McDonald on Bruno, 'Tunguska: A Siberian Mystery and Its Environmental Legacy'

Andy Bruno
Garret McDonald

Andy Bruno. Tunguska: A Siberian Mystery and Its Environmental Legacy. Studies in Environment and History Series. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022. xvi + 305 pp. $39.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-108-84091-0

Reviewed by Garret McDonald (Fordham University) Published on H-Environment (December, 2022) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

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Over the past two decades, environmental scholars and scientists have increasingly discussed the Anthropocene, a new geological epoch during which humankind’s pursuits act as the defining factor in environmental developments. Using the Tunguska phenomenon (simply referred to as Tunguska), a mysterious 1908 explosion in a Siberian forest responsible for leveling over two thousand square kilometers of trees, as a case study, Andy Bruno seeks to complicate our understanding of both the Anthropocene and the myriad origins of environmental catastrophes. Part scholarly analysis of the history of Russian and Soviet attempts to investigate and comprehend the unexplained blast and part cautionary tale, Tunguska: A Siberian Mystery and Its Environmental Legacy foregrounds “mystery as a force in environmental history and the planetary humanities” in a narrative that stretches from 1908 to the present (p. 8).

Based on extensive archival and discursive research, Tunguska is organized into ten thematic and chronological chapters, with the first and final chapters serving as introductory and conclusive essays. Bruno’s primary conclusion is that mystery, in the sense of both the conundrum actively produced by nature and the attribute that the popular imagination has assigned to Siberia broadly, has informed and shaped the history of the region.

Following the introductory chapter, the second chapter immediately illustrates the richness of Bruno’s sources by providing a vivid description of the 1908 explosion through first-hand accounts from local Russians and indigenous Evenki. Bruno also alludes to current scientific analyses of the immediate and long-term effects of Tunguska on local biomes, hinting at the next chapter by turning toward science and culture. Chapter 3 takes off along this particular route by examining early Soviet scientific research into the event, set mostly in the late 1920s around the activities of legendary mineralogist Leonid Kulik (1883-1942). Kulik helmed numerous expeditions in search of the Tunguska meteorite, and his significant 1928 expedition to the region, as the author notes, paved the way for future scientific expeditions and brought substantial public attention to the event.

Chapter 4 maintains the emphasis on academic investigations, focusing once again on Kulik’s expeditions to the region until the outbreak of the Second World War. The death of Kulik as a prisoner of war in 1941 and the later deaths of other prominent mineralogists, such as Aleksandr Fersman (1883-1945) and Vladimir Vernadskii (1863-1945), “ended one stage of Tunguska research” (p. 83). After the war, despite a great deal of groundwork and scrutiny, most questions about Tunguska remained unanswered. Chapter 5 investigates how “fiction provided an innovative path out of this roadblock” by allowing authors and researchers to hypothesize about Tunguska without having to physically explore the site and meticulously search for evidence (p. 85). Focusing primarily on science fiction author Aleksandr Kazantsev (1906-2002) and his short story “Explosion” (1946) about Tunguska, Bruno deftly navigates the interface between science and fiction, elucidating how fiction “could bolster science” through inspiration and less rigid discourse (p. 109).

In the case of Tunguska specifically, science fiction indeed produced a tangible result. Research into Tunguska came under the purview primarily of volunteer researchers, many of whom sought explicitly to prove or disprove the fictional scenarios promulgated by Kazantsev and other writers. Chapters 6 and 7 emphasize the activities of these volunteers, embodied by the Complex Amateur Expedition (KSE), composed of professional scientists and researchers who studied Tunguska in an unofficial capacity from 1959 until the late 1980s.

Chapter 8 then turns to the environmentalism that ultimately arose from the KSE’s activities and the natural reserve produced by those efforts. As the author demonstrates, the KSE effectively “handed the scientific baton over to the natural reserve,” but this transition resulted in the mystery of the explosion taking a back seat to environmental concerns caused by industrialization (p. 181). Chapter 9 then steps back from the long domestic engagement with the region and provides an intriguing summation of foreign interactions with and discussions of Tunguska. The international dimension adds a final flourish to Bruno’s carefully crafted narrative and definitively establishes Tunguska’s far-reaching consequences, including the celebration of International Asteroid Day on June 30 of each year, memorializing the anniversary of the event.

The book closes with a warning, derived from the Tunguska phenomenon, “that the contemporary crises require embracing planetary embeddedness rather than indulging in cosmic escapism” (p. 211). Indeed, chapter 10 enumerates the broader implications of Tunguska and studying the phenomenon. Most important, the book urges scholars to take “seriously the interdependencies among living and non-living systems” and “the need to think cosmically” (p. 209). In this regard, the last chapter is effectively a call to arms, while the rest of the book illustrates the fruitfulness of the methodological interventions of the recent volume Place and Nature: Essays in Russian Environmental History, coedited by David Moon, Nicholas B. Breyfogle, and Alexandra Bekasova (2021). In particular, Bruno encapsulates how immersing oneself fully in the environment studied produces evocative research.

In this light, Tunguska provides a fresh perspective on environmental history by both building on Bruno’s previous scholarship, which emphasizes the agency of terrestrial nonhuman elements in human affairs, and advancing an entirely new dimension in the form of non-planetary cosmic forces. The volume’s core contributions lie precisely in Bruno’s introduction of “mystery” as a valid analytical category for exploring environmental phenomenon and emphasis on the deep interconnections between human and natural agency, as well as our planet and the cosmos. Identifying shortcomings in the text is arduous, because they are few and often insignificant. One strange omission, for example, is preeminent geologist Vladimir Obruchev’s two popular scientific articles on Tunguska, published in the journal Nature in 1916 and 1933, respectively. The first predates many of the other popular scientific accounts examined by Bruno, while the second offers a further glimpse into scientific discourses concerning the significance of searching for the supposed meteor. This absence is, however, an exceedingly minor flaw.

In addition to the text’s numerous merits, the reasonable price alone is enough to recommend this book to specialists in environmental, Russian, and Soviet history, as well as any student or reader interested in natural mysteries or the impact of otherworldly events on our planet.

Citation: Garret McDonald. Review of Bruno, Andy, Tunguska: A Siberian Mystery and Its Environmental Legacy. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. December, 2022. URL:

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