11/15: Ethnography in Life Exposed

This novel provides a unique examination of the Chernobyl disaster through the approach of ethnography. Author Adriana Petryna examines Ukraine’s fusion of governance and humanism post-disaster and thus, examines the emergence of biological citizenship (“the social practice that has emerged in Ukraine—sites make up a subsystem of the state’s public health and welfare infrastructure where increasingly poor citizens mobilize around their claims of radiation-induced injuries (p. 5).”

Specifically, I was drawn to the story of Rita Dubova (pg. 121-126). Rita, a fifty-six year old intern in the ARS ward of the Radiation Research Center now works [in 1996] to pay for her medicines and “to economically secure her son and grandchildren’s future before her death” (p. 121). In 1984, “Rita had worked as a gatekeeper in central gate security at the Chernobyl plant [just several hundred meters away from the wall of the reactor” (p. 122). She spoke of her boss’s direct denial of the event, of the absence of “transport” promised by leadership, and of her difficulties obtaining admittance into a hospital (despite exhibiting severe symptoms; bone marrow damage has now been reported in her records). Her struggles persisted with the steady worsening of her symptoms (ultimately declining into a state that matched those of an ARS patient); yet, the state continued to classify her condition as “less organic” (p. 123). This process continued, becoming a vicious, inescapable cycle. She was then diagnosed with having acute radiation sickness; however, the diagnosis was revoked and then again reinstated. I was particularly struck by this fact, finding it difficult to comprehend how healthcare providers—those under oath to do whatever it takes to provide the necessary care—were consistently denying people of this right. This battle is just one display of attempted expression/establishment of biological citizenship. Further, I am left troubled by the inadequacies surrounding the justice system (or, lack thereof). On several occasions, Rita was turned away despite her qualified “ill” condition. The leadership’s behavior in this situation was everything but fair or impartial. After everything Rita had been through (and people like her), how could they not feel a sense of obligation or responsibility to act? Their lack of remorse leaves me to question the role of the state in this disaster; it leaves me to speculate the state as the culpable “perpetrator.”

Petryna notes also the story of Rita’s son, a former worker at the Chernobyl plant who was left blind from an “occupational radiation accident” (p. 121) in 1984. Like his mother, he was never provided compensation. This trend of injustice is startling and I am left discouraged that Rita’s story is just one of thousands. This account explores the politics of Chernobyl-exposed populations, revealing an array of ambiguities that situated citizens in a complex arrangement of categories.

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