Chapter 1 puts the reader in the middle of the Kazakh steppe as the Soviet military prepares to test its first atomic bomb at the Semipalatinsk nuclear testing site. It tells the story of those who built the nuclear testing site—dubbed the Polygon—in brutal conditions. The narrative weaves in Kazakhstan's culture, history, and the special meaning Semipalatinsk holds for Kazakhs.
Chapter 2 details major Soviet nuclear breakthroughs, such as the development of a thermonuclear bomb, and shows how those advances came at the expense of people who lived near the testing site. Locals were subject to forced evacuations from their homes on the days of major tests, the windows in their houses shattered during explosions, their land was forcibly taken from them, and invisible radiation was silently killing them. Besides this ground-level view, readers will learn about high politics between the United States and the Soviet Union as they negotiated treaties to limit nuclear tests.
Chapter 3 describes the blatant disregard for people and the environment as the Soviet government continued to test its nuclear bombs in Kazakhstan. It tells the stories of Kazakhs who suffered while Moscow denied that nuclear tests caused any harm. Key figures are health and military officials from the Soviet military complex who deny any harm from nuclear tests to the local population (while admitting it in their secret reports) and medics on the ground in Kazakhstan who ring alarm bells about the damage to health and environment that nuclear tests wreak.
Chapter 4 describes the millions-strong public protest in Kazakhstan against nuclear testing and explains how the antinuclear movement became synonymous with Kazakhstan's fight for greater independence from Moscow and the search for its national identity. Readers meet a charismatic Kazakh poet, Olzhas Suleimenov, who leads the antinuclear movement, and the head of the Semipalatinsk region, Keshrim Boztaev, who appeals to the Soviet government to stop nuclear tests. They also meet a young and promising leader of Kazakhstan—Nursultan Nazarbayev—who walks the tightrope of negotiating with Moscow the cessation of Kazakh nuclear tests while also remaining a member of the Soviet power structure.
Chapter 5 describes the attempted overthrow of the Soviet government by the military, KGB generals, and right-wing politicians in August 1991. The coup failed, but it ushered in the collapse of the Soviet Union and the disintegration of a nuclear superpower. Suddenly, instead of one mighty Soviet nuclear power, the world faced Russia and three young republics—Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine—in a deep state of crisis. Their economies were collapsing, and their social fabrics were rupturing, with thousands of nuclear weapons and tons of nuclear materials now on their hands.
Chapter 6 describes Kazakhstan's nuclear inheritance—nuclear weapons, material, and expertise—and explains the risks the world faced. A new country, confronted with a myriad of economic, political, and societal crises, now possessed the fourth largest nuclear arsenal in the world. How could Kazakhstan address all these crises, while also wrestling with its unique nuclear question? The chapter introduces the key Kazakh decision-makers who struggled with these issues, allowing them to speak for themselves about what guided their choices.
Chapter 7 describes the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and Kazakhstan and the negotiations between the two parties on the fate of the nuclear weapons. The chapter takes the readers on the first trip of Kazakh president Nazarbayev to Washington in 1992. One of the key characters in this chapter is America's first ambassador to Kazakhstan, William Courtney, who keeps in close contact with Kazakh officials on their nuclear thinking and telegraphs developments in Kazakhstan to Washington.
Chapter 8 describes the tense period between Nazarbayev's visit to Washington, where he promised to get rid of nuclear weapons, and the moment a year and a half later when Kazakhstan finally formally renounced nuclear weapons by joining the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear-weapon state. During those months, Washington remained on edge.
Chapter 9 highlights the story of a secret operation, Project Sapphire, to secure highly enriched uranium (HEU) that could have been used to build more than twenty bombs. In 1993, the Kazakhs informed the US government about stocks of HEU produced for the Soviet nuclear submarine program at an abandoned and unprotected former military facility. In the months that followed, specialists from Kazakhstan and the United States worked, often in extreme weather conditions, to package and safely remove would-be bomb fuel to a safe location. The chapter also describes the origins of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program.
Chapter 10 describes the complicated process of removing weapons from Kazakhstan, destroying missile silos, dismantling nuclear weapons testing infrastructure at the Polygon, and securing nuclear material. The chapter also highlights President Nazarbayev's visit to Washington, DC, in 1994 to meet President Clinton and the signing of the Budapest Memorandum later that year.
The closing chapter brings the reader to the modern Kazakhstan of today. It tells the story of the people of the Semipalatinsk region who still suffer from the consequences of nuclear tests but who do not want to be victimized. The chapter describes the attempts to treat and heal the land and the people. Kazakhstan, thirty years old in 2021, has become an ardent promoter of global nuclear disarmament with an advanced peaceful nuclear sector.