‘It’s Not Rocket Science’: Nuclear Disasters in and beyond the Soviet Union—An Interview with Kate Brown

“About 50 deaths.” This was the long-standing consensus held by scientists and worldwide audiences on the death toll caused by the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. “Was this really so?” asked Kate Brown, a historian at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), as she started to investigate the oft-overlooked social and environmental hazards in the communities affected by the world’s infamous nuclear catastrophe. Her latest book, Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future, departs from the consensus and has sparked a global discussion on both the contemporary consequences and history of nuclear energy exploitation in and beyond the former Soviet Union.

Consulting a dazzling range of archival, oral, and ecological sources, Professor Brown estimates that the number of people suffering from degrading health conditions should be in the thousands. Furthermore, her inquiries into the post-disaster developments exposed an intricate web of mismanagement by governments, political meddling by international organizations, and the suppression of discussions about health hazards in local communities.

Manual for Survival is Professor Brown’s most recent publication and the culmination of a lauded scholarly trajectory. As a Professor of Science, Technology, and Society (STS) at MIT, her work stands at the intersection of Soviet, medical, and environmental histories. In addition to this, she has been active outside the academic community, advocating for an outside-the-ivory-tower approach to history writing.

We had the pleasure of talking to Kate Brown about a range of topics, from approaches to Soviet and STS history to her intellectual roots and scholarship, and why the history of Chernobyl matters to all of us, much more than we would expect.

Rustam Khan

Professor Kate Brown—Photo credit: Allegra Boverman

You were trained as a scholar of Soviet history and as a scholar within the field of STS. What drew you to these two fields?

I was an undergraduate student when [Ronald] Reagan was elected and the Cold War started to flare up. There was renewed rhetoric about the “evil empire” and the need to make more nuclear weapons. Ironically, being a little scared of nuclear weapons, I started to study Russian because I wanted to go to the Soviet Union to see if they really were an evil empire. I have this thing that if I doubt something, I want to check it out myself, and not just believe other people. So I studied Russian intensively for three or four years, and I went to study in Leningrad [present-day Saint Petersburg] in 1987. Once there, I thought: more people have to have this experience, because it definitely is not an evil empire.

I then started to work for an undergraduate exchange program between the US and the USSR, which went on until the USSR collapsed, after which I went back to graduate school.

When I later returned to the former Soviet Union, I saw people digging up skulls in the courtyard, pointing to bullet holes in the skulls, and explaining that the Communist Party or the KGB [the main Soviet intelligence agency] did this or that. They used history to take apart this powerful empire, and I was really impressed by the power of history.

How, then, did you come to write Manual for Survival?

The idea for my latest book came from my first book, which was about the Polish-Ukrainian borderlands—at first an intensely multi-ethnic populated zone. After 25 years, nobody was left but the Ukrainians, and after another 25 years it was totally depopulated in one section because of Chernobyl. I wrote about this in the epilogue of my first book, and that’s how I got started.

Later, around 2005, an editor asked me to write a whole book about Chernobyl. In the beginning, I didn’t want to write that book, but I did notice that certain places emitted almost twice as much radioactivity as Chernobyl did, and that that was where they produced plutonium during the Cold War. So then I wrote a book called Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters (Oxford, 2013), with a focus on the development of the nuclear security state. I wrote in particular about two special towns that made plutonium for the Cold War arms race. While I worked that story I ran into farmers in Siberia and the American West, who told me the same stories about their health problems. I wrote a little about that in Plutopia, but I couldn’t at that point obtain all the information that I wanted in order to answer conclusively the question of whether the farmers were sick, as they said, from radioactive contaminants.

I thought of looking into the Chernobyl records because that was a civilian—not military—site and it happened more recently. In 2014, I went to the Kiev archives asking for medical, agricultural, and environmental records, and I found an enormous amount of material. From then onwards, I continued working in twenty seven archives, which eventually became a huge database of sources.

During your research, you befriended many locals who experienced the impact of radioactivity and knew much about it: activists in Hanford and Chelyabinsk, or scientists around Chernobyl. Why do you feel it is important to highlight what you call the ‘everyday heroes’ of history?

