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«Sarcophagus: Chernobyl in Historical Light Author(s): Adriana Petryna Source: Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 10, No. 2, Anthropologies of the Body (May, ...»

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Sarcophagus: Chernobyl in Historical Light

Author(s): Adriana Petryna

Source: Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 10, No. 2, Anthropologies of the Body (May, 1995), pp.


Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of the American Anthropological Association

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http://www.jstor.org Sarcophagus: Chernobyl in Historical Light Adriana Petryna DepartmentofAnthropology Universityof California at Berkeley In the following pages, I will guide the readerthrougha tourof a post-Chernobyl social imaginary, a theater of images let loose after an invisible catastrophe, summoning the social body to experience it as a turning point in history. I document a series of encounters with multigenerationalUkrainianinformants to explore their experiences of the Chernobyl disaster within perceptions of historical truth.How did they experience history and Soviet state power before and after Chernobyl? How did they settle back into their bodies? What does it mean to be alive in a heavily contaminatedenvironment controlled by science and the sovereign power of the state? These questions are the underlying basis for comprehendinghow individuals navigate the shock of a nucleardisaster.As an ethnographerof Ukrainian-Americanbackground,I come face-to-face with the strangeness of the disaster in light of my family's migration from Ukraine.

Chernobyl within the Context of Leninist History The scale of the Cherobyl disaster of April 26, 1986, was massive, damaging human immune systems and the genetic structureof human cells, contaminating soils and waterway systems. The radiation released from the plant was roughly equivalent to 1,000 Hiroshima bombs (Gould 1993:331). The initial explosion caused the reactorcore to melt down completely and lasted over ten days, spreadingall thatit could over the entire Europeancontinent,doing the most damage in Belarus, Ukraine,and Russia (Chernousenko 1992; Sich 1994).

A 40-foot-thick concrete cap, built in a few weeks to restrain the spewing Unit NumberFourof the V. I. Lenin ChernobylNuclear Power Station, was officially dubbed the "Sarcophagus."

Chernobyl occurred one month after Gorbachev instituted his policy of glasnost. The disaster, so uprooting,had to be reconciled with Gorbachev'spolitical attemptsto restore a society andpartythat were extremely corruptandailing by 1986. As such, glasnost recast Chernobyl as a political event to be conCulturalAnthropology 10(2):196-220. Copyright? 1995, American Anthropological Association.

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tained and understood within the historical project of Leninism. Gorbachev's commitment to glasnost mimicked "a kind of openness that Lenin, in 1918, had endorsed as a technique for the press to use in 'stimulating the masses into taking part themselves in solving the problems closest to them' " (Thom 1989:68 quoted in Feshbach and Friendly 1992:13). Gorbachev saw this project as the expansion of the charismaticstatus of the party, embodied by Lenin, to the Soviet people. By referringto the sarcophagusof Lenin's preserved body located in Moscow, naming the concrete cap Sarcophaguswas meant to incite a sense of physical, moral, and spiritual rejuvenation within the Soviet population. This ideological incitement could not disguise the blinding and incomprehensible light delivered by Chernobyl. That light has become a consuming hole of the present, a rupturein historic time, systems of belief, and representation.

The name Sarcophaguswas promoted not only in the Soviet press but also through a famous play, entitled Sarcophagus, written in Moscow by a Pravda news correspondentshortly afterthe accident and widely performedin the West.

The play was intended as a chronology of events at Chernobyl.In fact, it was yet anotherplatform on which Gorbachevcould furtherhis cause of social restoration. The play introduces one "Mr. Immortal,"a nuclear power plant worker, who was in a hospital for radiation injuries due to a plutonium accident. The story highlights Mr. Immortal'srabiddrinkinghabits and notes thathis injuries and the accident itself were due to indiscretions caused by his heavy drinking (Mould 1988:149).

The play Sarcophagus was a product of the official apparatusof Gorbachev's Leninist vision and reaffirmedthe faultless ability of the Soviet technocratic state to overcome catastrophe.The name of the protagonist, an immortal member of the Narod (the masses), reinstantiatedthe trope of immortality outside the Moscow center in an exploding technological device-the power plant. As a trope of Leninism, it reaffirmednot the flesh of that history, embodied in the mortifiedplant worker,but the original locus of thathistory, embodied in the death and resurrectionof Lenin himself. The application of the name Mr.

Immortal to the mortified flesh of the plant worker instantiated a question:

When is dead really dead?

Bureaucratswho handledthe Chernobyl accident narratea different scene.

Kira Serhiivna, a high-ranking official of the Ministry of Social Welfare in Ukraine,' organized the evacuation of thousands of individuals from heavily contaminatedareas in Ukraine.She recounted a story to me from those days during and after the ten-day nuclearrelease. "I visited the hospitals where the Chernobyl clean-up workers,the Chernobiltsi, were being treatedfor radiationinjuries. So many that I saw have already died!" Kira continued, "We [the Minister and herself] walked along the bedsides of those desperate boys, passing one bed after another,and stopped at the bed of one. He looked at me with the most piercing of looks and cried, 'Look what you have done to me!' The man was covered with radiationbums, and I am sure that he is dead now."

198 CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY Kira, a stone-cold Soviet cadre,did not show any outwardsigns of remorse or shock but also did not discount the force of the nameless worker's indictment.

On February 18, 1994, Kira Serhiivna died of metastasized cancer.

