Karipbek Kuyukov, an exemplary Kazakh fighter for humanity

Karipbek Kuyukov, a Kazakh painter, born without arms, as a result of exposure to nuclear radiation from Soviet nuclear testing in Kazakhstan

By Derya Soysal

Environmental scientist and PhD researcher at Université libre de Bruxelles.

28 Nov 2022

The USSR had many negative impacts whose traces remain today. One of its problems is the number of disabled, dead people, and uninhabitable lands because of the nuclear tests made by the USSR.

During the Cold War, the USSR frequently used Central Asia for nuclear testing and storage of radioactive waste. In Kazakhstan, nuclear tests were carried out by the Soviet regime, including near Semipalatinsk, a city in the north-east of the country close to three radioactive waste storage sites. In all, eleven such sites were installed in Central Asia by the USSR, particularly in the Ferghana Valley (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan). The consequence of this operation is the direct threat to the health of the populations living in these areas. The Semipalatinsk region is the most polluted in Central Asia. Stawkowski wrote that “The Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site in Kazakhstan was conceived as an experimental landscape where science, technology, Soviet Cold War militarism, and human biology intersected. As of 2015, thousands of people continue to live in rural communities in the immediate vicinity of this polluted landscape”. The author adds that “Today, the Kazakh state recognizes more than 1 million of its citizens as victims of Soviet-era radiation exposure”.

The Soviet-era Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site in Kazakhstan. (Map by Travis Bost)
The Soviet-era Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site in Kazakhstan. (Map by Travis Bost)

One of the victims of these nuclear tests is Karipbek Kuyukov, a Kazakh painter, born without arms, as a result of exposure to nuclear radiation from Soviet nuclear testing in Kazakhstan. He was born in a small village, just miles from where the Soviet Union conducted more than 450 nuclear weapons tests.

He is a great artist and a fighter against nuclear testing around the world. Indeed, Kuyukov is a global advocate for the cessation of nuclear weapons testing and worldwide nuclear disarmament. He has thus devoted his life and art to making sure that no one else suffers the devastating effects of nuclear weapons testing. Kairpbek has overcome many obstacles to become an anti-nuclear weapons activist and renowned artist whose works have been shown around the world.

Karipbek Kuyukov, a Kazakh painter, born without arms, as a result of exposure to nuclear radiation from Soviet nuclear testing in Kazakhstan.
Karipbek Kuyukov at work

Kuyukov paints holding brushes with his teeth and toes. He has dedicated his artistic life to painting impressions of the environmental and human devastation caused by nuclear weapons testing. He was appointed Honorary Ambassador of The ATOM Project at its launch in 2012.

I had the opportunity to interview him at the exhibition in Brussels on November 24, 2022.

Derya Soysal: What kind of emotional wound did the Soviet nuclear experience leave you?

Kuyukov: Of course, these emotional wounds will remain in the psyche of the people of Kazakhstan for a long time to come. This is a great sorrow left to us by the Soviets. It will take a long time to rid that land of nuclear weapons. It will take a long time to be radio-free.

Derya Soysal: What can youth and states do to fight nuclear testing and support Kazakhstan in its fight to clean up the regions from radiation?

Exhibition in Brussels November, 24
Exhibition in Brussels November, 24

Kuyukov: We need to talk about this a lot. We must have laws against nuclear weapons and testing. We must teach about this history in school so that people understand. Kazakh people have suffered and faced many miseries before. So, the Kazakh people must be proud to be fighters.

Derya Soysal: Are the Kazakh people aware of the nuclear damage left by the USSR?

Kuyukov: They are aware of this because since 1989, this subject has been widely discussed in the country. Young people visit some territories to see with their own eyes. In my opinion, Kazakh youth are well aware of it. It is necessary to speak about it to other young people.  There are a lot of films about this subject in Kazakhstan. Also, in schools, there are lessons about this subject in Kazakhstan.

Derya Soysal: I would like to say that you are an example for young people to follow. An example also to show that art has no barriers. An example because you show how one can become strong, talented, despite the obstacles. You are an example of how to be a fighter! Do you have a message for young people?

Kuyukov: The first advice I should give is that you have to love your country. You have to become a patriot. Love of country must come from the heart. You must also know your history. You must leave a bright future and a good environment for the future generations.

To conclude, the Soviets conducted nuclear tests in Kazakhstan and left dramatics traces. Many children died, were born crippled. This artist, with his fights against nuclear tests and with his art, shows to the world how Kazakhs are fighters.

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