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  • The Conquest of the Russian Arctic by Paul R. Josephson
  • Per Högselius (bio)
The Conquest of the Russian Arctic.
By Paul R. Josephson. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014. Pp. 456. $55.

Paul Josephson’s new book is a sweeping narrative of Russia’s Arctic activities from the late nineteenth century to today. The main emphasis is on the Soviet era and more precisely on the Stalin years. Yet the analysis of Tsarist-era developments also makes a valuable contribution—both as a story in its own right and as an important prelude to the Soviet era. A strength of the work is that it contains a chapter on Russia’s current Arctic affairs, which, as Josephson argues, feature intriguing similarities with the Stalin era. Geographically, the book mainly deals with Russia’s western-most Arctic regions and especially the Kola Peninsula, the Arkhangelsk area, the Karelian and Komi republics, and the Nenets Autonomous Region. The vast territories of circumpolar Siberia and the Russian Far East figure less prominently.

On one level The Conquest of the Russian Arctic deals with the troublesome interactions between humans and the harsh environment in the Russian Far North, and as such would mainly seem to be a work of environmental history. On another level, however, the story is set in an age of [End Page 761] industrialization and in a country whose leaders were determined to make massive use of the Arctic’s vast natural resources—from forests and waterfalls to fossil fuels and metal ores—for scaling up industrial operations and, by extension, turning the Soviet Union into a technologically advanced global power. From this perspective the book is to no lesser extent a work of history of technology. Arctic-related scientific activities are also scrutinized in depth. This combination of scientific, technological, and environmental perspectives on Russian history has long been one of Josephson’s main strengths as a scholar, and in the Arctic this approach becomes particularly rewarding.

But there is more. One of the themes that will likely be much cited is the author’s account of the Gulag and its role in Arctic conquest. These prisoner camps existed in many parts of the Soviet Union, but since it was so difficult to attract voluntary workers to the taiga and tundra, they were of particular importance in the Arctic. Needless to say, the life of the prisoners—who worked in mines and forests extracting resources or at the canals and railways that were needed for their distribution—was a nightmare. But Josephson also shows that the work they carried out was extremely inefficient, to the point that it becomes difficult to discern any economic rationality in the Gulag-centered exploitation of the Arctic’s resource riches. Most work was accomplished with simple equipment such as spades and wheelbarrows, and without even fairly basic machinery such as tractors. This is the “shock of the old,” Russian-style.

Another important theme—and a key to understanding Russian efforts in the Arctic—is the legendary seaway that Westerners usually refer to as the Northeast Passage and Russians simply call the Northern Sea Route. In the age of climate change and melting Arctic sea ice, the future prospects for this sea route have recently been much discussed internationally, and Josephson adds an interesting historical perspective. Tsarist-era ambitions to exploit the Northern Sea Route were lukewarm at most, but in the period that followed, its opening for regular shipping was identified as a challenge worthy of the red empire. The route offered an excellent opportunity to show that, given the right political conditions, there were no limits to humankind’s ability to manipulate the natural world. This dream spurred and was closely related to overall Soviet activities in the Arctic. In the early Soviet period, for example, Arctic coal mines were identified as strategic suppliers to the steamships that were expected to regularly travel along the northern coast. The Northern Sea Route was also envisioned as part of a larger transportation system that included the great Siberian rivers, on which large shipments of lumber and minerals were expected.

An attractive feature of Josephson’s book is clearly the author’s impressive...


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