About the Topic: Four decades of Soviet nuclear testing left behind a legacy of radioactive contamination in a sizable area of contemporary Kazakhstan. My research examines the social consequences and lasting implications of this on local populations living in a village of Koyan. Taking the 1949-1989 Soviet atomic weapons program and the secretive Cold War context as my starting point, I investigate local understandings of health and livelihood on a landscape marred by atomic testing and one continuously inhabited by rural Kazakhs for generations. I demonstrate that since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the advent of free market reforms in Kazakhstan a new kind of post-socialist identity has appeared. Furthermore, in order to navigate this post-Soviet social order and cultural marginalization, people in Koyan have “embraced” nuclear pollution as something natural in their environment. Specifically, they see their own survival as proof that they have evolved to fit a radioactive ecosystem. My Kazakh colleagues say “clean air is our death,” meaning that moving away from these damaged ecosystems will kill them. Emerging strategies for survival reflect a new social order in Kazakhstan: that order embraces a nuclear future by agreeing to accept funding to become a Global Nuclear Fuel Bank and a dumping ground for much of the West’s toxic waste, while at the same time publicly lamenting its Soviet nuclear past. I address how people in Koyan have learned to engage with the nuclear test site’s past, present state practices, scientific expertise and authority, and how health, suffering, and notions of well-being constitute a new post-socialist identity.
About the Speaker: Magdalena Stawkowski received her Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Colorado Boulder. Her dissertation, “Radioactive Knowledge: State Control of Scientific Information in Post-Soviet Kazakhstan,” is based on sixteen months of field work in the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site region and is an ethnographic account of the local understandings of health, livelihood, and suffering among rural ethnic Kazakh communities. In it, Magdalena traces the lesser-known history of the Soviet nuclear program from the perspective of people who were most affected by its military-industrial complex, exploring how they cope with their own present-day toxic environments. She is a recipient of an award for outstanding contribution to the anti-nuclear movement by Olzhas Suleimenov, the Ambassador of Kazakhstan to UNESCO, Kazakh poet, and the founder of the Nevada-Semipalatinsk Anti-Nuclear Movement in Kazakhstan. Magdalena’s recent co-authored article appeared in the Journal of the History of Biology and is titled “James V. Neel and Yuri E. Dubrova: Cold War Debates and the Genetic Effects of Low Dose Radiation.”