Blogs > Infinity, Limited > Comparative History: Telling A Tale of Two Cities

Jul 19, 2015

Comparative History: Telling A Tale of Two Cities

tags: Cold War,plutonium,comparative history

Comparative history

We are constantly comparing creatures, as the popularity of top ten lists attests. Comparison allows us to observe and analyze similarities and differences. Good comparison stimulates us to think more deeply about what we take for granted and challenges our concepts of normality. One of the more subversive aspects of travel literature is that it encourages readers to realize that their society may not necessarily be the best of all possible worlds (look at the impact of Montesquieu’s 1721 Persian Letters). And more than one American has returned from a trip abroad marveling at how well public transportation can work.

Comparative history is particularly hard to do well, especially for one person. You are studying different environments with different cultures. Multiple languages may be another required skill set. It’s often easier to assemble a group of historians to each focus on, e.g., the Munich Crisis from the perspectives of the x nations involved (or not). But pity the editor who now has to corral not one but several historians into submitting manuscripts on time and on topic.

Yet for the history of technology, comparative approaches offer very tempting fruit. The history of the automobile looks very different in Europe than the United States (not to mention the variations within Europe). Why? Differences in per capita income, political economy, physical geography, and laws are necessary but not sufficient to understand why different countries followed different and similar paths with a technology.

The rise of electric lighting in the 1870s-80s in Europe and the United States, for example, is viewed by historians as a civilian enterprise. Except, however, in Russia, where the army and navy planned major roles in sponsoring research, training technicians and engineers, and serving as the major market. Was the Russian military unusually prescient or aggressive in promoting electric lighting? Or was the leading military role reflective of the weak Russian civilian market and economy? If you chose the latter, you were correct. And if you look for American or British or French electrical engineers working with their militaries on electric lighting, you can find them – but dwarfed by non-military opportunities.

Looking at the evolution of a technology across societies as well as across time can reveal far more than just looking at one country or region.One theme common in almost every comparative study I have read is the importance of transborder flows of ideas, knowledge, people, and equipment in shaping national developments. Countries, regions, cities do not create and diffuse technologies de novo but as part of a larger world in which knowledge of what others are doing or thinking of doing or claiming to be doing shapes your actions.

Telling a Tale of Two Cities

Perhaps nowhere is this more evident – and more important – in the development of nuclear weapons by the United States and the Soviet Union. Plutopia:Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters (Oxford University Press, 2013), Kate Brown has provided a fascinating and important comparative history of Ozersk, Russia, and Richmond, Washington during the Cold War and after.

The similarities between the American and Soviet efforts were greater than either side would probably like to admit – the Cold War fear of each other, the creation of huge privileged, high-security complexes, the long-term environmental consequences, and the separation of these plutonium communities from mainstream society. The differences, including different medical worldviews, were less rigid than expected.This is a book to challenge national narratives.

Below is an interview with Kate Brown by Lewis H. Seigelbaum, author of Cars for Comrades: The Life of the Soviet Automobile (Cornell, 2008), which originally appeared in the March issue of NewsNet, the newsletter of the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies (ASEES)which has generously permitted its reproduction. For the original, go here.

PLUTOPIA:  Interview

In Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters (Oxford University Press, 2013), Kate Brown draws on official records and dozens of interviews to tell the extraordinary stories of Richland, Washington and Ozersk, Russia-the first two cities in the world to produce plutonium. To contain secrets, American and Soviet leaders created plutopias—communities of nuclear families living in highly-subsidized, limited-access atomic cities. Fully employed and medically monitored, the residents of Richland and Ozersk enjoyed all the pleasures of consumer society, while nearby, migrants, prisoners, and soldiers were banned from plutopia--they lived in temporary “staging grounds” and often performed the most dangerous work at the plant.

