On nuclear pasts
and radiant futures
Artistic research
and exhibition

Hosts and Hostages of Nuclear Infrastructures: Managing and Containing Nuclear Materialities in the Post-Soviet Space

Eglė Rindzevičiūtė
Soviet Union and Russia

Eglė Rindzevičiūtė is an Associate Professor of Criminology and Sociology at Kingston University in London. Her next book has a preliminary title, 'Beyond Containment: The Making of Nuclear Cultural Heritage' will present a pioneering study of the shaping of nuclearity in museums and heritage sites in the Soviet and post-Soviet Russia.


This essay draws on the talk presented at SALT. CLAY. ROCK., nGbK / neue Gesellschaft für bildende Kunst, 17 November 2023 and builds on several recent publications.[i]

Many scholars have argued that nuclear power has been central for the Soviet and then post-Soviet Russian identity.[ii] Achieving the first chain reaction in 1946, catching up with the US by testing a nuclear bomb in 1949, designing a nuclear reactor capable of generating electricity in 1956, developing nuclear icebreakers to access the Arctic – the Soviet government used nuclear power as a symbol of modernisation and a proof of the great power status.[iii] The Soviet utopia of the future was both powered and secured by nuclear power.

            At the moment of writing the Soviet nuclear power is 78 years old and it has acquired a historic patina.  Its history might not be long, but it features a vast range of disruptions, catastrophic ruptures and turns of the narrative making sense of it all. It is far from clear what it means to inherit the radioactive nuclear infrastructure in the post-Soviet region – as relics of what was considered a radiant future or as a halo of colonial destruction. The post-Soviet Russian nuclear industry continues drawing on the repertoire of the Soviet nuclear culture, the process, which is shaped by multiple negotiations, contestations and plural agencies.[iv] But the most significant case is the fate of the nuclear infrastructure in Ukraine. Following Paul Virilio, the Ukrainian media theorist Svitlana Matviyenko has famously argued that technology only fully reveals itself when it breaks – according to Matviyenko, only with the military capture of Chornobyl and Zaporizhzhe nuclear reactors the military character of the peaceful atom has come to the fore.[v] At the same time the Russian occupation of Chornobyl reinforced the colonial character of Soviet nuclearity.[vi]

A look at the cultural activities of Rosatom, the Russian state atomic energy corporation, reveals the extent of the entanglement of the Soviet coloniality, repression and the narratives of nuclear modernisation and progress. Consider this cast iron bust of Lavrentii Beria (1899-1953), the notorious head of the secret police, known as the State Commissariat of the Internal Affairs (NKVD) under Stalin. Beria was also in charge of administering the repression apparatus and running the Gulag system, a vast network of forced labour camps that imprisoned millions.[vii] Having an established reputation for his ruthless ability to get the job done, Beria was charged with supervising the Soviet atomic programme, initiated in 1942, following an advise of nuclear physicists who were concerned about the ongoing work on nuclear bomb in Nazi Germany. The Soviet programme initially stalled but was accelerated in August 1945 leading to testing the bomb in August 1949.[viii]

More than a half century later, Beria would become key figure in the official narratives of the Russian nuclear power, although his legacy is perceived as deeply controversial. Consider this example [Figure 1, bottom of the text]. This is cast a iron bust that was produced as a souvenir, commissioned by Rosatom in 2023. It may be difficult to understand what kind of message is sent by Rosatom by presenting their clients with a Beria bust as corporate gift. How can the history of large scale repression and murder be part of a positive corporate brand, especially in the branch that values highly the idea of reliability and safety? Indeed, this was not the first time that Rosatom embarked on materialising the historical figure of Beria. For instance, in 2021 Rosatom announced that there will be a vax figure of Beria displayed at the newly built Atomic Pavilion at the VDNKh, former All Union Exhibition Centre. This prompted protest letters from the descendants of the physicists who designed the Soviet nuclear bombs while working alongside Beria. They did not want to see the statues of their ancestors displayed next to Beria. There is, therefore, a strong tension between competing narratives even within the official establishment of the Russian nuclear power.

