Summary and Keywords
Russian environmental history is a new field of inquiry, with the first archivally based monographs appearing only in the last years of the 20th century. Despite the field’s youth, scholars studying the topic have developed two distinct and contrasting approaches to its central question: How should the relationship between Russian culture and the natural world be characterized? Implicit in this question are two others: Is the Russian attitude toward the non-human world more sensitive than that which prevails in the West; and if so, is the Russian environment healthier or more stable than that of the United States and Western Europe? In other words, does Russia, because of its traditional suspicion of individualism and consumerism, have something to teach the West? Or, on the contrary, has the Russian historical tendency toward authoritarianism and collectivism facilitated predatory policies that have degraded the environment? Because environmentalism as a political movement and environmental history as an academic subject both emerged during the Cold War, at a time when the Western social, political, and economic system vied with the Soviet approach for support around the world, the comparative (and competitive) aspect of Russian environmental history has always been an important factor, although sometimes an implicit one. Accordingly, the existing scholarly works about Russian environmental history generally fall into one of two camps: one very critical of the Russian environmental record and the seeming disregard of the Russian government for environmental damage, and a somewhat newer group of works that draw attention to the fundamentally different concerns that motivate Russian environmental policies. The first group emphasizes Russian environmental catastrophes such as the desiccated Aral Sea, the eroded Virgin Lands, and the public health epidemics related to the severely polluted air of Soviet industrial cities. The environmental crises that the first group cites are, most often, problems once prevalent in the West, but successfully ameliorated by the environmental legislation of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The second group, in contrast, highlights Russian environmental policies that do not have strict Western analogues, suggesting that a thorough comparison of the Russian and Western environmental records requires, first of all, a careful examination of what constitutes environmental responsibility.
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