This is the first real comparative history which we have looked at so far. Unlike the Cold War histories which we read at the beginning of the semester, it is not broadly looking at the United States and the Soviet Union in order to discuss a war of ideology, nor is it trying to be as broad in scope as the transnational history of The Transatlantic Collapse of Urban Renewal. However, I found Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters to be similar to both Magic Lands and A Consumer’s Republic in that Kate Brown does seem to be making an argument about the shaping of national identities during the Cold War, both in the United States and in the Soviet Union. Clearly the environmental impact of plutonium factories and nuclear facilities mimics the argument of the Bulldozer in the Countryside, but the purposeful building of identities in both locations that Brown discusses seems to be the most compelling part of her argument, at least in the scope of what I intend to do with my thesis.
Within the introduction, Brown discusses that demographically, these plutonium cities were firmly places of the middle class, both in the United States and in the Soviet Union, and yet what has been passed down in the collective memory is that these sorts of cities built up around nuclear facilities, because of their affluence, is an idea that they were “middle-class enclaves.” Moreover, in both places, the middle-class began to emerge as what was shaping the national identity, which forced factory workers to learn to identify with middle-class supervisors and scientists, as class began to disappear. It seems to solidify ideas from earlier texts that the idea that the Cold War was some sort of clear and distinct ideology war is far from the truth, since both sides were willing to compromise on ideology in order to forward the economic, scientific, and militaristic progress that entrenched both sides.
One last thing to note about the way which Brown approaches her writing of this history is the way in which she inserts herself into the story. Brown did many interviews in order to get first-hand accounts of the experiences of living in this plutonium cities, from both the American and the Soviet perspective, and she includes her experience of going to those interviews in her discussion of the material which her subjects gave her, often narrating the way which they looked and their general attitude towards her when she was interviewing them. While I usually enjoy a more anthropological approach to history, and appreciate authors who insert themselves into narratives when necessary to the story they are telling, I found this background narration of her interview subjects both distracting, and in poor taste, similar to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Her tone of surprise in her discussions of interviews with Soviet subjects, undermined her argument at the similarities between the sights, because it highlights her own preconceived notions about the inherent differences between the United States and the Soviet Union.
It was very interesting the comparison that is made between the Soviet government and United States companies, because they seem to be counterparts to each other. It was a push by the government in the Soviet Union to build up these plutonium cities, in an attempt to emulate the cities in the United States, while on the other side of the Pacific, it was major corporations, such as DuPont and General Electric, which were running the factories, and setting the stage for what these cities would look like. Both the Soviet government and American companies were more concerned with the bottom line rather than the livelihoods of the people living there, and neither was too particularly concerned about the environmental impacts of their work. They also brought in a lot of initial notions about what the workers would expect from their time working for the factory (I am thinking specifically of the push to segregate the facilities in Richland, Washington, even though the workers had no such expectation or want for segregation). I found this specific comparison, between American Corporations and the Soviet government to be compelling and a useful idea to have as I move forward.
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