Brown shows that the plants’ segregation of permanent and temporary workers and of nuclear and nonnuclear zones created a bubble of immunity, where dumps and accidents were glossed over and plant managers freely embezzled and polluted. In four decades, the Hanford plant near Richland and the Maiak plant near Ozersk each issued at least 200 million curies of radioactive isotopes into the surrounding environment—equaling four Chernobyls—laying waste to hundreds of square miles and contaminating rivers, fields, forests, and food supplies. Because of the decades of secrecy, downwind and downriver neighbors of the plutonium plants had difficulty proving what they suspected, that the rash of illnesses, cancers, and birth defects in their communities were caused by the plants’ radioactive emissions.

Plutopia was successful because in its zoned-off isolation it appeared to deliver the promises of the American dream and Soviet communism; in reality, it concealed disasters that remain highly unstable and threatening today. Plutopia invites readers to consider the nuclear footprint left by the arms race and the enormous price of paying for it. Professor Brown’s book was awarded the 2014 Vucinich Prize.

Kate Brown is Professor of History at UMBC. Brown’s Plutopia won the 2014 George Perkins Marsh Prize from the American Society for Environmental History, the 2014 Ellis W. Hawley Prize from the Organization of American Historians, the 2014 Heldt Prize from AWSS and the 2014 Robert G. Athearn Prize from the Western History Association. Lewis Siegelbaum is the Jack and Margaret Sweet Professor of History at Michigan State University. Recently, his research has focused on migration in Russian political space across the Imperial, Soviet, and post-Soviet periods, which resulted in Broad is My Native Land: Repertoires and Regimes of Migration in Russia’s Twentieth Century (Cornell University Press, 2014).

Lewis Siegelbaum (LS):When you wrote Plutopia what sort of an audience did you have in mind? I have the impression that you were reaching beyond “the field” and even academia in general. Was that so?

Kate Brown (KB):I designed this tandem history of the world’s first two cities to produce plutonium with largely an American audience in mind. I wanted to reach Americans and specifically Americans interested in Soviet history. I was aware that our sub field of Soviet history had compromised origins and questionable assumptions buried within it. The origins, of course, are a body of scholarship built on Cold War foundations and funding. The recent resistance of the ASEEES governing board to use Stephen Cohen’s name on scholarships that he and his wife Katrina vanden Heuvel sought to endow because of Cohen’s public statements about the conflict in eastern Ukraine shows how deeply the tradition of defending American policy runs in our professional organization.

I was also concerned that many English language histories of the USSR engage in an implicit, unspoken comparison with a rosy interpretation of US history. In these histories, discussions of civil society, civil rights, freedom, productivity, free enterprise, backwardness, dictatorship, etc. are framed against an often unspoken gold standard, which is either “the West” or the United States. These buried comparisons hold up only as long as one has no more than a glancing understanding of US history.

Placing the two superpowers’ histories together explicitly, not to compare, but to juxtapose was my antidote. Researching the two plutonium disasters side by side, I saw how closely engaged the superpowers were in a joint enterprise to produce bombs. They matched one another nearly step for step in taking shortcuts and emphasizing production over safety in a way that grossly contaminated the surrounding environment and placed workers and local residents in harm’s way. In this story, the ideology of national security trumped all others, whether of a socialist or capitalist derivation.

LSPart of the story you tell is about the terrible damage done by the secrecy that the US and Soviet governments imposed in the name of their respective national securities and the irony the institution of the closed city, which people automatically associate with the Soviet mania for secrecy, actually originated in the Hanford project. Are you asserting an equivalency here and in other respects?

KB: I didn’t go looking for equivalency or difference. I was mostly trying to trace a chronological narrative. Researching the Soviet side of the history of plutonium production, I noticed that thanks to espionage, Soviet leaders of the bomb project closely imitated the successful American Manhattan Project. They stole the plans for the reactors and bombs, and also the plans to the closed nuclear city, created first at Los Alamos. As historians like to start at origins, beginning Plutopia with the American side of the story made sense. 

