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Thinking through Russian colonial history

Intellectually speaking, I seem to be moving between two extreme geographies: on the one hand, I thirst for reading and writing about the seaside, the beaches and the coastscapes of the world; on the other, I bury myself into studies of the strange, dry interiors of Eurasia. This spring I was supposed to have spent two weeks in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, linked to my contribution to a special issue in the Central Asian Survey and a workshop that was scheduled for facilitating it, to be held in Bishkek, organized by my brilliant German fellow historians Jonas van der Straeten and Julia Obertreis. Unsurprisingly, the workshop couldn’t take place physically, but the organizers heroically turned the event into a digital one. It became my first-ever online conference. The theme? “Technology, Temporality and the Study of Central Asia”.

Central Asia’s modern history is very much a history of Russian colonialism. In this sense the online workshop came up at precisely the right moment, because I’m currently also working together with four Swedish colleagues on finalizing a co-authored book with a colonial-historical angle. Based on two large research projects that we recently concluded, the book targets Sweden’s role in the African, Asian and Arctic exploitative colonialism. My own focus here has been on Asia, and especially Russia and the Soviet Union, starting with the Swedish Nobel Brothers’ pioneering role in Russian petro-colonialism – centred in the Caucasus but later expanding into Central Asia, Siberia and the Far East – and ending with state-led Swedish efforts to tap into the Soviet Union’s colonial resource wealth.

Both the Bishkek workshop and the Swedish project have given me an excuse to devote quite some time recently to reading about the history of Russian colonialism more generally. The most fascinating book that I’ve come across here is Alexander Etkind’s Internal Colonization: Russia’s Imperial Experience (2011), which retells Russian political and cultural history as “a history of country that colonizes itself”.

Internal Colonization: Russia's Imperial Experience by Alexander ...

I have to admit I always thought the notion of “internal colonialism” was a post-World War II academic term, but in Etkind’s account it becomes clear that it was a guiding concept for exploring the very essence of the Russian Empire early on, and practically all pre-1917 (Russian and foreign) intellectuals made use of the term. Etkind nicely problematizes the intricate interaction between Russian settler colonialism in areas primarily populated by non-Russian peoples – Siberia, the Volga basin, the Caucasus, Central Asia, etc. – and what the colonial-style histories of the Russian heartlands. I’m deeply impressed by the way Etkind turns Russian history into transnational history. Moreover, he manages to bridge political power issues (in a discussion inspired by Hannah Arendt) and exploitative economies and ecologies (from fur pelts to fossil fuels) with a cultural history featuring well-known writers like Gogol but also strange, unreliable thinkers like Vasilii Tatishchev (who believed that the Russian people stemmed from a mix of Scandinavian Vikings and African Amazons).

However, as one of the participants in our Central Asia workshop, Oybek Makhmudov, made clear to me, the very idea that Russia has a colonial past remains controversial in the scholarly community – especially so in Russia itself. Needless to say, this makes the theme even more fascinating, and so I will continue reading and writing.

Summing up

As you may have noticed, I’m probably one of the laziest bloggers in the world: in a good year I produce perhaps 4-5 blogposts, sometimes a bit less, sometimes a bit more. Now, seeing that I wrote my last post on this site three months ago, I get the feeling that I need to prove I’m still alive. So here is a brief summary of some of the things I’ve been up to this autumn (and I can tell you it’s still autumn in Stockholm, no winter yet in sight!).

In terms of research, I have had two main foci: on the one hand I have been working on finishing up our exciting project on Swedish resource colonialism, mentioned on this site a couple of times in the past few years. Together with my colleagues Dag Avango (who is now professor of history at Luleå University of Technology), Hanna Vikström (currently a post-doc at Umeå University) David Nilsson and Karl Bruno, I’m wrapping up several years of research in an English-language monograph. It will be completed, as far as the writing is concerned, by June 2020. In relation to this project I also spent some of the autumn working on shorter essays and articles on the history of natural resources from different perspectives, including a review essay piece on the historical dynamics of resource frontiers, through which I really felt I learnt a lot. It will soon be published in the German NTM journal. Another piece focuses on resource extraction in twentieth-century history as part of a larger, multi-author book project on the cultural history of technology, to be published by Bloomsbury in 2022.

