Dispatches from Dystopia: Histories of Places Not Yet Forgotten

Dispatches from Dystopia: Histories of Places Not Yet Forgotten

by Kate Brown

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“Why are Kazakhstan and Montana the same place?” asks one chapter of Kate Brown’s surprising and unusual journey into the histories of places on the margins, overlooked or erased. It turns out that a ruined mining town in Kazakhstan and Butte, Montana—America’s largest environmental Superfund site—have much more in common than one would think thanks to similarities in climate, hucksterism, and the perseverance of their few hardy inhabitants. Taking readers to these and other unlikely locales, Dispatches from Dystopia delves into the very human and sometimes very fraught ways we come to understand a particular place, its people, and its history.

In Dispatches from Dystopia, Brown wanders the Chernobyl Zone of Alienation, first on the Internet and then in person, to figure out which version—the real or the virtual—is the actual forgery. She also takes us to the basement of a hotel in Seattle to examine the personal possessions left in storage by Japanese-Americans on their way to internment camps in 1942. In Uman, Ukraine, we hide with Brown in a tree in order to witness the annual male-only Rosh Hashanah celebration of Hasidic Jews. In the Russian southern Urals, she speaks with the citizens of the small city of Kyshtym, where invisible radioactive pollutants have mysteriously blighted lives. Finally, Brown returns home to Elgin, Illinois, in the midwestern industrial rust belt to investigate the rise of “rustalgia” and the ways her formative experiences have inspired her obsession with modernist wastelands.
Dispatches from Dystopia powerfully and movingly narrates the histories of locales that have been silenced, broken, or contaminated. In telling these previously unknown stories, Brown examines the making and unmaking of place, and the lives of the people who remain in the fragile landscapes that are left behind.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226242828
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/01/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 216
File size: 6 MB

About the Author

Kate Brown is professor of history at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She is also the author of Biography of No Place: From Ethnic Borderland to Soviet Heartland and Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters.

Read an Excerpt

Dispatches from Dystopia

Histories of Places Not Yet Forgotten

By Kate Brown

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 Kate Brown
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-24282-8


Being There

Writers rarely reveal the architecture behind their books. In this volume, I describe what happens when a researcher snaps shut her laptop, picks up a bag, and—nervously checking again for passport and tickets—boards a plane for a destination of which few have heard. Traveling to the story in the past two decades, I have drifted through parts of Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the American West. Without intending to, I have become a professional disaster tourist. In writing history, I have ended up in a succession of modernist wastelands, each a bit more unsavory, a bit more desolate than the one before. My adventures have often gone calamitously wrong. I rarely find what I am seeking. I get lost, make mistakes, pursue foolish assumptions, and commit culturally insensitive blunders. In the course of these hapless misadventures I have relied on the kindness of strangers, as Tennessee Williams famously phrased it, to put me up, show me the road, and tell me their stories. I follow in a tradition of illustrious and daring adventurers, hardier and more courageous than I, more certain of what they encountered. They brought with them labels, which they applied to create maps, inventories, encyclopedias, censuses, and laws. But traveling is not always an act of appropriation. The premise of this book is that traveling can be a form of negotiation, an unraveling of certainties and convictions and a reassembling of the past, aided by strangers who generously open their doors to reveal histories that are in play, contingent, and subjective.

Each chapter of this book uses a particular place to explore the histories of communities and territories that have been silenced, broken, or contaminated. In telling these stories I narrate the history of places, their making and unmaking, and of the people who remain in the landscapes that are left behind. That may seem a simple statement, but places are often left out of nonfiction prose. Many writers presume that the site of action is a given, as if places were neutral containers of human interaction rather than dynamic agents in their own right. The core idea of what has been called the "spatial turn," by contrast, has been to explore how spatial arrangements shape the human, natural, and animal worlds, and do so in ways that are harder to see than the effects of published laws, market transactions, or social norms, because people often take spatial organization to be part of the natural (or given) world. The motivation of this book, then, is to treat places as sources that are as rich, important, erratic, and unreliable as material that comes from archives filled with cataloged files.

