Nuclear energy epitomizes the ambiguity of high modernity like no other technology. In the history of the Soviet Union, it played an exceptionally prominent role, initially accelerating its ascent to super power status and bolstering its visions of the future, but later hastening its demise in the wake of the Chernobyl’ disaster in 1986.
As a result, Soviet nuclear history has attracted the lively interest of both the general public and of researchers ever since the collapse of the USSR. Initial research focused heavily on “Stalin and the bomb” (D. Holloway), while more recent studies have paid particular attention to the Chernobyl catastrophe, its prehistory and its consequences. At the same time, the development of the Soviet and post-Soviet nuclear sector, its research and production infrastructure and its international entanglement throughout the 1960s and 1970s, as well as post-1991, has received far less attention. The four interconnected projects that make up the NucTechPol research cluster will contribute towards filling in these white spots in important ways.
Each of them taps into nuclear history’s rich potential to generate key insights into the complex entanglement of technology, politics, society and the environment that has come to define the era of high modernity. In doing so, NucTechPol will go beyond the current state of research on three levels:
- Multifarious perspective: The studies which form part of the project will tightly connect the technological, environmental, political and cultural dimensions of the topic – aspects that have hitherto mostly been studied in isolation from each other. Recently developed methodological approaches such as “technopolitics” (Gabrielle Hecht) and “envirotech” (Sara Pritchard) offer powerful frameworks for bringing these aspects together. Each contribution will address at least two of them in depth. Surprisingly, while the Soviet system was described as “technocratic socialism” decades ago, the approach of technopolitics is yet to gain traction in Soviet studies.
- Long-term view: Through the prism of nuclear history, the project seeks to open a long-term perspective on the second half of Soviet history and beyond – a period that has hitherto been studied predominantly in chronological fragmentation. Nuclear technology is understood as a force that informed politics and shaped society in important and lasting ways, thereby cementing nuclear power into the fibres of the country. By analysing the interplay between nuclear technoscience and politics, between visions of progress and scenarios of doom, rich insights can be gained into the forces that first helped to build and later undermined the promise of Soviet modernity, but today nevertheless find themselves at the heart of post-Soviet ideas of progress. All of the cluster’s research projects straddle important chronological watersheds such as the ones marked by the years 1953 and 1991.
- Multi-level analysis: The project is conceptualized as a multi-level analysis of Soviet technopolitics in its local, all-Union and international dimensions. All contributing studies are designed to link the local micrologic of “doing technology” in nuclear research and production centres with the macrologic of Soviet and global Cold War politics. Situating each study in a local milieu not only enables a “close reading” of the respective objects of inquiry, but also significantly improves access to source materials. With reference to the national level, the studies portray the Soviet Union as an enabling space marked by unevenly distributed risks and opportunities – a perspective that is further accentuated by including post-Soviet developments. Embedded in a transnational perspective of entangled history, the studies included in the project will contribute to filling the remaining gap that represents the Soviet Union in the emerging historical picture of global technopolitics. In doing so, it will help to delineate the place of Eastern Europe more clearly in the global history of high modernity.
The individual studies
The project as a whole comprises three dissertations and a postdoctoral project (Habilitation):
“Nuclear Internationalism in the Cold War. Actors, Networks and Knowledge Transfer 1955–1991”.
Fabian Lüscher M.A.
This dissertation project examines international networks of actors of nuclear modernity. Their contacts are understood as highly symbolic relations shaped by attributions of meaning enabling intensive knowledge and cultural transfer. From 1955 onwards, extensive conference tours and research stays played a crucial role in determining the professional experience of nuclear scientists. The increasingly internationalised discourse and the transformed research practices that went with it were characterised by concepts of progress and the future – often independent of political systems – and their transfer from the scientific to the societal and political sphere. The study examines the Soviet actors of nascent nuclear internationalism from the perspective of their professional and life worlds and traces cooperation, competition and conflict in worlds that appeared to be growing closer yet at the same time drifting apart due to nuclear technology.
“Nuclear Disasters and Radiation Protection. Nuclear Knowledge and Technopolitics in the Chelyabinsk Region, 1949–1991“.
Laura Sembritzki M.A.
This dissertation project studies the momentous nuclear explosion in the Mayak chemical combine in 1957 and the resulting radioactive contamination of large regions in the southern Urals. The main focus is on the production and circulation of nuclear knowledge (or ignorance) both within and between the nascent biophysical and radiomedical research institutes, international organisations and the Soviet Party and state authorities. Nuclear modernity is thus analysed in terms of the tensions between progress and risks and the then fledgling field of radiation protection, which took on increasing political and societal significance in the conditions of the Cold War. Using newly available archive material, the study pays special attention to the reciprocal relationships between scientific knowledge, nuclear waste management practices and administrative decision-making processes. The period examined extends into the Perestroika era, when the nuclear disaster of 1957 and its far-reaching consequences became the subject of heated public debate. Along with society’s negotiation of nuclear “risk assessment”, the study also discusses the legal dimensions and the question of compensation payments, demands for which are considered in the context of the rise of a new sense of citizenship.
“From A Secret Laboratory to the Shop Window of Socialism. The Nuclear Research Centres in Dubna and Obninsk, 1956–1991”.
Dr. Roman Khandozhko
This dissertation project examines the organisation of “big science” in the Soviet Union on both the local and transnational level by considering nuclear research centres of international importance. In 1954, in the secret laboratory “B” in Kaluga Oblast’ (which would later become the Obninsk Physical Energy Institute), the “world’s first nuclear power station” was founded. It would become stylised as an emblem of the peaceful intentions of the Soviet nuclear project. At the same time, the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research was established in Dubna, in the north of Moscow Oblast’. It developed into an important centre for cooperation between nuclear physicists in the Eastern Bloc. By examining both these nuclear cities, the project analyses the specific constellation of secrecy and openness resulting from the entanglement of covert military nuclear research and broad international scientific cooperation.
„Oasis of the Future – The Atomic City of Shevchenko/Aktau, 1959–2019“.
Dr. Stefan Guth
In his postdoctoral project, Guth investigates the role of nuclear technopolitics (Hecht) in the Soviet Union and beyond in a long term perspective. Shevchenko started life as a secret uranium mining camp for the Soviet A-bomb project in the Western Kazakh desert, but was later transformed into a showcase of atomic-powered Communism (Josephson) that relied on cutting-edge nuclear technology to support a modernist model city and industrial cluster in the desert. Focusing on an urban microcosm, the project will tightly integrate the technological, environmental, political, social and cultural dimensions of the Soviet nuclear project – aspects that have hitherto mostly been studied in isolation from each other. At the same time, the project is conceptualized as a multi-level analysis of Soviet technopolitics in its local, all-Union and international dimensions.