D. Moon u.a. (Hrsg.): Place and Nature

Place and Nature. Essays in Russian Environmental History

Moon, David; Breyfogle, Nicolas; Bekasova, Alexandra
Anzahl Seiten
350 S.
€ 88,95
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Timm Schönfelder, Abteilung Mensch und Umwelt, Leibniz-Institut für Geschichte und Kultur des östlichen Europa, Leipzig

While environmental history has repeatedly been criticized for not fully engaging with social and political theory1, one of its greatest advantages is its sincere treatment of local experiences.2 The present collection of fourteen essays by prominent scholars of Russia is a shining example of regionally rooted research, conducted with boots on the ground, kicking lofty, unsubstantiated arguments and descriptions to the curb. It follows the provocative credo “to write robust history, historians need to embed themselves in the places and environments they study” (p. 1). Thus, the contributors journeyed through the European North of Russia, Siberia, and the Pacific Far East to detail the evolution of human engagement with nature from the early 19th century until today. One underlying principle of this ‘place-based research’ is the notion of topophilia by the humanistic geographer Yi-Fu Tuan which speaks of a deep, affective bond between people and the concrete places they create out of formerly undifferentiated space (p. 2). Therefore, the researchers talked to local experts, hiked through forests, canoed along rivers, and explored remote monasteries and nature reserves as remnants of human entanglement with these environments. Their travels and investigations unearthed complex narratives of catastrophes like pollution, flooding, and wildfires, but also of natural resource management in hunting, conservation, preservation, and transportation.

The collection starts out with an article by Alexei Kraikovski and Julia Lajus on the intrinsic connection between nature and the cultural landscape of the Solovetsky Islands. The authors follow Sverker Sörlin’s and Paul Warde’s understanding of the environment as a product of anthropogenic transformation of nature through the process of environing. It is the diverse historical strata that make this ‘space of blue and gold’ (Sergei Esenin) interesting. In 1438, Orthodox monks founded a monastery on the largest island which by the 17th century not only became a cultural center of the Russian North, but also a dominant player in the salt market and the fish trade. In 1920, however, the new Soviet government disbanded the brotherhood and established its first concentration camp, the Solovetsky Lager Osobogo Naznacheniia (SLON), in this remote location. In 1944, the Soviet Navy took control of the islands. The monastery was subsequently turned into a museum in 1967 that gained a certain degree of freedom by the mid-1970s. It finally reopened in 1990. Following the collapse of the USSR, military activities stopped. In 1992, the monastery was included on the UNESCO World Heritage List. As “the landscape with its natural objects was subordinated to the ‘religious space’ created by the monastery” (p. 41), “the idyllically constructed relationships with animals coexisted with cruel sealing and reindeer hunting that the monastery organized in more remote places” (p. 50). This paradoxical correlation of natural beauty with brutal suffering was only intensified with the implementation of the GULag-system and its forced labor camps. In order to overcome this difficult legacy, visitors would either turn to praising a metaphysical being like God or to exalting the wondrous wilderness of nature. Today, the former is seemingly enforced by the expanding monastic structures.

In his article on Lake Imandra, labelled as the “Polluted Pearl of the North” (p. 69), Andy Bruno connects local experiences to the overarching trajectory of human agency in the era of the Anthropocene. The lake played a central role in the development of the Kola peninsula: for the indigenous Sami, it was an important fishing ground; for Russian settlers, it facilitated the transportation of goods and people. In Soviet times, however, Imandra suffered pollution from phosphate mining in the Khibiny Mountains near its eastern shore, which reached its peak after World War II. In the early 1970s, the Kola Nuclear Power Plant was connected to the grid. This decade was marked by increasing criticism of destructive practices. Lake Imandra had become “entangled in a new geography of risk that is characteristic of the Anthropocene” (p. 85) and lost its pristine state. It now serves as an example of humanity’s transformation and commodification of nature.

