A Snail Carries its Bunker on its Back: Researching Nuclear Anxiety through Creative Writing

Dr Philippa Holloway

Creative Writing often embraces other disciplines. While academic research within this field focuses on research in Creative Writing (the theories and practices of creative expression), essentially writers must also research for their writing. They must learn about and consider psychology, geography, science, history, sociology, geology, ethnography, and philosophy as well as develop methodologies from other practitioners and arts. Creative Writing brings these disciplines together through narratives that question and explain.

I am, as a writer, curious and determined. I knew that if I wanted to write about nuclear anxiety, about complex responses, I needed to face my fears head-on. I booked a trip to Ukraine shortly after the Euro Maidan Revolution and headed alone to Chernobyl’s Exclusion Zone to engage with the landscape and people.

While limited to a few days, it allowed me to experience the irradiated and varied landscapes, to hear first-hand of the legacy of nuclear accident, to capture the feel of the place. Most importantly, I was able to talk to some Samosely, the self-settlers who returned to their homes after evacuation, refusing to leave again, because their connection to home was stronger than their fears of radiation.

These themes – accident, human error, anxiety, hope, homesickness and determination to protect territory and self – are entangled and often intangible, and form the core of my novel. Yet it isn’t a story about me. Fiction is a medium that both condenses and expands simultaneously. Characters and situations can be stretched, pushed imaginatively to extremes, or beyond realism into speculation as a means of discovering clarity on certain issues. Much is discovered by asking ‘what if?’ over and over. Ideas, issues, themes and concerns are then compressed into a manageable, accessible and dynamic form, a narrative that engages the reader in the depths and nuances of the topic.

As a brief example of this expansion and compression from my own novel, I will focus here on the title of the book. It is a title that plays with the issues at hand: Half-lives are both a scientific concept, measuring radioactive decay, and a metaphor for times passing, things deteriorating, and change. Snails carry their bunkers on their backs, are able to shelter until danger passes. In the novel, these two ideas come together in the child’s interactions with his pet snails, which are marked out in the narrative as changing over time and responding to the deterioration of the situation around him. It’s representative. Distilled and yet stretched to encompass multiple interpretations.

Considering the complex nature and conflicting emotions ignited by nuclear power, especially now as the pressure to replace gas and oil becomes critical, storytelling is perhaps an ever more vital means of engaging with these issues.  Fiction allows room for questions to be asked and answered by both writer and reader, and while the words may be fixed on the page, each reading ignites new responses and engagements. This novel is therefore not the culmination of an investigation of anxiety, but part of a wider debate and collective exploration of the issues, a collaborative interrogation of our relationship with nuclear energy that will not end anytime soon, considering the half-life of the materials in question…

Dr Philippa Holloway is a writer and academic, teaching Creative Writing at Staffordshire University and former Graduate Teaching Assistant at Edge Hill University. Her debut novel, The Half-life of Snails, is out now with Parthian Books.

Watch Philippa read from her book via the ISR Playlist.

The War Against ‘Dis-information’: Romania Reacts to the Conflict in Ukraine

Dr Cristian Ciobanu & Dr Duncan Light

The war in Ukraine came as a big shock for Romanians who (like many Europeans) found the idea of a ‘traditional’ war involving tanks and bombs as unimaginable. In recent years, scepticism among Romanians about membership of the EU and NATO had been on the rise, but with the invasion of Ukraine the benefits of membership were suddenly obvious.  Opinion polls showed that the proportion of Romanians who felt their country was going in the right direction increased dramatically.  The Romanian President Klaus Iohannis (an ethnic Saxon from Transylvania) assured Romania that the country would not be drawn into the conflict and that no Romanian had any reason to be afraid.

A significant number of Ukrainians fled to Romania. Romanian society acted quickly and spontaneously with a common purpose (and a degree of organisation rarely seen before) to welcome and accommodate refugees. Romania was eager to demonstrate to the rest of the EU that it shared the commitment to welcome Ukrainian refugees with open arms.  The Romanian media reported with some pride the favourable coverage of Romania’s efforts in the Western European press.