On the other hand, our big ERC project on the history of nuclear energy, NUCLEARWATERS, continues to gain momentum and it has been one of my greatest pleasures this autumn to see how my three PhD students – Alicia Gutting, Achim Klüppelberg and Siegfried Evens – who work in the project have all made remarkable progress. They have done impressive archival research in Germany, Belgium, Austria, Sweden, Estonia and Russia, while also developing new surprising ideas of a more theoretical nature. I am being helped in advising the three student-researchers by my brilliant senior colleagues Kati Lindström and Anna Storm. Anna was recently appointed professor of technology and social change at Linköping University, but will stay in our project throughout its life-time. In January I will be welcoming an additional senior researcher in the project, Roman Khandozhko from Russia, who has earlier been working in another big nuclear history project at Tübingen in Germany. If you are interested in my own work in NUCLEARWATERS, you can take a look at this video that was recorded while I presented some of my finds in Helsinki a few weeks ago. NUCLEARWATERS also has its own website and blog, which by now lives its own life.

Since 2018 I am also running a research project called Cold War Coasts. Like NUCLEARWATERS, it has (since a few months) its own website and blog. In January 2020 I will be publishing a first outcome – or rather a kind of bi-product – of this project, in the form of a thin book in Swedish language, called “Döden på stranden“. In the book I sketch how numerous seashores have been places of fear not only during the Cold War era, but throughout human history. I will come back to the book once it has been published early next year. During 2019 we established a promising cooperation with Tallinn University for carrying out the Estonian case study in Cold War Coasts. During 2020 we will start our real work on the case studies.

I have not done much teaching this autumn. But on those occasions when I did teach, it struck me how valuable and necessary it is for a scholar – at least when you can choose relatively freely what to teach. The teaching world in my department is really upside-down: we are not, like many others, struggling with heavy teaching loads, but, on the contrary, eagerly looking out for new teaching opportunities. The reason is that we do not have any programme of our own, but merely run a few courses that are mostly elective or voluntary. Nobody in our department has a teaching load of more than, say, 20%, which might sound like paradise for anyone who dreams of doing more research and less teaching. But the backside of the coin is that what we do, which is mainly research, can only be sustained through continued success in raising external research grants. So far that has worked fairly well, but who knows for how long?

In relation to teaching, another nice part of my academic life this autumn has been a new cooperation with the Liber publishing house in Sweden and two secondary school teachers at Anna Whitlocks gymnasium in Stockholm, Mimmi von Plato and Henrik Wiberg. I am cooperating here with my KTH colleagues Nina Wormbs and Cecilia Åsberg. The idea, which is now materializing, is to place the historical, social, political and cultural perspectives centre-stage in Swedish secondary schools’ technology programme. So from next year, technology students in our country will be basing their learning on quite a different coursebook than what has been available so far!

A final autumn highlight that I must mention was my trip to Italy in October. I went there primarily for the SHOT annual meeting in Milan, but I also took the opportunity to explore the Po Valley’s nuclear geography and history. Then, I took the train down to Rome to interview Felice Vinci, a former nuclear engineer who, following Italy’s nuclear phase-out in the aftermath of Chernobyl, turned to the Greek classics and launched the theory that the Iliad and the Odyssey are, in fact, set in the Baltic Sea. Read my NUCLEARWATERS blogpost on this, and, if you can read Swedish, check out my newspaper essay on Vinci’s Baltic theory, published back in 2008!

Lisbon workshop on “Resources, Infrastructures and the Anthropocene”

This week I went to Portugal to participate in an ambitious workshop on the combined historical-present-day theme “Resources, Infrastructures and the Anthropocene: Dialogues between the Global North and the Global South“. The event was organized by one of my fellow authors in the Making Europe book series, Maria Paula Diogo, and her colleague Luísa Sousa, both at the NOVA University of Lisbon, in close cooperation with two new research networks linked to the Tensions of Europe community of historians of technology: “Challenging Europe: Technology, Environment and the Quest for Resource Security” (EurReS), led by Matthias Heymann at Århus University, and “Global Resources and Sustainability of European Modernization” (GREASE), coordinated by Erik van der Vleuten and Frank Veraart at Eindhoven University of Technology.

