- Managing Disasters during the Cold War
Disasters and extreme events have occupied large parts of the public debates worldwide. News about extreme temperatures, droughts, floods, fires, a rising sea level, and a shrinking Arctic ice shield as rumblings of the apocalypse form a large and steadily increasing part of discussions in politics, economy, and society nowadays. The recent Covid-19 pandemic questions the robustness of the economic systems and governments on the functioning of which our lives depend. While these developments are phenomena of our present, scholars have been exploring how societies struggle with extreme events for several decades now. Since the mid-1970s, historians and anthropologists have produced a rich body of scholarly work exploring various aspects of disasters in different historical epochs.1 As "focusing events" they reveal the ways societies, political systems, and infrastructures function and lay open societal problems that went unnoticed. More often than not, they show us the inequalities of social orders by exposing how and why certain groups within [End Page 407] a society are more vulnerable to disaster and crisis than others. Indeed, a disaster in itself is viewed as a product of the social order, whose historical roots may lead far into the past.2Consequently, for a historian they offer a window onto the past, to study better the ways a society has developed.3
Although disasters in the Soviet Union were frequent events, scholars have only recently begun to take interest in them.4 This late discovery can perhaps be attributed to the role natural extreme events play in a history full of purposeful violence, social erosion, repression, famines, and technological and environmental disasters caused by negligence within a command economy. Historians tend to focus on the willfulness of the political leadership and leave out the haphazardness of events, because they seem apolitical and thus not of interest. Some historians, however, have ventured into the field. So far, they have used case studies of separate disasters to illustrate how local, regional, or national state officials instrumentalized a disaster situation for their own political aims.5 Others have explored how disasters revealed weaknesses of the Soviet state and functioned thus as a catalyst for the delegitimization of the Soviet Union.6 A third category of research focuses on reconstruction after disasters to shed light on the ways Soviet leaders and architects conceptualized Soviet modernity.7 As diverse as this research may seem, the categories are aligned by illustrating that disasters played a bigger role in Soviet history than previously thought by those who claimed disasters were alien to the Leninist-Marxist system and usually kept secret.8 The works of the historians Nigel Raab and Edward Geist add to this plurality of [End Page 408] research and offer more possible approaches and explanations for the ways state and society in the Soviet Union dealt with disasters and the protection of their citizens.
Raab's work traces the history of disasters in the Soviet Union by exploring four earthquakes that struck in Crimean cities in 1927, Ashgabat in 1948, Tashkent in 1966, and Armenia in 1988, as well as the nuclear fallout in Chernobyl in 1986. Choosing these extreme events, he wants to show the diversity of changing responses to disasters in the Soviet Union throughout the decades. In his analysis, Raab takes an optimistic approach. At the core of his argument is the idea that disasters provided opportunities for Soviet citizens. Through volunteering work they got the chance to "experience life beyond preordained frameworks" and to "act outside the regular parameters of Soviet life" (7). He wants to correct the assumption that "Soviet society was a static organism with little room for improvisation" (7) by showing "the 'accidental' nature of Soviet life" (13). In disasters he sees moments that strip the Soviet Union of its "polished veneer...