Geography PhD candidate Robert Kopack explores new poltical economies of former Soviet closed cities in Kazakhstan
Banner Images: Touring an outdoor ballistic missile museum in Priozersk, Kazakhstan. Under the spell of the mighty ‘Proton’ in Baikonur, Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstan has much to do with cold war history. Beginning in the 1950’s, the Soviet Union moved forward with an astounding array of scientific and military projects that produced space and nuclear technologies, ballistic missile defense systems, and a biological weapons program so clandestine that production facilities never appeared on area maps. All of these projects required massive investments in laboratories, test sites, and bedroom communities for an elite echelon of scientists, military personnel, and their families. Indeed, Kazakhstan is home to several of the Soviet’s most prized military-industrial and defense landscapes, including former closed cities: the small modern hamlets where leading cold war technicians, young families, and military conscripts lived and recreated in elaborate suburban environments.
The end of the Soviet Union at the close of 1991 brought unimaginable changes to millions of people. Of particular interest to me are the ways in which former defense industrial landscapes, infrastructures, laboratory complexes, and their attendant closed and/ or secret cities have been transformed in the post-Soviet period. My dissertation project examines the political, social, economic, and environmental afterlives of cold war science and technology by looking to three locations in Kazakhstan: 1) The Baikonur Cosmodrome, the world’s oldest and largest space launch site; 2) Stepnogorsk, a primary Soviet biological weapons facilities and uranium mining complex; and 3) Sary Shagan, one of the Soviet’s premier ballistic missile research and test sites. Taken together, these places provide a window into a diverse set of post-Soviet landscapes. What kinds of economies have developed in and around these sites? How does extensive environmental pollution affect politics at local, national, and international scales? How are resident populations affected by municipal decline? This research has required that I spend several years in Kazakhstan and work closely with many terrific people who helped me to better understand the post-Soviet period and greatly expand my Russian language skills.
I have a BA from the University of Colorado at Boulder with a double major in History and Russian studies. I received my MS from the Geography Department at Michigan State University where I worked on urban monuments and memorials in Kazakhstan, looking for socio-political factors behind altering, maintaining, or effacing Soviet history in the built landscape. Robert Lewis and Matt Farish have supervised my research at U of T since I began doctoral work in 2013.