Was Stalin an Environmentalist?

Stalin statue in Grutas Park, Lithuania
Stalin statue in Grutas Park, Lithuania

Remember that photograph of Joseph Stalin with the flower in his hair on his way to San Francisco?  It’s in the archives.

Well, no it isn’t.  The environmental credentials of longtime Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, at first glance, don’t seem very credible.  And yet he and his scientific experts did have strong ideas about the ways to use the natural world in what they imagined was a rational, planned way.  Yet Stalin’s big projects, notably the Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature (don’t confuse it with the Not-So-Great Plan) were not pitched toward protecting the natural world but transforming it to fit human desires and needs. Like so many Soviet state-sponsored programs, its ambitions did not suffer from many constraints, making his regime a fascinating case for the historian wishing to see what centrally planned nature-transformation looks like.  Like programs outside the Soviet Union during the same era (Stalin died in 1953), the “Great Plan” was based on the idea that the natural world could be bent to human will with the latest scientific advice.

I’ve just finished coordinating an online roundtable discussion about Stephen Brain’s book Song for the Forest, which makes a pretty strong case about Stalin’s, or at least Stalinist, environmentalism.  Brain focuses on the forests, areas that were not just important sources of commodities (timber), but also were tied to Russian identity. The commentators found his claim compelling, though some remain unconvinced that the Soviet leader earned distinction as an environmentalist.  Have a look at the roundtable and, even better, read the book, and judge for yourself.  I’m pasting below the intro to my roundtable, which gives a sense of who the commentators are.


Was Stalin an environmentalist? It may be hard to imagine the long-time leader of the former Soviet Union as anything but a ruthless dictator.  His show trials, his executions, and his gulags did not indicate a strong concern for human life, and it is difficult to conceive of a counterbalancing worry for the natural world.  On the other hand, the same approach to governance that allowed an all-powerful state to impose collectivized agriculture over such a vast area might have been conducive to halting practices we typically associate with unbridled capitalism, such as the clear-cutting of forests.  Today scholars are coming around slowly to the uncomfortable notion that many of the values espoused by later environmentalists, such as sustainable agriculture and pollution controls, also were favored by unsavory leaders from the past. The Nazis, for example, associated natural landscapes with German-ness, and Hitler’s views of racial purity blended with his views of bodily and natural purity.  Were there similar values at work among Soviet leaders?

Stephen Brain’s book Song for the Forest is an exploration of this question, and his answer may be a surprise.  He makes a strong case for a kind of environmental thought at work in the Soviet Union in the era prior to Stalin’s death in 1953.  Although he identifies an approach that does not match up point-for-point with latter-day environmentalism, he believes that it still qualifies.  He calls it Stalinist environmentalism.  Focusing on the conservation programs in the various forest zones of the Soviet Union, he shows how Stalin-era conservation was distinct from competing versions of it from Germany and elsewhere, and that leading specialists were often successful in promoting sustainable forestry under Stalin.

Brain takes this a step further and notes that Stalin’s plans can be understood as an early attempt to reverse human-induced climate change.

To comment on Brain’s book in this roundtable, we have a range of experts on environmental history during the Soviet period.  One is Sari Autio-Sarasmo, a researcher at the University of Helsinki.  A specialist in Soviet-era economic development, she has worked extensively on the role of forest conservation, especially in the Karelia region, in the modernizing plans of Soviet leaders.  Like Brain, Autio-Sarasmo has worked on the conceptual strands of what might be considered environmental thought in Russia and the Soviet Union.[1]

Brian Bonhomme, an associate professor at Youngstown State University, shares with Stephen Brain an expertise in Soviet forestry, and he also has explored the opportunities that existed when centralized government could attempt to implement the latest scientific ideas on a huge scale.  For Bonhomme, there was not as firm a break in forestry attitudes as one might expect between imperial Russia and the early Bolshevik years, and in the political and economic strains of the early Soviet years, centralized control of forestry practices was not always easy to achieve.[2]

Jenny Leigh Smith is an assistant professor of history at Georgia Tech, and her research has explored the environmental history of the Soviet Union through animals and food.  Just as economic strains put pressure on forestry practices, they also shaped the kinds of foods to which Russians, Ukrainians, and others had access.  One example was tushonka, a canned pork product widely available as a wartime donation from surplus American farms.  Through that product, Smith reveals how the Soviet state mobilized to normalize and encourage the mass-production of particular commodities, namely pigs and the crops that fed them.[3]

Diana Mincyte, an assistant professor and faculty fellow at New York University, also is an expert on agriculture and food systems, especially in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.  Some of her work explores how peasants responded to collectivization, often by exerting some control over small semiprivate allotments of land.  In her study of Lithuanians under Stalinism, she shows how these subsidiary farms became a way peasants exerted control and gained power in their communities, shielding them from the extractive practices of government.  For Mincyte, these small plots became essential parts of the socialist state under Stalin.[4]

The roundtable, along with all the others, can be accessed (for free) here.

A direct link to this roundtable’s PDF is here.

[1] Arja Rosenholm and Sari Autio-Sarasmo, eds., Understanding Russian Nature: Representations, Values, and Concepts (Helsinki: Aleksanteri Institute, 2005).

[2] Brian Bonhomme, Forests, Peasants, and Revolutionaries: Forest Conservation and Organization in Soviet Russia, 1917-1929 (Boulder: East European Monographs, 2005).

[3] Jenny Leigh Smith, “Tushonka: Cultivating Soviet Postwar Taste” in M/C Journal, Vol. 13, No. 5 (2010).  Available at http://journal.media-culture.org.au/index.php/mcjournal/article/view/299

[4] Diana Mincyte, “Everyday Environmentalism: The Practice, Politics, and Nature of Subsidiary Farming in Stalin’s Lithuania,” Slavic Review 68:1 (2009), 31-49.

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