – 3 miles between the two forces. This area was dotted with old equipment such as tanks, artillery pieces and aircraft.8 On the day, live animals were tethered in the blast area
The scenario was standard for Soviet exercises of the period. The Kremlin was paranoid NATO would launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union (a paranoia that extends to this day with President Putin justifying the ‘special military operation’ as ‘necessary’ and ‘pre-emptive’ against the imagined NATO threat). Major Soviet exercises started with a simulated NATO nuclear strike (in this case a real nuclear bomb); followed by a simulated Soviet counter-strike (two very large, conventional demolition charges on Exercise Snezhok); followed by a counter-attack. In the exercise, the counter-attack involved ‘Eastern’ troops manoeuvring through the area of the nuclear explosion.
Exercise Snezhok – preparations for the nuclear strike
At the centre of the training area, in the oak grove, a white limestone cross measuring 100m x 100m was created along with a chevron to guide the pilots. Two crews practised every day for a month with conventional 250kg bombs. The pilots were expected to achieve a deviation of less than 500 metres. A total exclusion zone was imposed in a 5 mile by 11 mile oblong which covered the flight path of the Tu-4 bomber when the bomb bays would be open. The two crews were led by a Major Kutyrchev and Captain Lyasnikov. Until the last moment, the pilots did not know which would conduct the mission and which would act as reserve. In the end Kutyrchev’s crew held the advantage from previous experience of atomic bomb tests at Semipalatinsk test site.
Several zones were established around the target area. The inner evacuation zone was roughly 5 miles in radius. Civilians with homes in this area were given the option of a free furnished apartment elsewhere in Russia, or a cash pay-out with a possible option to return after the test. In fact, these homes of log construction (in the villages of Makhovka, Olkhovka and Yelshanka) ignited and burned down. From 5-12 miles, civilian evacuation was not mandatory. Families that chose to remain were built a fallout shelter and given a government property insurance policy. From 13– 6 miles there was no civilian evacuation but families were instructed to remain indoors or to lay flat outdoors. The extreme exercise limit was set at 31 miles.
Participating units were issued very basic early-1950s Soviet NBC kit: the SChM-41 gas mask with a cape and booties. However, recollections of veterans suggest some received a gas mask but not the cape or booties, and others recall receiving nothing. Some footage of the test shows troops assaulting with no protection.
Another factor was the hot weather and inadequate briefings. NBC troops were issued with special tinted inserts for the gas masks but others were not and it seems the instruction not to look in the area of the detonation was either not given or followed in all cases. Soldiers also stripped off the NBC kit described as ‘made of a material resembling kerosene-soaked paper, and stockings woven from thick synthetic threads above the knees, worn over boots.’ The NBC reconnaissance platoons were issued brand new dosimeters. but follow-on troops had more rudimentary or no means to test radiation levels. A 25-50 roentgens/hour (R/hr) reading was judged the critical range above which the area had to be vacated immediately.
Three days before the start of the exercise, senior military leaders began to arrive at the training area. They included Marshals of the Soviet Union Vasilevsky, Rokossovsky, Konev, and Malinovsky – a glittering cast from the Second World War. A personality like Rokossovsky was born in the 19th century, orphaned at 14, and started life working in a stockings factory. He was now witnessing the birth of the atomic age as one of Russia’s most celebrated marshals. Foreign VIPs included the Polish Generals Marian Spychalski and German Ludwig Svoboda. Chinese Marshals Zhu-De and Peng-Te-Huai also attended. The day before the test, First Secretary Khrushchev arrived accompanied by Minister of Defence Bulganin, and Igor Kurchatov the scientist behind the bomb. During his premiership, the volatile Khrushchev would boast over the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal and spit out the phrase ‘we will bury you’, later immortalised in the Police song Russians.
Head of the exercise Marshal Zhukov also arrived on the penultimate day – the exercise was in fact his idea. He would later be criticised for remaining at a safe distance and leaving immediately after the detonation.
Senior officers were shown a secret film. ‘You have a great honour,’ a participant remembered, ‘for the first time in the world to operate in the real conditions of the use of a nuclear bomb.’ Most mid- and lower-level commanders were not informed of the test’s nature until a few days before. The day before the exercise, lower-level commanders were briefed. Soldiers were not told until the morning of the test. All personnel involved were sworn to a 25-year secrecy oath and certain personnel were put under a lifetime secrecy order.
