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In Russia’s State Historical Archives

Yesterday was the 99th anniversary of what Russians officially call the Great Socialist October Revolution (although some argue that it was not great, not socialist, not really a revolution – and that it didn’t even occur in October…), and it comes to my mind that I’ve forgotten to report about my recent research visit to St. Petersburg, where it all took place. One of the consequences of Lenin’s coup was that the country’s capital moved from Petersburg to Moscow, a move that also has its effects on where historians go for archival research: so far I have been going to the archives in Moscow, which hold the Soviet-era collections, but thanks to our project on Sweden and the Origins of Global Resource Colonialism, which centers on the earlier period from 1870 to 1920, I had now the chance to explore the archives in St. Petersburg, which hold the Imperial-era documents.


The visit became a surprisingly positive experience. Well, there is a need for patience with the bureaucracy and waiting times in Russian archives – not unlike the situation in German archives – which may come as a shock to Swedish historians, spoilt as they are with the relaxed state of things in most Swedish archival collections. But the Russian materials are truly rewarding, especially so in terms of all the private companies that were nationalized in the context of the Revolution and whose archives were subsequently  merged with the state holdings. This means, for example, that the Russian state archives hold the collections of a variety of imperial-era privately-owned oil companies. I came to St. Petersburg to look into the collections of one of these: the Nobel Brothers Petroleum Production Company, of which I’ve already written repeatedly in this blog.

Oil, of course, continues to feed the Russian economy in the 21st century. Ironically, some of this money now finds its way back to the state archives and their historical oil-company collections: the Russian government has recently invested in new digital and electronic tools that significantly improves and simplifies the research process. Since last year it is possible, for example, to order archival documents through the web, that is, from one’s own computer – even from a remote location such as Sweden. All opisy (lists of archival files) are also available online (although they are not yet searchable). In addition, some materials are being scanned and digitalized. A surprising and very positive development, which I hope will continue. The main threat to progress here is probably the low world oil price and the state budget deficit that it gives rise to in Russia!

Back in Baku

My study of the Nobel Brothers Petroleum Production Company as a colonial-style enterprise in Imperial Russia is far behind schedule, but every time I manage to find some time for it I’m reminded of the unique features of its history. Recently I finally got the chance to continue my earlier research in Azerbaijan’s National Archives, and the documentary material available there is truly great. I returned home with a few thousand copies of documents, which describe in detail, among other things, what actually happened in Baku and its oil industry during the violent years of the First World War, the Bolshevik Revolution, the short-lived independent Azerbaijan Republic, and the Red Army’s final conquest of Baku in spring 1920.

But this time I also took my time to follow in the footsteps of the Nobel Brothers by first visiting Georgia’s key oil port of Batumi, which nowadays also hosts a museum dedicated to the Nobel Brothers, and the critical Surami pass in the mountains, which in imperial times caused much headache for Russia’s oil industrialists eager to conquer foreign markets. In 1890 a first railway tunnel across the pass was inaugurated, through which all trains en route from Baku and Tbilisi to Batumi continue to pass – but not for much longer; Chinese construction firms are now building a more modern tunnel. The purpose is still the same: to make oil products move as efficiently as possible from East to West.

Surami web

New Surami tunnel

This history is thus still, quite literally, under construction. It may be added that the Nobel Brothers’ company continues to play an important role in current affairs, although it basically ceased to exist a century ago. This is because its history and brand continue to be used actively by both politicians and industrialists in present-day Georgia and Azerbaijan, especially when it comes to forging fruitful relations with Sweden and Swedish business. I will come back to this aspect; at the moment I feel it deserves a whole journal article in its own right.

Europe’s Infrastructure Transition

My new book, co-authored with my colleagues Arne Kaijser at KTH and Erik van der Vleuten in Eindhoven, has finally been published: Europe’s Infrastructure Transition: Economy, War, Nature. It’s definitely the heaviest book I’ve ever written – weighing more than a kilo! – and I do hope it’s also one of the best, although that will be up to readers to judge!

