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Beginning in the late 1940s, the Soviet Union detonated over 450 nuclear weapons on the barren steppes of Kazakhstan. The biggest produced a crater 1640 feet wide and 260 feet deep. Water now fills the vast hole in the earth which is completely devoid of life.

This vast test area, the size of Belgium, was called The Polygon (for its shape) by the Russians. Lavrentiy Beria, head of the Soviet atomic bomb project, selected this site in 1947. He claimed that the huge steppe region was totally uninhabited. Of course it wasn’t, but nobody cared. Workers from Gulag camps were routinely transported to this remote region to build a large complex of buildings, labs and test sites.

In the early 1950s, the Soviet military came to a village and evacuated everyone except 43 young men. Why leave a few dozen men behind? To test the effects of radiation fallout on humans. During one nuclear test, the men were rounded up, taken to the middle of the steppe, and placed in tents. They were given food and music and told “enjoy yourself”. Unbeknownst to the young men, they were about to become human guinea pigs.

The men were less than 6 miles from the atomic explosion. Soldiers wearing gas masks arrived after the detonation to retrieve the young men, who demanded to know what had just happened. They were told they would be fine for now, but things could get worse, much worse in 10 to 15 years.

One young man related what happened to him. "When I was blinded from the blast, my uncle took me to see the doctor and the doctor said it was my own fault that I looked at the bright light from the explosion. “

For many years, the young men were under constant medical observation by doctors, not that anything could or would be done to treat any radiation-related illnesses.

People in the area were told the Soviet military was testing new massive weapons that would give them dominance over America. The locals were not told these weapons were nuclear that produced massive radioactive fallout which would affect all of them.

During tests, nearby villagers were ordered by the KGB to pack books and bedding behind the windows of their houses and stand outside. Women holding their babies were told, “You will soon witness the might of Soviet technology.”

The KGB doctors waited until the wind was blowing towards the villages then instructed the military to detonate the bombs. They spent months afterwards checking the effects on the locals.

The last nuclear explosion here was 30 years ago. Even so, doctors in Kazakhstan are worried about the younger generation’s health.

According to one doctor, “Our studies show that radiation damages genetic code and the exposed person can pass it onto the second or third generation. The fact that the Polygon is closed hasn’t ended its impact on the health of locals. It takes hundreds of years for radioactive materials to decay. Villagers around the Polygon were exposed to radiation for many years and this makes the Polygon different from other nuclear disaster zones.”

One in every 20 children in the area is born with serious deformities and half of them wouldn't live to be 60.

Today the Polygon is home to research on the effects of the tests on the surrounding ecology. And, oddly, it's also open for tours. They say the view is breathtaking – literally.

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