Changing attitudes towards living natural resources project

Marie Curie Fellow: Dr Julia Lajus

February 2009 – February 2010

Grant Agreement number: 220582

Project acronym: ResRusEnvHistory

Project supervisors: Dr Denis Shaw (scientist in charge), Dr Dominique Moran

Summary of the project:

The history of exploration and exploitation of natural resources in Russia is closely connected with state building on the one hand and with the development and increasing diversity of scientific knowledge on the other. Natural resources, such as soil, forests, game and fish, played a leading role in the economy of the Russian/Soviet Empire before this role passed to mineral resources. But even before this, attitudes towards living resources, the patterns of their use and relations between their users underwent constant change, being a definite manifestation of modernization.

The project has sought to provide new historical knowledge about the patterns of use of living resources in Russia and the Soviet Union, and the exchange of resource use information with Europe. Based upon methods derived from environmental history and the history of science, it has sought to describe and analyze 1) the major changes in attitudes towards living resources in long duree perspective: from the 18th to mid-20th centuries; 2) the place of local users of living resources and local knowledge and practices of resources use as they changed during the same period; 3) representation of Russian resources on the international scene, their perception, and the exchange of knowledge with Europe.

The project considers the state-adopted methods of resource description and classification which conceived resources as the distinct object of governance, as ‘resources of the state’. The findings of the project confirmed the initial hypothesis that the main tendency in the perception of resources by scientists, managers and authorities was a change from the eighteenth-century concept of ‘economy of nature’, in which resources and their local users were perceived as one entity, to the construction of the calculable and manageable resources of modernity. Most of the examples discussed, as planned, were taken from the field of fisheries.

The project was developed as a series of case-studies, which included: 1) history of colonization of the Russian North driven by use of natural resources; 2) analysis of scientific practices of resource description by the 18th century expeditions organized by Russian Academy of Sciences; 3) analysis of new analytical approaches to fisheries in the mid-19th century by the leading Russian zoologist Karl Ernst von Baer; 4) understanding of relations of scientific practices of studies of resources with the emergence of civil society in Russia towards the end of the 19th century; 5) analysis of the radical change of attitudes towards resources in the period of World War One on the basis of activities and publications of the Academy Commission on the Study of Natural Productive Forces; 6) description of two encountered approaches towards resources and their local users in the 1920s with the final victory of the highly-centralized state approach which led to the complete marginalization of local users; 7) analysis of representations of Russian fish resources at the international exhibitions and World Fairs of the end of the 19th – beginning of the 20th centuries and the exchange of knowledge on resources and practices of their use related to these exhibitions. 

The case-studies led to a number of important conclusions:

  1. Practices of the study and use of living resources underwent significant change correlated with the process of modernization. This resulted first in the exclusion of the traditional users from access to these resources and the destruction of their cultures, and eventually in the destruction of the resources themselves
  2. The fate of local users was especially difficult in the regions which were characterized by a huge gap between the actual level of economic development and the expectations that the state and its agents posed for its development, for example the Russian North, where the state’s demand for exceptionally rapid modernization left no chance for the gradual transformation of, and adaptation by, local communities
  3. Having some peculiar features of the process of modernization and resource use, like the central role of the state and its agents, including scientists, Russia was nevertheless a part of overall European development and was involved in the key debates and exchanges of knowledge of the period

In light of the results of the project, it is important that socio-political decisions connected with the use of living resources and with the life and culture of their local users are informed by sophisticated analysis of the past, especially because nowadays the gradual return of the human subject to a postmodern perception of resource problems, including studies of traditional ecological knowledge, has become a central part of the research agenda and has significant impact on political and economic decisions for the future planning of sustainable resource use. Thus the results of this project, providing better understandings of the past, might serve for improvement of future policy and are thus relevant for policy makers and NGOs. 



Lajus, Julia, “Expertise, governance and the marginalization of local users in fisheries: change in practices of description and the use of natural resources in the Russian Empire”, Environment and History (submitted).

Lajus, Julia, “Colonization of the Russian North: a frozen frontier”. In: Cultivating the Colony: Colonial States and their Environmental Legacies, Karen Oslund & Christina Folke-Ax, eds. Athens OH: Ohio University Press, 2010 (in press).

Lajus, J. A. “Izmeneninia programm opisaniia biologicheskikh resursov na primere rybokhoziaistvennoi nauki, konets XVIII – nachalo XX vekov” [Changes in the programmes of description of biological resources on the example of fisheries science, end of the 18th – beginning of the 20th  centuries], Istoriko-biologicheskie issledovaniia [Studies in the History of Biology] (in Russian, submitted)

In preparation:

Lajus, Julia, “Analytical way of knowing about biological resources, people and technology: studies of Russian fisheries by Karl Ernst von Baer”. To be submitted to the international journal History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences

Lajus, Julia, “Fisheries on the international stage: exchange of knowledge and cross-cultural perceptions of fish resources and technology at the fisheries exhibitions, 1880 – 1914”. To be submitted to the international journal Global Environment

Lajus, Julia & Shaw, Denis, “Lev Berg and controversial perceptions of the Arctic warming in 1930s”. To be submitted to the international Journal of Historical Geography

Further Links

The project links in with the new International Network on “Historical Studies of Russia’s Natural Resources and Environments”.