Narrative, Nonfiction, and the Nuclear Other: Western Representations of Chernobyl in the Works of Adam Higginbotham, Serhii Plokhy, and Kate Brown

Inna Sukhenko, Anastasia Ulanowicz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

Abstract

The essay intends to demonstrate how three recent works of non-fiction authored by Western journalists and scholars—Adam Higginbotham’s Midnight in Chernobyl (2019), Plokhy’s Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe (2018), and Kate Brown’s Manual For Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future (2019)—resist “great man” modes of historiography in order to expose the underlying structural causes and consequences of the Chernobyl disaster. Insofar as they do so, these texts also posit Chernobyl as an event—a literal and figurative historical flashpoint—that was at once an effect of the Cold War and a cause of its conclusion. And yet, although the three studies uphold the central thesis that the massive and unwieldy “Soviet system itself” was largely responsible for the Chernobyl event and in turn the unravelling of the Cold War, they nevertheless arrive at this conclusion through discrete narratives and notably different methodologies. Journalist Higginbotham’s largely omniscient and chronological account of the catastrophe focuses primarily on the consequences of post-1970’s era Soviet “gigantomania” and the subsequent influences of Western “hard” and “soft” diplomacy in mitigating the disaster; Ukrainian-American scholar Plokhy’s history of the event, explicitly framed by the perspective of a [post-] Soviet emigré, calls attention to how “eco-nationalist” movements that emerged within the post-Chernobyl Soviet Union contributed to its implosion; and environmental historian Kate Brown’s own narrative places into relief her immediate position as an American scholar-traveler in order to expose the relationship between a socio-geographically localized event and Cold War-era nuclear policies that at once were contained by and transgressed geo-political borders. Read together, these three Western works of non-fiction offer a prismatic image of Chernobyl’s spatio-temporal role in the proceedings of and ultimate conclusion to the Cold War. Moreover, and just as crucially, these texts also progressively unsettle overdetermined, triumphalist Western narratives of the Cold War that dwell exclusively on the failures of Soviet nuclear ventures and thus posit the USSR as the West’s “nuclear Other.”
Original languageEnglish
JournalAssay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies
Volume6
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 30 Mar 2020
MoE publication typeNot Eligible

Fields of Science

  • 6122 Literature studies
  • non-fiction, factual, nuclear narrative, Cold War narrative

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