Several earlier workshops on the resource theme have been organized in the past couple of years in St. Petersburg, Århus and Stockholm, but the Lisbon workshop was special in its emphasis on North-South relations as its main theme and in an unusual range of participants from the Global South, including India, Egypt, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, Chile, Argentina and Brazil. The interests of the 40 participants also comprised a healthy diversity of natural resources, ranging from water, fisheries and land to minerals and fossil fuels.

But the greatest diversity of all was clearly that of the group’s combined theoretical and methodological approaches to the study of resources and infrastructures in past and present. A nice reminder that things CAN always be studied in alternative ways! Mineral frontiers, extractive capitalism, resource geopolitics, transformation of empires, transboundary river basins, legal regulations, business history, sociotechnical regimes, cosmopolitan commons, agricultural visions, North-South dependencies, anarchist geography, colonial imaginaries, social construction of natural resources, international technology transfer, sustainability histories – there was somehow room for it all!

But when I set out to present my own approach to North-South resource relations, in what I suggest to call “Resource Transnationalism“, I was severely criticized, especially from scholars with roots in the Global South. My basic point was that there is a heavy bias in the social and historical study of resource extraction: it is almost always much too gloomy and pessimistic. I suggested that we must study much more the mechanisms that have produced happy outcomes in North-South extractive relations, but many of my fellow workshop participants did not agree. There followed a lengthy and useful discussion. I will obviously have to rethink a number of things in my emerging approach.

Lisbon workshop

Return to Tallinn

Came back a few days ago after a week in Tallinn, whose university hosted this year’s European Society for Environmental History (ESEH) conference. One cannot help being impressed by the vibrant and dynamic character of this community, and with a friction-free organization of the kind that our Estonian colleagues offered, the overall result was bound to become a huge success.

The conference featured notable keynote lectures by nuclear historian Kate Brown, whose recently released Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future, has already given rise to vivid debates within and beyond academia, and the ever-provocative human ecologist Alf Hornborg from Lund, who also just released a new work, Nature, Society, and Justice in the Anthropocene.

But the main benefit of navigating the conference sessions was probably the chance to get a taste of what Europe’s younger researchers (PhD students and others) are up to. With an eye to our own Cold War Coasts project at KTH, I tended to be drawn, among other things, to presentations with a coastal-historical focus, like Latvian researcher Kristine Krumberga’s in-depth studies of the Cold War military sites south of Liepaja on the Baltic or Josef Djordjevski’s mapping of Yugoslavia’s attempts to clean up its coasts in order to promote tourism along the mythical Adriatic seashore. Great also to hear Kadriorg Art Museum’s curator Alexandra Murre talk about the Baltic Sea in the views of Russian and Baltic painters in the 18th and 19th centuries!

My own contribution, however, was linked to our joint European efforts to promote historical studies of natural resource extraction, broadly speaking. I had organized a roundtable that sought to discern connections between different historical sub-disciplines in resource studies, with a panel consisting of my European colleagues Julia Lajus (St Petersburg), Mats Ingulstad (Trondheim), Urban Wråkberg (Kirkenes), Stathis Arapostathis (Athens), Matthias Heymann (Århus) and Erland Mårald (Umeå). I don’t think the audience in the overfilled room was disappointed by the discussion, which in an interesting way also brought to the fore the issue of how historians actually can – and whether they should! – seek to influence present-day events and trends in the extractive world.

Having lived in Tallinn for some time back in 1998, this trip was also special for myself in many personal ways. I haven’t been much in Estonia since I finished my PhD thesis in 2004 and my Baltic Sea book (Östersjövägar) in 2006. Tallinn for me has since long been transformed into a mesmerizing – and melancholic – place of memories, which range from my summer-time work as a park labourer in beautiful Kadriorg in 1996 via my field work for the PhD to my participation as a consultant for the OECD in 2006, where we were charged with evaluating Estonia’s higher education system. What a return now, so many years later!