When you read archives, it is sort of a sketch or a brief outline of what real life and the everyday was like. To give an example from Manual for Survival, at one point I read about how 200 women in a wool factory were so-called ‘liquidators,’ a special status for the clean-up of Chernobyl. I asked myself how these women in a pretty clean city 50 miles from the Chernobyl zone received this status. I couldn’t find out a whole lot more, because the records detailed mainly processes and measurements. So I decided to go there, and I found out that ten of those 200 women were still alive.

Everything became more vivid once they started talking. If I had just spoken to them without visiting the archives beforehand, I would have had trouble believing them. I was able to cite them because of my cross-referencing, and I was really amazed by how the management had one version of events that didn’t correspond to the archival records, while the day-to-day workers’ version tracked much closer to the archival documents. You cannot just go talk to everybody and claim it to be the truth, because they were eyewitnesses. What interviews do for me is to pop into living colour this sketch that you find in the archives.

As for the people I met who seemed to know a lot: I have found over the years that scientists, especially in the nuclear field, usually live in remote places. They are often as I am—professional-class people that live a pretty hermetically sealed life and zoom through places to do their research. International scientists consulting for the United Nations (UN) on Chernobyl were similar in that they would come for two weeks, then leave for two months, while not knowing much about the place and its languages. But the people who live there are struggling to survive and they encounter problems. When people have to survive, they take all of their wits and collective intelligence and work and talk together, whether in front of the village store or in the corridors of a health clinic, and they know about the environment and the weather, and have tons of local knowledge. They figure out how radioactive isotopes worked in their ecologies and in their bodies.

Do you feel you are following in the footsteps of the social historians of the previous century?

I definitely stand on their shoulders, namely the whole notion of looking at working-class people rather than political, economic, or intellectual leaders in order to form a vision of the past. What I think I do a little bit differently from most social historians, who quantify big data and look at the worker at large, is to look at individuals. Social historians didn’t usually go and talk to people, or when they did, it was a purely an oral history—but, that was what anthropologists did. I guess what I do is some sort of a hybrid. For Manual for Survival, I went a step further than I normally do: I worked as a participant-observer with biologists and a forester. I did this because I was finding a lot of inconsistencies in the archive, where there was obviously an argument about radioecology going on. I assumed that people and archives lie, but trees don’t lie. I realized that if you read the forests and swamps, you could use that to cross-check with textual sources. I found that method to be pretty effective.

I remember sitting in the town of Narodychi in northern Ukraine, and these people were telling me about their health problems. One villager after another had pretty sad chronicles. You could say that they smoke and drink, and they incorrectly attribute every health problem to radioactivity. That is what many experts say when they encounter these testimonies. But then I went up to the edge of the village and saw the line of a forest. Seeing the wind coming from the southwest, I could observe classic mutations of the big pine trees as I had learned from the biologists. It was almost like a handprint left by a radioactive cloud. Those mutations served as validation of exposures and helped give credibility to the list of health problems the people in Narodychi recounted.

In Manual for Survival you mention that the Soviet authorities were often not that different from capitalists in the West (for example, in their refusal to destroy contaminated meat or to evacuate communities). Your work clearly does not mould itself into traditional Cold War or Communism-versus-capitalism narratives. Could you elaborate on this and tell us more about how your approach was shaped during the making of the book?

History as a discipline was developed in the nineteenth century, and it was kind of a handmaiden for the development of the nation-state. People were trying to define themselves and what made them special from others. History was instrumentalized in that way, and it always struck me as strange to stay inside national borders when following the trail of some historical event. It’s like telling stories with very specific blinders. But we see more and more, especially as you write about environmental history, that almost nothing is purely national.

We live in a very global world where everything hits the tail winds and keeps going. It’s not just a contemporary story. Think of mosquitos, rice, and soils that crossed the Atlantic and created whole new worlds in North and South America and back in Africa. This has been an ongoing story, and I always wondered why we stop short at borders. There are practical reasons—historians cannot know every language and there are only so many archives—but I have always found that if you find a story that starts to travel on, then you should travel with it. When you have that attitude—whatever the trope is (national; Cold War)—stories start to break down as you follow the plot line.

