It was a crisp April morning in 2010 when the first person in town fell ill. The handful of women who manned the market in Krasnogorsk, a town in northwestern Kazakhstan, were exchanging the usual gossip over morning tea — how everyone had slept, whose children were causing trouble, what was happening with apartment repairs or their lack thereof. Lyubov Belkova, who friends call Lyuba for short, had finished first as usual, and walked back to her stall by the entrance. Someone asked Lyuba a question. When no answer came, the women looked over to notice the plump, middle-aged woman slumped in her seat, head down on her table of socks and hats.
“Lyuba? Lyuba?” They called. No response. Nadezhda, a former nurse, hurried over. She tapped her lightly — nothing. She checked Lyuba’s pulse — it was normal. She checked her pupils — they were dilated. “Call the ambulance,” she commanded. Then she noticed Lyuba was snoring.
When Lyuba woke up four days later, she didn’t remember anything. The nurse told her she’d had a stroke. Lyuba tried to stand. She put her legs down, but it was as if they didn’t exist — there was nothing under her. These legs aren’t mine, she thought. When the nurse finally managed to help Lyuba up, she said that she was amazed Lyuba could walk freely so soon after a stroke, but that was little consolation.
For the next month, Lyuba was emotional, she was weepy. Sometimes her granddaughter told her she had become aggressive. Lyuba complained of dizzy spells. She had headaches. She had to write everything down so as not to forget. Scraps of paper littered her kitchen windowsill: "Turn off water," "Buy milk," "Take medication." Lyuba was confused by all this; then again, at 61, she was getting older, maybe this was normal. Poor Lyuba, the townspeople told each other, but Krasnogorsk had been a Soviet uranium mining town — they’d seen far worse.
A few weeks after Lyuba, Nadezhda, the nurse from the market, went to bed one night, and the next morning her mother couldn’t wake her. She was snoring heavily. When she woke up a few days later, the doctors told her they couldn’t find anything wrong with her, she was probably overworked. She needed to rest more. She thought that made sense. Life had been hard in Krasnogorsk since the Soviet Union collapsed. Nadezhda had been tired for decades. Poor Nadezhda, everyone said, life hadn’t been easy for her.
For the next two years, Lyuba would be in and out of the hospital six more times with the same symptoms. She lived with a packed bag — underwear, robe, slippers — of everything she would need. Lyuba kept all her medical charts in a thick baby-blue folder. Doctors had written all kinds of things she didn’t understand: “signs of postischemic alterations of the basal ganglia,” “ischemic stroke,” “stenocardia,” “cerebral atrophy,” and “substitutive external hydrocephalus.” She had traveled to Russia for more tests. The hospital there did MRIs, EKGs, and body scans; they checked her thyroid. She trudged around for days with a machine the size of a large purse that logged her vitals. In the end, they told her she had second-grade circulatory encephalopathy and cerebral obliterating atherosclerosis, and they didn’t exclude the possibility of epilepsy. Her gait had turned jerky, she complained of headaches, she was always so emotional. She knew people were gossiping that there was something funny about her. Poor Lyuba, they said to each other, so many strokes, how is she still alive?
In March 2013, the townspeople gathered in the neighboring village of Kalachi to celebrate the spring festival of Nauryz. They watched their children perform traditional Kazakh dances, sing songs, and recite poems in the village’s playground. After a few hours, they settled into the bar next door for the evening, drinking into the night. Over the long weekend, three college-age kids and five adults fell ill with the same symptoms. First they would slur their words, as if they were drunk. They would see double, and start swaying, then they would fall asleep and snore heavily. They could be roused, speak, go to the bathroom, even eat food, but then they would fall back asleep. They stayed in this state for days. When they finally woke up, they didn’t remember anything. The villagers didn’t understand what was wrong. Maybe the kids had been doing drugs, they told each other, maybe the adults drank too much. But it didn’t add up.
That’s when the townspeople remembered Lyuba and Nadezhda. They remembered another woman who worked in a shop across the street from the market, who fell ill a few weeks after Nadezhda. She snored and couldn’t be woken for days either. Someone mentioned Bogdan — the high school senior who had come home from school and fallen on the carpet around the same time as Lyuba. Bogdan had been active in his illness, verging on violent. He kept trying to run somewhere and had to be tied down to the hospital bed. He was out for nine days. He didn’t remember anything either. Drugs, the town rumor mill had churned, maybe he drank something. It wouldn’t be the first time homemade brew had gone wrong. Teenagers, they had tutted.
They remembered Julia, a shop attendant who had gone across the street to the bakery in Kalachi a few months before Nauryz. After she came back, she took off her jacket and sat down, but when she tried to stand again, she couldn’t. She tried to speak, but her speech was slurred, as if she’d chugged a bottle of vodka on her morning bread run. She was ill for three days. When she woke up, the doctors told her she had overexerted herself. She needed to rest more. But Julia was 28 and she wasn’t particularly tired. The doctors said there was something wrong with her spine. After that, Julia was fired from her job; the proprietor didn’t want a liability. Poor Julia, people had said at the time.
