Last week (Feb 28th, to be precise) marked the anniversary of the founding of arguably the most successful mass anti-nuclear protest movement the world has ever seen. We’re talking, of course, of the Nevada-Semipalatinsk Anti-Nuclear Movement, which was active between 1989 and 1991.
If – for some unaccountable reason – you haven’t heard of it, then read on, for it’s a tale of how the ordinary people of a provincial part of the former Soviet Union found that a mass protest movement, well-organised and with right on its side, forced an intransigent, distant government to concede its demands. Are there lessons for the people of Scotland in their story? Let’s find out.
In 1949, officials from the former Soviet Union began conducting above ground nuclear tests at the Semipalatinsk facility in Kazakhstan. More than three million people resided in towns and villages in the surrounding area. Despite this the first Soviet atom bomb was detonated in Kazakhstan in 1949, and in 1953 the first hydrogen bomb was also tested in the same region.
Until 1963, all of the testing was carried out above ground and created large, radioactive clouds that exploded upwards before settling over the surrounding countryside. Predictably, this resulted in a huge increase in rates of cancer and other diseases. After 1963, the tests were conducted below ground. However, on the 12th and 17th of February 1989, radioactive material leaked from the underground facility towards the residents of neighbouring areas, once again threatening their lives.
Shortly after this latter event a popular Kazakh poet, Olzhas Suleimenov, was giving a reading of his work on national television when he stopped and began, instead, to speak about how this continued nuclear testing was a grave and unacceptable threat to the health and lives of the people of the Semipalatinsk region. He then called on all concerned citizens to come together and demonstrate their disapproval.
A mere two days later, on 28th February at Alma Ata in Kazakhstan, the Nevada-Semipalatinsk Movement to Stop All Nuclear Testing was founded at a meeting held in the National Writers’ Union headquarters. An impressive 5,000 Kazakhs from a wide variety of backgrounds attended.
(The name was chosen to show solidarity with the people of Nevada in the US, which had been the site of the large Nevada Test Site anti-nuclear demonstrations and encampments outside Las Vegas in the mid-to-late 1980s.)
From the moment of its inception, the NSANM showed remarkable ambition and drive. Almost immediately, they stated that their end goal was to abolish nuclear weapons worldwide. By the end of the first meeting, they had adopted a declaration entitled ‘High Time’, which demanded:
– the closure of the Semipalatinsk facility and a cleanup of the area
– the end of nuclear weapon production
– citizen control over nuclear waste
– the creation of a map showing the extent of radiation damage in the USSR, and
– the disclosure of the plight of radiation victims in the Soviet Union.
Circulated as a petition, ‘High Time’ received over a million signatures within days. To follow it up, the group began holding regular rallies near the test sites. The largest was held on the 6th of August 1989, the anniversary of the US nuclear attack on Hiroshima, when approximately 50,000 people gathered at the foot of the Karaulnaya volcano beside Semipalatinsk, and began to throw stones and rocks at the test site.
(It should probably be explained at this point that this behaviour wasn’t an act of violence but in accordance with the ancient Kazakh tradition of throwing stones at evil.)
Whatever the reason, it certainly seems to have drawn a crowd, and the mass demonstrations continued until the 17th of November that year when the Chair of the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Union, Nikolai Ryzhkov, announced that there would be no more nuclear testing for the rest of the year.
In December 1989, Olzhas Suleimenov travelled to the United States, where he met with sympathetic US anti-nuclear groups. During his trip, the Soviet Union admitted that they had cancelled eleven out of eighteen planned nuclear tests, because of the publicity generated by the movement. Protests and demonstrations at Semipalatinsk continued and, in early 1990, in an effort to placate activists, the Soviet government promised to restrict the number of future tests at the site to 27, and to completely close down the Semipalatinsk facility by 1993. This offer was rejected by the campaigners as insufficient.
The support for the campaign was now flourishing both internationally and within Kazakhstan. After a major test explosion in October 1989, 130,000 workers at the Karaganda coal mines declared that they would go on strike if the tests continued. Following this up, in 1990, the Kazakh miners threatened again to go on strike during their contract negotiations. Chief on their list of demands was an end to nuclear testing at Semipalatinsk.
International organisations, such as Greenpeace and International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War were also becoming increasingly involved. Despite this, the Soviet Government secretly conduct a test on 24th October, 1990, at Novaya Zemlya; the last nuclear test to take place in the Soviet Union.
In December of 1990, the Kazakhstan parliament passed a bill banning nuclear weapons testing in the republic. In August 1991, the President of Kazakhstan officially closed Semipalatinsk from nuclear testing. In October 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev established a yearlong moratorium on Soviet nuclear testing and, three weeks later, Boris Yeltsin banned nuclear testing in Russia for one year.
By closing Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan and the Soviet Union became the first nation to close a nuclear test site anywhere on Earth. According to UNESCO, the Nevada-Semipalatinsk Movement played a positive role in promoting public understanding of “the necessity to fight against nuclear threats”. Kazakhstan declared itself an independent country on the 16th of December 1991.
So, what have we learned from the above? For myself, I can’t help but observe that the Nevada-Semipalatinsk Movement developed a bold and ambitious campaign that, from a standing start, quickly grew a mass movement willing to participate in direct action when they felt that their political institutions were unable or unwilling to reflect the will of the people.
The parallels between Kazakhstan in 1989 and Scotland in 2013 seem too obvious to need pointing out. Suffice to say that we too have an unwanted nuclear menace on our own doorstep that threatens millions. How are we going to respond?