Soviet Prisoners Exposed to Fatal Radiation in Uranium Mines

Associated Press,
July 11, 1986

Two former inmates of Soviet labor camps told Britain’s Independent Television network that prisoners were exposed to fatal levels of radiation in the 1970s while working in uranium mines.

In the documentary
The Nuclear Gulag, to be broadcast Saturday, a commentator states that prisoners died of cancer and other radiation-linked diseases after working without protective clothing in mines used to produce uranium for nuclear weapons.

Reporters were shown the “20-20 Vision” program on Friday. The commentator said most of the prisoners who worked in the mines died within two years after being exposed to the radioactive dust given off by uranium, but gave no numbers.

Included in the 52-minute program was brief footage of films that the producer, Claudia Milne, said had been taken secretly of prison camps, prisoners and a uranium mine near Pyatigorsk, about 1,000 miles south of Moscow, that she said had been abandoned.

“The scenes inside the Soviet Union were taken with enormous difficulty over four years,” she said. “Cameras had to be smuggled in and bits of film smuggled out.” She also said she would not disclose details of who filmed the material, and it was not made clear if the alleged conditions described by the former prisoners in the 1970s still exist.

Herman Hartfeld, who said he was arrested for serving as a minister of the Russian Evangelical Christian Baptists, told the interviewer he was held at a camp in Aksu in western Siberia and worked for 18 months in a uranium mine and then a processing plant.

He said prisoners stricken with radiation diseases were sent to a special infirmary at Karaganda, where they were used for medical experiments, and he often was called to minister to those who were dying.

“They were aware they were dying of leukemia, even cancer or tuberculosis and so on,” said Hartfeld, now a clergyman in Zurich, Switzerland.

Six or seven prisoners committed suicide by blowing themselves up in the mines with dynamite, he said, and he had heard of prisoners escaping but they were always caught and “shot by soldiers.” Hartfeld said he was breaking a 12-year silence about his experiences to expose conditions in the labor camps.

He said that before leaving the Soviet Union in 1974, a lieutenant in the KGB secret police he identified as Ordovy Chienko told him, “Whatever you tell Western people about your experiences we will firstly deny, and secondly we will undertake everything to eliminate you.” The commentator did not say where the ex-prisoners, and a former Soviet lawyer who also spoke on the program, were interviewed or where those other than Hartfeld were living now.

Alexander Chachulin, described as a former inmate who went to West Germany when he was freed, said thousands of prisoners died at Beshtau, which he said was the now-deserted mine near Pyatigorsk.

Chachulin told the interviewer there were 4,000 to 5,000 prisoners working at Beshtau and more prisoners were delivered in trainloads every few months.

He said that to ensure that no prisoner escaped by feigning death, guards smashed their skulls with hammers. The bodies were then thrown down a mine shaft and covered with dirt, he added.

The film included footage of what the commentator said was the Vladimir prison camp, 40 miles east of Moscow, with enclosed wooden walkways connecting the cell blocks.

Nikolai Sharegin, identified as a prisoner there in the 1970s, said the walkways were enclosed to maintain secrecy about the movements of prisoners.