Only one mishap: on the voyage back by ferry, one of the passengers jumped overboard from M/S Baltic Queen and disappeared in the midst of Stockholm’s beuatiful archipelago. Rescue teams found no trace of the man, while the ferry’s arrival was delayed by several hours.

Travelling along the Volga

Earlier this month I made a longer trip to Russia, where I travelled along the Volga upstreams from Astrakhan and the Caspian Sea to Volgograd, Samara, Kazan and Murom, before finally arriving in Moscow. The Volga region is certainly one of the most fascinating regions of Eurasia, featuring a multiplicity of languages, cultures and religions that make the traveller forget that he or she actually remains in one and the same country: Russia.

But the Volga itself is also an intriguing body of flowing water, with a mesmerizing history of its own. In the early 1870s Ilya Repin painted his famous “Barge haulers on the Volga”, which gives quite a good idea of how the river was used by humans for navigation at that time.

Barge haulers

Just a decade later, the barge haulers had become redundant, as the river barges were switching over from sails and oars to petroleum; the new fuel oil was becoming available in large quantities thanks to the Swedish brothers Ludvig and Robert Nobel, who led the explosive growth of the Russian oil industry down in Baku.


The real transformation of the Volga as a river landscape shaped by humans, however, came in the Soviet era, when technological hubris led the country’s communist water wizards, championed by Sergei Zhuk, to dam the river at a number of places, creating the world’s largest hydropower plants and a number of huge artificial lakes that totally changed the Russian map. Meanwhile Gulag workers created a canal interconnecting the Volga with the Don, which I went to see in the outskirts of Volgograd (a city more known under its earlier name: Stalingrad).


Then, in the 1970s and 1980s, the Volga – as well as the Volga-Don Canal – became sites of nuclear construction. In Samara I spent a few days in the historical archives held by that city, which turned out to contain fascinating materials about Soviet water history, of relevance not least to our NUCLEARWATERS project.

Samara archive

“11. September, rue Toullier” (a keynote lecture)

My second trip to Germany this year took me to Darmstadt, where I had been invited to give a keynote lecture at a conference organized last week by my fellow historians at that city’s technical university: “Urban Infrastructures: Criticality, Vulnerability and Protection“. The event brought together historians, philosophers and social scientists with natural scientists, engineers and state agency representatives in a way I’ve rarely witnessed before. Presentations ranged from Timothy Moss’s sweeping history of Berlin as a vulnerable city in the 20th century, as seen through its infrastructural history, and Uwe Lübken’s interpretation of historical flood experiences in the Ohio River valley to Eva Stock’s report on the practices of actual disaster management efforts in Germany nowadays and Florian Steinke’s critique of the supposedly causal relationship between decentralization and resiliance.

My own keynote address took as its point of departure  the urban infrastructural landscape of early 20th-century Europe, as expressed in literary accounts such as Rilke’s “Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge”, where the hero, upon his arrival in Paris, lies sleepless at night, overwhelmed by impressions of the city as an infrastructural space in which “people are running, overtaking one another” while “automobiles drive across me” and “the tram, mad with excitement, races up, and across, and away”. In one of those mysterious coincidences that make human history what it is, those notes are dated September 11, pointing directly, as it would seem, to a later era of anxiety, fear, madness and vulnerability in the world’s great cities.

Taking inspiration from Joseph Tainter’s theory of the “collapse of complex societies”, I explored the phenonemon that infrastructural development makes cities and societies complex, but that it also generates far-reaching vulnerabilities, and that cities and societies tend to cope with these vulnerabilities by adding new things to an already complex world, thus further increasing societal complexity in a way that produces new sets of risks, and so on in a spiralling development that would certainly have interested Hegel and other classical scholars, had they been alive.

