From the steppe to the sea: A journey through Russia's troubled environmental history

​Map in hand, our historians explore Russia's remote landscape wonders

Sunset over Lake Baikal Credit: Bryce Stewart

Lake Baikal, the world's largest freshwater lake, shrouded in smoke from forest fires. Credit: Bryce Stewart

As a historian, you’d expect the natural habitat of Professor David Moon to be deep in the bowels of an academic library or foraging among dusty archives in search of answers to complex historical puzzles.

But, as an environmental historian, his latest research project involves boots on the ground across Russia and the vast landscape of the former Soviet Union. Working with a group of international experts, he has trekked through remote forests, swum in lakes and climbed mountains far from the Russian heartland around Moscow in a bid to unravel the complex relationship between the people of Russia and the former Soviet lands - and their environment.

“Russian and Soviet attitudes towards the environment have sometimes been misunderstood,” he says. “The instinctive view in the West was that, especially in Soviet times, they set out simply to conquer the landscape and tap its rich natural resources with vast industrial schemes, with little regard to the impact on the environment.

Pioneers

“But at the same time, as our group is aware, the country has a long tradition of nature conservation and was one of the pioneers of scientific nature reserves where human activity is strictly controlled.”

He acknowledges that Russia and the Soviet Union have exploited their resources but adds: "So have many other countries across the world. There’s a balance between economic development and conserving nature, and for all countries – not just Russia – that balance can be very hard to strike.”

Professor Moon from our Department of History is in the final year of a three-year research project, Exploring Russia’s Environmental History and Natural Resources. Funded by an International Network Grant from the Leverhulme Trust, the project studies how the relationship between the people and their landscape has evolved across a 500-year sweep of history from Tsarist to post-Soviet times.

Climate change

He is leading a network of academics from universities in the UK, USA and Russia in a series of field trips to Russia and Ukraine. There, they have uncovered fascinating new historical perspectives while, at the same time, witnessing at first hand the damage that climate change has wreaked on some of the country’s most precious and fragile ecosystems.

The group, which brings together specialists in the humanities, social and natural sciences, have trekked through remote national parks, explored pristine forests and travelled to an ancient fishing community on islands near the Arctic Circle. They also toured the mighty Volkhov Hydroelectric Power Station, a hundred miles east of St Petersburg, built in the 1920s as Russia’s first hydroelectric plant.

Plans to visit the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant had to be postponed because of concerns about travel in Ukraine, but the team hopes to reschedule the visit next year.

“As well as sitting in libraries and poring over archives and documents, we actually wanted to visit the places we were studying, explore the landscape and meet the people living, working and studying there. I don’t think you can appreciate a place, its environment or its climate unless you actually go and experience it,” says Professor Moon.

The project has built valuable research alliances with international academics from America, across Europe to Australia, while offering unique study opportunities for our own academics.

Lake Baikal

Fisheries biologist Dr Bryce Beukers-Stewart, from our Environment Department, joined the project on a field trip to Lake Baikal in Siberia, the largest freshwater lake in the world, where he had an unrivalled opportunity to study the environmental pressures facing this fragile aquatic paradise. He was impressed with the dedication of local scientists and conservationists to protect the area, but concerned about the fluctuating fortunes of the Lake’s fish populations and growing threats from new dams and climate change.

Professor Moon explained: “Lake Baikal is a unique and beautiful area but, while we were there, it was shrouded in smoke from forest fires caused by a prolonged dry spell. We swam in the lake and, while the water was warmer than we expected, we were told the temperature had risen over the past few years, so we could see and feel at first hand the effects of climate change on the local ecosystem.”

While in the area, the team also witnessed damage to roads and buildings caused by melting permafrost.

One of the highlights of the trip was a stay at the remote Barguzin scientific nature reserve on the north-east side of Lake Baikal. The team were given privileged access to the state-run reserve where human activity has been limited to scientific research since its foundation in 1916. “We were walking along paths used by bears where humans hadn’t walked for many years.”

Solovetsky Islands

An earlier trip visited the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea where the researchers traced the environmental footprint left by monks from the medieval Solovetsky Monastery who built a network of canals to link natural lakes. They also explored the rich cultural heritage and evidence of pagan sites pre-dating the arrival of the Orthodox Christian monks.

On this trip they were joined by another fisheries scientist from our Environment Department, PhD student Abigail Sutton.

The project has already prompted articles, conferences, lectures and workshops. There are also plans for a book of essays highlighting issues raised by the research.

“We want to present a more balanced view of Russia’s environmental history and conservation. In many ways, they face the same environmental pressures as many countries. The difference is the scale of their landscape and the extent of their environmental challenges,” says Professor Moon.

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Russian and Soviet attitudes towards the environment have sometimes been misunderstood”
Professor David Moon

Exploring Russia’s Environmental History and Natural Resources is funded by The Leverhulme Trust

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Professor David Moon

Professor David Moon

Research interests in the rural world of the Russian Empire from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries

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An article about Dr Bryce Beukers-Stewart’s trip to Lake Baikal: New dams, warming waters, forest fires - Lake Baikal in peril was published in Ecologist

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