Between Utopia and Armageddon: Islands of Risk in the Soviet Arctic (Novaya Zemlya)

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This paper deals with the environmental, technological and indigenous histories of the Novaya Zemlya archipelago, a group of islands that lies in the Arctic European border of Russia. Being remote from civilly important towns and cities this archipelago was an actual epicentre of the Cold War, the place also known as the Soviet proving ground number one where the hugest Soviet nuclear bomb “Tsar Bomba” was tested in 1961. Embodying geopolitical imaginations, military and economic strategies the archipelago has been always a contact zone which challenges the notion of border and remoteness. At the very same time, this area was part of ‘landscape of risk’ as Douglas Weiner called the Soviet environment (2005) following the works of Ulrich Beck and Oleg Yanitskii. In this paper, I will develop further the notion of the landscape of risk by the example of Novaya Zemlya. Its colonisation by indigenous and Russian people in the second half of the 19th century created the ground for a highly risky economy as it depended solely on fishing, sea and bird hunting. Under the Soviet colonisation, this island was turned into the real source of threat for the world due to its militarization and organisation there the huge proving ground. These two narratives underlie the core of the paper which is divided into two chronologically designed parts. The first one is focused on the brief tragic/heroic history of ‘indigenous’, scientific and early Soviet economic colonisation of the archipelago which was materialised in temporal settlements, polar stations and trading posts. The second part deals with the intricate history of militarisation of the archipelago which culminated in multiple nuclear bomb tests and creating a deep environmental crisis in the European Arctic and wider. An epilogue of the paper is dedicated to current (de)colonisation of the archipelago through the nature conservation project which has turned out concurrent to new militarization of the area. By the end of the paper I return to the initial idea of risk showing how a particular geographical locus surrounded by water might unite competing and at times exclusive approaches through which the state and various groups realise their politics that imperils the life of people and of the environment nationally and worldwide. The research is based on published and archival sources as well as the analysis on Internet blogs, newspapers and documentaries.

Dmitry V. Arzyutov is a doctoral candidate at the Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment, KTH Royal Institute of Technology (Stockholm). Honorary Research Fellow at the Department of Anthropology,  University of Aberdeen (UK). He holds PhD in Anthropology (St Petersburg) and is working on his second doctorate in the History of Science and Environment. He has published extensively in Russian, English and French on indigenous religions in South Siberia, environmental anthropology and history of the Russian Arctic, history of Russian/Soviet anthropology in a transnational context, and visual anthropology. His last edited volume (together with David G. Anderson and Sergei S. Alymov) Life Histories of Etnos Theory in Russia and Beyond has been published this year in Open Book Publishers (Cambridge, UK) - https://www.openbookpublishers.com/product/823
Publications and films: https://kth.academia.edu/DmitryArzyutov