Recently, however, one can also discern an arguably worrisome “cult of simplicity“, as I call it, reflecting a public desire to move away from things that are too complicated. Abandoning nation-wide and even transnational transmission systems in electricity (while favouring more local, decentralized solutions) is a case in point, along with the experiments in some urban environments to scrap all traffic lights and traffic signs. Unfortunately, this trend has also spilled over into the political field, where the quest for simplicity and simple solutions to complex problems must be understood as one of the major forces behind the success of populist political parties in Europe, the Americas and elsewhere.

PerH Darmstadt 2019

Baltic Environmental Humanities

Earlier this month I went to Riga, just across the Baltic Sea, to participate in the First Baltic Conference on the Environmental Humanities (BALTEHUMS). The conference was originally planned as a small-scale event, as the initiators – a couple of (predominantly young) scholars at home in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – did not think there would be that many people in the Baltics identifying themselves as “environmental humanists”. But in the end nearly a hundred participants showed up, from 17 different countries. At first sight, the notion of a “Baltic” conference would seem to delimit its scope, but in fact it rather served to attract an extremely wide community of scholars who in one or the other way identified themselves with the Baltic region and with the environmental humanities.

During the 1990s and early 2000s I was almost always on my way somewhere in the Baltic Sea region and I wrote several books on various Baltic themes. Since then I have not been around much in the Baltics. With our Cold War Coasts project, however, which received generous funding from Formas in 2017, I am again approaching the region in my research and my writing. Having chaired a session called “Post-nuclear lives and narratives”, I was surprised to find out that my large reserach project on nuclear energy, NUCLEARWATERS, might also benefit from interaction across the Baltic’s waters.

BALTEHUMS offered a unique opportunity to link up with local researchers. The two strongest research environments in the field in the three Baltic countries are probably Tallinn University (which now hosts the Estonian Center for Environmental History, KAJAK) and Kaunas University of Technology in Lithuania. Of the non-Baltic countries represented, the Finnish community was by far the largest, followed by the Swedish. It was a pity that so few Russians participated, although this was partly compensated for by the very strong contributions of those who did come to Riga: Alexei Kraikovsky and Julia Lajus, in particular, inspired me greatly through their vivid presentation of “The Baltic Sea in the environmental, technological and cultural history of St. Petersburg”.

However, there are still two huge academic divides between East and West in the Baltic Sea region. The first is intellectual: interdisciplinary and experimental approaches, especially in historical research, appear to have continued difficulties to be properly recognized on the Baltic’s eastern shores. The second is financial: “eastern” Baltic scholars still carry out their work under very difficult economic conditions – nearly three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

New research networks for European natural resource history

I am very happy to see how the Tensions of Europe (ToE) network expands its activities in teaching and researching the history of natural resources. We are a growing community of European scholars, of all generations and at home in a variety of countries, who have taken on the task of digging deeper into the paradoxical and often simply unbelievable past of European natural resource extraction.

In June I organized, together with European colleagues, a ToE workshop here in Stockholm under the heading “Challenging Europe: Technology, Environment and the Quest for Resource Security“, in which we discussed around 17 full-length papers dealing with everything from the fierce struggles for control over 19th-century Russian wood supplies and the Cold War visions of Czechoslovak water management to Germany’s Antarctic krill expeditions and Swedish nuclear fuel imports. The results will now be turned into joint publication projects, in the form of three tentative journal “special issues”. A follow-up will be organized by my colleague Jawad Daheur in Paris in November.

And last week we got to hear that two grants have been awarded for the continuation of our by now rather intense international networking activities in this field. One of the networks will have as its main base the Technical University of Eindhoven and is organized by ToE chairman Erik van der Vleuten. It is called “Global Resources and Sustainability of European Modernization, 1820-2020” (GREASE). The other is led by Matthias Heymann at the University of Århus and has the name of our recent Stockholm workshop: “Challenging Europe: Technology, Environment and the Quest for Resource Security” (EurReS). These new networking grants will allow us to scale up our joint activities and further intensify our cooperation – in a way that is still quite rare for a community of historians.

