Plutopia Continued

I want to respond briefly to Kate Brown’s recent thoughtful post. About my use of the term of “comparative history” to describe her book and her preference to see it as a “tandem” history: I appreciate this distinction that she articulated—particularly her focus on the conversation between the two cities, and also that she is situating the two narratives in juxtaposition but letting the readers draw their own comparisons. I share her anxiety that comparative might be an inapt (or perhaps reductive) term for what she’s doing here, in the sense that her book is reformulating the life histories of these two locales as inextricably connected. We leave the book with the feeling that telling the story of one without the other is to rob us of deeper insights. I have really learned something here and thank Kate for getting me rethink my position on the methodological insights possible from such a “tandem” approach.

Kate also talked about secrecy and the ways in which secrecy was one register through which a conversation was enabled between the two sites. Given the Cold War industrial actors’ omnipresent obsession with secrecy, it’s not of course, surprising that so much of the work and life of Richland and Ozersk was so shaped by secrecy (and its concomitant lever, security). But I was really struck by how secrecy operated at the ground level, particularly the story of Kate’s visit to Muslumovo where she was surprised to see that residents were fully aware of the fact there was a nuclear plant nearby. Kate writes that she was “incredulous. The people their age who grew up in Ozersk told [her] they had no idea that the factory where their parents worked made plutonium. One woman said she believed her father made candy wrappers” (p. 302). This is a shocking anecdote–absurd almost, underscoring how people within Ozersk might have believed one thing while people in the zone beyond believed another.

There is a striking insight here about the complicated relationship between official discourses (which disavowed not only the function of Ozersk but also its very existence), and the spaces they create for counter-discourses at odds with the state-sponsored ones—such as rumor, speculation, jokes, and such. I wonder if Kate would care to comment on this particular aspect of her story: what did people believe and why? I’m particularly interested in the tradeoff between information and security that runs through the entire narrative. Information was withheld about a variety of issues: the deleterious effects of radiation, the injuries at work, the contamination of rivers, the locations of factories, the technical details of the reactors, the massive displacements of populations—all in the name of security. And here, we can understand security in its Cold War sense used by the architects of the military-industrial complex but also security (as Kate uses it at times) as consumer, financial, and physical security that so many of the actors in the story were seeking, and in the name of which, they entered into a life of extraordinary risk. The tug between secrecy and security runs through much of of how we think of the Cold War military-industrial complex but Kate’s infusion of this “other kind” of security complicates our received understanding. I wonder if Kate would agree that the complicated playoff between secrecy and security (both kinds) created all kinds of discourses, beliefs, ideas about the nuclear cities, their functions, the environmental consequences of the work, etc. How did people separate truth from fiction given the acute lack of knowledge and information?

One small comment about radiation itself: Radiation, which had no visible materiality to it, left a deep and horrific imprint in its path. Radiation was as invisible as it the absent dots on Soviet maps of the ZATOs. In that sense, radiation, released artificially as a result of military imperatives, embodied both security and invisibility—classic Cold War tropes—even as it burrowed deep into the bodies and geographies of everything around.

A second related comment has to do with the specificity of Kate’s story. In other words, this is a story of the casualties of atomic hubris, but what can we abstract about it about the larger setting of the Cold War? She writes that “[t]he plutonium cities were the product not merely of technology and science but of the larger cultures that created them. They led their countries in creating new kinds of communities to harbor nuclear families. And the residents of plutopia were not alone in their desires. Outside plutopia, Americans and Soviets also rushed to acquire physical and financial security in the form of residential space in exclusive, ethnically segregated, federally subsidized communities” (p. 335-336) and then later, “Richland and Ozersk are easily recognizable because in these citadels of plutonium, at ground zero of nuclear Armageddon, people who had choices made the same kind of trade-offs of consumer and financial security for civil rights and political freedoms as did their fellow citizens nationally. The invisible zoning of territory along sliding hierarchies of value gave the lie to American and Soviet promises of equal opportunity and mobility, but it was a lie that was easy to overlook” (p. 336). Such comments seem to suggest that the spatial dynamics of the nuclear cities of the two nations were echoed in the many non-nuclear but nevertheless militarized urban sites of the Soviet and American landscape. I was hoping Kate would extrapolate on this: in other words, did the peculiar spatial practices, obsession with secrecy, tradeoffs on security, and disregard for environmental damage, extend from plutopia outwards into the rest of the Cold War landscape? Or were these national practices–particularly people’s desire for (consumer) security in exchange for risk–already evident in some form or other that were particularly extreme and damaging within plutopia?

I should note that within the Soviet Union there were specific people and institutional frameworks that were exported from the nuclear industry outwards into the general military-industrial complex. Two of the primary framers of nuclear safety and radiation research in the 1940s and 1950s, A. I. Burnazian and V. N. Pravetskii, both eventually became deeply involved in the Soviet space program in the 1960s and handled similar issues of biomedical risk in that project. Burnazian, in particular, despite being in charge of “radiation safety” in the Soviet nuclear industry during many of its catastrophic disasters and abysmal policies that crippled and ended the lives of so many, was venerated and promoted into positions of more power in the 1960s. He handled many important decisions on biomedical risk in the Soviet space program, which itself has its own sorry chronicle of damaged lives and mutable notions of acceptable risk. (In 2007, the Russian government signed an order renaming the main agency responsible for “radiobiology, radiation medicine, radiation hygiene and ecology,” the Moscow-based Federal Medicine Biophysical Center, after Burnazian. There is now even a medal named after him). Given the fact that these men moved into other fields, one wonders what they took with them.

A third comment is about her evidence base, especially for the Soviet case. Kate used an impressive array of sources, including published collections of original documents, such as the multi-volume Atomnyi proekt sssr which declassified top-level government documents, interviews with many many people, published accounts from intrepid Russian journalists on the environmental damage caused by the atomic industry (many published in the heady days of the late 1980s and early 1990s), and Russian history books on the topic. Among the most ground-breaking has been Kate’s use of a rich trove of documents from the United State Archive of the Cheliabinsk Archive (OGAChO). Access to the relevant documents at this archive on nuclear matters has been loosened in recent times—consider the exhibit of original documents at the archive dedicated to the Maiak accident in 1957 which highlighted the gross negligence, the high costs of secrecy, and the simple lack of understanding of radiation poisoning that exacerbated the terrible consequences of the accident. To my knowledge Kate’s exploration of these papers is far beyond any other study, either in Russian or English. Given this wealth of such resources, I was interested to Kate’s choice not to actively consult archives in Moscow, such as the Archives of the Ministry of Health, GARF, or RGAE. One wonders what these central archives might have held that might have added to her story. Was this a deliberate choice on her part given the particular direction of her story?

A fourth and final related comment, and this is one simply stemming from my curiosity: to what degree can we see the practices emblematic of plutopia in other nuclear nations, such as France, the Great Britain, China, and so on? And how did these practices extend to the developing world? Gabrielle Hecht’s work on France and the African uranium trade would seem to suggest similar practices but I was wondering if Kate had any thoughts on this? (I concede that this in itself may be far far outside of the scope of Kate’s book, but I would be curious to hear Kate’s ideas about what a book like this might say to those studying nuclear life and culture outside of the Soviet Union and the United States.

All in all, a superb work.

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