Manual for Survival is in some aspects different from other recent monographs on the Chernobyl accident. Rather than focusing on technical failures, you focus a lot on the mismanagement after the disaster. A key word I often associate with the ongoing development of disaster management is fear—fear of political and social unrest as well as civilian opposition (in the West). Would you conceive it as such as well?

Oh yes, the authorities were extremely afraid of mass hysteria and that’s what we see in every nuclear episode. It’s interesting to note that the public is represented as a hysterical woman: gendered, feminine, irrational, given to fear, and hard to bring to a state of calm. Obviously when you’re watching how all the children from your city are disappearing [i.e. the evacuees in the aftermath of the disaster] or if you constantly have to wipe your feet [to remove radioactive pollutants], that is, indeed, nerve-wrecking, especially when you’re not being told what is going on. You see signs that something serious is occurring, but you’re not given the information, and you know for sure you’re being lied to. That is a fear-inducing situation—imagining what is really happening.

When the Soviet authorities finally published maps in 1989 showing people who have been living for three long years in areas with low to medium to really highly radioactive territories, people were upset. They didn’t know it, though they suspected it, but they had no confirmation until the maps were published in June, 1989. Yet there were no cases of mass panic. I think when governments trust their public with complicated and even frightening situations, the public usually responds by mobilizing their own sets of solutions and working out plans, which is better. It is easier to solve problems with more minds working on solutions than just deferring to a few high priests of technology and politics.

I found these amazing letters in the archives from villagers and townspeople who, before they even knew or had confirmation of the radioactivity surrounding them, came up with good solutions. For example, they were saying that trucks were coming from Chernobyl, and were driving right through their community. Doing so, they brought more and more radiation every day with the dust on these trucks. They said: “if you [the authorities] could just make a bypass around our town, we would not have these problems;” or look, “most of our town is clean, except this children’s playground; can you just asphalt it?” or, “yes, you say that we need 15 curies a square kilometer of radioactivity for the milk to be over permissible levels, and our milk is over permissible levels because we live in a swamp. You just have to believe me and withdraw this milk from the market.” So all kinds of people figured what was going on in their area and came up with good solutions. If they were listened to, it would have made their situation more palatable.

Another intriguing feature of Manual for Survival is your effort to shed light on the role of non-government organizations in the management of the disaster. How did they appear in your research?

The reason I went to the Greenpeace Archive in Amsterdam, and also to the World Health Organization, International Atomic Energy Agency, and the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, is because I saw them taking over, managing the disaster as the Soviet Union collapsed. Greenpeace opened the first lab as a foreign entity to study Chernobyl problems. I saw them at a certain point in the story becoming pretty important players, and I needed to find out more. What I discovered was that it took these two worlds, even with the good will in the case of Green Peace or Red Cross, several years to find a common language of communication. Even these people who were trying to work together irritated each other and started to bicker and fight for different reasons. High politics did not help. The KGB infiltrated the western organizations, and the Western scientists had a superior attitude towards their Soviet partners that complicated collaboration.

That to me was surprising: how the Cold War had ended, but we still could not overcome the structures that we set up in our society. I remember at one point I had this sinking sense of disappointment watching the HBO series on Chernobyl, thinking here we are again at the Cold War narrative. It’s easy to bring that back and present it as “how it was,” without really questioning it. They don’t need to because it is like an echo from the past. “It rings true.”

Manual for Survival received much media attention, both positive and negative. In particular, Jim T. Smith, from the School of Earth and Environment Sciences at the University of Portsmouth, bitingly claimed that you dismissed much of the consensus among physicists regarding the radiation dose estimates, the effects on wildlife, and health effects.[1] Why do you think it stirred up such a response? What are the political implications of your work ?

