Ault on Dorondel and Șerban, 'A New Ecological Order: Development and the Transformation of Nature in Eastern Europe'

Stefan Dorondel, Stelu Șerban, eds.
Julie Ault

Stefan Dorondel, Stelu Șerban, eds. A New Ecological Order: Development and the Transformation of Nature in Eastern Europe. INTERSECTIONS: Histories of Environment Series. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2022. 292 pp. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8229-4717-2

Reviewed by Julie Ault (University of Utah) Published on H-Environment (September, 2022) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

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This interdisciplinary edited volume impressively demonstrates the importance of examining environmental transformations in marginalized regions. The anthology focuses on eastern Europe (broadly defined) and chronologically covers the early nineteenth century to the present. Both the challenge and the significance of this work is that it addresses a myriad of political regimes and language, ethnic, and religious groups in the Russian, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian Empires and their successor states. Breaking out of a model of environmental history that focuses on an empire or nation-state, this volume highlights how traditionally marginalized regions change our understanding of modernization, industrialization, and the growth of capitalism. Ultimately, the volume reveals how environments were essential to national projects and to globalizing ideas about economic development and modernization in eastern Europe.

Nearly all of the contributors explicitly draw on James C. Scott’s 1998 classic, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Conditon Have Failed, to illuminate the objectives of locals, experts, and political figures, among others, in their efforts to reshape nature. While Scott’s text is somewhat older now, the authors convincingly use it in two ways. First, they employ Scott to create coherence across chapters—always a challenge for edited volumes—and to emphasize the entangled nature of environmental and social engineering. Second, they show how the field has responded to Scott and grown since the book’s publication in 1998, using new approaches that emphasize the nonhuman (environmental and animal) reaction to “the state.” Regimes planned, imposed, or failed to enact modernization schemes on eastern Europe. These contributions capture the shifting objectives and landscapes from empires to nation-states to Cold War dictatorships to post-socialist states. To illustrate these transformations, the volume is divided into three parts: “Planning Territory,” “Nature, Economy, and Experts,” and “Imaging New Nature.”

The part on “planning nature” explores schemes to alter landscapes. Dragana Ćorović examines the spatial transformation of Belgrade under different regimes—from the Ottoman Empire to the Serbian capital—in the nineteenth century, arguing that it was a process of modernization and Europeanization. Here, governmental logics played a large role in how the city evolved. George L. Vlacho’s chapter on engineering a swamp in southern Macedonia between 1913 and 1936 illuminates the intentional social impact of transforming landscapes. In this case, the Greek government pushed a Slavic community out of the Giannitsa Lake reclamation to settle refugees from Bulgaria. The third chapter similarly explores the transformations of Ukrainian wetlands. Stefan Dorondel and Anna Olenenko highlight the wetlands’ ecological importance and both tsarist and Soviet experts’ efforts to drain them for agricultural development. Ultimately, they argue that a technological environment controlled by political plans replaced “an environment that had been difficult to control” (p. 80).

The second part highlights how experts envisioned nature’s potential, often for economic purposes. Ágota Ábrán explores how experts viewed “weeds” (medicinal plants) in Transylvania as a profitable commodity that could turn idle villagers into workers. Ábrán argues that, by imbuing weeds with economic value, experts transformed people and the environment at the “edges of capitalism” (p. 105). Stelu Şerban and Dorondel’s chapter on the Danube River between 1900 and 1940 provides a comparative analysis of experts’ attempts to control the river in Romania and Bulgaria. They show how Romania’s relative stability created different conditions than Bulgaria’s political turmoil and an influx of refugees after World War I in the same period. Romania turned to western Europe for expertise while Bulgaria developed a more local strategy. Still, Western ideas about rivers connected locals and foreigners in a “high modernist project [that was] truly global” (p. 123). Jiři Janáč’s chapter traces hydraulic bureaucracy in Czechia from the 1890s to the 1960s, illuminating the interplay between power and politics in the process of centralizing water management bureaucracy. From the Habsburg to the interwar to the socialist period, “hydrocrats” sought to implement their vision and control the entire system. The final chapter in this part offers “big dam biographies” of rivers in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan from the Soviet period to the present. Jeanne Féaux de la Croix and Flora Roberts argue that post-socialist governments readily adapted Soviet engineering and that the environmental impacts of megaprojects have proved “surprisingly constant,” though social engineering goals have changed or disappeared (p. 172).

The last section turns to visions of the future, and “imaging new nature.” Hande Özkan illuminates how Western visitors to Asia Minor have dehumanized local populations while simultaneously anthropomorphizing nature, especially forests. This logic was colonial but also one that Turkey’s technological experts and political elites embraced. Eunice Blavascunas’s chapter on the Białowieża Forest in Poland illuminates the connection between environment and the construction of nationalism. Foresters’ claims to represent the forest and the nation have become a focal point of political debates and views about representing authentic national interests. The next chapter explores the muskox domestication in Siberia, illustrating how local populations have interacted with outside political and economic actors. Vladislava Vladimirova reveals how science and the rhetoric of innovation have played a key role in promising and securing financial security as well as supplying state authorities with social capital and symbolic legitimacy. Finally, Yulian Konstantinov depicts how the golden jackal has been imbued with symbolic meaning in post-socialist Bulgaria. By emphasizing nonhuman actors through a “biosemiosis” approach, Konstantinov broadens understandings of environmental and human change and highlights the difficulties that rural communities have faced since 1989.

As Dorondel and Helmuth Trischler’s epilogue claims, this volume is wide ranging in its geographic, chronological, and conceptual scope. The authors capture multiple and sometimes contradictory modernizing impulses at the margins of Europe, challenging that designation and clearly demonstrating the importance of eastern Europe—broadly defined—to major phenomena. More than telling a neglected story of eastern Europe’s contribution to “high modernist fantasies,” this volume underscores the expansiveness of political and economic drives to modernize across political regimes, economic structures, and sociocultural divides (p. 263).

Citation: Julie Ault. Review of Dorondel, Stefan; Șerban, Stelu, eds., A New Ecological Order: Development and the Transformation of Nature in Eastern Europe. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. September, 2022. URL:

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