Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Chernobyl Stories and Anthropological Shock in Hungary

Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Chernobyl Stories and Anthropological Shock in Hungary

Article excerpt

The Budapest Chernobyl Day commemoration generated a creative outpouring of stories about parental responsibilities, scientific knowledge, environmental risks, and public participation. I examine the stories and performances elicited by the tenth anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in April 1996. In these "Chernobyl stories" activists criticized scientific and state paternalism while engaging in alternative practices of citizenship. The decade between the catastrophic explosion and its commemoration coincides with the development of the Hungarian environmental movement and the transformation from state socialism. Chernobyl Day 1996 consequently became an opportunity for activists to reflect upon how the meaning of citizenship and public participation had changed in those years as well. First, the Chernobyl explosion drew into question the authority of scientific expertise and Cold War notions of technological progress, provoking the "politicization of knowing" for many activists. Second, personal memories of the 1986 disaster reflect how Chernobyl presented everyday life dilemmas that caused many parents and professionals to see themselves as citizens and environmentalists, a process I term the "politicization of caring. " I analyze the political implications of framing the environment as lifeworld, drawing from sociologist Ulrich Beck's concept of "anthropological shock. " [environmentalism, civil society, science/technology, postsocialism, Hungary]

In April 1996 I joined Hungarian activists in commemorating in the tenth anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion. I had been in the field for eight months, and I recognized many familiar faces among the environmentalist and other activists present. But the sight of one figure in the milling crowd on Vorosmarty Square gave me a jolt. Dressed all in black rags, a tall person-I could not tell if it was a man or a woman-pushed a black baby carriage. A shocking, scarred mask obscured the person's face. Instead of being shaded by a parasol, the carriage was overshadowed by a paper mache mushroom cloud. Inside the carriage lay a mutilated baby doll. The figure stood silently throughout the afternoon, wheeling the pram in a small circle near the exit of the subway.

I hurried across the square to rehearse for Chernobyl Day street theatre performances with my friends from the ELTE Klub, a university environmental group. None of my friends knew the true identity of the "nuclear parent," and by the time we were through with two rounds of performances, the figure with the baby carriage had disappeared from the square as quietly as it had come.

The Budapest Chernobyl Day commemoration generated a creative outpouring of stories about parental responsibilities, scientific knowledge, environmental risks, and public participation. In the following pages I examine the stories and performances elicited by the tenth anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in April 1996. The decade between the catastrophic explosion and its commemoration coincides with the development of the Hungarian environmental movement and the transformation from state socialism. Chernobyl Day 1996 consequently became an opportunity for activists to reflect upon how the meaning of citizenship and public participation had changed in those years as well.

Hungary borders the Ukraine, and is about 800 miles away from Chernobyl. The cloud of radiation from the explosion was swept northwest by wind currents and rained down most heavily in northern Europe. While the level of radioactive precipitation in Hungary did not compare with those heavily affected regions, radiation in the weeks following the explosion was significantly higher than usual. More significantly, the "cultural fallout" of the explosion, as played out in people's everyday lives, practices, and beliefs, had far-reaching effects (Stephens 1995).

The continuously unfolding nature of radioactive disaster requires analytic approaches to culture that highlight the transformation of meanings and practices over time. …

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