To say that Karipbek Kuyukov has his hands full battling horrific collateral harm caused by the nuclear armaments complex is correct, figuratively at least, but more than a little macabre: The man from Eastern Kazakhstan literally has no hands. Born in a small village not many miles from a site where the Soviets conducted 455 nuclear weapons tests, he came into the world without arms.
Karipbek Kuyukov is a second-generation victim of Soviet atmospheric nuclear tests conducted between 1949 and 1963. These tests, which exposed roughly a million people to high levels of radiation, have caused death and dreadful afflictions on a huge scale. As such, they constitute an act of democide by negligence – not a legal term perhaps, but a crime nonetheless. It was not just the explosions that contaminated the region: Stalin’s architects of Soviet atomic might dumped waste from plutonium production into rivers until the early 1950s, and radioactive dust fell out all over the country. As the newspaper Die Zeit reported on September 2, 2009, “More than 50 years on, the ground remains so contaminated that secret services in the West are concerned that terrorists could use the soil to build a dirty bomb.”
Even today, around one-third of all children in the area are born with disabilities. Kuyukov and other activists report that the people living in areas where irradiated soil was not buried under concrete continue to grow vegetables in it and to drink from and catch fish in contaminated waters. As a legacy of the tests, strontium 90, caesium 137 and iodine 131 have accumulated in their bodies. But neither Kazakhstan nor Russia – the Soviet Union’s legal successor – has chosen to report on the deadly effects.
Kuyukov, though, has broken the silence. He has dedicated his life and his art – mouth-painted images that are soulstirring exhortations – to “ensuring that no-one else should have to suffer the horrific consequences resulting from the production and use of nuclear weapons.”
Kuyukov was part of the movement that succeded in bringing about the end of underground testing in the Soviet Union and later, in 1991, the closure of the nuclear test site in Kazakhstan. Since then he has continued to speak out against the possession, transfer and use of nuclear weapons at national and international conferences, and has addressed both the UN and the US Congress. His speech in 2014 in the US Congress’s historic Caucus Room, which drew a standing ovation from envoys, Congress members and the press, is seen as having been central to bringing about the Smarter Approach to Nuclear Expenditures (SANE) Act, introduced in 2017, which has curtailed President Trump’s budget for America’s nuclear arsenal by 100 billion dollars.
To this day, the nuclear weapons madness, in all its gravity, has not succeeded in silencing Karipbek Kuyukov. Calling out to a crowd as they began to applaud him, he said, “I have no arms but I join you in waving goodbye to nuclear weapons!”