Stalinism, reparations and nuclear cultural heritage

Dr Egle Rindzeviciute gave an invited talk at a seminar “USSR to Post-Soviet Russia: Reparations or Repression for Stalin’s Victims?,” sponsored by the IES of Einaudi Center for International Studies at Cornell University. It is organised as part of the IES Migration Series for its AY 2020-21 theme Repair and Reparations. This panel explored proposals in the early post-Soviet period to honor the memory of, and perhaps provide reparations to, the victims of Stalinist repression. They were replaced by official government efforts to rehabilitate Stalin’s reputation and even rewrite the history of World War II. Organizations such as Memorial, formed to maintain the memory of Stalin’s crimes, have been declared “foreign agents” and obliged to curb their activities. Dr Rindzeviciute discussed the ways in which nuclear cultural heritage could serve as part of post-Soviet reparations programme.

School children drew their local post-nuclear future, Fessenheim, France

In December 2020 and January 2021, a group of school children was invited to reflect on the issues of energy transition and the decommissioning of the nuclear power plant of their town, Fessenheim. The two-days event “Transition énergétique: défis citoyens” was organized by the interest organization “La Nef des sciences” in collaboration with the artist Laurence Mellinger, the Kunsthalle of Mulhouse with Elise Alloin and Emma Werler, and the researcher Téva Meyer from the CRESAT at the University of Haute-Alsace. Researcher Florence Fröhlig from the Atomic Heritage team participated online. On December 7, after some sensibilization activities, the pupils were invited to draw the nuclear power plant and imagine what the site would look like when the nuclear power plant has been dismantled. On January 26, the pupils and the artists and researchers discussed the imagined local post-nuclear futures as they took shape in the children’s drawings, and in a next step the drawings will be exposed in the Secondary School of Fessenheim.

Photo credits: La Nef des sciences

Review essay: Chernobyl as Technoscience

In her review essay, published in Technology and Culture, Egle Rindzeviciute considers the TV miniseries Chernobyl (HBO, 2019) to engage in a wider debate on the social and institutional production of technoscience. The essay explores whether the series resonates with the existing narratives and interpretations of Soviet technoscience in scholarly historiography. Rindzeviciute suggests that although the series downplays important aspects of Soviet history, such as international knowledge transfer, it successfully demonstrates the hybrid character of nuclear power and the complexity of the relationship between scientific expertise and policy decision-making. This essay was informed by the discussion with the participants in the webinar (Re)Placing Chernobyl (May 14, 2020), hosted by Kingston University and the FRINGE Centre for the Study of Social and Cultural Complexity, University College London, which could be viewed on YouTube.

The link to the essay is here.

Will Chernobyl become a World Heritage site?

Aerial view of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant with its sarcophagus. Photo: Vadim Mouchkin / IAEA

On 15 December 2020 Ukraine commemorated an important date in its nuclear history: Twenty years had passed since the last operating reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant was shut down. In connection to this event, and to the Day of Honoring the Participants of the Liquidation of the Consequences of the Chernobyl Disaster that is marked annually on December 14th, the Ministry of Culture of Ukraine announced its intention to apply for inclusion of the Chernobyl site in the UNESCO World Heritage list. The Ministry is planning to submit its application in the spring of 2021 and a decision would likely be issued within two years.

How come that Ukraine takes this step, to propose the most difficult and contaminated site of the country to be designated as world heritage, that is, of critical importance to all humankind? Aren’t heritage rather denoting cultural objects, historical and natural sites that we can admire and celebrate – and not, sites of human and environmental disaster? The announcement also immediately received international attention. For example, just a few days later, the French international channel TV5 Monde dedicated 15 minutes of its daily evening news show “64′ Le Monde en français” to examine the historical and cultural significance of Chernobyl. Atomic Heritage team member Tatiana Kasperski was invited as expert commentator in the live broadcast, together with Laurent Michelot, a photographer who recently published a photo album on the Chernobyl exclusion zone.

The TV broadcast can be viewed here. Photo: Christine Fassert.

The discussion revolved around the steadily growing tourist interest in the site (more than 124 000 people visited Chernobyl in 2019) and its potential heritage value. What attracts visitors to Chernobyl? Is it a good, let alone feasible idea to develop tourism in the heavily radioactively contaminated area? Can the place of the worst nuclear accident in history really become a heritage site? Tatiana Kasperski insisted that a designation of Chernobyl as a UNESCO heritage site might indeed be a good idea as it could support a responsible and sustainable management of the area.

Furthermore, she pointed out that even though it might seem surprising to consider Chernobyl as heritage, it is not completely a challenging idea within contemporary heritage practice. There are already acknowledged heritage sites connected to a dark, violent past, such as, Auschwitz Birkenau Nazi Concentration Camp, and in a nuclear context, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial and the Bikini Atoll Nuclear Test Site. Within the World Heritage list these “difficult” heritage places (following a term coined by Sharon MacDonald) are certainly less numerous than the “positive” heritage sites. Nevertheless, it is crucial to preserve them in order to remind humanity about catastrophes that have to be avoided in the future.

Tatiana Kasperski therefore concluded that it makes great sense to transform the Chernobyl site into a heritage site. In fact, not only the growing tourism has already started this transformation, but also recent archival efforts have laid a foundation by incorporating recently declassified documents from the the Soviet era related to the Chernobyl disaster into the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.

‘Splitting the Atom’ art exhibition in Vilnius, Lithuania

Contemporary Art Centre (CAC), Vilnius. Photo: Dainius Putinas

On September 18, 2020, the art exhibition Splitting the Atom opened at the Contemporary Art Centre and the Energy and Technology Museum in Vilnius, Lithuania. The exhibition, featuring 30 artists, was initiated by the member of the Atomic Heritage team Egle Rindzeviciute and curated by Virginija Januskeviciūte (Contemporary Art Centre) and Ele Carpenter (Goldsmiths, University of London, leader of the Nuclear Culture Research Group). The exhibition was initially scheduled to start at the same time as the final conference of the Atomic Heritage project, but due to the Covid pandemic the conference was finally rescheduled to take place in June 2021.

The essay ‘Splitting the Atom, Creating Trust’ by the Atomic Heritage team members Tatiana Kasperski, Egle Rindzeviciute and Andrei Stsiapanau, together with Paul Josephson was commissioned as part of the exhibition and published in collaboration with and

Yelena Popova, Visaginas Parquet RMBK-1500, 2000; Keepsafe I-II, 2020; and Ripple Marked Radiance After Hertha Ayrton, 2019. Photo: Dainius Putinas
Schuppli Delay Decay BM 2016. Photo: Dainius Putinas

See also an interview with Ele Carpenter: