Museum of the Semipalatinsk Test Site
A smallish but highly impressive museum that chronicles and illustrates the history, inner workings and effects of the Soviet atomic testing
programme conducted at the nearby Polygon
. It's located in the formerly "closed city" of Kurchatov
, and unlike the town itself is still quite restricted to visitors. But it is possible to obtain a special permit and be given a guided tour.
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
Administratively, the museum is today part of the Institute of Radiation Safety and Ecology. It was first opened in 1972, i.e. still during the test site's active time, but overall doesn't appear to have changed very much since (except for a few minor post-independence additions).
What there is to see: when I was there, on a pre-arranged visit (see 'access') accompanied by a tour guide, my wife and our driver, our little entourage was given a guided tour of the museum, by a rather stern Russian-speaking lady. She droned on in a monotonous rapid-fire delivery without intonation that gave my tour guide and interpreter a hard time (though he bravely battled through!), but much of what was there to see was nothing short of fascinating. For me at least. Some exhibits also bear trilingual labelling including English (next to Kazakh and Russian), which helped.
As you enter the main hall of the museum, you are first greeted by another bust of Igor Kurchatov (with his iconic wild beard, of course), resting on a silk-clad plinth under a symbol of an atom, and flanked by two large text panels. To the left is one outlining the founding of the Polygon
in the Soviet Union
in 1947, the other one to the right celebrates the site's closure in 1991 and the foundation of independent Kazakhstan
's own Nuclear Centre.
The exhibits themselves are lined up along a horseshoe shaped circuit in the hall beyond. To the right, next to some huge Soviet-era photographic development apparatus is a shelf with some of the most gruesome items the museum has to offer. There are jars with pickled animal body parts showing all manner of damage incurred during the nuclear tests. Animal testing was routinely part of the early experiments in order to determine the effects of heat, blast and radiation … as if these hadn't been quite predictable anyway.
Apart from dogs and cattle, it was especially pigs that were used – as their skin was considered the closest to that of humans. One jar on display at the museum contains a singed pig's head, labelled "2nd and 3rd degree burns". Shudder! Somewhat more abstract, but still horrific enough, are jars with items such as dogs' ruptured hearts or pieces of ribcage showing "multiple haemorrhages".
Nearby, a vintage measuring machine on display, an "audiometer", was apparently used to study the "auditory responses" that such "laboratory animals" made during the atomic bomb tests … What were they expecting? A round of applause?!?
The key scientists involved in the development of the Soviet bomb are dutifully represented, not just Igor Kurchatov himself, also other famous names, such as Andrei Sakharov. The latter was a kind of Soviet Robert Oppenheimer: first a key developer of nuclear weapons – Sakharov is widely regarded to be the "father" of the USSR
's hydrogen bomb – and later a dissident and activist against the nuclear arms race, and in Sakharov's case even Nobel Peace Prize winner.
One particularly illustrative exhibit is the diorama model of the set-up of the first Soviet nuclear test at Opytnoe Pole in the Polygon
. The execution of the diorama is quite crude, with toy model planes, cars, etc. of such widely varying scales that it makes the whole thing look like the work of a child arranging playthings. But still, it illustrates what different elements were of interest in the test. Apart from the measuring towers (whose ruins are still in place – see Polygon
) fanning out from ground zero there are four sections, like quarter slices of a big pizza, filled with different types of objects. There's one with army vehicles, one with aircraft, one with civilian infrastructure such as houses, railway and road bridges etc. – and of course tethered and penned in animals (cf. the specimens mentioned above).
There's lots of original equipment on display, in particular all manner of measuring devices, such as super-high-speed cameras, dosimeters and such like. The exact nature of the various pieces of machinery often remains more obscure, though.
One striking exception, however, is the control console that the guide said was the original one used in the historic first test at the Polygon, i.e. in the "Joe One"/RDS-1 test. We were even invited to sit down in the control seat – to snap a pic pretending to press "the button". In reality, however, it wasn't just a single button, but a combination of simultaneously operated triggers that required a whole team of operators.
On the rear wall of the main hall there are a few black-and-white photos of some impressive mushroom clouds, but again it is the artefacts that impress more: for instance, there's a piece of a missile from tests conducted at Site 4a at Opytnoe Pole, as well as a drastically mangled piece of black steel crushed in one of the tests.
One item is particularly dramatic: it's a piece of ex-granite rock retrieved from the centre of an underground test that the force of the blast had turned into a light-weight substance resembling pumice! Apparently you can easily lift it up together with the perspex display case, so light has the material become – I didn't try it though, and a 'radioactive' warning sticker on the top of the box serves as a suitable deterrent.
Models of both a borehole and a tunnel, as used in the underground tests conducted at Balapan and the Degelen mountains, respectively, complement this section. Furthermore there are photos and documents, e.g. about the Chagan test that created the infamous "Atomic Lake" in the south of the Polygon
A whole book of photos of mushroom clouds and early stages of nuclear blasts taken by high-speed cameras can be leafed through by visitors as well.
On the less celebratory side, there is, for instance, also a panel with photos and documents about the anti-nuke "Nevada
Semipalatinsk Movement", which was so instrumental in bringing about the closure of the Semipalatinsk Test Site.
