The Totskoye nuclear exercise was a military exercise undertaken by the Soviet Army to explore defensive and offensive warfare during nuclear war. The exercise, under the code name "Snowball", involved an aerial detonation of a 40 kt RDS-4 nuclear bomb. The stated goal of the operation was military training for breaking through heavily fortified defensive lines of a military opponent using nuclear weapons. An army of 45,000 soldiers marched through the area around the epicenter soon after the nuclear blast. The exercise was conducted on September 14, 1954, at 9.33 a.m., under the command of Marshal Georgy Zhukov to the north of Totskoye village in Orenburg Oblast, Russia, in the South Ural Military District.
In mid-September 1954, nuclear bombing tests were performed at the Totskoye proving ground during the training exercise Snezhok (Russian: Снежок, Snowball or Light Snow) with some 45,000 people, all Soviet soldiers and officers, who explored the explosion site of a bomb twice as powerful as the one dropped on Hiroshima nine years earlier. The participants were carefully selected from Soviet military servicemen, informed that they would take part in an exercise with the use of a new kind of weapons, sworn to secrecy and earned a salary for three months ahead. A delegation of high-ranking government officials and senior military officers arrived to the region on the eve of the exercise, which included First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev, Nikolai Bulganin, Generals Aleksandr Vasilevsky, Konstantin Rokossovsky, Ivan Konev and Rodion Malinovsky. The operation was commanded by Marshal of the Soviet Union Georgy Zhukov and initiated by the Soviet Ministry of Defense. At 9:33 a.m. on 14 September 1954, a Soviet Tu-4 bomber dropped a 40-kilotonne (170 TJ) atomic weapon - RDS-4 bomb, which had been previously tested in 1951 at the Semipalatinsk Test Site, - from 8,000 metres (26,000 ft). The bomb exploded 350 metres (1,150 ft) above Totskoye range, 13 kilometres (8 mi) from Totskoye.
Following the explosion, a Li-2 airplane was put to use on a reconnaissance mission to report the movement of a radioactive cloud produced by the blast, and the most dangerous areas were explored and marked by special reconnaissance troops. After the reconnaissance was complete and the Soviet command gained enough information on the level of radiation, the army moved in. Much attention was paid to personal safety: the participants were provided with personal protective equipment, tinted glasses or lenses for gas masks and had individual radiation dosimeters. Gamma-roentgenometers measured the level of radiation exposure in the epicentre, dosimeters were used to estimate the radiation dose deposited in an individual wearing or a vehicle after the troops completed their task, and the troops received a 'chemical alert' signal if the radiation was too high. The soldiers wore gas masks, protective suits and respirators, special gloves and capes and moved around the territory in armoured personnel carriers, holding the distance of 400-600 metres from the hypocentre and avoiding the most dangerous areas of the explosion site. A relatively low level of radiation, strong wind and the extensive use of personal protective equipment allowed them to move 400–500 metres from the epicentre, whereas tanks and armoured personnel carriers could safely get even closer. The degree of radiation exposure on the armored vehicles, clothes and military personnel was measured immediately after every combat mission. According to the data of remote control and measuring equipment installed at 730 meters from the epicenter, the level of radiation reached 65 R/h two minutes after the blast, dropped to 10 R/h after 10 minutes, 2.4 R/h after 25 minutes, and 1.5 R/h after 47 minutes.
At the time when the military forces entered the devastated area, two and a half hours following the detonation, the radiation level did not exceed 0.01 R/h at a distance of 400 meters, as measured by military reconnaissance units. Moving on foot, with an average speed of 4-5 kilometres per hour, the troops were exposed to a level of radiation of only 0.02-0.03 R/h, while the impact on those moving in armored personnel carriers and tanks was eight-nine times lower.
Sergey Zelentsov (1927—2017), a military officer who was the first to reach the middle of the epicenter, described his experience in the following words: "Not reaching the area of strong radioactive contamination, we crossed the road which the columns of advancing troops had passed before us. It was empty and quiet around, only the radiometers were clicking, noting us of the increased level of radiation. The troops proceeded past the epicenter, outside of the area of severe radioactive contamination. Directly in the zone adjacent to the epicenter of the explosion, the ground was covered with a thin glassy crust of melted sand, crunchy and breaking underfoot, like a thin ice on spring puddles after a night frost. And there were no footprints on it, except for my own. I walked quietly along this crust, since the radiometer registered a level of radioactivity not exceeding 1 R/h."
For the purpose of deactivating the military troops, their vehicles and equipment, the High Command formed a chain of special deactivation stations in pre-planned areas around the blast site, but soon had to disband them due to the low, insignificant radioactive contamination of the area and military personnel.
According to declassified documents, the troops were forbidden to enter any areas on the ground where the level of radiation exceeded 25 Roentgens per hour. Such areas were identified and marked by intelligence patrols including officers of the Radiation Safety Service of the Semipalatinsk proving ground before they could be reached by the rest of the military forces. The team of dosimetrists used a tank to cross the hypocenter, which allowed them to minimize the radiation exposure.
In comparison with the rest of the army, the number of troops crossing the actual site of the explosion was tiny and consisted of only 3,000 soldiers and officers, amounting to only 5-7 percent of the overall number of military forces involved in the exercise.
