Document Type



Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Global and Sociocultural Studies

First Advisor's Name

Gail Hollander

First Advisor's Committee Title

Committee Chair

Second Advisor's Name

Peter Craumer

Second Advisor's Committee Title

Committee Member

Third Advisor's Name

Roderick Neumann

Third Advisor's Committee Title

Committee Member

Fourth Advisor's Name

Rebecca Friedman

Fourth Advisor's Committee Title

Committee Member


nuclear, environmental justice, Soviet, history, radioactive contamination, Urals, Chelyabinsk, Russia, Cold War

Date of Defense



In December 1948, the Soviet Union’s first plutonium production facility, Mayak Production Association (PO Mayak), began operation in the Southern Urals region of Russia, at the western edges of Siberia, near the restricted city of Chelyabinsk-40, known in the present day as Ozyorsk. Since then, rural communities located downstream from PO Mayak have experienced health, economic, ecological and social impacts of contamination from high-level radioactive wastes released by the facility into the Techa River and its surrounding ecosystem. My research, drawing from archival research conducted in Russia and the United States, as well as secondary sources in English and Russian, focuses on the history of this contamination as a question of environmental injustice.

Within the field of critical geography and the closely related interdisciplinary body of scholarship broadly known as environmental justice, this study engages with debates regarding the causal factors that contribute to the inequitable and unjust distribution of environmental hazards along lines of social difference. Recognizing that throughout this history, such social-environmental inequalities are conspicuously legible across space and lines of social difference within Soviet society, I frame this case of environmental injustice within the context of French philosopher Henri Lefebvre’s concept of the social production of space, and his deployment of this concept to question the legitimacy of actually existing socialism in the Soviet Union. Drawing from my analysis of archival materials and secondary sources, I argue that the case of radioactive contamination in the Techa River contradicts the Soviet state’s historical claims of social equality as its fundamental raison d’être. As the history of the Techa River’s marginalized and sickened communities demonstrates, inequality had been built into social relations in Russia in ways that persisted since the tsarist era, through the Soviet years, and into the post-Soviet present. At the same time, this history illustrates the necessarily globalized nature of the Atomic Age and the Cold War which has entwined geopolitical actors in a relational, co-production of (in)secure zones of military-industrial technology and the marginalized communities living and dying in their shadows.





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