Just as they were slowly connecting the dots, the residents of Kalachi and Krasnogorsk started getting sick en masse. It came like a biblical plague exacting revenge on all those people who had tutted poor Lyuba, poor Nadezhda, poor Julia. There would be nine waves of sleeping sickness in total — no street would be spared — over 130 people, a quarter of the total population, some multiple times. Everyone would exhibit similar symptoms: the slurred speech, the swaying, and the double vision. When they woke up, they remembered nothing. Everyone was getting the same diagnosis: encephalopathy of unknown origin, basically abnormal brain function of no known cause.
Scientists arrived with sample baggies and metal machines; then came local government officials in suits with clipboards and surveys about relocation. Journalists swarmed. People kept getting sick. No one knew why or what to do about it. And — despite reports this summer that a possible explanation has been discovered — they still don't.
At first, suspicion turned on the uranium mine two miles away. The complex lies in shattered ruin on the horizon as a constant reminder of the town’s former glory. When I arrived in late April, there was little to welcome visitors. A gated cemetery on the side of the road and a lone landmark heralded our approach, proclaiming "Krasnogorsk" in neat red letters with a red jackhammer and helmet on a white inverted triangle. Beyond the stump, Krasnogorsk’s tall apartment blocs rise out of the flat golden steppe, as if they had been air-dropped there directly from Moscow — separated from the squat, ramshackle farmhouses of Kalachi by a small ravine that serves as the natural boundary between town and village.
Kalachi had been settled by peasants in 1954, when the Communist Party commanded that Russians cultivate virgin lands to feed the motherland. Two years later, an exploratory team found uranium deposits and Moscow set about building a mine to fuel its nuclear power and arms race. Prisoners from the nearby forced-labor colony built Krasnogorsk to house the sturdy Russian miners, engineers, and support staff sent to work the complex when it opened in 1967. At the time, Krasnogorsk was a “secret” town, administered by the Kremlin’s Ministry of Medium Machine Building, the cover for all the USSR’s nuclear activity.
With the miners came their wives, children, and aging parents. By Krasnogorsk’s heyday in the 1970s, the town had swelled to 6,500 inhabitants — 500 miners and 1,200 support staff pulled uranium ore from six underground shafts, as deep as 650 meters under the earth. The ore was sorted above ground and lightly enriched before being loaded on trains for full processing elsewhere.
Everyone who saw Krasnogorsk for the first time was jealous of its beauty and its bounty. The town had two schools, a large, gleaming hospital, and a theater that could hold 420 people. They had running water, electricity, and central heat, unlike their village neighbors in Kalachi, who carted well water, used chimneys, and kept livestock. The miners got extra rations of milk or sour cream. In the summer, everyone gathered at the Ishim, a river so clean people could see their toes wiggle when they swam in it. They would fish for carp and tench and barbecue it on the sandy banks. Miners had summer cottages with small vegetable gardens. They had so much, Krasnogorsk looked down on the 600 villagers of Kalachi. Why wouldn’t they? They even instituted a coupon system to prevent the villagers from buying their fancy town food. When the mine ran out of uranium in 1980, they sealed it and opened a new one 30 miles away.
In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, and Krasnogorsk went with it. The new mine had closed. People had no work. They had no pension. Many fled; for those who stayed, life became undignified. Electricity was cut off for weeks at a time; they had running water for only several hours twice a week. They had to learn to milk cows like their Kalachi neighbors. They cooked over outdoor fires; they filled their bathtubs with water to ration. The heat was turned off in the winter of 1998 because of the mine’s debts, so they bought wood stoves to heat their stately apartments and slept under piles of blankets. People started drinking more, stealing more, and fighting more.
As the mighty fell, they took their city with them. People pulled apartments apart with their bare hands, foraging for metal scraps and bricks to sell on the black market. They took glass windows and pipes too. Gravity took care of the rest. Buildings collapsed. The town’s schools closed, and the children were bussed to Kalachi. People clustered together, taking over abandoned apartments in the few buildings that still stood. Today, Krasnogorsk looks like a war zone — one where residents fought a battle with life itself.
Krasnogorsk wasn’t alone. Kazakhstan had been the USSR’s nuclear playground — with the second largest uranium deposits in the world, the newly independent country was dotted with disused mines and the single-industry towns that served them. Kazakhstan was also home to the Semipalatinsk nuclear testing zone, known as the Polygon, where the USSR conducted 456 nuclear tests with devastating consequences for the local population. In 2001, Uranlikvidrudnik, a government program tasked with dealing with the uranium mines, arrived to inspect the one in Krasnogorsk and ensure it was properly sealed. The government also provided compensation for disabled miners and accounted for some lost wages. By then only 1,000 people remained, but they weren’t mollified. They wanted their buildings repaired; they wanted the water to be turned back on full-time. If the government wanted to declare Krasnogorsk uninhabitable, they wanted compensation for their property.