The first narrative, promoted by Rosatom, is in line with Vladimir Putin’s rehabilitation of the Stalinist regime, which elevates both Beria and Stalin as the patrons of the Russian nuclear power. The second one, preferred by the nuclear industry veterans, seeks to separate the difficult legacy of Stalinist repressions from the development of nuclear power, which they prefer to see as a Russian contribution to world science rather than part of politics and repression. Neither narrative is balanced – they both seek to politicise or de-politicise the nuclear industry in order to serve their own institutional or social interests. There is, however, a third narrative that seeks to open up the history of repressions through the lens of the Cold War nuclear heritage. This narrative is not backed by the Rosatom. It is shaped by grass-root groups of anti-nuclear activists, nuclear industry veterans and residents in nuclear areas. These grass-root groups seek to bring to the light the entanglement of the Gulag system and the nuclear industry, to document the many nuclear accidents and resulting wide scale contamination and to commemorate people who lost their lives, health and livelihoods as the result of the expansion of the nuclear military-industrial complex.

However, even in these efforts there is a complicated entanglement of the inherited material relics that witness the difficult past and stories of the Soviet nuclear world. The Soviet nuclear utopia, exploded, crushed and de-fragmented, is being re-assembled simultaneously in many contradictory ways in the efforts of nuclear cultural heritage-making.[ix] Consider the example of Sarov – the heartland of the Soviet nuclear empire (the other one being Snezhinsk, formerly Cheliabinsk).[x] Sarov is still closed city.[xi] It is only open to the Russian citizens and, on a rare occasion, prominent foreign citizens coming as part of formal delegations. The site is famous in Russia, because the village of Sarov was the home place of the Saint Seraphim of Sarov, one of the most prominent saints in the nineteenth century. In the early twentieth century St Seraphim was promoted alongside Pushkin as key figure of Russian culture.[xii] In the 1940s the village was chosen as a location for the design and construction of nuclear weapons: it was suitable as it already had industrial infrastructure and railway connection. Sarov’s monastery was closed down as part of Sovietisation and repurposed for a missile factory, its location was also strategically convenient: remote enough, but not too far from Moscow.

According to Asif Siddiqi, Beria relied on his Gulag management experience to build the network of secret science cities (known as ZATO). Forced labour of prisoners was used to build the research and production facilities for the Soviet nuclear bomb. Kate Brown described these atomic cities as an extension of the continuum of incarcerated space.[xiii] In post-Soviet Russia, there are about 40 cities with ZATO status, and Sarov is one them. The residents of the village were moved out to make way for the scientists, and the monastery building became home for the weapon designer laboratory. The place was officially called Arzamas-16 and also referred to by code name KB-11 as well as “ob’ekt”. One will not find the stop on the train map, although it is serviced by a train station and a small airport.

Although the members of the early nuclear programme thought about posterity and cultural legacy early on, their possibility to make themselves visible was restricted because of secrecy. The memorial museum for Igor Kurchatov, who built the first pile reactor (1946), was opened in Moscow in the 1960s. At Arzamas, wishes to establish “a hermitage museum of nuclear weapons” were voiced in 1978.[xiv]

The 1980s saw a particularly dynamic tension in the development of nuclear cultural assemblies. Starting in 1983-1984, there was a growing public debate about the climatic impact of nuclear war and increased public support for arms control and denuclearisation. In 1986, the Chernobyl/Chornobyl reactor exploded and Mikhail Gorbachev dismissed Anatolii Aleksandrov and Efim Slavskii, the heads of Soviet nuclear complex, which, as Gorbachev put it, was “dominated by servility, bootlicking, cliquishness, and persecution of those who think differently”.[xv] The political and symbolic status of the nuclear industry no longer was self-evident. Following the Soviet collapse in 1991, the nuclear industry complex became Russian and was facing severe economic decline. As Dmitry Adamsky pointed out, in the 1990s the Russian nuclear sector found itself no longer a priority industry: like in other sectors, salaries were unpaid and, for the first time in their life, the residents of atomic cities faced shortages. In this context, as Adamsky suggested, the nuclear industry was desperately searching for the discursive means for its justification. After Chornobyl and after the end of the Cold War, it was no longer clear whether the country required a nuclear shield and whether this bright future was nuclear powered or not.[xvi]

