Messy Places

A review of Kate Brown's "Dispatches from Dystopia," which tells stories of Chernobyl and other corrupted, polluted areas.

May 31, 2015

    THE MOST unsettling image in Kate Brown’s Dispatches from Dystopia is a picture of the author from 2004, standing in a field in front of some unassuming buildings. The shapeless concrete thing behind her could be any industrial factory, bland and unadorned save for a giant exhaust tower. In the foreground, squat, triangular evergreens, a few boulders, a plain of wild grass. There is nothing visible in the photograph to suggest anything like danger or menace. It could be anywhere, it could be nowhere — except that the large structure behind her, with its towering smokestack, is what remains of reactor #4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, encased in a gradually deteriorating sarcophagus. Hastily constructed in six months shortly after the Chernobyl disaster, the sarcophagus was meant to contain the worst of the plant’s remaining radioactive elements, but it has since crumbled past repair and is now itself in desperate need of replacement. The structure’s official name is the “Shelter Object” (Объект “Укрытие” in Russian), but the more imposing and historically resonant term “sarcophagus” has proven more popular with scholars, and for good reason. The term “sarcophagus” comes from the Greek “flesh-eater,” and alludes to the notion that a limestone casket aided in decomposition (the original Egyptian term is neb-ankh, generally translated to mean “possessor of life”). The sarcophagus, as the Greeks saw it, eats away the dead flesh, replacing it with the lifeless but eternal limestone. The invisible radiation of Chernobyl, of course, is another kind of flesh-eater, one that replaces life with the endless half-life of radioactive decay. And so, too, in a way, is historiography, which exchanges the real in favor of the record, the impermanent flesh for the immortal word.

    Brown is a historian, but she is also a traveler. She wants us to know she was there; she wants the indisputable evidence of her self in Chernobyl. “I am confused by the notion that referring to oneself in scholarly writing is unprofessional or trivial or renders one’s work tautological,” she writes. She doesn’t understand why academics “recoil from the first-person narrative … [as if] to confess to being there is to call into doubt one’s objectivity and legitimacy.” For Brown, it is not enough simply to research a place, to reproduce published photographs. The importance of the body, of the physical presence of the writer, runs throughout Dispatches from Dystopia. Reacting against a kind of history too narrowly focused on printed records, on archives and official histories, Brown argues that historians must also seek out what cannot be transcribed and collated by scribes. To see, one must go: “The premise of this book,” she writes, “is that traveling can be a form of negotiation, an unraveling of certainties and convictions and a reassembling of the past.”

    In search of “the histories of communities and territories that have been silenced, broken, or contaminated,” Brown travels from Chernobyl to Elgin, Illinois, from Uman, Ukraine to Billings, Montana. “I am looking,” she writes, “both for a way to reanimate places and lives with stories that spring from them and for a means to reinvigorate history as an enterprise that has the capacity to excavate the depths and variety of human experience.” She finds unexpected connections, such as the spatial similarities between a high-plains railway town like Billings and a gulag in Kazakhstan, and interviews survivors of radiation poisoning alongside Japanese Americans interned during World War II.

    What emerges in the process of Brown’s trips to these no-man’s lands are a series of alternative archives. She visits Seattle’s Panama Hotel, where Japanese residents, aware of their imminent internment during the opening of World War II and unable to take more than the barest necessities with them, left behind all manner of possessions. Forgotten after the war and left untouched in a basement storage room for decades, these objects were rediscovered in the 1990s, and together they offer a haphazard and dusty record of a community nearly wiped out of existence. Unlike the internment camps at Manzanar and Minidoka, perverse utopias with their perfect grids and enforced communality, the Panama Hotel’s basement is all clutter and jumble, without an index or table of contents. “The storage room was a sort of reverse archive,” Brown writes, “the opposite of an official repository, a place to stash objects intended to be overlooked, a place to will them out of sight. Much like the unconscious, where the mind represses memories too painful to retain, the basement held possessions forgotten not accidentally but purposefully.”

