The Soviets Trained to Fight Under Nuclear Detonations
Soldiers suffered as a result
On Sept. 14, 1954, 45,000 soldiers from the Soviet Army’s 270th Rifle Division and other units took shelter in trenches and bunkers as they waited for the order to advance.
The 270th Rifles had fought at Stalingrad in 1942 and at Kursk in ’43. On this day, just north of the Russian-Kazakhstan border, it was about to become the first Soviet formation to train for nuclear war.
Administrators had selected this hilly, forested region of the Orenberg Steppes for the Totskoye atomic test, owing to the area’s topographic similarity to Western Europe, where Moscow planned to wage atomic combat.
Soldiers had been arriving for three months. There was a lot of work to do. Three miles from the planned nuclear epicenter, they built bunkers and pillboxes. Seven miles out, there were the trenches. Planners scattered old tanks and other vehicles across the landscape so they could judge the effects of the atomic blast.
Planners tethered cows, horses and other animals at various distances from the blast site. Along with the soldiers, they were test subjects in the Soviets’ efforts to understand how flesh and blood might respond to nuclear explosions.
And then there were the civilians. “At the time [of the exercise], about a million people lived within 100 miles of the test site,” The New York Times reported in 1993.
These civilians were going to be in for a shock when the 20-kiloton nuclear warhead went off, as the government had failed to notify many of them that this was anything other than a conventional military training exercise.
The Red Bomb, a Discovery Channel documentary from 1994, featured Ivan Skvortsov and Vasily Kovalyov, two Red Army veterans who took part in the Totskoye exercise.
Kovalyov was one of the soldiers sheltering in the protective fieldworks. He described the initial experience as “a flash that blinded the men in the trench.”
“Then the explosion took place,” Kovalyov added. “It was unusual. Now, I had fought in the war and I had seen explosions of conventional ammunition during the Second World War. But that explosion was very sharp, very abrupt. And when the explosion went off there was a blinding lightning so to speak. A powerful beam, very powerful beam.”
“We had black pieces of glass installed in our gas masks,” Kovalyov said. “You could hardly even see the sun through those glasses. But that light was stronger than an electric arc welder.”
Skvortsov reported a similar experience. “Of course, we covered our eyes with our hands as we had been told to do, but we crouched in the bottom of the trench, and this was followed by a sensation like an earthquake,” he said. “It was as if we were on board a large seagoing ship.”
After the nuclear device exploded, officers ordered Skvortsov and his fellow soldiers to stage a giant mock battle. Marshall of the Soviet Union Georgy Zhukov and others watched from a distant command bunker.
The Soviet soldiers had not received much protective gear beyond gas masks.
“We received the order to break cover, board the trucks and move forward to the firing position, the site of stage two of the exercise, followed up by an attack on the enemy defensive position,” Skvortsov recalled. “The moment we got out of the trenches, we saw a gigantic mushroom cloud rising in the distance.”
One point of the Totskoye nuclear exercise was to help Soviet officials assess the psychological effect of a nearby nuclear explosion on the country’s own soldiers.
The Soviets weren’t alone in conducting troop exercises with live atomic weapons. Three years earlier in 1951, the United States conducted a similar—though slightly safer and less secretive—series of tests under the code name “Desert Rock.” One of those tests is pictured at top.
The first of these trials involved 6,500 troops sheltering from, and then conducting maneuvers around, a 31-kiloton nuclear blast. No Americans are reported to have died during the exercises, although everyone present was exposed to radiation.
Eventually, above-average rates of thyroid cancer and leukemia manifested among the test subjects. In 1990, the U.S. Congress pass the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, entitling survivors of the exercise to $75,000 in compensation.
The Russian experience was more tragic. “In the 1960s, there was a definite explosion in tumorous illnesses” in the Orenberg Steppes, Dr. Nikolay Sidorov said in The Red Bomb.
“At the end of 1991, we had 28,000 people suffering from tumorous illnesses in the province, and this trend is growing stronger every year,” Sidorov continued. “If we compare the statistics relating to 1950 with those for the current years , we will see that the number of cases has gone up 500 percent, and the mortality rate accordingly as a consequence.”
Russia has no laws similar to the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.