- Soviet Environment, Capitalist World
In the 1970s, a small group of historians began writing about how ecological context shaped human lives, and how human actions shaped the natural world. They called themselves environmental historians. Most wrote about the United States. Behind the particulars of the Dust Bowl, the metropolitan appetites of Chicago, or the damming of the Columbia River lurked capitalism, the economic form that drew people’s ideas and material life together. In its early days, the field was a referendum on the American way of wealth: does it destroy, or does it enlighten, enrich, and enable? As William Cronon long since pointed out, environmental historians answered with two dominant narrative arcs: one a story of decline, of manmade exodus from Eden through consumptive degradation; the other progressive, a line of expanding environmental knowledge that leads society up and out of its own excess.1 Although environmental history has become temporally and geographically capacious, its modernists are often still bards of capitalism, writing of its development and the ethical consequences for men, beasts, [End Page 225] and lands. Environmental historians speak of the past while also offering prognoses on a market-driven future.
The Soviet Union had no markets and now has no future. What, then, might the Soviet case offer environmental history, and what does environmental history bring to the study of the Soviet Union? Andy Bruno’s The Nature of Soviet Power: An Arctic Environmental History is a welcome, and sophisticated, answer. By examining the challenging terrain and climate of the Kola Peninsula, Bruno argues that the natural world “both enabled industrial livelihoods and curtailed socialist promises” (6–7). To demonstrate the ways in which nature was an active participant in the Soviet project, the book details five industries: railroads, chemical fertilizer manufacturing, reindeer farming, nickel and copper smelting, and the development of energy production. In each, Bruno shows how bureaucrats, engineers, scientists, and laborers forced or otherwise brought north a dualistic understanding of nature. Drawing on ideas that predated the Soviet Union, some saw the environment as an adversary to be conquered; others as a source of riches that once assimilated would make a more harmonious world. Differentiating between these different intellectual motives makes The Nature of Soviet Power significantly more nuanced than prior environmental histories of the Soviet Union. Not all Bolshevik development was inspired by “a Promethean antipathy for nature” (76). Instead, the Soviet relationship with the environment emerged in the vacillations between optimistic technocrats eager for holism and wartime plans to subjugate all resources. The resulting “Stalinism as an Ecosystem” was a mode of development that often destroyed the lands and waters it tried to assimilate, only to then retaliate with a renewed emphasis on conquest. Across the 20th century, both visions radically transformed the Kola Peninsula.
The railroad began the transformation of a remote territory into one of the most populous and industrialized places in the Arctic. Bruno’s chapter on its development offers the clearest example of how the “relationship between assimilation and conquest was not evolutionary but instead characterized by fits and starts” (32). The idea of connecting the Murman coastline to the rest of Russia was originally an imperial design, motivated by technocrats eager to assimilate fish and forests. In practice, the railroad became a reality only during World War I, under circumstances brutal to men and nature alike; these wartime conditions emerged again under Stalin. Both ideas met with a “rocky and swampy landscape and seasonal fluctuations in weather” that “undid previous work and caused significant delays” (72). [End Page 226]
Arctic complications were also rife in the construction of the first major industrial project on the Kola Peninsula. In the third chapter, Bruno examines efforts during the First Five-Year Plan to mine a phosphorus-rich mineral from the Khibiny Mountains. Blending “holism and heavy-handed control in relations with the Khibiny environment” produced constant setbacks, supply issues, avalanches, and great loss of human lives—especially among special settlers—to disease and exposure (97). Yet the state also managed to drag...