    Other, even more unlikely reverse archives crop up through the book. Traveling to Chelyabinsk and Kyshtym in the Ural Mountains, in search of declassified archives relating to the USSR’s plutonium production, Brown instead finds swollen blue fingers, bulging eyes, and women with stories of endless miscarriages. The archive here, Brown discovers, exists not in secret memos or classified formulas, but in the very bodies of residents near nuclear production facilities, in whose bones lie a secret history of cesium-137 and iodine-131. Human bodies, she writes, “are the long-haul truckers of the vast transformations of human history on geology and biology. Human history, in others words, is changing human bodies. Yet this bodily archive has scarcely been breached. In the search for secrets, the mysteries are right here with us.”


    Dispatches from Dystopia is a short book — exactly 150 pages — and in it Brown doesn’t have the space to do much more than hint at the contents of these reverse archives. For a better sense of what she’s after, one should look to her earlier, masterful Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters. In it, Brown traces the rise and fall of two separate communities: Richland, Washington, and Ozersk, in the southern Russian Urals. Both were planned communities created to house those working in the plutonium production facilities of, respectively, Hanford and Maiak. Originally, the planners envisioned that the first of these cities, Hanford, isolated in the desert of eastern Washington state, would be staffed by solitary men, as with mining towns and drilling rigs. But the plant’s designers watched with horror as the temporary labor hired to build the plant engaged in drunkenness, theft, prostitution, rape, murder, suicide, and so forth. Realizing that a longer-term community would have to have some kind of stability, they built Richland as a planned master community for engineers and their nuclear families. Brown writes that Richland would come to be known as a “self-contained, shiny new village,” a “paradise,” a “utopia,” a “model city,” and according to the Christian Science Monitor, “to be carefully studied by urban planners for years to come.” The executives in charge of building Hanford’s reactors argued, in Brown’s words, that “only a community united in middle-class abundance would deliver plutonium safely and securely.” The plant managers in Ozersk, likewise, had trouble finding and keeping quality workers for such remote, secretive and dangerous work, and so local officials focused on satisfying workers’ consumer demands. Young couples were given private apartments, grocery stores were well-stocked, consumer electronics were plentiful. “In the sixties,” Brown writes, “the city’s unique affluence became its major selling point.”

    This utopian planning impulse, with its emphasis on perfection, was naturally at odds with what was taking place in the nearby plants themselves. “Of all the stops on the nuclear assembly line,” Brown notes, “plutonium production is the dirtiest.” And despite appearances of perfection, both Richland and Ozersk unleashed sustained toxic attacks on their communities and the surrounding landscapes. Much of this was the result of accident, poor oversight, and ignorance, though there were deliberate poisonings as well — such as the infamous Green Run test from 1949, where a massive cloud of highly radioactive gas was deliberately released over populated areas to learn how to better track fallout. Alongside their perfect houses and tidy streets, movie theaters and public parks, the citizens of Richland and Ozersk were unwitting subjects in a laboratory experiment conducted by scientists without complete understanding of what they were really doing.

    Plutopia chronicles how the USA and USSR created utopian communities while literally writing actual humans out of history. On June 9, 1952, a maintenance foreman at Hanford named Ernest Johnson left work early after complaining of a sore throat. Within hours he was dead. A doctor from the hospital managed by GE determined that it was an aneurysm, but Cook County coroner Thomas Carter later conducted a second autopsy, in which he stated that he was “positive [Johnson’s] death was due to exposure to radiation.” He mentioned, too, that “important evidence” on Johnson’s body had been removed during the first autopsy. Carter, and Johnson’s widow, were subsequently deluged with the full force of GE, Hanford’s Health Physics Department, the Atomic Energy Commission, and the Washington State Labor Board, all of which colluded to suppress the second autopsy and any hint of radiation poisoning in the death of Ernest Johnson.

    Here we find another kind of erasure. Bodies like Johnson’s, along with the countless others who died of “aneurysms” and other mysterious but perfectly natural causes, were often simply erased from the record. (Suffice to say that problems in Ozersk were generally as bad and in many cases substantially worse.) When infant mortality spiked in Richland in the 1950s, reaching four times the national average, these statistics went unreported. “Bad news, in the atomic city,” Brown writes, “was often no news.” The spotty, problematic and heavily redacted official records of these towns is proof of the way the archive can erase by obfuscation, and the real damage that can be done simply through omission.

