One of the questions that geographers are frequently asked is "what do geographers do?" My path through graduate study in human geography has included a great deal of field work in Kazakhstan. I began with an interest in monuments, memorials, and public art from the Soviet period. I set out to understand how the visible traces of the communist past are contested, altered, maintained, or swept away, where and for what kinds of reasons. While pursuing this research in the Karaganda region, I became aware of Kazakhstan's very pivotal place in Cold War history evidenced by several formerly "secret cities" built for science and technology associated with the Soviet space/missile and nuclear programs. Heavily invested, ultramodern residential communities such as Baikonur (formerly Leninsk), Stepnogorsk, and Priozersk were emblematic of the clandestine planning and research that underwrote many of the Soviet Union's achievements and produced a geography that was largely unknown. These posh enclaves were closed areas inhabited by an elite cadre of state officials, military personnel, scientists, and their families.   


My doctoral work investigates the political, economic, social, and environmental afterlives of Cold War science and technology in Kazakhstan by looking at the "fates" of secret cities and the industrial landscapes, test sites, mines, and weapons ranges adjacent to them. How has the infrastructure been repurposed with the introduction of a market economy after 1991 and the collapse of Soviet Union? What kinds of governance structures are in place to confront toxicity from military activities? What role does the Russian Federation play in the maintenance and operation of some of the Soviet Union's most prized military and industrial assets? With my dissertation, the goal to provide a broad and comparative perspective answering the overarching question "what happened" to secret cites and their Cold War landscapes in Kazakhstan. By using three case studies I show the ways in which one can understand the perils and challenges, as well as opportunities that these areas present. 


I am originally from Boulder, Colorado. My undergraduate studies were at the University of Colorado in Russian Studies and History. I received my MS in geography from Michigan State University. I am an ABD at the University of Toronto in the Department of Geography and Planning under the faculty supervision of Professors Robert Lewis and Matt Farish.           

© 2018 by Robert Kopack

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