In any case we’re certainly proud of the book, and it is published at an interesting moment in European history. As transnational relations in Europe are reshaped in response to the refugee crisis, worsening EU-Russia relations, tensions between northern and southern Europe, and so on, our book adds historical context and depth to the current debate about the future of Europe and its relations with the rest of the world, discussing in historical perspective a variety of cross-border issues relating to transport, communications, and energy.

ME cover web

One of our main conclusions is that cross-border infrastructure systems in Europe – which are crucial now in everything from EU imports of Russian natural gas to migrants’ possibilities to move from south to north – are shaped historically both by “system builders” and by “border builders“. At the moment, obviously, of these two actor categories the border builders seem to be the most powerful.

The book is published as part of a six-volume series, Making Europe, in which the overall argument is that technology – in our case represented by transport, communications, and energy systems – is a vital object of study for anyone trying to grasp Europe’s modern history. Most books about the history of Europe fail to take technology and, more generally, material aspects of life, into account when setting out to narrate the fate of our part of the world. New ways of talking about European history are direly needed!

Read the introductory chapter in Europe’s Infrastructure Transition here!

New research grant

Together with my colleagues Dag Avango and David Nilsson here at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, I received a new large research grant from Riksbankens Jubileumsfond, the most important Swedish funding agency in the social science and humanities field next to the Swedish Research Council (VR). The grant is for a project with the title “Colonial Natural Resources and Swedish Foreign Policy.” It will form the basis for the second phase in our long-term strategic effort of exploring Sweden’s colonialist history from a natural resource perspective (see earlier posts on this theme!). As in our ongoing VR project, we intend to explore Swedish natural resource-related activities from a business and political point of view in three major colonial regions of the world: West Africa, Central Asia/Siberia, and the Arctic. Whereas our VR-funded project deals with the period 1870-1930, our RJ-funded project will target the “short twentieth century,” or the rough period 1914-1989. In other words, we will take our earlier research into the late Interwar era, the Second World War, and in particular the Cold War period. Read more about the project here.

On the road in New Mexico

This year’s Society for the History of Technology (SHOT) conference took place in Albuquerque, which is one of those many American cities where most Europeans would find it hard to live but which definitely attracts the traveler. Isabel Perez, a PhD student in my department, writes her thesis on environment and literature in this culturally intriguing part of the United States, so to some extent our KTH delegation knew what to expect and what to look out for. But the conference also coincided with the famous Albuquerque International Baloon Fiesta, which proved to a truly magnificent event. I also took the opportunity to head north along the road toward Santa Fe, New Mexico’s legendary capital city, and the even more mythical town of Los Alamos, higher up in the mountains, where in the 1940s Robert Oppenheimer and his colleagues built the world’s first atomic bombs. Not much remains these days of the original war-time facilities, but the local historical museum has an excellent exhibition on display and at the Fuller Lodge it is still possible to get an idea of the social atmosphere during those bomb-making years.

The SHOT meeting itself featured some interesting discussions about the future of history of technology as a field that touched on quite a few of my own thoughts that I’ve had in recent years. Although the history of technology to a certain extent remains my home in academia, I have long had a feeling that it would be counterproductive to define my area of interest in terms of what is discussed at history of technology conferences or published in history of technology journals.

History of technology, or so it appears to me, can only survive as a research field through close interaction with other fields such as economic and business history, environmental history, STS, innovation studies, aera studies, historical geography – and in particular general history. The ultimate proof of success in history of technology research, as I now tend to see it, is that our research results become integrated into general history books dealing with, say, Sweden’s modern history, the history of the Soviet Union, or the history of the World Wars. By this measure, those of us who still refer to us as historians of technology have so far usually failed in our research efforts.

