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  • The Conquest of the Russian Arctic by Paul R. Josephson
  • Michel Bouchard
The Conquest of the Russian Arctic, by Paul R. Josephson. Cambridge & London, Harvard University Press, 2014. 456 pp. $58.00 US (cloth).

Rooted in a land-based empire that spread overland in all directions, Russia took to the seas relatively late. Here Paul Josephson provides a detailed account of Russian resource extraction in the Arctic — fish and whales in the nineteenth century, and oil and gas in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. This account of the conquest of the Russian North provides a telling history of the rise of Russia as a naval Arctic power and the push to both industrialize and urbanize the Arctic. In many ways, Josephson asserts, the contemporary Russian state continues to live the legacy of the gulag-driven Russian conquest of the north under Joseph Stalin. [End Page 379]

Josephson demonstrates how the conquest of the Russian Arctic was tied to the need to develop a northeast Arctic sea route. The Russo-Japanese War (1904–5), a war that the Russian Empire lost, that highlighted the need to find a shorter and faster route to reach the Pacific from central Russia than the Trans-Siberian Railway. To reach the theatre of war, Russia had to send ships around the Cape of Good Hope to get to the northern Pacific. The railway was ‘‘overloaded’’ and could not provide the necessary means to transport troops and equipment to the Russian Pacific ports (27). Even in times of peace, the railway was not sufficient as ‘‘the Trans-Siberian Railway had such low capacity that it was overwhelmed by grain shipments — grain often rotted in the open air as it waited to be shipped’’ (29). They then faced the challenge of building ships that could adequately sail these waters.

This book does provide a telling account of the early years of exploration carried out in the final decade of Imperial Russia. As Josephson explains, not only were these expeditions ill-prepared and lacking in crews with even a basic knowledge and understanding of Arctic conditions, but invariably, ‘‘emotions [such] as patriotism and heroism overwhelmed those of common sense and self-awareness’’ (32). The Empire was simply too technologically backward — still featuring a largely peasant-based economy with relatively little industrial activity as compared to the epoch’s leading economic powers — and thus lacking the industrial base to effectively establish a strong presence in the Arctic Ocean. This problem plagued Soviet rulers in turn following the October Revolution.

Josephson examines the ways in which gulag slave labour was used to compensate for shortages of technology that still bedeviled Soviet plans in the 1930s. Gulag labour was used to ‘‘build, dig, pour, load and dump’’ (p. 116). The need for labour was such that prisoners who finished their terms were charged again; to fill the requirement for engineers, the secret police gathered engineers in Moscow for the large-scale construction projects in the Arctic (126). Soviet planners had an insatiable appetite for labour and the secret police had an insatiable need for prisons (129). Entire cities were built north of the Arctic Circle by gulag labour, and the motivating factor was to ensure that the Soviet Union could be completely independent, producing all the raw resources it required. This need for economic autarky engendered colossal inefficiencies. One example that is clearly detailed is the city of Vorkuta in the tundra of the northern Komi Republic: ‘‘the dispatch of supplies to Vorkuta and raw materials out moved glacially — and costs were outrageously high, but the authorities justified them through gulag labor’’ (282).

The sheer quantity of prisoners sent to northern gulags was used to compensate for the inefficiency of this model of development. Josephson notes, ‘‘Slave labor was poorly organized. . . there were few incentives for [End Page 380] slaves or guards to do more than the bare minimum,’’ and the guards had a penchant for imbibing too much vodka (135). Even more telling was the fact that many of the prisoners were effectively managers during the day, given the responsibility of evaluating their own performance. Thus, a Kafkaesque system was in place whereby bookkeeper prisoners kept track...


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pp. 379-381
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