As I worked through the declassified American records, I was appalled at what I found--the intricate efforts to conceal the dangers of nuclear weapons production, the deeply refined classism and racism of labor practices that allocated dirty work to people least able to complain, and the sadly submissive and compliant employees, among them most of the “top brass.” As I researched the American story, I saw a great many similarities with the nuclear security state in the Soviet Urals, which as I note above were intentional.

The nature of nuclear production, the invisibility of the materials and the administrative innovation of compartmentalization, made it easy for both Soviet and American plant managers to deny radioactive hazards to suspicious workers.

I found an essential difference, however. In August 1945, the press poured into Richland and marveled at what a fine city plutonium had built. They called it “paradise.” As reporters were not allowed in the industrial zone, Richland became the public face of nuclear production and served as a model city insuring the country that its leaders had this new very powerful weapon under control.

This show of openness did not occur in the USSR, and in terms of science that was a good thing. American leaders were very worried about leaks, not of a radioactive kind, but to the press, and so they did not commission studies to find out the impact to workers and neighbors of living year after year in a sea of low doses of radioactive isotopes. They felt they could not ask questions about public health in an open society for fear of a public relations disaster.

 In their closed society, Soviet leaders had no worries about a watchdog press. They could and did commission studies, which basically used residents along the radioactive Techa River as human subjects in a three-generation study of the effects of chronic exposures to low doses of radiation. They came up with a diagnosis, Chronic Radiation Syndrome, which so far has only been diagnosed in Russia—not because it doesn’t exist elsewhere, but because the same open-ended questions were not asked elsewhere.

LSOne of the many ironies in the book is that Richland emerges as a totally “Soviet” city in the sense that it had no “free enterprise”; and the residents of Ozersk enjoyed consumer goods virtually unavailable elsewhere in the Soviet Union. When you started doing the research for the book did ironies like this jump off the page, so to speak, or did you go looking for them? And, is there some larger point you want to convey by writing the histories of these atomic cities in tandem?

KB: I did not expect to find these ironies, not in such abundance, but researching a tandem history proved very useful. Different national cultures and histories pose very different questions and present particular kinds of sources and information. I would notice a trend in the American context— say an obsession with young people in the early Cold War who read (poisonous) comic books—and I would turn to see how party leaders in Ozersk, the plutonium city, regarded youth and their pastimes. Not surprisingly, party leaders also fixated on the behavior of their youth, and seen against the American context, Soviet leaders’ worries appeared less prudish and controlling.

I noticed among residents in the US and USSR a fierce defense of their deadly plutonium plants, even after they learned just how much they had contaminated their homes and environments. Writing a national history, I might have chalked this posture to the political conservatism of the interior American West, or the narrow-mindedness of the Russian provinces, but taken together I started to grasp a rising tide of entitlement that came to working class plant operators who were paid and treated like their professional class bosses in plutopia. The sense of confidence, pride and autonomy, more than good housing and shops, proved addictive and kept people devoted and loyal to their dangerous jobs, deceptive managers, and increasingly poisonous landscapes.

 I also found in writing a tandem history that I could corroborate information across national boundaries. When, for example, people in eastern Washington first told me that radioactive effluence had made them sick with vague complaints, I did not believe them. There was no science to back up their charges. But when people in the southern Urals listed to me the same set of symptoms, I had to reconsider. Reading the Russian medical literature, I found a body of scholarship that tracked changes in blood cells that corresponded with an assault of radioactive isotopes on various organs of the body to produce a whole bouquet of debilitating symptoms long before a body succumbed to cancer (which was largely the only radiation-related medical outcome that American doctors admitted). With that information, I took seriously the testimony of farmers near the Hanford plant.

What do I want to convey in this tandem history? My larger point is that by staying in boundaries, within carefully compartmentalized national histories, it is easy to miss very big stories that are right there, in plain site. Likewise, framing Soviet history as hermetic and isolated leads to the impression that the Soviet past was especially backward, brutal, despotic, or criminal. Widen the scope, and, unfortunately, you find that Soviet history does not stand alone.

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