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Reviewed by:
  • Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future by Kate Brown
  • John P. DiMoia (bio)
Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future By Kate Brown. London: Penguin, 2019. Pp. 432.

An eclectic combination of the history of technology, environmental history, and disaster STS, Kate Brown's Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future (also published by W. W. Norton with the subtitle An Environmental History of Chernobyl) captures the aftermath of Chernobyl (1986), focusing less on the specifics of reactor technology and far more on the issue of radiation as an unknown. Brown thus offers a careful account of the accumulation of knowledge, using human bodies, plants, and the surrounding environment collectively as a vast repository, a living archive concerning questions of radiation's absorption, as well as the environment's ability to adjust. She argues that Soviet specialists already held a great deal of such knowledge acquired through the domestic nuclear industry and its attending regulatory problems, although this fact (and the associated knowledge of health physics) was kept quiet at the time, when the mobilization of an accident-free industry remained a standard form of rhetoric. A series of accidents, contingencies, and unknown variables motivates the activity in this fascinating chronicle, when the decisions that were made held long-term implications for lives, along with medical outcomes, favorable or not.

Along with her earlier work, Plutopia (2013) and Dispatches from [End Page 246] Dystopia (2015), Manual for Survival continues Brown's project of shifting attention from a body of work located much closer to European history to a more conventional one in the area of Soviet Studies. Throughout her career, Brown has been interested in changing landscapes whether for political, economic, or regional reasons, and in these recent three books, she has tied this theme closely to clusters of vast, overreaching technological ambitions. The creation of industrial landscapes and shattered spaces is not unique to the Soviet project, however, and Brown clearly makes this point in Plutopia, which details the production of plutonium at multiple sites, thereby capturing the American side of the experience. In Manual for Survival, the focus rests on the Ukraine and Soviet stories, while suggesting strongly that the narrative holds lessons for other sites.

Brown walks carefully through the technical details of building a tentative model to understand the effects of radiation, drawing upon official and previously unavailable sources, numerous interviews, and personal accounts. If her actors, including Ukrainian, Russian, and a wide range of international citizens, doctors, and activists, frequently come off as less than polished, it is because their motivations encompass a diverse set of aims. While not explicitly a Latourian, Brown incorporates non-human actors, especially when examining the surroundings for radiation effects. For example, the fallen leaves in the area offer a careful measuring device of absorption: a material trace, something many scientists were slow to recognize at first. In contrast to the official reports of deaths and cancers attributed to the accident, Brown offers stories of the living, whether those with mild symptoms, a prolonged cough and respiratory issues, or others who have undergone multiple, invasive surgeries. This material is an alternate brand of accounting and has a cumulative impact that exceeds more traditional measures with strictly defined categories and boundaries.

For historians of technology, Brown's narrative appeals on several levels. The first, and most obvious, lies with Russian and Soviet studies, and there are numerous echoes of previous accounts of the Russian nuclear project, including most recently, Sonja Schmid's Producing Power (MIT Press, 2015), a wonderful description of the preceding period. Given Brown's interest and previous work covering the effects of radiation in Washington State, Patrick Vitale's Nuclear Suburbs (University of Minnesota Press, 2021) provides a complement, exploring the changes of the urban landscape through technological spin-offs. Brown moves us from an older, binary Cold War to a richer, multilateral one, enmeshed with environmental history, and perhaps invoking a conscious lack of resolution, given the sober subject matter.

If there are traces of Agamben's "bare life" in the narrative, Brown's rich account ultimately finds its ground in painstaking historical detail from archives, sources, and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1097-3729
Print ISSN
0040-165X
Pages
pp. 246-248
Launched on MUSE
2022-01-06
Open Access
No
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