Environmental Change in the Soviet Union

A review of Making Nature Modern: Economic Transformation and the Environment in the Soviet North, by Andy Bruno.

Did the Soviet Union perpetrate ecocide to an unprecedented degree? Was communism more egregious than capitalism in its degradation of nature? Are human activities decisive, or does the natural world shape and defy human behavior? These questions have loomed large in debates about the relationship between people and the environment in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In his ambitious study, Andy Bruno offers answers that are both empirically substantiated and theoretically engaged. Bruno makes the case that the Soviet experience must be seen within the context of global economic change since the industrial revolution, and that it shared in the practices and legacies of this wider transformation. At the same time, examining the particularities of Soviet environmental history reveals nuances that elude easy generalizations. The Soviet Union aspired not only to conquer and exploit, but also to create harmony with the environment. Like any good historian, Bruno describes and interprets Soviet initiatives to transform the environment while also demonstrating change over time: the USSR’s capacity to pollute, for example, was not consistent, but rather fluctuated over the period under examination. Most importantly, non-state actors—human and nonhuman—alternately subverted and exacerbated the Soviet regime’s attempts to remake nature and society.

The scope and scale of Bruno’s work are tremendous, from the amount of evidence examined to the range of questions considered. On one level, the dissertation focuses on the Kola Peninsula, a territory in northwest Russia across the border from Finland and Norway that had become “the most industrialized and densely populated Arctic region” by the end of the twentieth century (p. 2). But although the Kola Peninsula provides the specific setting, Bruno means to illuminate the Soviet experience as a whole, using a “deep analysis of the peripheral to complicate our picture of the general” (p. 13). Within the regional framework, Bruno adopts a total history approach to environmental history, analyzing humans in concert with nonhuman nature. Spanning the entirety of the Soviet Union’s existence, his study strives to give a complete picture of its economic practices, focusing in turn on railroad construction, mining, animal husbandry, metallurgy, and energy production. Each expansive chapter develops a different core insight into the material dimensions of Soviet power.

Chapter 1 explores railroad construction on the Kola Peninsula in order to articulate two examples of what Bruno calls “environmental ideologies”: technocratic statism and militaristic modernization. Bruno discerns both of these approaches to economic development at work in the Soviet Union, with technocratic statism prevailing in the late imperial period and Soviet 1920s, and militaristic modernization dominating during the First World War and Stalinist Five-Year Plans. Although both were state-driven and undergirded by a utilitarian attitude toward nature, Bruno parses subtle but important differences in their rhetorics and impacts on people and the environment. Technocratic statism was characterized by a desire comprehensively to catalog and exploit the resources of the land. Attentive to the discourse of “colonization” (of virtually everything) used by his historical actors in myriad discussions in the late imperial period and 1920s, Bruno aptly categorizes this approach as aspiring to the “colonization of nature.” By contrast, militaristic modernization, the “more nefarious form of development” (p. 38), embraced the language of “conquering nature” and resulted in both human suffering and wasteful resource use. Bruno emphasizes that each of these environmental ideologies may be embraced by a variety of political systems, whether capitalist, autocratic, or totalitarian. State-driven development is neither monolithic nor predetermined. On the Kola Peninsula, historical contingencies as well as the actions of nonhuman elements such as frost and snow intensified the deployment of coercive economic practices.

Bruno fleshes out what he means by the actions of nonhuman elements in Chapter 2, which posits the idea of “Stalinism as ecosystem.” Just as all elements of an ecosystem interact, so in the ecosystem of Stalinism nature and society shaped each other within a shared totality. In this framework, not only does society act upon nature, but nature also acts upon society. The ecosystem concept therefore foregrounds the environment as a constitutive player in Stalinism, incorporating Latourian actor-network theory while sidestepping potentially distracting arguments about intention and agency (see Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005). Bruno illustrates the mutual influence of nature and society by focusing on the region of the Khibiny Mountains, where the Stalinist regime deployed militaristic modernization characterized by rushed tempos, overly ambitious production targets, and forced labor in order to create an urban industrial center for producing synthetic fertilizers from apatite-nepheline ore. Despite the woeful results (which included starvation, disease, deforestation, and pollution), Bruno complicates the picture by arguing that the intention was nevertheless to create healthy human settlements in harmony with nature. The failure of the Soviets’ “transformative and holistic vision” was due in no small part to the recalcitrant and inhospitable environment of the Far North, with its frigid temperatures, long winters, unstable mountainous terrain, and scarce flora and fauna (p. 76). In Bruno’s telling, nature actively beckoned with its potential, undermined human ingenuity, and finally exacerbated the consequences of careless practices.

Chapter 3 marks a broad shift from focusing on state actors in the early Soviet period to following a range of groups throughout the USSR’s existence and up to the present. First, Bruno hones in on human relationships with reindeer in order to tackle a key issue in environmental history—conservation—and to illuminate the environmental dimensions of nationality formation. Both the preservation of wild reindeer and the consolidation of an ethnic identity around reindeer husbandry exhibited what Bruno calls “legible” and “sentient” ecologies. “Legible ecologies,” an idea inspired by James Scott, refer to knowledge that renders nature more understandable and potentially productive on a large scale (James C. Scott, Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998). On the Kola Peninsula, legible ecologies took the form of inscriptions onto the landscape of sacrosanct reindeer habitats, while the demands of ecological legibility also circumscribed both scientists’ and local residents’ interpretations and formulations of the role of reindeer domestication in local cultures and economies. Although wildlife protection on the one hand, and a “bias toward monocultural megafauna” on the other, might seem antithetical in their ecological effects, Bruno shows that they are born of a common impulse to manage nature (p. 124). Particularly provocative is Bruno’s point that, through the imposition of legible ecologies, the Sami of the Kola Peninsula became quintessential reindeer people despite the fact that their economic practices were borrowed from Komi and Nenets pastoralists and forged through Soviet collectivization and terror. At the same time, Bruno is careful to stress that “sentient ecologies,” or perspectives gained through lived experience rather than abstract, deductive reasoning, were also at work in managing both wild and domesticated reindeer. This chapter extends and adapts James Scott’s ideas to non-state actors from scientists to Sami, and uses empirical data to argue that, contrary to progressivist frameworks that posit sharp civilizational divides between forms of knowledge, indigenes and scientists alike embraced both legible and sentient ecologies.

