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The Natures of Radioactive Landscapes: East, West, and the Fading Boundary Between Them

Researcher: Dr. Melanie Arndt
Post-Doctoral Fellowship der Volkswagen-Stiftung am Stanford Humanities Center, September 2013–Juni 2014

This project explores the social and political consequences of the civil and military use of radioactivity in the United States of America and the Soviet Union (and its successor states) through an entangled history approach. Radiation and in some places just the threat of radioactive contamination transformed nature – the ecology of landscape and resources along with the ecology of the human body – from something knowable, comprehensible, and roughly predictable to something half known, incomprehensible, and unpredictable. These changes to nature took place both in the West and in the East and "cultures of coping" (Greg Bankoff) had to be developed in both places. Despite its historic significance, we still lack a systematic historical analysis of how rival nations responded, often paradoxically and in ways that could not have been predicted, to the unpredictability of radiation.

This project aims to provide such an analysis by examining social and political processes that flow from irradiated landscapes, or rather from attempts to mitigate and compensate for them. The book focuses on the time period from the 1970s to the 1990s and places its findings in the context of the fundamental transformations of the social, political and technological realms in the East and West since the 1970s.

Despite the differing political preconditions, the response to irradiation of landscapes in East and West features commonalities and similarities that are in need of explanation. Established, ideological explanations focusing on nation-states are insufficient. Both the socialist Soviet Union and the United States of America were marked by an ever-increasing exploitation and consumption of natural resources, including all forms of power, in particular nuclear energy. This project questions the assumption (widespread in the scholarship) that the responses of people and institutions were driven by capitalism or socialism only. Rather, I argue that these commonalities can be explained by a far broader change, one that spanned the divisions of the Cold War, in the perception and handling of the dangers of radioactivity, and in the context of social and technological transformations in the East and West.

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