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  • Soviet Whale Scientists and the Crisis in the World's Oceans
  • Ryan Tucker Jones (bio)

The lasting, and nearly the only, image of Soviet whaling is of small Greenpeace zodiacs positioning themselves between the floating factory Dal´nii Vostok and its prey in 1975, just off the coast of California. As Bob Hunter, Greenpeace's leader, described the sight of the Soviet ship: "It seemed we were staring into the face of a giant robot, whose 'particular obscenity'" came from the fact that "here was a beast that fed itself through its anus, and it was into this inglorious hole that the last of the world's whales were vanishing."1 The image, as Greenpeace activists had intended, set off a "mind bomb" in the global consciousness, playing a key galvanizing role in the Save the Whales movement that helped bring about a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986. As whaling receded from the headlines, the Dal´nii Vostok remained as a symbol of humanity's remorseless destruction of the world's oceans, foiled—just in time—by the Western world's realization of whales' peacefulness and intelligence.

In spite of a recent spate of historical reevaluations of the era of industrial whaling, with the notable exceptions of Yulia Ivashchenko's unpublished dissertation and several chapters of Bathsheba Demuth's Floating Coast, the history of Soviet whaling has not been included in a comprehensive way.2 [End Page 51] The few histories of cetology ignore the Soviets altogether.3 This relative negligence comes despite the fact that the Soviets were the most prolific whalers after World War II, and their whale scientists among the world's foremost experts. Russian-language research is more comprehensive but is largely encyclopedic and celebratory rather than critical, integrative, or comparative.4 On the other side, those accounts focusing on the revelations that the Soviet Union secretly and illegally killed thousands of whales hardly tell the full story.5

There is good reason, though, for exploring the history of Soviet whaling in greater detail. This history is essential for filling out the global history of industrial whaling and refining some of the accepted wisdom about how the whales were saved. It also reminds us of something too often overlooked in Russian history, that the world's largest land empire has also played a crucial role in shaping the global oceans. To understand how the Soviet Union related to whales and the oceans in the ways it did requires inquiry into the country's environmental, geopolitical, and economic history, as well as the histories of labor and science.6

In this article, I relate the experiences of Soviet cetologists—those who study whales—from the 1930s to the 1970s. Besides revealing and explaining their unique contributions to global whale research, the article also shows how scientists' labor partially fulfilled—and tragically failed to fulfill—Soviet socialism's claim to plan environmentally sustainable economic growth. In the process, this history adds to our understanding of Soviet science and environmental practice, buttressing the argument of those historians—such as Douglas Weiner, Nikolai Krementsov, Stephen Brain, and Andy Bruno—who have stressed continuity with imperial-era scientific and environmental practices and the tenuous but persistent autonomy of scientists.7 Specifically, [End Page 52] Soviet cetologists navigated the constraints of productivism and Lysenkoism to produce some of the 20th-century's most creative ideas about whales, ideas that were sometimes deeply at odds with the state's desires. While providing greater depth to the destruction of the world's whales in the 1960s, the article also, in the end, presents part of the view from the other side of the Greenpeace confrontation, that of the cetologists who sailed aboard the Dal´nii Vostok and the other Soviet whaling fleets around the globe.

Scientists in the Net

Any assessment of Soviet cetology must consider the institutional and physical context in which whale scientists worked. As was largely the case with British, Norwegian, and Japanese whalers until the 1950s, most Soviet cetologists worked on whale ships, alongside whalers, a tradition Graham Burnett refers to as "hip-booted science."8 This experience not only helped dictate the questions cetologists considered important but imbricated...