Yet a week or so of a united approach to Ukraine was followed by a gradual breaking down of consensus and the emergence of a (dis)information war.  Alternative narratives started to circulate on social media asking why Romanians were helping a country which had ‘stolen’ territory from them (during World War Two as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact), and discriminated against Romanian minorities in Ukraine. Critics of Romania’s approach also asked why resources were being diverted away from domestic poverty towards helping refugees.

In the second week of the war social media posts started to appeal to a latent anti-Westernism that has long characterised the Romanian far-right. Hence, Putin was presented as a hero fighting for faith, traditional values, and his country against globalists, neo-Nazis and Western liberalism. Such messages were well received by supporters of nationalist parties in Romania, but dismissed by the majority of the population. Opinion polls now show that far-right parties (electorally insignificant since EU accession, but recently in the ascendent) are losing support.

The disinformation war then turned to stoking up panic. Romanians were advised to stock up on iodine pills because a nuclear attack was imminent. Consequently, every pharmacy in the country sold out of iodine pills. Romanians were (mis)informed that all men aged 18-35 would be conscripted creating consternation among some young people. Predictions of a doubling of petrol prices saw panic buying at the pumps with people using any receptacle (even litter bins) that could be used to carry petrol.

Romanian society is currently divided between realists (who recognise that Romania’s membership of the EU and NATO mean that a direct Russian attack on the country is very unlikely) and the impressionable who are prepared to believe whatever they hear on social media or the fringe mainstream media.  Of course, none of this is unique to Romania. What the war shows us is the power of social media to stir up disinformation, but also the continuity with the existing divisions in Romania (concerning vaccinations and restrictions on social gatherings) stoked during the Covid pandemic.

Dr Cristian Ciobanu is an expert in geo-political interpretation at the University of Bucharest in Romania, and Dr Duncan Light is an expert in Romanian geographies at Bournemouth University, UK.

‘A Whiff of Munich’?

Roger Spalding

Neville Chamberlain holds the paper signed by both Hitler and himself on his return from Munich.

I often read in applicants’ personal statements that they wish to study History to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. This is sadly, something that rarely occurs; humanity appears to have an infinite capacity to repeat its mistakes.

Yet politicians and journalists frequently draw historical parallels with the past. The current Defence Secretary said, in relation to developments in Ukraine, ‘that there was a whiff of Munich in the air’. He was referring to the efforts of the British Prime Minister to avoid war in 1938 by ‘appeasing’ Hitler.

Neville Chamberlain’s efforts culminated in the Munich Conference at which the Czechs, were forced to cede the Sudetenland to Germany. The parallel with Ukraine breaks down because, as yet the West is not asking Ukraine to cede land to Russia; though they did fail to act when Putin annexed Crimea in 2014.

In 1938 the British were terrified of war. This was partly because of the memory of the of the First World War, and partly because of the development of the bomber.

Stanley Baldwin had told the Commons that ‘the Bomber will always get through’. Its targets would include women and children, and the only defence would be to kill even more of the enemy’s women and children. Shortly after, Beverley Nicholls published his anti-war tract, Cry Havoc. In one chilling passage he argued that it would be possible for an enemy, in a single raid, to drop enough poison gas to kill most of the population of Greater London.

In 1938 Mass Observation conducted a survey this revealed that a significant number of people were preparing to kill themselves should war break out. War, it was believed, would bring Armageddon from the skies, a view vividly portrayed in the 1936 film, Things to Come.

In 1940 Michael Foot wrote that post-1918 Germany was treated harshly when she was weak and democratic; but the reverse was true when she became strong under the Nazis, this was partly because Hitler was seen as a bulwark against Communism. This proved a short-term benefit leading to long-term pain.

Historians are not supposed to speculate, but here are a number of ‘ifs’ to consider: If Western politicians and banks had been less ready to accept and handle resources plundered from Russia; if the West had taken a stronger line when the Russian state murdered journalists; if the reaction to the poisoning of British residents had been more severe; if we had not allowed Britain to become a safe haven for Russian oligarchs; a message might have been sent that the West adheres to certain norms that it would not abandon.