It was precisely during the moment when glasnost, economic decline and democratisation intertwined that the nuclear industry began to selectively assemble and stage the history of nuclear weapons. The key momentum was the initiation of an exposition in 1992, which was opened by Boris Elt’sin in Sarov. In 1995, Sarov gifted a mock-up of RDS-1 bomb to the Polytechnical museum in Moscow.[xvii] In the 1990s the Soviet nuclear utopia was beginning to face scrutiny: publications called for the recognition of nuclear industry workers who lost their lives due to exposure to radioactivity. On the other hand, the preservation of the nuclear past followed the official narrative of “founding fathers,” a narrative, that, for example had the everyday life material culture of nuclear weapons designers preserved in memorial museums of Iurii Khariton in Sarov.[xviii]

The 2000s saw a new stage in the management of the nuclear industry: with the appointment of Sergei Kirienko as CEO of Rosatom, a specialist unit was created within the Public Relations department to take care of the history and cultural material of the sector. It had turned out that the hundreds of enterprises, institutes, laboratories and cities that formed part of the Rosatom empire now competed with each other for status, recognition, contracts and staff through participation in wide ranging cultural heritage projects.[xix] The Sarov city authorities were particularly interested in enhancing its cultural attractions and in so doing that, they created a peculiar blend of heritage, which combined local history, ecclesiastic heritage, WWII commemoration and presentations of the nuclear industry specific to the location.

In this context, Sarov has become a particularly important case in point. First, as Adamsky showed, the very survival and, later, revival, of the town was enmeshed with its re-establishment as a spiritual centre of St Seraphim. The Seraphim church, built in 1903, and converted into a theatre during Arzamas-16 time, was re-consecrated and re-opened in 2003. This is when Putin visited Sarov for the first time. The monastery was renovated and the city was opened for pilgrims. Furthermore, the Orthodox church directly promoted the nuclear industry by linking nuclear power with the Russian patriotism and national unity. St Seraphim was designated a patron saint of the nuclear industry; his relic bones were sent to Space Station in 2017.[xx] The ecclesiastic narrative, however, did little to recognise the victims of Stalinist nuclearisation.

Probably the most prominent figure that encapsulates the eventual fragmentation of the Soviet nuclear utopia is Andrei Sakharov, the nuclear physicist who contributed to the first atomic bomb and designed the system for the first thermonuclear bomb, one of which was tested in 1961. Sakharov also designed the Tokamak fusion reactor. Sakharov protested against the cult of Stalinism in the late 1960s, published an appeal to human rights and called for prohibition of nuclear weapons in 1968. Sakharov was exiled to Nizhny Novgorod in 1980, rehabilitated in 1986 to become a symbol of Soviet human rights movement.[xxi]

In the midst of Post-Soviet economic decline and as the Orthodox church was assuming an increasingly patriotic and pro-nuclear position, an archive and museum dedicated to Sakharov’s life was created in Moscow (1994, with a separate branch in Harvard). Indeed, Sakharov himself came from a family of orthodox priests. However, the centre was declared a foreign agent in 2012 and evicted from premises by Moscow city in 2023.

The clamping down on Sakharov centre of human rights was compartmentalised in the official Russian discourses of nuclear history. The centre’s activities did not prevent Rosatom from using Sakharov’s figure to legitimate and promote the military atom. In 2021, Rosatom celebrated the centenary of Sakharov’s birthday by hosting a reception and public meetings in Sarov. The CEO of Rosatom and the president of the Russian Academy of Sciences attended and opened a monument to Sakharov.[xxii] In parallel, a nuclear academy named after Sakharov was opened in Nizhnyi Novgorod. The memorial museum of the apartment where the exiled Sakharov lived, was refurbished and extended. Indeed, until the eviction in 2023, the Sakharov centre cooperated with Rosatom history and culture department supplying objects and materials for exhibitions.