Marshall Georgy Zhukov, along with Defense Minister Bulganin, Generals Konev, Rokossovsky, Sokolovsky, Petrov, Vershinin and high-ranking foreign guests witnessed the blast from an open wooden pavilion on the Medvezhya mountain, 268,6 metres above the ground and about 10,000 metres from the epicenter. The airplanes were ordered to bomb the explosion site five minutes after the blast, and three hours later (after the demarcation of the radioactive zone) the armored vehicles were ordered to practice the taking of a hostile area after a nuclear attack. The residents of villages (Bogdanovka, Fyodorovka and others) that were situated around 6 km (4 mi) from the epicenter of the future explosion were offered temporary evacuation outside the 50 km (31 mi) radius and given instructions. They were evacuated by the military and temporarily accommodated in military tents. During the exercise, the residents received daily payment, while their property was insured. Those of them who decided not to return after the operation was complete, were provided with newly built four-room furnished houses near the Samarka river or obtained financial compensation.
The nearest villages were generally not affected by the blast, except for a number of houses located less than 8 km (5.0 mi) from the explosion site that caught fire and burned down. Their owners received new housing.
Three days after the exercise, the guard around the restricted area was finally removed, though the hypocenter of the blast remained under guard and closed for access for a few more weeks. For a period of time, research groups were stationed there for studying the impact of the nuclear explosion in detail. Two weeks after the explosion, the maximum radiation levels decreased significantly, making the territory safe for people to enter.
A few days afterwards, Soviet scientists received detailed reports on the test and began to study the impact of the nuclear blast on model houses, shelters, vehicles, vegetation and experimental animals affected by the explosion. On 17 September 1954, the Soviet newspaper Pravda published a report on the exercise: "In accordance with the plan of scientific and experimental works, a test of one of the types of nuclear weapons has been conducted in the Soviet Union in the last few days. The purpose of the test was to examine the effects of nuclear explosion. Valuable results have been obtained that will help Soviet scientists and engineers to successfully solve the task of protecting the country from nuclear attack". These results were discussed at a large scientific conference at the Kuybyshev Military Academy in Moscow and for many years served as the basis for the Soviet program of defense against nuclear warfare.
Not all of the damage at Totskoye was caused by the nuclear explosion, as two additional non-nuclear bombs were exploded shortly after the main blast in order to imitate a second-wave nuclear strike. These bombs used massive TNT charges, gasoline and oil as explosives and did not produce any radioactive fallout. Prior to the exercise, the area around them was fenced and marked with red flags within a radius of 200 meters. At a distance of 1.500 meters, the dangerous zone was additionally surrounded by guard posts and warning signs.
In the late 1980s and 1990s, following the disastrous Chernobyl accident, Soviet and post-Soviet media launched a campaign against nuclear exercises, presenting them, and the Totskoye exercise in particular, as also disastrous and publishing a number of "eyewitness" reports consonant with that idea, as well as stories of people claiming to have been affected by the blast. Such publications have nowadays been criticized by scholars and actual participants as often false and including fantastic details, as well as bringing harm to the psychological state of the real veterans.
Sergey Zelentsov, himself an important participant of the operation and the first man to reach the epicenter of the explosion, spoke out against conspiracy theories surrounding the exercise: “In the army, as required by the exercise plan, there were dosimetric control, decontamination of equipment and sanitary treatment of personnel. All this was done for real, for working out and fixing time norms and the consumption of aids. And now, when non-specialists and people not familiar with that situation express doubts that all this was safe, they bring great harm to the psychological state of the former participants of the Totskoye exercise".
Recent studies based on declassified documents and the evidence of surviving veterans point out that, contrary to the scandalous stories that circulated in the late Soviet and post-Soviet press of the 1980s and 1990s, the low degree of radiation and strict implementation of safety measures in accordance with preconceived plans, memos and instructions minimized the risk of radiation-induced damage, while the documentary evidence shows that the High Staff made significant efforts to ensure that the exercise was carried out without violating radiation and hygiene standards of the day.
On 20 August 1991, reacting to rumors of a possible radioactive threat in the Orenburg Oblast, the Altai Krai and the Altai Republic, and in response to inquiries of people's deputies, the Council of Ministers of the RSFSR appointed a large commission to examine the radiation situation in the aforementioned regions. The investigation led the commission to conclude that in all settlements of the Totsky, Sorochinsky and Buzuluksky Districts the radiation level was within normal limits, the estimated degree of radiation exposure in 1954 could not affect the local population, and that the medical and demographic characteristics of the population of the surveyed regions, including cancer incidence and congenital malformations, were not above the average level.
A year before, in June 1990, experts of the Leningrad Scientific Research Institute of Radiation Hygiene conducted their own radioecological investigation of the area around the blast site. It included measurements of gamma radiation, radiochemical analysis of environmental objects, samples of locally produced food and animal feed. The study concluded that the accumulation of technogenic radionuclides in the environment was low, and that most beta activity in soil samples could be accounted for by potassium-40, a beta emitter that occurs naturally.
Finally, after these investigations failed to stop the spread of alarmist rumors and publications in the press, in 1994-1995 four Russian and four American experts formed a joint commission for studying the impact of the explosion on the blast site and the surrounding territories. They examined 38 soil samples, as well as air samples taken in the surface layer of the atmosphere, and measured the fluxes of alpha, beta, and gamma radiation on the soil surface and at a depth of up to 20 cm. Their research confirmed the data obtained earlier by the Leningrad Research Institute and established that the amount of radiation spread in 1954 could not have a serious impact on the inhabitants and that the radiation level in the region was average.