The Chernobyl event precipitateda historical question regardingthe body within the place of Soviet socialist history. Could the event be writteninto Leninist revolutionarytime, where the body's historical and physical "impulses"toward death2are overcome by the resurrectingpowers of the Narod?Or would it stand outside this modern arenain and of itself? And if it did, what then?

"Sarcophagus"became commonly used by a Soviet population to identify the phenomenon of Chernobyl. The term sarcophagus derives from the Greek root meaning "flesh-eating"(sarx = flesh, phagus = eating), and in Greekburial practices, the term referredto an instrumentfor evacuating the body fluids of noble corpses in preparationfor their future lives. The word suggests a change in the physical substantiality of the body, a body evacuating from itself (or eaten) through draining tombs, vacuum-suction devices, bloodletting devices, or, in the late 20th century, concrete caps.

The demiurgic image of explosion combined with the word sarcophagus to remove history from the site of its original meaning. But questions arise:Evacuation of whom or what?Whose flesh? The removal of the word from its original historical locus and the transpositionof it onto the site of a nucleardisasterprovokes a problem: What words should be put in relation to the image of the Sarcophagus for those who felt Chernobyl "in their teeth"?3 The Chernobyldisasterregisteredin the imaginationsof Ukrainianwriters, who saw something uniquein its flames.4Lina Kostenko (1993) and Oles' Honchar (1968) generatedalternativeconceptions of historical birthand sited them in the bellowing smokestacks and the red flames of steel mills, in the metallic

war-tornluster of socialist Ukraine:

–  –  –

And in anotherpassage:

The heat of war hoversover and the soot falls on the gardensthatchip away.

Poisoneverywhere.... [Honchar 1968:14-15]5 The infant's gift, evoked by Honchar,is to see with fresh and untrammeled eyes the horrorthatwill begin to lie dormantin his soul; the horrorthathe would suffer silently, with a "wealthof images and a holding back of words"(Kristeva 1989:224). Chernobyl continues a tradition of poison and soot but extends it into the future, invisibly and silently, without a cough.


The displacement of the Sarcophagus from its original historical locus set in motion opposing conceptions of the human outlines of the space of death: a battle between the body of Leninist history-preserved, dried out, but ideologically life-giving-and the actual mortified husks of Leninism above and below the soil, remembered in oral histories and inhabiting the ruined landscape of Ukraine: witnessed but not written. What remained of those unaccounted-for bodies, alive and dead, had been captured in fragments, fleeting gestalts, and mood swings, blocked out of view by the preserved body of Lenin. Chernobyl gathereddisparatehistoric imaginations throughimages of flames and gave an image to something that, by official historical definition, had no speech. It delivered the gift of sight, like the one received by the newborn suckling images of war that were leaking poisons. Sarcophagus exposed the horrorof that emptying act. The word sarcophagus was even spoken with some sigh of relief;

something was over.

Two historical-mechanicalconceptions of the body were at odds: one swoleven catharticin its leakiness; the other dry, chalky, embalmed, sucked out, len, preserved,dead. These conceptions stimulatedpoetic recombinationsof images of the mortified bodies of famine and war that were put out of view, out of history, out of speech, with images seen in the flames. More questions arose: Who am I? How do I live? Has Chernobyl transfiguredme physically and permanently? And assertions: I have been made an object of the Soviet experiment again. Kostenko spoke of the peasants who had abandonedtheirkhutiry(homes) after Chernobyl: "They will not write 'dead,' they will write 'not alive'" (1993).

Kostenko points to two events as the flesh of a modernUkraine:the famine of 1932-33 and the Chernobyl accident of 1986. Ukrainiansare called to witness a composite image of theirhistory: the famined bodies, frozen in the theater of nuclearlight.6Those famined bodies reciprocatea gaze, tracing across three generationsto affirm historical continuity. These silent gazes fill the stage of a more recent disaster that escapes vision. An article entitled "Bloodstained Sky Brought ForthUkraine"(Visti z Ukraini 1993:1) presents a culturaltheaterthat seeks to "give flesh to the bitter pages of our country."It names the year 1993 as "The Year of Grief and Remembrance,"placing the title alongside archival photos of emaciated children, huddling over their empty stomachs, prone in preparationfor death.

This political need to witness a past-these bodies that gaze-overshadows the crucial practical knowledge about risk after Chernobyl. Such "need" could have been made less naturalif the scale of the Chernobyldisasterhad been made fully public by the Cold War military-scientific complex that purportsto monitor it. The scale of the disaster is still anxiously being suppressed.And so, the need to see and be seen has recast the terms of cultural production about Chernobyl-from violations that must be called into account to a naturalization of "historical"fate. If after Chernobyl the image of the Sarcophagusdisplaced the structureof historical narration,images introducedin a currenteraof nationbuilding preserve unaccountabilitywithin a theaterof mortified flesh.

200 CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY How To Remember Now I became interestedin Chernobylwhile I was researchinga Stalinist prison in the Ukrainiancity of Kamianets-Podilski.I was drawnto this prison, in part, because its uses changed rapidly over time, and I wanted to understandhow these changes affected local inhabitants'perceptionsof theirhistorical past. The city of Kamianets-Podilski, located in the southwest border of Ukraine, was a main border-controllingpoint of the Soviet Union at the time of the revolution.

It juxtaposes a historic "OldCity"and a socialist "New City."The terrainof Soviet life-a socialist city awash in concrete housing blocks-is juxtaposed with an aged landscape of winding medieval streets.

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