Historians also tend to prioritize the textual and temporal over the spatial. They derive legitimacy from documented evidence that is closely linked to dates. But archivists and historians know that documents can be inaccurate, obscurantist, aspirational, and sometimes just plain false, written to deceive. Historians are discovering that archives are not inert repositories, but contain their own narratives that are active in framing and determining the past. In the following chapters, I explore how places as sources offer up in a similar way ambiguities and challenges for a researcher to decode.

The places I examine in this collection are those that have preoccupied me as a researcher in Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and the United States. Some are small and contained. In one essay, I explore the basement of a hotel in Seattle where Japanese Americans, on their way to internment camps in 1942, deposited their personal possessions and never returned. Others are limitless. I wander the Chernobyl Zone of Exclusion first on the World Wide Web and then in person, trying to figure out which version—the real or the virtual—is a forgery. In chapter 4, "Bodily Secrets," I revisit, in the small city of Kyshtym, in the Russian southern Urals, the nineteenth-century notion of "vapors" as it relates to invisible twentieth-century pollutants that mysteriously felled bodies and stunted family trees. In chapter 5, "Sacred Space in a Sullied Garden," I try to attend the annual Rosh Hashanah celebration of Hasidic Jews in Uman, Ukraine, but find I can penetrate the boundaries of sacred space only fleetingly, as an honorary child. I wrote chapter 6, "Gridded Lives," in 2000 because I was frustrated by what I saw as American triumphalism at having "won" the Cold War. Seeking to provoke Americans to think of their history on a different plane, alongside, rather than against, Russian history, I set out how, in the years following the end of the Cold War, the formerly sharp distinctions between a railroad city in Montana and a gulag city in Kazakhstan were substantially eroded. While the comparison may now read as overstated, I include the essay in this volume because it speaks to that period. In the concluding chapter, I return to where I began life, in the Midwestern industrial rust belt, to investigate how my personal biography has inspired a long-term obsession with modernist wastelands.

As I go about the delicate business of stitching together narratives of territories that have been violently taken apart, I run into all kinds of problems. Places and the people in them tell many different, conflicting stories about the past. I puzzle over how to tell such multivocal or polyphonic stories yet still retain narrative form. Worse, what if there are no voices? What if everyone who remembers the history I pursue is gone or long dead? When I arrive someplace, the fact of my being there changes the place itself and the kinds of stories I can tell about it. How does a story mature when I acknowledge that my view is obstructed, my perspective land-bound and limited? Do those admissions undermine the authenticity and veracity of the stories I tell or enhance them? And in what voice do I write when I am part of the story? Questions like these eddy through the histories I navigate, often leaving me at sea. In the chapters that follow, I share the answers I have devised, answers that are not really solutions but jerry-rigged patches devised on the run for the problems of subjectivity raised by philosophers in the late twentieth century.

The Continental Divide

Geographers Robert Sack and J. E. Malpas write, "Place is primary because it is the experiential fact of our existence." If they are right and place is vital for understanding human existence, why is it that when I show up somewhere, I often fail to grasp its meaning? Even a simple statement about location can point to this problem. Most of my research has taken place in Europe or Asia. That is a simple, factual declaration, until you start to question what exactly sets Europe apart geographically from Asia.

In the 1730s, the historian and geographer Vasilii Tatishchev drew a line, pregnant with significance, across the map and divided Europe from Asia along the spine of the Ural Mountains. Oceans divide all other continents, but Tatishchev's border partitioned the two continents across a great land mass. Marking the continental boundary at a low mountain range easily crossed in a horse and cart was a bold move. Tatishchev worked for Peter the Great, and much of Peter's memorialized greatness derived from his aspiration to push Russia out of an assumed Asiatic backwardness onto the map of Europe, which Peter, unlike tsars before him, recognized as superior. Before Tatishchev's line, European geographers had vaguely referenced the Don River, to the west of Moscow, as the endpoint of Europe, a boundary that placed Russia squarely in Asia. Peter wanted Russia to be part of Europe, and he also realized that all self-respecting eighteenth-century European monarchs had overseas colonies. Pushing the continental divide east to the Urals not only cloaked Russia in the mantle of Europe but designated Siberia as Russia's hinterland, suddenly located in Asia as a dependency. With a stroke of his pen, then, Tatishchev gave Russia both European metropole and Asiatic colony.

