Dmitriy Vesselov speaking at Nuclear Ban Week, Vienna 2022 | Photo Credit: Alexander Papis / ICAN

A Third-Generation Survivor of Nuclear Testing in Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan, Speaks Out | Interview with Dmitriy Vesselov

The Semipalatinsk Test Site, the Soviet Union’s largest nuclear weapons testing location, known as the “Polygon,” spanned 18,000 square kilometers in northeastern Kazakhstan. Over a 40-year period up to 1989, this site bore witness to over 450 nuclear tests. The aftermath is believed to have adversely affected the health of over 1.5 million individuals, many of whom suffer to this day. After Kazakhstan gained independence in 1991, the country abandoned its Soviet-era nuclear weapons and has since made diplomatic efforts towards nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. Kazakhstan ratified the Treaty on Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) in 2019, and has been elected as chair for the TPNW’s Third Meeting of States Parties in 2024.

A documentary, I Want To Live On: The Untold Stories of the Polygon,featuring the testimonies of survivors of nuclear testing in Kazakhstan has been produced by the Center for International Security and Policy (CISP), an NGO based in Kazakhstan, with the support of the Soka Gakkai International (SGI).

The Seikyo Shimbun interviewed Dmitriy Vesselov, one of the people interviewed in the documentary, who suffers from myriad health issues as a third-generation nuclear-testing survivor and tirelessly campaigns to enlighten the global community about the horrors of nuclear weapons.

  • Disarmament
  • Nuclear Abolition

Please describe the environment you were raised in.

I was born in 1976 in Semipalatinsk, roughly 100 kilometers from the nuclear testing site. Before the nuclear tests began, my grandfather moved to Semipalatinsk, and my grandmother and mother were also born and raised there.

I hear you are confronting several health challenges.

That’s correct. I suffer from a genetic disorder called cleidocranial dysostosis. Due to this condition, I more or less completely lack collarbones and have experienced abnormal development in my skull. My arms, shoulders and chest are not anchored by collarbones, which constrains the movement of my arms and hands. It’s difficult for me to reach high places, and lifting my arms up high is nearly impossible. Whenever I try to carry heavy objects, my arm sags, causing pain in my muscles and ligaments. My condition has worsened in recent years. At times, I have to cradle my arm as if it’s fractured, using my shoulder bag strap for support. Furthermore, because my cervical spine is not stable, if I stay upright for a long time, my blood vessels get compressed, and I have to lie down. I can only remain standing for 4–6 hours at most. These health issues have inevitably impacted my work. I have worked as a taxi driver for many years, but lately I haven’t been feeling good and have had to take many days off.

In 2015, you were recognized as a victim of nuclear exposure in Kazakhstan.

Yes, I once asked the doctors, “Will this disease be passed on to my children?” Sadly, no one could give me a clear answer.

I therefore chose not to have children. Being deprived of the joy of becoming a father was perhaps the greatest pain and sorrow of my life—a pain that no compensation could ever remedy.

What drove you to share your experiences as a victim of nuclear testing?

It was five years ago. A passenger got into my taxi. I always try to engage in friendly conversation to ensure that my passengers feel at ease. So, I asked the passenger why he came to Semey. He told me he was part of a movement to abolish nuclear weapons and was looking for individuals who were affected by the nuclear tests in the former Semipalatinsk and were willing to share their experiences.

When I told him, “I am one such victim. Perhaps I might be the person you’re looking for.” He then asked if I could offer my cooperation. Initially, my story was featured in a publication of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN).

Later, I was asked, “Could you speak about the struggles of nuclear test victims on an international stage?” I turned to my mother for advice. She encouraged me, saying, “You should definitely do it. You should speak out as a tribute to your grandmother’s memory.”

Last June, I shared my experience at a side event during the First Meeting of States Parties of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which took place in Vienna, Austria.

I felt the need to redouble my efforts so that more people can become aware of the truth about our challenges. I don’t believe this issue is going to be resolved overnight. But I believe that by continuing these activities, we can help mitigate the damage.

What are your thoughts on the present global reality surrounding nuclear weapons?

I have two main observations. Firstly, I am astounded by how little the world knows about the devastation caused by nuclear tests. Secondly, many people are convinced that the “nuclear shield” is indispensable for their nation’s security and autonomy. However, these people are oblivious to the immense sacrifices underpinning this “nuclear shield.” Even if the intention of the “nuclear shield” is to protect a country, it is, in fact, built upon the sacrifices of its own citizens.

I felt the need to redouble my efforts so that more people can become aware of the truth about our challenges. I don’t believe this issue is going to be resolved overnight. But I believe that by continuing these activities, we can help mitigate the damage.

Is there a particular point that you emphasize when preparing your presentations on this issue?

What I can include in my presentation script is merely a fraction, “one part in several hundred thousand,” of our experiences and history. That’s why I am committed to raising awareness about the challenges faced by victims of nuclear tests like myself.

As you look ahead, what would be your primary focus?

I would like to witness with my own eyes the moment when the last nuclear weapon in the world is eradicated. Whether it’s for testing or for use, I want to make sure that there are no more victims of nuclear weapons. It is my unwavering resolve to continue working towards this goal.

This interview was published in Japanese in the Seikyo Shimbun, a daily newspaper of the Soka Gakkai in Japan, on 19 September 2023.