H-Ukraine Spotlight: Interview with Kate Brown

John Vsetecka's picture

H-Ukraine “Spotlight” Interview with Kate Brown


H-Ukraine: What is your current position/affiliation?


KB: I am a professor of Science, Technology and Society at MIT. I specialize in environmental history. 


H-Ukraine: You’ve written a number of books on Ukraine, Russia, and the Soviet Union. How did you become interested in researching and writing about this part of the world?


KB: The politics of the Reagan era alerted me to how fickle Cold War politics/threats/showmanship made the world precarious in alarming ways. I determined as an undergrad to learn Russian and go to the Soviet Union to see for myself if it really was an “evil empire” as some US leaders said at the time. Once I started down the road, I never looked back. 


H-Ukraine: Your most recent book, Manual for Survival: An Environmental History of the Chernobyl Disaster (published in 2019), was released during what seemed like a wave of renewed interest in the Chernobyl calamity. Why do you think there is such an interest in this event, and what lessons, if any, can be taken from your book to help us think through contemporary crises?


KB: Chernobyl represents for a lot of people a trial run for the end of the world. Of course, humans have been thinking about apocalypse for millennia, but never before in human history has the pace of abandonment of territories and the sacrifice of people, animals and plants living been so fast and furious. We are in the midst, as Elizabeth Kolbert calls it, of the “Sixth Extinction.” As the message of the Anthropocene sinks in—that humans are now the greatest planetary force and probably not a good force—Chernobyl offers a safe way to think not only about the past, but about the possible future.


The pandemic amplifies that thought. One day in the Chernobyl territories, people woke up and found that all that was home, familiar, loved had become potentially poisonous. We woke up this spring with a similar dawning realization that the air we breathe contains a potentially fatal virus. Our alienation now brings into sharper clarity the experience of Chernobyl survivors.


H-Ukraine: You may not remember this, but we spoke for a brief time about radioactive berries at Lewis Siegelbaum’s retirement conference at Michigan State University. I remember being struck by your comment that low-count radioactive berries were still circulating out of the exclusion zone and into the hands of various sellers. What does this tell us about the aftermath of Chernobyl and about the reverberating effects of disasters?


KB: The fact of radioactive blueberries circulating global markets tells us what we already knew; that radioactive contaminants have long lives and they gravitate towards living beings up the food chain to the super-predator—human beings. We would rather forget this fact and the existence of the billions of curies of radioactive fallout released during the Cold War. The insensibility of radioactive contaminants makes it easy for us to neglect them, but every now and then like a haunting, they return.

H-Ukraine: The editors of H-Ukraine are fans of your writing style. You often write yourself into your narrative, never afraid to integrate the personal pronoun “I” into your books. What do think are the advantages of writing oneself into historical narratives?


KB: I published a short book called Dispatches from Dystopia centered around this question. In short, enabling the “I” voice allows me to bring emotions to the page. I can show readers how subjective my research process is so they can evaluate for themselves the truthfulness of my findings. I write about places that are often no place—margins, forgotten or overlooked communities. In first person narratives, I can bring my reader along on my wanderings so they can see and sense the stops on my research trips. Once people can visualize a place, I hope they come to care about it more. 


H-Ukraine: One of the draws to your work, I think, is your ability to translate complex histories of Ukraine (and elsewhere) into digestible material that is read by wider academic and public audiences. What advice would you give to scholars who are attempting to do the same?


KB: I think a lot about the craft of writing and so I design my research so that what I do to get the story becomes part of the story itself. Going undercover berry picking was one of those devices that I figured would work well on the page. In the act of picking berries (while burying the rental car in mud) and selling them, I learned a lot more about the problem than I ever could have discovered reading about it alone. 


H-Ukraine: On what project(s) are you currently working?


KB: I’m working on a book called “Plant People” about indigenes, peasants and maverick scientists who understood long before others that plants communicates, have sensory capacities, and possess the capacity for memory and intelligence. 


H-Ukraine: What Ukraine-related book/article would you recommend for those wishing to learn more about the country’s past?


KB: I would start with memoirs and novels. I am a big fan, for instance, of Konstantine Pauskovsky’s memoirs.


H-Ukraine: Where is your favorite place to visit in Ukraine and why?


KB: I love going to the region around the Pripyat Marshes in northern Ukraine. It is lovely there. Villages full of interesting people making a living with their own wits and off the land. I worry about this territory. Poland, Ukraine and Belarus are collaborating to build a new canal, the world’s longest, to connect the Black and Baltic Seas. If the E40 goes through, this most biologically diverse region of Europe, the Marshes, will be destroyed. Radioactive fallout stored in muddy lake and river bottoms will start flowing again. I hope people who care about Ukraine weigh in on this issue.