(In)security zones: Social-environmental inequalities in the cradle of Soviet plutonium

Authors: Rosibel Roman*, Florida International University
Topics: Eurasia, Cultural and Political Ecology, Historical Geography
Keywords: Radioactive contamination, Soviet history, environmental justice, Lefebvre, Russia
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/6/2019
Start / End Time: 9:55 AM / 11:35 AM
Room: 8216, Park Tower Suites, Marriott, Lobby Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In 1948, the Soviet Union's first plutonium production facility, Mayak Production Association (PO Mayak), began operation in the Southern Urals, near the restricted city of Chelyabinsk-40, known in the present day as Ozyorsk. Since then, rural communities located downstream from PO Mayak have experienced health, economic, ecological, and social impacts of high-level radioactive contamination released by the facility into the Techa River and surrounding landscapes.

My paper, drawing from archival research and secondary sources as part of a larger dissertation project, focuses on the history of this contamination as a question of environmental injustice. Recognizing that throughout this history, social-environmental inequalities in the nuclear landscape surrounding PO Mayak are conspicuously legible across space, my research is framed within the context of French philosopher Henri Lefebvre’s concept of the social production of space. Relevant to locating post-socialist concerns in political ecology, Lefebvre asked:

“Has state socialism produced a space of its own? ... Just how wide by now is the rift between the ‘real’ society rightly or wrongly referred to as socialist and Marx and Engels' project for a new society?” (1)

As a start towards addressing Lefebvre’s questions, I argue that, as the history of marginalized and sickened communities living today in the shadow of PO Mayak demonstrates, inequality had been built into social relations in Russia in ways that persisted since the tsarist era, through the Soviet years, and into the “post-socialist” present.

1. Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1991).

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