Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Russian environmental history at ESEH, Versailles, 2015

Russian environmental history at the 8th Conference of the European Society for Environmental History (ESEH, Versailles, France, 30 June – 3 July 2015.

By Andrei Vinogradov, Elabuga Institute, Kazan’ Federal University

(translated by David Moon)

In 2003, John McNeill in one of his articles characterized Russia as a region with much to offer environmental historians, but little studied by them. In fact, for a long time, the advance of environmental history in Russia encountered a range of obstacles, including insufficiently developed communications between Russian and foreign scholars and hostility to environmental questions in conservative historical circles. 

An indication of the changes which have taken place was the latest conference of the European Society for Environmental History, held at the University of Versailles from 30 June to 3 July 2015. The conference is held every two years and is one of the most important academic events in the historical world. In comparison with previous conferences, there were significantly more reports on Russian environmental history: 17 paper presentations, 5 posters and 4 entire panels.

On the first day of the conference a panel was held on ‘Forestry specialists in the long 19th century and their understanding of forest ecology’. Anastasiya Fedotova (Russian Academy of Sciences) and senior lecturer Marina Loskutova of the National Research University-Higher School of Economics (HSE), St Petersburg, focused on the development of scientific understandings of the causes and consequences of deforestation and on the work of scientific organizations. They showed that, at a time when the close mutual relationship between many processes occurring in the environment had not yet been studied in depth, scientific knowledge became one of the main factors that was bringing about the interconnection between humans and nature.

Discussion of Russian environmental history continued at a panel ‘Good or evil? The environmental history of dictatorships. The case of the Soviet Union’. Papers were presented by Stephen Brain (Mississippi State University, USA) and Simo Laakkonen (University of Turku, Finland). Brain spoke about the experience of agricultural reform in the Soviet Union necessary because of environmental factors. The introduction of new methods of farming and the restructuring of networks of settlements led to a marked growth in economic indexes. It is interesting that this became grounds for closing programmes, as it was inadmissible in Soviet ideology for peasants to receive commercial income from their work. Laakkonen showed that the ideological direction of the Soviet state on primacy of the development of the military-industrial complex had a negative impact on the environment of the Lithuanian SSR.

Stephen Brain's presentation
On 1 July a panel put together by the conference organisational committee on ‘The environmental history of Russia’ was chaired by David Moon, professor at the University of York (UK). A wide range of questions were examined, including the formation of ‘transport landscapes’ in Russia before the appearance of railways (Alexandra Bekasova, HSE, St Petersburg), the utilization of water resources in industrial centres of the Russian Empire (Aidar Kalimullin, Kazan’ Federal University), environmental education in kindergartens in post-Soviet Yakutia (Carole Ferret, Centre national de la recherché scientifique, Paris), and also environmental aspects of Russian colonization of the territory of the Khanate of Kazan’ (Andrei Vinogradov, Kazan’ Federal University). 

Although the aforementioned researches were carried out on the basis of Russian materials, they shed light on a wide range of questions in a global context. Evidence for this is the interest shown by conference participants in posters dedicated to the Soviet conquest of the Arctic (Ekaterina Kalemeneva), methods for reconstructing paleolandscapes (Maxim Vinarskii) and others. David Moon in his poster demonstrated that Russian scientific thought of the 19th century had significant influence on understanding of ecological problems in the Great Plains of the USA. It is clear that in this connection, studying the environmental history of the Russian state assists in deepening our understanding of global historical and environmental processes.  

In the confines of a short report it is not possible to give a detailed account of all the reports that attracted interest. Special attention is deserved for the research of Olga Malinova‐Tziafeta, and Georgios Tziafetas. A large amount of work in researching Russian environmental history has been carried out by the Centre d'études des mondes russe, caucasien et centre-européen (CERCEC) in France, and also by the project ‘EcoGlobReg’ with the participation of Klaus Gestwa, Laurent Coumel and their colleagues and by other scholars taking part in the conference. A number of actual issues of Russia's environmental history were discussed at the roundtable dedicated to the BRICS countries and organized by Julia Lajus (HSE, St Petersburg).

During the conference a meeting of the members of the society was held at which they elected officers to a new Board. Dolly Jørgensen was re-elected almost unanimously to the post of president of the ESEH. Among her many achievements during her previous term has been a significant increase in activity in the field of environmental history in Eastern Europe and Russia. With the support of the ESEH a range of events have been held, including a conference at Elabuga Institute of Kazan’ Federal University on 13-15 November 2014. Two smaller conferences in Zaporizhe, Ukraine, and Surgut in Siberia are taking place this year with the support of the society. 

As the 8th Conference of the ESEH showed, the historical-environmental approach has taken significant strides in its development in recent years. Interest in Russia among foreign scholars has grown considerably, which inspires hope of further dynamic growth in this area of research in the future.

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