Articles by Alan Roe on the Vodlozero National Park3 and by Robert Dale on the challenges of floods in St Petersburg, that complete the treatment of Russia’s North, are followed by four photographic essays. These pictures invite the reader to explore the blossoming landscapes of the Solovetsky Island that hide the cruel history of the GULag (Nicholas B. Breyfogle), visit urban production sites in the Urals (Catherine Evtuhov), bathe in the glistening sun of Lake Baikal (Bryce Stewart), and evade ursine forest creatures of the Barguzin Nature Reserve with David Moon, who aptly concludes that “there are wider stories to be told about this part of the world” that do not succumb to the “declensionist narrative” of the damage dealt during Soviet rule (p. 198).

After this much-appreciated interlude, Alexandra Bekasova and Ekaterina Kalemeneva open up ‘landscapes of transportation’ towards the Pacific Far East through the lens of travel guidebooks from late imperial Russia. Subsequently, Arkady and Tatiana Kalikhman combine the testimony of scientists, specialists, and local lore with their own observations to fathom the environmental history of Lake Baikal, while Nicholas B. Breyfogle uncovers the origins of the Barguzin zapovednik as “the first and only state-sponsored nature reserve to be created in the tsarist period” (p. 268) with the aim of protecting the local sable population from poachers. Elena Kochetkova then dives into the institutional debates surrounding industrial development at the world’s largest (and oldest) freshwater lake: while a number of laws on environmental protection were passed during the 1950s and 1960s, their enforcement was lacking. This created “zones of contamination” (p. 306) in the Baikal region, which was heavily criticized by members of the Siberian Academy of Sciences. The volume is rounded off by Mark Sokolsky’s chapter on hunting in the Far East. The region of Primor’e was acquired and settled by the Russian Empire during the second half of the 19th century. As the author argues, the imagined ‘savage realm in the Far East’ (Mark Bassin)4 was at least symbolically civilized by subduing “the region’s most exotic and dangerous animal – the tiger” (p. 317). Hunting and trapping had strong economic implications. The extinction of whole species was only halted by the actions of private hunting societies which propagated ‘proper’ sustainable practices – “if only to be able to kill [game] at their leisure” (p. 321). Thus, the interests of these amateurs (liubitel’skie okhotniki) collided with those of the commercial hunters (promyshlenniki) and poachers.

All articles are united by descriptions of fragile environments in a double sense: as threatened ecologies on the one hand, but also through shifting human-nature entanglements on the other. While the first part of the book represents the diversity of the Russian European North, the last chapters have a slight imbalance toward Lake Baikal and its immediate surroundings. This nonetheless shows that even established narratives on sustainability deserve a re-reading. With their practical approach that was expanded on with original research on-site and in the archives, the authors deliver fresh perspectives and important insights on the complexities of ever-changing environmental regimes.

1 Sverker Sörlin / Paul Warde, The Problem of the Problem of Environmental History: A Re-Reading of the Field, Environmental History 12, no. 1 (2007): 107–130.
2 For Russia and the Soviet Union, Douglas R. Weiner was among the first to combine in-depth archival work with local voices in his magisterial tome A Little Corner of Freedom. Russian Nature Protection from Stalin to Gorbachëv (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999). This approach was soon expanded to other regions, which culminated in works like Maya K. Peterson’s Pipe Dreams. Water and Empire in Central Asia’s Aral Sea Basin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019). See also Klaus Gestwa, Ein weites Feld. Forschungen zur Umweltgeschichte der Sowjetunion, Osteuropa 70, no. 7–9 (2020): 7–31.
3 Alan Roe’s text was taken from his monograph Into Russian Nature: Tourism, Environmental Protection, and National Parks in the Twentieth Century, Oxford 2020.
4 Mark Bassin, Imperial Visions: Nationalist Imagination and Geographical Expansion in the Russian Far East, 1840–1865, New York 1999, pp. 174–82 (as quoted by Sokolsky).

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