Geek Out

The True, Heartbreaking Faces Of The Nuclear Era

Sometimes I write about high-tech weapons. There’s something fascinating about the technological terror that humans have been developing to obliterate each other for centuries, so it’s easy to forget about the real consequences of this mad race. Warning: graphic images.

A few years after the United States unleashed the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Soviet Union tested their first nuclear warhead ever. They appropriately called it “First Lightning”, the opening of a series of 456 atomic tests that brought hell to Earth 60 years ago. For all of us, that summons terrifying but beautiful images like this into our brains:

Sadly, to more than one million innocent people living near the Semipalatinsk Polygon — the Soviet nuclear testing site in the northeast of Kazakhstan — it means this:

For three generations, and more to come, those tests mean deformed babies. They mean premature aging and countless diseases caused by radiation poisoning. The bombs’ ghosts still live in the dead steppe, their invisible fangs ready to suck seven years off the life of every person living around that place. That’s the difference in life-expectancy with the rest of Kazakhstan.

Of course, it’s not the only horror inflicted by weapons in the Soviet Union — or in the rest of the world. I recently read all about them in a fascinating book by Ryszard Kapuściński, one of the best journalists and writers of our time. The book, called Imperium, talks about the Soviet Union through a series of adventures and trips that reach all the corners of the Red Empire. The mosaic is a frightening view of the deadliest, most insensitive killing machine that has ever existed, all through the eyes of the people who suffered it. Not even Hitler matched the horrors of Stalin and his cohorts.

But while Kapuściński’s raw prose have moved me to tears many times, these images by Ed Ou are a perfect summary of the horrors inflicted upon hundreds of millions that Kapuściński describes in his book.

However, as I watch through glassy eyes how Mayra Zhumageldina massages her daughter Zhannoor, or how 29-year-old Berik Syzdykov sings and plays piano despite being deformed and blind after being exposed to a nuclear blast while he was inside his mum’s womb, I try to smile a bit. I try to be a bit optimistic because, no matter how monstrous some men and women can be, the human spirit always seems to find a way to survive. [Adventures With Light and Getty Images via Big Picture]


Have you subscribed to Gizmodo Australia's email newsletter? You can also follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

Product Finder

Find more great products at