No true Russian word for wilderness

Center for the Humanities Newsletter Photo
William Husband

“Man, in transforming nature, transforms himself,” asserts a propaganda slogan from Russia’s Stalin era.

“As a mobilization device, this declaration captured the ruthless bravado of the Russian experiment in Communism, in which attempts to ‘correct nature’s mistakes’ ranged from the benign to the benighted,” said William Husband, a Research Fellow and OSU professor of history. “The scientific improvement of chronically anemic peasant agriculture, to be sure, but also environmentally calamitous projects such as attempting to reverse the flow of major rivers or reconfigure regional biospheres.”

Beyond its hackneyed propaganda functions, the slogan also extended the letter, if not the spirit, of the idealism of the nineteenth century Russian intelligentsia, who saw in science a rationalizing force with the potential to inculcate a more egalitarian society in Russia, in addition to improving its material existence. In his project Nature in Modern Russia: A Social History, Husband focuses on the complexity of the relationship between humans and nature in Russia from 1861 to the present, a period during which intellectuals and successive governments have considered it realistic to try to transform both simultaneously.

“Multiple attempts to transform and/or preserve the natural environment in Russia have been inextricably tied not only to improving humans’ material existence, but also to a variety of aspirations to reconfigure the human condition globally.” Previous studies have failed to emphasize adequately one underappreciated truth about the multiple Russian and Soviet attempts to transform both humans and nature, said Husband: that impulses toward both exploitation and protection evolved not from markedly disparate traditions, but from the same cultural matrix.

“Seventy-four years of Communist rule undeniably produced manifold catastrophic consequences for humans and the natural environment, but the aspirations of the Russian experiment in Communism—if not all its actions—were consistent with the predominant scientific and humanitarian modes of educated Russian thought at the end of the nineteenth century.”

Husband’s book begins with a discussion of nature and science as representing a Russian state of mind, that is, the coexistence in the same intellectual tradition of seemingly contradictory approaches to nature. “Russian educated opinion of the late nineteenth century covered a wide range, including concern over the serious depletion of forests and game, optimism that the exploitation of the country’s natural resources represented the avenue out of Russia’s chronic ‘backwardness’ relative to the West, a deterministic faith in science, fear that modernization would contaminate Russia’s national spirit and uniqueness, and literary representations that both idealized nature and laid bare its peril.”

Western historians of the environment approach nature not as a fixed or pristine wilderness, but as a phenomenon that continually evolves even without human intervention or interference. “Western analyatical categories, however, do not apply neatly to the Russian experience—there is, for example, no true Russian word for ‘wilderness’”

In his study, Husband focuses on the internal logic of the Russian situation by approaching the subject from a broad social and cultural perspective. Individual phenomena considered in the study include the land itself, wood and forest, water, hunting, fire, and finally the city as “contested space where humans and nature negotiate their coexistence.

Husband is the author of Revolution in the Factory (Oxford UP, 1990) and ‘Godless Communists’: Atheism and Society in Soviet Russia, 1917-1932 (University of Northern Illinois Press, 2000), both written with the help of previous Center Fellowships.