This past summer, I became completely obsessed with HBO’s “Chernobyl” miniseries. I religiously followed not only the show, but also the associated podcast (and even the bonus episode!). Naturally, when choosing my Winter Quarter classes, I knew that I had to sign up for Prof. Peggy O’Donnell’s “Chernobyl: Bodies and Nature After Disaster,” which ended up being one of my all-time favorite classes during my time at UChicago.
The class was cross-listed as a History, Russian and Eastern European Studies (REES), Gender and Sexuality Studies (GNSE), and Environmental and Urban Studies class (ENST). This was because we took such an interdisciplinary approach to examining the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. We spent the first class discussing the explosion itself: how nuclear reactors work, who was involved, how it went wrong, and what the immediate aftermath looked like. However, we only spent that one class period discussing the actual disaster! In the following weeks, we touched on political dynamics, impacts on feminism, environmental activism, the atomic age, and how we classify disasters.
We first began by discussing the USSR and United States during this time period and their respective weapons of the Cold War. The class stressed the interconnectedness of atomic energy and atomic weapons, as many nuclear energy facilities were designed to manufacture materials that could be used in bomb-making. We also compared the nuclear-industrial complexes in the two nations.
The course then focused on the many “paths” out of Chernobyl. We started by discussing the health impacts of nuclear disaster, both on the people immediately surrounding the plant and on the populations farther removed geographically. We touched on colonialism and empires, reading accounts of uranium miners in several African countries. We then moved on to the effects on maternal and fetal bodies, who were particularly susceptible to radioisotopes. This was discussed in the context of the Three Mile Island disaster, as we linked it to the feminist movement that existed in the United States during that time. We also learned about the environmental impacts of radiation and how difficult cleanup can be. The class concluded with us reading a fictional, post-apocalyptic novel and discussing the implications of nuclear energy and weapons today.
Throughout the course, students would present in small groups on other “Disasters in History.” This allowed us to interpret how exactly we define a disaster, and whether the distinction between natural and man-made disasters is an important one. My group chose to focus on the Titanic, which provided many interesting parallels to Chernobyl as well as a juxtaposition of the man-made and natural components to the disaster. The course also consisted of a “Narrative of Chernobyl,” where each student got to write a paper on what they viewed as a meaningful narrative of the disaster. This allowed us to take a creative interpretation and connect a wide range of themes. I chose to focus on the British nuclear test series in Australia, highlighting how the tests endangered specific bodies of land (the Australian Outback) and certain groups of people (Indigenous Australians in particular) and connecting this to Chernobyl. In addition to the in-class discussions and assignments, we also met outside of class to watch the miniseries together!
I loved this class so much for many reasons, but the main one was accessibility. As an economics major, my history experience is somewhat limited. Nevertheless, I felt like a valued contributor in a class with a mix of history, sociology, GNSE, ENST, business, and even different STEM majors. The class had no prerequisites and was open to students from any discipline! Additionally, I love the small, discussion-style classes that are the cornerstone of a UChicago education. We got to engage with fictional, historical, and anthropological texts in such a meaningful way by talking them through with our classmates. I also really enjoyed Prof. O’Donnell’s wide-lens approach to the course. It provided each of us with a deep understanding of the political themes of the era, how the nuclear age strengthened environmental and feminist movements, and how the world is still feeling the effects of Chernobyl today. If you get the chance to take it, I cannot recommend this course enough!