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The Futility of Resistance? Social-Environmental Justice, Russian Colonialism, and the toxic continuities of the Cold War in Kazakhstan

Authors: Robert Kopack*, University of Toronto
Topics: Environment, Eurasia, Political Geography
Keywords: Justice, Environment, Toxicity, Waste, Kazakhstan
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The Baikonur Cosmodrome, in western Kazakhstan, began as a Soviet Cold War missile range in 1955. Today it is one of the busiest commercial launch sites in the world, leased and operated since 1991, by the Russian Federation. Decades of land degradation from rocket debris and fuels have lain waste to vast tracks of the Kazakh steppe, while a small choir of voices has struggled ineffectually to challenge what they see as Russian military-economic colonialism and environmental racism. In this conference paper I look at the struggle and aims of a nebulous and thwarted movement for social-environmental justice in Kazakhstan. What many want, is toxic clean-up, compensation for waste, a Russian exit from the country, and above all the freedom to organize in public—none of which they have gotten. Here, I outline the historical context of Kazakhstan’s space landscapes (and other examples including nuclear waste) before considering a challenging question to local environmental justice activists (and applicable elsewhere): what are productive steps to justice in authoritarian settings; what are the desired outcomes of struggle beyond symbolic meanings; how do visions of a “natural,” undisturbed world propel activists through justice struggles with toxicity that are perhaps long beyond repair?

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