By 2010, the government had started building apartments for Krasnogorsk’s remaining 174 families to be resettled to Esil, the district seat 25 miles away. Between 2011 and 2013, 91 families from Krasnogorsk were relocated. The rest should have been resettled by September 2014, but the contractor embezzled funds and construction was halted, so 83 families remained waiting in limbo in Krasnogorsk.
It was in this atmosphere of uncertainty that people started getting the sleeping sickness. So when doctors said it happened because they were overworked, everyone believed them. Why wouldn’t they? If the residents of Krasnogorsk and Kalachi were exhausted, they had plenty of reasons to be.
From the beginning there were lots of theories. Maybe the wind was bringing something from the mine. Maybe it was coming out of the earth. Or maybe it was the changing seasons. People told each other to open the windows, they told each other to close the windows, but it didn’t seem to matter. Whatever it was, it was coming fast.
There were days when multiple people on a single street fell sick. There were days when people on opposite ends of the town fell sick simultaneously. The men were usually more active, verging on violent, and had to be restrained. Women were calmer in their slumber. Yet each could be woken up, spoken to, fed — smokers even went out for cigarettes — before falling back asleep. A cluster of people could be in the same place and only some of them would fall asleep. Why? they asked each other.
By the time Ruddy got ill in January 2014, there had been three waves of the sickness. The ninth-grader had run home from school to grab his notebook. When he came back to class, he asked his teacher what being dizzy felt like. After class, he was out. The school called his mother, Natalya. She got there to find several teachers holding Ruddy down on a bench. He was hallucinating like crazy — he told his mother there was a refrigerator on the ceiling, there were hobbits and elephants everywhere. Two more teenagers arrived at the hospital soon after. When Natalya came into the ICU, Ruddy was strapped to the bed, hooked up to an oxygen tank. His eyes were crossed, like a drunk’s. He didn’t recognize her. “He was raving, gesturing he was thirsty, but it was forbidden to feed him,” she told me. "They said, 'No, you can’t feed him anything, we’re feeding him.'" Meanwhile, the other boy was lying there, screaming. All three were brought to a bigger hospital 200 miles away in Kokshetau, the region’s administrative center, which diagnosed them with “diffuse edema,” a general swelling of the brain, but didn’t offer any treatment or cure. The doctors said it would go away on its own. “He comes from school, lays down and goes to sleep, complains about headaches, though doctors say there are no effects,” Natalya said. “He has high blood pressure sometimes. Why should a child of 16, 15 have high blood pressure?”
Parents demanded answers at a school assembly. Would they set up a quarantine? Were they sure it wasn’t contagious? The mayor and doctors from Esil were there. No one had any answers except they were sure it wasn’t an infection. The school made promises. They would open all the windows and air out rooms between classes, but no one was placated. Parents were paranoid. They walked their children to and from school, eyes darting every time a child tripped or stumbled — was it starting?
Kazakhstan’s National Nuclear Center’s Institute of Radiation Safety and Ecology was dispatched from its base in Kurchatov, northeastern Kazakhstan, for a month in April 2014. The team measured radon levels, though radon causes lung cancer, not drowsiness. They tested the ground, the air, the water, and food — tomatoes, potatoes, and cucumbers were put into plastic bags. Radon levels were high, but no higher than one would expect from a town and village practically on top of a uranium mine, so they ruled it out. They turned their attention to carbon monoxide.
But nothing was conclusive, so people kept talking. Maybe the village of Kalachi would be resettled like their neighbors in Krasnogorsk. Maybe the village school would be closed. Rumors stretched like shadows at dusk. A man swore he had seen people burying barrels in shafts when they were closing the mine. Someone else said the government had found gold under the town and wanted them out, so they were being poisoned. Maybe the government wanted to make the city a closed military zone, or a resort for the wealthy. Perhaps they found holy water; maybe it was diamonds. Residents started noticing helicopters flying overhead — could they be spraying something? People saw ghosts. One woman saw UFOs, small red and blue orbs that hung a few feet above the earth; others swore they’d seen them too.
Curiously, people also noticed that while visiting relatives from Russia and Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, fell sick, no official outsider ever did — not the journalists, not the scientists, not the parade of local government officials who came to the village meetings with their empty promises. How can you explain that?, they asked each other. Surely this is evidence the government is poisoning us.
Sept. 1, 2014, was when everything changed. It was the first day of school and the inaugural assembly started a little after 9 a.m. Parents and students stood around the school’s entry steps dressed in their finest. They held colorful balloons and listened as first-graders and seniors recited poetry they had memorized for the occasion. At the end, as ritual dictated, a senior boy carried a first-grader on his shoulders as she rang a little bell to announce the beginning of the new school year and everyone filed into the building.