14 September 1954 – H-hour
Preparations for the test began at 4am on 14 September on a clear and cloudless dawn. Both Tu-4 crews prepared in full: live bombs were hung on each aircraft, the pilots simultaneously started engines, and crews reported readiness. Only at this point was the order to proceed given to the crew led by Major Kutyrchev.9 The Tu-4 was escorted by two MiG-17 fighters and an Il-28 bomber, which were supposed to conduct weather reconnaissance and filming, as well as guard the bomber in flight.
Fifteen minutes before H-hour the coded phrase ‘The ice has broken’ was broadcast. Five minutes later the second signal ‘The ice is coming’ was sent. This was the prompt for all exercise participants and observers to take cover. The last signal was the code word ‘Lightning’, given when the bomb was dropped. The clocks read 9.33 am.
There is confusion over the bomb type, estimated at 40Kt, or roughly three times more powerful that the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. In all known footage of the exercise, the external appearance of the dropped bomb is a RDS-3 Marya. This was a plutonium uranium implosion weapon. However accounts commonly describe the bomb as the RDS-4 Tatiana, which looked nothing like the exercise weapon. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, former members of the nuclear programme explained the ‘RDS-4’ was an intermediate stage weapon, housed within the RDS-3 casing. The actual RDS-4 Tatiana with different appearance was later termed RDS-4M.
Kutyrchev’s Tu-4 dropped the bomb from a height of 8,000 meters on the second approach to the target. The bomb exploded at an altitude of 350 metres from the ground. Due to winds, the deviation from the planned epicentre was 280 metres in a northwest direction. This meant the bomb landed closer to the nearest bunker built at a distance of 1,200 meters from the epicentre. According to witness Gennady Ambrazevich,10 This shelter survived but the shock wave destroyed partition walls, penetrated into the shelter’s compartments, and scored interior surfaces as if by abrasive sand. There had been two horses tethered at the entrance to the building; both simply disappeared.’ The change in wind direction and strength meant the radioactive cloud was not carried to the deserted steppe, as expected, but towards Orenburg and further towards Krasnoyarsk.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ministry of Defence journal Krasnaya Zvezda (‘Red Star’)11 recounted how ‘at the time of the explosion the earth underfoot heaved. There was a clap of thunder, crackling, and in the sky a dazzling bright fiery mushroom.’
Another account in Krasnaya Zvezda (‘Red Star’)12 described: ‘The earth rocked. There was a huge cloud, the size of half the sky. The cloud was pushed up by pluming scarlet flames; the clouds varied in colour. The heavens had become crimson, bright or less so and all the time raged clouds of smoke. Clouds rose higher, dragging everything out of them, sucking dust from the ground and making pillars of all that was on the ground.’
‘Eastern’ forces counter-attack
The main bodies of exercise troops were located at distances of 5-7.5 kilometres from the epicentre in shelters. Beyond 7.5 kilometres troops were in trenches or instructed to adopt sitting or lying positions. The VIP viewing rostrum was 15 kilometres from the blast.
Five minutes after the detonation a massive conventional aerial bombardment and artillery and rocket barrage was unleashed. The density of fire per kilometre of the area was greater than that used in the fall of Berlin. The conventional bombing run included 86 Il-28s escorted by 42 MiG-17s. Over 40 pilots flew through or in very close proximity to the radioactive plume.
At 10:10 am, or about 36 minutes after the nuclear blast, ‘Eastern’ force began the counter-attack. They were preceded by NBC reconnaissance teams that started advancing down pre-marked trails as soon as the conventional bombardment ended. These were generally 15–40 minutes ahead of the tank and motor rifle units.
Witnesses gave dramatic accounts of the scene of the blasted area. A 300 radius circle of the oak grove had been turned into ‘wood chips and small fragments’. The surrounding forest was blasted and fires had started. ‘It was so painful to look at the mad, blind, and charred animals,’ recalled one participant,13scary to think of uprooted trees, disappeared oak groves, the ashes of several villages, the pitiful remnants of military equipment.’ Another related:‘In the trenches and open areas could be seen the doomed cows, goats, sheep, and other domestic animals. The eyes of many animals had exploded out of their heads; their hair showed evidence of having smouldered. Many animals were lying with terrible wounds.’ A third reported: ‘Trenches and shelters were gone. The top layer of the earth in many placed had moved. All land became equal. The sight was horrible’.14
By midday, lead groups of ‘Eastern’ force had passed the epicentre of the explosion two-and-a-half hours earlier. Nikolai Pilshchikov who passed very close to the seat of the blast remembered: ‘ I and my battalion in an armored personnel carrier proceeded 600m from the epicentre of the explosion at a speed of 16-18 km/h. I saw a forest burned from root to top, crumpled columns of equipment, charred animals … In the very epicentre – within a radius of 300m – there was not a single hundred-year-old oak tree left, everything burned down … Equipment a kilometre from the explosion was pressed into the ground.’