The two main Cold War narratives – “atoms for peace” and “the nuclear shield” – continue shaping heritagisation of the Russian nuclear past. The Russian government and many officials of the nuclear industry, however, blame external forces and dismiss national responsibility for all the destruction that followed the making and testing of nuclear weapons, radiological accidents and nuclear terrorism in Ukraine.[xxiii] As Michael Gordin detailed, since the 1950s Soviet nuclear physicists justified their construction of the bomb by arguing that the Soviet Union was actually “forced” to develop nuclear weapons so as to break the US monopoly.[xxiv] In other words, according to the official Soviet narrative, the Soviet Union has nuclearized herself “against her own will,” forced to do so by the USA. Recently, this narrative has been revived with an added emphasis of self-victimisation in the context of Russia’s war on Ukraine: pointing out that the Soviet scientists developed nuclear weapons through great self-sacrifice, whereas, at the same time the Soviet society suffered greatly from Stalinist repressions. In this discursive move according to which “everyone suffered,” the significance and scale of Stalinist repressions are diminished. There are no calls for further scrutiny of governmental institutions that created the conditions which led to fatalities. The narrative of suffering is generalised and the nuclear risks and accidents are absorbed in it as a mere addition to what is described as an “externally” imposed national suffering.

For Putinist circles, this narrative fits well with what the historians of Eurasian geopolitical thought describe as “Russian mir” thinking, based on Lev Gumilev’s idea of “passionarity,” where a titular ethnic group engages in “exceptional endeavors and self-sacrifice”.[xxv] And yet there is little rationality and cohesion to the attempts to reinvent the Soviet nuclear utopia and make it work for Putin’s Russia. One could understand why Gorbachev’s reforms, glasnost and perestroika and subsequent years of democratisation, however shallow, are erased from the official history under Putin: these are inconvenient stories. One could also see why the Rosatom praise Beria for his efficiency as a patron and reformer of the sector, because the nuclear industry is a big spender, not a net earner like oil and gas and needs to constantly argue their case for the government.

But then, the fate of Beria does not subsume to a linear story, it melts and slips away. In a serendipitous move, it was at the first Moscow’s crematorium, which opened in the repurposed St Seraphim church (originally built in 1914), that Beria was cremated and his ashes were interred in New Donskoy Cemetery [Figure 2, bottom of the text]. Ironically, the site of burning the fiercely anti-religious Beria, the crematorium was re-consecrated as the church of the patron of the nuclear industry, St Seraphim, in 1992. The fragments of the Soviet utopia – of the great communist power – and of the Orthodox empire – get reshuffled time and again, once more causing violence and great suffering.

In Ukraine, since 2014, Russia has been physically destroying the material remnants of Soviet modernisation and development. In so doing, Russia is erasing the evidence of just how much the development of Soviet nuclear-powered civilisation depended on its subjugated republics. These waves of war destruction are not only covering up the evidence of past industrial crimes. They are also destroying the evidence of post-Soviet regeneration. For instance, the Russian army’s capture of Chornobyl on 25 February 2022 – alongside the shield covering the destroyed reactor no. 4 – was both a physical and symbolic act. The first shelter was built in 1986-1987 and did not meet nuclear safety standards, because it was not air and watertight, its radioactivity was escaping. In 1995 a new Chornobyl shelter project was initiated; the Chornobyl shelter fund was established in 1997 and managed by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. The construction of the confinement started in 2010, the confinement became operational in 2019, it was completed at the cost of 2.5 billion euros. Another key part of the Chornobyl site is the ISF-2 facility for the dry storage of the highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel, which was built at the cost of 400 million euros and opened in 2020.[xxvi]