Why is this valuable? Some of us like to point at the “societal relevance” of our research and teaching activities. And yes, clearly, research and discourses about natural resource extraction is “timely” in the 21st century. But I cannot help feeling that an even greater value lies in the stories themselves that are coming out of what we are doing – and in how those stories force us to view the world in unexpected new ways. To work as an historian in this field is to discover, over and over again, that the past is not what yesterday’s historians thought it was.

Per Högselius gives keynote lecture at coal history conference

Last week I spent in the historical heartlands of the German coal and steel industry: the Ruhr district. As hard coal production in Germany is now coming to an end, historians in the region have increasingly started to reflect on what the long and dramatic age of coal in the Ruhr has meant. At the German Mining Museum (Deutsches Bergbau-Museum) in Bochum a major research project is just about to be finished, and I was invited to give the keynote lecture at the international conference organized in this connection, “Boom – Crisis – Heritage: King Coal and the Energy Revolutions after 1945“. In my talk I decided to reflect broadly on Europe’s energy history over the past 100-150 years, trying to discern, in particular, two major transnational dynamics that over the years have interacted with each other in highly interesting ways and increasingly so as Europe’s indigenous fuel reserves are depleted: on the one hand, internal European integration processes in energy (in material and political terms), and on the other, Europe’s growing entanglements with the rest of the world in energy. Have a look here at my lecture, entitled “The European Energy System in an Age of Globalization“.

Participating in the conference was rewarding. Especially the combined energy history and energy heritage perspectives offered a valuable setting for debate. Coal was, of course, at the centre here, but oil and nuclear power were also touched upon. As for coal, presentations featured studies of Germany, the Czech Republic, Britain, France, Belgium and even China. These all have something in common: coal production has now been totally phased out or, as in the Chinese case, is in a phase of decline. But the “after-lives” of coal mining varies a lot from place to place. Many earlier coal-mining regions are now facing hard times. But in the Ruhr area something very interesting is happening: the whole district is becoming a hugely popular tourist attraction, and the former coal-mining complex of Zollverein in Essen, which we visited as part of the conference, has been turned into a UN World Heritage site that attracts over a million tourists every year – more than any other tourist attraction in Nordrhein-Westfalen, apart from the famous cathedral in Cologne! There is a touristic “Route der Industrie-Kultur” that sweeps across the Ruhr district, and the change of perspective is truly striking. Yet the Ruhr district, once the engine of German industrialization, is still struggling with depopulation and a range of other social problems.

Per Högselius is awarded ERC Consolidator Grant

The contract for my new ERC Consolidator Grant has now been signed by KTH and the EU, and it comes to my mind that I have totally forgotten to write about it here in the blog, although it was announced already last December. The grant is worth €2 million or roughly 20 million SEK, and KTH co-funds it with another 4 million SEK. So from a financial point of view there is no excuse why this grant should not generate exciting new research results.

The project linked to the grant is called NUCLEARWATERS: Putting Water at the Centre of Nuclear Energy History and is set to start in May this year. The ambition is to revise, in a quite radical way, the history of nuclear energy as it has so far been narrated and analyzed. Instead of focusing on the history of nuclear physics, nuclear chemistry and nuclear reactors, I intend to place nuclear water supplies (for cooling the reactors) at the very centre of the story. There is good reason to do so, for example, because if you look into the reports about nuclear accidents and incidents worldwide, you will quickly find that most of them are related to failures of the water supply arrangements: a broken pipe, a valve that has been accidentally left open or closed, a dike that has collapsed, a pump that has stopped working and so on.

The radical implication, from a broader historiographical point of view, is that nuclear energy, seen from this perspective, is perhaps not as modern as it might seem. It is not a radical new technology. Rather, nuclear energy engineering builds on centuries and even millennia of earlier hydraulic-engineering efforts and, culturally speaking, on earlier “hydraulic civilizations” – from ancient Mesopotamia to the modern Netherlands. So the project will integrate the history of nuclear energy into a narrative about a much deeper human past.

Read more about the project here. See also my 2013 report from a seminar I gave at Renmin University in Beijing, in which I initially developed the ideas underlying this project.