The Project (August 20, 2013)

[Part 2 of 14. Solovki 2013]

I am heading to the Solovetskie Islands as part of an international network of scholars from six universities in the United States, United Kingdom, and Russia studying the environmental history of Russia.  Spearheaded by David Moon of the University of York (UK), the three-year project, funded generously by The Leverhulme Trust in the UK, is tasked to explore Russia’s Environmental History and Natural Resources.

Read more about the project here:

and here:

A combination of field trips, on-site research, conferences, and publications, the project is designed to expand significantly our understandings of Russian environmental history and resource use—topics that are of tremendous importance to humanity today.   Russia, with its vast landscapes, forests, water reserves, minerals, and oil and gas, will be a determining player in how our planet and the humans on it change and live in the coming years.

And environmental history—an exploration of how humans have intersected with the non-human world in the past—is very important to making sense of the world today.   Historians explore change and continuity over time and the ways in which humans have both created that change and responded to it.   There seems little doubt that our climate and our environment will anything but static in the coming years.   How we as a species respond to those transformations will be crucial to our fate and the future of the planet.   And the insights that historians can give about how change occurs and how humans react to change will be essential.

I’m honored and excited to be a part of this project.   Over the coming years, a core of scholars plus many invited guests from the six universities will travel to see three of the most interesting ecological and human sites in the former Soviet Union:   the Solovetskie Islands, Chernobyl, and Lake Baikal.   At each site we will hold a conference, present fresh research, collect data, and, through field research, explore the ecological histories of these sites.   We’ll finish up with a final meeting and conference at the University of York in England in 2016.

The Network offers a chance to work with scholars from different national backgrounds and different scholarly disciplines.  Working together, we will learn a great deal more and achieve a great deal more than we could individually.

And we will approach the study of history differently from usual.   In addition to the standard historical tools of hours in libraries and archives analyzing old documents, we will spend time in the field together.   Environmental history, more than any other historical subfield, can’t solely be studied from a desk.   We need to get our boots muddy, see the sites, smell the smells, clamber over rocks, get bitten by mosquitoes, and perhaps wander through a little radiation.

The six universities involved are:

Arriving (August 20, 2013)

[Part 1 of 14.   Solovki 2013]

I stand at the bow of the ferry as the water of the White Sea comes in wave after wave through the hole in the deck that the anchor chain runs through.  Stepping up on the coiled ropes lying on the deck, my feet stay dry and I look out with excitement at the outstretched sea in front of me.  The weather could not be more perfect—sun, light winds, calm seas, easy sailing across a Sea known for its nausea-inducing swells.

A mother and son play in the running water beside me while a young couple stands draped over each other.  A middle-aged man discusses cameras with a young photographer taking an endless string of “art” photos.

And then, about an hour and half into the trip, we all see it.   The Solovetskie islands appear on the distant horizon and, as we get closer, the spires of the Solovetskii Monastery grow ever larger and magical.   The view makes the 20-something hours of travel from St. Petersburg to this distant site—by metro, train, bus, and ferry—all worthwhile.

First Sighting:
The Solovetskie Islands (aka Solovki) and the Solovetskii
Monastery as they come into view from the ferry.

Coming closer:
The Solovetskii Monastery as the ferry entered the harbor

I marvel at the approaching human and environmental wonder of Russia’s Solovetskie Islands—an archipelago of 6 major islands (and about 100 smaller ones) in the White Sea not far to the south of the Arctic Circle.  It is a Russian national park and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1992.

I can’t wait to get off the boat, start exploring, and work on our project.

Map of White Sea and Solovetskii islands (Solovki) in Russia