Can a Poet Stop Nuclear Testing?

Laying down his pen, this Khazakh linguist is trying to save his region - and benefit the world

CAN any of us alter the march of history? The ``father'' of America's A-bomb, Robert Oppenheimer, could not delay United States development of a hydrogen bomb. The ``father'' of Moscow's H-bomb, Andrei Sakharov, failed to dissuade Nikita Khrushchev from more rounds of thermonuclear tests.

How can a private citizen, without scientific credentials, thwart what Robert McNamara called the ``mad momentum'' of military technology?

Despite the odds, Olzhas Suleimenov, a middle-aged poet and linguist, not a member of the country's dominant nationality, living thousands of miles from Moscow, is moving to shape Soviet - and world - policy toward nuclear testing.

With raw spirit and intelligence Suleimenov has gone up against nuclear fetishism and the military-industrial complex. He helps spearhead a worldwide movement aimed at persuading a United Nations conference in January 1991 to convert the partial ban of 1963 into a comprehensive treaty prohibiting all nuclear tests - including underground tests.

Poetry has found a common tongue and heart with medicine. Suleimenov cooperates closely with Harvard cardiologist Bernard Lown, co-president of International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War.

The two met for the first time a year ago in Boston. They organized an international conference on nuclear testing that met last May in Kazakhstan, home to the polygon, the site of most Soviet nuclear tests. Hundreds of Soviets attended - physicians, lawyers, government leaders - along with over 300 of their foreign counterparts. Half of these leaders came from the US; many from Japan; some from Malaysia and French Tahiti.

They heard from Kazakh herdsmen, American Indians, and Polynesians about the consequences for their lives of living downwind from nuclear explosions. They also heard about recent advances in methods for monitoring a ban on underground tests.

No country now tests nuclear weapons above ground, but underground tests continue. Sometimes they vent, leaking radioactive material into the atmosphere. When two more Soviet tests vented last year in Kazakhstan, not far from the industrial town of Semipalatinsk, thousands of Kazakhs protested.

They found a spokesman in Suleimenov, who founded an ``informal'' organization called the ``Nevada-Semipalatinsk Movement.'' It quickly established a transnational coalition with those who would halt nuclear testing in Nevada, the South Pacific, and elsewhere. Suleimenov was elected to the USSR Supreme Soviet and now spends much of his time in Moscow.

Suleimenov compares popular feelings - on nuclear testing and related issues - with volcanic magma. It is always active, bubbling even when invisible. At times it breaks through the surface - a warning that heat is expanding. As pressure builds, magma shoots up the cone and blows away the pinnacle of power.

The nuclear issue for Kazakhs is just one of many grievances. The Kremlin has treated Kazakhstan - an area larger than Western Europe - as a dumping ground for nuclear waste, polluting factories, and even for national minorities - Germans, Tartars, Koreans - uprooted by Stalin. Approximately 40 percent of Kazakhstan's population is now Russian; 40 percent Kazakh; and the rest a mixture from Central Asia, the Ukraine, and other republics.

The hundreds of Kazakhs I met last summer had no grievance against Russians. Their problem is with Moscow - with the ``all-Union ministries'' there that ruthlessly exploit Kazakhstan's natural and human resources without regard for local needs.

All residents of Kazakhstan - Russians, Kazakhs, others - suffer from the bad air, bad water, and other environmental disorders. Infant mortality and cancer rates soar the closer people live to the polygon. Thousands of coal miners in nearby Karaganda have threatened to strike if tests resume in Kazakhstan.

The USSR tested again recently - at the other test site, the Barents Sea island of Novaya Zemlya. The US, Britain, France, and China continue to test. Soviet generals say they cannot forego testing while others modernize their weapons. The Bush administration claims it must test to improve and maintain the US arsenal.

In November 1990, Suleimenov, together with British and US legislators, met with Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to President Bush. This month he visits Nevada and ``downwind'' sites in the American West. In January, he will be at the UN confronting US and other diplomats with a simple message: ``The nuclear weapons states have more than enough warheads; the world has too much cancer and other ailments caused or aggravated by nuclear tests.''

Suleimenov does not believe he is tilting at windmills. In nuclear matters, as in aesthetics, he sees an evolution of awareness - ``from colonial dependency through the age of independence to the epoch of conscious interdependence.''

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