Mapping Institutional Change

Thinking about disaster-prone regions, the area that made up the Soviet Union is not the first to come to mind. However, covering a staggering landmass stretching across Eurasia ranging from the arctic to subtropical zones, this region is home to regular fires, floods, landslides, avalanches, and earthquakes, to name some of the major natural disasters. In the modern era, in most of the countries that now comprise the region, both the emergency response in the aftermath of a disaster and the preparation against some of the predisposing vulnerabilities thereof are managed by a coordinating body at the national level, in accordance with the standards of the developed world. This though, is a new phenomenon. In the Soviet era, the nation was still just as disaster-prone, but attitudes toward the proper response to a crisis from a governance perspective were radically different.

Mapping hazards or dangerous spaces is relatively easy; mapping how the populous conceptualizes these spaces as dangerous is a different matter. The research behind this exhibit was designed to tease out shifting attitudes about the danger present in the Soviet Union through the growth of institutions with a mandate to manage disasters. The establishment of emergency management institutions is a useful proxy for whether internal threats are taken as seriously as external threats. In the global political context of the time, Europe and North America already had their own devoted institutions. The Soviet Union was behind, in a sense, because nuclear war was viewed as the biggest threat to the county. It wasn't until the late Soviet period where this prioritization was called into question. 

The shift that resulted in the start of a devoted emergency management infrastructure occurred at the very end of the Soviet Union. In the 1980s, a string of bad disasters hit the USSR, Chernobyl being the first and most famous. These, compounded with the opening of government communication channels brought on by perestroika, laid bare the failures of the Soviet government to protect its own people in very public ways. This series of events made the Soviet public as well as much of the government, question the safety of their home. This reconceptualization of the homeland as a risky place was instrumental in the birth of the Ministry of Emergency Situations.

After independence, the majority of the Soviet successor states adopted the same organizational structure with regard to emergency management. What makes this interesting is that one, the precursor to the Ministry of Emergency situations was a nascent organization not well integrated into the republics yet, and two, the adoption of such an institution was not immediate inheritance for any of the states. This suggests that each former soviet republic either spent time considering the late Soviet structure's example before adaptation, as was the case in some of the Central Asian states, or that the structure came into each republic as inspiration from a third source, like the Baltic states' need to meet international expectations while applying to the European Union.

Taking all of the above factors into account, this exhibit follows the change in attitudes about danger in the Soviet Union through independence. To understand the physical context, the exhibit will include some key case studies of disasters in both the late Soviet era and after independence. Finally, an institutional mapping exercise will prove the steady shift of emergency management in the successor states from defense-based emergency planning to devoted agencies.


Evangeline McGlynn