Today: June 22, 2024

After The Apocalypse

The shocking story of Soviet nuclear experiments, After the Apocalypse explores little known Cold War legacies, and asks questions about the right a woman has to control her own body.

The shocking story of Soviet nuclear experiments, After the Apocalypse explores little known Cold War legacies, and asks questions about the right a woman has to control her own body.

The dawn of the nuclear era brought with it the ever present possibility of nuclear war. Cold War tensions meant that the Soviet Union and the US were stockpiling nuclear weapons and planning for nuclear war. Interested in learning about the impacts of a limited nuclear war, the Soviet Union tested bombs on their own people to see what would happen. They tested not one or two bombs, but 456 bombs between 1949 and 1991 in a region of what is now Kazakhstan as part of the Polygon project. After the Apocalypse visits the region nearly 20 years after the tests officially stopped to see the horrifying effects on the local population.

Getting the balance right in a film like this is difficult: you want to get across the suffering of the people of the region, without making them out as freaks or monsters. The film is not altogether successful in this. Early on in the film, for example, Biken a women with very wide set eyes (a result of chromosomal damage), is talking about her experience. She is at first in the shadows, but when she reaches the part of her story when someone asks her ‘What’s happened to you?’ she comes out of the shadows and into the light. It feels a bit like a cheap trick, designed to shock the audience, and lacks empathy.

That said, the documentary tries to look at various issues and poses a number of intriguing questions. We meet Biken’s daughter Bibigul, who has similar genetic damage, which has left her unusual looking, but healthy. She is pregnant with her second child and is determined to see the pregnancy through.

We then meet the head of the maternity clinic in the nearby city of Semipalatinsk, Dr Toleukhan Nurmagambetov. He shows us jars of formaldehyde-preserved deformed babies, some missing arms, legs, eyes and noses, some torn apart with extra limbs, even heads. He calls these babies monsters.

Dr Nurmagambetov is not the evil antagonist we might initially think him to be. He is simply a man trying to deal with the legacy of decades of radiation poisoning. He cares deeply for the women and children he works with, he acknowledges that they are innocent victims of the Soviets experiments, yet for him, the only solution is to prevent effected women from having babies.

This, of course, sounds eerily familiar of eugenics programmes carried out most famously by the Nazis, but Dr Nurmagambetov defends himself against that charge. “When it is applied to ethnicities, it is genocide. When it is applied to diseases, it is medicine,” he says.

We see the aftermath of the pregnancies in a local children’s care home: deformed and diseased children who have been abandoned by their parents. You must wonder what sort of lives these children will go on to have.

Dr Nurmagambetov and a number of the doctors at his clinic firmly believe women from the Polygon area should not be allowed to have children. They propose a ‘genetic passport’, which will allow only certain people to have children. This, of course, raises difficult questions: do women not have the right to control their own bodies? It is interesting that no one in the film suggests that the men of the area should be prevented from having children; the focus is firmly on the women.

Russia has officially apologized to the people of the region and they are now entitled to special benefits. But if Dr Nurmagambetov has his way, the women will be denied the most basic human right of procreation.

Director Antony Butts is wise not to take sides on this controversial issue and instead gives the audience the happy ending they want: Bibigul gives birth to a healthy baby boy, showing that injustice that would have been done to her if she had been prevented from seeing out the pregnancy.

After the Apocalypse is not the best organised or slickest of films, but it brings to light an incredible important and little know part of Cold War history.

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