The People, of course, is its own savior, The People itself erected the dam’s powerful rampart. But folks remember: you, Leader, Signed the decision on the explosion. You took a risk, But lived in great faith And thought not of your own fate, Uniting in yourself the qualities of Leader and engineer.1
Visitors to Almaty, Kazakhstan’s former capital, are commonly offered a trip up the Malaia Almatinka River to the Medeo Dam, a 150-meter high, 530-meter long, and 800-meter wide rock pyramid barring the gorge. If one climbs the 842 steps to the top (1,900 meters altitude), the dam offers a vista over a famous skating rink downstream. It is not only a place of tourism, sport, and leisure for Almaty’s inhabitants and visitors; it is one of the symbols of the city’s short history: as a defensive wall against the unbridled forces of nature, the rock-filled dam saved the capital of Soviet Kazakhstan from destruction in 1973 by catching a disastrous mudflow rushing down the valley.
It is hard to imagine now that the dam that saved the city was once, in the first half of the 1960s, a highly controversial project in Soviet Alma-Ata. As authoritarian as the republic’s leadership may have been, it could not [End Page 313] immediately impose the dam on the inhabitants, even though the project was deemed urgent. Eight years elapsed from the approval of the definitive design until the beginning of the dam’s construction (1958–66). The dam project developed against a set of uncertainties that account for the hesitation and substantial postponement. First, the last years of Nikita Khrushchev’s rule proved unstable for the Kazakhstani political establishment. Between 1960 and 1964, the post of first secretary of Kazakhstan’s Communist Party changed hands three times. The competing candidates for power in Kazakhstan were so split on the dam issue that they could not enforce any definitive decision on it. Second, although Alma-Ata’s inhabitants lived under the growing fear of destruction by a massive mudflow, no one could precisely forecast when this would occur. Everyone was expecting the “big one” soon. The dam offered a possible solution, but in the view of some its brutal construction method—directional blasting—and the fact that it concentrated protection on one spot might turn out to be even more dangerous to the city than no dam at all. In this context of both urgency and uncertainty, politicians were reluctant to take definitive responsibility for mudflow protection. Third, both the political instability and the anxiety about the natural hazard engendered a lively discussion on the pros and cons of the dam and alternative projects. Since civic concerns about major projects could become matters of public concern in the more relaxed atmosphere of the Khrushchev Thaw, from 1959 on, scientists and citizens in Alma-Ata and Moscow opposed the Medeo Dam project submitted by the Kazakhstani leadership and proposed a lighter and more complex protective system based on small dams and embankments. Opposition to the dam was typical of the reemergence from the 1950s on of groups of scientists and other members of the intelligentsia warning publicly of the potential for environmental damage to natural resources caused by large transformational development projects.2 The argument between proponents and opponents of the dam involved the pragmatic question of the most effective protection for the city from a scientific and engineering point of view. It revealed opposing conceptions of the city’s relationship to its natural environment and diverging views of the environmental costs of disaster protection.
Yet for all of this, a new context emerging between the Khrushchev and Brezhnev periods enabled the Kazakhstani leadership eventually to impose certainty and to silence protesting voices. This article contends that a technocratic alliance united the rising republican leader Dinmukhamed Akhmedovich Kunaev, top scientists, and planners backed by the political [End Page 314] leadership in Moscow.3 The end of the dam controversy parallels Kunaev’s rise to power and the demise of the relative plurality permitted by the political instability of the late Khrushchev years in Kazakhstan. The dam was the...