At 9:33 a.m. on 14 September 1954, a Soviet Tu-4 bomber dropped a 40,000-ton atomic weapon from a height of 25,000 feet just north of Totskoye in the steppes of the southern Urals.
In the early years of the Cold War, the testing of nuclear weapons was not unusual – there would be 8 others in that year and over 200 in the same decade. What made the Totskoye nuclear exercise so particularly horrifying was that the bomb was dropped on an army of 45,000 of the Soviet Union’s own troops.
Nuclear tests in the early years of the development of atomic weapons were not safe. Scientists had not fully appreciated the damage caused by exposure to radiation. Even when warnings were provided, military expediency often trumped individual health. Many of those soldiers who were bathed in the blinding light of nuclear explosions would later succumb to cancers.
But most tests at least had the pretense of protections. Tinted glasses were provided to protect the eyes from the intense blasts. Personnel were evacuated to a presumed zone of safety and often observed the tests behind makeshift blast shelters.
The experiment at Totskoye had a broader remit than merely confirming the destructive power of a nuclear explosion. The exercise was designed to help the Soviets fully understand a weapon that had been unveiled in the cataclysmic shock of attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. In particular, the Soviets were interested in how to fight in a world of tactical and strategic nuclear weapons.
An army of 45,000 soldiers and officers were gathered in Totskoye to take part in Operation Snezhok (variously translated as Snowball or Light Snow). They were led by the hero of the Second World War and Marshal of the Soviet Union Georgy Zhukov.
Along with an array of machinery (320 planes, 600 tanks and 600 armored personnel carriers), the army launched manoeuvres. The soldiers had been told that they would take part in a regular military exercise that would featuring a simulated nuclear explosion. As a result, soldiers were not issued nor expected to receive any protective gear.
Zhukov did not display the same cavalier attitude with his own safety – he witnessed the blast and the exercises from the safety of an underground nuclear bunker. Immediately following the successful detonation of the bomb (which, with a force equivalent to 20,000 tons of TNT, was comparable to the bomb the United States dropped on Hiroshima),, air force planes were ordered to bomb the explosion site. This was followed up with a further barrage three hours later.
Armored vehicles were then ordered to practice the taking of an enemy area that had been subjected to nuclear attack. They would be followed by infantry, “soon after the shock waves subsided, troops with little or no protective gear were filmed storming through an inferno of dust, heat and radiation.”
According to a 2004 Pravda story, “the men have definitely been radiated – it could not be avoided on the hazardous area. The blast cloud left its traces everywhere: thatched roofs of several houses in the neighboring settlements went on fire because of the nuclear explosion products – the houses burnt to the ground. There were no other negative consequences after the explosion as far as the local population is concerned.”
The results were catastrophic but unsurprising – according to the New York Times, a committee of “Soviet veterans is seeking Government compensation and special medical treatment for what the veterans say are years of radiation-induced illnesses”.
Whilst the Soviet tests were particularly unsettling for the lack of regard to the civilian or military populations affected, they were not alone. In an era of Cold War tensions, military leaders in the USA undertook a series of military exercises (collectively known as the Desert Rock tests) following nuclear explosions in the Nevada Proving Grounds.