Environmental history in Russia and about Russia

In this blog post, originally published as the ESEH ‘Notepad’ in Environment and History 23.4 (November 2017), Julia Lajus of the National Research University Higher School of Economics, St Petersburg provides some insights into environmental history publications in and about Russia. As well as the items cited, readers might be interested in the recent issue of Global Environment on Socialist and Post-socialist countries. The cited article by Elena Kochetkova is available in its uncopyedited form here until publication. It will be published ‘online-first’  via Ingenta Fast Track in January 2018. Photographs courtesy of Dmitry Lajus.

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There are two distinct flows of publications in the field of Russian environmental history: environmental history in Russia and environmental history about Russia. The peculiarities of Russian environmental history are connected to the fact that although there are positive developments of the field in Russia, interest from outside is still more pronounced. On the other hand, Russian scholars in this small field are more international than in established subfields of history. The consequences of this situation are a growing number of publications in English compared to publications in Russian (English is the most popular language for publications in the field even for environmental historians working in Russia).[1]

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Environmental history in Russia is poorly institutionalised. The very small Center for Environmental and Technological History at the European University at St. Petersburg had been the main headquarters since its foundation in 2002 until its closure in 2015. Its members are the representatives of Russia for ESEH, participate in international projects and produce publications in both English and Russian. They are also popularising environmental history in Russia, for instance, by publishing a collection of Russian translations of the best environmental history that, along with a recent translation of Joachim Radkau’s book, include a few works that introduce environmental history to the Russian audience.[2] In 2016 this Center found new life as the Laboratory for Environmental and Technological History at the Center for Historical Research of the St. Petersburg School for Social Sciences and Humanities within the leading Russian university, the National Research University Higher School of Economics (HSE SPb) http://sh.spb.hse.ru/en/chr/eth/.

The main directions of research in the Laboratory are:

  • environmental and technological history of natural resources, mainly history of water, forests,[3] fisheries[4] and mining;
  • cultural history of rivers;[5]
  • history of the Arctic (in cooperation with historians from Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm)[6]
  • interrelations of natural and cultural heritage.

Environmental history is taught at undergraduate and graduate levels at HSE SPb, especially at the international Master’s Programme, ‘Usable Pasts’: https://spb.hse.ru/en/ma/apphist/.

Several conferences and ESEH Summer Schools on history of natural resources have been organised in Russia during the last five years in cooperation with the Rachel Carson Center (RCC), including a major project on Russian environmental history funded by The Leverhulme Trust (leader David Moon),[7] Tensions of Europe Network, etc.[8] From these collaborative efforts a new collective book is being planned that was supported by RCC with short fellowships for its editors (Catherine Evtuhov, David Moon and Julia Lajus).[9]

Other places in Russia where research, teaching and conferences in environmental history has taken place include the Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow (RGGU),[10] Kazan State University,[11] Surgut[12] and Cherepovets Pedagogical Universities and the Institute for the History of Science and Technology of the Russian Academy of Sciences.[13] The place of Russian environmental history within publications of global history has also become more visible. Although narratives of destruction and degradation of nature are still recognisable in this scholarship,[14] other recent overviews of the field[15] pay more attention to new approaches of Russian environmental history that focus on complex relations between people and nature in particular natural zones (steppe, forest, the Arctic).[16] The importance of local environmental history grows as well.[17] In addition, there is marked interest toward history of environmental thought.[18]

Most importantly, Russian environmental history is entering new territories: Eurasian history,[19] history of BRICS countries,[20] Pacific history,[21] environmental history of dictatorships,[22] comparative studies.[23] Subjects that still need more attention are climate, marine environment, urban spaces, and human-animal relations, among others. Environmental humanities are almost unknown in Russia so far, and that fact is weakening more profound discussions of past, present and future of human–nature relations.

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[1] For a bibliography of nearly 500 items in English on Russian environmental history, see: https://www.zotero.org/groups/271874/russian_environmental_history

[2] D.A. Alexandrov, F.-J. Bruggemeier and J. Lajus (eds), Chelovek i priroda: ekologicheskaia istoriia (St. Petersburg: Evropeiskii universitet v St. Petersburge, Aleteia, 2008); J. Radkau, ‘Priroda i vlast’: Istoriia okruzhaiuschei sredy (Moscow: Vysshaia shkola ekonomiki, 2014).

[3] E.A. Kochetkova, ‘Industry and Forests: Alternative raw materials in the Soviet forestry industry from the mid-1950s to the 1960s’ Environment and History (forthcoming 2018).

[4] J.A. Lajus and D.L. Lajus (eds), More nashe pole: Kolichestvennye dannye o rybnykh promyslakh Belogo i Barentseva morei, 18 – nachalo 20 v (St. Petersburg: European University at St. Petersburg, 2010); J. Lajus, A. Kraikovski and D. Lajus, ‘Coastal Fisheries in the Eastern Baltic Sea (Gulf of Finland) and Its Basin from the 15th to the Early 20th Centuries’, PLOS One 8 (10) (2013); e77059 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0077059

[5] A. Kraikovski and J. Lajus, ‘The Neva as a Metropolitan River of Russia: Environment, Economy and Culture’, in T. Tvedt and R. (eds), A History of Water. Series 2, V. 2, Rivers and Society: From Early Civilizations to Modern Times (London: I.B. Tauris, 2010), pp. 339–364.

[6] J. Lajus, ‘Colonization of the Russian North: A Frozen Frontier’, in Ch. Folke-Ax, et al. (eds), Cultivating the Colony: Colonial States and their Environmental Legacies (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2011), pp. 164–190; J. Lajus, ‘In search for instructive models: The Russian state at a crossroads to conquering the North’, in D. Jorgensen and S. Sorlin (eds), Northscapes: History, Technology, and the Making of Northern Environments (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2013), pp. 110–136.