Today, this continental border can be straddled by two legs and just a bit of imagination. Long after Tatishchev reenvisioned Europe and Asia, twentieth-century physical geographers explained his border by imagining that three hundred million years ago the Siberian plate crashed into the eastern edge of the European platform. The impact pitched the landmass up, buckling over the Siberian segment, which dove under, forming a chain of low mountains from the Arctic pole to the deserts of Kazakhstan. A number of markers in the Urals help visitors experience this border. I visited one with a group on a rainy, cold June day in 2007. Traveling an hour from Yekaterinburg, ascending a long, low incline that few people would recognize as a mountain, we finally pulled up at a roadside diner. It was a lonely place, cut out of a forest of pine and fir, which rose around us like a fortress wall, impenetrable, damp, and unwelcoming. From a kiosk, a man sold champagne to wedding parties and tourists. I looked around, searching for the reason we were there. I spotted in the small clearing a platform of red marble divided by a band of white stone—the continental divide. Several bridal parties milled about the platform waiting their turn for photographers to snap shots of the bride and groom kissing over two continents. From the size of the heap of bottles, it was clear that a lot of couples had similar snapshots in their wedding albums. I also went up to the pedestal to have my picture taken.

As I stepped onto the boundary marking the division between two great continents, nothing happened. No orchestral crescendo sounded from the dark wood, no grand vista announced my entry into Asia. Instead, someone in our party cracked a couple bottles of half-sweet Soviet champagne and poured it into plastic cups. Its bubbles were more evocative than the marble marker of the division so essential to contemporary categorizations of Russia as European and Kazakhstan as Asian. Raising our glasses, we hustled through a round of toasts, pitched the empties on the pile, and gladly retreated to the warm, dry bus, which sped us back to Yekaterinburg and Asia.

This is the dirty little secret: often places ostensibly rich with meaning have, at first glance, little power to narrate history and its significance. Place often disappoints, which is one reason it is overlooked, but a second, more pressing reason, for me, is that to describe the places I visit is to admit to the partialness and paltriness of the knowledge I distill from them. Places offer up only remnants, tattered, muddy, sunken, rusted, and despoiled. Once I am in place, things are out of place, disorganized and chaotic, like a box of files tossed in the air, all structure and order eradicated. Arriving at a site, I have little idea what else has been misplaced, stolen, destroyed, or buried. "Visibility," Bruno Latour writes, "is the consequence of lots of opaque and 'invisible' work." No one has done that work before I arrive.

The usual place of historical inquiry is the archive or library. At first glance, archives appear more useful and complete than the places of past events. In an archive, documents are systematized into files, which are labeled and gathered into collections. Archivists do a great deal of the invisible work of making things visible and comprehensible by grouping and categorizing documents to frame knowledge, so that when a historian arrives there is a structure in place from which to make sense of the past. By filing and organizing, archivists squeeze vast territories into miniature, map-size icons that are more coherent and legible than the view you get standing in one spot, anxiously eyeing the horizon for clues. When a researcher appears on site, little organizational work has been done, which makes reading a place for the past a discouraging prospect. The scholar is largely alone in attempting to figure out what happened. Historians approach the archive with a critical eye as to the way some knowledge has been sorted and other knowledge silenced, but recognizing these problems does not mean they give up on them. Archives are still extremely useful. The same can be said of places. For all the problems in trying to see the past from the limited perspective of place, I don't think that is reason to give up.