Mikhail Arensburg, a junior sergeant in an engineer battalion remembered:15 ‘Although the explosion was above ground, and we were so far away, the earth under us moved like a sea wave. All our devices went off the scale and were rendered useless. We were ordered to go immediately to the epicentre of the explosion with our tanks and our soldiers shouting, ‘Hurrah, Hurrah!’ The high officials departed immediately after the action. At the landfill site were lying around not only many dead cattle with severed limbs and charred sides, but also many dead people. It was said that sometimes during the pretend attacks, tanks ran into tents occupied by soldiers. Of course, these losses were concealed. I think that, first of all, the chiefs wanted to put the risk on both humans and animals. I realised that we were all in the role of experimental rabbits.’ His recollection of dead soldiers may have been a conflation with training accidents witnessed in other training. No other source reported soldiers killed, although there was a possible ‘incident’ involving a link of MiG-15Bs bombing in limited visibility that did not heed an order to abort the run.
Another witness Stanislav Kazanov recalled: ‘We crossed the valley, one and a half kilometres from which the epicentre of the explosion was located, in gas masks…Out of the corner of our eye, we managed to notice how piston planes, cars and staff cars were burning, the remains of cows and sheep were lying everywhere. The earth resembled slag and some monstrously whipped consistency. The area after the explosion was difficult to recognize: the grass was smoking, scorched quails were running, bushes and copses had disappeared. I was surrounded by bare, smoking hills. There was a solid black wall of smoke and dust, stench and burning. My throat was dry and itchy, there was a ringing and noise in my ears … The Major General ordered me to measure the level of radiation near a bonfire that was burning down next to me with a dosimeter device. I ran up, opened the shutter on the bottom of the device, and … the arrow went off scale. ‘In the car!’ – commanded the general, and we drove off from this place.’
By 12.30pm ‘Eastern’ force assault units had reached their final positions simulating a successful counter-attack across the Kizerik River. At 4pm a signal was sent to end the exercise, and shortly after 6pm everybody except radiation monitoring teams was out of the simulated battlefield. Assaulting troops had spent roughly six hours in areas of increased radioactivity.
The pilot who led the mission, Major Vasily Kutyrchev, received the Order of Lenin and was promoted to colonel. Other crew were awarded a Pobeda brand car.16 The remainder of participants received nothing and were sworn to secrecy for 25 years and longer.
Understanding of the long term effects of radiation were poor in this period. This factor coupled with the culture of secrecy and destruction of records means it is not possible to assess the human cost of the test. Precisely for reasons of secrecy, no checks or examinations of the participants were carried out. After the event, some soldiers experienced nausea and headaches. This was attributed to fatigue rather than low-level radiation sickness. Archives of the Totsk Regional Hospital from 1954 to 1980 were destroyed. As a consequence, it has not been possible to gain an understanding of the effects of radiological exposure on the civilian population in the area.
It is well established that large doses of ionising radiation can cause cancers and leukaemia after some years delay. Ionising radiation can also cause genetic mutations. At very high levels, radiation can cause sickness and death within days and weeks of exposure. In the case of an airburst bomb, radiation is high in the immediate area of the blast then levels off before climbing sharply again to a second peak in the same zone and area of the plume. The second more prolonged spike which begins 20–35 minutes after the detonation is the fallout. With an airburst this is a mix of airborne dust, smoke particulates, and the dirt sucked upwards into the mushroom cloud – all now radioactive.
On Exercise Snezhok any area recording 25 R/hr or above was flagged out-of-bounds by the reconnaissance teams (but this does not mean every hazardous area was found and flagged, or that the counter-attacking ‘Eastern’ forces did not stray into hazardous areas in what was a featureless, blasted training area covered in smoke). According to limited, and contradictory records released by the Russian Federation after the Cold War ended, the hypocentre (airborne epicentre) was hypothetically calculated at being 50 R/hr immediately after the detonation, quickly declining to 25 R/hr in a 350yds radius by the time the radiological reconnaissance teams took measurements. Beyond three quarters of a mile, it was 1 R/hr and declined from there outwards. To understand the effects on a human and for comparison, a chest x-ray is 0.1 R/hr. A dose of 1 R/hr can cause radiation sickness symptoms. A dose of 20 R/hr -100 R/24hr will definitely cause radiation sickness. Death is possible with doses above 114 R/hr. Above 300 R/hr – 500 R/24hr, death is assured.