After one class, the three Kuhta brothers rushed to change out of their uniforms and head to the playground across the street, where the kids had built a fort next to the town’s trash dump. Their mother, Lena, a 39-year-old housewife with a broad, open face and straight, straw-colored hair, kept an eye on them and her youngest boy, 4-year-old Saveli, from their house across the street.
At around 1, Andrei, a freckled, ginger-haired 11-year-old, came back to the house for lunch. He was almost done with his mashed potatoes when he pushed back his chair, got up, and fell. Lena picked him up, but he couldn’t stand. He told her he was nauseous, his head was spinning. Her oldest son, Ilya, ran to get their 9-year-old brother, Pavel. Pavel came in with his friend Vanya, a chubby, dark-haired 11-year-old. Pavel was laughing oddly, stumbling around. Then he collapsed. He made no attempt to break his fall, thumping on the floor like a flour sack.
“Watch them!” she commanded Ilya and ran next door to get her neighbor Marina, a nurse at the hospital. Lena is a pragmatist by nature, raising four boys; she’s not prone to panicking, but her heart raced. Together, the women examined the boys. They smelled their breath, their hands, their hair for alcohol or smoke — nothing. But there was Andrei, grabbing at the walls, as if trying to catch something. “Snails!” he kept repeating. Vanya was crying, lost in some dark void of his mind. “I want to go home!” he wailed. Marina called the ambulance, which was already on its way back from Esil, having delivered a sleeping patient there that morning.
As the women dealt with the three boys in Lena’s foyer, one of Lena’s neighbors called. Her two children had also been at the playground, and they weren’t well. Marina told her to bring them over, and the women waited, knee-deep in children who were crying one minute and grinning like Cheshire cats the next.
When the ambulance arrived, they threw mattresses on the floor and started loading the kids in. That’s when senior doctor Vera Prytyka got another call. A family on the other side of the village had two more sick children — one of them was 2 1/2. They sped over, loaded them in, and set off. Then Dr. Prytyka got another call. Just as the ambulance was turning onto the potholed road that led to Esil, a car with yet another sick child caught up and they crammed him in.
All eight children were crying, laughing, and hallucinating. When one stopped, another woke up and started, as if some unseen force were taking turns tagging each of them in and out of this world. Then they started vomiting. The ambulance pulled over at least five times to pull puking kids out, clean them off with water, and drag them back inside.
By the time they got to the hospital over an hour later, Lena was covered in vomit. They were greeted by what seemed like every specialist the hospital had to offer. The kids were taken to the ICU. Pavel was fidgeting and flailing; they tied him down to the bed. Just as Pavel calmed down, Andrei woke up and started screaming for the doctors to untie his younger brother. Lena watched in shock. All she could wish was to be strapped down, IV'ed up, and undulating in nightmares instead of her sons. The doctors told Lena to leave — maybe the boys would calm down if they couldn’t see her. When Lena stepped outside, her calm shattered, she started sobbing.
The parents were taken back to Kalachi for the night. Around midnight, Lena got a call — they were sending Pavel and two other children to the bigger hospital in Kokshetau. The rest showed signs of improvement.
The next morning, the parents went to the hospital. They were questioned: What did their children eat for breakfast? Did they drink anything? Smoke anything? What did they have for lunch? Did you see them all afternoon? Again, and again, and again, the parents repeated their answers: They were good kids. They had been playing outside. They’d been watching them; they hadn’t drank or smoked anything. They were children, for god’s sake — what had happened to them?
The kids who weren’t taken to Kokshetau were discharged four days later. Their medical release forms said they had encephalopathy of unknown origin. Over a week later, the rest of the children came back from the region’s administrative center hospital with diagnoses of diffuse brain edemas. Then one day, toward the end of the month, the parents were called to the school and greeted by the local police. There had been an investigation and an official conclusion: The children had all been sniffing dichlorvos, an insecticide. The toddler had sniffed paint in the school’s newly renovated gym.
The parents were incredulous. What kind of answers were these? How could two sets of children with the same symptoms who hadn’t seen each other the entire afternoon all have been sniffing dichlorvos? Dichlorvos didn’t even have this effect on people who sniffed it, they believed. The assembly had been outside. The toddler hadn’t even been inside the school, let alone the gym. What kind of setup was this?
They wrote letters to the government to take it back. They wrote to the district, to the region, to the national cabinet of ministers, to scrub their children’s permanent records of this nonsense. Was the government really just poisoning the village and thinking they wouldn’t notice, then accusing their children of being drug addicts?
Our children are the red line, the village decided. The people demanded to be resettled. They wanted definitive answers and compensation for environmental hazards. That month, the region’s governor, Sergey Kulagin, visited Kalachi for the first time and vowed to personally monitor the situation. The government set up an intergovernmental commission. The Nuclear Institute came back for more testing; they collected samples of nails and hair. People volunteered for testing at the National Scientific Medical Center in Astana and at the Nuclear Institute. Two groups of five traveled over 300 miles to be guinea pigs.