Clear opposition to lesser transgressions might have helped to avoid this much larger and more serious transgression…. if we had learnt the lessons of History?

Roger Spalding is Programme Leader for History at Edge Hill University.

Ukraine – What Next? Is Civil Society the Answer?

Sergej Ljubownikow

Over a week into Putin’s war in Ukraine, speculation on why, for what reason , remain high – but also to what end.

Putin appears to have a variety of conflicting, and spurious aims (some only beknownst to him) with this invasion; both with regards to Ukraine, and highly likely beyond.

Western response has been focused on weakening the Russian economy, and the sanctioning of key individuals and oligarchs (though if you have several billion, and lose a few, you probably still have enough for a good life, even in Russia). Yet for a while now, the West has had time and opportunity to take preventative action. Punishing Putin for his 2014 annexation of Crimea. Taking steps to stop Putin from ‘practising war’ in Syria. Going after ‘dirty money’ earlier – it has been swamping places like the UK or Cyprus for years. Yet none of this excuses the acts of an increasingly isolated and volatile dictator.

Moreover, Putin felt emboldened to invade Ukraine because it has become near impossible to remove him from power using democratic mechanisms. So is civil society the answer?

Since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, research has illustrated that Russia civil society has struggled to gain traction, particularly at the national level. Some of this is down to path dependencies created in the early 1990s. During that time, resources (mainly funding and skills training) were provided by western donor agencies such as USAID or DFID. These resources were directed primarily at rights-based issues, specifically human, women’s, the environment, which at the time did not resonate with the broader public who were struggling with the impact of economic shock therapy, and its impact on living standards. As a result, public engagement with NGOs remained low.

When Putin came to power, he set out to rebuild the bureaucratic system after the ‘chaos’ of the Yeltsin years. Yet this ‘rebuild’ did not address some the fundamental failings that emerged from the ‘chaos’ such as the importance of individuals above bureaucratic process, the ambiguity of regulations, and (intentional) haphazard regulatory enforcement. Through a series of legistalive instruments, Putin also sought to limit the activity of NGOs. In order to survive, NGOs now need to maintain (close) ties to various state organs, often substituting for them in the provision of welfare and services. This clearly limits such groups’ ability to openly oppose to the state. There are also harsh penalties for those who do. See the recent closure of Human Rights organisation Memorial, for example.  

At regional levels, NGOs can work with and oppose (regional) state authorities, but this is unlikely to challenge the regime at the Federal level. Although these regional experiences might be seen as green shoots that could come together to form a wider movement; whether these can grow into a nationwide movement over Russia’s vast geography, is questionable. Indeed, such growth would need to be fast to challenge the regime and its inhuman war in Ukraine.

Nevertheless, there are promising signs of anti-war demonstrations across Russia, although accompanied by the associated police crackdown on dissent seen in the past. In the meantime, we all hope for an end to this war to prevent further human suffering, and our thoughts remain with all Ukrainians.

Dr Sergej Ljubownikow, an expert in the former Soviet Union, is Lecturer in Strategic Management at Sheffield University and an ISR Visiting Fellow.

Crossing the Dnieper: The UK political response to Ukraine

Paula Keaveney

“I have never forgotten the sheer courage and determination of pro-democracy activists whom I met on the streets of Lviv in 1989 as they risked their lives to throw off the shackles and chains of the Soviet Union.” (Lord Alton, HL Deb 25 February 2022)

The last few days have seen debates in both the Commons and the Lords. But looking at the cast list, it is hard to argue that the Commons is the important Chamber. The roll call of those speaking in the “other place”, the Lords on 25th Feb, included a former Secretary General of NATO, a former Chief of the Defence Staff, and a former National Security Adviser.

Yet for all the good advice in debates, for all the calls to do more, Parliament’s power is limited.  Parliament can “send messages”, it can “speak for the nation”, but it can’t end the war and it can’t broker treaties. 

It is this contrast between strongly held policy views and relative powerlessness that makes these debates, and the party-political process around them, so fascinating.