Apart from the main hall, the museum also includes two small side rooms, one of which is partly laid out as Kurchatov's study, complete with desk, chair, telephone, etc. – and it's also here that visitors are invited to leave a comment in the museum's guest book. On the wall are various photos and documents relating to Kurchatov's life.
The most remarkable object in these extra parts of the museum, however, I thought was a little ornamental ensemble on a slab of white marble that involved precious minerals put together in the shape of a mushroom cloud with semi-translucent slabs of some kind of forming a colourful sky behind. Strewn around the mushroom cloud are little pieces of debris – possibly symbolizing, or perhaps even consisting of, nuggets of trinitite, or the Semipalatinsk equivalent: kharitonchiki. A piece of atomic-bomb-themed ornamental artwork! Priceless! Had it been for sale, it could have made one of the craziest dark tourism souvenirs ever. But there was no shop, and no souvenirs of any sort to be had.
All in all I found the museum extremely intriguing. Sure, it's nowhere near as hi-tech and visitor-oriented as its US equivalents, but in my opinion that added extra charm and a far greater feel of authenticity to the place. An absolute must-do for any nuclear tourist
in the western part of Kurchatov
, right opposite the new "Park of Nuclear Technologies" (PNT), the main research centre of the National Nuclear Centre of Kazakhstan. The museum is housed in an older building, as it had already been established during the Polygon
's operational years. It looked recently repainted – in a light "mint" green hue, and with darker green roof tiles. You pass it on the way from the main highway into the town centre on the main access road (Kurchatov Street, it is apparently called). The car park and security gate are a block further up the road.
Access and costs: restricted, but can be visited by prior arrangement.
Details: the museum is not actually one that is open to the general public, but visits can be arranged. I've even heard of people who've just turned up and were allowed in, but others have been turned away. To make sure you can get in, you have to make prior arrangements for a special appointment – if your spoken Russian is good enough you could try this number: (72251) 23413.
But it's probably best to have it all arranged through an agency. This is how I went there, as part of an organized tour (see under Kazakhstan
and especially Polygon
). Still, my tour guide apparently had to deal with extra hassle to secure entry for us, and there was a lengthy checking of paperwork at the security gate (maybe it was part of a more general tightening up of access restrictions in town – see under Kurchatov
). Finally, however, we were escorted to the museum entrance and let in.
It was strictly forbidden to take photographs outside anywhere near the museum building – but surprisingly we were free to take whatever pictures we wanted once we had entered the exhibition rooms. Inside we were met by a local guide who gave us a guided tour round the exhibition rooms; she demanded stern attention, but allowed me to wander around the exhibition to take more photographs with full concentration after the tour. This may have been a special courtesy; whether it's a general rule I cannot say.
Neither can I say if there was any admission fee – since it was part of a fully guided tour I never had to deal with individual admission fees on the tour. The Bradt guidebook to Kazakhstan, however, doesn't mention any admission fees either, so it could indeed be that it's free of charge.
Nor can I conform any specific opening times (though the Bradt guide simply states: Monday to Friday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.); a special appointment has to be made in any case. Avoiding Saturdays or Sundays for a visit is probably a good idea, though, as staff may only be available weekdays.
the guided tour I was given lasted about 30-40 minutes, after which I was allowed to revisit a few points in the museum for photography
purposes. All in all, I believe we spent just under an hour inside the museum. But any visitor will be at the mercy of the guide, so this can be no more than a rough indication.
Combinations with other dark destinations: Kurchatov
town itself has other aspects that the dark tourist may find appealing, in particular its semi-derelict partly ghost town
nature, as well as a few particular monuments and curiosities. But the main reason other than the museum for coming here is that the town is a natural base for excursions into the Polygon
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
none (but see under Kurchatov
- Test Site Museum 01 - outside photo taken surreptitiously from the car
- Test Site Museum 02 - main hall
- Test Site Museum 03 - first section
- Test Site Museum 04 - singed pig
- Test Site Museum 05 - dog damage
- Test Site Museum 06 - audiometer for listening in to the agony
- Test Site Museum 07 - Sakharov
- Test Site Museum 08 - diorama of Opytnoe Pole test site
- Test Site Museum 09 - test site set-up models closer up
- Test Site Museum 10 - all manner of optical apparatus
- Test Site Museum 11 - yet more gear
- Test Site Museum 12 - whole racks with measuring machines
- Test Site Museum 13 - for handling with care
- Test Site Museum 14 - here you can sit down
- Test Site Museum 15 - in front of the RDS-1 triggering console
- Test Site Museum 16 - especially pretty mushroom cloud
- Test Site Museum 17 - relic of a missile shot test
- Test Site Museum 18 - borehole model
- Test Site Museum 19 - underground testing in a tunnel
- Test Site Museum 20 - rock turned to pumice
- Test Site Museum 21 - book of test photographs
- Test Site Museum 22 - records of mushroom clouds
- Test Site Museum 23 - Nevada Semipalatinsk Movement
- Test Site Museum 24 - Kurchatov room
- Test Site Museum 25 - mushroom cloud artwork