Marshall D. Shulman Book Prize

2020 Recipient

Kate Brown

Manual for Survival: An Environmental History of the Chernobyl Disaster

The Marshall D. Shulman Book Prize, established in 1987 and sponsored by the Harriman Institute at Columbia University, is awarded annually for an outstanding monograph dealing with the international relations, foreign policy, or foreign-policy decision-making of any of the states of the former Soviet Union or Eastern Europe published in the previous calendar year. The prize is dedicated to the encouragement of high-quality studies of the international behavior of the countries of the former Communist Bloc.

Winner: Kate Brown
Title: Manual for Survival: An Environmental History of the Chernobyl Disaster (W.W. Norton Pres)

Disasters are landscapes. They entail timelines of events, causes and consequences, actors with purpose, but also encompass feelings, destinies and coping mechanisms ultimately. Kate Brown´s book on the Chernobyl nuclear disaster argues that because of its multidimensional nature, this event should not be studied linearly or chronologically only. Nor is narrating its actors and their actions enough. While stories of feelings and the experience of the event from multiple points of view may not be so common in global histories, Brown shows us why they are so needed to understand this Chernobyl disaster. This monograph tells convincingly and in all-encompassing detail the fine points of how a nuclear plant in the city of Pripyat exploded. It analyzes the handling of the crises and the culpability of the Soviet Union´s one-party leadership. Yet, at the same time the reader also learns about the nature and dynamics of this crisis through its impact on people, and even their futures after the event. The book discusses memories of the accident as well as its aftermath by a remarkable number of persons and bodies and points of view who experienced and/or were impacted by the event. Brown´s methodology includes the field of the history of experience, but she is entangled not only with social history or the history of everyday lives. Instead, the book underlines the multidimensionality of disasters and how they function in many directions simultaneously, in this instance from Belarus to Moscow to Sweden to the United States, from the years before the accident to years after. Through her methodology, Brown argues that disasters and crises can be studied by bringing forth the way in which a disaster spreads its impact in different directions across time and space. What makes this book thoroughly exciting is how Brown rescues nuclear politics from being restricted to the realms of the history of institutions and international relations. Here the history of nuclear power involves human experiences and human and institutional impacts, such a methodology is not only new and unexpected, but is also very timely as we all experience the Covid-19 crises personally and world-wide. The parallels of personal experience, helplessness, universality, and overlapping individuality are inescapable. Brown´s book calls into question the way the study of history uses times and periodization as limits. It is thoroughly researched using multiple archives, interviews, newspapers, and media as its sources. The volume is beautifully written and well put together with relevant visualisations such as maps that locate the site of the explosion. Brown conveys an analysis of political history in a truly remarkable way. The book is one of a kind. It shows us one way in which we can view a crisis and its (non)resolution together.

Honorable Mention: Mara Kozelsky