For—think about it—history occurs in place, not, as historians commonly believe, in time. Or rather, time and place have been mixed together metaphorically so that everything, past and present, takes place in a particular space of time. Philip Ethington notes how in Western culture people tend to imagine time as something spatial—time is a "line," a "frame," as people stand on a "threshold" of an era. "The past," he writes, "is behind us and the future is ahead." The fusing of spatial and temporal metaphors derive from the fact that time is the tracking of human action across space, which itself is a moving target. For this reason, geographers argue that humans cannot create anything without first being in place, that place is essential to the construction of meaning and society, and, I would add, of history, sociology, literary criticism, and anthropology. Plotting the past temporally only from sources in an archive is one of those movements that cloud the work of visibility. The absent place creates a noticeable gap in nonfiction narratives, one that readers comprehend when they complain of dry and lifeless texts. Readers grasp that something is missing.

Missing Unaccounted For

Officials at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) have an acronym, MUF, which means "missing unaccounted for." They use this term to describe plutonium that was processed at DOE sites but now cannot be found. Plutonium, an element that landed on the periodic table in the 1940s, is a manmade product. It is also humanity's most volatile and destructive creation. In trace amounts plutonium cannot be detected by the human senses, but amass enough in one spot and it can go critical, causing a chain reaction. Missing, unaccounted-for plutonium can be a big problem—and an appropriate metaphor for scholarly inquiry. There are a lot of MUFs in nonfiction narratives. Since the 1960s, historians have worked to uncover and present in their work voices long absent from national histories. New social histories emerged in American and European academies just after the riots of the sixties, when the rage of people who had long been missing and unaccounted for appeared on city streets as if out of nowhere and went critical, surprising those who had done the overlooking. Since that time, historians of labor, social, and environmental history, alongside historians of ethnic, racial, and sexual minorities, have penned whole new communities, movements, and identities into being. As a result, writers now can draw on a broader range of voices and topics than ever before. In looking for those voices, however, social scientists have discovered that written records do a poor job recovering the stories of people who were not literate, who lived on the margins, or whose histories were purposefully erased.

Frustrated by the paltry documentary record of people whose lives had fallen beneath metaphorical or actual bulldozers, I fell into the habit of going to the sites of past action. I followed the lead of historians of premodern history, who write about people who left no documentary history. They had figured out ways to read places, geology, climate, flora and fauna, as well as folklore and religious practice, for clues to the past. One location I turn to repeatedly in this book is Kazakhstan, a territory violently dispossessed during the Soviet collectivization drive from 1928 to 1932, a period in which two million of a total four million Kazakhs died or fled. In their place in the subsequent decade, several million deportees, prisoners, and exiles were sent to Kazakhstan. Because of this history, I went to Kazakhstan too.

Where do I begin—with atmosphere?

At the bus stop, women selling dried fish call to me. They are wearing floral housecoats, the closest item in commercial markets to the shapan of wool and silk that used to be the mainstay of Kazakh dress. I walk through courtyards of the capital city, Almaty. A man floats by singing three syllables, mo-lo-ko, in a doleful voice, but he has no milk to sell. Two girls sit on a bench and whisper as the moon stencils their shadows onto the darkened city walls.

Or maybe I should start with a telling snapshot. A Kazakh waitress in a small, downcast city on the northern steppe says she has never met an American before. She interrupts my dinner conversation: "Excuse me for asking, but do they really compare us to Africans?" A woman of Polish descent, deported in the 1930s for having been "Polish," greets me at the door of her sod house, swept and cool. She pulls out sentences in Polish as she would her Sunday china. After a few pleasantries, she slips back into her everyday Russian.


Excerpted from Dispatches from Dystopia by Kate Brown. Copyright © 2015 Kate Brown. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

1 Being There
2 The Panama Hotel, Japanese America, and the Irrepressible Past
3 History (Im)possible in the Chernobyl Zone
4 Bodily Secrets
5 Sacred Space in a Sullied Garden
6 Gridded Lives: Why Kazakhstan and Montana are Nearly the Same Place
7 Returning Home to Rustalgia


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