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Paul R. Josephson, The Conquest of the Russian Arctic, Cambridge Ma. & London, UK: Harvard University Press 2014

Book review
Authors Aant Elzinga
Published in Journal of Northern Studies
Volume 10
Issue 2 (2016)
Pages 187-198
ISSN 1654-5915
Publication year 2017
Published at Department of Philosophy, Linguistics and Theory of Science
Pages 187-198
Language en
Links www.jns.org.umu.se
Keywords Arctic, Russia, modernization, political history, industrial development, ice islands, Siberia, science and technology
Subject categories History of science


Russia has a long history of engagement with the Arctic. This book traces many facets of this history, concentrating on the Soviet period plus a final chapter that takes us into the post-Soviet era. The post-millennium buildup of science traced in a section on Russia’s efforts in and contributions to the International Polar Year 2007– 2008 is valuable since it is directly based on Russian reports seldom mentioned in Anglophone literature. Geographically the focus of the book is largely on three provinces of the Northwest, the heavily forested Arkhangelsk Province, the Republic of Karelia, and Murmansk Province essentially including the Kola Peninsula. Projects and processes devoted to domesticating the taiga and tundra and assimilating its peoples into mainstream Russia are probed. The roles of engineering, research, new technologies and mass labor in extreme polar climates are highlighted throughout. Description and analysis is based on the author’s own visits to several places in the Russian North between 2007 and 2012, and many years’ perusing of primary archival material covering major events and policies from the 1920s to the late 1960s and beyond. Focus is on rapid and forced development in the early period as well as ideological and political changes then and later. An- other interest is how development policies designed by Moscow-based bureaucracies frequently contradicted realities on the ground as expe- rienced by workers, engineers, scientists, riverboat navigators and sea- faring captains and crews, as well as local knowledge. Paul Josephson demonstrates how such tensions “found full reflection in Arctic culture, ideology and values,” much as it did in programs for Arc- tic conquest in Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Norway and the American west where capitalist modes of development and an absence of centralized planning held sway. The author supports detailed description of these developments with telling statistical indicators of change and stories of both resistance and successes in different regions. “Agitprop” detach- ments of what was called the Red Tepee Movement used reading circles and travelling theatres to propagate ideals of a new society made up of modern future-oriented men and women. But, as Josephson illustrates on the basis of archival evidence, the cultural missions throughout the tundra did not always work as hoped for. In the 1960s specialists were still “frustrated by their inability to fit Nentsy, Komi and Saami into the Marxist categories of class, mutable world view and educationality” (p. 235). The instrumentalist approach and progress of the physical sciences in dealing with the vagaries of nature were not easily replicated by social sciences meant to remold human beings. To add further flesh to his sketches of forced industrial growth in the Arctic, Josephson again includes several short biographies of significant personalities interspersed with descriptions of the smelters, foundries, shipyards and mills that cropped up in selected districts. Clarified too are the high politics at the interface between state and northern regions, and incidences of purges and execution of middle and even top managers attached to these developmental patterns affiliated with the early Soviet command-economy. Much depended on state subsidies; once the USSR broke up in 1991, we learn, urban populations especially in smaller cities and towns in the Russian Arctic declined drastically, at least until the recent upturn when some places have experienced a rebirth with the discovery of oil and gas, increasing demands for rare earth metals, and of course the rejuvenation of the Northern Sea Route aided by climate change. Strangely, Josephson does not take up the significance of Gorbachev’s path-breaking speech that preceded the chaotic years of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency. In polar science communities Gorbachev is often recognized for his seminal influence beyond Russian borders in the shaping of Arctic policy and research, including inspiration and condi- tions conducive to coordinating research and the establishment of the International Arctic Science Committee (IACS) in 1990, complement- ed by the International Arctic Social Sciences Association (IASSA) that same year. Gorbachev’s vision further included cooperative efforts in opening the North Sea Route to foreign ships simultaneously with environmental protection and management. A broader geopolitical brush would also refer to Gorbachev’s meeting with George H.W. Bush in Malta in early December 1989 to discuss a rapidly changing Europe in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall—the Malta Summit gave what is called the Malta Understanding (thus not a formal agreement). At the Malta Summit Bush intimated that the US would not seek an endless expansion of NATO eastward and for a while the West did everything it could to give the Soviets the impression that NATO membership was out of the question for countries like Poland, Hungary or Czechoslovakia. However, in connection with East-West negotiations over German reunification 1990 and with the Soviet collapse and disintegration into fifteen separate countries in December the following year the US saw its chance. With invitations later (1999) from some eastern and central European countries and later (2004) from the Baltic nations, NATO’s umbrella has widened into a military alliance directly touch- ing 1,200 kilometres of Russia’s western border. Not surprisingly the Russian leadership regards this as reneging on an earlier understanding and a creeping process of surrounding the new Russia militarily. In the Western media nowadays it is commonplace to ignore the past US administrations’ and not least former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s hawkish strategy while ironizing over Vladimir Putin’s actions geared to protecting Russia’s own interests in the face of the US and NATO’s known record of fostering destabilization to gain stronger control as self-styled global policemen. The strength of Josephson’s study of the post-Soviet era is that he bases himself on primary Russian reports and other sources but at the same time he also falls into the trap of tacitly misinterpreting the military actions in the West as largely altruistic and democracy-minded.

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