The likelihood is a large number of soldiers were exposed to at least 1 R/hr and a proportion to higher levels. Official unwillingness to admit radiation exposure in exercise participants was only relaxed post the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The 19 July 1996 edition of Krasnaya Zvezda (‘Red Star’) wrote: ‘The soldiers who took part in the secret event and, with them, the local people got a large dose of radiation exposure.’ This candour would have been unthinkable under communist rule. One survivor reported, ‘I survived 44 hospitalizations, almost completely blind,’ Affected exercise participants were only afforded equal rights with Chernobyl survivors in the 1990s.
A limited study using a 50-year data span from a local registry office revealed that 3,209 people in the area died from oncology from 1952-2002. There were two spikes: one 5-7 years after the explosion, and the second from the beginning of the 1990s. The study also concluded: ‘The third generation of people who survived the atomic explosion [i.e. the grandchildren], lives with a predisposition to cancer.’
In the case of the RDS-3/4 bomb detonated at Totsky, the mushroom cloud of radioactive dust and particulates climbed to a height of 12-15 kilometres. The radioactive fallout covered an area of about 210 kilometres length. The axis was in a rough northeast and east direction. Increased radiation levels were detected as far away as Krasnoyarsk and Novosibirsk, thousands of kilometres from the explosion.
An eyewitness from the village of Kuterlya, 50 kilometres from the blast, reported: ‘All the women of our village were occupied with the watermelon harvest…suddenly the eyes were blinded by a bright light… A vague bang resounded and all women turned their eyes to the west. A big, black mushroom cloud rose up there, high up in the sky. ‘The atomic bomb, the atomic bomb!’ all shouted…A strong wind blew sheets, branches, maps, scraps about the watermelon field. We all marvelled at the big miracle which we were now eyewitnesses to. I wanted to chase after a big oak leaf… because there were no oaks in our area.’ The mention of the oak leaf was noteworthy as it could only have come from the oak grove where the bomb detonated. The leaf, of course, would have been radioactive.
In 2004, a little more than 2,000 survivors remained alive. Half were officially recognized as invalids; 74.5% had diseases of the cardiovascular system, including hypertension and cerebral atherosclerosis; another 20.5% had diseases of the digestive system; and 4.5% had malignant neoplasms and blood diseases. These data were consistent with the results of Japanese and British scientists who examined the victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs.
Exercise Snezhok was not the only Cold War nuclear test that today would be viewed as unacceptable. All the major nuclear powers conducted trials now judged controversial. But throughout the four decades of the Cold War, with the exception of the odd outburst from the effervescent Khrushchev, no side threatened nuclear war. He, of course, was ousted by the Presidium in 1964 that grew tired of his ‘mistakes’. In contrast, over the last few months, the world community has witnessed the deplorable spectacle of the Kremlin leadership – from President Putin down – repeatedly suggest the possibility of nuclear war. Unlike the Soviet Union, Putin cannot be removed by his peers as Khrushchev was – he has turned the Russian presidency into a modern khanate, absolute and imperious The last words may be left with Albert Einstein: ‘I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.’
Sergio Miller is a retired British Army Intelligence Corps officer. He was a regular contributor and book reviewer for British Army Review. He is the author of a two-part history of the Vietnam War (Osprey/Bloomsbury) and is currently drafting a history of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
- Totskoe on Google Maps
- Hans von Luck (Eastern Front and Normandy) who spent time as a prisoner in this area recalled speaking to villagers one day who asked him which tsar was on the throne. The lack of information of the outside world was near-total.
- Bogdanovka, Fedorovka, Makhovka, Olkhovka and Yelshanka
- Technically a ‘hypocentre’ because it was an airburst bomb
- The division was disbanded during the Serdyukov reforms in 2010.
- Disbanded in 2006
- 12 Mechanised Corps was disbanded after the war. It is unclear whether this division was a down-sized formation of the same name.
- 20 La-15s, 22 Il-10s and 2 Li-2s were specially placed in the area of the explosion; 5 La-15 aircraft located at a distance of more than 2000m from the epicentre, and 3 Il-10 located at a distance of more than 3500m (which were not damaged).
- The other crew members were Captain Kokorin, second pilot Romensky, and navigator Babets.
- Independence, April 23, 1997
- Red Star, 9 July 1992
- Red Star, 29 September 1989
- Russian Literary Gazette, 15 September 1999
- Red Star, 9 July 1992
- Magazine Hour, 27 January 2001
- The GAZ-M20 Pobeda was produced in the Soviet Union by GAZ from 1946 until 1958. It was popular car and the first successful post-war product in the Soviet automobile industry.