Chapter 4 traces another environmental issue—pollution—across the Soviet period in order to complicate the idea that communism had a uniquely poor record. On the surface, the poisoned water, decaying vegetation, and unhealthy bodies found on the Kola Peninsula seem to confirm the verdict of much earlier scholarship: the Soviet Union had devastated the environment. While presenting the facts of degradation, however, Bruno introduces nuances and contingencies. Examining the nickel industry, he shows that pollution levels varied over time. These levels were limited in the 1930s and 1940s, rising in the 1970s and 1980s, and somewhat diminishing in the 2000s. Bruno intervenes in the standard narrative of Soviet environmental history to argue that the problems of the 1970s and 1980s were not simply the result of the maturation of problems sown by Stalinism (p. 220). These fluctuations had more to do with changing levels of industrial production and the Soviet Union’s position in the world economy than with the failings of central planning or a lack of concern about nature. Bruno’s careful attention to material differences over time enables him to critique explanations of environmental degradation that blame communism, global capitalism, or political authoritarianism in wholesale fashion. As an anti-capitalist state, the Soviet Union was oriented toward production for the sake of industrial growth rather than for maximizing profit. This orientation generated markedly different choices, and yet the Soviet Union had much in common with capitalist countries that extracted—and continue to extract—natural resources in order to create wealth. Ultimately, Bruno asserts, “in both capitalist and communist systems a group of elite actors possessed the power to transform human-nature relations radically for the remainder of society,” a power that had “predictable environmental outcomes” (p. 240).

Bruno develops the idea of environmental degradation as a shared legacy of the twentieth century in Chapter 5, which focuses on changing energy regimes on the Kola Peninsula. The Soviet state harnessed the power of wood, peat, water, coal, oil, and plutonium to build roads and cities and to produce raw materials for the economy. But the price paid was deforestation, pollution, global warming, habitat destruction, fish kills, and radioactive contamination. Bruno emphasizes that generating millions of kilowatt hours in electricity to industrialize the northern landscape did not liberate humans from the constraints of nature. At all times, the properties of the nonhuman world shaped possibilities and created harmful consequences that reminded society of its inextricability from the environment. The workings of natural elements on human bodies, such as the elusive effects of radiation exposure as well as the very processes of labor itself, connected people to nature even as they transformed it. Bruno applies insights from Science and Technology Studies to tell the story of the entanglement of nature and culture, but he also insists on the continued relevance of critiques of modernity that stress society’s dissociation from nature as a result of human manipulation of the environment. By changing the landscape, Bruno argues, “humans performed a type of control and dominance over the environment and allowed for socially experienced separation” (p. 245). He suggests that recognition of the alienation resulting from this “separation,” and of the material reasons behind it, has to be the first step toward addressing negative environmental legacies worldwide. The book that will result from Bruno’s dissertation research will inspire us to think critically about the Soviet Union’s place in the geographically and socially unequal “slow violence” of global environmental degradation (see Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011). 

The research exhibited in Bruno’s study encompasses not only deep archival work but also synthesis of a remarkable range of secondary literature in both English and Russian, from critical theory to scientific assessments. From these diverse materials, Bruno draws out the environmental dimensions of Soviet economic practices and joins such scholars as Jonathan Oldfield and Stephen Brain in revising the assessments of recent pioneers of Russian and Soviet environmental history. At the same time, Bruno’s focus on nature-society interactions in a northern landscape inserts him into a growing body of scholarship about circumpolar environmental history that includes Liza Piper’s Industrial Transformation of Subarctic Canada (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010) and Kathryn Morse’s The Nature of Gold: An Environmental History of the Klondike Gold Rush (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003). While building upon these conversations, however, Bruno provides a perspective that is his own. In particular, he demonstrates a sensitivity to the dynamics of power and the unequal burdens and responsibilities that accompany these dynamics. He urges us to take seriously the material changes that have shaped our world and to account for the consequences—both human and environmental—of the exploitation of nature in the most extreme and most ordinary locations on our planet.

Pey-Yi Chu
Assistant Professor
The History Department
Pomona College

Primary Sources

State Archive of Murmansk Region (GAMO) and its Kirovsk Branch (KF GAMO)
Archive of the Russian Academy of Sciences (ARAN)
Russian State Archive of the Economy (RGAE)
Murmansk State Regional General Scholarly Library, Regional Studies Section (Murmanskaia gosudarstvennaia oblastnaia universal’naia nauchnaia biblioteka, kraevedcheskii otdel)
Pol’iarnaia pravda

Dissertation Information

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. 2011. 321 pp. Primary Advisor: Mark Steinberg.

Image: The Severonikel’ plant in Monchegorsk. Photo by Author.

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