What we see tested in the fog of a war debate, is leadership.  What we see tested in the reactions of party members and supporters is unity.

Johnson has had to curb his usual instinct to grandstand and deploy jokes. Starmer has had to crack down hard on some unhelpful internal comments on NATO; and Blackford, the SNP leader in the Commons, potentially walks a tightrope.

Let’s start with Blackford. The SNP used to be opposed to membership of NATO.  That opposition was overcome in a close conference vote in 2012 with some members leaving as a result.  There are voices on the independence side today arguing for a rethink. The SNP’s partners in Holyrood, the Scottish Green Party, are outspokenly anti-NATO.

Starmer has generally supported the government line, but has had to face down members of his own party on the issue, most recently getting MPs to remove their signatures from a Stop the War Statement and suspending the Young Labour Twitter feed.

And Johnson?  Is he conveying the sort of confidence needed for an international crisis – a crisis which after all might mean large scale refugee movements, a shortage of basic commodities, and a growth in tension along many borders?

It is a very odd situation indeed when relief from the media focus on wine and crisps and trivia quizzes comes in the form of an international crisis; but such is politics. The next few weeks will tell us whether the PM is a calm helmsman or a storm-tossed sailor.

As former NATO General Secretary, Lord Robertson told the Lords “…there is an old saying: in Russia, everything changes in 20 years and nothing changes in 200 years. It maybe gets to the heart of the recent crisis, when the unthinkable has become the inevitable”

It is wrestling with that “inevitable” that will tax our leaders.

Paula Keaveney is the Programme Leader for Politics at Edge Hill University.

Why Ukraine? Why Now?

Professor Jo Crotty

In the last 24 hours I have received a number of messages asking ‘Why Ukraine?; and why now?’

Although media commentary has focused on Ukraine’s NATO ambitions, and Russia’s unwillingness to acquiesce to NATO forces on its border; the answer is more complex.

First, since the end of the Soviet Union 30 years ago, Ukraine has leant both toward Europe and reasserting its own identity, independent of Moscow. This has included allowing visa-free travel for all EU citizens, and aligning many of its governance structures to EU membership. When former President Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign a free trade agreement with the EU in 2013, Ukrainian citizens took to the streets in what became known as the Maidan or Revolution of Dignity. These protests led both to the removal of Yanukovych, but also a separatist uprising in the Donbass area of Eastern Ukraine (see below). This was not the first time the Ukrainian people had taken to the streets to remove their leader. They had done so before in 2004 during what has become known as the Orange Revolution. When exit polling revealed that the outgoing president’s candidate had stolen the election; people took to the streets to remove him. This kind of popular mobilisation, coupled with a lack of influence over Ukraine – in contrast to that of Belarus – poses a (perceived) threat to Putin’s Russia.

Second, the Soviets continued the Tsar’s policy of ‘Russification’ through which ethnic Russians were resettled across the Union. Russian was also the official first language – hence Ukrainian’s now asserting the Ukrainian spelling of their capital Kyiv, rather than the Russian Kiev. As a result, there is now is a large population of ethnic Russians living in parts of Ukraine, including the Donbass region on the eastern border with Russia. This region is rich in coal and other resources and was part of the reason why Hitler decided to go south east, rather than take Moscow, during World War II (with its attendant consequences). Following the Maidan, rebels in this region started a conflict with the purpose of ceding from Ukraine. This conflict has been going on since 2014 and has resulted in 1.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) (UNHCR) fleeing the region. This is the largest number of IDPs in European soil since the conflict in the former Yugoslavia; yet it has gone almost completely unreported. Support for the rebels’ desiring to cede from Ukraine, has been the pre-text on which Putin could start amassing troops.

Third, Putin has problems at home. Despite being the first country in the world to develop an effective Covid-19 vaccine, Russia still only have 48% of its adult population fully vaccinated. This has been attributed to a wide-spread lack of trust in the Russian state – a state that has largely removed any recourse at the ballot box to dispatch an ineffective government. So a war with Ukraine has two advantages for Putin, a distraction from problems at home, and a way to reassert his ‘strong leader’ image after 20 years in power. It also prevents the types of popular protests that have removed two Ukrainian presidents, from spilling over the border.

