Here’s What You Need to Remember: The former Soviet republics have not acted to resume testing. All but Russia have renounced nuclear arms and turned over any inherited arsenals for disposal. Russia has shown little interest in further tests, instead concentrating on a new generation of delivery vehicles including the Bulava submarine-launched missile, Topol-MR mobile missile and Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile.
The Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb in 1949, just four years after the United States. Like the United States, the USSR conducted an aggressive testing schedule throughout the Cold War, ultimately conducting 715 nuclear tests over a period of forty-one years. Also like its rival—and to an even greater extent—the Soviet Union suffered nuclear contamination of its hinterland and unnecessary health risks to its people. Moscow was also responsible for testing of the large thermonuclear device ever built: the infamous “Tsar Bomba.”
The majority of Soviet nuclear tests were carried out at the Semipalatinsk Test Site (STS) in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. Like the Nevada desert, the Central Asian steppes functioned as a remote test site where atmospheric bomb tests could be conducted far from densely populated areas. 456 atomic and thermonuclear devices were tested at Semipalatinsk, many of them atmospheric tests.
Semipalatinsk was selected by former head of the NKVD Lavrenti Beria, who described the area as “uninhabited” and an ideal spot to test nuclear weapons. In fact the area surrounding the site was home to nearly seven hundred thousand people, many of whom lived in small rural villages. On August 29, 1949, the Soviet Union’s first atomic bomb, RDS-1, was detonated at STS. RDS-1 was a plutonium-based implosion device based on the Nagasaki bomb, from which secrets had been stolen. The bomb had an explosive yield of twenty-two kilotons, larger than the bombs detonated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in part due to a larger amount of plutonium. Radioactive fallout rained down on unsuspecting villagers in the region, a pattern that would continue for decades.
Like the U.S. military, the Soviet military also folded military exercises into their nuclear tests. The first such exercise was the Totskoye military exercise, in September 1954. This was the first test outside of Semipalatinsk and the first in European Russia, and involved forty-four thousand Soviet ground forces, including some stationed just 1.5 miles from ground zero. A Soviet Tu-4 “Bull” bomber dropped a forty-kiloton RDS-3 gravity bomb, which detonated at an altitude of one thousand feet. Within forty minutes of the explosion, troops were conducting maneuvers less than a mile from ground zero. Many contracted radiation sickness and developed radiation-linked diseases, such as cancer and leukemia, later in their lives.