Starting Points in Russian Environmental History

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Starting Points in Russian Environmental History

Alina Bykova, Stanford University


Russian environmental history is a relatively new field which expanded in the 1990s and has grown substantially over the last decade. Scholars of Russian environmental history put human and state activities in the Russian imperial and Soviet periods in context with environmental changes and have produced some of the most interesting and groundbreaking books in the field. This post aims to provide a starting point for those interested in learning more about Russian environmental history and lists what I consider to be top works in the field chronologically so readers can see the progression of the scholarship over time.


1. Douglas Weiner, A Little Corner of Freedom: Russian Nature Protection from Stalin to Gorbachev (2002)  

Building on his prior work in Models of Nature (1988), which chronicles Russian conservation movements in the early Soviet period, Douglas Weiner expands his survey of Soviet conservation efforts and the movement’s interactions with the state in A Little Corner of Freedom (2002). In the book, Weiner uses an impressive array of archival material to follow Soviet conservation initiatives from the Stalin period until the 1990s. He demonstrates that while Soviet state repression made overt environmental protection movements difficult, there was a flourishing contingent of activists who maintained progressive and pre-revolutionary views of nature conservation and environmental science. Weiner argues that despite the challenges of navigating the authoritarian and bureaucratic structure of the Soviet system, environmental activists in the USSR were able to achieve some key victories, such as their protests against pollution in Lake Baikal and Leonid Brezhnev’s plans to reverse the flow of major Siberian rivers in the 1970s and 1980s.


2. Stephen Brain, Song of the Forest: Russian Forestry and Stalinist Environmentalism, 1905-1953 (2011)

Stephen Brain’s Song of the Forest examines forestry and conservation efforts in the early Soviet and Stalinist periods. The book shows that despite the common narrative that Stalinism was inherently hostile to the environment and obsessed with industrialization, significant efforts at forest management and conservation were made under the infamous leader. Brain argues that advanced conservation measures that were developed in the late imperial era managed to survive into the Stalin era, as they were upheld by environmental conservationists and agencies who sought to preserve them despite incredible pressure from a repressive state. The work looks at the progression of pre-revolutionary and Soviet forest management systems, including external political and philosophical influences, until Stalin’s death in 1953.


3. Paul Josephson, ed. An Environmental History of Russia (2013)

This volume, edited by historian Paul Josephson, is an excellent entry point into Russian environmental history as it moves chronologically from mid-19th century Russia to the end of the Soviet period and beyond. The book is broken up into chapters that span the rule of individual Soviet leaders. This approach makes it easy to trace and compare their distinct environmental policies and follow the various events that occurred during each leader’s tenure, especially concerning the rise and activities of the Soviet environmental movement in the postwar era, and megaprojects undertaken by state leadership throughout the USSR’s lifespan. The chronological organization and readable text make this book an obvious recommendation for anyone seeking to learn more about Russian and Soviet states’ environmental conduct, as well as popular environmental movements.


4. Andy Bruno, The Nature of Soviet Power: An Arctic Environmental History (2016)

Andy Bruno’s powerful regional history focuses on the Soviet Arctic and environmental changes in the Kola Peninsula, located in northwestern Russia. This text makes a bold argument that the Soviet leadership did not view nature as their enemy or as an entity to be conquered (an especially popular argument that many scholars commenting on Russian environmental history have taken up in the past) but only meant to exploit it temporarily until the state achieved socialism. Rather than presenting the Soviet Union’s environmental conduct as an aberration from prior cases, Bruno traces continuities in the drive to modernity between pre-revolutionary Russia, the USSR, and post-Soviet capitalism, focusing on five economic activities in the region: railroad construction, mining and chemical production, reindeer herding, non-ferrous metallurgy, and the energy economy. In doing so, he connects economic activities and their environmental impact in a relatively peripheral region to state-level processes and extrapolates observations about local projects to draw meaningful conclusions about the Soviet Union’s attitude towards the environment and resource use more broadly.