“Radiation,” said Sergey Lukashenko, raising a glass of cognac. “You can’t hear it, can’t smell it, can’t see it — all problems are because of radiation.” Over our lunch in Krasnogorsk, the director of the Institute of Radiation Safety and Ecology toasted to radioecology, calling it the science that would live forever as the world’s best scapegoat to avoid responsibility for bad decisions. “A human always needs to have an external enemy. Psychologically, it is always simpler for a person to say that something didn’t work out: ‘My health is not well, not because I smoke, drink, live in a wrong way — no, I am all good. In reality, it’s all radiation’s fault.’”
With gray hair and boyish features, Lukashenko had the relaxed attitude of an inquisitive schoolboy with all the time in the world, though he had driven 300 miles to be in Kalachi for the day and would be driving back that night. Radon would have been the easiest culprit — after all, it was Lukashenko’s expertise. He had spent the last nine years as director of the institute, rehabilitating land from the Polygon. But after ruling that out, Lukashenko admitted he wasn’t even sure what he was looking for. “It is difficult to find a black cat in a dark room, especially when the cat is not there,” he told me. Yet the country was relying on him to figure it out. He was stalking shadows and drawing a blank. Yet he seemed to relish the mystery. “We earn money, fight for contracts, we do our work very diligently, investigate," he said. "But Kalachi is a different case."
Lukashenko was positive he could do it, but it would take time. The institute (and Kazakhstan) lacked the technology needed to continuously monitor gas in the atmosphere, so they were making do by measuring groundwater and soil, drilling two holes, 98 feet deep. He needed better technology, better medical records, and at least a year to observe seasonal changes.
The institute turned its attention to carbon monoxide after blood tests from a group who had traveled to the institute turned up high concentrations of carboxyhemoglobin — carbon monoxide in red blood cells that hinders the delivery of oxygen. The three people they tested had more than 25% — the level that qualifies as medium poisoning. Last winter they had taken blood from 160 people, 30 of whom had been sick; 30% of the total people tested had over 15% concentration, which qualifies as mild poisoning.
Adding to this puzzle, the institute found that when there was a higher concentration of carbon monoxide inside a house, there was a lower-than-expected level of oxygen, as well as a heightened presence of hydrocarbons. But Lukashenko wasn’t sure what was causing these fluctuations, nor whether their combination would cause the symptoms associated with sleeping sickness. “More than likely, it’s not the only reason,” he said. "Probably there is another factor we don’t know about yet."
The collapse of the Soviet Union meant anything could have happened, anyone could have come and dumped or buried anything, anywhere. There was no way to know. The institute found slightly elevated concentrations of arsenic, chrome, and cadmium in air and snow samples, which seemed to correlate to the town rumors of buried chemicals. Lukashenko had heard Krasnogorsk had a lead factory and an industrial salt factory, and of course there was the wicked mine, and so he had come to examine them.
We set off to the mine complex, which was as derelict as the town. Rocks crunched under our feet as former mine director Viktor Krukev, a squat, bulbous-nosed 74-year-old, led the tour, noting the construction and depth of shafts. But after over an hour of trooping around, it turned out these rumored factories had existed only in the planning stage, and the industrial salt factory had been open for one day.
Krukev had his own theory: When the mine was working, workers had to pump groundwater out to keep it operational. After it was sealed, the complex had filled with that water, and whatever gas had fermented inside would gradually be pushed out through fissures in the earth. He had even done the math: It would take 34 years for the mine to fill with water, and that’s why 2014 would see the worst effects of the gas.
Lukashenko didn’t really buy it, he told me as we walked back to our cars, but he wanted to visit the waste-processing site that would have pumped out the excess water near Kalachi. When we got there, Lukashenko saw nothing that could support the theory of illegal dumping. The site had closed two years after the mine.
“No more factories?” Lukashenko asked, hopefully.
“Nothing,” Krukev vowed.
Having crossed off one theory, Lukashenko was back to square one.
No matter what they did, it didn’t stop. Throughout the fall of 2014 and into the winter, it set upon the village. The children launched the biggest wave of sickness both the town and the village had ever seen. According to Dr. Prytyka, more than 60 people fell ill over the next two months. Though the initial drunk-like symptoms were always the same, the illness affected everyone differently.
There was the truck driver who got sick while fishing and nearly fell into the once-pristine Ishim River. He crawled to his car and drove home, and his granddaughter watched as he slammed into the driveway and broke his headlight in the process. There was the school gym teacher who got sick at her neighbor’s house and sprained her neck. There was the village veterinarian, who finished castrating 40 pigs before people realized he had been sick the whole time. One man got sick on his motorcycle. No one understood how he managed to get back in one piece. There was the town dance instructor, the former ballerina who tried to dance Swan Lake and The Nutcracker while sick. There was the former engineer, an amputee, who had been inside all winter, but came out to the balcony to birdwatch in the spring and was sick in minutes. There were two pregnant women. There was the mechanic who had been walking to work when he got the illness, slipped on ice, and broke his back. There was the man who came to visit his mother-in-law, who’d been in town only a few hours when he got sick.
