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Environment and History

Nature Mistaken: Resource-Making, Emotions and the Transformation of Peatlands in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union

Katja Bruisch

Environment and History 26 (2020): 359-382. doi: 10.3197/096734018X15254461646567

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This article examines the commodification and cultural perception of nature in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union through the case of peatland transformation. Drawing upon scientific texts, expert literature and policy documents, I analyse how since the late eighteenth century peatlands were turned into natural resources and how emotions played a crucial role in this process. The discourse about and the actual treatment of these landscapes mirrored changing notions of private property in the Russian Empire and the gradual rise of the state as a key actor in the management of natural wealth. At the same time, the Russian debate followed that in western and northern Europe, where the use of wetlands for peat extraction and their conversion into farmland reflected hopes to boost the national economy and visions of internal colonisation. While important parallels existed with other countries in relation to the cultural perceptions and economic appropriation of wetlands, the Russian / Soviet case exhibited some distinct features as well. Even though the Soviet Union supported international wetland conservation efforts, the state kept promoting extractive and expansive land use practices, while negative attitudes towards peatlands remained influential. Paradoxically, the Russian case both confirms and challenges the argument about the 'fall and rise' of wetlands that has been made in relation to other parts of the world.

KEYWORDS: Peatlands, Russian Empire, Soviet Union, Ramsar, land-use change, energy history


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