On September 14, 1954, one of the deadliest military exercises in history took place. During the maneuvers codenamed “Snezhok” (Russian: Snowball) the Soviet Union dropped a nuclear bomb on the Totskoye proving ground, and a few hours later, thousands of soldiers were ordered to enter the blast zone. Both military personnel and the surrounding civilian population subsequently became victims of terrible radiation sickness without any chance of help from the communist authorities.

Around 45,000 soldiers, 600 tanks, 500 artillery pieces and mortars, 320 aircraft, and 6,000 other vehicles were supposed to participate in the exercises. The soldiers selected to take part in the test in Totskoye were carefully chosen beforehand and were obligated to keep the secrecy of their participation in the trial of the new type of weapon. As a reward, they were offered three months’ pay in advance.

Soviet commanders wanted the exercise location to closely simulate the hilly, wooded terrain of West Germany. Previous nuclear tests had mostly taken place on the plains of Kazakhstan, but this time the area near the village of Totskoye was chosen, which had been used as a testing ground since the 18th century. Soviet leaders, including Georgy Zhukov (the initiator of the exercises), Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky, Alexander Vasilevsky, and Ivan Konev, were supposed to observe everything from an atomic shelter.

On September 14, 1954, strong winds of up to 20 m/s were blowing around Totskoye. At 9:33 am, a Tu-4 bomber dropped the atomic bomb “Tatyana” on the testing ground from a height of 8,000 meters. After 45 seconds of flight, the explosion occurred at a height of 350 meters, and 5 minutes later, the attacked area was subjected to artillery fire. The bomb dropped on Totskoye had a yield of 40 kilotons, which was equivalent to 2-3 “Little Boy” bombs that the Americans dropped on Hiroshima 9 years earlier. The explosion was visible from a distance of 50 km from the point of detonation.

Bombowiec strategiczny Tu-4
Tu-4 strategic bomber
Source: Monino98 via Wikimedia Commons

The damage caused by the bomb was terrible. Within a radius of 300 meters from the epicenter, there was nothing that could survive the explosion, the ground was completely scorched, and only tree stumps remained. Within a radius of up to 5 kilometers, villages were burned down – fortunately, their inhabitants were evacuated beforehand.

At that time, the Soviet Union’s war doctrine (just like the American doctrine) erroneously assumed the use of nuclear weapons as conventional weapons, such as regular artillery shelling followed by infantry attacks. That is why, just 3 hours after the explosion, Soviet troops entered the contaminated area from two sides. Those who were closest to the epicenter died shortly after the end of the exercises, suffering from radiation sickness. A vast number of the remaining soldiers later died from cancer, and practically all of them suffered other negative health effects.

The Soviet army was completely unprepared for the later negative health effects that affected people participating in the exercises. The irradiated soldiers should have been immediately washed and decontaminated, but the communists did neither of these things. Moreover, the day before the explosion on the range, they were issued new uniforms which were later irradiated, and some soldiers wore them even years later.

Marszałek Gieorgij Żukow
Georgy Zhukov, Marshal of the Soviet Union
P. Bernstein via Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, the nuclear bomb that was dropped on Totskoye had terrible effects on the civilian population as well. During the explosion, a strong wind blew and the radioactive cloud, carried at a height of even 15 km, managed to fly even thousands of kilometers away, all the way to Novosibirsk. Among the residents, the incidence of cancer increased, and the effects of the exercises at the Totskoye range were visible for years after their completion.

The Soviet Union not only did not intend to help these people, but also forbade every soldier from talking about the Totskoye exercises for 25 years. Those who survived and went to the doctor were turned away because their documents contained completely falsified data on their service history during the fateful day in September 1954.

The communist state completely ignored the people on whom it had committed such a heinous crime. As it turned out, this incompetence and disregard for human life contributed to the later collapse of the socialist system – but it took another 37 years of the Cold War between atomic powers for this to happen.

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