Secrecy, Parallel Histories, and Plutopia

Comparative histories have a tricky road to navigate. While they may illuminate common points of reference and can highlight counterintuitive connections, they also depend on a fundamental conceit: the degree to which an author is persuasive in the claim that we can gain a deeper understanding of two (or more) seemingly disparate phenomena in juxtaposition. Kate Brown’s wonderful recent book, Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters, wholly succeeds on this account. It takes two important sites for the production of plutonium—Richland (in Washington state) and its associated Hanford Nuclear Reservation, and the Russian city of Ozersk and its co-located Maiak Plutonium Plant—as points of entry into a richly detailed account of the horrific human and environmental damage wrought by the production of nuclear weapons. Bringing to relief the ways in which the lives of these two cites mirrored each other, she makes a convincing argument that “after this book [she] hope[s] it will no longer make sense to tell the two histories separately” (p. 4). Within the framework of Cold War history, the book is a significant contribution to our understanding of the ways in which imperatives organized at the very highest levels of power could have real-world consequences at the local level.

Kate brings together a number of different literatures to bear on this work: urban history, environmental history, the history of science and technology, the history of medicine, and the social history of the Cold War. The actors here are manifold, and represent many different constituencies, including the workers and engineers who labored and lived in the cities, the architects of nuclear weapons development in the Cold War (such as Lavrentii Beriia and Leslie Groves), and the mid-level managers (such as Frank Matthias and Ivan Tkachenko) who, through a combination of ignorance, willful deceit, and sometimes good intentions, created settings for enormous damage. The book veers so skillfully through so many different registers of inquiry that it would be difficult to identify all its insights in a short post. We see, for example, how risk was a constantly mutable concept, how nuclear sites such as these were aspirational “middle class” spaces for many even though they failed to meet many basic living standards, how (in the U.S. case) the risks of these sites were mapped onto the public even as the profits were privatized, and how secrecy constantly intruded onto the geography and populations of these urban locales.

My goal here is not to write a conventional review but to highlight two specific aspects of Kate’s story that I think could open up a broader conversation about the book’s insights. My first point has to do with the secrecy regime surrounding these installations. We reflexively accept that Cold War sites, especially those associated with the development of nuclear materials, must have been enveloped in a variety of layers of secrecy, limiting the flow of knowledge from inside to outside. Kate shows how DuPont, in essentially creating Richland, was able to regulate transactions between the city and the outside world “without needing guard posts, identity cards, and fences, as at other Manhattan Project installations” (p. 43). They did this by creating special exclusionary zones of class and race with a somewhat imagined perception of affluence, “self-contained shiny new village[s]” in the words of a newspaper. In comparison, the Soviet city of Ozersk eventually became a closed city, a ZATO (Closed Administrative-Territorial Administration) in the parlance of Soviet bureaucracy, one of several dozen cities dotting the Soviet landscape that were given fake names during Soviet times (Ozersk was known as Cheliabinsk-65 until 1994).

Kate also points out that the history of Ozersk (and in fact, most nuclear installations built in the 1940s and 1950s) was fundamentally tied to Gulag labor. The Gulag bequeathed it with “its shabby infectious disorder, with insubordination, violence, theft, and inefficiency,” qualities that compelled Lavrentii Beriia to look to, of all places, the United States—think Los Alamos—for a model of secrecy that was much more strict, better enforced, and essentially “impermeable” (p. 103). Secrecy, Kate argues, required some degree of affluence, given the requirements for electric searchlights, fencing, alarms, censorship of mail, etc. and the idea was that it it was more challenging to enforce for the Soviets given the comparative poverty of the Soviet economy.

