Published: March 27, 2014

Magdelena Stawkowski, a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at CU-Boulder, will kick off the 2014 CAS Annual Symposium: Catastrophic Asia with her presentation entitled "Radiation 'Adaptation': Emergent Subjectivities and Health Strategies Among Indigenous Kazakhs at Semipalatinsk." In this paper, she draws on sixteen months of field work to describe the legacies of the Soviet atomic testing project and its long-term disastrous effects on the inhabitants of the nuclear zone in Kazakhstan. Focusing on the village of Koyan in the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site region, she examines local Indigenous Kazakh villager’s understandings of health, livelihood and suffering, specifically their emerging subjectivities and health strategies after forty years of Soviet nuclear testing. While rooted in the broader histories of the Kazakh steppe and subsequent decline of the Soviet state, the context for this discussion is a forty-year period of Cold War nuclear testing and then its programmatic and abrupt closure. Particularly, she elucidates how scientific authority about the biological effects of low-dose radiation exposure, coupled with Kazakhstan’s economic restructuring programs, led to the socio-economic marginalization of inhabitants living adjacent to the test site. Principally, she addresses how Kazakhstan’s current political-economic climate has fostered a specific post-socialist “mutant” subjectivity in the nuclear zone—one that has rural populations “embracing” radioactive pollution. Tragically, the people she came to know see their own survival as proof that they are biologically adapted to a radioactive ecosystem.

In a broad sense, Magdelena's interests lie in the changing visions of militarized and nuclear spaces and how these produce specific forms of social, political, and economic exclusion among people who live on a former nuclear test site.  Her dissertation, ‘Radioactive Knowledge’: State Control of Scientific Information in Post-Soviet Kazakhstan, is an ethnographic account of the legacies of the Soviet atomic bomb project—their disastrous health effects and the formation of a nuclear landscape. She initially traveled to Kazakhstan compelled to study a Polish diaspora group exiled to the region by Joseph Stalin in the 1930s. Yet, in 2007 when conducting some initial field work, she learned of the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site. As it turns out, this is the largest terrestrial nuclear research complex in the world and one that continues to be inhabited by ethnic Kazakhs. Moreover, it is the only site of this kind in the world where people live next to craters produced by underground nuclear tests and travel freely through some of the most radioactive areas on the planet.

On another note, her current dissertation research coincides with a broader interest of hers in Cold War era nuclear legacies. This comes in part, from her own experience of the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine and its effects in Poland. Many of her relatives, for example, have come to attribute some of their illnesses to radioactive exposure. Whether this is the case, remains a controversial topic and one that her work as a medical anthropologist engages with. As a result, together with Professor Donna Goldstein, they began the "Human Survival in a New Nuclear Age Initiative” at the University of Colorado through the Center to Advance Research and Teaching in the Social Sciences. This initiative aims to bring together social science researchers, scientists, and members of the Boulder community in order to address a broad range of questions associated with the nuclear age. After her graduation from the University of Colorado Boulder, Department of Anthropology, she is taking a post-doctoral position at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) at Stanford University where she will produce research that informs policy decisions concerning the issues of nuclear nonproliferation and global health. 

Magdelena's talk will begin at 1:00 p.m. in the Center for British and Irish Studies on the fifth floor of Norlin Library. To find out more about the conference, please click here.