Then there was the cat, who everyone thought was sick, until the owner admitted she had fed it vodka. That didn’t bother people as much as when the cow died. Everyone was so panicked about their livestock, Acting Mayor Asel Sadvakasova commissioned a public autopsy by experts imported from Esil and publicized the results to prove the cow had died of natural causes.
The sickness didn’t discriminate. The richest man in Kalachi fell asleep in his bed and woke up in the hospital in Astana — he’d been flown there by a charter plane and didn’t remember it. There was Mayor Savakasova, who, right before she fell sick, thought, This can’t be happening to me. The villagers called each other in the mornings to see if everyone had woken up. Doctors and nurses worked extra shifts around public holiday celebrations, when the sickness seemed to erupt in full force. The government held meetings about voluntary resettlement. They reached out to nearby businesses and mayors to find the villagers jobs and housing by using a corporate responsibility schema. The government promised to prioritize families with children. In November, Governor Kulagin announced the government would provide 2 billion tenge ($10.6 million) for the resettlement of Kalachi, but no definitive answer of what was happening came.
When the sickness struck in late December, an additional symptom was added: People who got sick started hiccuping while in the drunk-like phase. Was the sickness changing? Was it morphing into something else? What would happen next?
By the time I arrived, Lyuba held the town record for falling asleep eight times. There had been no official results from any of the thousands of tests the government had trumpeted in the media, and the people who didn’t want to leave maintained that the government wasn’t telling the truth because it didn’t want to pay restitution, or it was purposely poisoning them because it wanted their land. Fifty-two Kalachi families had moved out, and the 172 village families who remained were split into two groups: the ones clambering for the next loading truck and those who were digging in, refusing to budge.
Paradoxically, those who suspected poisoning and wanted to stay were adamant that if there were a real threat, the government wouldn’t ask, they would pack them up and evacuate them overnight, like Chernobyl. Lena and her husband Oleg were in this camp. By then, all four of their children had fallen asleep, three of them twice. Andrei had celebrated his 12th birthday in the hospital with his 4-year-old brother asleep in the next bed. On their fifth day there, Lena pulled the kids out and took them home. She couldn’t watch the doctors trying to find Saveli’s tiny veins for the IV. Still, they wouldn’t leave Kalachi.
“It’s not that we trust them, but we are relying on the facts — they are moving us and at the same time there’s word they are opening a quarry, that they are going to put in a water pipeline, that we shouldn’t dismantle apartments,” she told me. “If it’s so bad here, if there’s some kind of infection, they need to move out everyone and liquidate, but that’s not happening.”
The boys scampered in and out of the house as we talked; they seemed perfectly healthy. Saveli made frequent appearances with scraps of metal he found in the backyard, presenting each one to Lena as excavated treasures the way any boisterous 4-year-old would. Lena said she’d had become more comfortable with the sickness. She treated it like the common cold: The kids fall asleep, they drip something in them and send them home. The scans showed everything was normal and doctors hadn’t prescribed any further treatment. “If medics themselves treat it like this, then for me to worry… There’s nothing to worry about,” she said.
When I spoke to Saule Agymbaeva, a deputy head in Esil, she told me that the residents of Krasnogorsk were being resettled based on the previous plans, and the government decided the 2 billion tenge the governor announced would be used to build new apartments that would be rented to the villagers. As per government policy, they would not offer any compensation until there was a definitive scientific conclusion. For now, it would be a voluntary resettlement or nothing at all.
Agymbaeva was overwhelmed by the residents of Kalachi, and even more overwhelmed by the journalists who came almost daily to inquire about them. “Many people are taking advantage of this. ‘I felt sick, that’s it. I dare you not to include me in that list,’” she said. “Nevertheless we can’t say, ‘No, that’s not the sleeping disease you have,’ but it lasts two or three days and then the person gets up and walks.” Still she maintained the government was committed to relocating anyone who asked — they were not pressuring anyone to move. There were many families on waiting lists to leave.
“I don’t see a real point in moving from here," Sergey Lukashenko had told me. “The cons of being relocated, living under new conditions, being always far from your roots, are way higher.” He likened the situation to a report produced 20 years after Chernobyl, which concluded evacuation from certain areas had caused unnecessary psychological damage.
People told me some of their friends who had relocated called to warn them things weren’t what they seemed, and told them to stay put. Some had even returned. Anastasia Semernaya had relocated hours away to Kostanay region in March with her three sons. Her oldest, Oleg, had been among the children who fell sick on Sept. 1. She had returned less than a month later with Oleg and her baby, leaving her middle son and husband behind. The family hadn’t been given the deed to their new house, so they worried they could be kicked out at any moment. She told me her husband had been working there for a month and had yet to get a paycheck. Even that job wasn’t what they had been promised — the farm he had been contracted to was 50 miles away from the village, and the workers lived in dorms, so he wouldn’t be home all summer. “We thought we lived badly here, but when we saw how they live there, it turns out we lived better,” she told me.