Lubmin’s metamorphosis

I’m spending this week in northeastern Germany preparing the 2nd edition of the one and only book I’ve ever written in German: Die deutsch-deutsche Geschichte des Kernkraftwerkes Greifswald: Atomenergie zwischen Ost und West. Originally published in 2005, it tries to explain why a vast Soviet-designed nuclear power plant – with 8 planned reactors it was designed to become the world’s largest nuclear facility! – that was built on the territory of the former GDR was shut down in connection with Germany’s 1990 reunification. Was its operation considered too dangerous? Was it unnecessary to keep the facility operating after East Germany’s industry and its electricity consumption collapsed? Was the phase-out part of a grand strategy to turn the former GDR into a pioneer for green energy production? Was it perhaps part of a new anti-Russian German foreign policy? Or was it an irrational political decision taken by people who had no idea of nuclear energy as a high technology? Read the book and find out!

But things have changed at the former nuclear site during the 25 years that have now passed since Germany’s reunification. While Lubmin, as the place is called, is no longer a site where Russian atomic energy meets German engineering traditions, it now serves as a key transit point for Russian natural gas on its way to the rest of Europe: it is here that the Nord Stream Pipeline, hotly debated in media a few years ago, ascends from the depths of the Baltic Sea for further transit to markets. The control station, where the Siberian gas is measured, cleaned, reheated and compressed, sits just opposite the former nuclear plant’s reactor buildings and huge machine hall.

Energiewerke Nord GmbH (EWN), the state company in charge of decommissioning the Greifswald NPP, seeks to use the arrival of the gas pipeline as a key component in its effort to establish a “Synergy Park” in Lubmin. A number of industrial companies have been attracted to the area, including businesses related to the biofuels, photovoltaics, and wind turbine industry – thus symbolizing a shift in Lubmin from nuclear power not only to natural gas, but to renewable energy as well. But there is also disappointment: EWN has long had a vision of erecting several large gas-fired power plants at the site. These would be able to make use both of the Russian gas that arrives from the sea and of the old high-voltage electricity transmission lines that the Soviet-designed nuclear facility used until 1990. Vattenfall, which until recently owned all transmission lines in the former GDR, invested heavily in modernizing the grid. But the two or three projects that were initiated have now all been canceled. Why? Political problems with permissions and also difficulties making the gas power plants competitive enough.

Teaching natural resource history in Beijing

Much of this summer I’ve devoted to teaching a summer course that I was invited to give at Renmin University of China (RUC) in Beijing. This university each year invites a hundred or so foreign scholars (well, about half of them are Chinese scholars who normally teach abroad) for the Renmin University International Summer School. Some 3,000 students participate, most of whom are obviously Chinese students. But by organizing courses in English about Chinese history and culture, the university also seeks to attract foreign students to this quantitatively impressive event. The strategic objective is obviously to boost the university’s internationalization in a variety of dimensions and also to strengthen Renmin’s prestige and reputation – both domestically and abroad.

My course dealt with the history of natural resources in global perspective. It was organized in cooperation with the School of History, but as it turned out, only 1 of my 30 students in the course actually had history as her major! The other students comprised a fantastic blend of disciplines, from statistics, biology and chemistry to law, economics, and sociology. For me, this mix formed an ideal interdisciplinary point of departure for discussing natural resource histories not only for their own sake, but above all in relation to present-day challenges and burning issues in the world.

Ten natural resources were at focus in this course: water, wood, salt, sand, iron, coal, oil, natural gas, uranium, and aluminum. For each resource, we discussed a set of common themes: practical uses of the resource; spiritual and symbolic significance; resource scarcity and abundance; shifting geological patterns of extraction; local and global conflicts over resource extraction; and environmental aspects.

Some students complained that the course was demanding. Apart from the challenge of having to read and write a lot in English, they were particularly confused about STS-inspired notions such as natural resource scarcity as socially constructed (a topic that my PhD student Hanna Vikström is developing in a forthcoming journal article, and which I used in this course). But most of the students did well in the end. In their final essays they came up with a host of interesting arguments about everything from the role of Confucius in defining ancient China’s salt policy to the rise and fall of tens of thousands of small-scale coal mines in Shanxi Province during the Mao Zedong era.