    The word “utopia,” in common parlance, is used synonymously with “paradise,” but throughout her career to date Brown has insisted on invoking the actual etymology of the term: “no place.” (All of Brown’s book titles play on the word somehow; her first, published in 2004, was called A Biography of No Place.) The places that interest Brown are not just “no places” but places with no people — devoid of all the messy reality of humanity and human bodies. In such model cities, cities built to maintain an ideology and the security of a regime, the physical bodies of their inhabitants bear little importance. The sterling quality of architectural design and layout take precedence over lived experience, ergonomics, and the basic rhythms of human existence. What stands out in Brown’s account of both cities is how little regard either superpower had for its citizens, and how irrelevant human life is in the pursuit of utopia.

    Dispatches from Dystopia covers seven places instead of two, and does so in fewer than half as many pages, and so it’s hardly surprising that it lacks the comprehensive detail of Plutopia, though it furthers the same concerns in important ways. As with “utopia” in Brown’s earlier book, here the use of “dystopia” departs from its popular meaning: these locales are less post-apocalyptic nightmare landscapes than they are places that have been overlooked, forgotten, assumed to be emptied of life and vitality. The opposite of body-less “utopias,” they are simply topoi: places where specific, embodied people have lived, and continue to live, having left and continuing to leave traces in visible and invisible ways.

    Which brings us back to Chernobyl, and the photo of Brown outside of the Sarcophagus. It’s an image that embodies the common conception of Chernobyl: ruined, abandoned buildings juxtaposed against wild, unchecked nature, the trees and deer slowly reclaiming a landscape off-limits to humans, the deadly radiation invisible but lurking just off-frame. It was this same conception, Brown admits, that drew her to Chernobyl in the first place. She discusses finding a blog by a certain “Elena,” the daughter of a plant engineer who had a pass to the Exclusion Zone and raced empty highways on a Kawasaki Ninja: “a hot babe, on a hot bike, in a hot zone.”

    But Elena was subsequently revealed to be a complete fiction: a woman who’d never been to the area, who’d appropriated photos by others and concocted a lie. Among various falsehoods was her depiction of the Exclusion Zone, which, Brown found, is quite populated, even to this day: there are over a hundred hold-outs, mainly elderly residents who continue to live there informally, and several thousand workers who commute there on a daily basis. Once her website became famous, Elena and her husband paid for a guided tour, where they staged photos to further enhance her story. When Brown herself took the same tour from the same guide, she discovered not only these fabrications, but also the extent to which sparsely populated areas are vulnerable to this kind of misrepresentation:

    Elena’s ménage à trois of truth, history, and representation became distorted precisely because the Zone was largely depopulated and uncared for. Truth disintegrates when the people disappear and the objects that sustain it (architecture, documents, photographs, household implements) fall apart. Elena could have her way with the “reality” of the Zone because no one among her online readers had been there to call her on it.

    Dispatches from Dystopia’s lasting value may be in its critique of this brand of ruin porn. Urban explorers, bloggers, photographers, and filmmakers are working to represent places from Detroit to Kazakhstan as hollowed-out, crumbling wastelands devoid of human life, where baroque theaters, abandoned amusement parks, and whole city blocks are depicted out of context for aesthetic perusal. Like an academic overly focused on a written archive, the ruin pornographer is engaged in a kind of erasure, another form of selective amnesia. In juxtaposing her reportage of the very real humans who live and work in Chernobyl with her own childhood in the rust-belt city of Elgin, Illinois, Brown pushes back on the denuding gaze of the ruin pornographer, asserting that all dystopias — each in their own way — teem with life, and that this life needs to be attended to as well.

    Which is to say, I guess you had to be there.


    Colin Dickey is the author of Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius and Afterlives of the Saints: Stories from the Ends of Faith, and is currently working on a book about haunted houses.


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