Anastasia knew people judged her for leaving without clarifying these details — maybe she even judged herself — but “in half an hour, three children fell, and my 7-year-old is running around after me with [wide] eyes like this and tears, saying, ‘Mommy, I’m afraid,’” she said. “At that moment, I was ready to pack a bag and run anywhere, just to be far from all of this. But afterwards, when everything passes and everything seems calm, you start noticing other problems.” She had returned to teaching and was furious with the government: “They are evicting us, not resettling us, that’s the thing.”
Mayor Sadvakasova, a glamorous 34-year-old with long black hair and high cheekbones whose fashionable outfits and stilettos would fit in better on the streets of Paris than the dirt roads of Kalachi, understood her constituents. She realized many of them wouldn’t leave until there was a final resolution — they had spent their lives in the village, repairing their homes, planting their gardens, and tending to their chickens. The problem was there was no reason to invest in the village if they would be resettled, so there were no streetlights, no water pipes, no movement in either direction. “We are suspended in the air,” she told me.
I asked her if the government would actually pay up in the event that Kalachi was declared an ecological disaster zone. “Yes, but to declare a state of emergency, we need this conclusion. Once again, everything is in the hands of the scientists. Everything is in the hands of Mr. Lukashenko.”
During the week I spent in Kalachi, my colleagues and I became a car of amateur sleuths. Sergei, the driver; Danabek, a Kazakh journalist; and I changed theories every hour. My family emigrated from the Soviet Union, and by nature of our shared culture, our vehicle was not inherently opposed to outlandish theories.
Though the USSR tried to stamp out religion, they never offered the fervent an alternative, so folk superstition remains strong. A part of the world convinced that everything from putting a hairbrush on a table to opening an umbrella indoors, singing on an empty stomach, and whistling inside brings bad luck can rationalize a lot weirder things. These urban legends extend to medicine: going out with wet hair in the winter means you will catch pneumonia and die. A woman who sits on stone will freeze her ovaries and become sterile. Garlic can be rubbed on pretty much anything as a cure-all. Besides, it’s not hard to distrust the world when you consider the legacy of the Soviet Union and the current Kazakh government. Not only have pieces of rockets mysteriously fallen from the sky, but weaponized smallpox struck from nowhere and over 100,000 endangered antelopes once dropped dead in two weeks for no reason while the government did and still does everything in its power to brush it off.
We nicknamed ourselves “Team May I Add My Two Cents” (though in Russian it’s five cents): If it is gas, why are the animals fine? Could it be the mine? Maybe carbon monoxide? Did they bury something else here? Maybe Krasnogorsk was involved in some other secret industry and no one knows the truth… Maybe it’s chimneys? Are you sure you don’t believe in ghosts? We asked each other dozens of times a day.
Sitting in an interview with Mayor Sadvakasova on our first day in town, I was suddenly struck by just how tired I was. Why can’t I focus? I’m so sleepy. Is it hot in here? Is it happening? We walked out to the car and Sergei said he was tired too, maybe he was falling asleep. Danabek chimed in — he was feeling tired himself. Is this really happening to us? Then we realized it was 3 p.m. and we hadn’t eaten lunch.
It became anxiety-inducing to sit inside; it was worrying to be outside. I’d never been somewhere where I was suspicious of breathing before. We debated interviewing people only outside their homes, then inside their homes with a time limit. We decided not to drink tea in the village, then we changed our minds — it can’t be the water, right? I ended every day with an overwhelming headache. Danabek decided to call a medium in Almaty to try to get some answers — she suggested the geographical origin of the illness was two miles from town. That would be the mine. I had goosebumps the entire time he was on the call.
What was even odder was that the top doctors in the country couldn’t find anything wrong with the people who got sick. The National Research Medical Center in Astana had examined two patients in the throes of illness and a party of five volunteers. They found only preexisting chronic conditions. In every case, they had written "encephalopathy of unknown etiology."
“We all have that. If we examine you, we would also find encephalopathy,” Saltanat Tuganbekova, a doctor and deputy chair there, told me. She explained that the brain responds to sugars and blood-pressure changes. None of the patients she saw had brain swelling. They had also not seen any heightened levels of carboxyhemoglobin, which conflicted with Lukashenko's theory. If it was there, Tuganbekova assured me, their tests would have picked it up. The only thing their tests wouldn’t turn up were herbal medicines or fungi.
If Kazakhstan’s best doctors said there was nothing physically wrong with the people in Kalachi and there was still nothing definitively correlated between the environment and the symptoms, that seemed to leave one final option: mass psychogenic illness (MPI), otherwise known as mass hysteria, a theory the media had floated much to the villagers' dismay. Krasnogorsk and Kalachi fit pretty neatly into the schema for community-based motor hysteria, which happens when long-term anxiety is converted into physical symptoms like twitching, shaking, uncontrollable laughing, weeping, and difficulty communicating. It can produce trance-like states.
