Was the Cold War the Earth’s worst eco-disaster in the last ten thousand years? The time has come to weigh the environmental costs of the great ‘twilight struggle’ and its attendant nuclear arms race. Until recently, most ecologists have tended to underestimate the impacts of warfare and arms production on natural history.footnote1 Yet there is implacable evidence that huge areas of Eurasia and North America, particularly the militarized deserts of Central Asia and the Great Basin, have become unfit for human habitation, perhaps for thousands of years, as a direct result of weapons testing (conventional, nuclear and biological) by the Soviet Union, China and the United States.

These ‘national sacrifice zones’,footnote2 now barely recognizable as parts of the biosphere, are also the homelands of indigenous cultures (Kazakh, Paiute, Shoshone, among others) who themselves may have suffered irreparable genetic damage. Millions of others—soldiers, armament workers, and ‘downwind’ civilians—have become the silent casualties of atomic plagues. If, at the end of the old superpower era, a global nuclear apocalypse was finally averted, it was only at the cost of these secret holocausts.footnote3

This hidden history has come unravelled most dramatically in the ex-Soviet Union where environmental and anti-nuclear activism, first stimulated by Chernobyl in 1986, emerged massively during the crisis of 1990–91. Grassroots protests by miners, schoolchildren, health-care workers and indigenous peoples forced official disclosures that confirmed the sensational accusations by earlier samizdat writers like Zhores Medvedev and Boris Komarov (Ze’ev Wolfson). Izvestiya finally printed chilling accounts of the 1957 nuclear catastrophe in the secret military city of Chelyabinsk–40, as well as the poisoning of Lake Baikal by a military factory complex. Even the glacial wall of silence around radiation accidents at the Semipalatinsk ‘Polygon’, the chief Soviet nuclear test range in Kazakhstan, began to melt.footnote4

As a result, the (ex-)Soviet public now has a more ample and honest view than their American or British counterparts of the ecological and human costs of the Cold War. Indeed, the Russian Academy of Sciences has compiled an extraordinary map that shows environmental degradation of ‘irreparable, catastrophic proportions’ in forty-five different areas, comprising no less than 3.3 per cent of the surface area of the former ussr. Not surprisingly, much of the devastation is concentrated in those parts of the southern Urals and Central Asia that were the geographical core of the ussr’s nuclear military-industrial complex.footnote5

Veteran kremlinologists, in slightly uncomfortable green disguises, have fastened on these revelations to write scathing epitaphs for the ussr. According to Radio Liberty and Rand researcher D.J. Peterson, ‘the destruction of nature had come to serve as a solemn metaphor for the decline of a nation’.footnote6 For Lord Carrington’s ex-advisor Murray Feshbach, and his literary sidekick Al Friendly (ex-Newsweek bureau chief in Moscow), on the other hand, the relationship between ecological cataclysm and the disintegration of the ussr is more than metaphor: ‘When historians finally conduct an autopsy on the Soviet Union and Soviet Communism, they may reach the verdict of death by ecocide.’footnote7