[7] A network of scholars from Russian, British, and American universities participated in a three-year project (2013-16), ‘Exploring Russia’s Environmental History and Natural Resources’, funded by the Leverhulme Trust: https://www.york.ac.uk/history/research/majorprojects/russiasenvironmentalhistory/; K. Evtukhov, E.A.Kochetkova, J.A. Lajus, D. Moon, Mezhdunarodnaia konferentsiis, ‘Prirodnye resursy, landshafty I klimat v istorii Rossii I sopredelnykh stran’, posviaschennaia 200-letiiu akademika A.F. Middendorfa, Istoriko-biologicheskie issledovaniia 8 (2) (2016): 160–168.

[8] Materials presented at one of the conferences were published in J. Oldfield, J. Lajus and Denis J.B. Shaw, ‘Conceptualizing and Utilizing the Natural Environment: Critical Reflections from Imperial and Soviet Russia’, Slavonic and East European Review 93 (1) (2015): 1–15.

[9] The book should be prepared during 2018. Discussion on the directions of this book took place at ESEH 2017 in Zagreb.

[10] V.I. Durnovtsev, ‘Na putiakh k ekologicheskoi istorii Rossii (istoriograficheskie nabliudeniia)’, in M.F. Rumiantseva et al. (eds), Istoricheskaia geografiia: prostranstvo cheloveka vs. chelovek v prostranstve (Moscow: RGGU, 2011), pp. 45-58.

[11] Ekologicheskaia istoriia v Rossii: etapy stanovleniia i perspektivnye napravlenia issledovanii. Materialy mezhdunarodnoi nauchnoi konferentsii, g. Elabuga (13-15 noiabria 2014) (Elabuga: Izdatelstvo Elabuzhskogo instituta KFU, 2014).

[12] E. Gololobov, Chelovek i priroda na Ob’-Irtyshskom Severe. Istoricheskie korni sovremennykh ekologicheskikh problem (Khanty-Mansiisk, 2009).

[13] J. Lajus, ‘Istoriia nauki i ekologicheskaia istoriia: oblasti peresecheniia distsiplin i “sluchai Dokuchaeva”’, Voprosy istorii estestvoznaniia i tekhniki 3 (2009): 43–47; A. A. Fedotova, ‘The origins of a Russian Chernozem soil (Black Earth): Franz Josef Ruprecht’s “Geobotanical Researches into the Chernozem” of 1866’, Environment and History 16 (2010): 271–293; M. Loskutova and A. Fedotova, Stanovlenie prikladnykh biologicheskikh issledovanii v Rossii: Vzaimodeistvie nauki i praktiki v 19 – nachale 20 veka. Istoricheskie ocherki (St. Petersburg: Nestor-Istoria, 2014).

[14] D.R. Weiner, ‘The Predatory Tribute-Taking State: A framework for understanding Russian environmental history’, in J. McNeill and A. Roe (eds),Global Environmental History: An Introductory Reader (London and New York: Routledge, 2013), pp. 283-319; P. Josephson, N. Dronin, et al., Environmental History of Russia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[15] J. Oldfield, J. Lajus and Denis J.B. Shaw, ‘Conceptualizing and Utilizing the Natural Environment: Critical Reflections from Imperial and Soviet Russia’, Slavonic and East European Review 93 (1) (2015): 1–15; B. Bonhomme, ‘Writing the Environmental History of the World’s Largest State: Four Decades of Scholarship on Russia and the USSR’, Global Environment 12 (2013): 12–37; R. Dills, ‘Forest and Grassland: Recent Trends in Russian Environmental History’, Global Environment 12 (2013): 39–61; S. Brain, ‘Environmental History of the Soviet Union’, in J.R. McNeill and E.C.S. Mauldin (eds), A Companion to Global Environmental History (Chichester: UK, Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), pp. 222–243.

[16] D. Moon, The Plough that Broke the Steppes: Agriculture and Environment on Russia’s Grasslands, 1700–1914 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); J. Costlow, Heart- Pine Russia: Walking and Writing the Nineteenth-Century Forest (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013); D. Moon, The Plough that Broke the Steppes (2013); C. Pey-Yi, ‘Mapping Permafrost Country: Creating an Environmental Object in the Soviet Union, 1920s-1940s’, Environmental History 20 (3) (2015): 396–421; A. Bruno, The Nature of Soviet Power: An Arctic Environmental History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

[17] C. Evtukhov, Portrait of a Russian Province: Economy, Society, and Civilization in Nineteenth-Century Nizhnii Novgorod (Pittsburg: University of Pittsburg Press, 2011).

[18] J. D. Oldfield and D.J.B. Shaw, The Development of Russian Environmental Thought: Scientific and Geographical Perspectives on the Natural Environment (London: Routledge, 2016).

[19] N. Breyfogle (ed.), Eurasian Environments: Nature and Ecology in Imperial Russian and Soviet History (forthcoming).

[20] S. Ravi Rajan and Lise Sedrez (eds), The Great Convergence: An Environmental History of Brics (Oxford: Oxford University Press) (forthcoming).

[21] R. Jones, Empire of Extinction: Russians and the North Pacific’s Strange Beasts of the Sea, 1741–1867 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[22] See https://thenednetwork.wordpress.com/

[23] One recent example of comparative research is D. Moon, “The Grasslands of North America and Russia,” in J.R. McNeill and E.C.S. Mauldin, Eds., A Companion to Global Environmental History (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012): 247–262.


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