Symptoms build slowly, over weeks and months, and can last for years. Community-based MPI starts with a public index case: People need to see or hear about the incident for the symptoms to spread. They tend to take place in closed communities, schools, and factories — places where it’s hard to leave — and involve an outside stressor, like a uranium mine or rumors of a gas. They erupt and die down in bursts, particularly during public gatherings, and affect women and men in roughly equal numbers.
“They are experiencing symptoms, they are not made up — but they are not triggered by the radiation, they are triggered by anxiety,” Robert Bartholomew, a sociologist who specializes in MPI at Botany Downs Secondary College in New Zealand, told me over the phone before I left for Kazakhstan.
When I returned from my trip, I called Bartholomew to describe the situation and symptoms in the town and the village: Life had been hard for the people of Krasnogorsk and Kalachi alike. There had been the universal sadness at the loss of their grand town, the hard years after the USSR’s collapse, the uncertainty of resettlement, which spread like contagion to Kalachi when resettlement became a real possibility for their neighbors in Krasnogorsk. There were personal problems, too — people drank, fathers ran out on families, many had lost someone too early to cancer. “If the tests are legitimate and nothing was found, it comes down to this," Bartholomew said: "Either there is a new type of illness that has managed to baffle scientists or it’s mass hysteria. Based on the context and the great stress the locals are under, my money is on the latter.”
Bartholomew suggested Kalachi’s symptoms were similar to convent hysteria, which occurred between the 15th and 18th centuries in monasteries across Western Europe, when nuns responded to strict conditions by developing verbal tics, barking like dogs and blaspheming. Those afflicted often had retrograde amnesia. It took centuries to pass.
There have been hundreds of cases of MPI all over the world, including America. MPI symptoms can change over time. Men exhibiting different symptoms than women was normal too. “That’s falling on fairly classic grounds — the kind of repertoire of behaviors in men under stress is different to the repertoire of behaviors of women under stress. Quite often they are culturally bound,” Sir Simon Wessely, an epidemiologist and the head of the department of psychological medicine at King’s College in London who also studies MPI, told me. The toddler was within MPI age range according to Bartholomew — children often understand and absorb more stress than people think. Wessely also explained there was a possibility that the child was misdiagnosed; a toddler is young enough to be developing mental handicaps that could have been interpreted as symptoms of sleeping sickness because of the situation.
It felt unfair to condemn a community to mass hysteria even though that diagnosis would not make the symptoms any less real; the villagers reacted dismissively every time I broached the topic. Yet Kazakhstan’s most sophisticated hospital could see absolutely nothing wrong with the people. “What people forget is that doctors don’t always know what’s wrong but they are very good at knowing when something’s wrong,” Wessely told me. “It takes them about a year to find out what it is. And medicine is good at that, but where it isn’t good is where they just can’t find anything wrong.” MPI would explain why only certain people got sick.
But perhaps it was all a big cover-up — maybe they were being poisoned or the institute’s testing wasn’t sophisticated enough to find the real culprit. Yet the last cases of sleeping sickness a few weeks prior to my visit had been very mild — people hadn’t even been taken to the district hospital. No severe cases have been registered since January. It seemed as soon as people started getting relocated, they stopped sleeping. Was their trust in Lukashenko to get to the bottom of it enough to calm an outbreak of MPI? Both Wessely and Bartholomew thought so. If it was MPI, the sleeping sickness would slowly peter out, when people became sure the government was doing something about it, when the mine stopped acting as a stressor.
Last week, Deputy Prime Minister Berdibek Saparbaev announced that the mystery of the sleeping sickness had been solved: It was the specific combination of reduced levels of oxygen and heightened levels of carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons. But as usual, rumors overshadowed reality.
When I called Lukashenko for confirmation, he told me that was still only the working theory; hopefully they would be able to confirm it by the end of the year. “The real moment is that we came to the conclusion that there are natural processes that lead to the combination of these kinds of factors and that specifically this combination of factors could give this effect,” he said, though he admitted those three factors might end up being two, or they might find a fourth. “I can’t say for certain now. Our assumption is that all three components must coincide. When all three exist, that’s when people will start falling and sleeping again.” He had searched for similar cases in scientific literature, but so far had found nothing. He suggested the illness would return in September when people started to heat their homes.
“Isn’t it strange that when people in Kalachi were resettled, because many wanted to be resettled, like the others had been in Krasnogorsk, that people stopped getting sick?” I asked Lena over tea in her kitchen.
“Interesting,” she replied. "It’s an interesting fact."
“Maybe people got what they wanted, and so people stopped getting sick?”
“Everything calmed down,” she allowed. “People keep living.”
“And no one is getting sick…” I said.
“It doesn’t look like psychosis,” she decided, but I couldn’t shake that everything stopped as soon as the moving trucks arrived. “It’s interesting,” she allowed with a small smile. “If the government explained it to the people, maybe we would know. But since they are not, you can only guess.”