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Radioactive Ruins and Secret Cities Leftover from the Cold War

The Aral Sea I (Officers Housing), Kazakhstan 2011

The Aral Sea I (Officers Housing), Kazakhstan 2011 © Nadav Kander. Courtesy Flowers Gallery

Priozersk XIV (I Was Told She Once Held An Oar), Kazakhstan 2011

Priozersk XIV (I Was Told She Once Held An Oar), Kazakhstan 2011 © Nadav Kander. Courtesy Flowers Gallery

Situated somewhere on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia, sit the radioactive ruins and secret cities leftover from the Cold War. These restricted military sites, unrecognized on the map until long after the Cold War ended, were reserved purely for the pursuits of science and war. Weapon testing and covert scientific studies took place here as the Russians vied to compete with the kind of bombs America was dropping on Japan at the time. As soon as word of these newly-mapped locations reached the naturally inquisitive London-based photographer Nadav Kander, he immediately set out to investigate, compelled by the secrets of the past and the aesthetics of destruction he so loves.

To access the area, Kander had to obtain a visa. “It’s a barren, desolate part of the world,” explains Kander, a landscape shrouded in secrecy. On both visits, he was pulled over and arrested by the police. The two zones of Kander’s focus were Priozersk (known as ‘Moscow 10’), Kurtchatov, and the nearby test site nicknamed ‘The Polygon’, where hundreds of atomic bombs were detonated right up until the nuclear testing program ended in 1989. While and after the bombs were deposited, scientists stood by with clipboards examining the horrifying effects of radiation on the unsuspecting inhabitants and livestock. What followed was a mass cover-up. “It was destroyed,” says Kander, to preserve their military secrets. “Bombs blew the place to bits, and then the towns were bulldozed.” Now all that remains are the crumbling buildings strewn across these desolate, yet undeniably beautiful landscapes. Concrete structures emerge from the earth like shark fins. You can almost hear the eerie wailing of the wind; feel the chill rattling through your bones. In these silent swathes of land, something untold and haunting lingers in the atmosphere; we feel a sense of mystery and unease – both qualities of which Kander is constantly striving for in his work.

“I’m interested in man’s interference with nature,” says Kander. “Ruins are romantic, yes, but what’s romantic about testing a nuclear bomb?” Though the beauty of these sites is present in his images, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that they’re all contaminated, toxic landscapes, tainted by their dark history. “These are places that can never be lived in again, no animals can exist there; nothing can be grown. It feels dangerous and quite sad,” says Kander.

At the close of our interview, Kander refers to a quote of Denis Diderot’s: “The ideas ruins evoke in me are grand. Everything comes to nothing, everything perishes, everything passes, only the world remains, only time endures.”

Kander’s series Dust will be exhibited for the first time in New York at Flowers Gallery from April 7 – May 7 2016. Nadav Kander will also be giving a talk on photography at the MOCP in Chicago on April 5.

The Polygon Nuclear Test Site I (After The Event), Kazakhstan 2011 (1)

The Polygon Nuclear Test Site I (After The Event), Kazakhstan 2011 © Nadav Kander. Courtesy Flowers Gallery

Priozersk II, (Tulip in Bloom), Kazakhstan 2011

Priozersk II, (Tulip in Bloom), Kazakhstan 2011 © Nadav Kander. Courtesy Flowers Gallery

Kurchatov VII (Ashes To Ashes), Kazakhstan 2011

Kurchatov VII (Ashes To Ashes), Kazakhstan 2011 © Nadav Kander. Courtesy Flowers Gallery

Kurchatov V (Heating Plant), Kazakhstan 2011

Kurchatov V (Heating Plant), Kazakhstan 2011 © Nadav Kander. Courtesy Flowers Gallery

The Polygon Nuclear Test Site X, (Atomic Lake), Kazakhstan 2011

The Polygon Nuclear Test Site X, (Atomic Lake), Kazakhstan 2011 © Nadav Kander. Courtesy Flowers Gallery

Graveyard near Kurchatov, Kazakhstan,2011

Graveyard near Kurchatov, Kazakhstan, 2011 © Nadav Kander. Courtesy Flowers Gallery

Kurchatov III (technical area), Kazakhstan 2011

Kurchatov III (technical area), Kazakhstan 2011 © Nadav Kander. Courtesy Flowers Gallery

The Polygon Nuclear Test Site XII (Dust To Dust), Kazakhstan 2011

The Polygon Nuclear Test Site XII (Dust To Dust), Kazakhstan 2011 © Nadav Kander. Courtesy Flowers Gallery

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