The Russian army’s taking Chornobyl hostage and destroying the material infrastructures that are symbols of Ukraine’s westward orientation and development adds to the overlapping halos of destruction. The Russian invasion, in this way, was a crushing blow to the Ukrainian efforts to reflect upon the past and manage the industrial scars it has inherited through modernisation and cultural heritage. This constitutes “Halos of Destruction” by which I refer to the synchronicity of economic and environmental factors, but also the social and cultural damage inflicted through the long cycle of the building, operation, ruination and then intentional destruction of the industrial infrastructure. It is important to recognise that the ongoing destruction of Ukraine’s infrastructure is causing not only direct economic damage, but also a severe loss of memory, public knowledge and archival materials, because these industrial infrastructures are fundamental components of the Twentieth Century’s material culture of modernity. Russia’s war is posing a significant threat to traditional heritage, as well as monuments, museums and art galleries.

 It also obliterates the industrial heritage-to-be, as well as the history of Ukrainian industrialization that remains to be written. Making sense of the legacies of Soviet industrialization as difficult heritage could be a productive approach to dealing with the halos of destruction. Ukraine has hosted layers of modern infrastructures and their difficult legacies, an approach to its care emerging as the country started building its economy after 1991.

This ethics of care was made evident in Oleksiy Radynski’s film “Studies for Chornobyl 22.” Radinsky depicted engineers, managers and scientists who worked at the Chornobyl site explaining their decision to stay on the site, because, as they put it, “they could not leave.” It was, they said, their duty and moral obligation to look after Chornobyl, regardless of the regime and the army which threatened their lives. Their past, as well as their future, has been deeply tied up with the site. The temporality of the ethics of infrastructural care has no duration, it cannot be captured by measuring the start and the end; it is, rather, endurance.

In this context I suggest that nuclear cultural heritage-making can be understood as a key form of material witnessing, an extension of the ethics of endurance. It is about acknowledging and preserving imprints of radioactivity, which go beyond visual representation and become part of the fabric of the physical world of radioactive isotopes, as Susan Schuppli and Alison Sperling detailed in their pioneering work.[xxvii] According to Schuppli and Sperling, by creating imprints of radioactivity, art and visual culture can engage into the production of the evidential basis of the twentieth century as an atomic century. Furthermore, it is precisely such chains of translation that, extending Schuppli’and Sperlings argument, the sociologist Andrew Barry suggests make material witnessing possible: it is linked into hybrid agencies and networks that combine technical and cognitive capacities to measure and interpret radiological events and to connect them back to their original contexts.

This is because material witnesses do not speak for themselves. Their messages need to be decoded and channelled through what Barry describes as “the apparatuses of translation”: conceptual frameworks, devices, experts, and human witnesses. It is these apparatuses, argues Barry, that ultimately establish what exactly is at the heart of the matter—in a literal sense. A debate about lost values of the material culture of Ukraine’s nuclear infrastructures will need to be an important part of peace building and reconstruction – and we will need to enrol many material witnesses in the process.



[i] Parts draw significantly on the previous work: Egle Rindzeviciute, “Hosts and Hostages of Modern Infrastructure: The Halos of Destruction in Ukraine.” In Rindzeviciute, E., Morner, N., Lane, T., Frohlig, F. ed. State of the Region Report 2022, Series 3: Ecological Concerns in the Post-Communist Space: A Comparative Study of the Responses to Waste and Destruction in the Region. Centre for Baltic and East European Studies, Södertörn University, Sweden, 2023, 15-22; and Egle Rindzeviciute, “The Atomic Condition.” New Visions: The Henie Onstad Triennial for Photography and New Media. Hovikodden and Milan: Henie Onstad and Mousse Publishing, 2023, 16-22.

[ii]Paul Josephson, Nuclear Russia: The Atom in Russian Politics and Culture. London: Bloomsbury, 2022; Sonya Schmid, Producing Power: The History of the Soviet Nuclear Industry. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015.

[iii] Egle Rindzeviciute, “Nuclear Power as Cultural Heritage in Russia,” Slavic Review 5, no.4 (2021): 839-862.