Jim Smith is an industry scientist, and if you look at the bottom of that review, he says he proudly takes money from the nuclear industry. He has most recently made a media sensation by producing “atomic vodka” inside the Chernobyl zone. He’s a bit of an outlier as one of the few scientists who continue to assert that nature in the Chernobyl zone is thriving. Other scientists who used to make that case have changed their minds.[2]

To step back from Manual for Survival, what are the challenges to being a historian of the USSR today? How do you think scholars of Soviet history can contribute to other historical scholarship?

You know, I worry about getting deeper into these verbal battles about competition with Russia. It will be harder for people with American or British passports to do work in Russia, to get access to archives, and to be able to talk to people who think there is a level of trust. One of the reasons I didn’t go to western Russia to follow this Chernobyl story was because of the difficulty crossing the border after the 2014 annexation of Crimea. I got into this field to help end the Cold War, but here were we are again as it was in the old days.

In terms of what Soviet history could do, we’re just starting to see some really great historians approach this really huge topic of environmental history in the USSR. There are so many horizons, and we haven’t yet breached that. It’s a big country that is driven in large part by the extraction of resources, and we have a debate ongoing: was it a conservationist state or an exploitative state? With these environmental/ecological topics, there are also questions about the effects on health: what does it mean to be human in the age of the Anthropocene? I think Soviet/Russian history has so much to tell us about these issues. We’re at an exciting moment now.

Based on your experiences, is there anything you would like to share with aspiring and current graduate students, young researchers, and faculty?

I was taught in traditional ways, and when you’re taught in a discipline you learn the so-called borders—what a dissertation looks like, for example, and that it has an introduction and a literature review section. I really railed against that when I was in graduate school. I did have some supportive advisors, but there were also people along the way who questioned what I was doing. My advice to grad students and young faculty is to follow your instincts. Do not be so concerned about where the borders of your discipline are, but see what organically comes out of the story you want to tell. The kinds of sources you seek may not be only archival sources. The kind of story you tell may not be a straight historical narrative, because every story suggests its own narrative solution, and that’s quite original. The borders that we are given that help us to learn the profession can be good but at the same time I’m not sure if they are good to live and work by. It’s like dancing: modern dancers learn classical ballet, then they go out and start to change it creatively through modern dance.

Finally, what does the history of Chernobyl tells us about where we stand today and where we’re heading to tomorrow? Is there any particular message you gleaned from your research that you wish to share?

At the end of this book, I was really surprised by how long-standing the suppression of the catastrophic health effects of the Chernobyl territories, the suppression of that question, and the suppression of that data were. It has meant that we have learned very little from Chernobyl. People still repeat the number of fifty four deaths and the fact that it’s the world’s worst nuclear disaster. Yet, only fifty four people died, so we can apparently just continue as before. Countries that plan for nuclear emergencies in the future say: “Look, Chernobyl people lived and stayed in the territories after the catastrophe, and when you move people they get sick and die. So, better leave them in place.” That’s a frightening perspective.

Even in the Chernobyl territories, you see that the medical people left first and then other professionals. At the end, only the people with the fewest options remained. That’s an environmental justice scenario we’ve seen many times. I’m hoping that with this new interest in Chernobyl we’ll start to learn real lessons from that disaster. I think Fukushima is a big repetition of many mistakes of the Chernobyl story, and it shows at least that the Japanese didn’t learn anything. I think we still have much to learn from Chernobyl.

Interview conducted by Rustam Khan, with special thanks to Aden Knaap for his feedback.


[1] Jim T. Smith, “Review of Manual for Survival by Kate Brown,” Journal of Radiological Protection 2019, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/331714767_Review_of_Manual_for_Survival_by_Kate_Brownthe

[The journal is now calling this an “opinion piece”]

[2] Robert J. Baker, Benjamin Dickins, Jeffrey K. Wickliffe, Faisal A. A. Khan, Sergey Gaschak, Kateryna D. Makova, and Caleb D. Phillips, “Elevated Mitochondrial Genome Variation after 50 Generations of Radiation Exposure in a Wild Rodent.” Evolutionary Applications 10, no. 8 (September 1, 2017): 784–91. https://doi.org/10.1111/eva.12475.


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