Monotown Renaissance: waste, governance, and boosterism in Stepnogorsk, Kazakhstan

Authors: Robert Kopack*, University of Toronto
Topics: Environment, Eurasia, Resources
Keywords: Governance, Industry, Kazakhstan, Mining, Waste
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


This conference paper takes aim at the new forms of political and environmental governance in the former secret city of Stepnogorsk, Kazakhstan. From the 1950s to the early 1990s, Stepnogorsk was a military “monotown” funded exclusively through the defense related industries, first of which was uranium and then biological weapons production. Born during the Cold War, the city was an immaculate conception of Soviet urban-industrial planning for an isolated population and a clandestine landscape of mines, laboratories, and other infrastructures. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, so came the unravelling of the political-economy of the city. State owned enterprises were bankrupted, reorganized, and privatized over a tumultuous couple of decades. While biological weapons and the facilities for them are long gone, the uranium industry (and a suite of other mineral enterprises) has been rebuilt and the city has been brought back to life. In recent years, questions of environmental pollution and the violent, precarious labor conditions have come to the fore, highlighting new decentralized post-Soviet political and environmental governance regimes. In this paper, I show how local-national-global economic forces (boosters) have promoted the city as a reimagined monotown utopia without the troubling post-Soviet legacies coming from open pit mines, waste and slag pits, or environmental activism. Stepnogorsk is an important widow into revived forms of Soviet-era industrial secrecy now supported by capitalist resource extraction enclaves that have worked in tandem to produce a future for a dying industrial town.

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