5. Nicholas Breyfogle, Eurasian Environments: Nature and Ecology in Imperial Russian and Soviet History (2018)

Eurasian Environments, edited by historian Nicholas Breyfogle, is a concise but thorough text that features chapters organized into five topical sections by leading scholars in Russian and Eurasian environmental history. The sections cover both Russian imperial and Soviet environmental history to varying degrees, and feature works on human interactions with steppe environments; state efforts at water engineering; soil, rocks and permafrost; the extraction of marine resources; and diseases and health. The scope of topics covered, as well as the interesting array of chapter materials is bound to make this volume a helpful addition for anyone looking to learn more about Russian environmental history.


6. Kate Brown, Manual for Survival: An Environmental History of the Chernobyl Disaster (2019)

Kate Brown’s Manual for Survival provides a fresh take on perhaps one of the world’s most studied environmental topics: the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. Brown’s account starts largely after the Chernobyl disaster, rather than chronicling the lead-up to the infamous nuclear accident, as many before her have done. With elegant writing and painstaking attention to detail, she examines the Soviet state’s response to the disaster, and the impact on local communities, especially in Belarus. While clearly well-researched in the archives, the story is told through anecdotal stories and on the ground personal reporting. Brown chronicles the spread of radiation through Soviet ecosystems and food chains, from fields and farm animals in the regions neighboring Chernobyl, to food and materials traveling to Moscow, and the state leadership’s floundering role in mismanaging disaster response. The most powerful part of the book is the latter half, in which Brown summarizes the legacy of Chernobyl today and examines the long-term death toll from the disaster, which she argues is much higher than the official numbers. 


7. Bathsheba Demuth, Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait (2019)

Floating Coast is a beautifully written and meticulously researched text that is an essential contribution to the field of Russian environmental history. Demuth’s work spans more than a century and focuses on the land and water ecosystems of Beringia, the Bering Strait region between Arctic Eurasia and North America. By examining the history of the area from the 19th to the latter 20th century, Demuth makes valuable comparisons in continuities both between Russian Imperial and Soviet environmental conduct in the Far East, as well as socialist versus capitalist environmental approaches, particularly in the realms of treatment of Indigenous peoples, resource extraction, and maritime activities such as fishing, whaling, and hunting walrus between the Russian Far East and Alaska. Demuth’s account not only examines human actions in the area, but gives the natural world incredible agency, as she recounts tactics whales learned to avoid ships and harpoons, and the interconnectedness of animal life on the land, in the sea, and on the ice.


8. Maya Peterson, Pipe Dreams: Water and Empire in Central Asia’s Aral Sea Basin (2019)

Maya Peterson’s Pipe Dreams is an authoritative survey of imperialism and water management in the Aral Sea Basin of Central Asia from the mid-nineteenth century up to World War II. Peterson examines Russian imperial and Soviet incursions into Central Asia as colonial activities which brought about the destruction of one of the world’s largest lakes and contributed to an ongoing ecological catastrophe. Peterson uses water management, such as irrigation plans, to examine power dynamics between actors in the region and illustrate that both the imperial and socialist colonizers embraced the ideology that modernity meant the manipulation of nature, with disastrous effects. Peterson places water management in Central Asia in a transnational context as she compares similar initiatives in other places by other colonial powers. The result is an expansive and impactful account of power and resource management in a region that is often neglected in Soviet scholarship.


9. Ryan Tucker Jones, Red Leviathan: The Secret History of Soviet Whaling (2022)

Red Leviathan is a fascinating history of Russian and Soviet whaling that spans between Odesa, Ukraine, and Vladivostok, in eastern Russia, and beyond. Ryan Tucker Jones succeeds in chronicling the devastating extent of Soviet whaling in a highly interesting and readable text which includes personal reflections on his interactions with whalers and the nuances of the whaling industry. While Jones argues that extensive Soviet whaling, especially of endangered species, amounted to a genocide of whales, he acknowledges that these activities also contributed to an expansion of scientific knowledge about whale species, which fuelled the conservation movement focused on their salvation. Jones’s work is especially important as it places the Soviet history of whaling in a global context and compares it to efforts by other states, such as Norway and Japan. The author’s engaging prose and important subject matter, coupled with personal anecdotes of doing research interviews with former whalers, make this book a pleasure to read and learn from.


Alina Bykova is a PhD candidate in history at Stanford University. Her research focuses on energy, industry, and resource extraction in the Soviet Union and the Arctic.

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