There are many rich insights here: how secrecy could be enforced in at Richland in counterintuitive ways; how the Soviets essentially appropriated a different American-style model, made more urgent given the failure of the Gulag model as a regulatory archetype; and the link between wealth and the maintenance of secrecy. It seems to me, however, that secrecy within the Soviet nuclear program, both in its spatial and epistemological manifestations, was deeply influenced by the antecedent Bol’shevik obsession with secrecy manifest since 1917 (the first edicts on censorship appeared only days after the Revolution). Beginning in the late 1920s, the Soviets had already instituted a massive program of obfuscation to guard factories involved in defense production. So many institutions in “civilian” (i.e., non-Gulag) Soviet life–scientific institutes, industrial facilities, even many educational institutions–were under draconian regulation in terms of information and space by the late 1930s that secrecy became normative in many ways in Soviet society as a functioning and ‘visible’ element of bureaucracy. As such, I would like to hear a little bit more about Kate’s claim that Soviet secrecy regimes at Ozersk and elsewhere were inspired (copied?) from the American model.

In a similar vein, I’m also reminded of Kate’s own superb article in Kritika in which she examines the various ways in which mobility was regulated on the Soviet landscape (and also her insightful notion of the “various degrees of unfreedom” organizing Soviet society) that suggests the malleability of spatial regulation, and I would be interested to know how she would fit Richland into that setting.

About the link between affluence and secrecy: there is a cost issue here, certainly, but I am interested in how secrecy affects the value of these places as aspirational spaces. In other words, was secrecy ever seen as a positive attribute by the inhabitants of these sites (not only the two that Kate studies but more broadly secret urban sites that emerged because of Cold War imperatives)? Did secrecy imbue these places with a kind of prestige for the people who worked there? I have done a number of interviews with veterans of the missile industry and to a fault all of them believed that draconian secrecy was not only necessary but that it had a positive effect on their daily lives. As Kate points out, Ozersk was plagued by severe contamination problems, not to mention civil turmoil during the late Stalin and Thaw years, but one wonders how much of this was known to “outsiders” who might have idealized such a nuclear city as a place to work and live, especially in the Brezhnev era when there appears to have been a modicum of stability and affluence. As such, I was also wondering about the image of Ozersk (and other nuclear cities) in the public imagination during Soviet times.

My second broad point has to do with the structure and role of comparative histories. Kate’s work is a valuable addition to recent (past 15 years or so) work that has broadened our perspective on the Cold War by looking beyond national boundaries and investigating common points/spaces/ideas of reference across the Iron Curtain. Some of this work—such as Greg Castillo’s Cold War on the Home Front: The Soft Power of Midcentury Design (2009) or Anita Seth’s dissertation comparing the militarization of Los Angeles and Novosibirsk (2012)—echo Kate’s scholarship in juxtapositioning phenomena that can be framed by similar understandings. Others have shown how decisions made at the highest levels had comparable local consequences—I’m thinking of the edited book, Local Consequences of the Global Cold War (2007). [I should note that Kate Brown cites all of these works]

Given this burst of work, I am anxious about one aspect of the comparative work on the Cold War. As Kate so expertly shows, the histories of Ozersk and Richland can be understood as mirror images of similar historical processes across the Iron Curtain. There is an obvious parallelism to her conclusions. As she points out, “Americans and Russians came to shun accessible, equitable public housing in favor of limited access cities, in the Soviet case, and monoclass suburbs, in the American context. In creating these zones of affluence, the boosters of defense and progress also created zones of blight and environmental sacrifice where the boosters themselves would never live” (p. 336). Given this “parallelism,” I wonder if, when we do comparative histories of the Cold War (especially those that focus on the U.S. and the Soviet Union), we unconsciously seek similarities and parallels across the Iron Curtain. I am not suggesting that there aren’t many instructive and provocative common points of reference but that, especially in the post-Cold War era, we as historians have favored shared meanings across boundaries—or at least seek to blur them—and resist conclusions that might hark back to a Cold War-era view of “difference” and “otherness.” I wonder if Kate had any thoughts on how historians might better transcend our internal expectations of what we hope to find in comparative histories, or indeed if she came to the project with any expectations given the personalized nature of her narrative.

I have other points but I’ll save them for a subsequent post.

Asif Siddiqi, Fordham University

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