Finally, Putin also he knows that the West are going to do very little to stop him. So far NATO has ruled out sending troops. Economic measures such as removing Russia from the SWIFT banking system, would leave them unable to trade in US dollars, but would likely be as harmful to Western economies, and such actions do not have an immediate impact. The West also did nothing when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014; inaction that has echoes of appeasement in the face of Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938. Sadly it is now the Ukrainian people who will pay the price. Our thoughts and prayers go out to them.

Professor Jo Crotty is Director of the Institute for Social Responsibility at Edge Hill University and an expert in the former Soviet Union.

If you would like to contribute your own piece, reflecting your own research and/or constituencies as they relate to current events in Ukraine, please submit them via [email protected]

Ukraine Replay?: Re-navigating Work in Professional Basketball in Conflict Spaces

Laura Purdy (Edge Hill University) and Geoff Kohe (University of Kent)

The increasing attention on Ukraine jogged memories of the Euromaidan upheaval in 2013/14 and parallel regional uncertainties over Ukraine-Russia relations. At this time, civil unrest arose over the government decision to halt signing of the Association Agreement with the European Union. Within Ukraine, pro-EU protests escalated into a larger social and political upheaval and a separatist war led by ethnic Russians in the Donbass region of Eastern Ukraine.

In trying to sustain normalcy, it is not unusual for sport to continue in conflict zones as means to provide comfort and a sense of routine; from community sport participants and fans who play and spectate, through to professional sports workers (e.g., athletes, coaches, administrators) who need to maintain careers. While in times of crises experiences of all individuals are important, little is known about how professional sports workers manage geopolitical crises.

Our ongoing research within the European sport sector, however, provides insights on how various global and regional forces (e.g., financial crises, Brexit, etc.) affect sporting lives, careers and organisations. Focusing primarily on Baltic and Balkan regions (precariously positioned in the semi-periphery between West and East European tensions), we examine experiences of sports workers in men’s professional basketball, one of the most predominant sports in these regions. 

By the start of Euromaidan, the Ukrainian men’s basketball league was strengthening in quality and popularity. One club was playing in the EuroCup, the second-tier competition in Europe, aspired to qualify for Euroleague, the top league. Consequently, it was attracting international players of high quality. FIBA Europe capitalised on this momentum and selected Ukraine to host the 2015 European men’s basketball championships. Hosting the event would positively impact the sport through facility investment which would improve the league quality and attract new talent and sponsorship.

When conflict arose, the basketball federation reacted by temporarily suspending the league and reducing season length. As conflict worsened, clubs lost sponsors and were forced to conserve finances, use cheaper, poorer-standard facilities, release players from contracts, and reduce medical support. For players, salary payments were delayed, and for some, stopped. Individual responses varied according to their nationality. For non-Ukrainians, consulates provided clear communication, and ultimately advised them to leave the country. Those who could leave, did. Consequently, the standard of the league dropped, teams collapsed, and players who could not source a new contract faced unemployment. 

This disruptive season left an adverse legacy for the sport, with conditions resembling that of the previous decade. Research on these experiences contribute to important questions within and beyond sport relating to workers’ welfare, organisational and employment sustainability, duties of care, contractual securities, and mobility opportunities. While experiences of past conflict may provide some optimism and resilience, basketball sports workers in Ukraine now find themselves in the position in which they may be revisited by the challenges of the 2013/14 season, with perhaps a more uncertain endgame. 

Dr Laura Purdy is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sport and Physical Activity and a member of the Centre for Child Protection and Safeguarding in Sport (CPSS) at Edge Hill University.

Dr Geoff Kohe is a Senior Lecturer in Sport Management & Policy in the School of Sport & Exercise Science at the University of Kent.

NOTE: This article was written earlier in the week, prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine today, Thursday 24th February 2022.

Photo by Izuddin Helmi Adnan on Unsplash