[iv] Sonya Schmid, “Celebrating Tomorrow Today: The Peaceful Atom on Display in the Soviet Union.” Social Studies of Science 36 (3) (2006): 331-365.

[v] Svitlana Matviyenko, “Nuclear Cyberwar: From Energy Colonialism to Energy Terrorism,” E-Flux Journal 126 (2022), https://www.e-flux.com/journal/126/460842/nuclear-cyberwar-from-energy-colonialism-to-energy-terrorism/

[vi] Eglė Rindzevičiūtė, Linara Dovydaitytė, Tatiana Kasperski, “Challenging Entangled Colonialisms: Nuclear Cultural Heritage in the Post-Communist Space,” Falling Out with The Past: Nuclear Communities and Their Histories, edited by Chris Hill, Jonathan Hogg and Raminder Kaun. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, in press, 2024.

[vii] Oleg Khlevniuk, The History of the Gulag: From Collectivization to the Great Terror (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004).

[viii] David Holloway, Stalin and the Bomb: The Soviet Union and Atomic Energy, 1939-1956. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996; Michael Gordin, Red Cloud at Dawn: Truman, Stalin, and the End of the Atomic Monopoly (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2009).

[ix] For more on nuclear cultural heritage, see Egle Rindzeviciute, Nuclear Cultural Heritage: From Knowledge to Practice, the final report. Kingston University London, 2022.

[x] Josephson, Nuclear Russia.

[xi] Asif Siddiqi, “Atomized urbanism: secrecy and security from the Gulag to the Soviet closed cities,” Urban History 49(1) (2022):190-210.

[xii] Peter Flew, “Putin’s Patron Saint of Nuclear Weapons: Russia's Red Button is in the Hands of God,” https://unherd.com/2023/12/putins-patron-saint-of-nuclear-weapons/

[xiii] Kate Brown, “Securing the Nuclear Nation.” Nationalities Papers 43(1) (2015):8-26.

[xiv] Rindzeviciute, “Nuclear Power as Cultural Heritage in Russia.”

[xv] Vladislav Zubok, Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021).

[xvi] Dmitry Adamsky, Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy: Religion, Politics, and Strategy (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019).

[xvii] Rindzeviciute, “Nuclear Power as Cultural Heritage in Russia.”

[xviii] Rindzeviciute, “Nuclear Power as Cultural Heritage in Russia.”

[xix] Rindzeviciute, “Nuclear Power as Cultural Heritage in Russia.”

[xx] Adamsky, Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy.

[xxi] See the celebratory biography Boris Altshuler, Sakharov and Power: On the Other Side of the Window (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing, 2022).

[xxii] See TASS: https://tass.ru/obschestvo/11436077

[xxiii] Marin Coudreau, Laurent Coumel, Anna Olenenko, Tatiana Kasperski, Darya Tsymbalyuk, et al., “Russia’s war in Ukraine. Environmental issues” (2022); Matviyenko (2022); Rindzeviciute, “Hosts and Hostages of Modern Infrastructure.”

[xxiv] Gordin, Red Cloud at Dawn.

[xxv] Adamsky; first suggested by Medvedev in 2011.

[xxvi] Rindzeviciute, “Hosts and Hostages of Modern Infrastructure.”

[xxvii] Susan Schuppli, Material Witness: Media, Forensics, Evidence (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2020); Alison Sperling, “Radiating Exposures,” in Weathering: Ecologies of Exposure, eds. Christoph F. E. Holzhey and Arnd Wedemeyer (Berlin: ICI Berlin Press, 2020), 41–62.

Figure 1. The Beriia souvenir commissioned by Rosatom. Link to a website with Beriia’s image: https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/5217962 The source of the image: zakupki.gov.ru
Figure 2. The Donskoy crematorium, Moscow. Unknown author. Alexys A. Sidorov, Moskau (Berlin: ALBERTUS-VERLAG, 1928). https://ru.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2677490