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 hypocenter 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. The epicenter of the detonation is marked with a memorial.
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 Nagasaki nine years earlier. After the first nuclear explosion, two additional non-nuclear bombs were exploded shortly after the main blast in order to imitate a second-wave nuclear strike.
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 weapon, sworn to secrecy, and earned three months salary. 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—an 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 hypocentre, 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 a distance of 400-600 metres from the hypocenter and avoiding the most dangerous areas of the explosion site. They moved 400–500 metres from the hypocenter, whereas tanks and armoured personnel carriers came even closer. According to the data of remote control and measuring equipment installed at 730 meters from the hypocenter, the level of radiation reached 65 roentgens per hour 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. In comparison with the rest of the army, the number of troops crossing the blast site 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. 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.
Sergey Zelentsov (1927–2017), a military officer who was the first to reach the middle of the hypocenter, 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 hypocenter, outside of the area of severe radioactive contamination. Directly in the zone adjacent to the hypocenter 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."
The residents of villages (Bogdanovka, Fyodorovka and others) that were situated around 6 km (4 mi) from the hypocenter of the future explosion were offered temporary evacuation outside the 50 km (31 mi) radius. 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. 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.
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". The results of the exercise were discussed at a scientific conference at the Kuybyshev Military Academy in Moscow and served as the basis for the Soviet program of defense against nuclear warfare.
Some accounts of the test, however, claim that the protective measures were insufficient in reality. According to one veteran in a Soviet documentary of the event, "Some, the majority even, had no protective clothing, and besides it was impossible to use gas masks" [in the 115-degree Fahrenheit (46-degree Celsius) temperatures of the area].[clarification needed] Additionally, insufficient care was taken to remove and dispose of contaminated clothing of the event. Evacuations were haphazard, where villagers who chose to stay were told to "dig ditches" to avoid effects. Yuri Sorokin filed suit in 1993 against the Russian government to receive compensation for medical injuries that he attributed to the exercise.